Zeenat Huda Wahid
The middle class of Bangladesh contributes in a paradoxical manner in the process of the construction and reconstruction of several themes and sub-themes of nationalism. Its double role has been manifested in the transformation of the society from the religion based Muslim nationalism to language based secular Bangali nationalism, particularly between 1952 and 1971 as well as in replacing that Bangali nationalism by Bangladeshi nationalism regarding the religious distinctiveness as the determinants of its collective identity. Although the middle class of Bangladesh played the historical role in the construction of Bangali nationalism by inspiring the people with a new sense of nationalism based on language, culture and tradition and paved the way for the Bangali nationalist movement, in post-75 Bangladesh the same middle class contradicts itself with its new political doctrine where religion has been amalgamated with its national identity.
This shifting of the boundary of the dominant national identity from culture to religion offers an interesting insight to the social scientists. Indeed, the ambivalence among the middle class of Bangladesh is remarkable since at one time linguistic and at another period religious identity appear as dominant indicators in its national identity. While the middle class has emphasised its differences with others at different times in different ways, the choice of its symbols has also been changed. Thus, in 1947 after the partition of India, the middle class of the then East Bengal tended to distinguish itself more from its Hindu neighbour than any other and emphasised the Islamic content of its national identity. That religion based Bangali Muslim nationalism was modified in 1952-71 when language appeared as a powerful instrument primarily in response to domination by the Urdu speaking Pakistani elite, especially for those in Eastern Bengal who lived under Pakistani colonial rule.
The current ambiguity of the middle class in Bangladesh has been more problematic. Torn between the forces of secularism and militarism, the middle class is now facing a profound dilemma about its own history, culture and religion. Since 1975 Bangladesh in fact has been tinged with militarism, which has reinforced the Islamic principle and anti-liberation forces. In parallel, it has struggled for constructing its own Bangladeshi culture, which in its own language would not only be isolated from the Bangali culture in neighbouring India but would also be acknowledged by the whole world. However, it has not succeeded in fulfilling these objectives. Instead of solving the problem of national identity, it has generated a new one. The military interventions in politics, over the last couple of decades, have resulted in the increasing influence of Islamic content in the society.
To comprehend the nature of middle class and their paradoxical role in the Bangladesh society, this article relies on the theoretical paradigms of Wahrman. The article does not adopt the concept of the middle class as either one, which is identifiable in a positivist sense or as a group, which is culturally homogeneous. Rather it takes the insight of Wahrman who denies accepting the argument that middle class plays the central role in activating the political events in history. By placing the political process at the centre, he rather argues that politics plays a greater role in making the image of middle class in social history. By analysing the relevant historical researches, Wahrman draws the conclusion that middle class is an imagined community, an invented conception. He goes on to argue that the characteristics of middle class, which are often considered as universal, do not exist in reality. The very conceptualisation of middle class is the resultant features of the political processes and political languages. By examining the patterns of historical development from French Revolution to the period of Reform Bill of 1832, the author has attempted to show how the political configurations, such as French Revolution, French War and Reform Bill of 1832 created the very idea of English middle class.
Another important aspect of Wahrman’s analysis is that, the image of middle class in his view is invented under the particular political circumstances, and accordingly it has been considered as a myth by him. Myth does not deny the things, as its function is to talk about them and gives them a natural and eternal justification. By adopting this view from Barthes, Wahrman stresses that this is what exactly the middle class does by rendering itself as a natural and self-evidently visible part of the society. By simplifying the complexity of human acts, it provides a cogent story line that explains its origins and justifies its existence. As middle class creates its own image in a way to protect its own self-interest, it was not so like the ‘rising middle class’ that was the crucial factor in bringing about the Reform Bill of 1832. Rather according to Wahrman's analysis, it was more the Reform Bill of 1832 that was the crucial factor in cementing the invention of the ever-rising middle class.
