By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
22 February, 2013
The biggest untruth of partition of India was the division in the name of religion. The fact is that it was impossible for two people who have lived side by side for centuries to be divided by the thin line of religion as interdependency on our work and culture was the most important aspect of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Even, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was a staunch secularist and who Sarojini Naidu once described as Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, always felt that the issue of Pakistan was not religious but political.
Unfortunately, the idea that religion unites was supported and sponsored to suit the interest of many fanatic groups in India as well as Pakistan. The idea that all Hindus of the world think alike and behave alike is similar to when the Muslim fanatics feel. Today, if the brutal killings of Hazaras in Pakistan are any indication then we must realize religion has always been used to place the supremacy of some forces. Pakistan failed as a society in responding to fanatic Islamic fundamentalists and allowed its Shias, Ahmedis and other minorities to be targeted in the name of Islam. It inflicted enormous damage and today it is a country at the cross road.
The situation is also bad in the neighbouring Bangladesh where people have now risen spontaneously against the fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami party which has openly sided with the Pakistani army that raped and killed thousands of Bangladeshis during the war. The problem with many sympathizers is they produce reams of literature to say that this is propaganda by India and therefore ignoring and disrespecting the huge mass movement lead by the founding fathers as well as the people of East Bengal which began immediately after Pakistan became an independent country.
It is a proud moment for many who have participated in the historical movement for the liberation of their country. The history is not very old but it is a proud moment for many that it is not religion but ethnicity that matters the most. Language and ethnicity unites people more than religion. If religion was the only uniting factor than all the Muslim countries should have been one and all the Christian countries should have one value of life. We know well that the Sab Saharan African people also practice Christianity and the people in Canada too have faith in Christianity but there is no similarity between the two. In fact, dissimilarities are more. An African Muslim would be close to an African Christian than a Muslim from Pakistan. A Punjabi Muslim is close to a Punjabi Hindu than a Muslim from Bengal or Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The cultural ethos of a Bengali Muslim would match more to a Bengali Hindu than to a Muslim from Uttar-Pradesh and a Malayali Muslim and a Malayali Christian would speak the same language. But off late these differences are being increased under one agenda to keep the religious rights busy and relevant. The religious rights have funds to organize them under one identity in the name of ‘religion’ and develop ‘separatist’ tendencies among them. There is nothing wrong in emphasizing the religious identity but that is not the end of the world and for your daily bread and butters, these identities should work with other identities too and vice versa.
The founding fathers of Pakistan actually tried to ignore these huge issues of diverse ethnicities and the result is utter chaos prevailing in that country. There are those ‘historians’ who feel India dismembered Pakistan to teach it a lesson and remain powerful in the subcontinent do underestimate and absolutely ignore their own follies. The historical struggle of Bangla people against the oppression of Pakistani elite cannot be kept aside by saying that India created Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi might have taken a decision that suited India but at the end of the day, rise of Bangladesh on the international map was the victory of people against sectarianism and importance of language as uniting factor.
Pakistani leadership failed to understand the importance of mother tongue and imposed Urdu on unwilling Dhaka. They felt that Islam is the only binding identity and Urdu is the language of Muslims. It was a farcical idea as Urdu has been a wonderful language which reflected the great syncretic cultural heritage of India. It had revolutionary poets, writers and gave voice to millions of people who did not understand ‘revolution’, music and culture. It was basically a language of ‘adab’ but Jinnah’s master folly converted Urdu into a ‘sectarian’ language. It was a sad irony that ethnic issues were sought to be undermined and a beautiful language became the hate figure in the other part of nation. Frankly, it is not the language which should be hated but the political class who used language as a tool to impose their political agendas on those who are different. India faced the same crisis with Hindi as ‘national’ language. Even when Hindi is largest spoken language in India does not give it a licence to be imposed on those who do not know it and hence government has done reasonably well in that direction though Tamil Nadu always had problem with this tendency of imposing Hindi through central government notifications and All India Radio and Doordarshan.
