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Bangladesh: Birth of a 20th century nation state

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Loosely speaking, Bengal has been an ethnic entity for many centuries. Mostly inhabited by the 'early Bengalees', it could be passed off in the past as the land of a South Asian ethnic unit speaking Bangla. Since they flourished in today's greater Bengal, and finally picked Bangla after traversing 'Magdhi' and 'Eastern Prakrit', Bangla became their mother tongue. But the language and the nation had to pass through yet another thousand years until the 20th century to be called a nation-state, an ethno-political identity. Few countries are born a nation-state. This identity has to be achieved through different spasms of history. Bangladesh has never dithered, as it found itself being sucked into different turbulent periods in phases. History witnessed the Bengalee land's first, and of course, the last, transformation into a nation-state identity in the last century. It came in the form of a 9-month War of Liberation fought against the forces hostile to the concept of the Bengalees being recognised as a nation-state.

To speak plainly, the independence war of 1971 was fought not so much for gaining freedom from exploitation and oppression, as it was for the urge to be known as a territory of Bangla-speaking nation. The British colonial forces had left the pre-partition India in 1947. The neo-colonial Pakistan was about to fall apart from the erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971. Today's Bangladesh has been witness to these historical events as it prepared to enter the club of nation states.

Bangladesh was fortunate enough to be a homogeneous nation. This national feature had driven it to pick its nationalistic identity. In fact, a nation state inspired by nationalism could be a great force helping it win over the most formidable of enemies. Bangladesh found in 1971 its adversary to be a brutal force letting loose a reign of terror. It showed its ugly face on the very first day of March in that year, the day when President Yahya Khan postponed the coming national assembly session. The motive of this announcement was clear: preventing the majority party Awami League in the national election from attending the opening assembly session. The spell of both a stifling panic and spontaneous protest broke loose. Thus the Pakistani autocratic forces stood squarely against the Begalees; this time they seemed resolute and unconquerable. In the annals of the Bengalee resistance history in the then East Pakistan, March1971will go down in history as the most crucial of the months.

 The whole month witnessed nationally critical events one after another. Those included intermittent hartals, strikes, picketing, and other forms of protests. In the meantime, the student leaders hoisted the impromptu flag of Bangladesh at a largely attended public rally at Paltan Maidan on March 3. The flag was hoisted by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was present at the meeting flanked by the four student leaders ASM Abdur Rab, Shahjahan Siraj, Abdul Quddus Makhan, and Nure Alam Siddiqui.

Earlier, the four student leaders jointly raised the flag on the Dhaka University campus in the morning. Until then, the 'separate state' of Bangladesh had been an intangible reality. On March 3, 1971, it gained the status of tangibility. The reality of Bangladesh or Bengal became more concrete in the historic 7th March speech by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Racecourse Ground. Before coming to the declaration of independence, Sheikh Mujib narrated the background of the decision, especially the dillydallying technique of the rulers in handing over power to the newly elected Bengalee dominant parliament. It was from this venue that Sheikh Mujib declared the indefinite Non-cooperation Movement. The whole Bangladesh joined the movement spontaneously; and it continued until the evening of March 24, the following night being one of the darkest ones in the history of Bangladesh. The night of 25th March coincided with Pakistan army's letting loose one of the barbarous genocides on the sleeping people of Dhaka. It later spread to the other parts of the occupied Bengal.

It's also worth noting that Awami League won the Pakistan National Assembly election with a landslide victory on December 7, 1970, to the great discomfiture of Pakistan's western wing leaders and the country's army.

Many call Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's 7th March speech the magna carta of the nation's Bengalees. Although the leader dwelt at length on the grim developments in Pakistan at that time, Sheikh Mujib also looked beyond the confines of time. As a great leader he could foresee clearly what had awaited the East Pakistani Bengalees at the hands of the then ruling clique. Referring to the nonstop protests, Mujib found it wise to roar, "The struggle this time is for freedom, struggle this time is for independence."

 During nearly the whole month of March `71, a section of socio-political ideologues belonging to both the nationalistic and left camps remained busy arguing. Their point of discourse was whether there were alternatives to the 'full independence' of Bangladesh. The nationalists were of the view of no compromise on the issue. As they argued, in order to achieve the goal of living in a nation state, political freedom had no parallel. This independence doesn't assert a people's right to their land only. Apart from a territory, it ensures them the privilege of assimilating with the ethnic, social and cultural identities of a particular race. These informal debates remained limited to indoor sittings. Despite this, there were few chances of belittling them. In a short time, they raised a considerable following who believed in their logic. The activists opposed to them remain satisfied with mere freedom from bondage. They have little consideration for homogeneity. What they looked for was simply freedom for large communities within a border. They may not comprise a people with common roots.

In the heady days of March, when Bengalee nationalism was the leitmotif of every politically conscious person's thought, too emphasis on these anti-nationalistic leanings ran the risk of inviting hazards. Many otherwise rationally disposed intellectuals were seen being termed dogmatic leftists --- opposed to emotion-charged nationalistic forces. There is a dichotomy. The politicians who emerged in Bengal in the period from the late forties to the 1960s were schooled in pure Bengalee nationalism. Sheikh Mujib was one of them. On the other hand, the younger left leaning activists centring round the 1952 Language Movement had a different political mindset. A large portion of them grew in an ambience of liberal humanism; it's them who were reported to have sought to lead the Language Movement to a broader political movement. Despite being in a short imprisonment, Sheikh Mujib was freed in 1948. And he actively took part in the first Language Movement in that year after Mohammad Ali Jinnah's assertion that Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan. The young Mujib was imprisoned again. Had the stalwarts of secular nationalistic forces not entered the Language Movement at the early stage, the history of the Movement would have been different. So would East Bengal's political course.

The disagreement between the proponents of a nation state and a simple nationalistic state later became overlapped. In Bangladesh, they couldn't be separated. In course of history, the pro-nation state politics became dominant. To the disillusionment of many, the left-wing nationalistic forces eventually found few beside them.


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