As soldiers of three countries, one established, one recently dead and one emerging crowded into the grounds of the current Suhrawardy Uddan on December 16, 1971, the diverse history of the region was never more obviously at display than that moment. It's a cruel and mysterious baggage what we call history, this chain of events that produce and sometimes destroys states one has or had taken for granted.
State making is a layered process of achieving an objective to gain maximum benefits for its citizens at different levels and sectors. It doesn't begin or end at a particular point of time in history but occurs at various levels and stages. This is what happens in history and the sudden birth and sudden death and date based narratives are not backed by evidence.
1971 was triggered long before 1947 and what happens now is also being pushed by many forces which are older than 1971, producing new histories. But they are not conclusive or final which is why the date 1971 is important to examine how within a quarter century of mediated birth, the three states already born but waiting to be delivered properly came together. Unless new states are born again, this history will not be repeated. That is why 1971 is such an important date for all the three states concerned: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Few in 1947 had thought that Pakistan was not here to stay forever. But as events showed, Pakistan probably was not yet fully born either and it was only in 1971 that it took a proper shape. Jinnah's Pakistani lasted for only 24 years though Yahya's Pakistan will be crossing 50 years soon. It is more stable than Pakistan ever was from 1947 to 1971.
The problems Pakistan has may never go away as its structure is built around a military guaranteed state. This military, in the only big war that they fought -in 1971- lost spectacularly. It's an inefficient army and thus by extension of its ruling group's identity, an inefficient state.
1971 was caused by a long historical journey but the mess through which Pakistan was born in 1971 is a product of that specific inability to manage a state. Its ruling class understands managing garrisons and platoon formations but not conventional state governance. 1971 relieved it of a great responsibility beyond its capacity thought at ahge and humiliating cost.
Its focus is on managing the supremacy of one group -army- but not balancing power among the many contenders. It will survive but will probably never flourish as it appears unable to shake off the 1947- 1971 governance model.
50 years after 1971, India seems to have done well but not the rousing success it thought it would be after ending Pakistan in 1971. India would hardly like to compared to be Bangladesh and prefers Pakistan, its arch foe as the comparator.. Both countries feed off each other's mutual state and its national politics is largely based on how much mutual hostility can be generated. India is perhaps in some ways the twin of Pakistan, the older and better doing one but a sibling nevertheless.
India has much greater determination than Pakistan and recognized Pakistan's fragility even before 14th August 1947. India saw the resentment in Bengal Muslim League when in 1946, the two states was switched by Jinnah into one state of centralized Pakistan. This led to the United Bengal Movement - a joint Bengal-Muslim league and Bengal Congress initiative- which in 1947 reached the point of becoming the first formal effort to establish a united Bengal state.
However, neither Delhi Congress nor most of the Bengal Congress members wanted this and it collapsed. But Delhi saw the trend and began to support the nascent efforts to set up an independent Bangladesh from 1947 onwards.
Pakistan made the task easier for India by treating East Pakistan as a colony which Sk. Mujib himself had predicted would happen as he told his close political friends even before 14th August 1947. This movement grew and exploded in 1971 and India took advantage of the situation. For India, the biggest prize was the ending of the 1947 Pakistan but that would never have been possible without the independent Bangladesh statist movement.
India's problem lies in its attitude towards history. It can't see let alone admit that its greatest historical victory was 1971 and it would not have been possible to achieve without the role of Bangladesh state movement. While its always insisting that "India liberated Bangladesh", it never ever says that the Bangladesh movement including resistance and war for almost a quarter century led to a situation which ended Pakistan of 1947.
It's a huge country but with a sense of self a smaller one. In 1971 everyone acted in their own self-interest and Indio-Bangla both gave and took from each other. None acted in charity. . But India often insists on being held higher than others. The result is it's not so friendly relations with any of its neighbours. India is the largest state in the region but not the region's leader.
Its economy is large but not doing great given its shape, size and resources of every kind, not to mention its strategic significance. But India is hamstrung by a political structure that is not equitable and conflict based. The farmers protest shows that despite its claims of state prosperity, economic gaps are big.
It wants to be modern and developed rapidly, to be counted as a super power but hasn't found a way out. Its science front is great but the benefits are not distributed so well. Perhaps, India's weakness is that in an era of economic development it's trying to sell political products to its own people, particularly the under privileged. It has in many ways not used the advantages 1971 offered.
Bangladesh differs fundamentally from India and Pakistan, both fundamentally rooted in North Indian supremacist tendencies. Both at different points in history have invaded Bangladesh in history and have always felt that their "right to do" is inherent in history. Bangladeshis are/ were low life peasants which is true. The aristocracy-underling relationship has determined Bangladeshis nature of self- identification and as a people who lived off the land and pre-state in nature, its journey to find the image of its own state is fairly recent.
It began after the conquest of Bengal by colonialism and the opportunity to create its own leadership. This was dome in partnership of course with the discarded elite of the previous era but the lower class became through a series of resistances, the managers of sorts of their own history more than ever before. This began as peasants took up arms against the colonial raj led by the old land based elite and later by the middle class aspirants. This meant that unless the middle or the upper unites with the poor, no resistance is possible. History is therefore based on alliance building with others.
Peasant as makers of history in alliance
The rural Bengal's identity grew over time and strengthened as they forced the British colonials to recognize their strength. Much of British policies were meant to appease the unhappy peasantry as they had more confidence in the middle class -the job seekers- in their loyalty. Thus the middle class presents itself -being in the socio-economic forefront and continue to be so- as the 'liberators' in history due to the control of textbooks and media as narrators. They were the leaders as a class but the political power came from the militant poor which the colonials understood.
As the elite class drawn around cultural markers were never one , historical streams began to be sharply divided. It was not possible for the peasants and the zamindars, represented by East Bengal and Kolkata respectively to be loyal to the same idea of history. It's this unshared history that produced more history including the sub-state of East Bengal that ultimately became Bangladesh in 1971.
1971 was a war of alliance but again the roles of the villagers who basically sustained the war and suffered the most are marginalized in national historical narratives. Thus the claimant classes are not the same as the participating ones. Again, this dominant narrative, limited and objective driven excluded most and included few. But the objective was simple that is establishing dominance of the narrating class, the middle though their participation was limited.
Sk. Mujib led everyone but his historical source of resistance was the peasantry which goes back to the politics of the 1930s in Gopalganj. He experienced it first hand as a resistor of the local elite and later at the Bengal level when he dominated Kolkata politics as well. He was from the middle class but was linked to the politics of peasantry.
He knew them as a historical force who made the electoral success of 1937 and 1946 possible which facilitated the platform for Bangladesh whether in the subsumed shape in 1947 but full blown in 1971. In so many ways, the birth of Bangladesh more authentically rings the bell of the end British colonialism in Bengal than 1947. He certainly was not produced by the language movement of 1952 as some fundamentalist narrators of language communalism say.
Where are they now?
But where 50 years of Bangladesh live in terms of achievements and failures are very different from what was estimated or assumed by many. For the middle class - the so- called Bengali nationalists- the historical space has shrunk. This is a dependent class whose golden period- 1947-71- is over as the current ruling class doesn't need them much. Like the loyalists of colonialism, they too seek patronage which is easily given. In return, they stay within the dependent framework of one group or another.
They are not in any effective alliance with another class but dependent on the upper. This middle class which before 1947 had a strong alliance with the rural people no longer has that. Instead it's the upper class which has better links with the rural power groups and the alliance now resembles the one that existed from 1757- 1857 before the old upper class was eclipsed and the East Bengal middle class emerged.
The only peasant state?
Historically speaking, Bangladesh is the only peasant-state and the socio-economic rise of the peasantry is the most striking aspect fifty years after 1971. Yet they initially had to suffer much bearing the maximum burden of the devastation of 1971 but began to cope in ways not expected by the middle or upper class. The peasantry also benefitted from globalization as they took advantage of international demand for cheap workers. Even locally, as the rmg sector emerged and grew phenomenally, the critical factor was supply of cheap rural labour produced clothes to supply the global market.
By the 1990s the peasant economic potential had become obvious. Far greater attention was paid to the rural economic growth as the new urban and consuming class needed agro-produce. Bangladesh became even more Dhaka based but it was kept alive by the villages and still is.
The peasant has never been better off today than they ever were. And in the process they have also produced a contest of urban based socio- political theology. It's not possible to rule comfortably without the consent of the villages now. The cities may mount protests and rallies, becoming smaller every season but the villages hold greater mobilization power as they have shown though no threat to state power. The reality of the rural world clout dominates more than ever before. The alliance exists but the middle class is left out of this equation.
