January 20, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
A common subject of discussion these days, apart from the sad state of our politics and economy, is about our culture. More precisely, a lot of people these days are talking about our culture being subjected to an aggression from outside. Clearly, India is the main focus. One need not look very far to see this. In Dhaka and in towns around the country, this is visible in the family.
In most families that have the cable TV, and these are the families where people who decide the future of the country also live, the impact of Indian TV serials; dances and songs and the paraphernalia of TV programmes keep many hooked. While India is building barbed wire fences to keep us physically apart, it is entering our houses with consummate ease through the use of technology. Thus, in marriage ceremonies of the well to do; the impact of the Indian culture is palpably evident. The songs and dances at these marriages are scripted and choreographed or copied from India.
All these confuse me and make me apprehensive. I do not understand why and how a country that never stops in claiming such a great deal of excellence in terms of its culture, tradition and history can so easily accept to the extent of being dominated by what is most definitely no part of that culture and history. The same people in whose families such abundance of the Indian culture has penetrated come out publicly and say how different and culturally rich we the people of Bangladesh are!
It is just not this cultural aggression that is a subject of concern of many these days; it is also the sudden visibility of the members of the major minority community in public life, particularly in places where the government has a role to play. I asked a friend who recently retired from a major Commission of the government whether his replacement would be from the service he belonged to before he joined the Commission. He said that was unlikely as the government was looking to replace him by one who belonged to the Hindu community. There are words of mouth afloat in Dhaka University circles about the preponderance of the members of the minority community in terms of recruitment, promotion and other privileges in this premier institution of the country.
In recent times, the media; particularly the electronic media, has established credibility that has been one of the very few major positive developments in our otherwise bleak political environment. Even here, we are seeing that the members of the minority community are being represented in a disproportionate manner. One cannot help being suspicious that an invisible hand may be working according to a plan. In fact, such a suspicion is fairly widespread in the country these days.
We are also witnessing simultaneously resurgence of Rabindranath Tagore in a manner that is raising a lot of eyebrows. In a Ministry of the Government, a cultural function was arranged recently that was scripted and choreographed heavily on the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. The songs, the dresses and the other paraphernalia left many of us who watched this function thinking that this programme would have better fitted culturally if it were held in Paschim Bangla rather than in Bangladesh.
Without any offence to those who love and admire Rabindranath Tagore to the extent of deifying him, let this be said. Let us read the works of the great poet as we read the works of any great poet of the world; may be read him more as he has written in our language. Let us not make him and his works the foundation of our lives and our culture. Let us not deify him for in the religion of the overwhelming majority of our people, it is blasphemy to deify any individual. Sadly as well, the works of Rabindranath Tagore reflects very little of the culture of the Muslims.
Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country where a vast majority of our people is uneducated. Fortunately, they are not orthodox having been influenced for centuries by Sufism. Our Islam is tolerant. Nevertheless even this liberal and tolerant Islam has fundamental differences with Hinduism. We have also had bad experience of living for a century and a half under the oppressive Zamindari system that was dominated by the Hindus. Therefore, one does not need much common sense to conclude that a disproportionate resurgence of the culture of the minority or minorities in public life would bring a backlash that is totally undesirable.
To add adversely to this situation is the issue of current status of Bangladesh-India relations. Since this Government came to power, it has gone out of the way to placate the Indians. The Government gave the Indians a blank cheque on their security needs. It also gave the Indians land transit from mainland India to its fragile northeast states. Bangladesh’s hopes were that India would give it a fair share of the waters of the common rivers and also stop killings of innocent Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border together with accepting Bangladesh’s demands on trade, demarcation of land and maritime boundaries.
India instead failed to sign the Teesta agreement and abandon the Tippaimukh project. The killings in the border have not stopped. In using the land transit granted to it unilaterally on a trial basis, the Indians have been insensitive in defiling the River Teesta to carry heavy vehicles with heavy equipments to go to Tripura. As a consequence, feelings in Bangladesh for India are at an all time low.
This is where my apprehension lies. Apparently, there is reason to feel uncomfortable about a well thought out plan that may be in action; to bring Indian culture and those elements of Bengali culture that represent Hindu culture ahead of our Muslim culture and heritage. In this plan, one can also see visible favours being extended to the members of the Hindu community in the Government and in government funded educational and other institutions.
Minority communities everywhere have grievances. In Bangladesh too, the minorities have their legitimate complaints. These complaints need to be dealt with overtly and not covertly. It is a reality that the major minority community in Bangladesh looks to India for a wide variety of reasons. India too has an interest in their welfare. Those who perceive that they are being given favoured treatment believe that this is so because Indian wants it this way and the Government is eager to make India happy. The change in the treatment of the minority community is thus being attributed to India with our government obliging leading the BNP to openly accuse the latter of selling out to India.
The Indian High Commission is playing a very active role in this perceived cultural aggression. On my mobile, I have a SMS on a regular basis inviting me to cultural events at the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre at Gulshan where people are treated to evenings of Indian culture free. The Indians are paying huge amounts of money in exposing us to their culture. Surely, there is a purpose behind such generosity. A local elite club in Dhaka till recently had acted as almost an extension of the Indian High Commission in its efforts to win over Bangladeshis through culture. Luckily, those who acted as conduits for this have since been removed from the Club’s leadership and their over indulgence with the Indians on cultural cooperation was one reason for their removal.
The rich culture and tradition of the Muslims of Bangladesh enriched by the glorious war of liberation leaves enough space for legitimate hopes and aspirations of the minority community to be legally and legitimately accommodated. Equally, it can accept any writer of any stature without being submerged by his work or for that matter, anything India has to offer on the cultural front that is good for us. The perceived external cultural aggression; special favours to the Hindu community and over indulgence with Rabindranath Tagore are potentially dangerous for peace in Bangladesh.
Therefore, on the issue of the public perception of official indulgence in favour of the minorities, the Government needs to be transparent. If it is indeed doing so because of past indifference to the minorities, the government has a duty to take the public into confidence as it did with annulment of the vested property act. If the government is not providing special privileges to help the minorities, let it say so openly. The perception growing to the contrary needs to be nipped in the bud if it is not correct.
Rabindra Tagore’s creations are immortal. By trying to build a cult with him and his work, the Rabindra activists are making a mistake. His works will survive in Bangladesh without the need of activists. As for the role of the Indian High Commission on the cultural front, there is need for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to supervise and put some control on its activities for there is surely over-indulgence here. As for cultural invasion from India through the TV, this is difficult to regulate. We have only ourselves to blame a great deal for the steady and negative influence of Indian culture in our lives. May be our cultural roots are not as strong as our cultural activists publicly claim it to be.
Bangladesh was created in 1971 by blood where our National Poet Nazrul Islam gave us major inspiration to fight the oppressors. We did not need to seek assistance to fight and win our liberation from any source but what was ours, politically, historically and culturally. Therefore, on the issue of culture, it is that of the majority people that must dominate in Bangladesh. On the issue of special privileges to the minority community, we have no need to do anything covertly for we have never had any public policy of discrimination. The government needs to take serious note of the public perceptions to save the country from moving towards confrontation on issues of culture and communal relations keeping in mind that on both, Bangladesh’s record is better than any nation in South Asia.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan