“Bangladesh has a hundred gates open for entrance but not one for departure” -Bernier.
Bangladesh is a new state in an ancient land. It has been described by an American political scientist as “a country challenged by contradictions”. On the face of it, the recent twists and turns of her history are often inconsistent. It is neither a distinct geographical entity, nor a well-defined historical unit. Nevertheless, it is the homeland of the ninth largest nation in the world whose groping for a political identity were protracted, intense and agonizing. The key to these apparent contradictions lies in her history of Roots of Bangladesh.
Etymologically, the word Bangladesh is derived from the cognate “Vanga” which was first mentioned in the Hindu scripture Aitareya Aranyaka (composed between 500 B C and 500 A D). Legend has it that Bengal was first colonized by Prince Vanga, the son of King Bali and Queen Sudeshna of the Lunar dynasty. According to linguists, the roots of the term Vanga may be traced to languages in the adjoining areas. One school of linguists maintains that the word “Vanga” is derived from the Tibetan word “Bans” which implies “wet and moist”. According to this interpretation, Bangladesh literally refers to a wetland. Another school is of the opinion that the term “Vangla” is derived from Bodo (aborigines of Assam ) words “Bang” and “la” which connote “wide plains.”
Proto-history and Pre-history
Geological evidence indicates that much of Bangladesh was formed 1 to 6.5 million years ago during the tertiary era. Human habitation in this region is, therefore, likely to be very old. The implements discovered in Deolpota village in the neighbouring state of West Bengal suggest that paleolithic civilization in the region existed about one hundred thousand years ago. The evidence of paleolithic civilization in Bangladesh region is limited to a stone implement in Rangamati and a hand axe in the hilly tip of Feni district. They are likely to be 10,000 to 15,000 years old. New stone age in the region lasted from 3,000 B C to 1,500 B C. Neolithic tools comparable to Assam group were found at Sitakunda in Chittagong . Hand axes and chisels showing close affinity to neolithic industries in West Bengal , Bihar and Orissa have been discovered at Mainamati near Comilla. The thinly forested laterite hills in eastern Bengal dotted with fertile valleys provided a congenial environment for neolithic settlements. However, the archaeological evidence on transition from stone age to metal age in this region is still missing.
Political Dynamics in Ancient Bengal (326 B.C. to 1204 A.D.)
The earliest historical reference to organized political life in the Bangladesh region is usually traced to the writings on Alexander’s invasion of India in 326 B.C. The Greek and Latin historians suggested that Alexander the Great withdrew from India anticipating the valiant counter attack of the mighty Gangaridai and Prasioi empires, which were located in the Bengal region. It is not, however, clearly known who built these empires. Literary and epigraphic evidence refer to the rise and fall of a large number of principalities in the region which were variously known as Pundra Vardhana (northern Bangladesh), Gauda (parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh), Dandabhukti (southern West Bengal), Karna Subarna (part of West Bengal), Varendra (northern Bangladesh), Rarh (southern areas of West Bengal), Summha Desa (south-western West Bengal), Vanga (central Bangladesh), Vangala (southern Bangladesh), Harikela (North-East Bangladesh), Chandradwipa (Southern Bangladesh), Subarnabithi (central Bangladesh), Navyabakashika (central and southern Bangladesh), Lukhnauti (North Bengal and Bihar) and Samatata (Eastern Bangladesh)
There are two schools of opinion regarding the political evolution of ancient Bengal . According to one school, the Bangladesh region in the ancient period was an integral part of mighty empires in north India . These historians maintain Gangaridai and Prasioi empires were succeeded by the Mauryas (4th to 2nd century B.C.), the Guptas (4th-5th century A.D.), the empire of Sasanka (7th century A.D.), the Pala empire (750-1162 A.D.), and the Senas (1162-1223 A.D.). Specially, the Pala empire which lasted for more than four hundred years and reached its zenith in eighth and ninth centuries under the leadership of Dharmapala and Devapala is cited as an example of Bengal ‘s political genius. The revisionist historians are of the opinion that the traditional interpretation overstates the role of all-India empires in the political life of the Bangladesh region. They maintain that epigraphic evidence suggests that only some of the areas which now constitute Bangladesh were occasionally incorporated in the larger empires of South Asia . In their view, political fragmentation and not empire was the historical destiny of Bangladesh region in the ancient times. Inscriptions attest to the existence of a succession of independent kingdoms in southern and eastern Bengal . These local kingdoms included the realms of Vainyagupta (6th century), the Faridpur kings (6th century), the Bhadra dynasty (circa 600-650 A D), Khadaga dynasty (circa 650-700 AD), Natha and Rata dynasty (750-800 A D ), the rulers of Harikela (circa 800-900), Chandra dynasty (circa 900-1045 A D), Varman dynasty (circa 1080-1150 A D), and Pattikera dynasty (circa 1000-1100 A D).
