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HISTORY AS ETHICAL REMEMBRANCE : Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar, And CP Gang’s ‘Bessha’ Banner – X

By Rahnuma Ahmed

November 20, 2015

“Patriotic history” and the construction of guilt

THE state elite appropriated Bengali nationalism immediately after independence and turned it into an “ideological tool,” it was used by the elite to “legitimize its power and policies, discredit its critics as unpatriotic, and discipline the ‘lower orders,’” writes Willem van Schendel in a weighty essay, published in the early years of the twenty-first century (Willem van Schendel, 2001).

The newly-independent state of Bangladesh soon followed the path of Pakistani nationalism, which meant “ruthless accumulation, authoritarian developmentalism, cultural hegemonism, selective xenophobia and frequent military rule.” But despite this, social forces emerged which set store by the nationalist paradigm, which believed in its liberatory potential of democracy and social justice; Schendel calls them “renewal nationalists.”

The ’80s witnessed the emergence of two other trends, he terms these “transnational” but takes care to point out that they represent very opposed schools of thought. On the one hand, are those inspired by “political Islam,” who are rooted locally but draw on transnational Islam to position themselves ideologically. On the other, are the “cultural pluralists” who challenge the equivalence of the Bengali nation with the Bangladeshi state, the history of Bangladesh with the history of the Bengalis.

Since the grip of “heroic master narratives” of nationalism is so strong, Schendel suggests the refashioning of nationalism to minimise “damaging” tensions. He also calls for “post-nationalist” history-writing, for public debates which go beyond “getting Bengali nationalism right.”

Dina Siddiqi, while in agreement with the thrust of Schendel’s arguments, calls for the denationalisation of history-writing, the urgent need to move away from “statist and teleological versions of history,” histories which “privilege” some, while silencing, erasing and displacing others. Siddiqi calls for problematising the processes through which entitlement to citizenship occurs — how the categories of ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bihari’ are produced and normalised — so that we can “begin to reimagine more inclusive and just forms of belonging” (Dina Siddiqi, 2013).

I agree with both. But given the current political impasse — the Awami League government’s fullscale appropriation of renewal nationalism, sidelining the muktijuddho agenda of social justice and egalitarianism, dividing up the nation a la Bush between those who are “for” muktijuddho and those “against,” tailoring the significance of genocide and the liberation war to the holding of war crimes trials, branding reasonable criticism of the trials as being traitorous, re-writing the nation’s history “falsely attribute[ing] the entire credit” of all political movements from 1948-1971 to the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Nurul Kabir, 2014), the AL government giving birth to the ‘opposition’ party (Jatiya Party) after the farcical January 5, 2014 elections, conducting a fullscale war aimed at dismantling the BNP through mass arrests, disappearances and court cases, conducting ideological warfare by taunting its leader Khaleda Zia to ‘go away to Pakistan,’ nipping in the bud the growth of any organised secular force which could be perceived as an alternative to the AL (personal communication, Zonayed Saki), in short, creating conditions so that the Awami League is the only major player on the electoral field in the 2018 general elections, and after — I am persuaded that besides complex, plural historiography, we also need to engage with Zimbabwean revolutionary-turned-autocrat Robert Mugabe’s notion of “patriotic history.”

I learnt about it after coming across a couple of articles written by the prominent African academic Terence Ranger (1929–2015), who had dedicated most of his work as a historian to Zimbabwe. Ranger was deported from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by the minority government in 1963, he was allowed entry after Zimbabwe gained independence (1980) from white rule. He is best known as co-editor of The Invention of Tradition (with Eric Hobsbawm, 1983); Ranger consistently insisted on the “relevance” of history-writing.

