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     Volume 8 Issue 78 | July 17, 2009 |

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One Off

Friendship sans Politics

Aly Zaker

In March of 1972 I was invited to a symposium in Kolkata, which, if my memory serves me right, was organised by the Indo-Bangladesh friendship society. I hadn't emerged as a cultural activist yet and was very little known within my own country, leave alone Kolkata. It hadn't, therefore, occurred to me that I could be called upon to speak at the symposium. The subject of the seminar was how to maintain the excellent ongoing relationship between India and Bangladesh, and how to advance it further.

There were a number of people present in the symposium, quite a few of whom I had the opportunity to meet during my days as the War Correspondent and Programme Producer for Bangladesh Radio in exile. I knew that all those present in the symposium were highly charged with emotion. All on a sudden I heard my name being announced as a speaker. I had just come to listen to the deliberation as a very young freedom fighter and was, therefore, unprepared to the hilt. I decided very quickly that I would opt for a focus on not more than one analogy relevant to the discussion and try to establish how relationships could go sour.

I decided to address very common and material things like consumer goods. In pre-liberation Bangladesh people lived on consumer goods imported from what was known as Pakistan. These were of Pakistani or western origin and guaranteed a minimum standard in terms of quality. When Bangladesh came into being the Pakistani and western supply routes were snapped.

And it became necessary that these finished goods be sourced from somewhere else. A handful of unscrupulous businessmen from across the border saw in this an opportunity to make quick money by dumping extremely low quality and often spurious items here. Most Bangladeshi consumers did not react in the beginning. They didn't even take notice of it. Such was the euphoria of being liberated. But when it continued to persist people started to become edgy. I thought that this was a good enough forum to focus on a problem that may apparently seem tiny but, if unattended, may become a very contentious issue.

I appealed to the friends of Bangladesh to address the problem 'now' by bringing it to the notice of the appropriate authority. I thought, there were two things that could be done immediately. One was to impose strict government control from both sides on the import/export of commodities between the two countries, and the other, to encourage the valid and transparent private sector undertakings to be more proactive in the bilateral trade. I noticed that my un-intellectual deliberation failed to generate any impact amongst the people present. I was reprimanded as being a cynic. I took it all upon my apparent stupidity and left the venue quietly. Years later, it really pained me to see the “Hindustan” trucks plying on the Bangladesh roads with their brand name severed from the body.

This is as far as I would go with the symposium of 1972. Subsequently, I started working in the field of theatre and, as a liberal freedom loving pluralist who fought the war to free the country; at a very young age I naturally viewed Bangladesh's relationship with India favourably. One doesn't have to look for reasons for such a view. They are numerous. India not only supported our war of liberation, it gave shelter, food and succour to millions of Bengalis during the nine months of protracted battle and, indeed, fought our war as their own, sacrificed lives and withdrew their soldiers when we asked them to go. A nation with any sense of gratitude cannot but feel indebted to a neighbour as this.

Photo: Anwar Hossain

There are a number of other reasons also why we feel close to India. We believe that despite many differences, we inherit the same cultural heritage. And this has to be taken forward. For, sociologically speaking, culture includes almost everything that we come across in our day-to- day lives. It includes our religion, food, social norms, clothes, rituals, education and what have you. Therefore, when the Pakistani colonialists had tried to impose upon us, what they thought was Pakistani culture we resisted. People, almost as a second nature do not want to be dictated. An understanding of this sensitivity of a people is a precursor to any relationship, short or long term. In a good mutual relationship this starting point, sensitivity, is what each party should be careful about. Now, India starts off with a disadvantage as far as this criterion is concerned. Being a huge country it is natural that India should be doubly cautious in its interaction with its neighbours. There are many apparently unimportant issues or even so-called non-issues that may leave a blemish, often permanent, on the relationship of the two countries. Immediately after our independence I remember, there was a deliberation on exchange of films between us.

We had told the concerned people in India that we would only be interested in importing Bangla films made by such stalwarts as Satyajit Ray, Riwitik Ghatak, or Mrinal Sen etc. Apparently, we were told by the Indian Film circle that this was not to be. If we wanted Indian films, we had to settle for whatever was offered to us. The reaction here was predictable. The filmmakers of Bangladesh saw in this a danger of loss of market. They feared aggression by Indian cine business coterie. Therefore, Indian films were not to be.

My generation grew up as Pakistanis. The Pakistan government, needless to say, was not favourably disposed towards India. We had a lot of things in common with the Bengalis from West Bengal, particularly in the fields of art, literature and culture. I remember, in our childhood our first access to Bengali literature was through novels written by authors from across the border. Bengali periodicals and cine journals from Kolkata were also very popular with our readers. But during the interaction with the people of West Bengal in 1971 and immediately afterwards, we were surprised to discover that our next door neighbour had very little knowledge of our literary scene. This was true despite the fact that in democratic India it would have been far easier to get publications from across the border.

Take music for instance. The people of East Pakistan had to fight a constant war against the establishment in order to be able to practice songs or dances of Rabindranath. Even unblemished rendering of Nazrul's Songs, particularly in the mass media, was almost impossible. Certain words had to be dropped or certain words were tabooed. Despite this repression we took it in our stride to go forth with what we considered to be our birth right. This resulted in the flurry of activities in the field and a number of very capable singers emerged in our cultural scene. We were surprised to have found that very little of our movements and its torchbearers were known in West Bengal.

The situation may have improved a bit lately but is still far from an honest recognition of what we deserve. One other thing that I have witnessed is the parochial attitude of some of our Kolkata based cultural activists. To them nothing exists beyond Kolkata. Given a festival or seminar situation hosted by them, I have seen them becoming oblivious of the presence of the guests that they have themselves invited from across the border. At best, we had to be happy with a condescending pat on the back.

Take newspapers, for instance. Pick up a Kolkata daily of any given day and a Dhaka daily of the same day. You will find a vast difference in the coverage and treatment of each country's news in the other. There is, usually a far more detailed coverage of news or analyses originating out of India in Bangladeshi dailies than Bangladeshi news in Indian dailies. In fact, a number of eminent Indian columnists are regular contributors to our English language dailies. Regional focus, the words that are heard so often in seminars and conferences are conveniently overlooked in the media across the border. If India genuinely wishes friendship with its smaller neighbours, it will have to accommodate much more than it is currently willing to do. Be it culture or journalism, water sharing or dispute about the enclave, trade imbalance or border disputes, India, its Government and Citizens, with a mammoth size, will have to be more sensitive to the relationship with its smaller neighbours.



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