Envisioning Bangladesh History: A Palimpsest Or A Chiseled Stone? – OpEd


Bangladesh history has become a partisan battleground of narratives and counter-narratives, but this paper is too short to go into the details of those questions. The eye of the storm over historical configurations and identity imagination pitted the liberal establishments against those who, since the birth of Bangladesh, opposed the secular homogenization as their existential threats. Bangladesh is yet to find the right prism to gaze at its yore and come to terms with its inheritances, which is alarming to the country’s democratic future. The politics of history is not an isolated phenomenon in Bangladesh, but the whirlwind of the post-1971 trajectory ditched those who had a different historical and identity inspiration. Bangladesh’s yesteryears as the backwater swathe of colonial Bengal and then as East Pakistan, really survive as the institutional staying power as well as the religious and cultural heritages from the old times in the vein of an unerasable palimpsest— an old parchment that still retains the faded but feisty trails from the earlier epoch. 

The current Indian challenge of rewriting history has parallels in Bangladesh, except that Bangladeshi historical vision does not, usually, cross beyond 1971. The Hindu nationalists explicate the Indian history as a substantive struggle between the “indigenous” (Hindus) and “outsiders” (Muslims and Christians) implicitly setting one “religious” community against the other. Alternative concepts of history need objective research, supporting documents and a stretch of living experiences from the time long passed. But the records of what happened in the earlier time habitually fall victims to political hijacking. Ominously, politically demarcated, or judicially arbitrated historiography suffers from grave shortcomings: (a) legitimacy, extracted through capricious historiography, and its strident decapitation of the past come with a short shelf life, (b) it survives until the next elected or unelected regime reframes what happened in the bygone and (c) the hastened stratagem of history severely undermines national unity and invites treacherous polarization. Winners take the first shot at history, yet the other side has a story to tell as well, which eventually reinvents itself intellectually and politically.

One lesson for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and other countries too—they need a flexible posture towards their history. No group, religious or linguistic or a populist leader should have the key to unlock history! Those countries need more of a hybrid history laden with diversity, which cuts through the labyrinth of claims and counter claims over the past. Are there any other lenses to look at history? The multi-layered vision of history brings an equilibrium to a nation. Beyond an exclusionary call for history, the academic researchers are still searching for a “palimpsest methodology” for comprehending history, but also to resolve the ongoing political deadlock, identity rancor and the democratic institution-building encounters. The shared inheritances include legislatures, elections, and bureaucracies —they are among the best-known colonial bequests that augmented democratic aspirations in post-colonial South Asia, and elsewhere.

The palimpsest envisioning has a clear message—we cannot turn the mosaic of the past into a straight line from a distant telescope, as Prasanjit Duara, an acclaimed historiographer, warned long ago. Palimpsest plays like a logbook! Both an individual and a nation bear a resemblance to a ship that needs both a rudder and a logbook, as Jamal Mahjoub, a British-Sudanese writer, echoed in his The Drif of Latitudes, London, 2006. A nation must go ahead, but corresponding to a ship, it should likewise keep a record of its earlier ports of call! If the preeminent narrative of a nation compares to the uppermost text of national imagining, could we equate the other historical rhythms as the unerasable subtexts of a palimpsest—an old parchment where the multiple streams are hazy but not extinct? 

Patriotic fervor, existential compulsions and external pressure forced the Bangladeshi leaders of the exiled government in India to establish a new ideological road map—different from Pakistan’s Two-Nation Theory despised by India, the foremost host for the Bangladeshi “freedom fighters” and the refugees fleeing from across the border. The historiography and identity imagination offered by the interim leadership, stranded in the neighboring country, was obviously not a product of open deliberation. It was a formidable exhortation in 1971 but neither historiography nor identity comprehension is a neatly stitched tapestry. What the exiled government offered was more like a “summary verdict” delivered in a hurry! Still in post-independent Bangladesh, the new chetona became the convenient political asset for the ruling party to neutralize its competitors by dumping the identity legacies and their sponsors from the immediate past. The hastily envisaged sequence of 1971 became the ruling national script in post-independent Bangladesh, but it fell short of a pluralistic confluence for a multilateral democracy, which primed the ground for future single-party hegemony on multiple occasions since the birth of the nation. However, the old historical fervors of identity and politics still popped up like the surviving subtexts in the timeworn parchment. Identity conceptions die hard! To Leo Tolstoy, identity history—proven by the century-long Chechnyan resistance— bore a closeness to a “trampled thistle” the defies annihilation. (Hadji Murad).

