Bonds, Politics

#13. Bangladesh | The increasingly unrecognizable ‘sibling’

Since early last year, headlines pop up on my news-feed at regular intervals pertaining to events of 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 comment sections of leading Bengali dailies and their Indian counterparts matching up with equal vitriol. I try to compare it with the imagery I have in mind of the country and her 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 reminds 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 an Islamic brethren. A movement for 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 her 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 feel rather at ease with a fellow Bengali from Bangladesh at times than a fellow Indian national from a different cultural walk of life. I still remember my solo trip to New York city last year. Reaching Manhattan around 3:30 AM at night with 30 F outside and raining heavily, I felt the immediate need of grabbing some food. I walked into a sandwich place and the South Asian guy in the counter confidently greeted me in his characteristic Bangladeshi accent: “Kotha theke astesen?” (Where are you coming from). My reaction was like: How did you even know that I am Bengali? He replied “O mukh dekhlei bojha jae” (You can easily recognize by face).

bangadeshI have a magnet on my refrigerator door which I 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 language movement in Dhaka University). Today, I was staring blankly at that circular piece of token which depicts the Shaheed Minar, the national monument in Bangladesh which stands as a symbolism 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 Akond, 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 Quran, she stood ground by not wanting to 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.

India, Politics

#12. Does India need a ‘Left’phobia?

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‘We want freedom in India, not freedom from India’

Very recently, we got to hear an organic and passionate speech by Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) President Kanhaiya Kumar after his release. The way he slammed at his rightwing opponents and media in his satirical and rustic style, is a treat to ears. My good wishes to the leader who is rising!

I am however specifically heartened by one element in his speech; his acceptance that the Left in India had remained largely elitist and that they had failed to strike a chord with masses despite championing their rights and empathizing with them. I am happy that he realized that so soon and this speaks of his political maturity.

In general, people of the modern day world have a sense of antipathy and cringing fear about the Left. And thus, a certain Bernie Sanders in United States trying to build his campaign on Democratic Socialism is immediately feared as a Communist trying to take over the country while people not realizing that any ‘welfare state’ trying to take care of social and economic well-being of its citizens is already close to it.

India is not an exception to this trend either. With an enormous section of people not being able to get higher education and alienated by almost unfathomable barriers like caste, religion, sects, social status and regional identity, it is not too difficult to deduce that a discourse in dialectic materialism or classless society would sound Hebrew to most ears. Also, our post-independence nationalism is somehow imbibed in ‘hate thy neighbors’ policy. Much often than not, it seems that an India-Pakistan cricket match is the greatest unifying force in the country.  And for the same reason, the soldiers in the borders are our greatest heroes and the people of the frontier provinces are our biggest traitors.  Thus when EMS Namboodiripad, Chief Minister of the first democratically elected government by a communist party in India remarked that‘the Chinese had entered territory that they thought was theirs and hence there was no question of aggression. At the same time, the Indians were defending territory that they considered theirs and so they were not committing aggression either.’ , the Communists turned into Chinese sympathizers overnight during Sino-Indian war in 1962. However, the same majority of people didn’t empathize when the Left withdrew their support from the first UPA government in Centre over their concern with India’s sovereignty in face of nuclear deal with US which required the country to submit a list of India’s civilian nuclear reactors to the regulatory agencies and exposing them to inspection on demand. The Centre wasn’t blamed of anti-nationalism and the Left weren’t idolized as patriots and nationalists. Such irony!

Coming back to the question I started with. People are scared of ‘Communists’. And it is not quiet unjustified either, given they had a bad taste in mouth with Communist regimes in central Europe, Russia, North Korea among others. Here, I find a quote by Milan Kundera, an author of Czech origin very significant.

“Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers. ”

People essentially forget that their experience with any political extremities, be it either far right fascism or centralized socialism with authoritarian form of government never turned out pleasant. And this was precisely why, people tried to fuse elements from right and left and hang around the Centre. That is how most of the political systems work in present day world.

The horizon of Left is immense and an essential space in politics. Many feel that the Left have an obsession with victimization of the marginalized. Yes, they do and often they sound rhetorical. But in a political democracy guided by economic authoritarianism where interests of big corporations are prioritized in name of free trade, there needs to be a voice for the oppressed, for the marginalized and for the alienated. There is a need because the conservatives and the right will never speak of inclusion and will not try to protect the interests of disadvantaged groups.

When India experimented with democracy after her independence, the world watched with cynicism and apprehension and wondered whether the exercise would turn the country into a failed state. But we didn’t fail as a country.  The nation state didn’t fall apart because she stood beside her people, didn’t try to integrate the country in the name of a single religion or a monolithic nationalism, and accepted her diversity as intrinsic. However, that very idea of India is now threatened with politically degeneration of Left and a ruthless right wing call which builds itself on a majoritarian rhetoric.  India needs her Left now, both organized and unorganized, very dearly so. Hope, the Left leadership of the country is lending an ear to one of their young compatriots today and in the process of getting back to the people and forge connections. Sooner, the better.

America, Music, Travel

#5. July 4th | Nationalism | Woody Guthrie

Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!

– President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day (1996)

“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

I happened to be in US during ‘Fourth of July’, last year. Though somewhat acquainted with the traditions through pop culture, I was quite excited to check on how the Americans celebrate their ‘National Day’.  I was living in Lafayette- West Lafayette area, which was a small campus township in Indiana. From my lab-mates, I came to know that celebration there was not so spectacular like that in bigger cities. However, anything was still better for me than nothing. I had my day-off and probably was the last person who could sit idly for a sufficiently long time so I checked the schedule of the events and arrived at the venue on time!

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July 4th celebrations, Downtown Lafayette (2014)

As I reached there, the ‘Indian’ in me immediately had his head hung low. Here in India, a country with population surpassing a billion and with a rich heritage of thousands of years hardly observe our independence day with enthusiasm. And there I was standing in a rural township whose streets remain hardly busy during normal days had her crowds pouring into the down-town area, elegantly dressed in ‘stars and stripes’ attire! Some head-over-heels love these Americans have for their country, I wondered! In a way, I was ashamed and envied their passion; but later when I pondered over it,  I rather felt a tinge of creepiness.

I am not a political theorist. Neither a student of social sciences. Being a layman, I appreciate that nationalism is a great unifying force. It enables people of a country to come under a common banner, harmonize with fellow citizens and take up collective responsibilities towards welfare of their country. But since this is such a motivating rallying cry, it is possible to distort the orientation by the force that dictates it, which is in most cases, the government. It becomes a weapon of mass mobilization in times of war, an opium to mask people’s consciousness of socio-economic problems and a propaganda tool to alienate all dissenting opinions and fringe groups.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

-Woody Guthrie, This land is your land (Original lyrics, 1940, excluded from 1944 recording)

Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American songwriter-musician recorded the song “This land is your land” in 1944 which till date is America’s one of the most famous folk songs. The song gives a passionate commentary of the American ethos in its verses like “This land is your land, this land is my land, From California to the New York Island” and was covered by numerous artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio to Bruce Springsteen. But what makes it most interesting is the fact that the song was penned by a musician who used to carry a guitar with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”. He apparently wrote this song  frustrated with the unrealistic, complacent lyrics of “God Bless America”. But even he shied away from including the subversive stanzas with its strong political overtone, in the recorded version. Probably he wanted to limit his opinion to give the song an anthemic character. We never know. 

 

woody_guthrieA key aspect of nationalism is the conviction about the superiority of one’s own country when compared to others. But a thinking along this route blinds us of the shortcomings and what can be done to address them. It ceases to be love and becomes an obsession; if anyone dares to swim against the tide of mass hysteria, they are greeted with censure. It gives news agencies the power to scathe, “It’s just those liberals who hate America.” In India, the ruling party leaders don’t hesitate to warn, “opposition to Yoga amounts to anti-national and anti-social acts”.  We discriminate against North-easterners, joke about their ethnicity but don’t fail to bask in the glory of Mary Kom, a sports icon of the same ethnic origin and bash people if they don’t stand up in respect to the national anthem at end of her biopic. Our nationalism is so cryptic!

Inflexible systems and intolerance are few of the most frightening things in the world.  We take our opinions too seriously, without bothering to lend an ear to others. We compartmentalize the world by viewing it through our tinted glasses and promptly pass on a judgement. We spend hours in comment wars on social media when we find ‘Someone is wrong on the internet‘. The action of the government is just a scaled-up version of our individual tenacities. People like us, not aliens constitute the ‘establishment’. And those whom we condemn as ‘anti-establishment’. And patriotism is nothing but love. But it shouldn’t be blind. It shouldn’t be beyond recognition of flaws and respect of differences. And that is why, I felt a little scared when I saw the Americans with their baggage of national pride that day.

 

Happy Birthday Uncle Sam! And may you remember Guthrie’s song in its totality. The different beliefs and different banners with which people gather behind it. Because protest and patriotism differs only in the way we interpret it.

I will be visiting you again soon. Till then goodbye! 🙂

Guthrie’s picture source: http://gregwalcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/woody_guthrie.jpg