Dhaka Courier

Ekushe and the middle class political imagination


The events and trends that is considered to have emerged out of Ekushe February constitute the mainstream of the Bangladeshi middle class political imagination. While the extremists amongst them insist that the liberation war of 1971 was not only triggered but rooted in those events. Actually though, the movement began right after 1947 and the conflict over language was always high in the cultural space.

The rest of course think that without the Ekushey , the national liberation movement would not have sparked or peaked the way it did. No matter what, the centrality of February as the trigger of  the Bangladesh state making is taken for granted.

The class origins of cultural movements are less studied in our history. Over time , such movements are deified and in the process placed outside scrutiny. Cultural events therefore are seen as a larger mission that ultimately ends with claims  and credit of state making. This has also been the case of Ekushey.

Interpretation of historical triggers

What shapes the interpretations are its role in history and in case of Bangladesh the nature of its political existence surrounded by historical triggers. Insistence of primary triggers hence markers are needed to establish the supremacy of markers. The need for contextualization therefore is to mediate claims as other primary dominant markers  are also part of state making.

Such markers are multiple and sourced from all aspects of society. They are from race, ethnicity, language , faith, territory or class clusters. Everyone carries several of them in their self so it becomes a contest of proving which marker is dominant historically. The political construction of state making projects binds people to such markers.

One purpose of having such markers has been their unifying role in a state making project.  Its necessary to unite them under one meta banner of uncontested  “sacred” identity markers ignoring or diminishing other markers. This has been observed in South Asian history consistently as establishing a meta marker remains a necessary political objective in this process.

This serves policies of consolidation of various groups robustly.  Hence the culturalization of politics has become a very important exercise as it defines controlling political state management using cultural markers best. Hence , they are not “cultural” in its discreet sense but an aid of political control.

Since in isolation, cultural processes actually have no objectives of control, its political aspect dominates. The process of amalgamating both cultural and political is critical. It is the core through which the historical process is expected to play out.

In case of Bangladesh this has been the case too. However, as an unusual economic system evolves which is largely informal, such formal representations of  politics making  isn’t made clear. What remains constant though is the production of the “sacred” culture as protector of the political objective. Ekushey as the ultimate national icon fulfills those objectives.

The socio-economic location of markers

Events, systems, icons have dominant and subsidiary characteristics. For example, agro- related festivals may be observed in the cities but are located more authentically in the villages. Hence the proximity to the socio-economic space is important in understanding the semiotics of the event and purpose. Thus Ekushey needs to be interpreted similarly tracing its location, participants and  ultimate iconization.

February is linked to what is described as a ethno-linguistic state making trigger. Its location is cultural, its origin is in state language status linked to access to socio-economic development and control.

Its leadership also came from the elite minority. This narrative was therefore established as the mainstream though it was not the mains issue of the majority but one largely of a particular class. However, it became dominant in construction of the liberation movement over time and emerged as the dominant marker. In the process the bearers of the process became the leaders of the state as well.

Two identities were discussed as antagonistic. Language loyalty meant discarding religious identity. This was natural as Pakistan was considered  “Islamic” and Bangladeshis were considered “Bengali”. Realistically, putting two identities from different identity baskets makes less sense but it became the vehicle for ethno-linguistic nationalism. That both were present in Bangladeshis were ignored for the moment in the strive for state making by the middle class Ekushey  based leadership.

1971 politics

1971 shows that the most robust resistance to Pakistan came from the peasantry who had little or nothing to do with cultural markers as agricultural economy had little scope for formal sector employment. The peasant resisted, because their own life and livelihood was threatened. The interpretation was not middle class aspiration based because they were not from the urban middle class. They had no discernible socio-economic stake in the language issue.

The 7th March speech of Sk. Mujib was a great motivator of the peasantry but what was the reason for that is less discussed. If the party stood for the ethno-linguistic state making project, and the peasant had marginal connection, if at all , why were they involved  and why did they follow Sk. Mujhib’s call?.

Current research shows that the peasantry interprets the world differently from the middle class and produce and follow their own historical streams. However, this probing is still at a seminal stage  and needs more exploration. What is however clear is that a state is not a monolithic interest or identity driven project but one which encapsulates many ideas and identities. If that is so, the search for the nature of the state and its actual versus the dominant narrative trigger for state making should continue.

  • Ekushe February
  • 1971
  • Ekushe and the middle class political imagination
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • War

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