Today’s politics is tomorrow’s history which brings me to the doorstep of historiography. Political Science, with its structural-functional paradigm, is the upper storyline that habitually marginalizes the bottom-line of political conflicts. Symbolically, multi-layered history comes close to a palimpsest— “woven together, written over and grappling with each other” (M.J. Alexander, 2005). Notably, a palimpsest carries the resonance of what was real in the past. Often leaders go back to the lost footprints to give a boost in the present or the previously maligned characters from history return to their lost pedestal. To the dismay of the earlier historical and populist rhetoric, there is a growing awareness that M. A. Jinnah does not deserve the snide portrayal as the sole perpetrator of the 1947 Partition! In present-day China, President XI Jinping revived the once-discarded Confucianism for blending it now with Marxism. During my stint in Kazakhstan in 1995, I noticed that Abay Kunanbayev (Abbay)/Abai), once a popular Kazakh poet, trashed by the Communists, found a new life through dedicated statues at the country’s public squares when the old Soviet control ended in Central Asia. Those sketches prove the power of the historical contents lost in a politically induced public amnesia! 

My palimpsest visualization, still, has its own constraints! At the heart of this portrayal is the struggle between the dominant text and the sub-texts of historical inscriptions. But in Bangladesh, the swaggering secular narrative has failed to banish the ubiquitous Islam and Muslim identity; majority of Bangladeshis would surely refuse to regret for being Muslims! This is a reverberation of Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Huq’s call (Do not Apologize for being a Muslim!) that originated in his diary from the 1940s, which came to me through his son (now late) Faizul Huq, a former student of mine at Dhaka University.

The demographic weight of the Bangladeshi Muslims gives them an unquestionable empowerment which most political and intellectual establishments are aware of. Even the Bangladesh constitution acknowledges that imperative by retaining a provision of Islam as the state religion. Muslim identity—not a religious fanatism, could work as a strategic resource for Bangladesh’s future unity and integrity. Hence, Muslim identity has a parallel existence with the secular linguistic nationalism, conveniently manipulated by the politicians towards their advantage. Does it fit into a palimpsestic vision? Repeated complaints of marginalizing the Muslim identity and hurting Islamic sensibilities of a Muslim majority country are more durable voices than the waning messages in a palimpsest’s lower echelon. In a free and fair election, the so-called “Muslim vote” may, in the future, decide who are the winners and losers in Bangladesh politics.

The reality is that Bangladeshi secularism is yet to create a secular civil society or become an unchallenged political template in the larger political terrain beyond the incumbents and their cohorts. The array of religious and other minorities is likewise buoyant in their articulation of grievances. I wonder which narratives deserve a higher transcription — the secular nationalism or the Muslim identity configurations permeating across the spectrum? Or those nuances are the comparable imprints that deserve exploration, recognition, and space! Nevertheless, the palimpsest envisioning of Bangladesh history begets a relevance— since independence, Bangladeshi leaders steered towards an exclusionary historical account, but unlike a chiseled stone, the past appears more like an old parchment where the deep-rooted marks of Bangladeshi chronicle never erased their presence in the “collective mind” of the nation! 

  • M. Rashiduzzaman, a retired academic, periodically writes on Bangladesh, South Asian political history, and identity questions. Slices of this essay came from his articles previously published in scholarly journals, newspapers, and a couple of online outlets.

Dr. Mohammad Rashiduzzaman

Dr. Mohammad Rashiduzzaman is a retired academic and he writes from Glassboro, NJ, USA. Part of this narrative draws from his previous works: IDENTITY OF A MUSLIM FAMILY IN COLONIAL BENGAL: Between Memories and History, Peter Lang, NYC, 2021 and PARTIES AND POLITICS IN EAST PAKISTAN 1947-71: Political Inheritances of Bangladesh (publication expected later in 2024 by Peter Lang).

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