The State we are in
Zeeshan Rahman Khan
In our 35th year as Bangladesh, it is important that we evaluate whether this new state has in fact been able to live up to the expectations of this particular Bangal nation. In doing this we should be able to uncover our weaknesses and our strengths, but most relevant to today's turbulent climate of suicide bombings and the violent demands for an Islamic State, we will be able to understand to what extent these demands might be justified, and what failings in statecraft have necessitated such an aggressive expression of commonly held values.
To understand the State's responsibility to the Nation, its is necessary to understand the temperament and sensibilities of the people that constitute the Nation. Such an analysis will not yield a homogenous result, certainly there must be numerous generally overlapping values that allow us to group together as a nation in the first place.
Language is often cited as the binding factor within this nation, however, that this is not entirely correct is demonstrated by the fact that across the river in West Bengal they speak the same language yet we separated ourselves from them, and they from us, because of a real or perceived notion that we were not anymore of the same mind. It is also reinforced by the numerous English medium educational institutions and newspapers in Bangladesh and by the fact that we who read and write using the English language are not often completely dismissed as being non-members of this nation. And of course the various dialects and variations within Bangla itself (with Sylheti being recognised unofficially as a separate language altogether) does not allow us to define our nationhood strictly along linguistic lines.
It is difficult, moreover, to define a state through the culture of the nation it governs; as such a thing is not static but constantly evolves every time it comes into contact with new influences, and will necessarily vary throughout eras, as well as from region to region and between economic classes. For example the culture of the people of East Bengal two generations ago and my own Bangali culture varies vastly, as does the culture of an individual from an upper echelon of society vary from that of a rural fisherman. For that matter the culture of two members of the upper echelon, one educated in England and the other in Bangladesh, may as well differ, as will the culture of a rickshawalla from Rajshahi be ever-so-slightly different from that of a coolie from Chandpur. Cultural expressions similarly may vary, giving rise to the numerous different types of food, dress and music that emerge out of any seemingly uniform grouping, and while at the moment such a variety of expressions in Bangladesh is somewhat absent, it will over time expand, as will the culture itself, and ultimately diverge just as Sylheti is beginning to diverge from Bangla. And finally, let us not forget the million or so non-Bangali tribals who live within the boundaries of the state of Bangladesh.
As a point of fact, Muslim Bangalis historically defined their political orientation neither through language nor through culture as is testified to by their separation from West Bengal. Also, that the creation of Bangladesh has little to do with language and culture and much more to do with tangible factors such as economics and social justice is evidenced by the fact that Bangali was established as an official language of Pakistan. Therefore the fight on the language front had already been fought and won - years before the need for separation became a reality, and by the fact that the creation of Bangladesh has not prevented, neither has it attempted to prevent. Bangali culture from being influenced by external factors and 'non Bangali' elements, such as, for instance, Hindi music and English films.
Therefore it becomes necessary to seek the roots of this nation-state elsewhere, in its shared values and beliefs, in its commonly held notions of right and wrong, in its understanding and agreement as to what is fair and just, in the essential nature of its temperament and in that thing that in Bangla is called 'Mon' but in English has no absolute equivalent. It is also in its sensibilities as a people who stand for a certain kind of humanity and in its affirmation of the rights and dignities of man. Indeed, the roots of this Nation State are found in its morality and the roots of morality, regardless of whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, have always lain in religion.
There is a huge difference between religion and an institutionalised theology or between what can be called the spirit or essence of religion and between various sectarian rituals, practices, doctrines and dogmas. I use the word religion due to an absence in the English language, of a word for 'Dhormo', that thing that constitutes the principles, values, morality and beliefs of any individual or community and is the essential precursor to all their 'Kormo'- their choices, actions, deeds and works. In legal language it can be likened to the intentions that define the act - the Mens Rea which is necessary in order to establish criminality. 'Dhormo' is the inner to the outer, and in the context of political philosophy it can be understood as the ideals which underlie the actions of a state, its vision and its purpose, and therefore its reasons for being. In other words, if the State exists as the actionable component of a particular collective, then certainly its ideals can be found in the religion (the dhormo) of the Nation it is designed to preserve.
