Fakrul Alam’s “Rabindranath Tagore and the National Identity Formation in Bangladesh”: A Review

S. M. Maniruzzaman 03 November,2013
S. M. Maniruzzaman


Dr. Fakrul Alam is now regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Rabindranath Tagore both at home and abroad. He co-edited The Essential Tagore, the largest anthology of Tagore’s work in English, published by Harvard University in collaboration with Bisva-Bharati University in 2011. In 2012, Bangla Academy of Bangladesh published his collection of essays on Rabindranath Tagore under the title, Rabindranath Tagore and the National Identity Formation in Bangladesh. The book is comprised of seventeen essays. The first and most significant essay of the book is “Rabindranath Tagore and the National Identity of Bangladesh” which is eponymous with the title of the book too. Below is my review of the essay, “Rabindranath Tagore and the formation of National Identity of Bangladesh”.

The essay, written in excellent and imaginative English prose with utter lucidness and divided into four sections over twenty four pages is a brilliant account of the way Tagore contributed in the formation of National identity over the last hundred years.

The first section of the essay began with an anecdote about the 2010 DU senate session’s debate over the VC’s inaugural speech being embellished with the lines of one of Tagore’s song-lyrics, “Oi Mohamanobo Ashe/Dike Dike Romancho Lage" to show how Tagore still evokes strong passion in Bangladesh.
Then he goes on to describe the ideological fissures of the country with references to William van Schendel’s 2001 paper: “Who Speaks for the Nation? Nationalist Rhetoric and the Challenges of Cultural Pluralism in Bangladesh”.

In this paper, Schendel  “detects three strains dominating debates over national identity formation in Bangladesh”: first, “establishment nationalism” emanating from linguistic nationalism gained impetus from the language movement; it led the country to an independent sovereign state in 1971, during the military regimes after the assassination of Bangabandhu got reformed as “renewal nationalism” (in Schendel’s words). The “renewal nationalists,” represented by the Awami league, hold “Bengaliness” as the core part of Bangladeshi National Identity.

Secondly, another ideological strain diagnosed by Schendel is Islam upheld by “Islamists” (in Schendel’s words) who are responsible for the tincturing of constitution with Islamic doses. The “Islamists” are largely represented by BNP and Jamat-i-Islami. This group holds that Islam or Muslimness is central to their national identity. (Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury accounted the evolution of Muslimness as the core part of the national identity of East Bengal’s Bengali Muslims throughout the colonial period in his 2009 paper: “The Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity: Their Impact on State Behaviour” published on ISAS Working Paper No. 63 – Date: 10 June 2009).

Thirdly, Schendel discerns a third group emerging in Bangladesh since the 1990s who are trying to attract attention by proclaiming “cultural pluralism” as "the most viable option to lead Bangladesh forward to peace and prosperity in the new millennium”.

The second section of the essay traced back Tagore’s genealogical connections to Bangladesh, then East Bengal and how Tagore was treated in the East Bengal before and after he won the Nobel Prize in 1913. This section ends with some information about how among some Muslims, an urge to articulate forms of difference (especially cultural) was developing around the Partition of India in 1947. Its proof is Abul Mansur Ahmed’s speech at the East Pakistan Renaissance Society at Kolkata (then Calcutta) where Ahmed says “The Muslims of Bengal … cannot be great by imitating Rabindranath. They will have to develop their own identity on the basis of their culture.”

The third section of the essay details how Bengaliness as the core part of our national identity evolved during the Pakistani period. Under the governance of the West Pakistani hegemonic bloc, among the middle class Bengalis there was a developing demand to articulate forms of cultural difference as forms of resistance. And here linguistic nationalism was the driving force. That's why as the articulation of cultural difference as forms of resistance revivals of festivals such as Pahela Baisakh, Basanta Utsav, Sharat Utsav and Borsha Mongol occurred in this period. In these occurrences of cultural resistance, Tagore was a major inspirational force.

From this section let me quote few sentences which can be also regarded as the epitome of the imaginative prose:

“[L]inguistic nationalism is the motor that drove East Pakistan towards Bangladesh and Pakistani attempts to suppress the language movement triggered the collapse of the Islamist state. Since more than any other person, Rabindranath is the architect of modern Bengali, he would inevitably become a key rallying point for the activists of the movement. Bids to eliminate him from East Pakistan’s cultural history would only fuel the resistance to the Pakistani state. In trying to minimize his presence in East Pakistan, the government of the country only succeeded in making East Bengalis realize that he was central to the formation of their distinctive identity.”

This section also details the formation of Chhayanat and the clash between different nationalist groups/organizations and the government and so on.

The fourth section is devoted to detail the reformation of Bangladeshi national identity after the independence and during different military dictatorships. The military dictators in general did not hesitate to gather support from the Islamist section of the populace by privileging Muslimness over Bengaliness. Among them, General Ershad was the most populist one who tried to blend Muslimness with Bengaliness so that he could gather support from both parts. Anyway those who privilege Muslimness over Bengaliness still try to minimize the presence of Tagore everywhere. Anyway the essay was ended with two poems: one by Shamsur Rahman and another by Rafiq Azad.

Since Tagore is one of my most favorite writers and Fakrul Alam one of my most favorite scholars and critics, I myself prefer "the preferred reading" of the essay. But if one accepts the (dominant/) preferred reading of a text, there is little point in analyzing it. So a critic's first task should be to see a text the opposite way, to go through an "oppositional reading". So the question is how an oppositional reader would read the essay? S/he would just reject the text. But how would s/he justify his/her rejection. What chances does the essay offer an oppositional reader to justify his/her rejection? I think the essay offers a little scope for doing an oppositional reading. And the few chances that the essay offer arise from the authoritative tone and manner. Certainly Fakrul Alam, being the editor of the Essential Tagore and a great senior scholar, has a right to write in an authoritative tone. But most of the time, whenever authority is assumed, self-reflexivity is amiss. For instance, as FA sir uses words like "the majority" or "the minority" one can ask if we have statistics or how we can say "the majority" for Tagore and "the minority" against him when the majority of the people being illiterate are not supposed to read him or know him. Otherwise, except this one or two cases, the essay written in lucid and descriptive language, with its cogent arguments and erudition, and informed by contemporary theoretical concepts provides a reader little chance to shun it.

Tagore himself is a big weighty thing and nowadays National Identity plays a very crucial role in Bangladeshi political scenario. Shahbag, Matijhil, Tagore, Nazrul and so on are the recurring issues in any discussion of (National) identity politics of Bangladesh. And all political parties are busy capitalizing on them through acts of incorporation, distortion, resistance, negotiation, and recuperation. Whereas (political) identity and character of Shahbag and Matijhil are more or less clear, there are lots of points of ambivalence in Tagore and Nazrul. They both are hybrid product of colonial period. National Identity of Bangladesh itself is also a very hybrid thing too.

Tagore himself was well aware of that, his poem "Bharata Treertha" proves his awareness; though it was written in the undivided colonized India, the underlying theme is also true in case of Bangladesh. So, hybridity and the impact of colonial period on our collective transgenerational consciousness, despite our collective (specially subaltern) dementia, should be major concerns in any discussion of national identity. So what should be done first to connect Tagore to the National Identity formation in Bangladesh is to investigate what Tagore (/and his works) contribute/s to the National Imaginary, what values and ideologies Tagore /and his works disseminate/s from generations to generations and etc. And Dr.  Alam excellently writes about these things and explains them periods by periods. He rightly says "What role has he played in the national imaginary? The answer surely must be sought in the image of repossessing "Shonar Bangla" that his song focalized for the generation that fought the liberation war and are still striving to make the vision generated by it come true."

Anyway, I can recall that at the book publishing ceremony, Shamsuzzaman Khan, the director of Bangla Academy has suggested that the topics of the essay themselves deserve a book on them, so the argument should be expanded.

S. M. Maniruzzaman is a Poet, Social Analyst, and
Part-time faculty member at The People’s University of Bangladesh

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