The Bengali identity is a transnational identity. Bangladesh, or the eastern part of Bengal or East Bengal, has for most of its history been the natural neighbor of West Bengal, or the western part of Bengal. The whole notion of a united or divided Bengal had never sprung up until the developments of the first few years of the last century. Queen Victoria’s (and later King Edward’s) representative in India was a man called George Curzon, who was viceroy between 1899 and 1905. The Bengal Presidency was large in size and difficult to administer; this ostensibly became reason enough to sever it into two halves.
Large size apart, the real reason for the dismemberment of Bengal was political. Britain’s policies in India had always been very ethno-centric. The subcontinent was looked at in ethno-national terms. Therefore, Bengal was divided along religious lines which left the eastern half, that is, East Bengal and Assam, with more Muslims than Hindus. The Bengali speaking population was reduced to a minority in the western half (Bihar and Orissa were part of the presidency and became part of the western half of a divided Bengal). Bengal united is a power. Bengal divided will pull in several different ways, wrote Herbert H Risley, British ethnographer, who had previously worked on India’s caste system. Sir Henry Cotton of the Indian Civil Service (and someone who opposed Lord Curzon’s partition plan) wrote:
It was no administrative reason that lay at the root of this scheme. It was part and parcel of Lord Curzon’s policy to enfeeble the growing power and destroy the political tendencies of a patriotic spirit. Bengalis are the leaders of political agitation in modern India.
And so Bengal was partitioned in 1905 but curiously enough, reunited in 1911 after the partition was officially annulled. In 1947, Bengal was separated again when East Bengal went to Pakistan and West Bengal to India. There was a proposal made by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose before that August midnight for a united, independent, and sovereign Bengal. This however found little support. In 1971, East Pakistan (East Bengal) broke away from West Pakistan and the independent nation-state of Bangladesh was born. The Indian military played a decisive role in the addition of this new state to South Asia. Ramachandra Guha in ‘India After Gandhi’ writes:
The war had lasted a little less than two weeks. The Indians claimed to have lost 42 aircraft against Pakistan’s 86, and 81 tanks against their 226. But by far the largest disparity was in the number of prisoners. In the western sector, each side took a few thousand POWs, but in the east the Indians had now to take charge of around 90,000 Pakistani soldiers.
Bangladesh today is witnessing the largest demonstrations in the country after 1971. This time too, like in the late 1960s and before that in 1952, the demonstrators are mainly young and, of course, deeply patriotic. There are large crowds demanding the death penalty for Abdul Quader Molla, otherwise known as Mirpurer Koshai or the Butcher of Mirpur. On February 5, Molla was found guilty by the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) – mandated with bringing the perpetrators of mass atrocities during the Liberation War to justice – in five out of the six charges levelled against him. Among other crimes, he has been charged with raping an 11 year old girl and murdering 344 people. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Counter demonstrations, much smaller in number, led by the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, of which Molla is assistant secretary general, are calling for his release. As mentioned above, this is unacceptable to most Bangladeshis.
The February 5th Movement in Bangladesh, much like the January 25th Movement in Egypt and the December 18th Movement in Tunisia, has centred on a public space. This public space called the Projonmo Chattar is located in Shahbagh in the capital Dhaka. Like its Tahrir and Bourguiba counterparts, it has been witness to history in the making. As I write this, The Daily Star, Bangladesh reports:
The crowd broke into exuberant cheers as they heard the news of the amendment empowering the war crimes tribunals to try organisations for complicity in crimes against humanity in 1971. The amendment will also allow the victims and the government to appeal against any verdict given by the tribunals. Demonstrators chanted “Joy Bangla” with more vigour and conviction yesterday, danced in the rain, distributed sweetmeats in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and congratulated each other on their victory. They also vowed not to lose sight of their ultimate goal and to keep occupying the Shahbagh intersection till their six-point demand was met.
A couple of days ago, an old friend from Bangladesh currently studying in India expressed to me his pain at not being able to join his fellow-countrymen in Shahbagh Square. Such is the significance of this movement for Bangladesh. It just goes to show that 1971 has not been forgotten and that the majority of the youth of the country refuse to be bullied by right-wing fanaticism.