Dhormo itself is the result of a synthesis - it is created from a process involving various filters, on both a personal as well as a communal level. While our own East Bengali Dhormo is essentially Islamic in nature, it is actually the result of various moral orders which held sway in this region, from the pre-Vedic to the Vedas, to the teachings of Gautama, and finally to the morality of Abraham, Ismail, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed, may peace be upon them all. It can be argued that all of these are in fact fragments of the one and same message revealed through various sources at various times. What has remained are those elements from all which do not conflict with each other and which are, according to our basic conscience, fundamentally just and decent. Whatever the case, this established dhormo comes to represent the yardstick by which we measure the kormo of the State and what gives it legitimacy. But more importantly, it is also the place from which any departure is signaled by reactionary and sometimes, unfortunately, violent sirens.
With this in mind and by taking a closer look at the recent cries for an 'Islamic' state, we may possibly discover that these are nothing more than misconceived and severely distorted calls for a 'moral' state; the same calls, incidentally, that led us to enter and then exit the State of Pakistan. We entered Pakistan believing that it would embrace a policy of justness and equality and of the essential dignity of man, standards that are fundamental for the social manifestation of Islamic ideals. When Pakistan failed to deliver on that promise, we created Bangladesh so that we might finally live in a state that stands for those same principles. The fact that there are now elements within our society calling for a renewed revolution and for another reinvention of the state, should awaken within any thinking person's consciousness the disturbing truth that these standards have not been met and that there is something amiss in this People's Republic. Indeed, the fact that Bangladesh has drifted far from its stated purpose as the champion of the People is self- evident and clearly demonstrable through its track record as the most corrupt nation in the world. Apart from that, a quick look at the state of the public services, of the collection of tax revenue, of education and social welfare, of the distribution of income, of political instability, the disproportion between wages and prices, the lack of legitimate sources for upward mobility, the dismantling of a meritocratic public sector, stagnation, lawlessness and numerous other socioeconomic indicators will reveal, unambiguously, a dysfunctional state in the mature stages of regress. Given these circumstances, the recent gruesome attacks on public figures and the Judiciary should, sadly, come as no surprise. In fact, to dispel any misconceptions about their intentions, the attackers clearly declared the acts to be the reaction and resistance to a corrupt and unjust regime.
This of course justifies in no way or advocates the spate of violent crimes we witnessed two months ago, far from it; in fact I would be quick to say that such acts are offensive to our sensibility and are in complete violation of our dhormo. That a moral state can never be established through immoral means goes without saying. However, it is necessary to identify the causes of the attacks and the opportunities that have been left open for misguided individuals to exploit in the name of religion. To put it simply, a secular, principled and functional Bangladesh would have drawn less criticism and hostility from the proponents of an Islamic state, than our current one. In sincerity I am as well a proponent of an Islamic State in so far as the definition of an Islamic state is the establishment of a system based on justice, social welfare, representative government, the equitable distribution of resources and income and the inviolability of the rights and dignities of the common man. If such an ideal is the aim of an 'Islamic' movement then there is no threat from it, but if it is only to replace the office of the prime minister with an amir, the judges with qadis and parliament with a majlish i- shura, then it is redundant, and if it uses force, fear and intimidation as its means, then certainly it should never come to fruition.
If the People's Republic of Bangladesh is to remain within the goodwill of the people, then it must recognise that we, the people of Bangladesh, chose and continue to choose as our principles, those Islamic and indeed universal values which it has thus far failed to transform into political reality. Until this, or any state that governs this territory can reflect those noble words I once read on the walls of a building at Dhaka University 'keo khabe keo khabe na, ta hobe na, ta hobe na' - which humbled me and made me feel honoured to belong to a nation that espouses so intimately such a deeply human slogan, it will have no legitimacy and will continue to be rocked by upheavals. Until the writing on the wall is finally read we will not have achieved what we set out to achieve 60 years ago when the people of this irregular shaped 144,000 sq kilometers of land decided, against all odds, to seek out a better way.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005