Dinendra Kumar Roy, famous author of Pallichitra, a detailed portrait of villages in the early 20th century Bengal, would have been much hurt seeing the plight of these ancient dwelling places in Bangladesh of today. The villages in Bengal were proverbially known for their easy-going life, social harmony and the overall peace. Poet Rabindranath Tagore, many other authors and even British colonial officials had the similar opinion about the villages in Bengal.
In his role as a zemindar, Tagore toured many remote areas of today's Bangladesh --- especially those close to the mighty Padma River. A keen observer, he saw extensively the generally squalid lives of his 'subjects'. In his letters written from his famous boat to his niece in Kolkata, the poet drew vivid pictures of the poverty-stricken farmers. The plight of these illiterate rural people would make him feel sad whenever he visited their dwellings, and when they came to his boat to seek relief from taxes or lodge complaints. The crux of these scenarios is Tagore's discovery of an idyllic Bengal in its people and nature despite the pervasive poverty. In his immortal song written during that time, the song which later became the national anthem of Bangladesh, he called the land Sonar Bangla, the Golden Bengal.
It turns out to be a futile exercise to discover the innocence of past Bengal in today's Bangladesh. Tagore, Denendra Kumar Roy, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been in love with rural Bengal and its people. Throughout their lives they proved themselves tireless in exploring both the beauty and strength of the Bengal villages. There had been few leaders in Bangladesh who could rival Bangabandhu in knowing its rural realities to the extent to which he did.
The country and its grateful inhabitants did not disappoint its admirers. They have never failed to judge who their friends were. It was necessary to turn to the genuine people in times of crises. To their misfortune, the people have not always found true well-wishers during chaotic times. In those periods, the marginalised become baffled not finding people in expected numbers beside them. With the passage of time, Bangladesh has lately reached such a critical phase.
In the 1960s, period of subjugation, protests and turbulence and the fight for freedom visited the land one after another. People stood up to adversities in unison. The social fabric was rock-solid. Those days of camaraderie, cutting across socio-religious divides, now seem to have been passed in a different Bangladesh.
In the early 21st century, the country's villages once based on pure love and spirituality remain torn by naked segregation and xenophobic frenzy. According to the pragmatic and wiser segments of the people, Bangladesh villages may have made a lurch for the extreme form of social intolerance.
In the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, it was pervasive poverty and destitution that distinguished Bangladesh. At places, the charm of natural beauty would pale compared to these scourges. In the period beginning from the 1970s, after Bangladesh emerged as an independent country, the rural areas began undergoing rapid socio-economic changes. It kept gaining strength with the entry of modern facilities in daily chores as well as introduction of faster communication.
Rabindranath Tagore and Dinendra Kumar Roy were moved by the people's innocence. Not that Bengalees during their times were completely free of rancour, hostilities or other cruelties. Encroachments on others' croplands, fierce fight over possession of mid-river charlands or revenge-killings were part of life.
Despite the social might of the wealthy Hindu community, and the often-oppressive rules of average zemindars, villages in those days were by and large free of communal tensions. The Muslims, the major segments of the people, and the Hindus would hardly feel it difficult to live as neighbours. Due to the great difference between the basic natures of monotheistic Islam and pagan Hinduism, communal hitches would be found flaring up occasionally. Bloody communal animosities had been largely unknown until the 1947 partition of the Sub-continent. It was only after the emergence of the two new maps of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan that communal profiling began plaguing today's Bangladesh. The developments took an ugly turn in the whole Sub-continent with the mass exoduses of both Muslims and Hindus from both the freshly independent states. Appallingly, these migrations accompanied bouts of communal atrocities on both sides. To the misfortune of Tagore's tranquil Sonar Bangla, the land was also not spared of communal hostilities.
The bad blood that once was created between the two dominant religious communities had eventually faded away. The social integrity in terms communal bond was strengthened in the independent and sovereign Bangladesh. But by that time the agents of intractable social schism had insidiously made considerable inroads into the country's rural expanses. The days of harmonious and peaceful living of the two dominant communities appeared to be vanishing fast. It took no time for mistrust and suspicion to reign supreme in the broader rural society. As time wore on, the days of celebrating events together and standing by each other when calamities struck seemed foolish exercise in fancifulness.
The rapid way grim realities are unfolding in the country's villages these days, the future appears to be filled with the invisible monsters of hatred and hostilities. Along with many other catalysts, zealotry and insurmountable ignorance are here playing their parts ominously. Social analysts suspect ulterior motives to be at play in the recent hate attacks on particular sections of the rural people. Keeping these attacks on, the vested interests bide time. They know it well at one time people reach the point of breakdown after enduring series of ordeals. Disillusionment creeps in. Feeling segregated, exhausted and completely broken, many people of the soil find themselves to be aliens here. These hapless humans thus become vulnerable to even petty threats and adversities. Then the opportune moment to overpower them arrives. They lose the battle both physically and morally.
Bangladesh has never gone through a terrible phase of this type. The haunting nature of the fear of being segregated and made to stand out invites nightmares of all horrific proportions.
Development sprees, however, go on unhindered; and happy farmers sport broad smiles after a good harvest. Village women gossip on their courtyards while engaged in income-generating handiwork. The atmosphere exudes happiness of sorts.
But certain sections of the people, once their fellow beings, are conspicuous by their absence. This is a flawed spectacle. This does not go with the age-old Bengal, or Sonar Bangla of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore.