Four Days in Free Bangla

Partha Banerjee

Way back then, in the days of the liberation struggle, I remember how badly I wanted to come back to Bangladesh. I remember how emotionally charged I was to see Bengalis fighting against a tyrannical empire and winning their freedom. I remember how my young blood boiled when they mass-murdered the intellectuals and dumped their bodies. I remember how in 1971, I spent time trying to help out the poor, hurt men and women crossing over Benapol to take refuge in West Bengal.

I�ve always been so closely attached with the wholeness of the land of Bengal that an opportunity to be there physically was always on my mind. I knew it was going to happen some day. And it happened, only after waiting for thirty-three odd years. But now in the autumn of 2004, there I was, standing on the soil of free Bangla. A dream finally came true.

Yes, I know so far, it sounds like an introduction to one of those typical, corny memoirs. And I don�t make any bones about the fact that just like any average Bengalee, emotion plays deep in me. After all, I am also a product of the top-quality, emotional Bengali intelligentsia � a matter of a lifestyle � that nurtured my existence since when I came to know the world, opened my eyes to it.

"ami chokh mellum akashe, jege uthlo tara, phute uthlo aalo, golaper dike cheye bollum sundar, sundar holo she."

- Tagore

(I woke up in the sky stars bloomed lights sprouted I said to the rose, "beautiful" and it became so)

My senses developed breathing in Bangla language, imbibing in Bangla culture, to imbue in its music, poetry, film, drama, tarja, jatrapala, and all. Rabindranath, Nazrul, Jibanananda, Lalan, Satyajit, Nati Binodini, Jahir Raihan. The Vaishnava, Islam, Buddhism, Brahma, atheism and socialism. The Sufis and the Sadhaks. The kirtans, shyamasangeets, bhawaias and bhatialis. The Marxism, Maoism, secularism and Bhasha Andolan. The Titumir, Kano-Sidho, Birsa, Khudiram, Subhas Bose, Bhasani, Tebhaga, Naxalbari, the Six-Point Programme and 1971. An open society and free-thinking lifestyle. The quest for truth and the courage to challenge and question the unfounded. It�s the history of struggle for more than a thousand years. It�s the history of an incredible development of the human mind.

I believe people who don�t understand how full of movements � social, political, religious, literary � our heritage and histories are and how much we love our rights to stand up for progressiveness and against injustice, lies and prejudice just don�t get Bengalihood � Bangalitwa. It doesn�t matter if you grow up in Dhaka, Sylhet, Kolkata, Nadia or Noakhali. It doesn�t matter if you grow up in London, New York or Bonn. If you get Bengalihood, you get it anywhere.

So, my four days in November, 2004 in Dhaka, Comilla and Chandpur reassured me of my own identity, an identity evolved through this thousand-year-old, vibrant, forwardly changing history. I also saw how a sudden stagnation and the lack of an understanding of this identity are now fast eroding the carefully-built multi-faith, multicultural, humanist foundation of Bengalihood, just the way the once-beautiful embankment at Chandpur�s Padma-Meghna-Dakatia confluence is slipping away and going under. On the other hand, I saw how the on-the-ground, educated Bengalees are still passionate and optimistic to save the land from this rapid erosion. Question is, what exactly is being done to prevent an absolute destruction of our Bengali identity and how effective that plan of action, if any, is.

My fear is that there is no real plan of action that is in place now. A largely right-wing government and a largely fake opposition keep making the matter even worse. A selfish, materialistic lifestyle is taking over our once-egalitarian, spiritual core. Brainwashing courtesy U.S. corporate culture on one hand and Bollywood on the other is rapidly taking over the once-thinking minds of the Bengali youth.

Rabindranath is still a revered figure in Bangladesh, but perhaps much more so in Dhanmandi, Purana Paltan, Gulshan, Banani or Ramna than in most other cities, let alone villages. Is Nazrul still respected? Of course, but again, more in formally educated Bengali homes. Is Mujib still a father figure? Middle-class visitors to his old Dhanmandi house � now turned into a national museum � are trickling in and watching with awe the relics from the dark August, 1975 days. Is Jibanananda popular? Well, among the poets and their admirers, maybe, but certainly not among the pro-West youth. What about the bards, authors, freedom fighters, filmmakers, and in short, the thousands of people who built the one thousand years of our history? I returned with a deep sense of skepticism: history is not really an important part of the Bangla identity any more. I find that scary.

