The problem of national identity
THE people of the land that we now call Bangladesh have undergone many changes in identity. Before the partition of 1947, they were Muslims; during the language movement of 1952, they were Bengali Muslims; during the 1971 liberation war they became Bengalis; and again during Ziaur Rahman’s rule, they became Bangladeshi Muslims. Although culturally we are more Bengali than we are Muslims, lack of direction from the power-hungry major political parties and with hostility from Islamists such as Jamaat-Shibir and Hefajat-e Islam, Bangladeshis are battling for survival of their identity. Recent scenario reveals that while popular cultural entities are covertly promoting Bengali identity, Islamists like Hefajat-e-Islam are blatantly asserting Islamic identity.
Indeed, the uncertainty among the mass people of Bangladesh is significant, since at one time linguistic and, at another time, religious identity appear as dominant indicators in our national identity. In 1947, after the partition of India, the middle class of the then East Bengal tended to distinguish itself more from its Hindu neighbours than any other by emphasising the Islamic content of its national identity. That religion-based Bengali Muslim nationalism was modified between 1950s and early 1970s, when language appeared as an influential instrument primarily in response to domination by the Urdu-speaking Pakistani elite, especially for those in Eastern Bengal who lived under Pakistani colonial rule.
The current ambiguity of the population is problematic. Torn between the forces of secularism and militarism, the middle class is now facing a profound dilemma about its own history, culture and religion. Since 1975, Bangladesh in fact has been tinged with militarism, which has reinforced the Islamic principle and anti-liberation forces. In parallel, it has struggled for constructing its own Bangladeshi culture, would not only be different from the Bengali culture in neighbouring India but would also be acknowledged by the whole world.
The military interventions in politics, over the last couple of decades, have created doubts in people’s minds regarding the political culture of the country. Thus the mass people of the country now demonstrate their isolation in the context of political ideology, cultural values and historical environment. The dichotomisation among Bangladeshis manifests how the search for identity in the history of Bangladesh has become mixed with a wave of scepticism about the spirit of linguistic nationalism, cultural values, religious practices as well as secularism and rehabilitation of the collaborators. As the Bangladeshis are now at the state of collective self-doubt, these doubts display two-opposed currents of social forces. Whereas one force wants to look into the history of the liberation war and the language movement to cultivate a secular, indigenous and cultural identity, the other group prefers to leap forward for a distinctive Muslim community and religious authority by disavowing the linguistic identity and common cultural heritage of the people of Bangladesh.
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