This article adopts Wahrman's insight in the light of these scholarly arguments to examine the nature and character of the middle class of Bangladesh in order to understand its fragmented national identity. Indeed, Wahrman has documented the social construction of the middle class under different political environments with its different political idioms, philosophies and narratives. The image of the ever-rising middle class in his analysis is a political production. Although the pattern of the historical development of the middle class of Bangladesh is different from the English middle class, this article aims to explore its contradictions and complexities by analysing the socio-political and cultural history of Bangladesh. Hence, whereas Wahrman emphasises political languages including the political speeches, debates, pamphlets in the formulation of the myth of the middle class, thereby investigating into the nature of the several streams of nationalism in association with the major political processes of Bangladesh, this work intends to demonstrate how the notions of both Bangali and Bangladeshi middle class were produced by the language movement of 1952 as well as the post-75 military discourse of the country.
This article also relies on Anderson to understand the nature of the Bangali nationalism as an imagined nationalism. Bangali nationalism is a language based cultural nationalism, which has been regarded as an imagined national identity in this piece of work. The phrase ‘Imagined Community’, which has been coined by Anderson, signals a source of identity and a sense of belongingness to something bigger than oneself. In the light of the theoretical paradigm of Anderson, this article has intended to demonstrate the historical role of the language movement in promoting Bangali national identity among the middle class of the then East Pakistan covering the period from 1964 to 1971.
Indeed, language has become a determining marker of nationality for the scholars of the modernisation school who do believe that nations are quite novel in their territorial consolidation, cultural homogeneity and political integration through legal citizenship rights. For the growth of national consciousness, Anderson has exclusively emphasised print language which was inseparably associated with the vernacular and the imagination of the modern nation. The convergence of capitalism and the print technology on the fatal diversity of human language in Andersonian model created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation. Language for Anderson is important not only for its symbolic value. Rather language itself is an instrument, which contributes to the imagination of a nation.
Hobsbawm's thesis has also been used in this piece of work to understand the nature of Bangladeshi nationalism as an invented nationalism. His writing on invented tradition can be considered as a repudiation of the theory of pre-modern origin of national tradition. Although a group of scholars in Bangladesh is now considering the Bangladeshi nationalism as an original form of nationalism for its people, this work retraces its root as an invented nationalism in the analytical framework of Hobsbawm and shows the paradoxical role of the middle class in the invention of such type of nationalism.
The middle class discourse, as the present work asserts, has contributed to imagining and inventing the Bangali as well as Bangladeshi nationalism in Bangladesh. The difference between the Bangali and Bangladeshi nationalism lies in the conflicting interpretation of religion and culture, including the notion of syncretic Bangali culture and the ethos of Islamic cultural tradition. Whereas language and culture remain as two important elements in Bangali nationalism to express the symbolic identity of the people of Bangladesh who collectively share the homogeneous social customs and behaviour as the inhabitant of their common territory, Bangladeshi nationalism defines Bangladesh predominantly as a Muslim territory by emphasising Muslim cultural heritage in case of defining the national identity of the people.
By analysing the root of the conflict of these two types of nationalist discourses this work discovers their intricate association with the doctrine of Two-Nation Theory, on which Pakistan was founded and India was divided. The Theory of Two-Nation was based on the idea that Hindus and Muslims were the two separate nations due to which they could not co-exist in a united India. Hindus and Muslims might be intermingled all over and every region of India having common ancestors, but according to the doctrine they were proclaimed to be two nations- two Indians. Whereas the Indian Muslim League demanded for a separate homeland for Muslims based on Two-Nation Theory, the Congress leaders of India perceived this analysis as unnatural. India in their conceptualisation remained as a secular state, constituting one culture and one nation where all Indians irrespective of their religions were the successors to the common cultural heritage.
The middle class of contemporary Bangladesh, which has emerged under the shadow of colonialism, also suffers from the inherent contradiction by constituting two modes of national thought, which now exists in parallel in Bangladesh. By analysing socio-political history since Pakistan era to post-independent Bangladesh, the present work identifies both Bangali nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism as two distinct categories to demonstrate how the confrontation between the language and religion, indigenous Bangali culture and Islamic tradition has been started as the fundamental problem of the nationalist discourse in contemporary Bangladesh. The Bangali nationalism, sociologically speaking, rose as a distinct identity in post-partition Pakistan due to cultural, political and material tensions between the Punjabi ruling elite and the Bangali Muslim middle class.
Although a number of Western scholars have attempted to analyse the birth of Bangladesh as a separatist movement either by emphasising geographic factor or socio-economic conflict or political process, most of the middle class Bangali scholars have negated this view by considering the struggle of Bangladesh as a Liberation Movement which cannot be regarded as merely a war to achieve only independence for Bangali nation, It was, in their view, a culmination of a series of struggles and its purpose was to establish democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism for a total revolution in society.
The birth of Bangladesh they argue was the first instance of a linguistic nationalist movement succeeding in creating a new state in the post-colonial period. At the end of the British colonial rule when India was partitioned in 1947 on the basis of Two-nation Theory, two successor states – the predominately Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan were created. Bengal Muslims then enthusiastically joined Pakistan emphasising their Muslim identity. But when the ruling elite of Pakistan started an assault on Bengali language and culture, Bangali Muslims resisted the attack by stressing their Bangali identity over the prevailing Muslim identity. The struggle for the assertion of linguistic identity together with their struggle for democratic participation and economic emancipation ultimately made the break-up of Pakistan in 1971.
Indeed, after the creation of Pakistan it was soon seen that the East Pakistan was being turned into a supplier of raw materials and consumer of finished goods. As Pakistan was a geographical incongruity, where the two halves of Pakistan were around 12000 miles apart, Islamic fervour was the only cementing factor in that case. But the slogan of Islamic solidarity and brotherhood did not last long. A new phase of conflict started between the Bangali and non-Bangali Muslim middle class over the language issue. Historically, the language issue took the form of a conflict with the rulers of Pakistan within the months of the inauguration of the new nation. Then the central government of Pakistan gave strong indications that Urdu was preferred as national language and Bengali could not have a place alongside Urdu.
The conflict assumed the more complex form in February 1952 when the Pakistan police opened fire upon the student demonstration in Dhaka, killing a number of them. The blood of the martyrs of Language Movement brought about a new cultural and political awakening for the Bangali Muslim middle class in East Bengal. Since then they gradually came to realise that, their national identity was Bangali rather than Muslim. As language itself emerged as a new factor for the construction of that new cultural identity, for the middle class Bangali scholars it is right to say that Bangali nationalism was born out of that feeling. Hence, the legacy of 1952, made sacred by the deaths and sacrifices of 1971, they argue, provides the fundamental principles for Bangladesh; the secular nationalism with roots in language, soil and democracy.
Although the language movement was initiated and led by the teachers, students and intellectuals, it was not confined to as a cultural movement only within the middle class of the then East Pakistan. Rather it soon turned into a political one pervading the lower echelon, the working class and the common people, who joined the Bangali students and political nationalists for autonomy of former East Pakistan in 1954, revolted against Ayub’s autocracy in 1969 and fought for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Indeed, due to uneven economic and cultural development of the two wings of Pakistan, the relationship between and among the classes within the state was not equal. Under the circumstances, both the cultural and political nationalists of East Pakistan played the dominant role in revealing the exploitative and repressive role of the Pakistani colonial state through their cultural and political movements.
The role of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was remarkable in this regard who being the commander of the Bangali nationalist movement consolidated the concept of nationality and intended to distinguish the Bangali nation from its Pakistani opponent by revealing its marginalised condition. Mujib in fact borrowed the term nationalism as a strategy to revolt against the colonial exploitation of Pakistan and demonstrated the gulf of differences between her two wings through his several political speeches, programmes and movements with the objectives to lead the imaginary Bangali nation towards the political independence.
However, nationalism is not an expression of the articulation of class hegemony alone. Rather it is also an expression of the neutralisation of people in a historical situation. While a class cannot assert its hegemony without articulating the people in the nationalist discourse, the Bangali middle class needed the support of the subaltern to mobilise the class movement against the Pakistani colonial rule. Hence, by organising the urban workers, rural peasantry and the common people, the Bangali middle class under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujbur Rahman acquired the political strength and gathered momentum for the Bangali nationalist movement by challenging the theocratic basis of Pakistan.
