Dhaka Courier

Bangabandhu and Bangali Nationalism

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Being myself a humble student of history, I admit that, as a phenomenon, nationalism owes much to history as a discipline. This is the perspective in which the renowned British historian E.J. Hobsbawm once said to an audience of anthropologists

Historians are to nationalism what poppy–growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market. Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifiesone nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it. So, my profession, which has always been mixed up in politics, becomes an essential component of politics.1

So, I am here to talk about Bangali nationalism as an essential ingredient in the creation of Bangladesh; and which, as history bears testimony, was imbibed, espoused and represented by Bangabandhu. For him nationalism was not mere romanticism, it was more a tool to craft a new future for the people beholden to a nationalist psyche. Historically, however, there had been a nation in being; Bangabandhu made the right use of this nationhood to craft the desired statehood. As it is, nationhood precedes statehood; and both of which are products of a long historical process. It is at the same time, worth mentioning that, Bangabandhu singlehandedly countered the sham Pakistani nationalism by successfully promoting the cause of Bangali nationalism.

Nationalism: What it is All About

To comprehend Bangabandhu’s brand of nationalism, little bit of theoretical background is necessary. It is, however, not suggested that Bangabandhu had the theoretical grounding first before he postulated. Indeed, the empiricism of Bangabandhu’s nationalism is contextualized in theoretical terms. Initially, a relevant theoretical discourse is drawn attention to, followed by some leads on Bangabandhu’s brand of nationalism.

Both as an ideology and movement based on such ideology, nationalism promotes the interests of group of people with the aim of gaining and maintaining these people’s autonomy and sovereignty over their homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation has the right to decide its political future free from outside interference.2 Moreover, in its prime task, nationalism seeks to build a single national identity based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion and belief in a shared singular history. The overriding aim of nationalism is to promote national unity and solidarity. In this sense, Benedict Anderson calls nations as “Imagined Communities.”3 What he means is that the historical elements common to a group of people are imagined to constitute a nation. Therefore, nationalism is a matter of psyche of a group of people.

Nationalism may be classified as civic, ethnic and liberal. Civic nationalism defines the nation as an association of people who identify themselves as belonging to the nation, who have equal and shared political rights, and allegiance to similar political procedures.4 This nationalism denies ethnic ancestry and accepts political identity as the core identity.

Ethnic nationalism, also known as ethno – nationalism, on the other hand, is a form of nationalism wherein a nation is defined in terms of ethnicity. The central theme of ethnic nationalism is that nations are defined by shared heritage. One sub – theme in this type of nationalism is that a nation consists of all speakers a specific language, and which is called linguistic nationalism.

Liberal nationalism is a kind of non – xenophobic nationalism that goes with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality and individual rights, not only in a specific territory, but across the world as well. Such a brand of nationalism is coterminous with internationalism, which transcends nationalism and advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and peoples. The term is similar to globalism and cosmopolitanism. As a political ideal, it is based on the belief that nationalism should be transcended because the ties that bind people of different nations are stronger than those that separate them.

It is suggested that these theoretical postulations vis-à-vis nationalism are found to have empirical ramifications as we analyse Bangabandhu’s nationalism. Bangabandhu was the epitome of Bangali nationalism; and Bangali nationalism, as is generally misperceived, was not a unilinear construct. Indeed, initially, this was a linguistic nationalism; but gradually it was found to have thrived on ethnographic and geographic elements as well. Bangali nationalism was thus tri-dimensional in construct and focus; and of which, Bangabandhu was the perfect embodiment.

Bangabandhu’s tryst with nationalism had two phases. During the first phase upto the birth of Bangladesh, he gave lead to his people who wrestled to counter the sham civic nationalism of Pakistan with Bangali nationalism.During the second phase between 1972 and 1975, he kept one foot solidly on home – nationalism; but extended the other to transcend to internationalism. In both phases, he was non – xenophobic, although, in both phases, he had ample reasons to be xenophobic, at least, we should have heard anti – Pakistani vitriols from him; but we did not hear any such utterance nor did we see any xenophobic action by him. As it appeared, he believed in and practiced liberal nationalism.

Bangabandhu and Bangali Nationalism

An oft–quoted statement of Bangabandhu is: “Even when walking the gallows, I shall say I am a Bangali, Bangla is my language, Bangla is my land.” Although not known to him, Bangabandhu was, in fact, representing the constituent elements of Bangali nationalism as he shared his psyche. As it was, this statement sufficiently indicated the tri–dimensional composition of this nationalism: ethnicity, language and geography.

To what extent Bangabandhu was linked to the geographic element of the land he lived and toiled in was amply demonstrated on 25 August 1955, when he took the floor in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly to say, “Sir, you will see that they [Pakistan Government] want to place the words ‘East Pakistan’ instead of ‘East Bengal.’ We have demanded so many times that you should make it Bengal. The word ‘Bengal’ has a history, has a tradition of its own. You can change it only after the people have been consulted. If you want to change it then we will have to go back to Bengal and ask them whether they accept it.” It was not only an attachment to a traditional geographic entity that Bangabandhu spoke for, he also argued for a democratic process for decision – making. A democrat by conviction is bound to anchor his political faith in liberal nationalism.

