Sunday, January 21, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 4

15. Anatomical and Geographical Mutilation - The communal criteria for cultural chastity

Nowhere else in the world is the snipping, or not snipping of a quarter inch of flesh, off the reproductive organ of a Bengalee male, more actively and emotively discussed in a culture then among Bengalee's - a point not overlooked by the seventeenth century agnostic Saint Lalon Fakir, in one of his hymns - now a Baul anthem:

'Sunnot dilay hoi Musholman, hairay nari loker kee hoi bidhan'
if circumcision be the mark of a Muslim, how do I recognise its female

'Amee Bamun chini poitay proman, amee baunee chini keesheray '
I know a Brahmin from his holy thread, how do I recognise a Brahmin female.

The suspicion between the two communities among the Bengalee's contributes to a reckless desire to out smart each other at every given opportunity. The West Bengal Bengalee's regardless of the community he represents forever gloats with the notion that Bangladesh is 'opar Bangla' or the 'other Bengal' - not an independent country - this representing a regret of not being able to create an autonomous divide off India, whilst Bangladesh is truly the world's first Bengalee nation state.

The Bangladesh Bengalee however is responsible for this patronising attitude of West Bengal, as he has failed to establish himself as an independent people in his dealings and cultural attributes - and has remained subservient to open and blatant attacks, from the gifted 'dadas' (big brothers) who often then not will demean the Bangladesh Bengalee with snide remarks about his origins even as he enjoys all hospitalities in Dhaka.

The 'opar Bangla' concept also has a distinct 'communal' overture. There being hardly any river that divides the Bengal - 'opar' means in a condescending way - as the 'other bank' of the river - almost like referring to a leper colony of untouchables or lowly people. Yet in any visit to Kolkata our 'cultural luminaries' will prefer to refer themselves as people from 'opar Bangla' with an element of pride interjected - little knowing that by doing so they only sanction the mentality of a caste, creed and religious divide.

It was the faux pas in 1999, in a book fair inauguration in Kolkata, where the Prime Minister or 'Prodhan Montri' of Bangladesh was deliberately referred in more than five separate occasions as the 'Mukhyo Montri' or Chief Minister of Bangladesh, that the 'intellectual sabre rattling' started in hysterical proportion. The tragedy is - more than two dozen of these 'intellectuals' from Bangladesh were present in that inauguration - and none had the courage to stand up and protest immediately. Yet on their return to Bangladesh, we were bored stiff with the months of tirade in the press to placate their irate feelings and the public outcry was tremendous.

No public or state level apology was ever offered to our Prime Minister - and consequent to that, thankfully the visits of West Bengal's cultural 'dadas' has trickled to a stand still. While our 'intellectuals' have never accepted that their West Bengal counterparts were communal, it was the ultimate attempt of the Muslim hating Ananda Bazar Publication, the apparent 'authority' on 'babu culture' to open an enterprise in Bangladesh in 2000, that probably for the first time saw an open resistance from the 'progressive' lot of writers, columnist and poets - to successfully deny them an entry.

Religion is and will always remain a divisive force in the myth of Bengalee culture - regardless of how best we try to circumvent each other feelings.

" Cross-cultural exchange often results in what anthropologists call acculturation, when the members of one culture adopt features of another. " John H. Bodley

16. Dichotomy of Decline - The Myth and Mantra of Secularism

Forgotten conveniently is the fact that whatever 'Bengalee culture' we know or can comprehend is the product of acculturation, and more than Hindu or Muslim precepts of culture as is implied today, it was constant fusion among cultures for thousands of years that has contributed to the resilience of the Bengalee, and his great fecundity to adapt - which in essence, if at all - is his real cultural gains.

It is this great melting pot, a fusion of cultural elements that came down over ages and include elements from the animist, pagan, agnostic, monotheistic, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, the Sufis and Vaishnavites, and their many offshoots - the Baul's being one of them, and on to the more modern versions of Secularism - a philosophy though mysterious and haunting to the Bengalee's - culture's have traditionally congealed in Bengal - never confused.

" Many societies today interpret the natural world and form beliefs based on science and logic. Societies in which many people do not practice any religion, may be known as secular societies. However, no society is entirely secular. " John H. Bodley

Secularism as practiced in Bangladesh is by and large a perplexing and cosmetic diversion to conceal the confusion of those that are not readily brave enough to publicly declare themselves atheist for fears of being branded heretics or pragmatic enough to accept plurality.

These are hyperbole's, played about by elements in the society who prefer to call themselves 'progressive' and is a fashionable Dhaka based middle class enigma, a mirage at best which many consider the modern Bengalee's 'real cultural gains'. The philosophy never found wide acceptance in the society despite it being a state pillar of Bangladesh for well over 18 years - and as I have tried to explain in many of my writings, its biggest threat and ultimate demise is due to the diction of its dissemination - again to the riffraff 'layman'.

Our secularists have never attempted to explain the philosophy with reference to its natural existence in our culture for thousands of years. Consequently the diction used and the methodology argued in almost all secular writings and speeches has created an illusion of the promotion of atheism, a very modern philosophy which never existed in the mainstream culture of the Bengalee. It was this confusion that created a sharp divide and created suspicion among the 'layman' - that secularism is some kind of a Hindu 'babu' plot.

Secularism was stripped from the state pillars of Bangladesh in 1988- 89 without any protest and was replaced with a theocratic version of 'state religion' Islam, which was no more than a ritualistic 'circumcision' of the state by the brutal autocrat Hossain Mohammed Ershad. No attempts have since been made to reintroduce secularism - such is the fear of political rejection of our leaders that its is a philosophy that is now propagated only in the radical fringe.

Argued hysterically as Bengalee culture is actually the remnants of what the English colonisers have left behind, together with 'necessary innovations' to accommodate more recent variations as time and exigencies determined. Secularism was one such.

17. National Culture - The Climax of Confusion

The word 'national culture' evolved with the rise of military autocracy in 1975 - as a means to an end, when the Bengalee was smarting and contemplating over his future, given the death and departure of democracy or semblance of whatever we had achieved since 1971 - the bloody birth of Bangladesh. An 'Islamisation' of Bangladesh was urgently thought of, to counter the 'chetonization' (spirit of the War of Liberation) - which apparently was the penultimate 'secular' aspect of the Peoples Republic that had gone astray.

Given the fact that more than 85% of the population of Bangladesh live in villages, it is ironic that the 'cult rituals' of a handful of city bred middle class before 1975 and the military cantonment version of Islam thereafter was propounded as our 'national culture' and we still have not found a third more acceptable alternative.

Conspicuous was the acceptance of Islam, the religion and way of life of more than 95% of the population of Bangladesh as anything but 'culture' - neither is Hinduism more articulately explained - other than this being a religion of o 'kafir's' or 'idolaters' in the Islamic scheme of things.

This is where the media is guilty of compliance to insensitivity and misdemeanour as they have been used blatantly to carry forward the age old English and now the 'Western' mandate of Islamic and the Brahminical supremacist philosophy that deliberately destroy anything that could be of benefit to all the people in a culture.

The secular possibilities in Islam, that led to the conversion of our forefathers was imminently displaced by religious disharmony, and while Islam found acceptance due to its natural assimilation into any culture it made inroads into - post 1975 a new version that equated Bedouin cultures of the desert as the pure Islamic culture, was been propagated in effect to counter Brahminist supremacy disguised as 'Bengalee culture' - by a handful of Islamic extremist. This new version is the 'pucca Muslim' or pure Muslim culture and I personally see no difference in this and the 'shuddho shaskriti walaaz' that I have described earlier.

The new God was the habit one wore - not any religion - with rites and rituals in foreplay, some so strange that they are not even heard of anywhere in the Islamic world, or for that matter in the 'Bengalee world' for centuries.

Politically at election eve the 'pucca Muslim' culture ensured greater vote banks - and our progressive secularist chose to turn a blind eye when its own party the Awami League went on a binge of Islam in the run up to elections in 1996. Smart political move that gained them lost power in 21 years, but firmly established religion as a major contributor to politics. Thanks to Bill Clintons visit to Bangladesh in 2000, the 'pucca Muslim' version of culture has received the Western endorsement of 'moderate Islam' - another confusion that will hopefully one day, bring in a version of 'secular Islam' - but may not end Bangladesh's innate identity crisis. After all the Talibans in Afghanistan is an American invention, I see no problem in 'moderate Islam' in Bangladesh - since Allah moved base from Saudi Arabia to Washington many, many years ago!

As the media would help project, it is only the Brahminist and Bedouin supremacist cultural activists who are constantly at loggerheads in Bangladesh cultural division - sadly if either of these are accepted as the 'true culture' in the future - it will only prove beyond doubt that Bengalee's are nothing more than an 'puritanical extremist' people harbouring fratricidal hatred amongst its communities.

Heartening though is a realisation that the media in Bangladesh is no parameter for the judgement of 'public opinion' nor does it reflect the mentality and attitude of its 'common layman' - who unbeknownst to many - lives a life temperately oblivious of the communal disharmony that afflicts the urban middle class in a rural community that is by and large tolerant and more democratic in character, compared to the cities.

First Published 21st January 2001

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