In December 2000, a professor of political science at Dhaka University (DU) proclaimed at a public gathering that the Bangladeshi national anthem should be changed. The remark caused an instant furor nationwide. Mass condemnation and calls to censure Aftab Ahmed, the professor, came from students, leading cultural activists and other prominent members of civil society. He was roundly denounced for making a comment that was, among other things, “derogatory, objectionable, anti-Independence, anti-state and deeply hurtful to the sentiments of the people.”
Three days later, an emergency meeting of the University Syndicate placed the Ahmed on forced leave for three months. Angry students rampaged through the campus and set fire to his room in the political science department. The influential Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Jatiya Sammanya Committee (National Coordinating Committee to Resist Wartime Criminals and Collaborators) demanded that the university authorities expel Ahmed. Some student organisations demanded his expulsion because “he had lost every ground to be a teacher of Dhaka University, the birthplace of all progressive movements in the country”. The following week, The Dhaka University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) adopted a resolution to terminate immediately the membership of this ‘errant’ faculty member. The DUTA also called for Ahmed’s expulsion from the DU faculty.
These events followed on the heels of another controversy over the national anthem. In November 2000, the Awami League government charged the editor, publisher and director of the Inquilab group of publications, along with a writer, with sedition under the draconian Special Powers Act. The Bengali daily Inquilab, a major vehicle of right wing Islamist political parties, had earlier published a parody of the anthem, Amar Shonar Bangla. As it happened, the piece also used the anthem to mock the alleged corrupt practices of the Awami League regime and its leader, Sheikh Hasina. Among other things, the writer was critiquing the Awami Leagues’s self-professed hegemony as keepers of the authentic nationalist spirit.
As with so many other issues in contemporary Bangladesh, debates on either side rapidly descended into partisan jingoism. This is not surprising, for as historian Willem van Schendel notes, “Hyperbole and accusations of betrayal of the national interest have formed the core of the political discourse of the country for so long that they seem almost natural”. He goes on to say, however, the question does not end there. To the external observer, the explosive sentiments and state responses triggered by tampering with the national anthem might seem extreme. Such an observation begs other questions: Who can speak for the nation and under what circumstances? Exactly what was at stake, and for whom, in the defence or denouncement of the Bangladeshi national anthem? Why would a professor lose the ‘right to teach’ at Dhaka University for simply expressing his/her opinion on the subject? What kinds of vulnerabilities were revealed by the overwhelmingly emotional and legal responses that were elicited? In the rest of this essay, I attempt to outline some of the answers to these questions.
The national anthem of Bangladesh is extracted from a longer version of Amar Shonar Bangla written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1906. Reproduced below is the official English translation of the anthem by eminent academic Syed Ali Ahsan.
My golden Bengal
My Bengal of gold, I love you
Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune
as if it were a flute.
In Spring, Oh mother mine, the fragrance from
your mango-groves makes me wild with joy,
Ah, what a thrill!
In Autumn, Oh mother mine,
in the full-blossomed paddy fields,
I have seen spread all over sweet smiles!
Ah, what a beauty, what shades, what affection
And what tenderness!
What a quiet have you spread at the feet of
banyan trees and along the banks of rivers!
Oh mother mine, words from your lips are like
Nectar to my ears!
Ah, what a thrill!
If sadness, Oh mother mine, casts a gloom on your face
my eyes are filled with tears!
The shonar Bangla (golden Bengal) of Bangladesh’s national anthem is a place of endless abundance and captivating natural beauty, an idyllic rural landscape where ‘man’ is in harmony with nature. In overtly masculinist language, the poet pictures Bengal as a fertile and nurturing mother to whom its (male) inhabitants cannot help but offer their devotion and protection. The tranquil imagery and placid strains of the musical score notwithstanding, heated discussions have raged intermittently over Amar Shonar Bangla’s suitability as Bangladesh’s national anthem. Not unexpectedly, controversies around the anthem mirror the many fissures and instabilities of national identity.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote Amar Shonar Bangla as a protest against the partition of Bengal Province by the British administration in 1905. A romantic rallying cry for the integrity of undivided Bengal, the song remained in vogue throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. According to the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh’s forthcoming Banglapaedia, swadeshi activists, revolutionaries and those who opposed the partition of Bengal used it to evoke “the spirit of patriotism among the Bangali masses”. The entry attributes the song’s diminishing popularity to the decline in regional nationalism in the 1920s, and traces its revival to the eve of Bangladesh’s liberation war.
Whatever the reason, between the 1920s and the 1960s, Tagore’s popularity declined somewhat in East Bengal/East Pakistan. But music increasingly occupied centre stage in the cultural practices of the autonomy movement in East Pakistan and cultural activists came to embrace the poet’s work unequivocally. The centenary of Tagore’s birth in 1961 provided an initial impetus for rallying around the poet as a symbol of secular Bengali cultural identity. In 1967, the Pakistani information minister galvanised the movement by banning the performance of Rabindra shongeet, the songs of Tagore, from state-run radio — on the grounds that Tagore’s ideas were not consistent with Pakistani national feeling. Days after the ban, a group of prominent Bengali intellectuals declared in an open statement that Tagore’s songs and poems belonged to the soul of the Bengalis of Pakistan. Subsequently, performing Rabindra shongeet and reciting Tagore poetry became dangerous and subversive practices.
From 1969 onwards, the leading institute for the performing arts in East Pakistan, Chaayanaut, proceeded to transform Amar Shonar Bangla into a major emblem of the struggle for Bengali cultural autonomy. I was told that Chaayanaut had briefly considered a different piece, written by a Calcutta-based composer Dwijendranath Lal Roy; it was rejected because Roy’s outlook was deemed to be too narrow, that is, too grounded in Calcutta. In contrast, the scope of Tagore’s work and vision was held to be representative of all of Bengal.
Moreover, Amar Shonar Bangla had quintessentially ‘Bengali’ origins. The story goes that the original score was written by Gagan Horkora, a disciple of Lalon Shah who worked as town crier in Shilaidah, Kushtia (now in Bangladesh). Tagore, while he was based in Shilaidah supervising his family’s zamindari estates, apparently took a liking to Harkara’s composition and set it to music with his own lyrics in 1906. Tagore is credited, more generally, with recovering Baul music from obscurity and popularising it for the consumption of the Bengali middle classes.
For Bengali middle class intellectuals and activists, the emotive appeal and uses of Tagore’s music increased in proportion to the increase in Pakistani repression. Indeed, Amar Shonar Bangla became an informal anthem long before any official declaration of independence. By March 1971, critical political meetings convened by students and workers, as well as by Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to discuss the possibility of declaring Independence from Pakistan, opened with performances of Amar Shonar Bangla. Less than a month after the war started, the Bangladesh government in exile adopted the song as the national anthem. Clearly, Chaayanaut was tremendously successful in its mission. Meanwhile, music of other kinds continued to be a primary means of mobilising popular support and sentiment for the independence movement that followed the brutal army occupation of East Pakistan on 25 March 1971. Almost overnight, songs depicting the heroic and bloody nature of the freedom movement flooded the airwaves of the underground Bangladeshi radio station, Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra.
The formal decision to adopt Rabindranath’s composition as the national anthem in 1972 appears to have been uncontested. The song was a ‘natural’ choice, for the very emergence of Bangladesh seemed to redeem Tagore’s vision of Bengali harmony and solidarity – just as it appeared to refute the ‘communal’ underpinnings of the 1905 partition of Bengal.
Amar Shonar Bangla also expressed what historian Paul Greenough has called, “the fervent attachment” of Bengalis — both in Bangladesh and the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal — to the distinctive landscape of the region. This landscape, as it happens, was distinctly rural and deltaic; by implication, it was in the villages that authentic Bengali culture was located. The song was a poetic celebration of the archetypal Bengali mentality.
That Tagore would become the major icon of cultural nationalism was by no means obvious or inevitable. As is well known, the cultural identity of Bengali speakers who are also Muslim has been contested at least ever since the 1871 census ‘discovered’ the size of the Muslim population of Bengal. The putative opposition between Muslim and Bengali has an equally long history. Exactly what constitutes the shared legacy of Hindu and Muslim speakers of Bengali continues to be a point of contention in Bangladesh. Bengali Muslim intellectuals have been grappling with the issue from the turn of the 20th century.
An archetypal lament of the secular Muslim intelligentsia has been the invisibility of Muslim Bengal (that is, Muslim peasant culture) in the works of the great literary figures of Bengal. Tagore’s vast corpus was a case in point, for no Muslims of significance were to be found in his creations. Among Bengali Muslims, it was the writer and politician Abul Mansur Ahmed who most eloquently depicted the effects of this invisibility on the evolution of his political ideology. Ahmed recalls how in his school days the only significant Muslim characters he came across in the Bengali literary corpus were those portrayed in a negative light in the writings of Bankim Chandra and Ramesh Chandra Dutt. Over time, his benign disappointment at this cultural exclusion took a different direction so that he ended up calling for the production of a separate Bengali Muslim literature. As he saw it, the high culture of Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattapadhyay was golami shahitto or servile literature that did not reflect the life of the predominantly Muslim Bengali masses.