Early in the 1960s, besides being the General Secretary, Bangabandhu had his own project – Purba Vanga Mukti Front – to liberate his people from the clutches of Pakistani internal colonialism. He had leaflets printed at his own cost; but nowhere in that leaflet was there any anti–Pakistani rhetoric. Reticence is a human quality most necessary in politics; and Bangabandhu appeared to possess it.

The much touted Six-Point programme of 1966 was a crafty formula apparently for democratizing the state structure of Pakistan as per the Lahore Resolution of 23 March 1940. For the then East Pakistan, there was, however, more quantum of politico – economic and military autonomy; for which, the Bangali people hailed the document as their magna carta. But the underlying intent, as divulged to the NAP (pro-Moscow) leader Professor Muzaffar Ahmed by Bangabandhu, was independence. As Bangabandhu confided in, “Don’t you understand, I have one point only said in a roundabout way.” This was a document so relevant in challenging Pakistan by the Bangali ethno – nationalism; but, again, no harsh word was used against Pakistan. On the contrary, Ayub Khan, the then military dictator of Pakistan, in his knee -jerk reaction, threatened to use arms to silence Bangabandhu. With hindsight, it may be presumed that Ayub Khan might have grasped the underpinning of the Six-Point programme.

On 5 December 1969, Bangabandhu, on behalf of the people, declared that the name of province be Bangladesh, which was greeted with thunderous applause. The next day, Maulana Bhasani and Ataur Rahman Khan, the two senior politicians, endorsed the declaration. In this declaration, geography appeared prominently as an element in Bangali nationalism. To put history in perspective, it may be mentioned that during the Mass Uprising of 1969, the youth had brought the words ‘Independent Bangladesh’ for the first time to public attention by chanting the slogan: “Brave Bangalis, take up arms, make Bangladesh independent.” Two other slogans of this movement were also pointers to nationalism; and these were: “who are you, who am I? Bangali, Bangali” (ethnicity); “Dhaka or Pindi? Dhaka, Dhaka” (geography). Moreover, when the brave Bangalis were exhorted to take up arms to wrest freedom, history and tradition were invoked. History, as mentioned in the beginning, is always the source of nationalist thinking.

The economic disparity consequent upon the exploitative Pakistani rule was perhaps the strongest determinant of Bangali nationalism; this was demonstrated during the 1970 general elections campaign. The Awami League circulated a poster with the captivating tittle “Why is Golden Bengal a Graveyard?” This poster made an economic comparison between the two wings of Pakistan in the following way:

Subject

East Pakistan

West Pakistan

Revenue expenditure

Rs.1500 crore

Rs.5000 crore

Development expenditure

Rs.3000 crore

Rs.6000 crore

Foreign aid

20%

80%

Import

25%

75%

Central Govt. jobs

15%

85%

Military

10%

90%

Rice (per maund)

Rs.50

Rs.25

Atta (per maund)

Rs.30

Rs.15

Mustered oil (per seer)

Rs.5

Rs.2.50

Gold (per ounce)

Rs.175

Rs.135

This poster decided the fate of Pakistan and victory of the Awami League. In fact, Bangabandhu’s leadership was crucial in ensuring landslide victory of his party. This election result was the peak of Bangali nationalism, and Bangabandhu emerged as the sole spokesman of this nationalism, and also of the people rallying behind this nationalism.

As per this election result, Bangabandhu and his party were supposed to be in government at the center, but this was not be as Yahya, Bhutto and the Pakistan military conspired to do something otherwise. This denial to the Awami League of its legitimate right was, in reality, a betrayal of the Bangali people; this was a factor that turned the erescendo nationalism into a strident one with Bangabandhu riding the crest. A turning - point for the confused and dithering Bangali people arrived as Bangabandhu delivered his defining 7 March speech. This speech defined the future of the Bangali nation when, in a staccato sentence, it was said, “This time the struggle of ours is for emancipation, this time the struggle is for independence.” Even under an intense pressure of circumstances, Bangabandhu refrained from unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) and xenophobia, and, on the contrary, exhorted his people with such fiery words as, “As we have given blood, we will give more blood and liberate the people of this land, Insha Allah.” Although not a direct declaration for independence, the speech was subsequently considered the most effective declaration for independence. Bangabandhu once again proved his reticence and farsightedness as well. Moreover, through this speech, he proved himself capable of holding a strident nationalism on leash, and that too under a most provocative scenario.

Internationalism: External Ramifications of Bangabandhu’s Nationalism

On 10 January 1972, Bangabandhu gloated over the independence of his country as he said smugly, “Today I have desire of my life fulfilled; Bangladesh is independent.” In fact, in independence, Bangali nationhood culminated in statehood; this was also the crowing glory for the man who had piloted nationalism to such a finale. This speech indicated the ideological orientation of the just – born state and made overtures to the international community for recognition and assistance.

