Friday, October 16, 2009

Apnar Bari Kothai?

I regularly visit the coastal regions of Bangladesh for work. Whenever I meet a family, like in every other place in Bangladesh, the first personal question I am asked is: apnar bari kothai (where is your home)?

My standard, first response to the question is Dhaka. This is usually met by a curious look, because very few people are really from Dhaka. Dhaka is a city of migrants, many of whom have lived here for generations, but have never owned it. For most, it is a city to be at, not a place to be from.

So I have to explicate with: I live in Dhaka now, but our family is really from Habiganj, Sylhet.

This answer is met with: Oh! So do you visit Sylhet? How is your village?.

I don’t know. We lost everything to the river.

This earns me instant empathy. They take me in as one of them — a migrant soul detached from her roots, a survivor of our changing homeland. Then they want to tell me more about themselves because they feel a kind of kinship.

But I am not sure how similar our migrant experiences really are. Our home in Habiganj was washed away by the river even before I was born. I was born uprooted. Most of the people I meet at the coast are uprooted in the near past, some are being uprooted in the very present.

Apnar bari kothai?

That’s one of the first questions Bangladeshis tend to ask each other at the first meeting. You could be in the middle of a business meeting in Dhaka, a courtyard meeting at some remote village in the coast, a posh drawing room in Delhi, London or Washington, or just on cyberspace. But you can bet on this being among the first questions.

When they ask this, they don’t mean to ask where you live now. Like most overcrowded, growing-at-a-pace-faster-than-we-can-keep-up-with population, Bangladeshis are shifting — transitioning between our imagined homelands and our migrant realities. So when they ask about ‘home’, they mean the root. We want to know where it all began.

I’ve often wondered why. Why do we care where our roots lie, when we are branched so far from it? Why do we care where it all began when we know that we can never go back to it?

Salman Rushdie compares migrant people with translated work. When we marvel at the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, do we appreciate the Persian genius, or his translators into English or Bangla? Similarly, Rushdie asks us migrant people to celebrate our transplanted, chutneyfied self.

People I meet often ask me if I speak the Sylheti dialect. I don’t. This is not commonly spoken in Dhaka, and I speak the chutneyfied dialect of the city. Maybe I should follow what Rushdie suggests.

But any celebration can only be done by those for whom the uprooting was a matter of choice. The children born to families losing lives and livelihoods to floods, cyclones, river erosions and all the other ancillaries that is climate change, what choices will they have? These children will not remember what home looked like.
When I meet children at the coast, children who have been forced to leave their homes, which has its own socio-cultural milieu, I think that someday, they'll end up like me, where Khulna - faissha fish - pot gaan will only exist for them in the stories their parents will tell them about the good old days.

This December, the mighty and powerful, and their hangers on, will meet in Copenhagen to discuss the future of the planet. There will be a lot negotiation, based on complicated modeling, on who will pay whom how much for cutting what amount of emissions for over how long. Somber sounding communiqués will be issued. Pundits will parse every single word of that document.

Will anyone think about the children who will not know how to answer apnar bari kothai?

Monday, October 05, 2009

The One Art That I've Mastered

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Indeed, indeed, indeed, indeed. If there is this one art like that I have mustered up the courage to master, it is the art of loosing. The art of loosing voluntarily, the art of giving up, the art of not looking back upon the things I lost, the people I left behind and the art of loosing parts of me, which at some point had seem integral, but now no longer seem to matter.

After much ado about fulfilling every minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run--ala Kipling-- I have finally mastered the art of loosing hours everyday to wakefulness and lapses in memory and blanket confusion.

Loosing no longer seems like a harsh word or defeat. It's more of a coping mechanism.I've lost my obsession for perfection, I'm lost the ability to rest and I've lost the will to do anything about correcting these loses. And for once, I feel free. I also feel proud because I've finally mastered the art of loosing, without feeling shame.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Twenty-Three Percent- Part 2

After reading part-I somebody asked me, “Would you vote for Bill Gates, Obama, Warren Buffet or Dr Yunus (famous names) *IF* (hypothetically) they happened to be convicted crooks, yet known to have seen their projects thru? (IF they were corrupt they shouldn’t have been in the ballot list in the first place).”

This is a complex question with a complex answer. The Bangladeshi voters are not a monolithic group. All of us think differently and use different criterion to judge candidates. Ideologically, these people shouldn’t even get nomination, let alone get voted to power, but truth is, these guys keep coming back.

Here are some home truths:

1. We give the intellectuals -- buddhijibis and the sushils way-- too much credit for their intelligence and their understanding of politics. And btw, that group includes you and me. We think we’re a better judge of people, politics and policies. That's our class arrogance.
2. The man on the street’s (the rickshawallah, phoolwala, dokandar, etc and then their wives and children) political acumen is much sharper than yours or mine
3. When you and I, and the sushil’s judge the competency of the political parties or candidates, we do it for the text book/newspaper reasons.
4. When the man on the street votes he votes for the man he thinks will make the most difference in his life. This holds true for most constituencies aside from Dhaka. In Dhaka, the man on the street votes for the party they think is less evil.