The creation of Pakistan did not automatically rehabilitate Tagore. In 1948, noted Bengali playwright and communist activist Munir Chowdhury once denounced Tagore as a reactionary figure. Yet, just three years later, he proclaimed that Tagore’s legacy was for all of Bengal. Not incidentally, Munir Chowdhury was foremost among those who embraced Tagore as “the soul of the Bengalis of Pakistan”. Evidently, the meaning of Tagore’s place in defining Bengali cultural identity underwent a dramatic transformation during the Pakistani domination of Bengalis of East Pakistan. That this meaning was never stable is a critical aspect of understanding the parameters of the national anthem debate.
So why choose to interrogate this particular symbol of national unity, so many years after independence? And why is this considered to be so dangerous to the national interest? It is safe to say that the contents of the anthem – the first 10 lines of Tagore’s longer composition – are not at issue. The romantic celebration of the villages of Bengal, their natural beauty and bounty, were inescapably ‘Bengali’, a part of the fervent attachment of (mostly) bourgeois nationalists to the rural landscape referred to earlier.
In 1972, Amar Shonar Bangla represented a collective symbol of national solidarity and promise; yet its fall from innocence was never far away. The fissures of nationalism – the pressures to produce a coherent history and timeline for the nation – soon began to emerge. The process of enclosing memory within fixed boundaries – the territorialisation of memory — proved to be impossible without confronting the ambiguities and slippages between the categories Bengali and Bangladeshi. If Bangladesh was a nation for Bengalis, then what was to be its relationship to the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal? If nationalism demands reaching into the past to produce a narrative that justifies the present, which past should it invoke? Most critically, what was the place of the two partitions of Bengal and of the two-nations theory (or religion) in this history?
To pose the question differently, just where was shonar Bangla located? It was not the united Bengal of which Tagore spoke; Bengal Presidency was much larger and included many non-Bengali speaking territories. Its boundaries had shifted in the past. The territory that became Bangladesh referred to a different (and, for many people, a dismembered) Shonar Bangla, the borders of which were demarcated during the partition of British India in 1947. Without 1947, there would not have been a Bangladesh. Did such a conclusion redeem the two-nation theory? What then of the secularist claims on which Bangladesh was born? These are awkward questions that cannot be answered easily without dismantling the very framework of nationalist thought.
The nationalists of East Pakistan accommodated or skirted these questions by redefining what it meant to be a Bengali in or of East Pakistan. At the time of independence, then, locating Shonar Bangla was an unproblematic proposition. Once national sovereignty had been attained, how to distinguish the citizens of Bangladesh from Bengalis in India emerged as an unavoidable concern. The Muslim/Bengali dichotomy was central to the debate.
Successive political regimes promoted the idea of a Bangladesh for Bengali Muslims. The two main political parties have appropriated the Bangladeshi/Bengali split ever since: the Awami League capitalized on its political genealogy, positioning itself as the legitimate voice of ‘the spirit of 1971’ and of Bengali secularism. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) championed Bangladeshi (Muslim) nationalism. Indian hegemony – real and imagined — stoked the fires of the Bengali/Bangladeshi debates.
The communal undertones of the Bangladeshi/Bengali divide were never too far from the surface. At the same time, the failure of the state to create a more just and equitable society lead to a general disaffection with Bengali nationalism as it had been articulated earlier. From the mid-1970s onward, increasing militarisation and Islamisation also provided perfect fodder for the highly emotive debates that ensued.
It was during the military regime of President Ziaur Rahman that the first controversies over the national anthem emerged. The main architect of a Bangladeshi (Bengali and Muslim) identity and the founder of the BNP, Zia is said to have found Amar Shonar Bangla lacking because it made no direct reference to either the Liberation War or to local Muslim culture. Apparently, Zia also felt that the pastoral tones of Tagore’s song did not do justice to the Bangladeshi spirit — a martial song would reflect better the character of Bangladeshis. An allusion to colonial stereotypes of warlike Muslims and effeminate Hindus is unmistakable.
