Language and National Identity in Bangladesh

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Language and National Identity in Bangladesh


A. Ahmed


“The concept of a single, exclusive, and unchanging ethnic or cultural or other identity is a dangerous piece of brainwashing. Human mental identities are not like shoes, of which we can only wear one pair at a time. We are all multi-dimensional beings. Whether a Mr. Patel in London will think of himself primarily as an Indian, a British citizen, a Hindu, a Gujarati-speaker, an ex-colonist from Kenya, a member of a specific caste or kin-group, or in some other capacity depends on whether he faces an immigration officer, a Pakistani, a Sikh or Moslem, a Bengali-speaker, and so on. There is no single platonic essence of Patel. He is all these and more at the same time. David Selbourne, a London ideologue, calls on "the jew in England" to "cease to pretend to be English" and to recognize that his "real" identity is as a jew. The only people who face us     with such either-or choices are those whose policies have led or could lead to genocide.”

– Eric Hobsbawm





The main goal of the present article is to provide a picture of and analyse the inner dynamics between language, nationhood and national identity from an evolutionary Bangladeshi perspective, focusing on its own experiences in this regard. The focus is not intended to be on a theoretical social or political science discussion on the stated topic using the evolving history of Bangladesh in this regard as an example, but quite the reverse. Nevertheless, this discussion cannot start without a few relevant definitions and a brief discussion on the theoretical aspects. So here are a  few definitions and a brief theoretical discussion  on nation, nationalism, national identity to start with :


Nation and Nationalism:  John Stuart Mill defined nation as: “ 'A portion of mankind [that] are united among themselves by common sympathies that do not exist between them and any others – which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be governed by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively' (Mill 1861/1991: 391).”


Nationalism was defined by Jenkins and Sofos (1996: 19) as  : “…nationalism constitutes a form of ‘political imagination’, a politicizing force that transforms cultural communities and other collectivities into gestative political entities. Nations can be said to ‘exist’ only insofar as they have acquired, or have manifested some sort of aspiration to achieve statehood or some sort of recognition of sovereignty or political subjectivity

Anthony Smith defines Nationalism  as “an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity, and identity on behalf of the population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential “nation”. (Smith 2000: 3)

A famous and hotly debated theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of nationalism and  national identities is that of Benedict Anderson. His book Imagined Communities (1983) has become highly influential in the field. The famous nation definition of Anderson suggests that :

“[the nation] is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 1994: 6).

His main contention and “point of departure is that nationality, or … nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of a particular kind” (Ibid.: 4). Anderson also argues that people living in the pre-modern ages had no idea of history: time was viewed as “a simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present”. This conception changed with loading meanings of different nature to history and, indeed, with the creation of these histories. Since national histories are written with a set of specific meanings, “Edward Said insists that [nations] are ‘interpretive communities’ as well as imagined ones” (Billig 1995: 70).

Although Anderson’s definition is not universally and exclusively accepted, it still forms - in various shapes and forms - a critical and indispensable part of most modern definitions of nation and national identity.


State:  According to the classical definition of Max Weber, “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”

The state is, following Tilly, “a distinct organization that controls the principal means of coercion within a well-defined territory, and in some respects exercises priority over all other organizations operating within the same territory” (Tilly 1993: 130-131).


National Identity: It is at this stage – in which states and nationalism transform people’s identities – that the issues of identity and national identity come into the picture. Identity is basically a psychological concept. It refers to the self image of the bearer of an identity.

Greenfield defines it in the following manner: “It defines the position of its bearer (which may be an individual or a group) in, and serves as a map or blueprint for, a certain, more or less extensive, sphere of the social world, with the help of which this world, in fact, is constantly reconstructed. An identity, every identity, in other words, represents a means of constructing and defining the social reality of the bearer” (Greenfeld 1999: 38).

This definition demonstrates the power and the capabilities of identity in shaping the social and political perceptions of individuals, as well as collectivities. National identities, when we acknowledge that nationalism is a product of modernity, are also creations of the modern period.

As argued above, there is no nation, and thus national identity, without nationalism aspiring for a state or some kind of political subjectivity. According to the social identity theory of Harrison White, “an identity is defined and recognized as such only within a set of social relationships that establish rules for what is and what is not acceptable” (in Agnew 2003: 224). Bellier and Wilson argue that “identities are never better perceived than place and times of encounter with their ‘others’, within real or metaphorical frontiers” (Bellier and Wilson 2000: 9)2.

National Identity in Anthony Smith’s framework refers to - “maintenance and continuous reproduction of the pattern of values, symbols, memories, myths and traditions that compose the distinctive heritage of nations, and the identification of individuals with that particular heritage and those values, symbols, memories, myths and traditions” (Smith 2001: 30).

Verdery (1996: 229) argues that national identity exists at two levels; at the individual level, as a sense of self as national, and the identity of the collective, being in relation with other collectivities of its kind. Anthony Smith (1991: 14) provides a checklist for defining national identity: (i) a historic territory, or homeland; (ii) common myths and historical memories; (iii) a common, mass public culture; (iv) common legal rights and duties for all members and (v) a common economy with territorial mobility for the members.

To the question “What was there before nation and national identity?” Hobsbawm answers with the concept of proto-nationalism. He claims that the arrival of national identities can be the result of the proto-national ties, as he calls them, which were existent for a long time and could be compatible with modern states and nations on a macro-political scale. There are two kinds of proto-national ties: one is the supra-local, which refers to the sense of belonging surpassing the community one is living in (e.g., some local religious rituals); and the other is an elite class that has stronger ties with states and institutions and which is in possession of political connections and vocabulary, that can be popularized, generalized and spread. However, neither can be identified with ‘nations’ since they lack the “necessary relationship” with a territorial political organization (Hobsbawm 1995: 65).

The Formation of National Identities: Theoretical Aspects


There are two schools of thought regarding the nature and formation of national identity: Essentialists and Constructivists. Essentialists argue that the national identity is God-given, natural, inherited and there is no possibility of changing it. It can also depend on the soil or general conditions of the climate, as Montesquieu, among others argued. This consequently “favors terms such as ‘national character ’, ‘national temper’ or ‘national genius’” (Spiering 1996: 115 and 1999: 151). This perception of national identity was at its highest point in Nazi Germany in the form of the superior character of the Aryan race. It can be argued that this was also the kind of ‘national identity’ that the state of Pakistan attempted to craft and impose on its people right after the 1947 partition, basing it on their perceived shared Islamic identity and ‘brotherhood’ and its existing political/state elite articulated  indisputably exclusive primacy.

On the other hand, constructivists argue that national identities are not God-given or inherited or organic. Rather, they are cultural artifacts. They are made and remade permanently: they would argue “all ‘having’ culture is a making of culture” (Ifversen 2002: 6). This also draws attention to the political character of identities, in the sense that the requirements of the power relations in a given context may be affecting the way identities are created and perceived. The best example of this is probably the germination and rise of Bengali Nationalism in East Pakistan within a short span of time after the 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan, gradually redefining the preceding national identity perception of the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan; and continuing to readjust and redefine itself to various degrees even after the establishment of a nation-state for Bengali muslims called ‘Bangladesh’, demonstrating a somewhat fluid nature of a collective identity (of at least the ‘exteriority’ of it as explained below, if not more), as opposed to the Essentialist theory of it. Another example could be the decline of nationalism in Western Europe after the Second World War and especially with the increasing level of European integration (Dogan 1994), accompanied with the altered definitions and perceptions of national identities.

The distinction between Essentialists and Constructivists leads to two conclusions :

The first one is that this distinction refers to two popular historical understandings of national identity.

Essentialism is a static approach whereas constructivism is a dynamic one. That again may be considered as a reflection of the effect of politics on identities, since major shifts in domestic and international political circumstances can cause radical redefinitions of identities (Leerssen 2002: 271-280). In fact, this contrast can be considered as a very short summary of the history of national identities in Western Europe and to some extent in South Asia, despite the argument of Hans Kohn that ‘Western nationalism refers to a civic, democratic and political type of nationalism, whereas Eastern nationalism is characterized with being ethnic, based on blood ties and mostly religious.’, which we will see in the following discussion, is not the whole truth necessarily.

Peter Omoniyi [2006] argues identity can be fluid and how the focus of identities can change in particular 'moments' where the presence of either complementing or conflicting identities may be present. Omoniyi argues that more traditional views of language and identity, such as essentialism (see Bucholtz 2003: 400), do not recognise that identity can be constructed by individuals and/or groups and cannot accommodate hybridity adequately.

Yasir Suleiman [2006] uses the concept of polycentricity to describe the relationship between individuals belonging to one national group. He believes language plays an important role in creating a sense of national identity and also in the creation of nation building. When discussing linguistic identity, Suleiman states that it is important to distinguish between 'interiority', that is, the interior identity of the self, from that of 'exteriority' which deals with the social domain of professional and collective identity. He explains that this differentiation is rarely made in studies of language and identity.

The discussions on individual theories above leads to what  is called the “national identity paradigm”, which consists of four main components:

1) Nations and national identities are modern concepts and products of recent origin, particularly of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They are different in nature from previous collective identities, such as religious, local and feudal ones. These were replaced by national identities, meaning that the national identity became the principal collective identity of peoples in a complex structure of multiple identities. This transformation was accompanied with further others in economic and political relations between states and within societies.

2) There is a historical basis for national identity formation. That is to say it had a historical and political background (“longue durée” or “proto-nationalism”) that laid the basis for certain nationalist developments.

3) Identities are constructed. They are not inherent (i.e., inherited by birth, constant and natural), though the role of historical experience varies slightly between the scrutinized theories.

4) Nationalism and the nation-state are the political aspects of national identity formation, which are central for its development.

Finally, an optional component can be added to this by stating that:

(5) Identity can be fluid and the focus of identities can change in particular 'moments'

where the presence of either complementing or conflicting identities may be present.


We will see in the following discussion how this paradigm with all its five components plays out in the national identity formation and evolution of the Bengali Muslims of the Bengal region, especially of the region that later came to be known as the independent state of Bangladesh.



The question of national identity is a complex socio-political-economic-cultural and psychological issue as we have seen in the preceding discussion, but behind its coherent and congealed construction there must be potent political forces at work. These forces seek to conceptualize and articulate socio-political grievances of a ‘community’ and convert these grievances into a political tool, which forms the basis of a separate nation state. Therefore, the issue of identity is the most volatile subject in multi-ethnic states. In a multicultural and plural state, the state-hegemonisation and definition of national identity inevitably creates fissiparous tendencies where the nature of the state often fails to take diversity into account. This has been true both in the Pakistani and independent period of Bangladesh.

Imposition of Identity.  In the context of the creation of Pakistan and given the history of partition, the state hegemony in crafting a ‘nation’ was an effort to translate the ideological inspiration behind the state formation. At the same time the Hindu dominated Congress opposition created a sort of insecurity regarding the viability of the nation-state. Therefore, the state in its over-zealous attempt to promote and protect an Islamic identity, the basis on which the state was founded, played the role of an ultimate arbitrator of the identity question. The problem with such an overarching authority of the state that defined the existence of ‘self’ within the geographical parameter, persisted in conceiving a political identity that defined the citizenship and gave him an identity and a sense of belongingness to the territory. In the process the state advanced “Islam” as the core of the national identity. In this context Urdu became the defining factor of being a ‘Muslim’ in the new state of Pakistan. Bengalis, the majority community of Pakistan contested this identity of the state. The state addressed the issue but not before providing deep foundational inspiration to the future Bangladesh state.

A brief Intro on the Bengali Muslim Identity. The history of Bengal defining socio-cultural perimeter and a unique notion of identity went through its socio-cultural evolution spanning over the centuries. The political construct of the Bengali Muslim identity is however not a very old phenomenon. While talking of Bangladesh and the construction of its national identity, one traverses through a long period of history that contributed to the construction and political consolidation of this identity. The problem in studying the evolution of identity arises because its assertion has its own political salience within the context of the debate on nation, nationality and national identity. In the case of Bangladesh, political awakening took a longer time to traverse the religious bonding that the state of Pakistan had crafted as the basis of its nationhood. After 25 years of the partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion, the political history of this region was reconstructed with a second partition on the basis of secular political characteristic that formed the lynchpin in the formation of Bangladesh state. The philosophy that drove the passion of the Bengalis was economic and political demands coupled with a strong secular linguistic-cultural identity, at the core of which lied the Bengali language and Bengali culture. However, the post liberation political developments again brought the issue of religion to the centre stage.

Scope of the present article. In this context, there are certain issues this presentation would deal with: First, does the state construction of an identity create a nation? In this context I will briefly discuss the evolution of the Bengali Muslim identity and their syncretic tradition. Then this paper would devolve into the details of how this socio-religious identity got converted into a political identity and the role-played by the elites. Then I will deal with the formation and failure of Pakistan, emergence of Bangladesh and how language and identity crisis were involved in this  . Lastly, I will analyse the contesting political identities of ethno-linguistic and secular vs the religious, and the future of the Bangladeshi identity.

The Construction of ‘Bengali Muslim’ Identity

Syncreticism of Bengali Muslim Identity. The construction of the Bengali Muslim identity went through the process of socio-political and cultural evolution. Variety of factors contributed to the shaping of this identity. By its very definition, the Bengali Muslim identity has both linguistic and socio-cultural connotations apart from religious overtures. In the evolution of this identity one could discern a large influence of syncretism that evolved through the religious intermingling, sharing of linguistic heritage and cultural commonality. In this context the sense of ‘self’ as existed then was complimentary rather than contradictory between the two communities, despite occasional reservations. This syncretic tradition that was nurtured due to socio-lingual heritage till today, to a large extent, is a harbinger of affinity between the two communities and has contributed to the growth of a polycentric multi-dimensional identity.

A sociolinguistic background of Bengali Muslim Identity.  The creation of Pakistan can be seen as a fulfillment in the form of a State, of the sense of distinctiveness that began to take a political and organizational shape among the educated class of the Indian Muslim community towards the beginning of 20th century, despite the fact that separate statehood wasn’t initially the goal of the leaders of this movement. Initially, their goal was merely to preserve and advance the genuine economic and political interests of their community, within the framework of unified India.  The British colonialists first took power in India from its Muslim rulers in 18th century. The Muslim ruling elite was destroyed, and rest of the community turned away from the usurpers and tried to stay aloof, shunning the knowledge and culture brought by the newcomers and the new political and economic opportunities provided by the new rulers. This attitude marginalized the muslim community. At this time, the Hindu community took this opportunity, learned English – language of the new rulers and co-operated and ingratiated themselves with them. This process helped them to make huge economic, political and cultural advancements, including capturing almost the entire job market – both in the colony’s government and in private businesses. The muslim community seriously fell behind. Although the muslims of India did not enter this race initially, but towards late 19th century they began to realize that their aloofness is doing nothing but harm to them. So through the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and others they started to learn English and joined the race to get their share of the cake. But they found that they are already significantly outdistanced by the other advanced community, who - to add insult to injury  - weren’t so interested in sharing the cake anyway.

At the initial period of this stage, the muslim identity did not take the shape of a nationalism seeking statehood, rather it was still a part of a stateless ‘Pan-Islamist’ consciousness. Urdu had an intimate relationship with this sense of distinct culture and community among the Indian muslims and became a powerful symbol of it.

In this context, the ordinary Bengali muslims faced a two-fold dilemma. The language of Indian Islamic culture was not his mother-tongue and his mother-tongue was perceived to have a lot of affinity with another religious tradition with many unislamic elements coming into it from that source. North-Indian Muslims did not have this problem – no conflict was perceived between their religion and language.

The earliest examples of this dilemma of Bengali muslims can be seen in the works of 14th century poets, who are seen fighting with the conservative section of their society on this issue of Bengali Language.  From 14th to 17th century Bengali muslim poets tried to solve this dilemma in line with their own personal beliefs, taste and courage. I would contend that this period can arguably be said to have seen the tentative rudimentary foundation of a Bengali Muslim ‘proto-nationalism’. But admittedly there isn’t sufficient evidence either way. I am going to quote parts of some poetry from this period in a somewhat chronological order, which will demonstrate the full spectrum of feelings -- ranging from doubt to arrogance – regarding this language issue.

  1. কর্মদোষে বঙ্গেতে বাঙ্গালী উতপন।

না বুঝে বাঙ্গালী সবে আরবী বচন।।

জার জেই ভাষে প্রভু করিলা সৃজন।

সেই ভাষা হয় তার অমূল্য রতন।।

--সৈয়দ সুলতান (১৫৫০-১৬৬৮?), নবী-বংশ (১৫৮৪)

  1. হিন্দুয়ানি অক্ষর দেখি না করিঅ হেলা।।

বাঙ্গালা অক্ষর পরে আঞ্জি মহাধন।

তাকে হেলা করিবে কিসের কারণ।।

--হাজী মুহাম্মদ (১৬শ শতক), নুর-জামাল

  1. মুসলমানী শাস্ত্রকথা বাঙ্গালা করিনু।

বহু পাপ হৈল মোর নিশ্চয় জানিনু।।

কিন্তু মাত্র ভরসা আছয়ে মনান্তরে।

বুঝিয়া মুমীন দয়া করিব আমারে।।

মুমীনের আশীর্বাদে পুণ্য হইবেক।

অবশ্য গফুর আল্লা পাপ ক্ষমিবেক।।

--শেখ মুত্তালিব (১৫৯৫-১৬৬১), কিফায়েতুল মুসলমান (১৬৩৯?)

  1. মুসলমানী কথা দেখি মনেতে ডরাই।

রছিলে বাঙ্গালা ভাষে কোপে কি গোঁসাই।।

লোক উপকার হেতু তেজি সেই ভএ।

দড় ভাবে রচিবারে ইশ্ছিল হৃদএ।।

--আবদুন্‌-নবী (১৭শ শতক), আমীর-হামজা (১৬৮৪-৫)

  1. যে সব বঙ্গেত জন্মি হিংসে বঙ্গবাণী।

   সে সব কাহার জন্ম নির্ণয় না জানি।।

   দেশী ভাষা বিদ্যা যার মনে না জুয়ায়।

   নিজ দেশ ত্যাগি কেন বিদেশে না যায়।।

   মাতা পিতামহ ক্রমে বঙ্গেত বসতি।

--আব্দুল হাকিম (১৬২০-১৬৯০), নূর-নামা



So, that’s the earliest available example of this language vs religion dilemma and conflict facing the Bengali Muslims, and the poets favouring the mother-tongue won this conflict at that time.

In 18th century Bengali Muslim poetry took a new turn. A new genre emerged in this period, which was dubbed the “Punthi” or “Dovashee” literature. The subjects of these poetry were mainly Islamic religion and culture, and even the language was different from the usual normal language, at least in vocabulary – drawing ingredients from Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Bengali all four languages. Following is an example of this genre of poetry:

হনুদ কোশেশ কৈল হইতে তফাত।।

বাঙ্গালা জবান মধ্যে আনিলেক ছারা।

কোফরী শেরেকী বাত ভরিল তাহারা।।

তা দেখি মোজেজ লোকেরা এছলামের।

ছাড়িল সে ভাষা ভাই ঈমান খাতের।।

এছলামে ঈশ্বর বলা কোফরীর জড়।।

এসব কারণে মোরা ছাড়িনু সে ভাষা।।

এলাহী দর্বারে আছে মাফির ভরসা।।

--১১০২ সালে রচিত তাজকেরাতুল বাঙ্গালা পুথি, রচয়িতা পুর্ববঙ্গ-বাসী আবদুল ওহাব। ১৩০৫ জ্যৈষ্ঠ-এর মাসিক মোহাম্মদী-তে উদ্ধৃত।

[[[[[[[ শব্দার্থঃ হনুদ=হিন্দুরা; কোশেশ=চেষ্টা ; ছারা=সারা, সমস্ত ; কোফরী=কাফের, বিধর্মী বা নাস্তিকের চরিত্রানুগত; শেরেকী=ঈশ্বরের বহুত্বে বিশ্বাসীর ভাবযুক্ত, পৌত্তলিকভাবের; মোজেজ=(‘মেজাজ’ থেকে বিশেষণ) আত্নাভিমানসম্পন্ন; ঈমান খাতের=বিশ্বাসের সন্মানে; এলাহী=পরম প্রভু;] ]

One of the main reasons or inspiration behind this new pidginized form of Bengali was to create a new communally separate form of poetic language for the Bengali Muslims. This trend did grew with the support of the Urdu-knowing Moulovi-class and the aspiring-upper class muslims and under the influence of the Wahabi Movement, but the common Bengali Muslims did not have much to do with this, and ultimately this genre did not succeed in forming the Bengali Muslim mainstream.

Within a short period after the establishment of Muslim rule in Bengal, two classes of muslims sprang up in Bengal – somewhat in line with the Roman ‘Patrician and Plebians’. Locally these classes were called Ashrafs and Atrafs. ‘Ashrafs’ were the non-bengali speaking elites, consisting of the rulers, civil servants, soldiers and missionaries coming from Northern & Western parts of India, and the ‘Atrafs’ were the local Bengali-speaking ‘converts’ from Hinduism and Buddhism perceived as a subordinate or lower-class or Plebians. Around these two classes, there grew another group of local people who were  socially mobile upwards and aspired to be elites like the  ‘Ashrafs’, called themselves ‘Ashrafs’ and tried to mimic them in every possible way. This class of  self-declared Ashrafs wanted and tried to speak in Urdu and ascribed an imaginary status and symbolic value on the pidginized form of Bengali or ‘Islamic Bangla’. The Identific character of this variety of Bengali was later recalled by the quarter who wanted to tailor and reshape Bengali to suit Islam and Pakistan during the ‘Pakistani’ period of Bangladesh in 20th century.

The aforementioned Urdu-speaking or Urdu-revering aspiring Ashrafs or elites, especially the Muslim Zaminders and Calcutta-based wealthy Muslim businessmen gained the leadership role of Bengali Muslims in British period. This class inevitably considered Urdu as both Islamic and aristocratic, and Bengali exactly the opposite, reflecting their own class and political interests and bias.