This class has been placed with considerable importance in Bangladesh history as it intended to clear the fog, which surrounded the identity of the Bangali middle class for a long time by emphasising the privilege of the linguistic identity over religion. The role of this middle class is remarkably influential in the Liberation Movement of 1971 for unifying all sections of people of Bangladesh on the basis of integrated Bangali culture and turning them into a political entity in order to confront with the Pakistani autocratic force . In post-independent Bangladesh the class also played the vital role in articulating the Bangali nationalist spirit in all sphere of cultural life including education, literature, music etc. Whereas in Pakistan period, Islamic history was introduced at all levels to get a holistic insight of Islamic tradition and culture. The first civilian government of the Bangali middle class found a Commission on Education to modify the educational system on the basis of the four state principles of the constitution i.e. Bangali nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. The Bangali middle class is inclined to the humanistic ideals clustered around the term secularism. They consider secularism not merely as a political category but the manifestation of their aspiration, a revelation of their faith. For the Bangali middle class, the 1971 war demonstrated that the Islamic solidarity could not cover up the cultural differences between West and East Pakistan, and implicating Islam in politics only had led to exploitation and mishap.
In those early years of Bangali nationalist discourse, the ideal of secularism had been expressed in the Bangali literature and culture. Folk songs, customs, and esoteric songs of Baul then were regarded exclusively as an integral part of Bangali literature and culture. Moreover, during the period, a good number of patriotic songs and plays were written in the light of the Language movement and Liberation War of Bangladesh. The Bangali middle class was also found enthusiastic in using the Bengali name or letter on signboards on shop, street or car plate, celebrating the Pahela Baishak or Poush Mela (winter fair) and the birthday of poet Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam with their new nationalist ethos and patriotic zeal. Thus, the Bangali middle class has been grown up with the belief that, Bangali nationalism is the basis of the Bangali nation, which derives its identity from its language attaining a sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united struggle in the War of Liberation.
Military Discourse and the Invention of Bangladeshi Nationalism
The Bangladeshi middle class, on the other hand, has been developed after the political change of 1975 within the military discourse of Ziaur Rahman. This class has developed an interest in the religious identity in the light of Bangladeshi nationalist project. Indeed, it was Zia who moved away from Mujib's Bangali nationalism by incorporating Islam into his project and provided the Islamic parties with a larger space in politics as a demonstration of Islamic solidarity. By adopting several measures such as making the religious education compulsory at the school level, patronising the Madrasa education, encouraging the traditional leaders including the Pirs and Mullahs to play an active role in the political matters of the country, holding Milad and throwing official Iftar parties during the month of Ramadan, hanging the posters in the government places with citation from the Quran calling for dispensation of equitable right, hoisting the Eid Mubarak pennants with the national flags on two Eid festivals and publicising the governmental statements on other Muslim occasions like Eid-i-Miladun-Nabi, Shabe-ba-rat and Moharram, Zia created the conditions for the emergence of Islamic symbols in Bangladesh politics.
While the Bangladeshi middle class in post-75 period thus has been exposed to Islamic principle and culture in the behest of the Bangladeshi governing elites, it conceives national unity in the light of distinct definition of Muslim cultural heritage. Bangladesh in its social perception remains a pre-dominantly Muslim land and accordingly, it expresses its faith in majoritarian Muslim nationalism. The new middle class asserts its strength as a nation by fostering its inherent Muslim cultural character and claiming that Islam could not be confined only within cult or philosophy. Rather it would be explained as a social force and be implemented for social solidarity. According to its analytical framework, Islam is important in the nationalist project as a religious belief and principle, controlling the mental make-up of the people of Bangladesh,
The doctrine also emphasises religio-territorial distinctiveness on the basis of the definition of them/us distinction and friend/foe psychology. As the military bureaucrats were concerned about the common foe of the country, in their view the distinctive feature of Bangladeshi nationalism is to differentiate the people of Bangladesh from the linguistically similar but religiously different people of West Bengal, India. The general stress in this procedure was to make a boundary line between the language based secular Bangali cultural values and the Islamic discourse. The key approach of the expounders of Bangladeshi nationalism is to assert that Bangali nationalism was designed to promote the philosophy of anti-Islam as well as Hinduism. The ascendancy of Islamist ideology and activism therefore are two significant indices in the paradigm of the Bangladeshi nationalism to reject and defy secular ruling regimes and Indian cultural underpinnings.
