ENVIRONMENT: Lessons from Bengal —Saleem H Ali
It was in Bengal that the British first established their foothold through the East India Company. Yet the resistance to British rule in its various forms also had its epicentre in Bengal
The flight from Karachi to Dhaka spans the heartland of South Asia and gives travellers an appreciation for the complexity of Partition. So many linguistic and ethnic divides had to be traversed to formulate national identities for countries that now exist in the area. Nearly a fourth of the world’s population resides here.
Identities in any geographic context are inherently synthetic and evolving and the region that most acutely depicts such dynamism on the subcontinent is Bengal.
This is the land where the mightiest rivers of the subcontinent, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, converge to form the world’s largest delta. The fertile planes of the delta lured scores of peasants to the region over the centuries, now making it the most densely populated place on earth. Bengalis never had an exclusive empire of their own but they contributed their talents to whoever ruled them with great generosity of spirit. While tenaciously guarding their language, Bengalis were willing to embrace other communities and “outsiders”.
It was in Bengal that the British first established their foothold through the East India Company. Yet the resistance to British rule in its various forms also had its epicentre in Bengal. The Muslim League, which now prides itself as the vanguard of Punjabi politics in Pakistan, was also founded in Dhaka in 1906. At the same time avowedly anti-religion communists also find a home in Western Bengal. Such is the diversity of Bengali society.
This land has also produced numerous notable scholars and artists that have made Bangladesh proud, and at one time Pakistan could also lay some claim to their fame. Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus, or singers like Runa Laila or film icon Shabnam.
Pakistanis often encounter a peculiar mix of nostalgia and relief when they visit Bangladesh. There is a bittersweet affection that visitors feel as if being reunited with an estranged sibling. On the one hand, the clogged traffic of Dhaka, the cyclone-ridden hinterlands and the levels of poverty that far exceed those in Pakistan make us feel a bit relieved that we do not have to “deal” with this mess anymore. On the other, we cannot help but imagine what a devoted and talented citizenry we have lost.
Bengali nationalism is still very strong and memorials to the “war of liberation” are found all around the capital. There are some indelible impressions of the country’s Pakistani lineage as well, such as the parliament building in Dhaka whose construction started during the Ayub Khan era. Designed by the famed Jewish-American architect, Louis Kahn, the building is emblematic of the kind of grand urban planning that Ayub Khan endorsed in the construction of Islamabad as well.
During my visit to Dhaka, I frequently heard about the Bangladeshi story about the brutality of the 1971 war. There is an entire museum devoted to this period with some very graphic details of how civilians were affected by this tragic period in our history. At the campus of Dhaka University is a monument to the struggle for Bengali language, commemorating a 1952 shootout with the police who were trying to enforce Urdu. Several students were killed in this clash. The United Nations recognises February 21, the day of that tragedy, as the international day of language.
All Bengalis that I spoke to were quite adamant in ascribing blame for the break-up to a perceived elitism on the West Pakistani side. They were also quite concerned about the current government in Pakistan because the People’s Party is often associated with the break-up of the country. “Why did Mr Bhutto not let Mujibur Rahman become the prime minister when he had a majority of the seats?” This was a frequent refrain among the intellectuals around the country.
Historians can argue ad infinitum about the causes of the break-up of the country. Perhaps it was inevitable given the geographic and cultural divide; perhaps it was galvanised by Indian intervention. Whatever the confluence of circumstances, it was a tragic event.
As exemplified by the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there is a civilised and peaceful way to undertake such deliberate nationalism. The Bengalis also recognised their own failings in nation-building after independence and some scholars were quick to point out that Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, was brutally assassinated by his own people only four years after independence.
Despite strong resentment towards Pakistan, what was also very refreshing to see in Bangladesh was the willingness of the people to still embrace visitors from the West at a human level. There was a palpable political maturity in the population that did not use the ill-fated actions of a few politicians to build hatred towards Pakistan. “We still like to champion the Pakistani cricket team in matches against India,” one of our drivers said with a broad smile.
Tenuous democracy has returned to both Pakistan and Bangladesh in the last year. Old political families still control the governments in both countries. The President of Pakistan is the son-in-law of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is the daughter of the late Mujibur Rahman — two political rivals who were both tragically killed in their own divided lands. Let us hope that their next generations will learn from the unfortunate fate of their forefathers.
Pakistan and Bangladesh are now on friendly terms, even though the new Bangladeshi government clearly has far greater proclivity towards India. The Pakistan-Bangladesh friendship can perhaps be reinforced if there is a more formal recognition on both sides of the excesses committed.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net