The most vocal argument for the case against “NO VOTE” is that “the man on the street is not aware of it” or “the man on the street won’t know how to use it”. Newsflash: They understand this concept way better than you and me. When a rickshawala says “ Vote dia laabh ki, jei ashuk, amar ki?”, that doesn’t only reflect his nonchalance or disappointment, but that’s also a testament of the fact that he would rather neither party/candidate came to power. So you think if we give him the option of ensuring netiher came to power, he wouldn't take it?

The last few weeks have been spent in the New Market/ Gawsia or Mirpur area. The sellers, be it of sarees, flowers or food, are the ones usually most affected by government decisions, opposition reaction and hence by default, election result. On the day Khaleda Zia’s 48 hour ultimatum for the 4-point demands was about to expire, I was at New Market buying cloth. We received a sms that said that Dhaka police had been asked to stay alert and that some commotion (to put it mildly) was anticipated. This triggered the auto-reaction to run back home. This is when the cloth-sellers, all five of them (aged between 15-27) started laughing. “Apa, eishob dabi to koto shunlam. Manuk ar na manuk election hoibo na. Hoileo ar emon ki hoibo. Bhoi paan ken? Oidin ekhon nai. Rastai aaj k ar bus puraibo na. Madam pach bochor e kichu korte pare nai, ekhon ar ki korbe? Bon bon”. So they basically figured out, what actually, eventually, did happen -- Nothing! They were perhaps more skeptical about a fully fair and participatory election than my father (and believe me that’s hard to come by). That's how aware they are.

A voter in Sylhet sadar I know will still vote for Saifur Rahman. Why? Because his AL opponent can’t really speak Sylheti and fears that the AL nominee will care too much Dhaka’s plush drawing room politics and parties and less about Sylhet grassroots. Textbook voters like you and me would not vote hesitate to vote for the AL nominee. The AL nominee in question has a cleaner slate, but what this voter is looking for and what the nominee is missing, is the connection. They cannot relate to one and another and the voter doesn’t FEEL that this guy will do much for Sylhet sadar. That’s our man on the street. That’s also the 19 year old voter in Sylhet sadar. But with the “NO VOTE” option, he might decide that neither the sylheti millionaire nor the alien sylheti-bengali deserve his vote and that the parties will just have to find a more deserving candidate to get the Sylhet sadar seat.

At the end of the day, we have to accept that the reason the “crooks” keep coming back to power is because they actually appeal to the residents of their constituencies. Not all votes are bought or stolen. Not every ballot box is stolen neither is it rigged. These “crooks” are nominated because we don’t press our parties to give us a more viable alternative. Therefore, to me atleast, the "NO VOTE" seems like a way that we can use to force parties to look for cleaner candidates.

For those who still want to vote for the textbook reasons, I earnestly request all to actually read the party manifestos which will be out shortly. All the shopkeepers I know now are eagerly waiting to hear about the “promises”, but they say that they are always disappointed because there’s never an action plan to follow these pledges through. A check on corruption will also be a part of the new set of pledges.

The new 23% also includes people who will also vote for these “crooks” with full knowledge of their alleged corruption. But some may still decide that none of these people really deserve our vote. The “NO VOTE” may be a new concept. It may not garner a lot of votes this time around. But it will divide the vote bank. It will at least show the politicians that we, the people, still have the power. Then may be in the next election, they’ll remember that all of us might decide that neither AL nor BNP deserve power. Let’s force them to come up with and implement action plans as opposed to mere pledges. Those of us who can, let's at least read and analyse the manifestos. If we want to do it the textbook way, then let's at least do it right.

The Twenty-three Percent- Part 1


[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="photo: Daily Star"]photo: Daily Star[/caption]

Being a first time voter isn’t easy, especially if you’re a class moddhbitto or above. There so many expectations. Everybody sees you and talks about you as the future of the country and how we will be at the helm of things soon. But at the same time, we’re dubbed irresponsible and uninterested. Some are actually nice enough to say that our generation (born in the 80’s) is just disenchanted. Fair enough. A lot of us, if not most, don’t see the point in queuing up and voting for people we barely know or know only from our social circles (Kamrul uncle, Ershad nana etc); people who’ll never get to know us either. Yes, it’s true, most of us don’t ardently follow politics or politicians, but the real question is, are they following us?

I missed my first ever chance to exercise “democratic” right as an adult citizen of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in January 2007. Needlessly to say, I was ecstatic, spastic and thoroughly confused. Here are some comments from people like me who were/are excited about their voting rights. Barring the “drawing-room politics” of Dhaka, my political beliefs were naïve (sometimes they still are as I still dream of a utopian realm where religion isn’t abused), often misguided, sometimes based or judged simply on the basis of hearsay (TR’s alleged billions) and in most times just a spontaneous reaction to something I had just watched on the news (a former home minister’s comments on the accidental death of a child during a shoot-out or the public humiliation of a wife by her ex-president husband). Then the riots started. Anyone who was in Dhaka from December 2006 till January 2007 must remember the sights and sounds of public slaying/incineration of men, of burnt buses and terrified people. The whispers of “martial law” and “blue helmets” and rhetoric of a new and improved “option three” didn’t help either. We watched one party run a parallel government for five years paying no heed to rampant corruption and its media-aided world-wide publicity. The other went blood-hungry and berserk on the streets of Dhaka.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Gender Violence at Work-place? Deal with it!

The Newage front-page reports that among other things in Bangladesh, the state of gender-based violence at the work place is also deteriorating. Big surprise! The news comes as a result of a survey conducted by the Social Science Research Council of the Planning Commission, under Ministry of Finance and Planning. The news report by BSS states that ‘92.3 per cent working women of urban areas and 88.3 per cent of rural areas have been badly treated by various types of violence by their male counterparts’. Therefore, on an average, 90% of all women suffer from gender violence at their workplaces. I honestly can’t say that I am surprised.

The study reports that ‘huge number of adolescent girls and women were being sexually abused in their workplace but it was the most hidden and underreported from violence as there is a tendency to deny the incident.’ Almost all the women I know, including self and FnF and those I have worked with, have complained about facing gender-violence of some form or other at their workplace. It’s a malice we are all equally aware of, but powerless against. Even this report—for all it’s gravity and accuracy—is going to be well received, but after being discussed, debated and dissected, will be forgotten and our fates will remain the same. Perhaps, women who are violated every day have already lost faith in our institutions, laws and elders and their ability to protect us. Perhaps, it’s because most people still don’t even understand what constitutes gender-violence/sexual harassment, not even the victims themselves. Perhaps, it’s because we’ve all somehow contributed in making things worse for us by encouraging violence in our silences. Perhaps because we’ve become complacent about this and now choose to take in our stride—after all, independent, successful women who’re trying to make it in a man’s world should just learn to ‘deal with it’ and not complain (because men tell us they don’t).

The Planning Commission study revealed that, ‘More than 22 per cent of the working women identified existence of few legal provisions as one of the main reasons for violence at the workplace in the urban area.’ Now, I don’t know if the sample included women working both white collar and blue collar jobs, but I do know that the problems in both cases,even in the public sectors/local government are, fundamentally, of the same nature. Thanks to the hue and cry about ‘compliance’, ‘ISO’ and ‘ILO standards’, garments factory owners, among others who promote themselves as emancipators of women, begrudgingly introduce ‘codes of conduct’ to try and protect the women whose hard work go into sustaining this 6 billion dollar industry. Sure they all have codes and ethics and rules and laws. But these efforts are cosmetic at best. They do however have activists and trade unions fighting for their cause, but what of the white collar female workers? A female colleague of mine was once slapped (and had her hair pulled and arm pinched, albeit playfully, but unsolicited) by a male superior at the office (a real liberal ad agency). Outraged, I had asked her if she had liked being ‘handsy’ with her male colleagues and why she hadn’t reported him, she had given me a sad smile and said, ‘Ki korbo Fariha? Na like kore ekhon ki korbo? Kothai giye complain korbo? Thanai?’ Asholei, what choice does she have? However, when the same happened to me, among other things at the same office, I did take it up to our female HR director, who said ‘Yes I know this happens, but what can we do? It’s very difficult to get candidates for this job [referring to the perpetrator]. I can’t fire him for this now can I? I guess I’ll just have to warn him again. [For the 25th time].’ I quit the agency ages ago, but that man still works there. A few days ago, I met another (male) colleague from the same agency. While discussing another ex-employer’s nefariousness, he remarked, ‘See, I had told you. These guys are everywhere. You should just learn to deal with it.’ Deal with it—so easily said and so arduously done! My banker cousin was routinely bugged by a persistent client who wanted to take her out for lunch/dinner. She was married; so was he and he was aware of the facts. After failing to get him to curb his untoward behavior, she reported him to her boss, who said ‘Bujhlei to, boro client. We have to keep them happy.’ The same boss would also routinely engage in extra-marital exploits of his own, in full hearing distance and view of his female colleagues. Outrageous, no? But that’s just how it is. In the absence of a working mechanism or at least a platform where our work-place woes are actually dealt with, we have no choice but to deal with it.

‘How is watching porn sexual harassment?’ a male colleague had once asked us, a group of his female colleagues. We asked him not to download porn or watch it live in the office. I can’t say I blame him for not realizing this simple fact, most women don’t. Watching porn, making derogatory comments about the opposite sex or engaging in any kind of conduct that is found ‘sexist’ is actually sexually harassment. The company I worked for then, finally disallowed downloading and viewing porn; not because it was sexual harassment, but because it ate up bandwidth and reduced productivity. I have been dubbed a ‘militant feminist’ and have been accused of seeing everything as ‘sexual’—starting from those friendly pats on the back, the seemingly harmless propositions, sentences like ‘I want to massage that idea out of your head’, discussions on people’s conjugal lives or just plain-old celebrity nudes. It’s the same, resounding, echo—‘It’s the same everywhere. Deal with it!’

