In the twentieth century, nationalism played a very effective role in liberating countries from colonialism. However, the nature of nationalism differed from one country to another. Some states experienced territorial nationalism, while others were unified by linguistic bonds and yet others by religion. In all cases the role of nationalism was to unite different segments of society into one, irrespective of caste, creed or class. Generally nationalism began with romantic idealism but changed its character when independence was achieved.
At this stage, it was appropriated and monopolized by the ruling classes and excluded the workers, peasants, women, and minorities who had made sacrifices during the course of the freedom struggle. In the words of Ranabir Samaddar, "In all nationalist construction of regime of power, the peasant is mobilized only to be demobilized soon after."The book under review talks about the dilemma of the intellectuals of Bangladesh in constructing history under the influence of nationalism. The first question they face is, from where should they start? The significant moments in their history are 1905 when Bengal was divided by the British provoking a very powerful movement by the Bengali nationalists to undo it. The British government was forced to annul the partition in 1911.
However, the situation changed in 1947, when Bengal was divided on religious basis and the Congress rejected the idea of an independent Bengal. Therefore, 1947 was the point in history when East Bengal became East Pakistan and aligned itself with West Pakistan on the basis of religion. Then came 1971, when Bangladesh came into existence denying Muslim nationalism and projecting linguistic sentiments to unite people under this ideology and to fight against Pakistan.
It was decided to make 1971 as a starting point of the new history. This raises the question: how then should Bangladesh nationalism be defined? If language becomes the basis of nationhood, how should West Bengal, which is now a part of India, be treated? To extricate themselves from this paradox, the historians chose to deny Bengali nationalism and instead promote Bangladeshi nationalism. This has consequently brought back religion as an element in the construction of Bengali national identity.
Samaddar explains this phenomenon in these words: "The imperative of nationalism is that the whole course must be straightened, the rough edge must be smoothened, the disturbing zones silenced, and a monolith whole of Muslim history in Bengal be put into account so that the nation-making agenda in Bangladesh receives genealogical legitimacy."
Analyzing the process of construction of a new history after the war of liberation in 1971, Samaddar points out how myth-making attempts have been made to project the groups in power and exclude others from the process. The list of exclusion is very long. There is no place for Maulana Akram Khan, Abul Qasim Fazl Haq, and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy as they were the products of pre-Partition politics and contributed nothing to Bangladesh. Even Maulana Bhashani was pushed outside the pail of the new history and his role marginalized. Instead, Mukti Bahini became the main force that fought bravely against the Pakistan army and successfully liberated the country.Atrocities and genocide of the Pakistan army emerged as the second element in mobilizing the people emotionally in order to convince them that freedom was not cheap and people paid a heavy price for it. Mujib emerges as the great leader who led his people through all ups and downs. Mujib and his party took full advantage of the situation to assume total power. Soon the sacrifices and atrocities were forgotten and the people were denied participation in the power structure.
Rakshi Bahini, a praetorian force, was used to silence the opposition. The leftist politicians were marginalized, bureaucracy became dominant, and the personality cult of Mujib was established. To keep the nation united, violence was permitted. Thus ended the era of romantic nationalism and the hope of the people for a better future collapsed.
What was the result of this new construction of history? When the role of the army in the liberation of the country was glorified and the sacrifices of the workers, peasants, women and other civilian institutions was ignored, the armed forces seized political power and ousted the politicians from the governance of the country. Military rule not only eliminated the radical elements but also rehabilitated those military officers who had served in the Pakistan army. The victim of this whole process was democracy and its institutions.Analyzing the paradoxes of Bangladesh nationalism, Samaddar points out the efforts of the Bangladesh historians who have made attempts to reconstruct the history of their country. In the first instance in 1977, a commission was set up to write the history of the war of liberation. By 1985, 15 volumes of documents had been published with these comments: "The main consideration was to have the correct documents for the correct events. We do not have any comment, we point towards nothing, we offer no explanation, no analysis of our own." It means that until today no comprehensive history of the events of 1971 has been written.
However, many problems can still be anticipated in the writing of the history of Bangladesh. For example, how does one underplay the military role and emphasize the civilian contribution in the 1971 struggle? A new history has to explain the events before 1947 and the role of Bengal in the creation of Pakistan. It has to explain the approach of those personalities who worked for Pakistan on the basis of Muslim nationalism. And the role of radicals must be historicized and their contribution must be recognized.
History plays a crucial role in constructing the past. If it ignores or marginalizes people and projects the army and the elite classes, it provides them reason and logic to legitimize their rule and deprive the people of their rights. This happened not only in Bangladesh but in most of the third world countries whose history is constructed in the interest of the army or elite classes. That explains why people suffer from the lack of historical consciousness and acquiesce in dictatorial rule so quietly.
Paradoxes of the nationalist time :Political essays on Bangladesh
By Ranabir Samaddar
The University Press, Red Crescent Building, 114 Motijheel C/A, PO Box 2611, Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh
ISBN 984 05 1634 5
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.