Attempts to decode the political crisis submerging Bangladesh must first survey its connections to the cultural landscape. The ever-widening gulf between the ruling class and the people under its subjugation stems from the Islamophobia of the current ruling elites, a hangover from the 19th-century Orientalism of the British Raj given a new lease of life by the ‘War on Terror’.
Islamophobia is a neologism, used generally to refer to prejudice against, hatred towards, or theirrational fear of Muslims or of ethnic groups perceived to be Muslim.
Contested Narratives of Bangladesh: Whose Bangla is it anyway?
During my undergraduate studies, I used to rummage through the second-hand academic remainder bookshops that grace the area between London’s British Museum and Tottenham Court Road. One day, I came across a volume on Bangladesh, Basant Chatterjee’s Inside Bangladesh Today – An Eye Witness Account, a pessimistic 1973 travelogue of the country by an Indian journalist. Chatterjee argued that the term ‘Bengali’ etymologically referred to upper class Hindus in nineteenth century Calcutta, those who rose to power and eminence under the political umbrella of British rule and who also acquired a new culture experience from the Britishers. It did not apply to the Hindu community at large and it definitely then did not apply to Muslims.
Post-6th May Massacre I revisited the book, to understand the motivation of the protesters killed, their killers and the complicity of those in the media and civil society who covered it up. Surveying the cultural landscape 42 years on, the pendulum of disenfranchisement in Bangladesh appears to have swung to another extreme. It seems that the people have merely exchanged a Rawalpindi barracked Sandhurst-educated junta, which suppressed the aspirations of its populace, with a Dhaka-cocooned, Delhi-directed and Gopalganj -taffed feudalism, perceived as suppressing its citizen’s religious manifestation, expression and dignity.
Culture of Alienation
On the moon it is hard to breath and remain on a firm footing
Surveying the cultural landscape of modern Bangladesh, the etymology of what it means to be a Bengali has not moved on, and remains caught in a timewarp of 19th century colonial capital-driven Calcutta. Instead of a constellation of vibrant interacting institutions and a creative cultural milieu articulating and refining the views of the majority, we have a derivative suppression of Muslim identity in the cultural space. At the 2013 Dhaka Ekushey book festival, organisers forced a stallholder to switch off an audio Quranic recitation performance, deemed to be offensive. At the recent Dhaka Hay Literary Festival we came to know the same fate met a work of Islamic calligraphic art.
Such Islamophobia in Bangladesh, as argued by Chintaa magazine’s Farhad Mazhar is the pervasive systematic practice of a culture of hatred and ignorance maintained by Bangladeshi cultural elites, through their portrayals of the characters of religious people and the religious, social and cultural practices of Islam. Such evidence is abundant in Bengali dramas, novels, stories and other media and genres. An evil character is almost invariably signified by an image of an Islamic religious personage with his bears and traditional attire of skullcap, long shirt, sarong and loose fitting pyjama bottoms. This video clip from a ‘Game Show’ on Ekushey TV demonstrates the bananity of the culture machine.
This is a constant insult and humiliation, not only to the scholars and students of religious specialisms, but also to the majority of rural people, the urban poor and most self respecting Muslims. This was the basis of Hefazot e Islam’s ninth point of protest last year.
Stop the spread of Islamophobia among the youth through depiction of negative characters on TV plays and movies in religious attire and painting negative stereotypes of the beard, cap and Islamic practices on various media.
This kinds of Islamophobia is co-produced in the corridors of power. From the Prime Minister’s son, Sajib Joy’s pontifications on Muslim female attire, to his mother, Sheikh Hasina, giving the racist and anti-Muslim Frontpage Magazine writer Chris Blackburn, a Friend of Bangladesh award. It rides on bicycles too, back in 2012 London cycling tsar and anti-Muslim press hack Andrew Gilligan was invited for a week-long press junket to Bangladesh.
This fantasy kitsch culture, detached from reality and contemptful, of the soulful intellect of the ordinary person, reached its zenith in the movement of Shahbag in February 2013. There is however a downside to spending as much energy as the Shahbag complex did running away from reality. It generates a period of time in which unreality becomes the norm, when common sense gives away to madness, and darkness grows.
It is a kind of madness where demons come crawling in through the dark, when reason gets high onphensidyl, and an immoral artistic imagination hunts for its next victims. This mania reached a peak during the Dhaka version of ‘The Bonfire of The Vanities’ last year, when the entire establishment, including the Prime Minister, came out in attendance for the Islamic funeral prayers (janazah) of the murdered, self-declared atheist, Rajib Haider.
A new innovation in Bengali nationalist syncretism: a state orchestrated funeral prayer for an atheist young man, never mind a robust investigation of his grizzly murder.
Historical Omissions and Misdirection: an Orwellian Nightmare
This ‘Joy Bangla’ kitsch culture is founded on a series of myths, omissions and misdirection. The primary myth is that history began in 1971. It ignores the historical facts and interconnected reality, that 1971 was a consequence of the 1947 and 1905 partitions, which themselves were a consequence of the Permanent Settlement of 1793 and the failed 1857 War of Liberation.
Muslims of Dhaka offer a congregational prayer of thanks for the 1905 Partition of Bengal, which they viewed as shot in the arm for their struggle for equality and social justice
Even the institutions that make up modern Bangladesh have their origins before 1971, from the Dhaka University, the Supreme Court and even the Bangla Academy. Yet, in Joy Bangla Land everything began in 1971. How many more times will we be forced to cringe at the “But we are a Young Nation” excuse?
The second myth is that people do not have multiple interacting identities but singular deterministic ones. Thus the population in 1971 exchanged their pre 1971 Muslim identity for a post 1971 Bengali one. The reality is that the mass of the population could see no contradiction between their Muslim faith and the call to challenge the local oppression, as exemplified by the actions of the many who fought. The state too was very much interested in (controlling) Islam. It was through the Islamic Foundation Act of 1975, that Mujib established a state organ to disseminate its values and ideals of Islam and carry out activities related to those core principles, thus de facto establishing Islam as the state religion of the new country.
These are just two of countless number of myths and omissions perpetuated by the fantasy fairy tale of ‘Joy Bangla’. The main plot is a Bengali version of a Greek Tragedy, of the father killed by his faithless lover after a battle and eventually avenged by the daughter. The subplots in this epic fantasy include: the creation myth of universal exceptionalism of the Bangla Language Movement; the painting of the secular Ayyub Khan and the alcoholic Yahya Khan as villainous religious fundamentalists; the selective amnesia of Bhutto and the PPP’s critical role in pushing the military crackdown; the myopic blackout of the 1974 famine, which may have claimed more lives than the war; the 1975 one party state of BAKSAL; not to mention flashback depictions of the inclusive Zia and Ershad administrations as shadowy krypto Islamists.
The effects and inconsistencies of the Joy Bangla fantasy eventually generates an Orwellian nightmare, as reality is constantly being suppressed to conform with delusion. The kneejerk reaction to the recent 1971 research of Sarmila Bose and the hounding of a history lecturer for including her Dead Reckoningon a reading list for undergraduate historians at a public university was a case in point. This hysteria even spread to elite art circles of Dhaka with the self-censorship by the literary press of Neamat Islam’s critically-acclaimed novel of the 1974 famine, ‘The Black Coat’.
Entrenched in a redundant, modernist view of history, it would not be a cliché to quote a gender-empowered truth from George Orwell’s 1984 here, “She who controls the past controls the future. She who controls the present controls the past.”
AL-al o Dalal: Hasina’s Willing Executioners
For an elite mythology to be effective, a priesthood is needed to deliver and execute its edicts. Enter the upper middle class cadre officers of the Joy Bangla Brigade, willing to turn a blind eye to an increasingly brutal regime in exchange for career opportunities and a Bangladesh rid of all cultural impurities. Some, like Zafar Iqbal andTahmima Anam have effectively become PR spokespeople for the regime in their pursuits of cultural purity. Others, still in the seminary of dark arts, self-censor massacre with excuses, deny the free speech they proclaim to those they disagree with, and take on the role of authority’s batmen and women as their fellow humans are slaughtered. We cringe at the pantomime of the self-proclaimed progressives, a silent dance of ever-increasing logical contortion, of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is a crying shame that so many self-proclaimed liberals in Bangladesh hold their neighbours lives up to liberal values, yet conveniently forget to scrutinise their own.
As this Bangla Winter demands, we re-appraise the values of Language and Liberation with a sobriety aroused by the brutal reality of Bengali hypernationalism that is still fresh in our minds. Three facts are worth noting here. Firstly, that the Bengali East Pakistanis were not unique in challenging Urdu/Hindiupon decolonisation. Secondly, as Anandita Ghosh’s work on the artificial construction of the Bengali language in the 19th century suggests, the expulsion of Arabic and Persian from the language during this period, for the sake of a ‘chaste’ Bengal, can be seen to underlie the cultural eliminationist Islamophobia of the Joy Bangla Brigades, wittingly and unwittingly. Thirdly, the teleological view of history at the core of Bengali Nationalism, as argued by Srinath Raghavan, belies multiple options available to regional, international and subnational actors at various decision points. Liberating Bangladesh from the narrow confines of being an end point of history is a powerful motivator to reform.
Unlike European Islamophobias, which tend to be essentially anti-immigrant, the Islamophobia expressed in Shahbag and by the ruling elites is more insidious. It is an eliminationist form of Islamophobia, which has been developed over the years through a cultural cascade of narrow, virulent and exclusive nationalism. This is witnessed by: the continuing mistreatment and marginalisation of the new Muslim arrivals from India during the 1947 Partition; the shameful attitude towards Burmese Rohingya refugees; and the eliminationist demands of the Shahbag movement to ban Islamic expressions and symbols from the public and political spheres.