But before describing patriotic history, I want to relate a funny, and also, telling story that Ranger narrates in one of his articles (2003). Chided by Zimbabwean educator, political activist, MP and cabinet minister Victoria Chitepo (her husband Herbert Chitepo, assassinated in 1975, was chairman of Zimbabwe African National Union, ZANU) in 1980 for having helped produce so many historians when “Zimbabwe needed men and women of a more practical bent,” Ranger had jokingly replied that with so many historians in the cabinet and as heads of public institutions, “the new Zimbabwe was an experiment in rule by historiography”! But the joke was no longer funny later.

Patriotic history, says Ranger, is a “single, narrow historical narrative,” it is monopolistic and “endlessly repeated.” It is different from the old nationalist historiography which “celebrated aspiration and modernisation as well as resistance.” It resents “disloyal” questions raised by historians of nationalism. It regards any history which is “not political” as being irrelevant. It divides up the nation into “revolutionaries and sell-outs.” It is complex and flexible, incorporating both “brutal over-simplifications” and “sophistications,” to be found in presidential campaign speeches, in the work of ministerial historians, as well as in addresses to world conservationists. The narrow focus of patriotic history, says Ranger, accords it a “certain force and simplicity.” It is equally variously propagated — in courses for war veterans, in Mugabe’s speeches, in school textbooks and syllabi, on state television and radio, and in the state-controlled press (2003). It “proclaims the need for authoritarian government in order to repress and punish the “traitors,” who are often depicted as very numerous.” Patriotic history forecloses all questions; it has “replaced the idea of Socialism by that of “authenticity”” (2005).

Blessing-Miles Tendi, author of Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Politics, Intellectuals and the Media (2010), a scholarly study which examines the “genesis, production and form” of Zimbabwe’s patriotic history, emphasises that patriotic history “draws on real, not imagined grievances” — inequality in land ownership. The advocates of patriotic history provide “persuasive evidence” for what they assert, thereby lending “plausibility and strength” to the narrative. Hence, Tendi argues (as did Ranger), patriotic history must be taken seriously, the “incorporation of powerful moral discourses” makes it “compelling and difficult to challenge” (, 2010).

Much of what has been described above, I am sure, will strike a chord with many readers, as they bear a striking resemblance to the Awami League’s renewed nationalist history project in Bangladesh. The one big difference has to do with the media: in Bangladesh, privately-owned media, both print and electronic, are far more savvy in re-packaging and propagating patriotic history than the state-owned radio and television channel. Some view this as a more effective strategy, because it is the privately-owned media, as opposed to state media, which is manufacturing consent for the government, while others emphasise the well-known businessmen-politician nexus which grew after the introduction of neo-liberal market forces in Bangladesh, leading to the present situation where privately-owned media compete among themselves over how best to re-package and propagate patriotic history.

The Mugabe regime draws on real and not imagined grievances, this observation of Tendi’s helps me spell out similarities with Bangladesh: the rehabilitation of war criminals by the governments of Ziaur Rahman (1975–1981), and Hossain Mohammad Ershad (1981–1990), and later, the BNP regime’s electoral alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (many of whose top leaders are accused of/have committed war crimes), prime minister Khaleda Zia’s induction of war criminals in her cabinet (2001-2006), known war criminals going about in official cars with the national flag flying — these have been immensely unpopular. That war criminals were getting away scotfree was a genuine grievance among large sections of people, and the Awami League government’s initiative to redress the matter through holding war crimes trials enjoys widespread support.

Recent South African scholarship has interrogated the ‘reconciliation project’ in South Africa — the courtlike Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up in 1995 to ‘heal’ the wounds of apartheid, both victims and perpetrators had spoken before the Commission, the idea was to uncover the truth instead of punishing the perpetrators as was done in the case of the Nuremberg trials (1945-1949) after World War II. In their exploration of the prospects and problematics of reconciliation, the scholars have argued that “in the absence of social repair and with growing inequality, the historical and collective trauma of apartheid violence is drawn upon as a psychological and socio-political resource.”

