Millennium Post

For a Bangla state of mind

For the West Bengali bhadralok (or whatever remains of them), East Bengal continues to represent vastly different things to different people: a Muslim-majority country now called Bangladesh, an audacious dream of ethnic pride and secularism, a land vaguely culturally similar but distant in imagination, some of their forefather’s homeland, the place where cyclones aimed at West Bengal finally end up, a previous hub of ISI activity, the place of origin of the wondrous Ilish fish, among others. The list goes on. While every West Bengali’s attitude towards East Bengal/Bangladesh is formed from one or more such memories and connotations, many of these have a limited acceptability in standard discourse, particularly in public expression. That does not make them any less potent, however, and forces their manifestation only under very particular instances. I have a personal anecdote from 17 March 2007 about this.

That day Bangladesh scored its historic win over India in the World Cup cricket match. I must admit that I am no big cricket fan. That day, I watched the Bangladesh-India game at an undergraduate house at Harvard University. With India being indisputable favourites, the Bangladeshi team was expected to take a beating. Since live telecasts of cricket matches are not available on cable TV, the Harvard Cricket Club folks, comprised primarily of Indians had bought a special subscription. Watching along with me were two East Bengali friends. If truth be told, I only watched the Bangladesh innings because I could not wake up in time for the Indian innings after a late night’s work. 

Regardless, while I was happy that West Bengal’s own Sourav Ganguly, the Indian team’s former captain, was in the process of scoring the highest number of runs for the Indian side, I was not very happy with the Indian total. But slowly, perhaps as I became more and more caught up in the action on the field that reaction changed.

With the Bangladesh starting to dominate, I felt the first of many alarm bells going off in my head. India supporters were cursing the Indian team for its poor performance. But as the direction of the game became increasingly obvious, I did not really see the coming defeat as my own. In fact, I was busy asking somewhat quietly and ashamedly questions about the Bangladeshi team: Oi batsman tar nam ki? By the time the match was nearing its end, I looked happy at the outcome. This led to a few strange stares. Nonetheless, it did all feel a bit odd. My cheers, after all, were not really for good cricket. Forbidden preferences were having a free ride to strange destinations.

After the game ended, the general ambience in the room was distinctly dark. But I found that my own mood was not part of the gloom. My East Bengali friends treated me to a pint of beer, and I learned about the pola was really was aguneri gola. As I walked home that evening, I felt a nagging confusion- not about the anger of the Indians, nor about their reaction to my cheers for Bangladesh. Rather, of my own change of heart. A side of me had opened up that had more space for preferences than I had imagined. It is an easy call, perhaps, when Ganguly is on the team – he is an Indian Bengali. But more generally? In the games to come, would I continue to root for the Bangladeshi team? And what did this opening mean for India-Pakistan matches to come?

The way that my reaction had publicly changed during the course of the game would have been inconceivable had I been watching the match anywhere within India or Bangladesh. The split self that I harbour and which, I believe, many others do as well, does not have a legitimate space for expression in any but the most liberal of establishments in the Subcontinent. But such dual identities remain within us, deep down in our hearts, where politically correct stances and obeisance to national symbols cannot cast a shadow.
Ethnicity is a category, as is identification with a nation-state. However, these two differ in one important aspect. A nation state demands explicit loyalty, and de-legitimises everything else; those who balk at this explicit parade of fidelity are at best and parasites at worst, loyal to another nation state. The kind of fealty that ethnicity proposes, I like to believe, is at once more organic and primordial than that demanded by the nation state. In most cases, the loyalties to ethnicity and to nation state do not come into specific conflict with one another. But the varying degrees of distance between the two can be mapped as a continuum. On the one hand is the Naga, for instance, who has no nation state but is held within an all-consuming one, which goes to repressive lengths to extract explicit loyalty. At the same time there is the Hindi belt, an area that can explicitly declare its unflinching loyalty, as the points of declaration in its case do not interfere with claims of ethnicity. The Hindi belt is to the localities the natural claimant of the spot where the Indian pulse is to be felt, something that the rest of India only grudgingly acknowledges. 

West Bengal is an interesting case in this regard, falling somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Together with the explicit declaration of loyalty to the Indian nation state, we find here a vague understanding and acknowledgement of ethnic kinship with Bangladeshis. But of course, almost all Hindu West Bengalis would balk at a declaration of loyalty to the nation-state of Bangladesh. And so the split self remains masked. Even among West Bengalis there would be a continuum of the exact extent to which this kinship is felt, irrespective of loyalty to the state of India. 

It is an interesting and open question: How does the barrier between Muslim and Hindu West Bengalis differ from that between West Bengali Hindus and East Bengali Muslims? For that matter, can any such difference be attributed to allegiance to India? Would the dynamics of West Bengali loyalty to India change if Bangladesh were not a state that bore the primacy of Islam in its Constitution? Further, was the nature of association of Hindu West Bengalis any different in the heady days of 1971 and in the early months of 1972? Would it be any different if Bangladesh had continued to be a strong pluralist secular democracy from where minorities do not continually flee from oppression by the religious majority?  
Days later, the Bangladeshi team defeated South Africa, the world’s top-ranked squad, doing much to demonstrate that their win against India was not a fluke. West Bengal’s largest-circulating Bangla daily, Anandabazar Patrika, carried huge headlines trumpeting, ‘Bengalis stun the world’s best’. I had guiltless happiness – my conscience perhaps cleared by India’s elimination.

Cricket in South Asia is not a game; it is serious business, and a regular metaphor for war. Cricket has been used as an acid test for loyalty to one’s country. In general, it does not leave much space to reach across and support the neighbours. But primitive loyalties know no political frontiers, however strong the efforts of South Asian states to seek out exclusive loyalties. Rather, this more guttural type of devotion inevitably finds its own space in private imagination; crossborder organic connections, after all, predate the nation-state centric South Asian political landscape, not to mention cricket itself. 

But what can be used as a tool to solidify loyalty to a nation state can also act as an avenue of private, almost unconscious, subversion. Because the relationship between a country and its citizens has been moulded into one of either loyalty or defiance, this process inevitably comes with guilt. But can we not imagine beyond this? If political identities in South Asia are largely imagined, then forceful transnational identities are potent 
triggers for an organic re-imagining of the region.      IPA
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