There had been violent protests against imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu in 1950s. The same ‘language’ nationalism actually uprooted the ‘religious’ nationalism of Pakistan in Dhaka. The people’s perceptions and rejection of Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s announcement that ‘Urdu shall be the language of Pakistan’, were loud and clear. It was on Feb 21, 1952, students at Dhaka University took to the street in protest against the then government's denial of Bangla as the national language and imposition of Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Eleven people were killed mostly the students from Dhaka University in the indiscriminate police firing when they tried to move out of their campus, breaching Section 144, demanding recognition of Bengali as a state language of the then Pakistan.
The Pakistan government was ultimately compelled to incorporate an article in the Constitution on Feb 29 in 1956 that declared "the state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali". But it was too late to assuage the feelings of isolation and dejection of the Bangla people who were regularly discriminated by the Punjabi dominated Pakistan elite. The result was that the resentment against the Pakistan leadership and its various ways to co-opt the language movement grew louder day by day and culminated in the formation of a separate nation of Bangladesh in 1971
After the state came into being, Bangladesh became victim of the same forces who opposed its liberation movement. There were forces like Jamat-e-Islami which openly and rabidly spoke for Islamisation of Bangladesh against the popular sentiments for a secular Bangladesh. Attempt was made to convert Bangladesh into another Islamic country. The enemy property act is still applicable in Bangladesh with Muslim fanatics using it a tool to grab the property of non-Muslims particularly Bangla Hindus. The divisions were sharp. Human Rights organisations have reported how the Jamat and other organisations were fanning anti Hindu sentiments in that country and trying to impose the fanatical Talibani kind of Islam on a society which never accepted it. The irony is all the three countries with shared history: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have ‘enemy property Act’ and the communal fascist people have grabbed land of the minorities in these countries is an open reminder of how our societies are deeply in the grip of religious right wings.
Political uncertainty ensured that blatantly communal and fundamentalists outfit like Jamat get leverage to power structure. It is shameful that when Bangladesh government was trying to bring war criminals of 1971 liberation struggle to justice, the Jamat could dare to challenge them and call for Bandh. The role of the Jamat in Bangladesh liberation struggle is that of backstabbers and exploiting their own people. The rise of Bangladesh as a secular republic would be the defeat of very forces who wish to see Bangladesh strictly on the basis of Islam and Sharia. In the past twenty years it has been growing and the history of that country was distorted. Political opportunistic parties even tried to take away the contribution of the father of that country Shekh Mujeebur Rehman.
But enough is enough and it look that the youths of Bangladesh have decided to force its political parties to accept that their country cannot allow fascist communal organizations like Jamat-e-Islami who denigrate the historic struggle of Bangla people for their country. For the unity of a country, ethnic and linguistic identities are important. It is not for unseen reasons that a writer like Tasleema Nasreen is living in exile in India and Islamic zealots are so apprehensive of her writing as if she will replace Islam with something else.
The massive crowds that have started swelling at Shahbagh since February 5th are spontaneous and a reflection of what is building up in Dhaka. If the Bangla people want to pay real tribute to their liberation struggle then it is time to throw their communal organisations into the dustbins of history. A secular multi ethnic Bangladesh could be the best bet for all the communities and people to live together. It is not that those who participated in liberation struggle or opposed the imposition of Urdu are not Muslims but they ignited the flame of common struggle and shared cultural values which Indian subcontinent always have. I wish we have a similar Tahrir day in India against our own fascist organisations who feel Muslims cannot be secular and Hindus cannot be terrorists. A secular Bangladesh can actually demystify the myth based on religion and identities and emphasize the importance of common language as a uniting factor in a society.
Bangladesh is standing at the stage where it can give world new ideas particularly on the importance of mother tongue and how it can ignite the minds of all. It is a shining example of how a language unites people and does not discriminate. The flame of current mass protests in Dhaka should not be allowed to die to throw away the communal fascist forces from that country. It would be the second liberation of that country. No society can grow on hatred and therefore Bangla people should also understand that they cannot make capital punishment for those who disagree with them in the street. The huge leaderless protests have lot of symbolism but they do send us message of what people want and it would be good if political parties listen to them and act on those values. One sincerely hope that the politicians in Dhaka will not let their people down who want a secular Bangladesh for all who fought jointly in the war for liberation of their country.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist.