Monday, January 10, 2000

Documentation: Background tothe song PARWARDIGAR - ' The Creator'

The Liberation War of 1971, was following a rejection of the people of Bangladesh to the rulers of Pakistan, who carried out the worst carnage known to man with a systematic reign of genocide and ethnic cleansing all in the name of Islam. The racist Pakistani mindset chose to demean the predominantly Bengalee Muslim population with insinuations of being lesser Muslims or Hindu converts when it cried out against oppression and demanded freedom.

With the plea of 'Islam being in grave danger', the murder machine employed local lackeys and collaborators to further their evil design - and by the time it all ended nine gruesome months later on the 16th of December 1971, millions of Bengalee - the majority being Muslims in particular, perished. The actual number of dead in our war has always been debated, however what we choose to forget is even in the greatest wars for the establishment of Islam all over the world 1500 years back, less than two thousand Muslim's lost their lives! The carnage in Bangladesh is perhaps the worst case of Muslim/Muslim carnage in Islamic history. In Bangladesh insane Pakistani Muslim mindset chose to slaughter millions of their fellow Bengalee Muslims - with only one claim, 'superior man' or superior Muslims.

Out of the ruins of that traumatic war, we were born a nation with a deep identity crisis. While secularism became one of our states pillar - the secular possibilities in Islam was never explored - and consequently communal and reactionary forces harped on by hate propaganda, chose to demonize Islam - and attempts were made to strip Bengalee Muslims off an identity that they had lived with for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, lot of us took comfort in calling ourselves secular, without realizing that the Bengalee tradition and culture by and large has always been secular with Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam - never interfering in affairs of state. Complex was our attempt to preach secularism in alien dictions to a population that had all elements of secularism already present. The resultant confusion created the kind the situation that encouraged more demons of distrust and intolerance to rise and raise their heads. Liberal's were swearing at Islamist as fundamentalist, while extremist considered liberals as atheist and heretics.

Came a time, through intrigue and conspiracy the remnants of the collaborators, the hate monger returned to the limelight of Bangladesh's political history. In no time they swerved public opinions and whilst they democratically remain a microscopic minority, their public profile thanks to the press and gross mistakes of our liberals, appeared to threaten Bangladesh's very existence. There have been international demands to condemn Bangladesh as an 'Islamic terrorist state' - a la Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. It pained me greatly to see that we were unable to do anything to clarify our actual position - so great was our fear of the extremist, and so great was our ignorance. Great also was our fear that choosing Islam would mean being condemned to the 'back seat' of progress.

While we preached secularism without reference to its natural existence in our culture - a new minority trend rose among liberals that equated all cap and beard wearing Muslim into the 'fundamentalist' mindset. This together with the term 'razakar' or collaborator equated simple God fearing Muslims to the category of national enemies. While it is true that predominantly Muslims chose to side with the Pakistan murder machine - what is never discussed in public is that many Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Bengalees also collaborated with the enemy. No other community therefore, other than the Muslim in Bangladesh had to pay a higher price for their personal belief system. A generation of cap and beard sporting Muslims born after the Liberation War and with no connection to that period of infamy in our national history, are considered national enemies - only because they are practicing Muslims, and wear its habits scrupulously.

That misunderstanding was the bone of contention and further divided Bangladesh and all plural aspect of its society. The Taslima Nasreen controversy further exacerbated the crisis and more and more Islamist extremist spread hates - as also the old hysteria of 'Islam is in danger' was revived.

What liberals forgot, is the Liberation War was fought NOT as a rejection to Islam, but specifically Islamic extremism of the Pakistan State. The Pakistani fatwa of Bengalee Muslims being Hindu, was proved wrong as 28 years since our liberation - more than 90% of our population still subscribe to the Islamic faith. Clearly Islam has never been in any danger of extinction in Bangladesh, and remains after Indonesia the second most populous state with an Islamic population.

Liberals were left a clear option - either to side with the common people or, align with the city bred and based intellectuals preaching a brand of secularism that was misconstrued as atheisms or Hinduism. The communal frenzy of hate and suspicion amongst community continues in Bangladesh till this day... but thankfully its is not as serious a situation as is made out to be by the media, which has taken on the fashionable culture of anti-Islamic bias so popular in the West. Hindus, Buddhist and Christians enjoy a large degree of religious autonomy and freedom in Bangladesh.

For a Muslim God fearing liberal such as me, from a unique Buddhist and Persian lineage, with liberal agnosticism being the backbone of a culture in which I grew up, and a missionary school and college education in my formative years, I could not accept this deep divide and was deeply pained.

I knew all along that contrary to popular misconception, Islam did not permit fundamentalism or coercions of any kind. The concept of jihad is the worst nightmare we have, in that our religious extremist have chosen the jihad of weapons - considered among the lower forms of jihad as their political agenda - as opposed to the highest form of jihad, knowledge, logic, arguments, examinations and debate.

It was time for me to address the issue of Islamic extremism from an Islamic position and Parwardigar: The Creator was born. The approach is from the Islamic concept of fariyaad or plea to the creator, complaining about the frailties, insensitivity and intolerance of my fellow Muslims. It calls for tolerance and secularism and draws a clear picture of Mosques and Temples leaning side by side in harmony - in LOVE.

Acknowledgements and Gratitude :

Parwardigar : Creator is Bangla adaptation of the American singer, the late Jim Croce's original song against Christian fundamentalism, 'which way are you going'

English translation of the Holy Koran by Daud and Pickthall - my constant source of reference. Husnein Heikals 'Life of Muhammad PBUH'. Karen Armstrong 'A History of GOD' and to my mother Late Nurjahan Haque Sona, the only Islamic teacher I have had in my life.

Unpublished - written by Mac sometimes in 1996-97

Sunday, January 02, 2000

The Bangladeshi Assamese

My chance discovery of Jugal Kalita's website on the Internet confirmed that Assamese like other people in the world have entered cyberspace. What did that really mean to me- a Bangladesh born Assamese? I was going to find out- and therefore sent Kalita an E-mail, introducing myself as a 'second generation Assamese from Bangladesh', and waited. Nothing happened for 72 hours - and then came replies from all over the world - the Assamese world. I was baffled and I remember one mail, which brought me to the brink of tears. 'Welcome to the fold' it said. By the end of that week Kalita had put up my c.v. in his website an attached my E-mail address. A dozen more mails roared in. This belated introduction to so many Assamese around the world immediately eased a lifelong sense of isolation, and courtesy of the worldwide information super highway, I now have a chance to communicate with other Assamese. We, Assamese, a unique race can benefit from the shared experience of our people. This piece is an attempt to share the experience of the Assamese community in Bangladesh.

In the beginning allow me to explain what 'second generation Assamese' means. I am the child of Assamese parents- 'the first generation' - who migrated to this part of the world after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. We were born here and therefore are the 'second generation'. Our parents had the distinct honor of being citizens of four countries, British India, Independent India, Pakistan, and after 1971, of Bangladesh. I may add that could have also claimed a fifth nationality, that of Assam !

Why my parents or the other Muslims Assamese migrated to what was then East Pakistan is worth mentioning here. It was not because of economic or political necessity that they moved. They all came from more or less upper middle class background and while the 1947 partition was precipitated by communal riots elsewhere in India, let us not forget that Assam never subscribed to that communal culture; Muslims of Assam were never persecuted for their religious beliefs. This migration did not arise from any sense of insecurity either. So why did they move?

The Assamese Muslims visualized the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as a land of opportunity, where they felt that they stood a better chance with their acquired skills in the civil service, railways, and armed forces to improve upon their existing careers. Some generalists like my father also felt the same way. This was a migration of 'optees' in general, probably of less than a hundred individuals. This was no exodus.

There was comfort in that decision. They were only a couple of hundred miles away from their homes, mainly in the district of the then Sibsagar (now Jorhat), Nagaon and Lakhimpore (now Dibrugarh). There was no Passport or Visa requirement until the late fifties and inexpensive railway communication made it possible to board a train in those days at Lumding or Furkating and reach Dhaka within twenty four hours - less than twenty if the destination was Chittagong. Many had promised their families of their imminent return, if things did not work out and yes, this was a move by the Muslim Assamese. I have no records of any non-Muslim Assamese settling in Bangladesh other than Maya Das who married Siraj Hazarika and who until here death last year was the famed Screen and TV actress, Maya Hazarika.

It is of interest that most Assamese ended up marrying in Assam and in the 'first generation' I cannot cite an instance of marriages with Banglees. Therefore a strong community, indeed clannish feeling developed amongst them. At the outset it was for service in the Railways that most of the Assamese chose Chittagong, the port city of Bangladesh to settle. It is possible that the hilly and picturesque Chittagong district, temperature and topography-wise reminded them of Assam and having satiated their nostalgia with that placebo city - it was only in the early sixties that many Assamese started moving towards the Capital Dhaka.

Hostilities and wars between India and Pakistan contributed in distancing the Assamese from their homeland after 1965. For some it became necessary to completely disassociate themselves from their relatives in Assam. In that inglorious period, the Indian Government imprisoned some Assamese Muslims who had relatives in East Pakistan for 'security reason'. My eldest uncle the Late Shafiur Rahman Hongkwar was one of them. He languished for months in Jorhat Jail, only because he had relatives in East Pakistan: our family. Following the war, tighter imposition of Passport and Visa requirement together with deep suspicion made things very cumbersome. The 'first generation' did not want to complicate situation for their relative's back home. Postal services were suspended - letters that got through bore the clear mark of censorship. To get a visa was a nightmarish wait for six months or more, and one could be refused even after that.

Came the War of Liberation in 1971 and the Assamese sided with the aspirations of the Bangalees. The community spirit ensured the survival of the Assamese through the genocide. While a million Bengalees fled to West Bengal, the three hundred odd Assamese in Bangladesh chose to hide together as a community. In both Dhaka and Chittagong upto ten families at a time made the use of their own or the larger houses of richer Assamese and lived communally for nine months, the duration of the war. Though food was scarce, there was no dearth of love. The Assamese were prepared to die together. Among the unsung heroes of the Liberation War of Bangladesh are two Assamese from our 'second generation'. One Bablu Rasheed was a martyr, savagely tortured to death by the Pakistani Army of Occupation. Another, Faruk Ahmed was a ferocious guerrilla fighter of the Mukti Bahini.

Nothing changed for the Bangladeshi Assamese after the Independence in 1971, for soon Assam became a restricted area and our Bangladesh passport meant we were foreigners. No exception was made in the Restricted Area Permit regulation for native Assamese or their children to visit their homeland. Much as our parents were denied the chance after 1965, we had to endure the same wait after 1971, months on end and even be refused. The RAP was thankful lifted in 1994.

So resigned are some of us to our fates that I know of at least two- dozen native Assamese in Bangladesh that have not visited their homeland for over forty years! Many have lost touch or have been disowned by their relatives in Assam. Sons and daughters do not know for certain if their parents are still alive and vice versa. There cannot be any more tragic instance in immigration history than that of the Bangladeshi Assamese.

Because of the fact that we the 'second generation' have so successfully assimilated ourselves into mainstream Bengalee culture, and have become so much more busier and because we probably have to work twice as hard as the average Bengalee to make our presence felt; what has become prohibitive for us is regular contact. To compensate for that we chat on the phone. The 'first generation' rejected the idea of forming an Association, why we will never know and we have respect for that decision. Now, as a community we only get together for marriages, the two Eid celebration or ironically at funerals.

What are we doing to keep Assamese tradition and culture alive? Firstly, we do not as a practice allow any young Assamese to forget their mother tongue; so its strictly Assamese language when we speak among ourselves. The 'second generation' Assamese girls have largely married Bengalees out of choice or arrangements. It is not as if marriages within the 'second generation' has not occurred - yet some more adventurous Assamese boys, me included, have opted to marry Assamese girls - from 'proper' Assam. My wife is among the four ladies in the Assamese community in Bangladesh who are referred to lovingly as the 'imported brides'! Their upbringing in Assam has contributed to their celebrity status. Therefore, before any function, especially weddings, they initiate a telephonic relay that seeks to cultivate opinions so that authenticity is upheld and nothing is missed out. a meeting is called among the ladies who then iron out all the finer details, and yes, a load of 'pai's and napais' (do's and don't's) !

The weddings are fine examples in exhibiting our culture to our Bengalee friends. Ladies wear riha-mekhala-sador, seven ladies press a angothi on he brides heads as oil is poured during the halodi ceremony and Biya naam is sung. Assamese jewelleries are of course hot favorites in the community. The Gaam Kharu, Lokaparoh, Golpota, dhol and Jonbiri, Thuria, Gajera, Nez Loga, Angothi, Sipat etc., compete with Dhakai jewelleries, which are equally exquisite. Most Assamese home in Dhaka are incomplete without Xorai, Bota, Ban Bati and these are used ceremoniously. Our Bengalee friends request Khar, Jaal, and Khorisa dishes whenever we invite them for a meal.

This piece cannot be a complete picture on the Assamese community in Bangladesh, yet I would like to add that in fifty years since the first immigrant from Assam arrived, the Bangladeshi Assamese today are a proud community, regarded for their sincerity, hard work, honesty and above all simplicity. We have no regrets and are proud of who we are, of our parents, and of course of ASSAM.

First Published June 1997 in an Assamese publication in Delhi. Later this was translated and published in Assamese daily newspaper in Guwahati, Assam.