The ruling class, always upper, recognizes that the rural economy is more sustainable and self-reliant and they need it. That has meant a greater reliance and dependence on their cultural value system. One is the rise of a religious culture. The first constitution was more middle class driven and alienated the rural people with its declaratory "secularism and socialism" clauses. They are not popular issues then or now hence not pushed by the ruling political class of today.
The middle class is most prominent among the amlas but who are wholly dependent on the upper class as part of the alliance led by the private economy class and the army. Thus they are not an independent but a collateral class which fits into the conventional tradition of the middle from the colonial era as state collaborators.
The army is the most independent of the ruling class segments and it has two factors in its favour. One, it's the most organized and well-resourced institution in the state and also shielded from political squabbles within. They may have internal politics which surfaces in the public space once in a while but its controversy protected much of the time. It has learnt the lessons of previous military regimes which never did well. They are into alliances as well.
The other is its role as UN Peacekeepers which gives the entire armed services access to significant legal income making without recourse to corruption like the civilian amlas. They are also spread all over the country and even in the rural, areas where many non-officers live, they are a strong member of the local community.
The fate of politicians
Thus it's the politicians who are the most bereft of clout among the four ruling class segments. They of course carry other identities but as a whole, with the decline of the middle class space and competing power of the other ruling class members, they are weak. They are not irrelevant but post-necessary. They are not a decision making part of the governance system which the amlas are, thus making them even less needed. They have failed to display the robustness required in a crisis which is natural as they are almost entirely dependent on the top layer of the political pyramid.
The private sector business class is flying high but their dependence is high too. Their link with the amlas is close and politicians are part of it so the three groups - amlas, politicians and traders - form part of the same cluster. Depending on which position they occupy and the status they have, they can leverage it into economic gain. This equation is now accepted as "normal" but continues to remain surreptitious. As it's based on crony capitalism which is manifested in what is termed as "corruption", it can't be formally concretized into state policy making even the wealthiest vulnerable to other power grabs mostly from within the ruling class.
A new sub-section are the middle class migrants not the remittance group. These are mostly middle class and now live abroad as citizens. They are comfortable and able to play a vocal role part of the middle class critique but their influence is limited as non-residential. They are very active in media.
Some NRB money has started to be invested back home but one reason for its lack of popularity is laundering it abroad to the same destinations. Unlike the remittance people, they have low clout at home.
So what is a concluding remark?
Of the three states, Bangladesh was fundamentally different from the other two states. They were elite and invader legacy bearing, perhaps even based upon. The third state that was born in stages- 1905, 1947, 1971- was peasant based who became the great engine of resistance. In 1971 that was most evident from the way resistance occurred in many shapes and forms.
Bangladesh is produced by resistance that has historical roots in the birth period of colonialism which began as an alliance between the ousted upper class and the peasantry. That has continued with the growth of the middle class which was based on compliance and collaboration with the colonizers. After 1947, they faced a crisis as employment restriction efforts by the Pakistani ruling class turned them into resistors (1952), a relatively new historic role for them.
These two forces, the incidental resistors-middle class- and the historical resistors - peasantry, united to participate in 1971. After 1971, the middle moved up to occupy the new upper class status, the new middle class that emerged became their collaborators and as expected. They faced no resistance but were fragmented into sub-groups as before 1947.
With no state making to chase or no historical task, left this middle class is in alliance with the upper class as a subservient group, neither free nor interested to be so. Their fate was historically inevitable in an independent state when they were not independent so historically determined perhaps.
The national upper/ruling class is in alliance with the rural rooted groups barring the rural upper class who are part of the political groups and thus dependent on the other groups. It's the rural middle who are historically the most powerful now as they have the numbers too.
State power belongs to the urban upper but they have to rely on the rural middle, the historical intermediaries. Not all members of the ruling class segments are equally powerful nor are they free from vulnerabilities including dependence on crony capitalism and corruption economics causing internal conflict often manifested at election times.
The most aspirant and potentially powerful group is the rural middle class- in alliance with the rural lower class too- and has more clout than they have ever had. No state can progress without their consent in the long term. Thus the rural-urban alliance is what will determine the future and history will once more be produced from below as it has been in the peasant state.
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