This leads me to think that research on the current phase of the “renewal” of Bengali nationalism (post-December 2008 elections) would benefit if it were to explore interconnections between the Awami League’s state-sponsored patriotic history project, the trauma of 1971, and the cultivation of projonmo guilt.

Psychologists working on guilt speak of it as being a social emotion,

It is socially constructed and experienced in interaction with real or imagined others… Guilt is a self-conscious emotion; in order to experience guilt people must hold standards from which they believe they are deviating… [g]uilt plays a significant role in the stimulation of morally acceptable behaviour… [f]eelings of guilt result in a tendency to make up for the wrong that an individual has done to another…. [g]uilty knowledge is such a powerful pressure because it contains an element of fear: fear of what the guilty knowledge reveals about ourselves… (Bert Klandermans, Merel Werner, Marjoka van Doorn, 2008).

Shared guilt creates feelings of solidarity, bonding people together, I quote again,

[s]ocial identity that people derive part of their self-image from the social groups they belong to… [p]eople identify with social groups as a means of achieving a sense of who they are, and this may increase or decrease their self-esteem (Bert Klandermans, Merel Werner, Marjoka van Doorn, 2008).

Laboratory experiments on behavioural reactions to collective guilt conducted in 1998 by B Doosje, NR Branscombe, R Spears, and Antony SR Manstead reveal that when group belonging is strong, “the manipulation of past behavior by one’s group had a strong impact,” and that, if a group felt guilty about the group’s past behaviour they were willing to compensate for the group’s behaviour. A second study conducted by them revealed that even if the subjects could not be held “personally responsible” for a policy undertaken by their government because they had not even been born, strong feelings of collective guilt — depending on the level of “identification” and the “nature of information” received — could be aroused.

But even if genocide trauma, and feelings of guilt, especially, of youths (those in their 20s-early 30s) has not been ‘deliberately’ revived, one needs to bear in mind that these feelings can slowly fade away, worse still, they can be replaced by indifference, especially if pressing everyday concerns remain unaddressed.

Nehemia Shtrasler writes in Haaretz, “It was only the onerous guilt feelings of the nations of the world, who did nothing to stop the so-called Final Solution while it was being implemented, that tipped the scales,” and Israel was born. But, he reminds his readers, the occupation of Palestinian territories is gradually weakening the world’s guilt feelings, and Israel needs to start behaving like a “normal” country, “The Holocaust flak jacket won’t last forever… soon it will no longer be able to protect us” (April 13, 2010).

How long will the genocide flakjacket protect the Awami League government? What lies beyond? If feelings weaken because authoritarian trends continue, will it mean a future where we no longer relive the humiliation suffered by birangonas?

But I take strength from Walter Benjamin, “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.”


Willem van Schendel, “Who Speaks for the Nation? Nationalist Rhetoric and the Challenge of Cultural Pluralism in Bangladesh,” in Willem van Schendel and Erik-Jan Zürcher (eds), Identity Politics in Central Asia and the Muslim World: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Labour in the Twentieth Century, London and New York: IB Tauris, 2001.

Dina M Siddiqi, “Left Behind by the Nation: ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ in Bangladesh,” Sites: New Series, Vol 10, No 1, 2013.

Nurul Kabir, “Politics of history and history of politics. On partisan narratives of Bangladesh’s liberation war,” New Age, December 16, 2014–January 2, 2015.

Terence Ranger, “Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: the struggle over the past in Zimbabwe,” October 2003.

Terence Ranger, “The Uses and Abuses of History in Zimbabwe,” 2005

Blessing-Miles Tendi, “How Intellectuals Made History in Zimbabwe,”, 2010.

Bert Klandermans, Merel Werner, Marjoka van Doorn, “Redeeming Apartheid’s Legacy: Collective Guilt, Political Ideology, and Compensation,” Political Psychology, Vol 29, No 3, 2008

Nehemia Shtrasler, “The Holocaust Won’t Protect Israel Forever,” Haaretz, April 13, 2010.

To be continued.



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