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.

united-bengal-republic
Map depicting a ‘United Bengal’

 

 

Idiots Abroad

Idiots Abroad

Not-so-breaking news: Brits are consistently ranked as one of the world’s worst tourists. So, as millions of us get ready to pack our bags and fly away for the holidays, this cannot come as a better reminder on how much work we need to do to alter our reputation and attitude towards the rest of the world. 'Shout louder Dear...he's a foreigner...'

Let’s face it, us Brits have some pretty unreasonable expectations when going abroad – especially when it comes to the issue of language. When visiting a foreign land, a lot of us expect or assume that our host country will be teeming with natives who can speak our language. We unapologetically speak in English, perhaps switching up our tone or volume with complete abandon, whilst having a total disregard towards the language of the country we are in. Yet, on the other hand, tourists visiting Britain can never expect to have the same privilege. What is perhaps worse is that many British folk when abroad, mock or get frustrated with locals who are unable to speak English or cannot do so with great proficiency. Imagine the uproar in Britain if a Polish tourist mocked or got irritated with a Brit for not being able to speak the Polish language properly! Note the double standard? If that isn’t a show of narrow-minded, obnoxious and entitled behaviour, I really don’t know what is.

This to me is deeply shameful. More importantly, it perpetuates a hypocritical mindset in which for some reason, us English speakers think we are entitled to special treatment abroad – especially in comparison to non-English speakers. We bestow upon ourselves the title of being the ultimate VIPs, all because we can speak our own language without any qualms.

Quite frankly, thinking that a lot of the world can or should be able to speak English is an incredibly presumptuous and ignorant attitude to employ. It sort of highlights the privileges we have of living in the West. We live in our own little bubble where as a result of lack of exposure to certain situations, we sometimes find it difficult to understand that many people around the world do not have the same experiences as us. We expect those abroad to make an effort in communicating with us, but at the same time, a lot of us don’t offer the same experience to non-English speakers in Britain. It is just plain rude to think that our needs should be specially catered to, particularly when visiting a foreign country. It shows a complete lack of respect and preparation, where we feel the need to make no effort in a country that is not our own.

26037980_1553048914815091_1592224092_oIt’s quite obvious; when visiting a country, you should come as prepared as possible. And by prepared, I mean being aware of cultural shifts and for the purposes of this discussion, being sensitised to potential language barriers. Now, that does not necessarily mean taking a Rosetta Stone course and learning a language fluently, but rather, it means being armed with some words and phrases you can utilise when communicating any difficulties or questions you may have. If you can afford to go on holiday, I’m sure you can also afford to buy a pretty basic language guide or dictionary. Until recently, one had to pay for roaming charges in Europe, but now you can use your data at no extra charge. So really, you have no excuses, Google Translate is literally with you at all times, across most of Europe. Making an effort is so much better than blindly depending on your assumption that people in a non-English speaking country should be able to speak English. Why should they be able to anyway – just so they can be of some convenience to presumptive and entitled Brits?

I understand that due to its “globalisation” English often acts as a common second-language amongst many people. However, we must remember that it isn’t the be all and end all. A great deal of (sometimes) unnecessary importance is given to English, with this being rooted in British imperialism and colonisation. As a nation, we must begin to realise that Britain is no longer the powerful nation that it once was, colonising vast amounts of the globe. All countries have their own identities which we should learn to appreciate, respect and be tolerant towards. That also means attempting to communicate with natives in a way which they are accustomed to, without requiring them to anglicise their approach due to our laziness and entitled attitude.

As tourists, we are given the incredible opportunity to access elements of a peoples’ country and culture whilst also acting as informal representatives of our own country. The least we could do is not rely on English, a language which does not necessarily dictate another peoples’ identity to the core. Language is a beautiful tool which enables one to assimilate effectively. By not attempting to integrate when visiting a foreign land, the purpose of going there in the first place is completely defeated. Language helps foreigners to experience a place in a manner which is unconfined, whereby it really helps you get to the roots and understand what is actually going on around you.

Attempting to speak the language of the land that you are in also acts as a tremendous sign of respect. It brings about a certain feel of solidarity and unification between people from perhaps different worlds. It is a meaningful gesture that is likely to be returned with kindness. Only if there was some law which stipulates that all countries should aim to educate their citizens in English, and that English was the only “official” language of the world, would I understand why it was okay for people to expect or assume others to speak English. But until then, use Google Translate, get yourself a language dictionary for a fiver, and try to accept that the world does not owe you something just because you can speak English. All anyone really owes you is basic human decency, and as far as I was aware, that does not involving knowing English. Being British and knowing English does not somehow make you better and more intelligent than others.

So, let’s make 2018 a year for change. Let’s make British tourists great again (not that we were ever “great”, but you get the idea)! I mean, who seriously wants to be a part of  a nation which is consistently shown to produce the most arrogant, worst and lousy tourists in the world? Isn’t it high time we do something to change our reputation?

#RANTOVER

With love,

Sam x