Opinions differ on the reasons for political fragmentation in Bengal . Some scholars attribute it to Bangladesh ‘s topography specially to difficulties in negotiating its swamps and marshes, its unending maze of rivers and creeks and dislocations caused by the Bengali rainy season. Others emphasize the frontier character of the region which attracted from north India a continuous stream of rebel, heretics, and malcontents who destabilized the political life. Some scholars maintain that political fragmentation was fostered by a lack of corporate life at the village level. Specially, the village organizations were weakest in the eastern and southern areas; the corporateness of villages gradually increased in the western areas. Political fragmentation was, therefore, endemic in eastern and southern areas which now constitute Bangladesh .
The primacy of the individual in social life and the concomitant institutional vacuum in Bangladesh region was not, however, an unmitigated shortcoming. The weakness of social, political and economic institutions provided a congenial environment for freedom of religion. The Buddhist rulers continued to rule Bengal long after the resurgence of Brahmanism in the rest of north India . Nowhere in South Asia were the deviations from the Brahmanical orthodoxy so glaring as in the Bengal zone. The esoteric cults like Vajrayana, Shajayana, Kalachakrayana, Nathism, the Bauls and the folk cults flourished in pre-Muslim Bengal . Throughout history, small kingdoms blossomed and withered like wild flowers in this region. In an environment characterized by weak political institutions, heresy, heterodoxy and alien faiths thrived in defiance of the Brahmanical orthodoxy.
Contribution of Bangladesh to Ancient Civilisation
Bangladesh is the frontier of South Asian civilization. It is the natural bridge between South and South East Asia . Because of its location, Bangladesh was the intermediary in trade and commerce between the South Asian sub-continent and the Far East . This region, as a distinguished historian observed, “played an important part in the great cultural association between the diverse civilizations of Eastern and South Eastern Asia which forms such a distinguished feature in the history of this great continent for nearly one thousand and five hundred years.”
Tradition has it that Sri Lanka was colonized by a Bengalee Prince Vijayasingha who established the first political organization in that island. Gadadhara, another Bengalee, founded a kingdom in the Madras state in South India
Bangladesh region also played a seminal role in disseminating her beliefs, art and architecture in the wider world of Asia . The Bengali missionaries preached Mahayana Buddhism in the Indonesian archipelago. Kumaraghosha, the royal preceptor of the Sailendra emperors of Java, Sumatra and Malaya peninsula, was born in Gauda. The Bengali scholar Santirakshit was one of the founders of the Buddhist monastic order in Tibet . The great Buddhist sage Dipankara Srijnana, also known as Atish ( 10th-l1th century) reformed the monastic order in Tibet . The Bengalee scholars Shilabhadra, Chandragomin, Abhayakaragupta, Jetari and Jnanasrimitra were venerated as great theologians in the Buddhist world.
Ancient Bangladesh also witnessed the flowering of temple, stupa and monastic architecture as well as Buddhist art and sculpture. There was discernible influence of the Pala art of Bengal on Javanese art. There was a close affinity between the scripts used on certain Javanese sculptures and proto-Bengali alphabet. A group of temples in Burma were built on the model of Bangladeshi temples. The architecture and iconographic ideas of Bengal inspired architects, sculptors and artists in Cambodia and the Indonesian archipelago. The influence of Pala art in Bengal could be easily traced in Nepalese and Tibetan paintings, as well as in Tang Art of China.
Evolution of Mediaeval Bengal (1204-l757)
The Middle age in Bengal coincided with the Muslim rule. Out of about 550 years of Muslim rule, Bengal was effectively ruled by Delhi-based all India empires for only about two hundred years. For about 350 years Bengal remained virtually independent. The Muslim rule in Bengal is usually divided into three phases. The first phase which lasted from 1204 to 1342 witnessed the consolidation of Muslim rule in Bengal . It was characterized by extreme political instability. The second phase which spanned the period 1342 to 1575 saw the emergence of independent local dynasties such as the Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1342-1414), the dynasty of King Ganesha (1414-1442) and Husain Shahi dynasty (l493-1539). The third phase which lasted from 1575 to 1757 witnessed the emergence of a centralized administration in Bengal within the framework of the Mughal empire. The Mughal viceroys in Bengal curbed the independence of powerful landlords who were known as Bara Bhuiyas and suppressed the Portuguese pirates who frequently interfered with the flow of foreign trade.
There were two major achievements of Muslim rule in the region. First, prior to Muslim rule in this area, Bengal was an ever-shifting mosaic of principalities. The natural limits of Bengal were not clearly perceived till its political unification by the Ilyas Shahi rulers in the fourteenth century. The political unification of Bengal was thus a gift of the Muslim rulers. Secondly, the political unity fashioned by the Muslim rulers also promoted linguistic homogeneity. Unlike their predecessors, the Muslim rulers were ardent patrons of Bengali language and literature. Prior to Muslim rule, the Bengali vernacular was despised for its impurities and vulgarities by Hindu elites who were the beneficiaries and champions of Sanskrit education. The spread of Islam challenged the spiritual leadership of upper caste Hindus. The intense competition between Islam and resurgent Hinduism in the form of Vaisnavism for capturing the imagination of unlettered masses resulted in an outpouring of their stirring messages in the vernacular.
The Muslim rule in Bengal also witnessed the gradual expansion of Islam in this region. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Muslim rulers in Bengal were not in the least idealists and proselytizers; they were primarily adventurers whose sole aim was to perpetuate their own rule. The preponderance of the Muslims in Bangladesh region stands out in striking contrast to signal failure of the Muslims in converting local people in other parts of north and south India . The distribution of Muslims in different regions of South Asia clearly contradicts the hypothesis that the patronage of the temporal authority was the most crucial variable in the spread of Islam. If this hypothesis was correct there would have been Muslim preponderance in areas around the seats of Muslim rule in North India . The fact that the Muslims remained an insignificant minority in the Delhi region where they ruled for more than six hundred years clearly suggests that Islam in South Asia was not imposed from above. In Bengal also, the share of Muslims in the total population was higher in areas remote from the seats of Muslim rule.
Islam was propagated in the Bangladesh region by a large number of Muslim saints who were mostly active from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Among these missionaries Hazrat Shah Jalal, Rasti Shah, Khan Jahan Ali, Shaikh Sharafuddin Abu Tawamah, Shah Makhdoom Ruposh, Shaikh Baba Adam Shahid, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Shaikh Alauddin Alaul Huq, Shah Ali Bagdadi, etc. deserve special mention. While similar Muslim missionary activities failed in other regions of South Asia , Islam ultimately succeeded in penetrating deeply into Bengal because the social environment of this region was congenial to the diffusion of a new religion. In much of South Asia , strong village communities were impenetrable barriers to the spread of alien faiths.
In Bengal , the corporateness of village institutions was weak in eastern areas; it gradually increased towards the western areas. The distribution of Muslim population also followed similar spatial pattern in this region. The Muslims in Bengal were concentrated in the eastern areas and the share of Hindu population was much higher in western areas.