Calendrical Coloniality: From Alpha to Omega
Bangladesh’s ruling elites like their dates, they are the national opiates. Alpha is denoted by Ekushey, the 21st of February, which selectively commemorates police firings on Language Movement protesters in 1952. Omega is known as Victory Day, the 16th December, and marks the end of history, our Victory Day, the surrender of the Pakistani junta to the Indian Army in 1971, a few weeks after they joined in officially and nine months after the juntas ultra violent crackdown sparked exodus, insurrection, guerilla warfare and heartless Cold War powerplay.
So roll on, Ekushey (21st), International Mother Language Day, but let us ignore the 22nd February 2013, when protesters against Joy Bangla’s finest ‘satirists’ were fired upon after Friday congregational prayers. On that fateful day, the Baitul Mukarram Mosque resembled the aftermath of a security raid by Indian forces in occupied Kashmir rather than the national mosque of Bangladesh. One Britisheyewitness recounted – in confidence as he runs a charity in Bangladesh – that before those prayers at the Baitul Mukarram mosque were complete, security forces stormed in and started shooting indiscriminately at worshippers as they sat praying, waiting for the final salaam (call to peace) of the Imam. February is now not so simple anymore from the point of view of national calendrical coloniality: it is not just the day after the 21st, the 22nd (Baishey), that bites, but the week after, on the 28th (Athaishey), as the state ruthlessly suppressed nationwide protests at the conviction of aninnocent man.
Silence over Satkhira
This detachment from reality and the logical conclusion of this eliminationist Islamophobia came to prominence in the recent 2013 Victory Day celebration. While the Joy Bangla kitsch culture machine and its Dalals were putting on a Nuremberganj rally that would make a North Korean dictatorship proud. Perhaps the young ruler in Pyongyang will commission Shahidul Alam to take some pictures for him, too some day.
With the Prime Minister too afraid to put on a military parade, the corporate media obliged
Within a few days of those celebrations, a scorched earth attack was being carried out in Satkhira, a district in the south west of Bangladesh that regularly returns MPs from the government’s avowed nemesis, Jamaat e Islami, to power. In coastal Satkhira, hugging the Indian border, and perhaps better-known to the climate change community for its proliferation of salinity case studies, we witnessed a historical reenactment of the Pakistani junta’s crackdown, an Operation Searchlight ‘2.0’. However, this time the troops were from the Bangladeshi joint security forces, with an alleged assist from the Indian Army. As ever, there was a performance from the legendary human rights make-up artistSultana Kamal, director of the increasingly incredulous and ever-unaccountable Ain o Salish Kendra.
Harrowing reports came out of Satkhira following the operation of the 16th to 19th of December 2013, from the indiscriminate hunting of all adult males, to the looting and destruction of homes in front of the children and women folk they left behind. Meanwhile, in Dhaka, there was no hue or cry and the show went on, with the leader of the main opposition placed under virtual house arrest and a constitutional coup d’etat carried out under the guise of a farcical election.
Right on cue, when the international community started raising concerns of the worrying democracy deficit in Bangladesh, the Dalals crawled out of the woodwork again, clutching the fictional narrative of Joy Bangla and singing the same song of mission civilisatrice. Taking their cue from the ‘thin red line’ of 19th century Imperial Orientalism, we saw Anam Junior, BRACademic Nayma Qayum and neoconDaniel Greenfield carrying on the narrative, with a cacophony of factual inaccuracies: of Muslim barbarians at the gate, and the heroic role of the Awami League ‘gatekeeping’ government in combatting them. It appears that in our 21st century, it is not patriotism, but the ‘war on terror’, that is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Strange Fruits on Victory Day
As I settled down in the Christmas break, to researching the brutality in Satkhira and adjoining regions, I encountered something that resonated deep inside me that summed up the brutal nightmare engulfing Bangladesh. It was a story reported in the Daily Inquilab, that due to security forces brutality, the call to prayer at the Jamia mosque had been suspended as there were no men left to offer the congregational prayer.
The story cut into my own family history. Nearly 750 years ago, I had ancestors who fled the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, crossing the Indian subcontinent to unsettled lands in the Surma valley in order to practice their religion in peace. As reward for public service, they were granted land containing a mixture of jungle and marsh. The first thing they did was to establish a mosque, and right beside the mosque they planted a date palm, replicating the act of earlier ancestors who planted the date palm in Central Asia as they settled upon lands in the wake of expansions during the Umayyad Caliphate.
Throughout the centuries, as in all the other villages and settlements in Bangladesh, the call to prayers at the mosque has continued and the syrup of the date palm is tapped every winter for its sugary molasses. This sweet harvest continues to this day, throughout the villages and mufassil towns that constitute Bangladesh. The date palm and the adhan are permanent threads of this fabric, as permanent and regular as the life-giving monsoon rains and pulsating rivers. A story, narrative and experience which is documented in Richard Eaton’s,‘The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204 – 1760.’
As I reflected on our situation, I listened to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, and my mind was moved to the devastation of Satkhira and adjoining regions. I could only imagine the scene, and that instead of the usual clay jars hanging from the date palms to collect the sap, strange fruits hung.
Courtesy of the Islamophobic, ‘Joy Bangla!’ Kitsch Culture Machine.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop