Saturday, December 15, 2007

Heroes, villains and ideas

Bangladesh is marking its liberation from Pakistani occupation this weekend. And a few weeks from now, Indians will celebrate the founding of their republic. During these weeks, TV channels in that part of the world play patriotic tunes. This post is about two such songs — both about the land and gold — and how they display a betrayal of a fundamental tenet of each nation’s foundation.

Let’s start with the Bangladeshi song Shona shona shona. The song says the land, mati, of Bangladesh is better than gold, and under this land sleeps many heroes: Rafiq, Shafiq, Barkat, Titu Mir and Isa Khan.

Who are these heroes? Rafiq, Shafiq and Barkat were killed by the authorities during the language riot of 1952 — a milestone moment in Bangladesh’s nationalism. Titu Mir defied the East India Company and organised a peasant revolt in the 19th century. Isa Khan was a Bengali chieftain who resisted the Mughals in the 16th century.

Notice how all of these heroes are Muslim men? Bangladesh was supposed to be a secular people’s republic. The song was written in the late 1960s, when the ethos of secularism and a progressive society were at the mainstream of Bangladeshi politics. And yet, the song didn’t include Surya Sen or Pritilata Waddedar (Chittagong-based militant revolutionaries killed by the Raj in the 1930s).

The Indian Republic of course has the word secularism in its official name. But you wouldn’t know the supposedly secular nature of the republic from one of the most played song on Indian channels in the week preceding its anniversary in January. The song Mere desh ki dharti proclaims that the land produces gold and diamond, and India is home to these heroes: Gautam, Nanak, Gandhi, Subhas Bose, Tagore, Hari Singh Nalwa, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Bhagat Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru. So, the pantheon of Indian heroes includes a fascist and a warlord, but no Muslim or women. We didn’t expect Noor Inayat Khan to be honoured, but surely the Rani of Jhansi or Tipu Sultan deserves a mention.

Both Bangladeshi and Indian songs are from the 1960s, a time when overtly communal politics seemed to be on the wane in our part of the world, a time when women’s rights were being recognised by the society at large. And yet, two very well known songs of that era, listing the respective nations’ heroes, failed to find a place for the silent minorities that make up the majority of those nations.

And today, four decades hence, the very ideas of secular liberalism are under threat in our part of the world. In Bangladesh, villains who committed genocide in their fight against those ideas in 1971 became resurgent. In India, villains who committed genocide in 2002 to turn India into a Hindu state are gathering strength.

Secularism, liberty, equality of opportunity between genders, these ideas are worth fighting for regardless of nationalism or historical divisions. Indeed, I believe those ideas are more valuable than tribalism or dispute over real estate. This December, or this January, when we hear patriotic songs, let’s think about these ideas, and dedicate ourselves to them.