Amar Shonar Bangla: A Tale of a Divided Bengal

Amar Shonar Bangla: A Tale of a Divided Bengal

I had been in Bangladesh for just over four weeks, and in Sylhet for only one. Although I had visited the motherland many times before, this time, things felt different. To me, there was a semblance of newness in everything. This was perhaps because I had never ventured out so far, having always followed a strict itinerary of Heathrow to Dhaka, Dhaka to Chittagong, and then back again. As I sat in a cosy wee tea cabin in Srimongol, surrounded by vendors selling bright, intricate Manipuri sarees, and a chaiwala humming along softly to Hindi songs playing on the radio, a warm feeling of pride swept across me. It was at this point that I began to realise just how transformative this trip to Bangladesh had been. Before this, I had never truly appreciated the vibrant and colourful past of my motherland and I had never properly acknowledged the diversity of cultures which existed within it. Suddenly, my dad called from afar, telling us that we were running late and that it was time to go. We would be travelling north to Jaflong, a hill station which sits between Bangladesh and the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya.

The ride to Jaflong was a bumpy one, full of twists and turns, courtesy of the rampant stone mining which took place in the area. One could not help but still be in awe of the beauty of the place, where we were cradled and overshadowed by luscious green hills and tranquil blue waterfalls. I turned to my dad and pointed out one particular waterfall which had caught my eye on a faraway hill. The body of water which flowed from it was graceful yet strong, powering down the rocky terrain of the hill.

   ‘That hill and waterfall is not ours.’ he said quickly, as though he didn’t want to get my hopes up.    

    ‘What do you mean they’re not ours?’ I replied, visibly quite irritated.

  ‘They belong to India,’ he said with a sigh, ‘but they could have been ours too if the Britishers hadn’t…’ — the pride I had felt earlier quickly turned to sorrow — ‘…divided India the way they did. In fact, most of the mountains we’re surrounded by right now don’t belong to us.’ He paused. ‘We could have been a United Bengal, unified in our similarities and undivided in our differences.’

This was a tragic theme I continuously encountered during my trip – whether I was in the north or the south, the east or the west, Bangladesh served as a constant reminder of what could have been.

   ‘A United Bengal,’ I thought to myself, ‘How nice that would have been’.

Much like the winding and rocky roads of Jaflong, the tale of Bengal is full of extraordinary twists and turns. Bengalis make up the third largest ethnic group in the world, yet the majority of us are spread across two countries, separated along jagged and haphazardly drawn lines. Amar Shonar Bangla – translated to ‘My Golden Bengal’ – was written by Bengali-Hindu poet, musician, and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1905. Created as a response against the first partition of the Bengal Province by the British administration, it captured the essence of the time, acting as a rallying call for the integrity of a unified Bengal. Although after much protest Bengal was reunited in 1911, this would not last for long, where at the end of the British rule in August of 1947, British India was divided into two independent nation-States: India and Pakistan — with the majority of the  Bengal delta becoming East Pakistan. The division of British India, and more specifically, Bengal itself, was based on communal lines of religion, with Pakistan being a Muslim-majority nation and India being comprised of a Hindu-majority. Between 1947-48, approximately 80,000 Bengali-Muslims fled India for East Pakistan, and about 1,000,000 Bengali-Hindus were uprooted, leaving East Pakistan for India. It is hard to comprehend the complete and utter devastation which partition caused — particularly heightened in provinces such as Punjab and Bengal, both of which bordered West and East Pakistan, respectively. Most, if not all of us with roots to the Indian subcontinent have heard the horrifying stories of forced conversions, arson, mass abductions, bloody massacres and heart-wrenching instances of sexual violence, where communities which had once lived side-by-side for the best part of a millennium were now at each others throats due to an outbreak of sectarian violence — with the Hindus and Sikhs on one side, and the Muslims on the other. This ultimately amounted to a mutual genocide, the painful memories of which carry on to this day.

With our flight to London scheduled for the next evening, and an entire day at our disposal, we decided to brave the tangled streets of Old Dhaka. Puran Dhaka — as it is referred to by us Bengalis — had a magical quality to it, with its pulsating vibrancy and frenetic energy, every unnamed alleyway, nook and cranny had a story to tell. My senses were overwhelmed. Either side of the streets were bristling with all kinds of shops, where a constant influx of people, rickshaws and livestock occupied a few inches in between. Overlooking the streets were old colonial-style buildings in desperate need of restoration. The paint on these buildings had cracked and peeled away, exposing the brick beneath, indicating the toll of many years of monsoon rain and scorching heat. We eventually located the famous Haji Biriyani restaurant, a staple of the Bengali-Muslim community of Old Dhaka, founded during colonial times. As we waited in the broiling heat in a queue which stretched out the door, I noticed a procession of men and women clapping and dancing whilst musicians played alongside them. In and amongst the crowd were three brightly decorated chariots carrying Hindu deities. I turned to my dad and asked him what was going on.

   ‘This is the Ratha Jatra – the Chariot festival. It’s a big celebration where Hindus take their deities out of the temple and take it to another,’ he said, smiling knowingly.

As I tucked into my biriyani, I found solace in the chaos which continued to unfold around me. Despite the madness, there was sanity. If Hindus and Muslims could live together in harmony, why was India, and more specifically Bengal, partitioned on the basis of religion? Why couldn’t there have been a United Bengal, a Shonar Bangla as envisioned by Tagore?

A bid for an independent nation-State of Bengal had been made by nationalist leader Sarat Chandra Bose and Bengali Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in April of 1947 — a more secular alternative to the communal partition of Bengal. However, this was not to be, owing in major part to the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, and echoed by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, both of whom rejected the notion of an independent Bengal. But where did this division arise from? It would be a much larger undertaking if I were to go into the details of this, but to cut the long story short, the creation and proliferation of conflict between these communities was the greatest accomplishment of British imperial policy — that of divide et impera (‘divide and rule’). The Revolt of 1857 shook the British to the core, seeing Hindus and Muslims fight alongside one another against their foreign oppressor. Alas, the systematic promotion of political divisions between the two communities began. When a restricted right to vote was petulantly granted to the Indians, separate communal electorates were created by the British, allowing Muslim voters to vote for Muslim candidates, in order to secure seats in Muslim constituencies. This inevitably served as the beginning of the end, giving rise to tensions and preventing the formation of a unified nationalist movement which could topple British rule in India.

The policy of ‘divide and rule’ had worked all but too well, where in the aftermath of World War II, when Britain was no longer in a position to rule over a faraway land, the Muslim League had been strengthened enough to make demands for a separate, Muslim-majority nation. With the possibility of a united India becoming essentially non-existent, the prospect of a thriving, secular and culturally rich United Bengal had died. So, as Sir Cyril Radcliffe — a man who had never been to India and had no knowledge of its history, societies or traditions — drew up his maps to create India and Pakistan, he helped to divide not only provinces, districts and villages along jagged, haphazardly drawn lines, but also the homes and hearts of real people, the ripple effects of which we Bengalis still feel to this day. Thus, the tale of Bengal, of Amar Shonar Bangla, serves as a painful emblem of the colonial legacies left by the British. It is a tale of misfortune, bloodshed, sorrow and division.

Map depicting a ‘United Bengal’ (



Silenced: Bangladesh’s Ongoing Fight for Freedom of Speech

Silenced: Bangladesh’s Ongoing Fight for Freedom of Speech

Where would we be without freedom of speech?

The freedom to express an opinion, no matter what it may be, is integral to the lives of people. More importantly, freedom of speech is fundamental to the existence of democracy where, without it, any system would inevitably crumble and fall to pieces. It is this human right which helps us to succeed as people, hold onto our identity and nurture our true selves – and it is this right which allows us to exercise and retain our free will. Whether it be in the form of an Islamic marriage where both parties to a Nikah say “qubul”, or to press freedom, where journalists (and even the likes of Katie Hopkins) have both the opportunity and platform to have their views heard, the existence of freedom of speech has been meticulously woven into the very fabric of our society where all individuals are encouraged to speak their truth without fear of any life-threatening backlash. But sadly, this is sometimes not the case – especially in other parts of the world. Which is what brings me to the situation in my country-of-birth, Bangladesh, where speaking your truth could indeed bring about the very real commination of life-threatening backlash…40509747_529898554126514_6912469208274042880_n

Freedom of speech and the limitations on it have always been a topic of great discussion in Bangladesh – quite surprisingly so, as the country proudly presents herself as being a secular and democratic nation, whereby Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh holds that every citizen’s freedom of thought, conscience, speech and expression is guaranteed. From bloggers in the past being butchered by fundamentalist groups for questioning the validity of religion, to students and activists being harassed and beaten by police-hired goons (or the police themselves) if found to have made any open criticism against the State, there has been an ongoing struggle in Bangladesh, where the elite and ruling-class have always held the reins of power, as opposed to the people. Growing up, my experience was (and still is) in stark contrast to that suffered by many people in Bangladesh.

I had it pretty easy compared to most South-Asian kids – in fact, I had it pretty easy compared to any kid, irrespective of age or background. When it came to having my voice heard, I could always count on my parents to give me the freedom to question anything that didn’t quite align with my sensibilities. Whether it be the patriarchy, politics, religion, race or (even) sex, no subject was ever too hush-hush or taboo.  The cards were always laid out on the table, and I had my pick of sensitive topics which I could tear apart and challenge repeatedly. 40562174_1855667394540376_5742216913627381760_n
You could say that at home, my freedom of speech was always ensured. My inquisitive nature, paired with my parent’s willingness to allow me to question the supposedly ‘unquestionable’, gave me an early start to understanding the importance of this freedom – not only in one’s own personal growth, but also in the way in which its very existence helps to shape democracy, impacting the structure of society in a way so profound and just, that it gives equal weight and consideration to all those wishing to be heard.  It is the freedom of speech which gives people the real hope of progression and change. So, as someone who cannot imagine a life where I am continuously silenced for speaking my mind – especially in terms of how society is governed by the State – reservations on my freedom to speak out is something which I find to be incomprehensible, particularly in this day and age. Despite knowing Bangladesh’s tumultuous history and relationship with freedom of speech, I still find the current violations of this right to be deeply distressing.

Recently, the discussion surrounding freedom of speech was reignited following the deaths of two students who died in a road traffic accident in the country’s capital, Dhaka. The deaths subsequently catalysed a small 9 day revolution in which a national out-cry ensued calling for better road safety – predominantly lobbied by the country’s student population. However, these deaths and reactionary protests uncovered a far deeper level of anger, frustration and ongoing resentment towards the government. Lack of road traffic safety merely touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues which common Bangladeshis encounter on a daily basis. The country is riddled with systematic inequalities, where to be taken seriously, one must have sufficient financial resources (in the form of a bribe), or come from a particular background in order to have their basic needs met. From completing simple banking tasks or receiving basic healthcare, to asking for help from the authorities, one must present themselves as a somebody in order to not be treated like a nobody. Corruption and the thirst for power has polluted my motherland, a heartbreaking reality which we have been painfully reminded of again following the arrest of globally renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, for making completely justified criticisms against the State in the wake of the recent protests which have gripped the entire nation.

Students rallying across Bangladesh over lack of road traffic safety following the deaths of two children in the country’s capital, Dhaka                                                        (

Alam was interviewed by Al-Jazeera, and as one of the leading critics of the government, he eloquently and poignantly expressed what he himself described as a “never ending list” of problems which the Bangladeshi people face when speaking out against the government or other powerful entities. For one, the media is being silenced and mobile internet cut in order to quell the protests which took place, not to mention numerous killings and disappearances – both past and present – of  individuals the government see as a threat. This entire circus has been founded amongst an authoritarian system built upon corruption which is bringing the country to her knees.

Following his bold and matter of fact interview, Alam was arrested by the police with a case filed against him under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act for having allegedly given “false information” and making “provocative comments” to different media outlets, which under the Act “prejudice[s] the image of the State”. The Act has been used on numerous occasions against journalists as a tool to confine critics, limit freedom of press, and by default, the freedom of speech. It is an incredibly broad area of law which gags any electronic communication perceived to negatively impact the State. According to the authorities, Alam succeeded in damaging the reputation of the Bangladeshi government, currently ruled by the Awami League under Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. According to me, the actions of the authorities were not only deplorable, but also helped to prove the very point which he was trying to make.

