By Manisit Das:
Since early last year, headlines often pop up on my news-feed pertaining to events in Bangladesh. They tell me of atheist bloggers, secularists, and religious minorities being hacked to death and run a chill down my spine. The latest addition was the terrorist attack in Gulshan, Dhaka, which claimed more than 20 lives including those of foreign nationals. I see Bangladeshi people spewing hatred in the comments section of leading Bengali dailies and their Indian counterparts matching up with equal vitriol. I try to compare it with the image I have in mind of the country and its people. Nothing really fits anymore.
I grew up reading through the immensely rich heritage of Bengali literature. I engrossed myself in the world of Sunil Gangopadhay’s Purba Paschim (translated as East-West)- the story of a Hindu and a Muslim friend whose lives take turbulent swings in the backdrop of the partition. I listened to musical collaborations between artists from the two sides of the border, songs which echo and repeatedly remind me of cultural brotherhood and the agony of separation.
When Pakistan was created in 1947, calling for a separate homeland for the Muslims comprising of two distinct blocks along the western and eastern frontiers of India, the political leaders of the subcontinent didn’t really perceive that a cultural nationalism would arise eventually above the idea of religious nationalism based on Islam. A movement for the recognition of Bengali happened and paved the pathway for another partition in 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
Cut to 2015, it seems that the clock is being rewound back to the days of religious nationalism, where religion serves as a rallying force above anything else and pushes a section of the community to resort to extreme violence. Liberal thinkers are being cleansed from a land which always championed its free thinking.
I had the opportunity of meeting and interacting with a handful of Bangladeshi people and I always felt very cozy and comfortable. In fact, I would at times feel more at ease with a fellow Bengali from Bangladesh than a fellow Indian national from a different cultural walk of life. I still remember my solo trip to New York city last year. Having reached Manhattan at 3:30 AM in the morning with the temperature at 30°F outside and it raining heavily, I felt the immediate need to get some food. I walked into a sandwich place and the South-Asian guy at the counter confidently greeted me in his characteristic Bangladeshi accent: “Kotha theke astesen? (Where are you coming from?)” I was like, “How do you even know that I am Bengali!” He told me “Omukh dekhlei bojha jae (You can easily recognise by face).”
I have a magnet on the door of my refrigerator, which I had collected after performing on the occasion of International Mother Language Day celebration at my university. A group of students sang to the tunes of compositions like ‘Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushe February’ (a popular Bengali song written after the martyrs of the language movement in Dhaka University). I was staring blankly at that magnet today which depicts the Shaheed Minar, the national monument in Bangladesh which stands as a symbol of the Bengali language movement. I am not really sure whether that means anything to anyone anymore.
I was going through the Facebook profile of Ishrat Akhond, a Bangladeshi professional who was in the bakery during the attack. When the terrorists were hacking people who couldn’t identify themselves as Muslim by chanting verses from the Quran, she stood her ground and did not prove herself as one. She was murdered brutally just like the others. One of her recent posts read:
“Be a lover, not a fighter. But always fight for what you love.”
We all need to keep the fight alive now.
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