As for the ideological orientation of the state he stated, “Bangladesh will be an ideal state, the basis of which will not be religion; the basis of the state will be democracy, socialism and secularism (at the time of writing the constitution, nationalism was added as the fourth principle). The non–xenophobic nationalism of Bangabandhu was pronounced as he outlined the future of Bangladesh–Pakistan relationship in such succinct words as, “You live in peace. We will have nothing to do with you. Even in death, Bangalis will not part with independence. I wish you well. You accept that we are independent. You remain independent.”

The constitution is the way a state is required to tread in crafting domestic and foreign policies. When Bangabandhu said “friendship for all, malice to none” and “Bangladesh will be Switzerland of Asia”, these became the underlying principles of Bangladesh foreign policy to be enshrined in the relevant constitutional provisions.

On 12 October 1972, the draft constitution was placed in the Constituent Assembly. On this occasion, while explaining the four fundamental principles of the state, Bangabandhu shared his ideas specific to nationalism in the following words.

I would like to say something about this nationalism. There is something that goes with say language, civilization and culture; and this is a feeling. No nation can be great without this feeling, and nationalism cannot grow without this feeling. There are many nations in the world who are nations despite the fact that they are multi – lingual. There are countries in the world, who despite their linguistic and religious affinity, are heterogenous nations; they have failed to be a single nation. Nationalism depends on a feeling.

I am a Bangali, because I have this feeling

In conceiving nationalism along such lines, Bangabandhu appeared to have echoed Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” construct, and that of Rupert Emerson’s “nations in hope.”6 It needs to be mentioned that this feeling was non – xenophobic and inclusive; and transcended to internationalism.

Bangabandhu’s internationalism was, however, prefaced by regionalism – wishing well for peoples nearby home in South Asia. On 6 February 1972, Bangabandhu, on his trip to Kolkata pleaded for South Asian cooperation as he said, “Let there be an end, once and for all, to the sterile policy of confrontation between neighbours. Let us not fritter away our notional resources, but to use them to lift the standard of living of our people.”7 He repeated the same theme in a speech he delivered on 4 March 1974 at Daudkandi of Cumilla.8

At the Commonwealth Summit of Heads of Government held in Ottawa on 2-3 August 1973, Bangabandhu appeared eloquent on world peace as he said

I believe that both the developed and developing countries have an overriding common interest in survival and peace. The arms race remains a threat to mankind. Inherent in it is not only the threat of total destruction, but also colossal wastage of the earth’s resources. Can we not do something to divert these resources so that they may contribute to alleviating human suffering and advancing human welfare?  ... Can we not concert our efforts to contribute to creating an environment of peace in the world?

At the 4th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Non – aligned countries held in Algiers on 6-9 September, Bangabandhu renewed the call for world peace as he said, “I pledge … that Bangladesh will always stand behind all those who are struggling for national liberation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.” Pointing at the global system, he uttered the stunning words in his thunderous voice: “The world is divided between those who are oppressors and those who are oppressed. I am on the side of the oppressed.”10

On 25 September 1974, Bangabandhu addressed the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly in Bangla. That he spoke in Bangla showed his unflinching commitment to his mother language and nationalism associated with this language. In his The Unfinished Memoirs, he wrote about his love of mother language: “Every race loves its mother language. No nation has tolerated any attempt to insult its mother language.”11 It may be mentioned that, back in 1952, he also spoke in Bangla at the Asia – Pacific Regional Peace Conference held in Beijing.12To return to Bangabandhu’s UNGA speech, peace was a theme that was reiterated as he said, “Our total commitment to peace is born of the realization that only an environment of peace would enable us to . . . .  mobilise and concentrate all our energies and resources in combating the scourges of poverty hunger, disease, illiteracy and unemployment.”13

Concluding Words

As a perfect embodiment of Bangali nationalism, Bangabandhu picked up the Rabindra sangeet “Amar Sonar Bangla Ami tomae bhalobashi” (my golden Bengal I love you) as our national anthem. As is obvious, this sangeet eulogises the motherland in glowing terms. Moreover, the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ (victory to Bengal), coined in September 1969, cumulatively described the Bangali nationalism; this was also the war–cry for the freedom fighters during the Liberation War. But as piloted by Bangabandhu, this nationalism was a recipe for people’s welfare both at home and across the world. Once the Bangali nationhood culminated in statehood, Bangali nationalism transcended to the world with its intrinsic ethos of self–assertion by the exploited peoples. With Bangabandhu, therefore, Bangali nationalism broadened itself into internationalism – a perfect liberal nationalism. This was also not a xenophobic and jingoist nationalism abhorred by Rabindranath Thakur. But it must be emphasised that this nationalism, although liberal in ethos, was uncompromising in seeking the goal it sought; and, undeniably, Bangladesh was an outgrowth from this nationalism.

English rendering of Bangabandhu’s speeches/statements is by the author.

Paper presented at the seminar on Bangabandhu’s The Unfinished Memoirs, Organised by Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) on 15 March 2020.

Syed Anwar Husain is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)

  • Dr. Syed Anwar Husain
  • Bangabandhu and Bangali Nationalism
  • Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 38
  • DhakaCourier

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