Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
Chapter 4: Bengal to Bangladesh: The politics of identity politics
October 21st, 2020 at 12:06 am
Chapter 4: Bengal to Bangladesh: The politics of identity politics

(The book Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bangladesh: The Quest for a State 1937-1971)  by Afsan Chowdhury. This is the eighth episode as being serialized by )

The political journey of Bengal to various state formations began several times in history and ended in different destinations. Some of these journeys were potential but unfinished; dying on the way. Only one journey ended with a state of its own though it too evolved in its nature as various type of forces came together to build it. It is therefore not just a matter of a journey to the birth of a state or its process and progress but fading away of other journeys too. Much of the discussion on state making centre on what has been described as identity politics such as Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Bengali and so on. These are cultural identities. Less discussion is on class and community markers of non-cultural streams like the peasantry, the elite and alliances. The state narrative has tended to be more about the triumphalism of cultural identity struggles rather than socio-economic clustering.  

While it is a fact that everyone has an identity, it is also a fact that they have more than one. There are other identities that incorporate class, territory or communities of various kinds. Therefore, a mono-identity person of any sort is not a historical reality. However, the assertion of a single identity based interpretation of state making movements is common among the cultural nationalist school where cultural markers dominate (Chowdhury, Being Bengali). Cultural identities change over time given various historical contexts and backgrounds. Barring class, most identities are shared by people across the political divide. Nonetheless, at different times one particular identity may dominate and come to the political forefront depending on its leadership’s convenience.

However, the conceptualization of identity depends on the process of the historical experience of a given class and community. Cultural identity may exist without state making objective but historical identities are produced by the political objectives of state making through resistance, defense or domination.

“Real” and “False” identity

Subscription to a fundamentalist notion of identity usually built around cultural constructs like faith or language and so on is common in South Asia.  In such an argument, only one identity is “real” and the rest are “false”. This explains why once a person has been signified as a marker by the signifier who is the powerful elite, it is considered unchangeable even as history changes. This identification method is generally followed by the political elite. It also serves well as a social mobilization tool of the elite hence it became popular. Unchanging notions of identity are usually held by those in power or aspiring to be politically, usually from elite of culturally identifiable groups. Both Indian before 1947 and Pakistani identity seeking after 1947 in the end took on near hegemonic contests of state control or seeking it. 

The history of Bangladesh shows a fluid process of identity framing and application. One reason is that in case of Bangladesh, it is the peasantry which had the majority power who is not bearer of a fundamentalist notion of the cultural self like the elite. They also have elements of village identity that is not shared with the urban elite who often control politics at the top and signify identities at the bottom. In that sense, the peasantry is more autonomous in constructing their identity but is outside formal state power circles.

 Hence, people from this region have shifted from one dominant cultural marker to another to establish their socio-economic rights and try to birth the state. History shows whichever identity or a set of them suits the aspiration of the people in that period to challenge the domination of another identity is chosen.  Moreover, this is a balance between what the peasant majority and the elite middle class minority seeks. Hence, identity construction is itself a negotiation between various social groups.

Alliances and identities

This process of multiple marker arrangement and clustering process to achieve political objectives for socio-economic gains are in the form of alliances as seen in the history of Bengal/Bangladesh. An alliance of several class and cultural groups therefore has multiple aspirations and cultural identities. Identity in history appears as a tool to achieve a collective goal rather than the final cultural construction destination of people in history. As history moves on, identities are also adjusted, prioritized and sometimes even perceived as different by the other. 

Alliances among class and cultural markers are more obvious and concrete as they are part of a state making or social construction processes. Using such mechanisms people can access more resources in a construct called the state. The idea of a “sacred” identity which is usually cultural does not exist in politics. As a result, the major force of history, the peasantry is tagged with elite perceived cultural markers of a period. 

Extra cultural identities such as historical identities have been less studied though they appear to have delivered more political and state craft products. They do so by brining many other identities together into a common political space as the events of 1947 and 1971 show. This includes bringing in territorial identity markers as well. Yet many who share the same or most of these cultural markers do not identify as one “nation” or people, neither do they seek the same state. Bengalis before 1947 didn’t seek the same state and Muslims after 1947 didn’t either.

Bangladesh, Bengal, East Bengal and Pakistan all had common elements but these proved inadequate to form or sustain a common state aspiration when political need arose. Thus, the “Bengali” became a Muslim/ Hindu Bengali or Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi at different points of time in history by selecting an identity suiting their political need. In the end, the group chooses a combination of markers to produce a historical product. Bangladesh for example was created by rejecting previous state identities based on culture. It remained loyal to its historical identity as people of the Margin and the denied with territorial markers playing a critical role. Hence territorial identity such as the East Bengal= Partition of Bengal in 1905 became critical factors as several identities, cultural and historical, were marked by territory as well.

Alliances and mixed identities  

Cultural markers as political arguments appear to work better with the urban elite. Peasants are primarily a socio-economic category built around livelihood challenges and their habitat culture of the village. Villages have cultures of their own which in Bengal too is noticed (Ahmed, Folk Culture).

The gap between urban and rural cultural markers is high with one informed more by education and the other more by historical experience. Hence, to stamp an entire people of every sort of mixes with a single cultural marker is subject to interrogation. A common cultural identity from which politics flows out universally for all given wide economic and social divergences does not agree with facts of history of Bangladesh at any point (Khan, Social Stratification). The most significant example is the evolution of the peasant identity as the dominant political force over time in their relationship with the ruling class, whether colonial or post-colonial.

Peasantry certainly does not exclude cultural identities but its political identity is not governed by cultural ones. Cultural identities remain as one of the many markers of different groups including the elite. That is why there is a need and success in forming alliances to achieve political ends. For all practical purposes, when people of several mixed identities get together in an alliance, they form a new identity which is held together by common interest rather than by cultural markers.

This new identity construct based on historical aspiration or resistance has in Bengal history become the dominant identity in alliance with others. In this process of identity construction, none are lost and a new corporate identity is created which is inclusive of cultural markers but becomes the Meta identity. Politics is about who exercises power. Therefore, the power point which exercises power is the ‘Centre’ whiles those away from the Centre is the ‘Margin’.

The Margin is inclusive of most cultural identities as well. As a result the Margin and the Centre emerge in the history of Bengal as political and later state making identities that served as a Meta identity for their people while subsiding and subsidizing other cultural markers. The peasant identity is an amalgamation of several identity markers and so is that of the Margin. These markers are class, culture and territory based which are all active in a village. In the period under British colonial rule this was even more so. (To be continued…)