Bangladesh

Erasing memory to deal with loss – Pakistan, Bangladesh and India

1 February 2012

An op-ed that was published in The Hindu on December 16, 2011.

For Pakistan, the worst fallout of the 1971 debacle was excessive militarism resulting from the deep insecurity of the state.

Forty years ago, South Asia underwent another traumatic experience with the Bengali separatist movement in East Pakistan, the India-Pakistan war and the eventual creation of Bangladesh. South Asians are a strange lot. In 1947, the political elites refused to accommodate each other and a hurried, bloody Partition was imposed on millions. Instead of working to undo the harmful effects of 1947, India and Pakistan found themselves entangled in yet another battle. Again this time it was the intransigence of West Pakistani elites to accede to the Bengali demand for autonomy, and India’s short-sighted decision to momentarily ‘benefit’ from its neighbour-enemy’s woes. The jury is still out on whether 1947, and 1971, were avoidable or at least could have been handled in a manner that involved less suffering, and bloodshed.

Lessons for three countries: (Left) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi<br />
with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and (right) Indira<br />
Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji<br />
camp, Assam, in June 1971. Photos: AP, The Hindu Photo Library
Lessons for three countries: (Left) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and (right) Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971. Photos: AP, The Hindu Photo Library
Tailor-made histories

What has however happened is that three nation states (some say state-nations) now exist with three standing armies, nationalist discourses, honour and of course tailor-made histories.

In Pakistan, a child grows up learning that it was an Indian conspiracy, woven through the Hindu teachers of “East Pakistan” that led to the separatism of the Bangladeshis. For instance, here is a passage from a secondary school textbook: “There were a large number of Hindus in East Pakistan. They had never really accepted Pakistan. A large number of them were teachers in schools and colleges. They continued creating a negative impression among the students. No importance was attached to explaining the ideology of Pakistan to the younger generation. The Hindus sent a substantial part of their earnings to Bharat, thus adversely affecting the economy of the province.” (more…)

That easy intimacy

15 October 2011
By Raza Rumi
A Pakistani re-discovers Bangladesh.
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Image: Carey L Biron

As a Pakistani, there is a part of you that reacts instantly to the word Bangladesh: guilt, remorse or, in some cases, nostalgia can suddenly take over. I am from the generation that was spared the horrors of Pakistan Army actions, of information blackouts on the massacre of Bengalis in the name of Pakistani nationalism. But what does it mean to be half a Pakistani, without East Bengal – especially when you know a bit of history and have managed to see through the falsities of the textbooks? It means nothing or it means a lot; it depends on which way you want to look at the other half, now a proud, vibrant country.

Working in international development is what took me to Bangladesh for the first time, nearly five years ago. Prior to that, I had been familiar with the country’s mythical music, rich poetry and tales of its golden sunsets and singing rivers, but had never touched its soil. Bengal’s magic is embedded in the Subcontinental imagination, and these images and literary references long shaped my view of the country. However, my romantic notions were severely jolted when I arrived in Dhaka – at first glance, an overcrowded concrete jungle typically lacking in urban planning. More of the same, I concluded: big cities, despite their buzz, can let you down.

Still, my disappointment did not last, as I soon undertook to seek out the city’s various corners, its hidden spaces of beauty and comfort; above all, what I found was an engaged citizenry marching on. Discovering the University of Dhaka and its surroundings came as a much-needed connection, though older parts of Dhaka are also quite mesmerising. The gulmohar (or krishnachura) trees, almost on fire, greet a visitor on nearly every street, as does a tremendous volume of rickshaws.

Then there is the Shaheed Minar, the monument marking Bengali resistance founded on linguistic identity. The physical monument is modern, and by itself is not particularly exciting. However, its significance is truly monumental, marking as it does Bengali nationalism from 1948 to 1971 under the misrule of West Pakistan elites. Given movements for ethnic, linguistic and provincial identities ongoing in today’s Pakistan, the Shaheed Minar is a powerful reminder of how centralised rule and marginalisation of cultural identities lead to festering problems.

A colleague who took me to see these sites was most polite with me. He was fervently nationalistic but chose his words carefully – at least until I asked him to drop the formalities and just say what he wanted. Then the floodgates opened, and out came his personal memories and renditions from Bengali oral histories. I even found myself apologising, though I then laughed at myself for such a delusional gesture – my few words of apology meant nothing against the horrors of Bengali suffering. Luckily, the charms of the place and the krishnachura trees came to my rescue. And so, I brushed the dark side of our shared histories under the proverbial carpet, just the way that Pakistan has done. For many people in Pakistan, 1971 is today an invisible event, a deliberately ignored footnote in our collective memory, despite being one that should remain understood as a moment of reckoning for the entire country. After all, majority provinces seldom secede; it is usually the other way around. (more…)

Bauls of Bengal

13 April 2009

Found this translation and music video here

The famous Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore was influenced by Bauls. He translated the following Baul verse into English in his book The Religion of Man. The quote highlights the mystic Sufi focus on celestial love:

Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?
He is lost to me and I seek him wandering from land to land.

I am listless for that moonrise of beauty,

which is to light my life,
which I long to see in the fulness of vision
in gladness of heart.

1971: the forgotten silence

20 December 2008

The NEWS: Friday, December 19, 2008

by Raza Rumi

This week marks the 37th anniversary of the tragic events of 1971 that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. This time the sixteenth day of that deadly December invited little attention in the mainstream media as the new Pakistan struggles to manage the multiple crises of statehood, governance and cohesion.