This Bengali-Urdu-Islami Bangla language conflict intensified after the establishment of Muslim League. This scenario is the precursor of the full-blown language conflict in Pakistan in 1950s, because the mass Bengali Muslims still remained firmly grounded in their usual normal Bengali language, although other components of their identity shifted to some degree

Division and Crystallization of Bengali Muslim Identity. Towards the beginning of 20th century, however, the syncretic tradition started melting under the pressure of social realities and political compulsions. This identity took the shape of a political identity where both the Hindu and Muslim communities competed with each other. This fact is discernable in various writings of that period that reflected the differences between the two communities. The literature of this period, barring a few, followed an action-reaction model. The reform movements in both Hinduism and Islam contributed to the consolidation of the two distinct identities based on religious values rather than social. The Hindu identity of both the Bengali Hindus and the Indian in general at this period, had already taken a strong nationalistic character, based on – among other things – shared religion, myths, expediently shaped history, past and present grievances against various events and groups, etc . As nationalism demands ( Hobsbawm points out (ibid), nationalist histories, traditions, identity are often ‘invented’ to various degrees), a significant part of these myths, history, literature and grievances were invented. In this process of Hindu national identity formation, the Muslims were strongly ‘Otherified’.*  This ‘Otherification’ was deemed necessary for their national identity construction, as has been the case in many other national identity formations. In this case, this ‘Otherification’ was even projected backwards through the nationalistic myths, history, literature, and in the overall narrative. In fact, this ‘otherification’ of Muslims became almost an indispensable constituent component of the Indian Hindu national identity construction to some extent. This ‘Otherification’ in turn generated the same process among the Muslims in reaction, especially among the elite: the mullahs/clerics, the aspiring middle class or bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, etc. In Bengal, they began to push forward a separate sense of identity to make the Bengali Muslims see themselves as a unique and exclusive group, which gradually resulted in their social alienation from the Hindus. The emphasis was to mould a communitarian definition based on religion. With these movements, the complementarities of the Bengali identity gave away to the political conceptualization of a Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim identity. The notion of an exclusive ‘Muslim’ identity gained ground and helped crystallize the boundaries of a self-conscious religio-linguistic community, perhaps for the first time in their history”.

Argument for Separate State. The origin of the Bengali Muslims became relevant in the contested identity that competed with the homogenizing efforts of the Congress that argued India as one nation with its pre-Islamic heritage being the defining factor of its identity and as such should be ruled in a majoritarian manner, thus trying to attract the British indulgence to resolve both self rule and the nationality issue. While the Muslims insisted in their Arab, Afghan and central Asian lineages and distinctive culture to forcefully argue that they constitute a separate nation, the Hindus, laid emphasis on the unity of Indian identity – based on their Axial Hindu Classical / Golden Age heritage and on majoritarian rule. With the British arbitrating the political fortune of both the communities, the hitherto syncretic socio-cultural tradition was pushed into the background.

Germination of Bengali Muslim National Identity. The sense of a nation with a political flavor in fact germinated when the first census took place in Bengal in 1881. This for the first time reflected that the Muslims were in a majority. The British regime and the concept of ‘self rule’ gave a new political meaning to the ‘numbers’. However, compared to their Hindu compatriots, they were economically and educationally backward. Their stake in the political system though was very high, this restricted them to compete for any political responsibilities. The Bengali Muslims therefore took to western education to qualify for various government jobs thereby to elevate their socio-economic status, but this faced vehement opposition from the vested economic and thereby political interests of the Hindu community, which already monopolized the job market and the economic and higher education sectors. This in turn resulted in increased participation of Muslims in political activities and in forming such organizations. This was done to protect their genuine interests which they perceived would be undermined in a united India. As discussed earlier, though the Bengali Muslim identity had socially been formed, it had not envisioned itself politically within a territorial confine. The collapse and failure of the Bengal Partition of 1905 due to vehement hindu opposition, presented the need for territoriality to the Bengali Muslims’ mind and thereby gave them a new sense of identity, which in turn through subsequent political developments transformed into a religio-national identity.

One can argue that the Bengali Muslims were more of provincialists rather than nationalists or separatists in their initial approach to the partition, but the collapse of it along with the perceived reasons behind the collapse, germinated new ideas and aspirations.

Fear of economic exploitation & political domination by Hindus. Given the heightened sentiments, competition and perceived deprivation coupled with lack of economic privilege gave rise to a sense of exploitation of the Muslims by the Hindus in the Muslim minority provinces and Bengal. This sense of deprivation was further translated into political capital and its politicization heightened the tension between the two communities. These sentiments were factored into an inevitable fear of a political system dominated by the Hindu majority. Though the Muslims were in a majority in Bengal, they were a minority in united India. The choice was between the partition of India and a united India. Between these two, coupled with the unwillingness of the Bengali Hindus to form a united Bengal, the Bengali Muslims were left with the only option, to unite themselves as a Muslim ‘nation’. Though the feeling of the separate Bengali identity was present during the 1947 partition, efforts were made to cement the linguistic and the religious identities. The Bangiya Muslim Sahitya Samaj and later Muslim Sahitya Samaj played an important role in this. Later, another significant organization, the East Pakistan Renaissance Society, that came into being in the forties and which was a cultural front of the Pakistan movement, applied separatist measures to consolidate the Muslim identity. The feeling was more in conformity with a monolithic Islamic brotherhood which was conceptualized and projected as a ‘nation’ in the Lahore resolution of 1940. The partition and formation of a Muslim nation was a transformation from empire to nation for the sub-continent Muslims given the context of long years of Muslim rule in india.

Identity Dilemma and vote for Pakistan. The euphoria over the partition and creation of a state for the Muslims was short lived for the East Pakistanis. The political mobilization based on religion was built on the assumption that there could not be justice to the Muslims in a Hindu majority state. But at the same time religion based nationalism was not accepted very convincingly. The dilemma of nation and nationhood was reflected in the last minute efforts to form united Bengal.

From the very beginning the Bengali Muslims were conscious of their separate identity. The reason for joining the state of Pakistan for them was to attain economic salvation which was a dominant concern of the predominantly landless peasant class. This class voted overwhelmingly for Pakistan to escape the economic marginalization and exploitation of the overwhelmingly absentee-landowning class which happened to be the Hindus, and the Bengali Muslim emergent bourgeoisie did the same to free up economic and political  space for themselves from the stranglehold of the existing elite which too were the Hindus  .

The state of Pakistan was well envisioned territorially, but the structure of the state and its ideology remained vaguely defined in the pre-partition era. Interestingly, 1947 underlined the success of elites in defining a political identity based on religion that

ultimately led to the formation of the state. However the failure of that identity to sustain the nation was entrenched in the structure of the state.

Pakistan State and the Bengali ‘Nation’: Failure of a Relationship

Identity vs. Nationhood vs. State-hegemonism. The national identity formation of Bengali Muslims went through socio-political metamorphosis as a concept. The formation of Pakistan as a nation state was portrayed as a monolithic foundation based on Islam where the political elite urged their religious compatriots to rise above the narrow provincialism. The state founded on religious nationalism, at the same time, tried to define its citizenry identity in terms of Islam. It was presumed that the religious identity would supercede other primordial identities that would be able to hold together the disparate nation. However a state can always ideally motivate and mobilize the people based on a primordial identity. But to transform it into a political reality and sustain it through the onslaught of sub-national identities, it needs an egalitarian approach to both political aspirations and economic grievances of the various ethno-linguistic groups.

Both political autonomy and economic self sufficiency remained as unattainable goals after the creation of Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan though addressed the fear of Hindu domination in East Bengal however it did not assuage the Bengali Muslims’ aspirations for an equal society. The state of Pakistan introduced various measures to consolidate its hold over the Bengali Muslims. Two important factors contributed to the marginalization of East Pakistanis and weakening of the Pakistan state. First is the politics and second are the language/ cultural issues.

The political events that unfolded after the creation of Pakistan and the economic disparity between the two wings of it thus deepened the antipathy. The Bengali nation and territorial homeland had already existed and provided a driving force to convert this antipathy into a movement, and was influenced by three factors: economic well being, political autonomy and cultural-linguistic autonomy or freedom.

Conflict between Bengalis and the State. The state of Pakistan offered them nothing more than an Essentialist exclusivist nationalism based on religion, where the Bengalis were given latent indication that their culture and language do not comply with their religious belief. The predicament surfaced when the state decided to make Urdu, a language spoken by a minority migrant community belonging to the part that forms India, as the national language. The West Pakistan political elite coaxed the Bengalis to be ‘Muslims’ with those cultural diacritics, that they perceived, were in conformity with the religion.

State Imposition & Formation of Bengali Nationhood. Apart from degrading the linguistic heritage, the cultural celebrations were also looked down upon with disdain by those who considered these as influences of the Hindu culture. Rabindra sangeet which is considered as an eternal source of inspiration to many Bengalis in East Pakistan was banned and efforts were made to Islamise cultural symbols. Efforts were also made to Romanize the Bengali script, to get rid of the influence of Sanskritised words in Bengali literature, to supposedly quickly spread literacy through the introduction of the Arabic script and so on. The state basically tried to impose a kind of twisted Essentialist identity on the Bengalis, ignoring the hybridity and polycentricity of their identity and the latent Constructivist approach therein.  However the state efforts had limited influence due to the protest of the Bengali elites. Most of them perceived this not only as a cultural onslaught on their heritage but an effort to marginalize the Bengalis in the new state. The language movement has got its own heroes in the form of language martyrs who were killed on 21 February 1951 by the Pakistan Army, while demanding the recognition of Bengali as one of the national languages. The Bengali nation was already born on this day nearly about four and half years after the birth of the state of Pakistan. It was waiting for the political impetus that will eventually turn the nation into a nation-state. Like any nation state, having its own myth, history and culture which with the passage of time germinates and consolidates itself as an idea, the Bengali nation also went through political conception, evolution and culminated as a separate nation state.

Reassertion of Bengali Identity: Creation of Bangladesh

Creation of Bangladesh questioned the rationale of a nation formation on the basis of religious identity. The formation of nation-state, its historical and cultural heritages constitute inspiring factors in the national identity construction. The national identity formation – a Bengali identity – which is linguistic laid the political foundation of the nation-state. The liberation war, its foundational inspirations, the context of Bengali aspirations made the state to incorporate secularism as one of its state principles.

The term secularism got politicized due to various circumstantial compulsions. Foreign policy postures of the new state, due to the domestic political dynamics, unnecessarily dragged external countries to the domain of ideological rivalries between various groups in the Bangladesh state. Awami detractors (Awami League: a political party which supposedly spearheaded the political aspect of the Bengali identity) used this as a political tool to discredit it and portray the regime as a ‘client’ of India and a compromiser on the Islamic identity. The adoption of secularism was considered as a compromise in spite of the fact that it was a reaction to a religion-based state. Even today politically this is propagated and socially it is believed to some extent. The reference that was pertinent and served the political purpose then was the 1947 partition which is still relevant in Bangladesh’s national identity construction.

Thus a question that crosses ones mind is whether Bangladesh was socially or politically prepared for the inclusion of ethno-nationalistic secularism in 1971? One can forcefully argue that the incorporation of secularism politicized the religion in Bangladesh, where the definition of secularism was not very clear to the masses, thereby subjecting them to various propaganda regarding its application and meaning. The secular identity was propagated as synonymous with being non-religious which is repugnant to the Muslim majority. It was also perceived to be denying any primacy to Islam.

Historically, the Bengali language is considered as a dominant source of strength of Bangladesh’s nationalism. Therefore in a linguistically defined predominantly Muslim country it was a matter of time for the religious sentiments to be used politically for the reasons of political expediency especially when the governments were military. With the change of political equation in 1975, externally with India and to internally justify the usurpation of Awami Rule, on an ideological plane, it was portrayed as a major challenge to the regime. A societal insecurity regarding religion was carefully crafted and pursued and was also exploited. An atmosphere was created to revive the religious identity of the Bangladeshis given the new political dynamics.