Audre Lorde, the American feminist, had written, ‘Your silence will not protect you’. And it doesn’t. The study also implicates, ‘Most of the women do not talk about it in order to protect herself/himself from shame and stigma as well as to protect the perpetrator who is usually a colleague or supervisor, it said.’ Sure we talk about sexual harassment—on forums, at roundtables, seminars, conferences, newspaper op-eds, blogs and on tv. But we don’t raise our voices in protest, because that will stunt our professional growth, get us shunned by society, make us the gossip-of-the-week, or make us the ‘girl who claims she was sexually abused’. The man of course, will get rehired in no time or worse still, will get ‘warned’. Newage quotes, ‘Almost 38 per cent of the working women of the study areas opined that patriarchal mentality is the root cause for occurring violence at the workplace.’ Our male colleagues will forever bask in their oblivion—we never HIT women or HURT them now, do we? At the end of the day, till we actually tell them what they’re doing wrong and these guys realize exactly what they’re doing wrong,they will have reasons to just keep doing it. For how much longer can we just 'deal with it'?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Plight of the Girl Child


There are just so many different ways in which the patriarchal system of family and society in Bangladesh are hindering the socio-economic emancipation of women. Women may have right to vote, to work, to get education, to inherit and so on, but when it comes down the most basic right, the right to think- freedom of thought- our society is still entrapped between the suffocating grills of patriarchal values, which sadly are being sustained and invigorated by women themselves. There are of course the more common ways in which women lend support to repressive male-culture, like in matters of family where the male member is treated like a demi-god as he is the ‘head’ or wage-earner of the family even when the wife enjoys financial independence. Or, in matters of marriage or divorce for that matter where the men enjoy a more privileged status and women are often made outcastes by women in their own circles. But I would like to point out there are at least two more subtle ways in which women are reinforcing their own repression by patriarchy. Bangladeshi women discriminate their own female children because of their belief in certain misguided patriarchal values. The first is by granting a higher status to fair-skinner women and then by teaching different set of values to their male and female children.

Creation and pertinence of gender stereotypes by women themselves have also not furthered the cause of women’s emancipation from patriarchal roles. What most women fail to achieve that racism is not just limited to inter-racial conflicts; it can even encompass intra-racial differences. The way society that constantly grants fair-skinned women greater status, only cements the divide over skin color. Dark-skinned women are still castigated in society which still ranks the worth of a woman on the basis of her potential value in the marriage market. Will she get enough marriage proposals to choose from before she reaches 25? Will the groom’s family accept her for her own qualities or expect compensation in kind for her lack of beauty? Is she fair enough to be liked by most grooms and their parents? Will fairness products help her look brighter? These are the questions that plague the minds and hearts of most parents who have been blessed with daughters. Despite the dowry system being condemned for being repressing and abusive and asking for it being made a punishable offence, covert requests for gifts from the brides’ families is still common practice. This is particularly truer for girls who are dark-skinned as their families feel that they need to somehow compensate the grooms for the girls’ skin tone. This manifests how this society still equals fair-skin to superior beauty and assesses a woman’s worth based on that, as if her intelligence and personality are of no consequence. Women are treated as goods that are to be traded, and, the fairer the skin, the higher the value. This in turn reflects how women are blatantly objectified and subjugated as objects that have to be disposed off or debts that need to be settled! What is most interesting about this particular phenomenon is how it is often women who marginalize other women for their skin color even their male counterparts get the privilege to do the same! It is more often the groom mother, who, without paying any heed to the color of her own skin or her son’s or even his general appearance, starts of on a quest to find the ‘fair and lovely’ bride for the son. Little regard is paid to whether the son himself is ‘fair and lovely’ or deserving of a bride who actually is. This is of course because he is a man and is not required to meet these sometimes impossible standards of beauty. What is most tragic, however, is how even the mothers of daughters either hand their daughters fairness creams to ‘brighten’ skin color or worse still curse their dark-skinned daughters for their lack of marriage-ability. Young girls watch television commercials of products that guarantee to reverse the dark tone of the skin and make it ‘fair and lovely’ and buy into the fable that being fair is the be all and end all of a woman’s life. As a result, the myth continues that a woman’s importance in society can actually be measured by these shallow standards of beauty. Once again, the myth rules that women can only be perceived or given significance in terms of their physical assets.

A clear distinction between the social values taught to male and female children is another behavior that is symptomatic of women themselves strengthening the hold of a patriarchal system. It is a known fact that in Bangladesh, it is the women of the household who are in charge of the passing on and teaching of family, social and moral values. Hence, both male and female children usually directly learn about the basics of their respective roles in society from the women of the household, be it their mothers, grandmothers, aunts or elder sisters and cousins. And herein lays the dichotomy of male and female values. Young girls in our society are taught to be careful when they are outside, keep a distance from strangers, not to get too close to men, to protect their chastity and innocence and most of all, to cover themselves up as best as possible. Young girls are usually not allowed to play outdoor sports out in public once they have reached adolescence. Girls are also warned about being ‘modest’ during their interactions with boys in order to make sure that the former’s reputation is not stained. Now some say that these practices are in place for the protection of these young women. However, this argument has very weak logic. If the threat to the girls’ security is the boys, shouldn’t the boys also be taught the same codes of conduct so that they don’t feel inclined to violate a woman or her space? Young boys, of the same age, are not given any such lessons on appropriate social behavior resulting in them learning a complete different set of values. Rather, these boys are taught to confront, be comfortable in their role as the wage-earner, the more forward sex, to go outside and play regardless of their age simply because they are men who do not fear assault from the opposite gender and to mix freely as possible without the fear of tarnishing their reputation.. Here the values are conflicting. The same female members are teaching totally disagreeing values to the children. Unless the young men are taught to respect the women, to treat them as equals instead of an under-privileged minority, and not encroach upon women’s personal space by even ogling them shamelessly, the security of young girls or older women will always remain uncertain. These women, the upholders, the commissaries of values, are only making the world less safe for future generations of women, by upholding the patriarchal belief that male and female children should not be given equal degrees of physical freedom as children.

I would like to believe that all women dream of a better future for their children, be they male or female. However, our current socio-cultural practices, which seem to benefit only the masculine segment of the populace in becoming omnipotent, would probably help to create a world unsafe and unfair to women born even generations after us. That is of course, if our ways go undeterred, unacknowledged and unchanged despite being regressive and oppressive.

Dated: August, 2007

Being a Bangladeshi

Any one, who has been following, even sometimes unwittingly, the developments in the socio-political pandemonium of Bangladesh, must be familiar with the recurring dilemma of the politicians, civil society members and other members of the intellectual elite in deciding whether religious identity is analogous to national identity and political ideology, and vice versa. Is it imperative that being Bangladeshi, must either entail being a practicing Muslim and a supporter of the conservative wing, or being a Hindu or Christian or Buddhist and siding with the more politically liberal? Or worse still, does being neither make one a hyacinth, that belongs to neither the liberal (Sobhan ) nor the conservative (Mazhar)? What happens to me if I am Chakma and I chose to speak my national language over Bengali and also uphold my own ‘ethnic’ culture (Kabir)? At which political camp should I then seek refuge? Scholar Lamia Karim has grouped the alignments of this triangle quite aptly, she writes.
‘For cultural nationalists in Bangladesh, language/culture is the more important determinant of identity, and they seek a pan-ethnic Bengali identity with Bengalis living in West Bengal (India). For religious nationalists, Bangladeshi Muslims must reject residual aspects of syncretic Islam and strictly follow the Saudi Arabian interpretation of Islam and its codes. In the third place are nationalists who advocate a national identity, which is rooted in the indigenous folk culture of Bangladesh, one that rejects the ultra-nationalism of both the Islamic and cultural nationalists.’ (Abstracts)
What is most incredible about these philosophical and insightful concerns are their rather cosmetic relevance to the cross-section of the population. The common farmer, fisherman, or small trader is not plagued by such soul-searching quandaries. Such time-consuming, brain-draining, awe-inspiring profound queries usually only occupy the minds, columns, seminars and drawing rooms of the country’s elites. Both the conservative, namely the right-winged Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with its political ally the Islamic-minded, Shariah-guided, Jamaat-E-Islami and the liberal Awami League , with their respective designated and closet allies, are busy cultivating cultural identity, through various overt and covert means, that they hope to establish as intrinsically Bangladeshi (Kabir). However, historically, the identity of the people of Bengal, or Banga as it used to be known as, was always determined by the land of their birth, not by their religion or merely on their language (Khan). Till today, the common man of Bangladesh has only one national identity – Bangladeshi, by virtue of their birth in the land of Banga, Bangladesh.
While we cannot obliterate the fact that a staggering 90% of the population is Muslim(Wikipedia). So, the argument that national identity be determined by the majority religion of the land has some strong footing. However, historically we have seen that a religiously homogenous nationalism gives rise to sectarian violence and minority repression, as in the cases of Iraq, Serbia, and even India. Moreover, specifically in the case of Bangladesh, we have seen that religion fails to be a barrier when it comes to the matter of national sovereignty. In 1952, during the Language Movement, the activists transcended all religious boundaries to fight for the right of Bangla to be the state language, and this ignited the fire for the ’71 Liberation War (Ahmed Ullah). So, again, the stronger argument remains that though statistics and common logic may dictate that religion be a deciding factor in determining national identity, Bangladeshis have this illogical tendency to feel thwarted and enraged when their language or their land fall under threat. Nonetheless, the debate over religion remains unresolved as the global phenomenon of Islamic Fundamentalism entrenches its roots in Bangladesh (Kabir). The moment you try to establish cultural or linguistic identity over religious identity, riots tend to erupt. Sadly for Bangladesh, this fact goes unaddressed by the liberal elite who see language and culture as the most integral determinant of identity. Eminent development activist Farhad Mazhar writes, “One cannot practically imagine a democratic and futuristic polity without creative engagement with people identifying themselves with Islam. The secularists are profusely funded by western donors but mainly those who have hardly any connection with the grassroots or any idea of the popular discourses and identity concerns of the majority population.” In his New Age article, Mazhar deliberates on how since Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country, the role and influence of religion can never be abdicated from the political arena, regardless of which camp, the liberal or the conservative or the neutral, holds and controls the power.
The fact that the liberal fronts tend to shove in the faces of adversaries in the former’s defense of a Bengali, language-based, national identity, is that 98% of the population belongs to the Bengali linguistic group (Wikipedia). As mentioned earlier, what culminated into the War of Liberation in 1971 was sparked in 1952 by the Language Movement. So, this camp considers it their duty to champion the cause for Bengali secular identity as the national identity of Bangladesh, ignoring the majority faith and widening the gap between the elite and the mainstream. Professor S. Nazrul Islam’s eulogy on the death of cultural activist Waheedul Huq, exemplifies the sentiments of this camp. He writes about the deceased, ‘He was deeply committed to the Bangalee identity that transcends the religious divide. He wanted that secular Banglalee identity to take hold, flourish, and spread its influence to other spheres of life, including politics. That is why Waheedul Haq was so hurt by the regress that Bangladesh witnessed with regard to secularism over the last decades, by the lost promise of the 1971 victory, by the revival and semi-dominance of communal politics.’ This goes to show that they put the cultural and linguistic roots of the nation over all others. Furthermore, he writes, ‘He was pained by the loss of national identity in post-independent Bangladesh, as manifested by the bifurcation of the education system into "Madrassahs" on the one hand, and English medium schools, on the other. He wanted to raise the flag representing the Bangalee identity, and established Nalanda, an innovative school for children.’ It is apparent from the ‘pain’ and ‘disappointments’ suffered by the departed that his actions and beliefs did not concur with those of the majority post independence. Nonetheless, there are still many like the departed and the writer of his eulogy, who belief that religious beliefs are of no consequence when it comes to cultural identity. Needless to say, the common man differs.
Thankfully, in this bi-polar world divided along the lines of culture and religion, there remains a group that is aggrieved by both ultra-secularism, that shuns religion, and religious fanaticism, that rejects the value of all, but religion. This group argues that the history of the land, it’s more intrinsic practices and the sense of belonging to it, is what ultimately determines national identity. The common man knows to keep his patriotism and religion in separate compartments of his heart. In most cases, for him being a Bangladeshi is one thing, and being Muslim or Buddhist is another, not to mention that the notion that Bangladeshi and Bangali could be different identities would never cross his mind. Intellectually, this group of people does not fall under the criterion for the elite. Their voice is not represented in these thought-provoking debates about national identity. But, interestingly, these people are the majority of the population and more than that they do not suffer from dichotomy symptomatic to the elite.
The late Enayetullah Khan, like a story-teller, regales and retells the proud history of the geo-political sovereignty of East Bengal from the olden days. He writes,
“Bangladesh, which was known in the days of yore as Banga, had always asserted a geo-political identity of its own, different from its western counterpart in India through different historical periods, including the Mughal and the Pathan imperial rule and the subsequent times of the independent Hindu kingdoms and the Muslim sultanates in this part. It was only during the two hundreds years of the British colonial rule that Bangladesh or East Bengal or Banga finally came under Delhi’s suzerain authority. Even the partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, that had to be annulled due to powerful opposition from the metropolitan elite in Calcutta in 1911, had invested a distinct badge of identity to the eastern floodplains of the then Bengal.”
This is the proud history of Bangladesh. When you read this, you realize that a person’s relationship with the State is not guided by institutionalized religion or culture. We have a history of sound unity and resistance to adversity that transcends all racial, religious and linguistic borders. The need to claim and identify with a place, a homeland, is almost primal. Bangladeshis have proven time and time again that their sense of belonging to their land does not stem from an external motivation like religion or language, but from the more intrinsic ownership of the land. Hence, the socio-cultural and cultural elite may be unsure about what defines them as a national of Bangladesh, but the majority of the nation realizes that they do not need a definition to call their land their own.

July 16th, 2007

(This was written last year, as a part of an assignment)

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Proud Bangladeshi in Pakistan

Apko kia pata, ke humara dil apke liye kitna rota hai. Jab aap logo ko koi taklif hota hai to humain lagta hain k taklif humain ho raha hai. Bohot pyar karte hai hum aap se. alag ho gaye to kya hua. Bhai to bhai hota hai. Bangladeshi to humare bhai hai.”
Rafe, 60-something, Bus-driver, Lahore

I’ve met people from different parts of the world and traveled to several places myself. But never, not once, in any of my interactions or travels, have I ever come across a race of people who made me feel so proud of my nationality: Bangladeshi. But then, I visited Pakistan. I was born in an independent Bangladesh. I’ve never had to struggle to get my voice heard, I was allowed to vote (till quite recently) and I’m allowed to speak my mind. Until my trip to Pakistan, I had never realized how precious all these things are. I had always regarded Pakistan, a distant country, as a bitter chapter in our history. But only after meeting the people did I realize how close we could be and how much my heritage means to them. I've never received so much respect for just being a Bangladeshi.

Till quite recently, I had never visited Pakistan. Neither had my parents. Since the only Pakistanis I’d met belonged to the educated bourgeoisie class, I had assumed that it was only this select lot who were aware of the atrocities committed in 1971. I had always believed that most Pakistanis believed that Bangladeshis were Kafirs who had let India take them over and regarded us with disdain. Don’t ask me why I thought all of this or what explanation I have for my notions. My notions had stemmed from the prevalent attitude of our pro-liberation buddhijibis, who have, through their own glorifications of our War of Liberation, somehow equated patriotism as anti-Pakistani feeling and instilled that in some of us. In fact, I still know people who think that to be a true patriot you would have to hate Pakistan, with all its institutions and people. Our elders in Bangladesh, somehow always let us think that Pakistanis don’t care about Bangladesh. I’m not blaming them for my ill-conceived ideas. I was partly to blame for judging a whole race simply on the basis of the half-truths I had heard. I am not proud of what I thought. But my recent trip to Pakistan has made me feel proud of who I am and I am proud of my newly acquired views. Though I think that I now face the threat of being termed a ‘paki-lover’ or ‘Rajakar’, I am writing this because I think that our generation needs to know the other side of the story.

To be perfectly honest, upon our arrival at Islamabad, since the very first people we had met were bureaucrats, I didn’t buy into the whole “Pakistani-Bangladeshi bhai bhai” ideology they seemed to desperately convey to us. To me it seemed too forceful, too elaborate and too far removed from what we in Bangladesh have been led to believe about Pakistani attitude towards Bangladesh. If every shop-keeper, hotel-boy, porter, flight-attendant, bus-driver and almost everyone else I had met hadn’t echoed the same sentiments, I probably never would’ve believed that Pakistani people actually believe that we are still their brothers and they love us. It’s love that is rooted in our shared history, in our present day struggles to make our mark in this world, our efforts to rise above poverty and frustration at watching our neighbors grow at exponential rates as we combat the demons of corruption and bad governance.

“There are so many things we need to learn from Bangladesh. In fact, I personally think that your Caretaker Government system is very effective and we’re trying to emulate that”, an Additional Secretary told the ten-member media delegation from Bangladesh. Nothing was said, but their admiration for our achievements, including in establishing democracy and keeping it for 15 years, was apparent. In Karachi, an official of the Press Information Department under their Ministry of Information regaled the success of our homegrown micro-credit formula and it’s award-winning success. As far as the bureaucracy of Pakistan was concerned, everywhere we went we were greeted by praise and accolade. Even with 106 licensed private TV channels and 60 on-air channels, the Government of Pakistan marveled at how the journalists in Bangladesh are better trained and more sensitized. In a country where GEO News was closed down for violating State of Emergency rules, the Bangladeshi media received accolade from the Pakistani media for the courage demonstrated and the torture survived. In a media world now free of ‘press advise’ from intelligence agencies or foreign ministries, they marveled at the openness of our media. Peshawar Press Club gave the media delegates a reception and Express News threw a dinner. I am told that this is commonplace for all delegates from Bangladesh visiting Pakistan. But it most certainly wasn’t commonplace for me. No one had ever told me that this how much respect these people have for us. All I have learnt from the learned, well-versed editors of our progressive newspapers is that Pakistan, the monsters who had killed our people in 1971 is now a failed nation. They forgot to mention the people of Pakistan, the warmth and hospitality they extend to all visiting Bangladeshis and the love and respect they still have for us. They never taught us how to help them or how to become friends with Pakistanis. Ulta, this was frowned upon. We weren’t told about how much they crave our friendship.

I had always believed that the atrocities committed in1971 by the Pakistani Military Hanadar Bahini, the genocide and the rapes would be a taboo topic for us in Pakistan. Taboo not just on the account us being invited by the Pakistan Government, but also because I had believed the Pakistani version of the events of 1971 to be different from ours. Therefore, you can imagine my shock when everyone I met mentioned our Liberation War (mind you, not the “Fall of Dhaka”) as ‘mistakes made by us in 1971, that shouldn’t have happened and we wish they hadn’t happened’. Rafe chacha, the man who drove our bus said to me, ‘beta, Bhutto ne jo kia, bohot galat kia. Mujhe to ootni talim bhi nahi hai, par itna to mujhe bhi pata hai’. Roughly translated, he meant that despite his lack of formal education, even he was aware of the atrocities committed by Bhutto (not just Yahya Khan, the executioner, but also the dictator) in 1971. Later on, he even explained to me how now that all of Pakistan is racially divided; they understand how Bangladesh must have felt. Rafe chacha even said to me how the people of Pakistan feel that political leadership in Bangladesh is much stronger than in Pakistan. ‘ Benazir Bhutto jo thi, wo bhi zamindar ki beti thi. Oon ko kia pata k 3 din se mere ghar mei atta nahi hai. Aap k muluk mei to kitne acche admi hai, leaders hai. Humai aaj take k bhi sahi admi nahi mila. Aap ka jo dr.yunus hai, un ho ne garib o k barei mei socha, kuch kia. Humare yaha ek bhi aisa admi nahi mila’, he remorses. He said he echoed the sentiments of the rural working class who are always struggling to survive the repeated onslaughts the political turmoil of the country. The ups and downs of power-play-who wins the elections or who looses, really never affects the common man. He knows that politics is not for him. He knows regardless of who wins the election, if there ever is one, at the end, he looses. Successive regimes have only helped to widen the rich and poor divide and people like Rafe chacha seek a program like micro-credit to improve their financial conditions. There are millions like Rafe chacha who would benefit from the models developed by our NGOs and civil society organizations that help the grassroots people. Even a PID official admitted that Sheikh Hasina is his favorite South Asian leader because she stands for the common man. The sectarian violence, the non-homogenous population and the increasing rich and poor divide has helped people like Rafe chacha and the likes of him realize and empathize with our plights pre-71. We, as Bangladeshis, as an independent, sovereign nation, with our certain successful social organization models are now in the capacity to help them and save them from the fate we had suffered.

“Baji aap Bangladesh se hai? Arre kia baat hai. Phir to aap hamare mehman hai. Aap ko kia pilau? Paani yia Cola? Aap meri puri dukan le jao koi masla nahi. Mehman hai aap humare’. I got tired of hearing these lines. I heard the same lines in Islamabad, in Murree, in Karachi and even in Peshawar. A pukhtun shopkeeper abandoned his shop in the evening, in a jomjomat bazaar just to show a few lost Bangladeshi journalists the way to another bazaar. In fact, the Pathans made these guys have dinner with them, saying that Bangladeshis were not just guests but brothers. I think I had ever received so much love and respect anywhere else in the world, for simply being Bangladeshi. Everywhere I went, everyone I met, somehow managed to show this chit of a Bangladeshi girl, with her uncovered head and bare arms, an amazing display of camaraderie and respect. I really don’t know what I have in common with the man from Waziristan who dragged my luggage across the streets of Saddar in Peshawar or the teachers of Peshawar University who were going berserk trying to find an old picture of my grandfather which could’ve been anywhere in Pakistan. They didn’t have to do any of that. They are not answerable to any government, theirs or mine. They didn’t know me. They belong to a different nation, a different culture and an altogether different world. But somehow, they were able to relate to me before I could relate to them. They called me a sister even before I would consider them friends. They made the first move, they extended their hand of friendship and their love and hospitality. They gave me love because they believed that their leaders had wronged us in ’71, but we have survived and grown stronger, and more successful than them. We have greater literacy rates and more female participation in all sections of the socio-economic system. From Islamabad to Peshawar and in Karachi, all they gave us was love and respect and all they wanted from us was knowledge. They humbly expressed remorse for 1971 for the actions of the Pakistani military. In every action of theirs, I saw a call for help and solidarity. I felt that this nation, once so known to our forefathers, now completely alien to us, needs us to cooperate with them, help them up, just like one brother (even an estranged one) would help another. They made me feel strong and powerful. They made me feel proud of our achievements—all the things that we take for granted at home. This wasn’t the kind of pride you feel when you defeat another team in cricket or when you realize someone else is worse off than you. This was the first time in my life a foreign country and people, by their own good actions, had made me feel so proud of my Bangladeshi heritage.

In war-ravaged NWFP, where the local government is still struggling to accommodate the refugees, ensure minimum security and attain a minimum standard of living for its entire populace, we were perhaps best received. The governor of NWFP, Mr. Owais Ghani only reinstated Pakistan’s new attitude towards Bangladesh, ‘Let us not be prisoners of our past. Let us learn from our past and now look forward’.

In my humble opinion and still limited purview of the world, I feel that Bangladesh and our hard-earned independence have been vindicated. We have proven to Pakistan, home to our military oppressors and bloodthirsty dictator of 1971, that we have survived and we’ve only gotten better. Now, it’s time to show them just strong we are by sharing some of our strengths with them and helping them out in their struggles.

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. If we now close our doors to Pakistan, we will be shutting out a friend. The people of Pakistan have nothing but respect for Bangladesh. They want to learn. They want to know. But what will be our call? Will we play into the hands of those who have used the sentiments of 1971 to progress their own vested interests or should we promote our inherently peaceful and progressive way of life to a nation that looks up at us with hope and an offer of friendship. Again, at the risk of being labeled, I dare suggest that perhaps, it’s time to call truce and move on. We will never forget 1971, but then taking pride in our history should not be analogous to hating the people of another country, who were also victims of their circumstances and military oppressors.