Sunday, April 01, 2007

On the song of Bengal

Some time ago, Amar wrote about Songs of Hind. Rabindranath Tagore penned one of the songs, Jana gana mana. He also wrote Amar sonar Bangla, the national anthem of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. I was listening to the song as Bangladesh begun a World Cup match. It provoked a bunch of thoughts.

Tagore wrote the song in 1906 as a protest against the first partition of Bengal. The partition created a new province of East Bengal and Assam — consisting largely of today’s Bangladesh and the Indian northeast. At the risk of oversimplification, Muslims of Bengal supported the scheme while Hindus opposed it — the curious reader can find out more here. The scheme was annulled in 1912. As the song protests the partition scheme, it could not have been very popular among Bengali Muslims.

Another protest song of the era, Vande mataram (discussed by Amar) was very unpopular among Muslims. But as I discussed here, even without its links to the anti-partitionists, this was a very problematic song for Bengali Muslims to accept. The song was about ridding Desh of Muslim invaders — something many Muslims found disagreeable. Others found the invocation of the Mother Goddess offending their monotheism.

As it happens, Amar sonar Bangla also compares Bengal with the Mother. To the early 20th century Bengalis, Hindu or Muslim alike, the Mother meant the Mother Goddess. But unlike Bankim Chaterjee, the author of Vande mataram, Tagore did not explicitly link his nationalism with Hindu iconography. In fact, he was acutely aware of the way the anti-partitionists alienated the region’s Muslim majority. In his 1916 novel Ghare baire (At home and the world), Tagore shows a Hindu leader — played by Soumitra Chaterjee in the 1984 Satyajit Ray adaptation — forcing Muslim peasants into boycotting British goods even when local goods were much more costly, the local peasants had no stake in the leader’s cause and even when the leader himself couldn’t give up Vilayati cigarette. In his later years, Tagore urged for Hindu-Muslim amity. But we know that this was not to be. Bengal was partitioned again in 1947, this time with the acceptance of both communities. And no one sang Amar sonar Bangla in the 1940s.

The eastern half of Bengal became Pakistan’s eastern wing. By March 1948, first rumblings of Bangladesh’s nationalism could be heard in the form of the language debate. By the mid-1950s, parties championing a weak confederation were forming governments in the province. In the early 1960s, Bengali intellectuals and cultural activists defied the government ban on commemorating Tagore’s hundredth birth anniversary and celebrating Bangla new year. By the end of that decade, people started discussing the economic viability of an independent East Pakistan. And in March 1971, a revolution overthrew the writ of Pakistan government.

The land as the mother was a central theme in the cultural iconography of the Bangladesh movement. Radical students chose Amar sonar Bangla as the Free Bengal’s national anthem, and when the war ended, the new Republic’s constitution endorsed it. Why did they choose the song? For that matter, why did they choose shapla as the national emblem? And how did they design the red and green flag?

As part of the recent trip, I was in Dhaka earlier this year. There I put these questions to someone who was at the centre of the revolution. According to him, the song was chosen because of its evocation of the rural landscape — mango groves and paddy fields. And that’s what the green in the flag meant to the socialist students, though for others green symbolised Islam. My revolutionary hero couldn’t say why shapla was chosen, but he stressed that the revolution’s leaders were very conscious about choosing inclusive icons.

You see, nationalist symbols of India and Pakistan were not very inclusive. Pakistan Movement adopted the Crescent, unsurprisingly alienating all non-Muslims in the lands that became Pakistan. India’s founding fathers dreamt of building a noble mansion where all of her children could live. Indian nationalism espoused secularism — the co-existence of Amar Akbar and Anthony — as its fundamental value. But Gandhi’s Ram Rajya did not appeal to Muslims. Aware of this, Gandhi got behind the Khilafat bandwagon — about that some other time. Many Muslims also found the spinning wheel a bit of a Hindu thing. They shouldn’t be blamed for this, Gandhi too thought that the charkha symbolised eternal India. According to Irfan Habib, however, the earliest known reference to the spinning wheel in Desh is a 1350 polemic urging Raziya Sultana to give up Delhi’s masnad and take up spinning, the ‘inescapable inference’ being the device having a Muslim provenance.

Anyway, back to Bangladesh of the early 1970s. Resistance against the Pakistan army drew inspiration from Amar sonar Bangla, the green and red flag and shapla. Most people in soon-to-be Bangladesh identified with these icons. Most, but not all. There were the Urdu-speakers who migrated to the country during and after Partition. They had no future in the Golden Bengal that the Mukti Bahini was fighting for. Even among Bengalis, not all liked these symbols. For the supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami — a party that has consistently polled 5 to 10 per cent of votes in every election since 1970 — Bangladesh's nationalism was and remains a betrayal of Islam. Many from the generation that remember the decades leading to Partition identified Amar sonar Bangla with Hindu chauvinist Congress — even as they supported an independent Bangladesh, they were apprehensive about the direction the new state would take ideologically.

As early as 1976, with the damage wrought on Dhaka by the Pakistani tanks and Indian bombers still to be repaired, senior members of the military junta then ruling the country raised the possibility of changing the national anthem. And as late as 2000, intellectuals associated with the country’s then opposition coalition voiced the same idea. This coalition, which included Jamaat, was elected to a five-year term in late 2001. For all the talk of revisiting the country’s foundations, the song and the flag remained untouched.

Bangladesh experienced an extra-constitutional change of government in January. It is not everyday that one gets to see something like that first-hand. The comparisons with Musharraf’s takeover in Pakistan are inescapable. More about that some other time, but I’ll note that like Pakistanis in late 1999, Bangladeshis generally welcome the new order. And how do they display their support? By playing Amar sonar Bangla and waving the green and red, of course.