1971: Language or economic nationalism

Afsan Chowdhury
Wednesday, June 14th, 2017


There is a struggle for the soul of the history of 1971. One argues that 1971 is a reaction to Pakistani rule while the other group says that 1971 a long struggle of the poor and the peasants which began hundreds of years before 1947. One is rooted in identifying culture as the dominant identifying marker of nationalism whiles the other sense history in the struggle of the peasants.


Conventional Liberals, many of who are Tagoreans see the struggle of  1971 around ethno-religious lines  while the contra-Kolkata historians look at 1971 as  part of a longer socio-economic identity assertion of peasants and their cousins a few rungs up. Many Liberals follow the ethnic nationalist identity frame – Bengali – in case of 1971 history even when they condemn all similar identities in the name of “communalism”.


Thus it’s the politics of terms that has dominated the nationalist aspirations struggle to decide which elite will run the state. In case of Bangladesh, not one but several histories were at work at class, community and territorial level.  However, to put all the aspirations of the poor, mostly led by emerging elite into a single box of language identity has suited the literate class the most.


Is there one Bengal or is it a confederation of identities?


In defining the entire population of the delta as one ‘geographical’ monolith is problematic as there are several zones within it and the physical environment is not homogenous either. Three distinct laterite zones cover the world’s largest delta and there are distinctions at natural and political level. The boundaries with other cultures are not the same either nor the political history which is produced by many socio-economic mixes. Not many people have almost 50 spoken languages.


Physical division within the delta is also important to understand what may be more of a “confederation’ of various zones. The older part – Western Bengal and parts of North Bengal form the old North Indian Aryan linked Bengal identified as “Vanga”. The new laterite zone is referred to as Samatata and constitutes the south eastern Bangladesh generally. It also opens to the sea sharing a variety of environmental mixes and had their own political history from the Devya, Kharga, Chandra etc dynasties.


The third zone – Harikela- is itself mixed sharing much with the Chittagong zone- partly Samatata- some parts of Comilla and Barisal where the Chandra dynasty ruled. The paid homage to the King of Harikela which is located in Myanmar. Thus three political zones existed but three natural zones too with coastal parts of Bangladesh still in the process of forming and criss crossing into each other. This zone largely produced the fabled agro-wealth of Bengal.


But significantly, there was no notion even at the earliest stage of one geography, one people and one identity.


The politics of monolith


In subscribing to ethno-religious identity as the sole or dominant marker, other identities are minimized.  This includes socio-economic identities and disparities which can be termed as divisive or worse “communal’. By making such identities ‘profane” it is considered that economic denial can no longer produce nationalist aspiration and nationalist identity can only be developed by cultural  markers which the middle class controls.


This allows the middle class elite to appropriate the ability to interpret the struggle and claim all credit and therefore the right to design the direction of the state.


It’s this cleavage that has invisibilized the history of 1971 which has turned into a narrative of the middle class only ready to become upper class as history shows it has.


Thus 1971 history is seen as a rebellion against Pakistan and not a struggle of an impoverished peasantry fighting over 250 years. By limiting this struggle within the confines of British cultural colonialism, middle rules. By insisting that the peasant is more communal than the Kolkata rooted middle class, the peasant is profaned and is told to conduct politics according to the approved Liberal text. Thus peasant uprisings are seen as ”communal ‘ and not as a community response of the economically suffering. Which is why Sheikh Mujib is considered “communal” as he is not rooted in babu culture. It’s this babu class who took over the historical narrative of a people of many mixes and kinds, ethnicities and identities ignoring that what gave birth to 1971 was economic rights aspiration not cultural identity.

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