Although the Bangladeshi middle class shares many non-modern values like fundamentalism or religious revivalism, it is very modern in its outward appearance. It is such a class, which discovers the meaning of life in consumer culture and hedonistic principle as the group was developed under that economic strategy of Zia which encouraged the private investment and promoted the rapid denationalisation of the industrial sector to create a new class of entrepreneur and traders. The group therefore has been regarded as a new middle class, which maintains a social distance from the other groups of people by exposing its beauty of life in lavish manner as well as through Islamic etiquette, which makes the group paradoxical in its presence.
Bangladeshi middle class, sociologically speaking, is that group of people which enjoys a high standard of living and has emerged as the principal consumer class in Bangladesh. The recent work of Huda in this case contributes in revealing the sound economic background of the class, which belongs to the upper middle stratum and live in the very posh areas including Banani, Uttara, Dhanmondi etc in Dhaka city. Evidence of their affluence has been found in the construction and renovation of luxury residences in the said areas of the Dhaka city. Multi-storied apartment housing or flat ownership has added a new dimension in Bangladesh middle class culture which also demonstrates the solid economic foundation of the group while many of them are the owners of these costliest flats the price of which varies from 20-50 lakh (2-5 million) taka.
In the construction of the Bangladeshi nationalism the people who were pro-Pakistani had also been integrated and asserted themselves as Bangladeshi through birth and land. That was a move away from the politics of anti-imperialism to a very simple one of birth and land. Whereas from nationalism Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the commander of the Bangali nationalist movement, gleaned exploitation and identified it with the exploited classes, thereby disassociating the War of Liberation from the colonial class struggle to territorial integrity, Zia rehabilitated the collaborators on the basis of the birth status. A group of pro-Pakistani people including Shah Azizur Rahman, Zulmat Ali Khan, who were the members of the Pakistani delegation to the UN General Assembly towards the end of 1971 to defend Pakistani action in Bangladesh, had been amply awarded in the regime. Mashiur Rahman, who was charged with collaboration by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was also inducted in his cabinet.
Not only that, but there is also an attempt in the philosophical account of the Bangladeshi middle class to consider the Bangladeshi nationalism as an original and fundamental form of nationalism for the people of Bangladesh. Although the Bangladeshi middle class was developed in a reciprocal relationship with the military bureaucracy of Bangladesh, it considers the Bangladeshi nationalism as the product of the historical struggle of the people of Bangladesh to establish their common identity. The Bangladeshi nationalism reveals its chameleon nature when the Bangladeshi nationalists define it as an integrative force to unite the nation by embracing the doctrine of theology, role model of army officials, debunking of politicians and the rehabilitation of the collaborators. Although the doctrine addresses the issue of national integration, it divides the population based on faith by emphasising majoritarian Muslim nationalism and marginalising the presence of non-Muslims in Bangladesh. By denying the past cultural link with West Bengal of India, although this nationalist project determines people's identity in the light of territorial boundary, it accepts Nazrul Islam as the national poet of Bangladesh. Although both Nazrul and Tagore were born in West Bengal, it constructs the image of Tagore absolutely as a Hindu poet who belongs to India.
While the Bangladeshi nationalism involves several confusing connotations and ambiguities, it has become a subject of massive debate in contemporary Bangladesh. This piece of work therefore provides a new insight into the meaning of this nationalism by considering it as an invented nationalism in the context of theoretical framework of Hobsbawm. Indeed, the Bangladeshi middle class played the vital role in the ideological and symbolic construction of Bangladeshi nationalism since the post-75 era. Although Bangladesh was achieved through a secular nationalist movement, the country sees the resurgence of Islamic political spirit after the first military coup of 1975, although most Islamic parties opposed the Bangali nationalist movement, the resurgence of these forces has been one of the most significant political issues of Bangladesh since 1975.