In the movie Matir Moyna, the celebrated Masuds have shown � in a very artisitic and subtle way � how slowly but surely, a generation is rising without any education on Bengalihood. The Masuds� portrayal seemed so realistic and thus so worrisome. My short visit reaffirmed my apprehension that it was indeed the case. Notwithstanding I was there right after the Eid, witnessing the fact that a vast couple of hundred miles of both rural and urban Bangladesh is taken over by festoons and banners of Madrasas and Mahila Madrasas was not a matter of great comfort. Neither it was a heartening sight to see fundamentalist dogma loudspeaker-hit off numerous rikshaws and vans in the nooks and crannies of small town centers and village haats. Where does this enormous money come from to pay for such huge expenses? Who are the sponsors of these many schools and institutions? Is someone carefully watching over their accounts and activities? Who�s running their well-oiled (and I must say, well-run) hospitals, health- and community centers? Someone needs to keep a close eye on them.

Problem is, Bengali intellectuals and elite liberals do not have time for it. Just like the egocentric, individualistic liberals in India, England or USA, they do not want to get their hands dirty. I�m talking about both Muslims and Hindus of Bangladesh. There are of course exceptions, but these exceptions prove the norm. The fundamentalists and fanatics know it. In Bangladesh, the Jamats and the Oikyo Jot know it, just like the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad know it in India. They know how to organize and exploit peoples� minds on the issues of discontent and rich-poor divide. They also know how to use the urban-rural disconnect.

It is definitely neither my point that all the Madrasa teachers are against an independent Bangladesh nor do I believe they�re all teaching their students to be pro-Taliban. In fact, just like I�ve experienced the presence of honest, decent people in Hindu right wing RSS and BJP, I know there are thousands of good-hearted Muslims who�re sending their kids to the many Madrasas and other parochial, inexpensive schools and hospitals, mainly because the state with its corrupt system has failed to serve the poor and completely lost their trust about a civil society and government. The rampant violence in broad daylight has only exacerbated this mistrust.

What matters the most is that the open, artistic, musical, harmonious Bengali way of life is being replaced fast by a closed, dark, divisive culture where not just Rabindranath, Bankim or Nazrul, but the concepts of color, art, music, poetry and drama would be banished once and for all. It will not happen overnight, but it is bound to happen unless prevented now. The erosion of the Chandpur embankment has created ample sand and silt and they�ve stopped the flow of riverine Bangladesh, a flow that has always been the lifeline of the land of Bengal, as we know it.

The urban, formally educated Bengali middle class is still happy and complacent. There are scores of quality daily newspapers and magazines that keep churning out old-fashioned yet powerful, secular journalism. Still, to me, it seemed the newspaper- and television producers and editors do not get the extent of the identity displacement. Bengali intelligentsia keeps itself merry with a feel-good, nothing-can-go-wrong mindset.

But things are going wrong. The most important freedom that we have in a free country � freedom to think � is being taken away and we�re not even aware of it. An otherwise bright, fifth grader in Chartha, Comilla is getting addicted to trash Bollywood spy thrillers and wasteful, flamboyant test cricket. His parents happily declare that his idols are now Amitabh Bacchhan and Sachin Tendulkar. It made me take a deep breath and think twice about the direction even an educated, honest, Bengali family in a small town is going. And this is only a tiny part of the big picture.

I remember how I had once been shocked to find out that most graduating students in a New York City-based Bangla school would not even know who Satyajit Ray was and how Kolkata and Dhaka were parts of the same province a little more than half a century ago. A shallow, uninformed mind lacking the abilities to learn and analyze is the fertile ground for sowing the seeds of bias, naivete, self-gratification and backwardness. This is happening in U.S. This is happening in India. I thought I would see things different in free Bangla. I was wrong.


Dr. Partha Bannerjee is the executive director of New Jersey Immigration Policy Network and a fellow of Independent Press Association (IPA).  To learn more about him, visit his website at

�  Mukto-Mona