Whether we like it or not, history and its bitter truths have to be confronted. When the united Punjab was being ruled by the Unionists and the Congress and the NWFP had a chief minister from the congress-Khudai Khidmatgar alliance, and almost all the custodians of South Asian puritanical Islam were opposed to Pakistan, the peasantry and the intelligentsia of East Bengal were spearheading a movement for Pakistan. There were indeed economic reasons, but there was an unchallengeable mass support for and belief in Pakistan. What happened after 1947 is well known; and within two decades or so, those who wanted Pakistan in the first place were subjected to state excesses and brutal treatment by the groups and elites that had actually little commitment to Pakistan or its idea. Nothing could be more ironical.

It is of little significance to remember the exact chronology of events or to indulge in a blame-game. The truth is that we as a state and society lost our majority province after pushing its people into a situation where independence through a War of Liberation was the only choice. India, of course, played a huge role in transacting this deal, but the West Pakistani elites had prepared the ground, sown the seeds of mistrust to a great degree. Thus the Pakistan created by its founding members was no more in 1971, further subdividing the Muslims of the subcontinent. A bitter lesson of history was in the making. If only, we were capable of paying heed to it. (more…)

History’s ghetto – (Geneva Camp, Dhaka)

9 October 2008

My recent piece for the The Friday Times – about the bitterness and destitution in a Dhaka camp for Biharis

It was almost by accident that I visited the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Dhaka – one of the largest settlements housing thousands of stranded Biharis in Bangladesh. On my last visit to Dhaka, my guide Ronny offered the possibility of getting the best bihari kebabs in town. He told me that his house was near the place and I could meet him somewhere close.

This was an extraordinary afternoon when the receding sun was converting the sky into a field of unimaginable colours that artists can only aspire to create through their limited palettes. Dhaka, the noisy, overcrowded megapolis can be enchanting at times, especially during late springtime when the Krishnochura trees (the Flame of the Forest) bloom all over with their fiery flowers. I almost cancelled the trip thinking that a walk in the park might be a better alternative to the usual South Asian gluttony. Quite soon, I arrived at the meeting point having rationalised my proclivity for indulgence.

Little did I know that the meeting point was nowhere but at the doorstep of Dhaka’s underbelly, the easy to ignore Bihari camp. Not until I had reached there had I realised how the wounds of 1971 were festering for hundreds and thousands of men, women and children who have waited for all these years to attain identity and citizenship of Pakistan. As if it were a curse, the Pakistani state soon forgot about their existence as its ethnic politics dominated the policy commitments of Bhutto. And for the Bangladeshis these were the “traitors” who continued to wave Pakistani flags when the vast majority of East Pakistanis revolted against the excesses and the might of Pakistan army following the infamous and mischievous army action of 1971.

In a few minutes I had all but forgotten about the famous Mustaqeem kebabs and parathas and forced Ronny to take me inside the camp. Very soon I realised I did not need any Bangla-speaking guide as the ghetto was Urdu speaking, and portraits of Pakistani leaders and flags could still be spotted despite the passage of three and a half decades. Ronny knew the locals and found his younger friends, child workers and idle youth who took charge of our little tour.

Shamed by guilt and excited by the real experience, I wandered the smelly, open-drained and dark streets of the ghetto. I have frequented other slums but this one was special for it reeked of the contemporary elite politics, bloodshed and cold inhumanity that Pakistanis are shy of confronting. The living conditions would put any half-concerned South Asian to shame. The homes for most of the families comprised tiny little rooms, with all the belongings and large families concentrated in the inner space. No proper toilets and water supply – as if civilization had taken a backseat here. (more…)

Through a screen, darkly

18 September 2008

Pakistani cable operators, following the cyclical escalation of imagined hatreds, discontinued the transmission of Indian satellite channels in 2002. The absence of Indian TV soaps, fodder for an entertainment hungry populace, was widely mourned. Once, not long ago, the axiomatic edge of Pakistan’s TV serials was widely acknowledged both in Pakistan and in India. No longer. This is the age of the market, of selling dreams and drama, of converting the stereotype into a saleable commodity and citing it on the cultural stock exchange.

The popularity of Hindi language soaps is not limited to Pakistan. I have seen squatters in Dhaka’s decrepit Bihari camp, Bangladesh’s largest no man’s land, glued to their colour TV sets. Here, Biharis lack citizenship; they are technically Pakistani, having opted for the Land of the Pure at the cessation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Pakistan doesn’t want them and so they continue to live in limbo. Yet, Star Plus is still beamed 24/7 into their tiny, cramped, leaking shacks. Indian soaps have made inroads even into Afghanistan, that newly liberated project of global corporate interests. They were wildly popular until the Afghan government banned them as inimical to Afghani values.

The soaring audience of Star Plus and Zee TV serials, with their in-your-face parivar mantras, is known all too well. The hype is also a constructed story of success and market acquisition. On the face of it, the commodification of entertainment is a global phenomenon. So what’s the problem, one might ask, given that most of us post-colonial wannabes in South Asia want to integrate into the global economy and its uniform cultural variants? Junk food, designer brands, pop music and the corporate media ethos are all “signs of progress.” (more…)

Anandi Boiragi – the eclectic painter and an urban Baul

4 September 2008

With legendary artist S.M. Sultan as his mentor, Anadi Kumar Boiragi from Jessore attended Khulna Art College in the late ’80s, before enrolling at the Oriental Department at Charukala in Dhaka to further his artistic education. (more…)

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