It is within the increasingly narrow and parochial discursive space of such debates that the national anthem controversy unfolded at the end of the year 2000. Ahmed is reported to have asked if a song written to protest the 1905 anti-partition movement could be appropriate as an anthem for independent Bangladesh. Furthermore, he apparently suggested that the anthem should be changed because it was written by an Indian Hindu poet. In other words, could an “Indian” and a “Hindu” who promoted the idea of an undivided Bengal speak for the Bangladeshi nation? At one level, it is simple to dismiss such claims. National identities in South Asia as we know them today do not have an especially long lineage; ‘we’ were all ‘British Indians’ when Tagore wrote Amar Shonar Bangla. Moreover, Tagore’s attitude towards the swadeshi movement and Bengali nationalists shifted dramatically between 1906 and 1917. His 1917 novel, Ghore Baire, powerfully depicted the destructive effects of the movement and demonstrated a keen sensitivity to the communal issues attending nationalism. This consciousness was absent in his earlier work. Equally important, Muslims cannot have exclusive claims to speak for the territory that has come to be called Bangladesh – unless the terms Hindu/Indian/Bengali/secular are collapsed into one another.
As it happened, public support for calls to change the national anthem was muted at best. The BNP leadership, perhaps sensing the mood of the public, immediately distanced itself from Ahmed. An optimistic reading of the popular response would suggest that the communalisation of nationalism had not succeeded on this score at least.
For some nationalists, the main measure of the appropriateness of Amar Shonar Bangla as an icon of Bangladeshi nationalism is the original context of its composition, that is, the awkward relationship of the national narrative to the 1905 partition. By this logic, the song’s genealogical ‘impurity’ – its original purpose in opposing the 1905 partition – provides an irrevocable condemnation. As it happens, the Bangladesh constitution of 1972 (Article 4.1) directs the first 10 lines of Amar Shonar Bangla to be sung as the national anthem. The anthem is not the whole original song composed by Rabindranath but an extract from it. The sentiments attached to the whole are not automatically transposed to the excised version.
The longer version appears to function as both paean and pledge of allegiance to an embattled motherland that is also the mother goddess. In line with other contemporary nationalist productions, it is explicitly ‘Hindu’ in tone and imagery. The last two lines of the final stanza, reproduced below, refer directly to the boycott of British goods during the swadeshi movement, which arose in the wake of large-scale anti-partition agitation.
Oh mother, I offer at your feet this my lowered head;
give me, O mother the dust of your feet, to be the jewel upon my head.
O mother, whatever wealth this poor man has, I place before your feet,
Ah, I die,
I shall no more buy in the houses of others, O mother, this so-called finery of yours,
a noose around my neck.
Such nationalist overtones, overlaid with Hindu religious imagery, undoubtedly explain the song’s popularity during the anti-partition agitation. (It does not, however, explain why some Muslims did not support the partition.) The Bangladeshi national anthem eliminates these ‘awkward’ passages. Indeed, it could be argued that the only Islamic influence on the text is that which is invisible; what makes this text ‘appropriate’ for Bangladesh is the erasure of those parts that are potentially offensive by their explicit Hindu tone. The remainder of the song is perfectly consistent with a strong nationalist movement – the glorification of the land and the sadness at domination by external forces are standard sentiments, and not especially controversial. The reference to the nation as mother is also stripped of its religious character. It is only when Tagore, India and Hindu are conflated that problems emerge. But this collapsing of categories is a post-independence phenomenon, albeit with roots in the past.
The virulence of right wing nationalism notwithstanding, questions opened up by the national anthem debate expose basic ambiguities in national identity formation. Within the existing framework of nationalist thought, they raise profoundly uncomfortable questions about the genealogical purity of the nation and all that it stands for. To argue within the terms of this debate is to capitulate to its basic premise — that historically, essentialised religious and ethnic identities form the basis of all struggles. This is a deeply flawed argument, and one that is singularly counterproductive.
Writing this, one cannot help but be filled with a degree of anxiety about how such a reading might be misunderstood and misappropriated in Bangladesh. The issues are so fraught and the debates so polarised that it would be easy to be labelled anti-state or anti-secularist, depending on the ideological outlook of the reader. Neither is my intention. In the relentless debates over what constitutes national integrity, some very important questions are glossed over or suppressed. The issue of redistributive justice, for one, falls through the cracks. How to accommodate non-Bengali speakers and their social and economic marginalisation are other questions that are lost. It is time to move on to ‘post-nationalist’ histories that tackle equally awkward but much more urgent questions for the people of Bangladesh.
Author’s note: I would like to make clear that this essay is not based on a reading of the original text of the Aftab Ahmed speech, to which I did not have access at the time of writing. The analysis is based on numerous conversations, as well as on newspaper reports. My concern is not so much with what was actually said on the occasion but with how the reported remarks were received and appropriated politically.
~ Dina M Siddiqi is a cultural anthropologist currently based in Dhaka, working as a research associate for a local legal aid organisation.