From Partition to Bangladesh - on the Trajectory of a Troubled Quest

Published on Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form." - Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Arnold Ruge (1843)

In March of 2013 an obscure fascist religious political party named Hefajat-e-Islam [1] embarked on a mission to teach a lesson to the young people who gathered in Shabagh Square (according to Hefajat and other Islamists, organized by atheists) in Dhaka, Bangladesh to protest the verdict of the International War Crimes Court against a notorious war criminal and leader of Jamat-i-Islam [2] named Abdul Quader Molla. The protest was against life sentence given to Quader; the organizers demanded that he is given death sentence. After all, he was well known as the killer of Mirpur. During the 1971 Liberation War he had assisted Pakistani army in killing over 300 people in Aubad village; some he killed himself. [3]
The lesson the supporters of Quader taught the protesters started with the slaughter of one of the organizers, a blogger named Raziv Hayder; they killed him when he was returning home from Sahbagh Square late one evening. The more robust 'lesson' involved attacks on Hindu villages in various parts of the country. These guardians of the religion of peace destroyed over 500 homes, 300 temples, 300 businesses belonging to the Hindus and killed about 100 innocent Hindu citizens. Authorities sat on their hands until the carnage was over. No explanation given, no rhyme or reason! But, it follows a pattern: during the Liberation War in 1971, the minorities, especially the Hindu community, were particular target of the Pakistani army and the Bangladeshi collaborators belonging to various Islamic religious political parties. The blame game is old: literally, every democratic progressive movement in East Pakistan (and now Bangladesh) since 1947, including the 1952 Language Movement, has been accused of being some sort of Hindu conspiracy (often, supposedly directed from Kolkata) by the reactionary, extremist politicians. The Hindu-phobia, and its other incarnate, the general India-phobia, (in recent time RAW [4] phobia), and their routine deployment for manipulating internal politics, demonstrate the effectiveness of such paranoia; these have become integral to the political culture and the lexicon of suspicion & blame. It is reasonable to suspect that India & RAW have interest in Bangladesh and they snoop around (and most likely Bangladesh reciprocates the favor): the concern is with the destructive misuse and propagation of paranoia. The dust that was stirred up by over 10 million people displaced from their homes and hearths and were forced to find shelter in unknown places due to violence based in religious hatred in 1947 commonly known as riots, had not settled for a long time. By design or benign neglect of state policy, many of the minorities who stayed back in spite of the partition, had to leave eventually, in turn making those who stayed behind deprived of the security numbers provide. Even without getting into all the specific steps taken to make them insecure, the very fact of the bitter and hateful environment created by the communal riots, life in hostile territory thus afflicted could not be inviting. One of the tragic legacies of partition is the creation of clusters of people who are aliens in their own land, as a result of the trauma of the devastation they have witnessed, sometimes self-isolating, defensive and insecure, and often feeling and sometime treated as 'problems' to be dealt with. Clever politicians have learned to use them as pawns in local and national elections, often disregarding community's objective interests. To be sure, there were/are plenty of 'reasons' for the alienation among various religious groups that coexisted in this ancient land. It can be attributed to the heterogeneity of the people of the Indian Subcontinent, and their history of living under long periods of feudal, authoritarian rules, and discriminations by the ruling elite based on ethnicity, religion, language, culture, etc., often obfuscating the fundamental socio-economic conditions, that causes people to fight over inadequate resources and opportunities. A long standing cause for resentment influencing Hindu-Muslim relations is that to the natives Islam is a religion of the invaders imposed on the subcontinent.[5] While that is historically true, invasions are not unique to India, neither the atrocities invaders impose on the conquered. Refusal of Muslims to accept the validity of the resentment among the Hindus, and the unwillingness of Hindus to admit that in spite of conversion, Muslims are (by overwhelming majority) natives of the subcontinent [6], made both easy prey to communal exploitation. From cow slaughter to idol procession in front of mosque [7], there were no shortage of excuses to take the frustrations of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, deprivation on the hapless 'other', especially when goaded by the 'educated' political chieftain or his neighborhood 'enforcers'. Even efforts that started nobly, such as Sir Sayed Ahmed's project to impart western-style education to Indian Muslims, took on communal hue. Thus, while their lives were intertwined, there were separatist tendencies and sectarian elements as well. While Pakistan satisfied the Muslim separatists, the Hindu separatists who "…equated 'India' with 'Hinduness'…regarded nationalist mobilization as the reawakening of …a long-slumbering Hindu nation" [8] have not given up their dreams in spite of the general trend towards secularism which democracy demands. One other unpleasant subject not talked about much is