Bangladesh at 40

The 40th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh this weekend, with the name quite literally meaning the land of Bengalis. It  is more formally known as the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh and was founded on four principles – secularism, democracy, nationalism & socialism. Its very often the first principle which is debated the most when looking back at where the country was and is today.  

But lets not forget its liberation came after a 9 month struggle against the genocidal war launched by the Pakistani army. This after the 1970 General Election in Pakistan where the Awami league had won a majority of seats. In early December 1971 we had the military intervention of India and the surrender of the Pakistan army on the 16th of December, curtailing a war which the Pakistani army could not have maintained indefinitely if only because of the distance between East & West Pakistan.

Its formation is really a story of two partitions, the first in 1947 with the creation of Pakistani and subsequently in the struggle and liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. If it illusrates anything its that religion in itself is not the sole basis of creating a state that needs to be considered when creating new states. Equally important is language, culture and geography. As soon as Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 declared Urdu the state language of Pakistan in Dhaka he set off a trail of events through the language Movement in East Pakistan which eventually feed the linguistic nationalism and economic injustices felt by Bengali Muslims. Many of whom had enthusisatically said Pakistan zindabad at independence from colonial rule in 1947 but by 1971 were happy to see the way forward as the formation of Bangladesh by saying Joi Bangla instead.

Like the Punjab, the British Raj had divided Bengal into two along religious grounds. First during its adminstration in 1905 and also on its departure from the Indian sub-continent based on the Redcliffe line. The irony of these religious divisions is that in West Bengal, India today up to 25 per cent of their population is Muslim. So much for this imaged religious divide.

So clearly there are some important lessons to learn for secularists about Islam and democracy at the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh, particularly in the Indian sub-continent context. But its clear that the struggle and liberation of Bangladesh can be cited as one of the first instances of linguistic nationalism in the world.

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