The Muslim rule in Bengal contributed to economic polarization and cultural dichotomy. Except the brief interludes of the northern Indian empires, pre-Muslim Bengal was ruled by local potentates. Most of the Muslim rulers either acted as agents of Delhi or tried to use Bengal as a stepping stone for attaining political authority in Delhi . Economic exploitation intensified during this period owing to transfer of resources to north India . The main victims of this exploitative system were locally converted Muslims and low caste Hindus. The sole aim of the Muslim rulers was to mobilize as much resources as possible. The size of the immigrant Muslim ruling elite was small. Furthermore, different factions of the ruling elite did not trust each other. Consequently, Muslim rule in Bengal became, in effect, a coalition of immigrant Muslims and upper caste Hindus
The gradual process of conversion to Islam in Bengal resulted in an intense interaction between Islam and Hinduism. At the folk level, however, there was less confrontation and more interaction between Hinduism and Islam. A syncretic tradition developed around the cult and pantheons of pirs . The actual practices of local Muslim converts were an anathema to both Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. The orthodox Hindus, despite their political reconciliation with Muslim rulers, despised the local Muslims as untouchables ( Mlechhas ). The Muslim religious leaders were equally scornful of the customs and practices of local converts. Hated by immigrant religious leaders for their ways of life and by the local aristocracy for their adherence to an alien faith, local converts faced a dichotomy of faith and habitat which found expression in an emotional conflict between religion and language. This dichotomy can be traced in Bengali literature as early as the fourteenth century. ‘Those who are born in Bengal but hate Bengali language”, asserted the seventeenth century poet Abdul Hakim “had doubtful parentage. Those who are not satisfied with their mother tongue should migrate to other lands”.
The Glory that was Mediaeval Bengal
The Bangladesh region reached the zenith of economic affluence during the mediaeval period. It was known as one of the most prosperous lands in the world. The Moorish traveller Ibn Batuta who visited Bengal in the fourteenth century described Bengal as the wealthiest and cheapest land of the world and states that it was known as “a hell full of bounties”. In the same vein, the seventeenth century French traveller Francois Bernier observed: “Egypt has been represented in every age as the finest and most fruitful country in the world, and even our modern writers deny that there is any other land so peculiarly favoured by nature; but the knowledge I have acquired of Bengal, during two visits paid to that Kingdom inclines me to believe that pre-eminence ascribed to Egypt is rather due to Bengal”.
Because of her fertile land and abundance of seasonal rainfall, Bengal was a cornucopia of agricultural products. Famines and scarcity were virtually unknown as compared to other areas of Asia . Bengal was the focal point of free trade in the Indian Ocean since the 14th century. She was the virtual store-house of silk and cotton not only of India and neighbouring countries but also of Europe . The Dhaka region used to produce the finest cotton in the world. A very large quantity of cotton cloth was produced in different areas of Bengal . The best and well-known variety of textile was muslin produced in Dhaka . Some of the muslins were so fine that, as the seventeenth century traveller Tavernier notes, “even if a 60 cubit long turban were held you would scarcely know what it was that you had in your hand”. Some of the muslins were so fine that a full size muslin could be passed through a small ring. Bangladesh also had extensive export of silk clothes. According to Tavernier, Bengal silks were exported to other parts of India , Central Asia , Japan and Holland . The Bangladesh region was also one of the largest producers of sugar. The sugar from this region used to be exported to other parts of South Asia and the Middle East .
British Rule in Bangladesh (1757-1947)
The greatest discontinuity in the history of Bengal region occurred on June 23, 1757 when the East India Company – a mercantile company of England became the virtual ruler of Bengal by defeating Nawab Siraj-ud Daulah through conspiracy. Territorial rule by a trading company resulted in the commercialization of power. The initial effects of the British rule were highly destructive. As the historian R.C. Dutt notes, “the people of Bengal had been used to tyranny, but had never lived under an oppression so far reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer’s loom. They had been used to arbitrary acts from men in power, but had never suffered from a system which touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped, the sources of their wealth dried up”. The plunder of Bengal directly contributed to the industrial revolution in England . The capital amassed in Bengal was invested in the nascent British industries. Lack of capital and fall of demand, on the other hand, resulted in deindustrialization in the Bangladesh region. The muslin industry virtually disappeared in the wake of the British rule.
In the long run, the British rule in South Asia contributed to transformation of the traditional society in various ways. The introduction of British law, a modern bureaucracy, new modes of communication, the English language and a modern education system, and the opening of the local market to international trade opened new horizons for development in various spheres of life. The new ideas originating from the West produced a ferment in the South Asian mind. The upshot of this ferment were streams of intellectual movements which have often been compared to the Renaissance. Furthermore, the Pax Britannica imposed on South Asia created an universal empire that brought different areas of the sub-continent closer to each other.
The British rule in Bengal promoted simultaneously the forces of unity and division in the society. The city-based Hindu middle classes became the fiery champions of all-India based nationalism. At the same time, the British rule brought to surface the rivalry between the Hindus and Muslims which lay dormant during the five hundred years of Muslim rule. The class conflict between Muslim peasantry and Hindu intermediaries during the Muslim rule was diffused by the fact that these intermediaries themselves were agents of the Muslim rulers. Furthermore, the scope of exploitation was limited in the subsistence economy of pre-British Bengal .
The economic exploitation of the British provoked an intense reaction against the Raj in Bengal . However, the grievances against the British rule varied from community to community. The Hindu middle class, which styled itself as the bhadralok , was the greatest beneficiary of the British rule. The Hindu middle class primarily originated from trading classes, intermediaries of revenue administration and subordinate jobs in the imperial administration. On the contrary, the establishment of the British rule deprived the immigrant Muslim aristocracy ( ashraf ) of state patronage. The immigrant Muslim – upper caste Hindu coalition which characterized the Muslim rule was replaced by a new entente of the British and the caste Hindus. The new land settlement policy of the British ruined the traditional Muslim landlords. The Muslim aristocracy which had hitherto been disdainful of their native co-religionists sought the political support of the downtrodden Muslim peasantry ( atraf ) who were exploited by Hindu landlords and moneylenders. The Muslim elite in Bengal manipulated to their advantage the social insecurity of the less privileged without giving up their exclusiveness.
The conflict between Muslim peasants and Hindu landlords was reinforced by the rivalry between Hindu and Muslim middle classes for the patronage of the imperial rulers. In the nineteenth century, both Hindu and Muslim middle classes expanded significantly. The Muslim middle class did not remain confined to traditional aristocracy which consisted primarily of immigrants from other Muslim countries. The British rule in Bengal contributed to the emergence of a vernacular elite from among locally converted Muslims in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was facilitated by a significant expansion of jute cultivation in the Bangladesh region. The increase in jute exports benefited the surplus farmers ( Jotedars ) in the lower Bengal where the Muslims were in a majority. The economic affluence of surplus farmers encouraged the expansion of secular education among local Muslims. For example, the number of Muslim students in Bengal increased by 74 percent between 1882-83 and 1912-13.
Faced with the economic and cultural domination of the Hindu intermediaries in Bengal ( bhadralok ), the ashraf (traditional Muslim aristocracy), the newly created Muslim jotedars who constituted the vernacular elite and Muslim peasants ( atraf ) closed ranks. Despite their outward unity, the coalition of various Muslim interest groups in Bengal was fragile. The interests and ideological orientations of these groups were dissimilar. Unlike the jotedars and peasants, the ashraf in Bengal spoke Urdu. The vernacular Muslim elites and peasants in Bengal wanted agrarian reforms; the ashraf was a staunch proponent of absentee landlordism. The Muslim vernacular elite and atraf identified themselves with the local culture and language, the ashraf was enthralled by Islamic universalism. The internal contradictions of the Muslim society in Bengal were naturally mirrored in their political life.
Initially, the leadership of the Muslim community in Bengal belonged to ashraf for two reasons. First, the size of the vernacular elite was too small in the beginning of the twentieth century and the vernacular elite itself tried to imitate the traditional aristocracy. Secondly, because of the institutional vacuum in the rural areas, it was very difficult to mobilise politically Muslim masses in the Bengal region. The easiest means of arousing such masses was to appeal to religious sentiments and emotions. In this charged atmosphere the natural leadership of the Muslim masses in Bengal lay with the immigrant ashraf who monopolized the religious leadership.
The rivalry between Muslim ashraf and Hindu bhadralok first surfaced in the political arena, when the British partitioned the province of Bengal in 1905 for administrative reasons. The nascent Muslim middle class under the leadership of the Muslim Nawab of Dhaka supported the partition in the hope of getting patronage of the British rulers. To the Hindu bhadralok who had extensive economic interests on both sides of partitioned Bengal , the move to separate the Bengali-speaking areas in East Bengal and Assam was a big jolt. They viewed it as a sinister design to weaken Bengal which was the vanguard of struggle for independence. The bhadralok class idolized the “Golden Bengal”. Though initially the anti-partition movement was non-violent, the dark anger of the Hindu middle class soon found its expression in terroristic activities. The emotionally charged atmosphere culminated in communal riots. The partition of Bengal ultimately turned out to be a defeat for all. The Raj had to eat the humble pie and annul the partition in 1911. To the Muslims, the annulment of the partition was a major disappointment. It virtually shook their faith in the British rulers. To the Hindu bhadralok of Bengal , the annulment was a pyrrhic victory. “The net result of these developments in Bengal during the first decade of this century, so far as the bhadralok leadership of Bengal was concerned, lay in the exposure of its isolation, its inner contradictions and the essentially opportunistic character of its politics”.