Muslim attitude towards Hindu religion. Recall that Islam arose in part out of militant efforts to wipe out idol-worship in the Arab Peninsula [9], and this may be the cause of intolerance towards Hinduism. While Hinduism has a very extensive philosophical basis, Islam does not involve much contemplation nor is it given to speculations on the nature of reality, etc. It is a practical religion, and comes with instruction for just about everything, from treatment of the poor to intercourse (sanctioned, off course). As a result, even among the most reasonable Muslims, Hinduism has been limited at best to 'tolerance', as opposed to 'acceptance' as an alternate path to the divine. The great tradition of one of the earliest philosophical systems and inquiries in questions of ontology, epistemology, & ethics has not impressed even the educated Muslims. Unlike in the West, the classical epics such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are not part of the curriculum for formal liberal education in Bangladesh and definitely not in Pakistan, thereby the citizens of these countries remain unhoused [10] from the rich native literary traditions and lessons they impart. Unfortunately, the situation is not much better in India: political correctness and the priority of the bourgeoisie seem to have superseded the importance of its education being grounded in its classics. Post partition bitterness has continued. Besides uprooting millions and creating a permanent state of insecurity for those who remained behind, the partition has created permanent enemies between India & Pakistan. The region has descended into unproductive threat-management endeavors, drainage of resources in militarization, instability, and wars, etc., sprinkled with occasional communal riots. Nuclear proliferation and threat of nuclear war now hangs over South Asia. The relation between India & Bangladesh is ambiguous at best; if reason prevailed in a reasonable form, it would have been radically different: stable, open and trusting and one marked by gratitude on the part of Bangladesh. It appears that there are forces in all of the three truncated territories who ensure that mistrust persists, hostilities prevail, and lives of innocent people are sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik. Noticeable after effect of the partition is the uneven development in the three countries – in economic, political, social, cultural, etc., arena; what transpired in each of the three truncated parts are not unrelated to the intent or lack thereof, articulated consciously or unconsciously when various interests were negotiating the future of the territories they were after. The Indian National Congress (INC), established in 1885 was self-consciously formed as a nationalist party, representing the nation of Indian peoples; the commitment extended to the creation of a democratic society after independence. While the leadership of the struggle for independence, inspired by nationalism fell upon the upper middle class & upper class, they represented the aspirations of the people of the subcontinent as a whole to be free of long and cruel colonial repression. However, the nationalist agenda also assured safeguarding of the class interests of the emerging Indian bourgeoisie, who were trying to free themselves from unfair competition with the British capitalists. Close relations between prominent houses of business with the top rung of the INC leadership was not secret, nor was the disdain of the segment of progressive working class and peasantry for the future INC was offering. [11] Today hegemony of a powerful capitalist class, backed by an expanding middle class, dominates economy, politics, culture and other aspects of life. It has adopted a perverse hedonistic consumerist ethos hawked by global finance capital; at the same time some of its urban ghettos are threatened by potential outbreak of plague associated more with medieval Europe, not a resource-rich nation in the 21st century. It also has an expanding and increasingly powerful working class, as well as organized progressive political forces defending the rights of the working class and the poor. It is an unquestionable regional power and is playing increasingly prominent role in the world stage. Over all, in line with the aspirations of the nationalist leaders, India has evolved in to a democracy with its progressive agenda and shortcomings. Perhaps its greatest achievement is the commitment of its people to democracy. Pakistan is a state improvised to serve the narrow interest of a group of upper class Muslims who were invested more in past Muslim glory. The Muslim League was formed by the political elite connected to the Muslim centers of power in north India to protect and preserve their privileges in an independent India. [12] Its theoretical impetus was provided by the so called two-nation theory (TNT), first floated by poet Allama Iqbal, who decided that the Muslins in India constituted a separate nation. This concept was rarely invoked during the entire period since Muslims from the Arab peninsula arrived on horseback and dethroned the unsuspecting Hindu King of Sind. [13] Muslims did not live in isolation from Hindus or others, did not operate in a separate economy, nor did they speak an exclusive language inaccessible to Hindus, sang separate songs or loved and hated any differently, etc. It was an instance of successful use of distorted ideology in the form of the political unconscious [14], exploiting economic disparity and deprivation caused by over 300 years of colonial rule, and its legacy. Jinnah, the man who carried the idea to its destructive end at times showed signs of sophistication and seemed to have adopted the secular nationalist ethos, but when felt he might become irrelevant, saw an opportunity for recovery by appealing to the base instincts of the Muslim population. His demand for Pakistan to protect all of India's Muslims was dishonest, as he was fully aware that "the Muslim nation would have as many citizens beyond its borders as inside them". [15] The following statement of his, made after the partition is astonishing in its hypocrisy: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State." [16] After more than six decades, it is on the verge of being a failed state, facing territorial disintegration threatened by Baluch and the Sindhi nationalists on the one hand, and takeover by the brutal Islamic fundamentalists hell-bent on imposing rules of conduct developed for 6th century Arabia, as if in an attempt to reverse and stop time! From the start, power was in the hands of a coterie of privileged military and civilian (& still linked to vestiges of feudalism) politicians, people who concocted the notion of Pakistan, focused on safeguarding their private interest and did its best to stifle democracy. East Pakistan, itself an improvisation constructed out of the absurdity of TNT, confronted with a new sort of colonialism, i.e., exploitation by the power structure dominated by the Punjabis, had to resort to democracy. Unwilling to delink from Pakistan, yet unable to compete with the capitalist class in West Pakistan, a motley crew of emerging East Pakistani business interests supported the Awami League to take on West Pakistan. AL led a movement for autonomy, primarily to have control of the economic life of East Pakistan. There was no sign of any preparation for a war, no administration was setup for governance after the Liberation, and no organization was set up for protecting the gains of, what would amounted to bourgeois revolution in Bangladesh. Awami League's victory in the 1970 general election was entirely based on the six-point demand for autonomy. The most telling indication of the improvisational nature of Bangladesh is that as soon as the Liberation War was over, the vested interests immediately started to reassert the notion that Bangladesh is a Muslim country. To the extent that the majority of the population is Muslims, it is a true claim, but surely, no one is that naïve not to note the implication of that claim is much more insidious. In other words, a campaign to assert the notion that Bangladesh is to be a Muslim country, NOT a secular country, was initiated immediately in a number of ways. Among the major milestones in that subversion were (i) not fully dealing with the war criminals immediately; (ii) Bhutto's arrival in Bangladesh (July, 1974) to visit with Shekh Mujib, drawing millions of Bangladeshis to the street to welcome him. It proved to be a brilliant scheme and an important occasion to re-launch and signify the ongoing presence of the Islamists, even though in his obduracy and connivance, military of his country slaughtered over 3 million people only 3 years before; (iii) Mujib's desperate attempt to get on the good-side of the Saudis and others in that region to 'counter the Hindu influence from India' while only three years ago, India made it possible to end the War quickly, and reduce sufferings; (iv) Zia led Coup & return of Ghulam Azam and resurgence of Jama-i-Islam; (v) Ershad led coup & changes in the Constitution; (vi) Even with an absolute majority in the Parliament, Sheikh Hasina's refusal to reinstitute the secular provisions of the original constitution. As far as secularism is concerned, it has been downhill since then. If anything, Hasina has pushed AL to be a great deal more anti-secular than it was under her father. The father of the nation was a secular man no doubt, but his appreciation of the vulnerability of the minorities in Bangladesh seems to have been limited; perhaps, he did think that liberating the country was enough to protect the minorities, completely ignoring or not acknowledging, or being ignorant of the deep seated hatred for the 'idol worshipers' among the Islamic 'religious scholars' who roam about rural Bengal imparting such enlightenment as "women are like tamarind to men". [17] The supporters of the ideology that inspired creation of Bangladesh, believing in their own rhetoric vastly underestimated the strength of the forces of reaction, if not in their numbers, surely their increasing affinity to the rising Islamic fundamentalism. It is astonishing that no one saw the political implications of the sudden proliferation of the so called educational institutions called madrasas, especially in rural areas. Supported by all the governments, in reality, these are training academies for Jamat/Hefajat cadres. The most important lesson taught is the denigration of all other religious belief, especially of 'idol worshipers' and hatred & intolerance of Hindus and other minorities, and their duty to covert the 'heathens' to peaceful Islam by hook or by crook, no matter that it is banned bylaw unless proof of voluntary decision can be produced. Note that BD is not as supportive of religious schools for other religions! Surely, if encouraged, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, could get funding from external sources if necessary, just as the Islamists get their funding from the Middle East & even Pakistan! The urge to return to medieval times implied in the efforts by fundamentalist pseudo-religious, in reality political, movements is counter to the direction of history. The need and demand for democracy in countries gaining independence from colonial rule, emerged as a necessity in the 20th century as they began long delayed process of economic development based on private ownership of the means of production. Labor had to be freed from the shackles of feudalism, and with that came the demand for rights, which in turn lead to mass-scale politicization. In India, it is muddling through as it does in a society immersed in class contradictions. It could have chosen a more progressive path, but has fallen victim to the ordinary laws of socio-economic trajectory, and will most likely follow the capitalist path for some time. But, its commitment to democracy is assured and will provide space for progressive changes. The sane quarters in Pakistan especially, but Bangladesh as well, wish they could be that far along the trajectory. In Pakistan, it has given rise of violent fundamentalist Islamists, falsifying the assumptions behind its formation, and raising questions regarding the rational for its existence. Bangladesh is still unable to come to grips with its realities. Too smart not to notice the changing nature of the world, yet intimidated by the modernity, it remains stuck in sort of suspended-animation. The contingent nature of the way some of the political formations culminated where they did is hard not to notice. The long history of starting in one place, apparently without much of an inkling of where the end would be, and doing the best with wherever that ends up to be, has characteristically involved the Muslim population of the subcontinent. They appear to be on a trajectory of a troubled quest of unsettled identity, inability in establishing equilibrium between faith and functionality demanded in the new century, and are still reticent about embracing rudimentary elements of modernism such as secular democracy. (Dr. Siddique is a professional in environmental field and writes on various issues. To be published in an upcoming collection of articles on the 1947 partition on the occasion of Annual Conference of the Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation Project.) Notes:

  1. So far, this one has turned out to be the most vicious, vulgar and reactionary among the extremist Islamist political parties that have mushroomed in Bangladesh. They have demanded that women should not be allowed outside the home, and have implied that they are the reasons why men commit sin (the so called Tamarind Theory of gender relations), etc. Their base is a network of madrasas, especially in the southern area of the country.
  2. Although JI's publicly stated policy is to make Bangladesh a truly Islamic country under full Sharia Law, in recent times JI leaders have refrained from emphasizing their core political purpose. It was banned after 1971 Liberation War because of its opposition to breaking up of Pakistan. Maj. Zia, usurper of power through coup revived and legitimized JI. It has been the major coalition partner of his Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) one of the two political parties (the other being the Awami League, AL, party of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman).
  3. Subsequently, the Supreme Court, on appeal by the government sentenced him to death.
  4. Research and Analyses Wing; intelligence agency of the Indian government.
  5. How that took place is yet another topic of contention. In the absence of empirical information, it is safe to assume that many were forced, and many volunteered to escape cast discrimination, and many others did so for genuinely spiritual reasons.
  6. At one time, Hindu Mohashava argued that Indian Muslims should leave India and 'go back' to the Middle East!
  7. The Origins of the Partition of India by Anita Inder Singh; Oxford University Press, 1987; p:37. It is worth noting the irony that while cow slaughter by Muslims was a huge organizing hook for Hindu communalists, India today is one of the major processor of cow hides, with a large concentration of tannery industry in Chennai.
  8. Bengal Divided Hindu communalism and partition 1932-1947 by Joya Chatterji, Cambridge University Press, 1994; p: 14.
  9. History of the Arabs, by Philip K. Hitti, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; p: 87.
  10. Term borrowed from Prof. Cornell West, courtesy Asheesh Kapur Siddique, Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History, Columbia University, New York, NY.
  11. Recall the slogan: यह आज़ादी झूठी है। लाखों इन्सान भूखे हें। ("This indepennce is hollow; milions are hungry".)
  12. Provincial Politics and the Pakistan Movement by Ian Talbot, Oxford University Press, 1988.
  13. In 715 AD by a small band of Arab horsemen led by Mohammad Bin Qasem dethroned Raja Dahir of Sind. Since then, invasion, immigration and conversion have continued at various rates. The last one was determined by all of the factors by which one is induced to 'embrace faith', both positive (perhaps freedom from cast oppression) and negative incentives (swords must have worked well) etc., that were available to eventually made the Muslims a sizeable demographic entity.
  14. The Political Unconscious by Fredric Jameson, Cornell University Press, 1982; p:20.
  15. The Sole Spokesman, by Ayesha Jalal; Cambridge University Press, 1985; p: 241.
  16. From Presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Karachi, 11 August 1947. This after about a million people died and more were displaced from their ancestral homes and hearths to "prove" otherwise and rationalize the partition! It is rumored that after visiting a riot devastated area, he supposedly said, 'what have I done!'
  17. According to the head of the Hefajat, that is why women should not be allowed to go out in public
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