The forces opposed to Awami League believed, for a variety of reasons, that Bangladesh after getting independence from Pakistan which treated it as a colony is again moving in a similar pattern of client-patron relationship with India. Therefore the need for the preservation of Muslim identity resurfaced with the old equations being resuscitated.

The state that had agitated against the use of religion and had fought for a composite culture got sucked into the debate on religious vs secularism and the controversies over what constitutes fundamentals of Bangladesh’s nationhood, exemplifying Peter Omoniyi’s theory on the fluidity of identity – as discussed earlier.

The elite articulation of Bangladesh being a ‘moderate Muslim country’ is ambiguous both in its meaning and implications.

It officially makes the state committed to one particular community. Problem with this kind of political construction of a national identity in an ideologically driven society is that it creates divisions in the polity. This torments and taunts the people who are on the other side of this ideological divide and often places them as outsiders. The polarised Bangladesh politics reflects these issues broadly.

Future of Identity Politics

Conflict in Bangladesh Period. Language versus religion dominates the ideological domain of Bangladesh politics. The domestic politics is completely divided on these counts. The context of ideological rivalry and the question of national identity often constitute the core of this debate. What is debatable is whether religion that was the basis of 1947 nationalism, or language that was the basis of 1971 nationalism, constitutes the relevant basis of state formation. Though the partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion has a different connotation for the Bengali Muslims, this identity still defines the sentiment of a section of the people in the Bangladesh period.

After the 1971 independence and especially since the 1975 major political shift, a basically bi-polar pattern with multiple gradations of hybridity and fluidity in between began to emerge in the identity discourse and politics. This pattern is often further complicated by both overt and covert political and ideological issues that may or may not be necessarily related to the collective identity question at hand – and yet plays a role in it.

At one end of the spectrum is the extreme position of an exclusively Islamic religion-based national identity. This position is further complicated in that some of the groupings representing this position do not even recognize the statehood or nationhood of Bangladesh, while others holding this positions do. But it is even further complicated by the fact that, it is not clear that all of the groupings representing this position who publicly say they recognize the statehood of Bangladesh, aren’t doing so merely for political expediency for the time being and actually holding contrary views privately.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the other extreme position of an exclusively Bengali ethnicity or ethno-linguisticity based identity which excludes any religious component from it. This position is also sometimes complicated by the public-private or overt-covert dichotomy as seen in the opposite pole, insofar as some of the groupings representing this position might be doing it from a private or covert ideological/philosophical standpoint of ‘Atheism’, ‘Agnosticism’, ‘Communism’ or general areligiosity (which they probably feel, if divulged, might be politically inconvenient for them or might even exclude or expel them from this discourse altogether), despite the possibility that these are legitimate yet separate issues.

In between the two extremes, there are several shades or gradations of hybrid positions, which came to the fore especially after the 1975 turning point.

There is the in between position of what is known as the “Bangladeshi” identity. This came to the fore especially after 1975 political change in the country. The basic premise of the proponents and promoters of this position is that, a mere linguistic or ethno-linguistic identity (as supposedly espoused by the previous Awami government in the political arena) is not enough or adequate for the Bengali Muslim majority of Bangladesh, because it denies or overlooks the other valid components of their identity, such as their religion, religious and Bengali muslim heritage and traditions, their territoriality and the difference from the Bengalis of Indian state of West Bengal. The proponents of this position also highlight the ethno-linguistic diversity of Bangladesh by pointing out the existence of other non-Bengali ethnic or ethno-linguistic groups inside Bangladesh. In short, they believe that the “Bangladeshi” identity, instead of a purely “Bengali” identity, covers and accommodates all of the aforementioned necessary and genuine components (in their view) of the identity of the people of Bangladesh.

This position though, is also marred and complicated to some extent by the perception that it is composed of the original flag-bearers of this position or school since 1975 – who were the military usurpers of the first Awami rule, along with a motley of disguised opportunist extreme rightist and old Awami detractor elements. According to this perception, this “Bangladeshi” identity was floated merely or mainly to justify and legitimize, on an ideological plane, the illegal political usurpation (sometimes also perceived to have foreign influences) of the legitimate Awami rule , and also to free up a new ideological space on a political plane for the usurpers and their political successors. At the same time, hoping this new space would eventually deny any space to the ‘secular Bengali identity’ and all that the Awami League supposedly stands for from their point of view. All these, if true, looks like very narrow and highly partisan politics  and political expediency, and rather unauthentic from a genuine nationalistic or construction of ‘national identity’ point of view.

Nevertheless, despite the aforementioned perception among some sections of the population and of the political domain, the ‘Bangladeshi’ school of identity is a somewhat disparate mixture of groupings who have political and ideological leanings in different directions. For example, there is the ‘Bengali’-leaning section of society who, to make a compromise between the ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ identities, promote the idea that there is a difference between the ‘national identity’ based on ‘Nationality’ (in a biological/anthropological sense) by which they really mean the  biological/physical aspect of Bengali ethnicity (insofar as co-extensive with Bengali language). This group or section propounds and promotes the primacy of the ‘national identity’ based on what they call ‘Nationality’ (i.e. biological/physical aspect of Bengali ethnicity), while accommodating the ‘citizenry’ based identity (Bangladeshi) in a restricted ‘legal and political’ domain – subordinate to an overarching socio-cultural primacy  of their brand of ‘nationality’-based identity. This novel school of identity can be located left to centre  (left to Bangladeshi) in the spectrum, i.e. somewhere in between the Bangladeshi and the polar Bengali identities.