The communal politics of confrontation and violence which erupted during the partition of Bengal was interrupted by a brief honeymoon during the non-cooperation movement led by the Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement of the Indian Muslims in the second decade of 20th century. Bengal witnessed in the twenties the emergence of the charismatic; leadership of Chitta Ranjan Das who had the foresight to appreciate the alienation of the Muslim middle classes. In 1923 Das signed a pact with Fazlul Huq, Suhrawardy and other Muslim leaders. This pact which is known as the Bengal Pact provided guarantees for due representation of Muslims in politics and administration. The spirit of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement evaporated with the death of C.R. Das in 1925. However, even if Das were alive he might not have succeeded in containing the communal backlash. The communal problem was not unique to Bengal , it became the main issue in all India politics. As the communal tension mounted in the 1930s, the Muslim ashraf in Bengal which had close ties with the Muslim leadership in other parts of the sub-continent pursued a policy of communal confrontation.
The Road to Pakistan
The Pakistan Resolution of 1940 at Lahore was the outcome of the political confrontation between Hindus and Muslims. The Lahore Resolution demanded that geographically contiguous units “be demarcated into regions which should be constituted with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary so that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority should be grouped to constitute “Independent States” in which the constitutional units be autonomous and sovereign”. From the constitutional point of view, the Lahore Resolution asserted that South Asia consisted of many nations and not of two nations. It was, in effect, a blueprint for the balkanization of South Asia and not merely for its partition into two units.
The fervour for the Lahore Resolution sprang not merely from the disillusion of the Muslims with the Hindu leadership. It was also facilitated by the vagueness of the Resolution which promised everything to everybody. The vernacular Muslim elites in Bengal maintained that the Lahore Resolution was legally a charter for a Muslim dominated independent and sovereign Bengal . The immigrant Muslim ashraf in Bengal thought that the Lahore Resolution was a mandate for merging geographically dispersed Muslim majority areas into an Islamic state. Ultimately the demands of the vernacular Muslim elite for an independent Bengal was opposed by both the ashraf and the Hindu middle class. Ironically the formal decision for partition of Bengal was taken not by Muslim but by Hindu leaders who fought for an undivided Bengal four decades ago.
The partition of the South Asian sub-continent into two independent states in 1947 was a defeat for the British policy. It partially undid the Pax Britannica which was the greatest achievement of the Raj . Nevertheless, the partition forestalled the balkanization of the sub-continent which would have swept away the entire political structure which was so labouriously built by the British rulers. The eastern areas of Bengal were constituted into a province of Pakistan and her political boundaries were drawn up arbitrarily.
The Birth of Bangladesh and Resolution of the Identity Crisis
Pakistan, which emerged constitutionally as one country in 1947, was in fact “a double country”, the two wings were not only separated from each other by more than one thousand miles, they were also culturally, economically and socially different. “The cure, at least as far as the East Bengalis were concerned, proved to be worse than the disease”.
The relationship between the East and the West wings of Pakistan was the mirror image of the Hindu-Muslim relations in the undivided sub-continent. The creation of East Pakistan did not resolve the identity crisis of the majority people in the Bangladesh region. The political leadership in Pakistan was usurped by the ashraf and their fellow-travellers. The spread of secular education and monetization of the rural economy swelled the ranks of the vernacular elite who was intensely proud of the local cultural heritage. This compounded the dichotomy of language and religion. As a recent scholar rightly observes, “The Bengali love affair with their language involves a passionate ritual that produces emotional experiences seldom found in other parts of the world”. The Language Movement during 1948-52 which demanded the designation of Bengali as the state language of Pakistan undermined the authority of the ashraf and reinforced the role of the vernacular elite. In British India , the Muslims of Bengal united under the banner of Islam to escape from the exploitation of Bengali Hindus who shared the same mother tongue. In the united Pakistan , the Bengalis of East Pakistan reasserted their cultural and linguistic identity to resist the exploitation of their co-religionists who spoke in a different language. Though history repeated itself in Pakistan , the lessons learnt from Hindu-Muslim confrontation were forgotten. Neither in undivided India nor in united Pakistan , the dominant economic classes agreed to sacrifice their short-term interests.
Democratic verdicts were brushed aside and economic disparity between the two wings widened under the aegis of military dictatorships in Pakistan .
The disintegration of united Pakistan is not, therefore, in the least surprising. However, the way in which Bangladesh was born is unique to South Asia . Bangladesh was the product of a sanguinary revolution. The Pakistan army had to be defeated physically in 1971 to establish the new state. The birth of Bangladesh resolved the dichotomy between religion and habitat, and between extra-territorial and territorial loyalties by recognizing both the facts as a reality in the life of the new nation.
The Melting Pot: Ethnic Background
Though the overwhelming majority of the population in Bangladesh forms a homogeneous ethnic group today, the racial mix of diverse races occurred in this region over a long time. Broadly speaking, there are two major racial elements in the people of Bengal : (1) the primitive tribes like the Kols, Sabaras, Pulindars, Hadi, Dom, Chandala and others who were designated as the Mlechchas ; (ii) the Aryan and Aryanized elements.
The major pre-Aryan racial elements in Bengal were the proto-Austroloids. There is a striking similarity between the language of the aborigines of Bengal and the people in South-East Asia , the archipelago and the aborigines of Australia . The Dravidian languages of South India also belong to proto-Australoid group. Bangladesh , being the frontier of South Asia , also came into contact with the Mongoloid tribes who lived in the adjoining areas. The Mongoloid influence was dominant in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region where Chakmas and other tribes belong to this category. The Mongoloid influence is, however, limited in other areas. Scholars maintain that there is also a substratum of Negroid racial elements in the racial mix in this region. Thus Bengal was the home of mixed races long before the Aryans came. The Aryan influence in Bengal was primarily limited to upper castes. The gradual stages in the Aryanization of Bengal are not very clear. It appears that the Aryans brought the indigenous people into the framework of Aryan society. This is indicated by the fact that some of the indigenous tribes were classed at Khastriyas (the warrior class). The majority of these pre-Aryan tribes were classified as untouchables. The process of racial mix did not, however, stop with the coming of Aryans. The Semitic traders from the Arab world frequently visited the coastal areas in the Middle Age.
Bangladesh contains the second largest (after Indonesia ) Muslim population in the world. In 1981, 86.6 per cent of the population was Muslim. The proportion of Muslims increased from 85.4 per cent in 1974 to 86.6 percent in 1981. On the other hand, the proportion of Hindu population dropped from 13.5 per cent in 1974 to 12.1 per cent in 1981. The increase in proportion of Muslim population may be attributed to higher birth rate among the Muslims. Census records from 1872 to 1981 clearly indicate that birth rate among the Muslims was always higher than that of the Hindus. The Buddhists constituted about 0.6 per cent of the population in both 1974 and 1981 censuses. There are about 175,000 Christians in Bangladesh . The percentage of Christians was about 0.3 percent.
Art and Architecture
The Bangladesh region contains relics of the finest specimens of Buddhist monastic architecture. The Buddhist vihara at Paharpur occupied a quadrangle measuring more than 900 feet externally at each site. “No single monastery of such dimensions” asserts an art historian”, has come to light in India, and the appellation mahavihara , the great monastery as designating the place, can be considered entirely appropriate”. Similar vihara of Deva dynasty has been unearthed at Mainamati. The relics of Mahasthangarh where the ancient city of Pundravardhana was located suggest that a large monastery was built there. Of notable sculptures in ancient Bengal , stone figures of Buddha from Ujani in Faridpur district, Varaha avatara from Bogra (10th century) the Vishnu Stela from Comilla (11th century) and Chandi image from Dhaka district (12th century) deserve special mention. Another remarkable achievement was the terracotta art of Paharpur, which drew its inspiration from the simple village life. This depicts the daily life of people with intense human interest. As an art historian observes, “It is impossible to find in the hieratic religious art of India at any given period such a large social content, such variety of human feelings, such intimacy of contact with the events and experiences of daily life, such spontaneous action and movements, depicted with such powerful and purposeful rhythm”.
The Middle Age in Bengal saw the construction of a large number of Islamic monuments, which were characterized by massive arches and bold clean lines. The emphasis was on utility and simplicity. Among these monuments the Satgambuz mosque of Bagerhat, the mausoleum of Shah Ali Bagdadi at Mirpur and the mosque of Rasti Khan at Hathazari deserve special mention.
Bangla is the language of more than 99 per cent of the population. Bangla is the seventh most extensively spoken language in the world after Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic. The Bengali script is derived directly from Gupta Brahmi script, which has close affinity to Cambodian and Thai scripts. The origin of this language is usually traced to the 10th century. Bengali is a rich language capable of expressing the finest nuances of thought and feelings, a language that continuously mirrors the ever-changing play of life. It is rich in poetry, short story, novel, drama, essay and belles-lettres.
‘Contemporary Art in Bangladesh ‘ is a fine collection of articles with photographs of paintings seldom seen in any other publication. Syed Manzoorul Islam has surveyed the development of art from Bengal School to Bangladeshi Art. His article is an explicit account of the political and social milieu in which contemporary art evolved in Bangladesh . The history of contemporary art in Bangladesh begins effectively at the time of partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when Zainul Abedin (who came into public eye with his sketches of the Bengal Famine of 1943) and some of his colleagues from West Bengal, who opted to settle down in East Bengal, set up the first art school in the newly formed state. Zainul Abedin was the first Principal. This institute trained and nurtured an entire generation of new artists whose work reflected the changing times. Qamrul Hasan, Saifuddin Ahmed, Anwarul Haq were contemporaries of Zainul Abedin. This was the generation that depicted social reality in their art. The art of the fifties was a different story. As Manzoorul Islam explains ” The fifties painters took to abstraction.. for two reasons. First, it was an inner compulsion, an urge to express themselves through a language, through metaphors, images, sensibilities and symbolism that they thought most clearly represented their artistic, emotional and intellectual understanding of their art. The second reason can be ascribed to a social compulsion. The establishment. disapproved of any human or figurative representation as it supposedly contravened religious strictures.” Mohammad Kibria was one of the outstanding artists of the fifties, as Monirul Islam was of the sixties.
The sixties also saw artists and sculptors such as Abu Taher, Samarjit Roy Chowdhury, Anwar Jahan and many other notable names. The creation of Bangladesh as a separate entity influenced the art of the 70s. Abul Mansur writes, ” A new generation of artists came to the scene who adopted a more figurative language and tried to initiate an interaction between the traditional and the contemporary. A good number of artists, including sculptors and printmakers, began to work in more varied and innovative styles.” The notable painters of the 70s were Monirul Islam, Shahid Kabir, Mahmudul Haque, Kalidas Karmarkar among other well-known names.
Writing on the contemporary art scene, Moinuddin Khalid describes how some of the artists are involved with “analytical realism”. “There is at the same time, a sustained satiric tone that brings out the themes as well as identifies the artists’ position and their commitment to the society.Reconstruction of myth is also a characteristic of contemporary art. Painters are going back to the mythical past for themes and symbols..Artists are also going back to folk art – although in a much more limited way” – he adds.
Among the women artists of Bangladesh – the work of Novera Ahmed finds special mention. A sculptor of the fifties, Novera did figurative works. Farida Zaman has also won national accolades for her work.
The art world in Bangladesh received an impetus when the government of Bangladesh organised the First Asian Art Biennial in 1981. It is a month long event held every two years in Dhaka where Asian countries exhibit contemporary works of paintings, sculptures and graphics. Nine such Art exhibitions have been held so far.
The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy provided the transparencies and photographs for the selection of paintings and sculptures.
‘Contemporary Art of Bangladesh’ is a well-written record of the history of contemporary art in the country. The visuals are stunning and so are the layouts. A must for South Asian art lovers.