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Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

The Fear of Loss
--Somnath Batabyal
A Journey through Nationalism --Shah Husain Imam
Sufi of Suburbia: Struggles of a Muslim
identity in Bangladesh

--Shahana Siddiqui
In Search of an Identity:
The Bangladeshi Diaspora
--Ziauddin Choudhury
Ekushey 1952: Charting
the course to liberty
--Syed Badrul Ahsan
Negotiating two languages and the case for
a pragmatic approach to English
--Syed Manzoorul Islam
Photo Feature:
Dreams: A mix of fantasy and reality
The Trouble with Naik --Farah Mehreen Ahmed and Jyoti Rahman
Asterix and the Big Fight --Naeem Mohaiemen
Market Crash and Derisory Impromptu
Regulatory Response

--Rashad Haque
The Struggle to Stardom --Mohammad Isam
Brand Bangladesh
--Aly Zaker
Interview with
Professor Kabir Chowdhury
The Meaning of Liberation


Forum Home

A Journey through Nationalism


SHAH HUSAIN IMAM takes an incisive look at the concept of nationalism in our Constitution and culture.

'Nationalism' is a given to any nation-state having defined borders and territory. So, the question arises as to why our Constitution incorporated an inherently obvious characteristic viz. nationalism, in its Preamble as one of the four fundamental principles on which the state will be run.

This is something quite unique to our Constitution. For instance, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution proclaims: “India is a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic Republic. No mention of nationalism as a state policy. Perhaps, because of independent India being the product of nationalist struggle, embodiment of nationalism in its Preamble might have been considered superfluous by the authors of the Constitution.

Indeed, most countries with written constitutions did not feel the need to embrace nationalism as an ideal because it was an accomplished reality after the creation of the country. Even though they were multi-ethnic, multi-religious, some of them even multi-lingual as India for one (the latter having a lingua franca in Hindi or English), once the countries became independent, nationalism as a motive force receded into the background. It became history.

A couple of more examples where nationalism doesn't figure in the constitution: The preamble to the United States Constitution states, “We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” Likewise the preamble to the constitution of Philippines, which has a stamp of American flair, affirms, “We the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society and establish a government that should embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony and to secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality and peace, do ordain and promulgate this constitution.”

Coming back to India, its federal structure and multi-lingual, multi-religious and ethnically pluralistic character could not have admitted of a nationalism cast in stone.

Yet, both Gandhi and Tagore “recognised the need for a 'national' ideology of India as a means of cultural survival and both recognised that, for the same reason, India would either have to make a break with post-medieval western concept of nationalism or give the concept a new content” (Partha Chattarjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? as quoted by Ashish Nandy in his book The Illegitimacy Of Nationalism).

The cycle of argument is completed with the words from Nandy … 'the two appreciated, and were fascinated by each other's enterprise, and between them they offered post-Independence India a spectrum of choices in the matter of coping with India's diverse pasts and linking them to her future. … Tagore sought to resolve these contradictions at the level of 'high culture', Gandhi at the level of the 'low'. It is fitting that independent India's first prime minister claimed to be an heir to both traditions. Being a practiced politician, Jawaharlal Nehru was aware that a durable basis of political legitimacy could be built only by simultaneously drawing upon both.' At the mundane level, we believe, however, that protagonists of Hinduttva could have had a readymade meadow in nationalism to try and establish their agenda which in any case at one time looked fairly formidable. At any rate, India's professed secularism faces a challenge in the extremist right.

Nationalism apart, of the three other ideals secularism, socialism and democracy the Constitution had originally adopted, the first two were changed down the road following reactive political changeover of 1975 with an insertion of some qualification clauses. Secularism received a setback through adoption of Islam as the state religion in the eighth amendment. The present status on 'secularism' is that Islam as a state religion remains part of the Constitution. What the highest judiciary did with the eighth amendment was to invalidate that part which relates to disposal of High Court Division outside of Dhaka. Since that was the matter before it, it merely disposed that of. The other part of the amendment whereby Islam was made state religion remains in the statute book. However, with the invalidation of the fifth and seventh amendments by the highest court a possibility has emerged to be restoring the original character of the 1972 Constitution if not wholly but substantially. Principally, usurpation of power through military rule and martial law have been declared illegal.

The authors of our Constitution must have had their reasons to adopt nationalism as one of the core guiding principles for the newborn state. On this, I got the understanding from Dr Kamal Hossain, one of the leading authors of the 1972 Constitution that the inclusion of nationalism in the Constitution owed it to the first statement of self-definition and identity that the language movement embodied in 1952 as well as to the crowning glory of Joi Bangla, a picturesque and potent metaphor of freedom accomplished.

The language movement triggered by the national-integrationists of Pakistan through their linguistic and cultural impositions on our mother-tongue instilled a strong resolve in the Bengali psyche to free a suffering mother, as it were, from the oppressive stranglehold of Pakistani establishment. Attempts were made to ram down the throat the strange idea of writing Bengali in Roman script including prohibition of Rabindra sangeet from the state media. All this took the lid off a groundswell of Bengaliness rooted in almost a thousand-year history.

It is may not be out of place here to recall that the recognition of 21 February as International Mother Language Day by the UNESCO has scripted an international charter for imbibing respect for all mother tongues and indigenous languages in order to protect, preserve and promote them. This itself is our contribution to world heritage.

Going back to history, Giasuddin Balban Shah (1351-1409), a Turk, who ruled Gaur invited poet Hafiz of Persia to Sonargaon. He made a name for patronising Bengali literature.

Alauddin Hossain Shah (1493-1519) during his 26-year long rule, also patronised Bengali literature, although he was an Arab by descent. So secular was Alauddin that he even got religious literature like Mahabharata in Sanskrit rendered into Bengali and is known to have appointed a Hindu his prime minister.

The secularist character of Mughal rule as personified by Emperor Akbar in particular was very wide ranging making as it did a signal contribution to sub-continental polity. Then sufism was an aid to cultural fusion.

Interestingly, poet Aloal (1607-1680) of epical Padmabati-fame had an admirer in Magan Thakur, chief minister of Rosanga (formerly a part of present day Myanmar) for his musical and poetic qualities (Shishu Biswakosh by Shishu Academy).

By adopting nationalism in the Constitution, on the one hand, we marked a complete separation from the communal, illiberal and religious nationalism of Pakistan. On the other, we stood apart from West Bengal, an Indian state with whom we have linguistic and cultural similarities. The emphasis is on the distinctiveness of our political identity with all its evolutionary and self-determination orientations.

Furthermore, it was also perhaps a warning delivered to vestigial remnants of the Pakistani era who might and did harbour an ill-will to the new-born country. As further events unfolded, a revisionist nationalism called Bangladeshi nationalism were to be touted riding piggy-back on militarist power. A wedge was sought to be driven in the people's consciousness of nationalism by prefixing it with 'Bangladeshi' in place of what was historically, anthropologically and evolutionarily accepted as being Bangali. The whipping of a controversy which unnecessarily showed up a crisis of identity seems to have been designed to divide the nation and reap a political capital out of it. In the process, the country has been weakened and not strengthened.

We, the Bangalis of this part of the sub-continent have distinct ethos and that's what sets us apart. By nationality, we are Bangladeshi but our nationalism is Bangali.

Shah Husain Imam is Associate Editor, The Daily Star. He can be reached at husain.imam@thedailystar.net.

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