Looking at the arguments of this position, it does seem that the compromise based on the differentiation made by this Bengali-Bangladeshi school is actually based on some sort of mistranslation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding or misapplication of the originally Western terms and concepts of nation, nationness, nationalism and ‘national identity’, as we can gather from our initial discussion. As we have seen earlier : nation, nationalism and ‘national identity’ are all essentially political and ideological constructs, even when these constructs are “Essentialist”. No  identity as opposed to or contrasted with a political identity can become the “National Identity” of political constructs called “Nation” or “State” without becoming a part or whole of the political construct “National Identity” – in which case it stops being non-political, non-legal and purely socio-cultural or anthropological. If the identity remains in a non-political, social and cultural domain, then it also inevitably remains either a proto-national or a sub-national identity. Secondly, this school seems to have confused a natural phenomenon and fact (biology of ethnicity) with an artificial ideological construct (national identity). Thirdly, they are also mistakenly emphasizing  relevance of the biologically distinguishing nature of the biological aspect of ethnicity/race in a continuum of ethnicities of the human species, especially since modern science (especially genetics, which is pivotally relevant in this context) has shown that the distinguishing characteristics of the biology of ethnicity are merely superficial and has little scientific or objective relevance in distinguishing any human grouping authentically, and that it has no logical political or ideological implications.  The example of this peculiar school of identity (and of other schools) is mainly given here to show the complexities, confusions and pitfalls surrounding the Bengali Muslim identity crisis, which is caught and torn between a labyrinthine web of often divergent ideas and ideals, motivations and aspirations.

In general with a broad stroke though it can perhaps be said that, over the years the “Bangladeshi” identity has gained ground and nowadays probably the majority of population subscribe to this identity in various shapes, shades and forms – since they seem to agree with the basic arguments put forward in support of this position, despite the perceived ulterior agenda of some quarters among the political flag-bearering elite of this position.

The discussion above basically demonstrates the prevalence of a Constructivist approach in the national identity formation and evolution of the Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh, despite the existence of some pseudo-Constructivists among them.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that this Bangladesh era paradigm of identity formation still draws too much upon the primordial identities of ethnicity, language and religion, and to some extent arguably validates Hans Kohn’s statement that “…Eastern nationalism [and thereby identity] is characterized with being ethnic, based on blood ties and mostly religious”, as opposed to Western nationalism being “Civic, democratic”. But the above discussion, albeit very brief, also shows the hybridity, fluidity and dynamism in the Bangladeshi Bengali Muslim identity spectrum and in the discourse on identity – upto a certain extent, with a slow and potential shift towards a developed civic, democratic type of identity especially with the advent of globalization.

Conclusion: In conclusion, it should be realized, as mentioned in the quotation at the very beginning of this article, that “Human mental identities are not like shoes, of which we can only wear one pair at a time. We are all multi-dimensional beings.” A Bangladeshi individual can be a lot of things at the same time – a Bengali, a muslim or hindu or buddhist, an atheist or agnostic, a communist or ethno-nationalist, a Chakma or Bihari, a husband-wife-son-or daughter, a secular humanist or rationalist, a Western movie and Bengali music lover, a wage earner or a businessman, etc. There is no single, exclusive platonic essence of an individual Bangladeshi. He can be many of the above and much much more at the same time . This also applies to the collective national identity formation, if the diversity within is recognized and legitimized.

This modern approach is only possible in a modern “Civic, democratic” pluralistic set up focusing on progressive social and political values and institutions building based on an inclusive shared sense of reality and humanity, where the multi-dimensionality of individuals is recognized and legitimized and as such all individual members are also legitimized and empowered to contribute to the national identity discourse and formation (as opposed to being – to some extent - imprisoned by a narrow elite articulation of it, as has been happening in Bangladesh up to now), without being straitjacketed into any particular religious, socio-cultural , ideological or philosophical loyalty first, and where the practices and institutions can integrate different perspectives that involve subtlety, nu­ance, and the ability for change and growth through collective self-reflection.

Individuals, in order to be part of a family group, community group, nation group, and global (human) group, however, require more than external guidance.  They require enough of a sense of shared reality and humanity to coalesce around these different levels of social organization.  Social organizations that embrace diversity and are broad and stable are not based on shared myths or shared histories. Certainly not in the narrow and traditionally described cultural sense. Rather, the coming together is around shared processes that construct a complex reality and a complex view of humanity that shares implicit rules for the group’s survival. An example of the application of such implicit rules is the formation of derivative institutional processes that are larger than any one specific belief (for example, those that support justice).

That is, at a basic level we see groups that cohere around some superficial trait, like skin color or language, or depend on con­crete, pol­arized images and rigid, inflexible rules; at a more advanced level the group might cohere around some polarized belief system; and a still more advanced structure develops institutions that encourage highly reflective and abstract thought processes.

Becoming emotionally invested in abstract concepts, such as equality, justice, and democracy, can be more challenging than being emotionally invested in polarized beliefs (we are better than them) or surface physical traits. Only individuals who have evolved through the capacities described above can channel emotions to animate the abstract ideals of their society and the structures that embody them. Social cohesion results from what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “consent of the governed.” It is a product of the affects widely held within a group rather than of compulsion and regimentation.

This is where, again, the question of recognition-legitimization-empowerment of the individual and his/her multi-dimensionality on the one hand and development of the individual as a flexibly and adaptively growing, thinking and reflective being on the other hand  who can animate a process of collective self-reflection and national-identity formation that accommodates different perspectives involving subtlety, nu­ance, and the ability for change and growth through an inclusive shared sense of reality and humanity, comes to the fore. In fact, it’s a two-way traffic, an interactive interdependent process – each needs the other and none can’t do without the other.

In short, for the formation of such an advanced Values and Institutions based Collective or National identity and building an advanced society as described above made of resourceful, perceptive and  reflective, developed individuals – a modern and truly “Civic, democratic” secular and pluralistic political-cultural set up based on inclusive shared sense of reality and humanity, is indispensible. And therein lies the future of National Identity evolution of Bangladesh, instead of the traditional elite articulation, compulsion or regimentation.


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