Indeed, between August 1975 and March 1982, Bangladesh placed greater importance on improved ties with the Middle East countries and used every symbol to highlight the Muslim identity. Since the country has been transformed from the secular state to theocracy, the Constitution of Bangladesh enacted by the Constituent Assembly in 1972 had been amended in 1979. Thus, Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of Allah, the merciful and magnificent) and complete trust in Allah were made part of the Bangladesh Constitution by General Ziaur Rahman through a Martial Law Ordinance in a referendum held in 1977 and then formally through the fifth Constitutional Amendment in 1979.
In the invention of the Bangladeshi nationalism Zia being the military political elite of Bangladesh also created the new myths about the history of Liberation War, Language Movement, as well as people's tie with Islamic Ummah and Islamic tradition. While myth creates a necessary condition for the construction of nationhood, in the political sphere of Bangladesh, the dominant Bangladeshi military bureaucrat has sought to propagate certain new myths to construct its novel form of nationalist project.
The recent work of Huda contributes in unveiling those new myths and ideologies, which have been produced by the Bangladeshi middle class over old truth and documented history. The novelty of Bangladeshi middle class lies in the fact that it contributed to constructing the splendid image of Ziaur Rahman as a new national hero, the declarer of independence and a martyr. It has also paved the way for dramatising Zia’s role and character by distorting his announcement and the date on which that announcement was delivered. The confusion and controversy regarding the Declaration of Independence thus is the consequence of the politics of the Bangladeshi middle class by controlling the media in various ways. Since the Bangladeshi middle class constructs that cultural atmosphere through the control of the cultural media including the BTV and the Bangladesh Betar (Radio), instead of integration it has disintegrated the society.
By packaging the abundant flow of confusing and conflicting information of history and independence through the state-run media, the Bangladeshi government has widened the division in middle class between those who want to uphold true history with Mujib as the principal actor and those who want to reconstruct history with Zia at the helm of affairs. While Zia endeavoured to invent the new political mythology against the mainstream political culture, the name of Sheikh Mujib and the significance of the historic events including 7 March, 10 January were ostracised from the programmes of BTV and the Bangladesh Betar during his own reign. While the term Liberation Movement was replaced by the word War of Independence and the right wing collaborators had been amply awarded in the regime, the use of the prime terminologies of the Liberation War including Sonar Bangla, Joy Bangla, genocide, Razakars (collaborators) then were also exclusively forbidden in BTV’s production. The work of Huda in this case has succeeded in unveiling how for the long twenty-one years (1975-1996) BTV has been used for official propagation in discovering the new national hero, declarer of Independence and in creating an oblivion state to crush the nation's past and the collective memory.
The Bangali and the Bangladeshi middle class thus demonstrate their isolation in the context of political ideology, cultural values and historical environment. This dichotomization manifests how the search for identity in the history of recent Bangladesh has been mixed up with a wave of scepticism about the spirit of linguistic nationalism, cultural values, religious practices as well as secularism and rehabilitation of the collaborators. As the middle class of Bangladesh is now at the state of collective and self-doubt, these doubts display two-opposed currents of social forces. Whereas one force wants to go back to the history of Liberation War and language movement for a secular, indigenous and cultural identity, there the other group prefers to leap forward for a distinctive Muslim community and religious authority by negating the linguistic identity and common cultural heritage of the people of Bangladesh.
Indeed, this work offers a new insight on middle class by unveiling its paradoxical condition which itself has split the nation by twisting the historical document, reviving the religious spirit and rehabilitating the collaborators of the country. By adopting the theoretical framework of Wahrman, this work in fact has depicted the ways through which the middle class invents and reinvents its national identity under different political circumstances. This paper negates the universal conception of middle class by revealing how the middle class who was the chief architect of Bangali nationalism in 1971 constructed a quite different socio-political reality in post-75 Bangladesh only to pursue its own political interest and activities. The middle class in Bangladesh therefore contributes not only to imagining and constructing the new cultural philosophy and linguistic identity but also to introduce new vocabulary, inventing the tradition and creating the myth of new identities to support its own existence through the political change of the country.
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