The use of the Information and Communication Technology Act in restraining freedom of speech is quite the joke. In its manifesto, the current government made promises of a “Digital Bangladesh” by 2021. Such technological optimism is quite clearly contrary to the actions deployed by the State on ground, as illustrated through the repression of the media and the ongoing limitations on internet access. What is promised by the State, as opposed to what is actually done, seems to be incredibly offbeat.

Shahidul Alam being arrested on the 6th of August 2018 following his interview with Al-Jazeera (

After his arrest, Alam was subsequently moved from jail to a hospital, which leads one to think what atrocities he suffered at the hands of the authorities during his time in custody – all for just speaking his mind. Not only is this a great violation of his human rights, but also a painful marker in the history of Bangladesh for its often inhumane approach towards freedom of speech. As Harry Truman said long ago; “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”


Democratic governments are generally confined within a system of checks-and-balances where no single entity within a branch of government can abuse their power, as other branches are empowered enough to prevent certain actions from taking place. But the role which the common man/woman plays within this system is far greater than any institution of the State. The people – through questioning, challenging, and voicing positive affirmations and negative criticisms – can guide, and at times force the government to act in a way which reflects the many and not the few. Ultimately, it is utilising one’s right to freedom of speech which acts as the greatest instrument in maintaining a system of checks-and-balances, allowing democracy to prevail over authoritarianism and dictatorships.

What is perhaps the biggest paradox is that in 1971, Bangladesh (in what was then known as East Pakistan), fought for independence from Pakistan under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League. Agitation towards Pakistan was based upon the continuous discriminatory and prejudiced treatment of Bengalis in their own country; despite making up most of Pakistan’s collective population. The shake-downs and constant harassment of Bengalis who dared to speak out against the dominant Pakistani government (ruled by the Muslim League), with the subsequent omission of  the Bengali script and language from government exams and coins – amongst other things – built up a sense of nationalistic pride amongst Bengalis who wished to regain control of their land and identity, and ensure equality for their people through guaranteeing freedom of speech. So, despite the Awami League being built upon the principles of equality, justice, democracy and secularism, we now find this very same party making a mockery of freedom of speech, where it silences its own people and treats them as second class citizens in their own country.

40528437_660351461006868_321911024355639296_nIt would be wrong to say that the Awami League alone is the only party guilty of such silencing tactics in Bangladesh; The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Party have too been accused of being behind numerous killings, disappearances and corruptive approaches as an attempt to limit what people say against them.  Bangladesh has long suffered at the hands of the elite and those in power, with many common men/women falling victim to this; either by becoming their pawns or lapdogs – in which their actions perpetuate the ongoing corruption and inequality of people, or by speaking out against such tyranny and finding themselves, or the lives of their loved ones, at risk.

The international community is aware of what is happening,  yet nothing is really being done. There should be pressure imposed upon the Bangladeshi government regarding the mistreatment of its own citizens, urging a thorough investigation to take place on the arrest and custodial torture of Shahidul Alam and those like him. The case against Alam, and others in his position must be dropped. Focus should also be placed upon proper reform of the law in order to ensure once again, the true existence of freedom of speech in our country. There must be checks put in place to end the abuse of arbitrary power by the State.

Clearly, the action taken against a renowned and high-profile figure such as Alam was intended to scare us. But to defend the likes of Alam, is to defend the freedom of speech – a right which should be guaranteed to all humans. My point is, we did not fight for freedom from the Pakistanis to face this kind of horrific treatment from our own. We fought for independence to secure a better future for our people. We fought for a democratic and secular State. Real change must be brought about, and in order to do that, affirmative action must be taken by the people. The people of Bangladesh, including those of us who aren’t in Bangladesh, must continue to speak out, press for, and defend what is right and what is just. The only way to do that is to continue exercising our freedom of speech, for that is what will bring about peace and real progress. We must fix the fractured political reality which exists at the top and give the power back to the people. This is the time for change, because enough, really is enough.

“A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.”
― Napoleon I

So, you ask where we would be without freedom of speech? I say, nowhere. 


Shahidul Alam’s full interview with Al-Jazeera can be found here:

NOTE: As of October 2018, Shahidul Alam still remains imprisoned.