In his fascinating novel, Shame, Salman Rushdie describes Pakistan as a country not sufficiently imagined. It is nothing but a patchwork of disparate territories created with haste and not much thinking, all done to advance the interest of a small group of people, ‘migrants settling down on partitioned land’. One of the first things the new rulers proceeded to do was attack the country’s history. They tried to erase its Indian past – of which it had been a part for millennia – and to create an artificial history imposed from above. The country, in Rushdie’s view, was a failure of the dreaming mind.
Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh – its erstwhile eastern wing – was the result of a deeply-held dream and relentless struggles for its realization. Rushdie is right, a pre-requisite for freedom is a deeply ingrained dream that is shared by the people of a land and its leaders. No nation wins freedom merely by chance occurrence or fluke. It has to be rooted in an enduring dream. It may have taken the people of Bangladesh some 24 years to translate that dream into reality, but there never was a doubt this is how the night would dawn.
Unsurprisingly, the seeds of that dream were planted even before Pakistan splintered out of India. In June 1947, almost three months before the partition of India, Gana Azadi League, a political movement based in the eastern part of the proposed ‘Islamic state’, issued a manifesto calling for economic independence for the eastern wing. What is the importance of independence if it does not bestow economic independence for its people? Hence, the manifesto proclaimed, we are committed to continuing our struggle for total economic emancipation.
It is quite likely that the leaders of the League were unaware of the Marxist theory of the correlation between politics and economics - that politics is merely an extension of economics - but they nevertheless were convinced the economic infrastructure that the Pakistani leaders were plotting would only be an extension of the colonial experience they had fought hard against. Within a year of Pakistan’s creation, the nationalist movement that emerged in the eastern part of Pakistan used language and culture as the rallying cry, but the underlying driver was the desire for political and economic emancipation.
When Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s supreme leader, declared in March 1948 that Urdu alone would be Pakistan’s state language, it was first met with resistance from the leading Bengali intellectuals. Dr Muhammad Shahidullah was among the first to underline both political and economic consequences of such a decision. If Urdu or Hindi is adopted as the new nation’s state language, he wrote, this would result in political subjugation of the Bengalis. Dr Enamul Huq, another leading intellectual, hit the nail on the head by emphasizing that the adoption of Urdu as state language would result not only in the demise of the cultural identity of the Bengalis but also the demise of their political and economic independence. He argued that just like the British colonialists who had used English to ‘dominate and exploit’ the Indians, the new rulers of Pakistan would use Urdu to secure their total control. This is not acceptable, he declared.
This early realization by Bengali intellectuals soon spread to the broader public. Jinnah’s arrogant pronouncement led to a mass upsurge in East Bengal, mainly because the ordinary people understood language was going to be a tool for domination in the hands of the new rulers. Obviously, the language issue included a ‘populist’ undertone. After all, by making Urdu the state language, the Pakistanis were effectively undercutting the Bengalis, most of whom did not know Urdu, from government jobs. For this obvious reason, students emerged as the vanguard of the new resistance movement.
The political explosions of 1952 led straight to the elections of 1954 and the historic win of the United Front led by Fazlul Huq. An overwhelming majority of Bengalis, who only half a dozen years ago had voted in favour of Pakistan, switched sides and voted in favour of an alliance that better reflected their hopes and aspirations.
Fazlul Huq, a charismatic politician, had once spurned Muslim League to form his own political party with peasants and rural poor as his power base. He was the obvious choice for the United Front not only because he was the most popular national leader in eastern Bengal, but also because of his known refusal to kowtow Jinnah and his followers.
Not surprisingly, almost within days of winning the premiership in East Pakistan, Fazlul Huq pronounced his support for the autonomy of East Bengal. It was not clear whether Huq wanted a full separation from Pakistan or merely political autonomy for the eastern wing, yet his words were incendiary enough for Pakistan’s ruling circle who summarily sacked East Pakistan’s first democratically elected government.
16 years later, in another historic election in 1970, Bengalis seized another opportunity to denounce Pakistan and stand behind a leader who had made no secret of his plan for East Bengal. In fact, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, later Bangabandhu Mujib, was jailed by the Pakistani government for conspiring with India to secure East Pakistan’s cessation from the west wing. The liberation war that followed was only a logical consequence of the 24-year long quest of Bengalis for self-determination.
None of this happened by chance.
Unlike Pakistan, a land not sufficiently imagined, the creation of Bangladesh was the result of a deliberate choice made by Bengalis. Behind that choice was both a dream and a hope. Laying a brick upon brick, they built a monument that they lovingly called Bangladesh. At the very core of each of those bricks was a dreaming mind!
4 March 2019, New York