Bengali Cultural Exceptionalism
By Jan Arden
Bangladesh must be one of the rare countries to celebrate their birth twice, once as Independence Day in March 26th to commemorate Sheik Mujibur Rahman’s declaration of Independence on that day in 1971 when he and all Bengalis finally realised that the western “deep state” of the West Pakistan establishment and ruling classes had no intention to honor the results of democratic national elections held in 1970. What followed was a gruesome and merciless selective genocide conducted by those “west-wing” generals against Pakistan’s own “east wing” population, as US Consul Blood described it in shocked telegrams to his bosses Nixon/Kissinger. For this, one may refer to ‘The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide’, by Princeton professor Gary Bass which tells the story of Archer Blood, a Foreign Service officer who was consul general in Dhaka in 1971 and whose diplomatic career was thereafter laid waste.
Indians need no reminding that Bengal has a fiery nationalism, a cultural exceptionalism of its own, as the BJP found out in last State Assembly elections losing against local chieftain Mamata Banerjee. Pic – Free Press Journal
As we rightly worry about the fate of Afghans under their new Taliban masters, nothing compares with that Bengal drama. Up to 10 million refugees fled across the borders into India placing an immense burden on the scanty resources of Indira Gandhi’s government, while the Western powers (namely USA and the UK) looked away despite all her entreaties. Both even threatened India of military and economic reprisals, dispatching their nearby fleets in a throwback to gunboat deterrence and tried their best in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council to keep India as a powerless onlooker, even with the mounting evidence of carnage of students, intellectuals, Awami League (Bangladesh People’s League) sympathizers and minorities. The rest is history and in a blistering 13-day war that shocked Asia and the Western powers, the Pakistani Army led by Lt-Gen Niazi Khan publicly capitulated and surrendered arms to Indian Lt Aurora in Dhaka on December 16th, which then marks the second day of joyful celebrations known as Victory Day in Bangladesh. The 93,000 POWs herded safely into India were later exchanged for the liberation of Sheik Mujib from Pakistani jails, who returned to a hero’s welcome in Dhaka.
Undoubtedly geopolitics and intense diplomacy played an immense part behind that brief exposé, (more detailed narrative in https://thewire.in/diplomacy/a-diplomatic-narrative-of-the-1971-war with the Nixon-Kissinger tandem despising Indira Gandhi personally, seeing India only as a USSR stooge and trying hard to seduce China through Yahya Khan intermediation. In the face of the unfolding genocide, together with the UK government, the tandem chose to abandon moral leadership or simply humanistic values for cynical calculations. It was Indira Gandhi’s stoic resolve, astute diplomacy and her move away from her father’s long-cherished non-alignment philosophy to sign with Leonid Brezhnev the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in 1971. That was critically actuated to halt ominous Western fleets and nullify potential Chinese belligerence, and together with USSR vetos in the UN Security Council against the West and China that saved the day so those Victory celebrations can take place today.
Realpolitik and Cold War necessities may have forced her hand, but the seeds of a longstanding India-Russia trusted partnership find their roots in those years of dramatic antagonism by the Western powers, although much water has since flown under the bridge. Today, as then, even as alliances have evolved and inimical forces to world peace and stability have changed faces or priorities, PM Modi’s India remains on par for an unapologetic nationalistic sovereign stance within a foreign policy framework that acknowledges and builds onto the realities of a new multi-polar world. France, Russia, the Middle-East and the US or Japan and Israel are its allies and military suppliers today, but India seems intent on carefully balancing its act with a Make-in-India progression so as to retain full sovereignty of its strategic decision-making regarding its longer-term national security interests.
The other point of significance here is that the 1971 fight for freedom from oppression is a remarkable episode in recent political and military history when a battle has been fought and the final liberation secured far more on cultural grounds than on religious, economic or territorial reasons. As summed up by Al Jazeera in a December 2019 report, “The refusal to accept Bengali as a state language of Pakistan in the early years after Partition, economic disparity between the two parts, the hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling elite over Pakistan, martial laws, and a demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture and the Bengali population soured relations between the two parts.”
Indians need no reminding that Bengal has a fiery nationalism, a cultural exceptionalism of its own, as the BJP found out in last State Assembly elections losing against local chieftain Mamata Banerjee. Bangladesh still has its own post-liberation throes to overcome, most notably the vexed question of bringing to trial the Bengali collaborators of its genocide, a pacified sense of identity away from veiled attempts at fundamentalism, but it has made impressive economic progress in its 50-year history, despite being shunned by Western powers at birth. A country born amid famine, extreme poverty, bloody internal warfare and costly liberation against powerful Cold War American/UK interests and their local Pakistan agents, could only be destined to fail and that burden should be left to India to bear was Henry Kissinger’s jaundiced view, shared across Western capitals.
History and the cultural ingenuity of Bangladeshis are deciding otherwise. As reported in the Business Standard, at June 2021 Bangladesh GDP per capita had risen to $2,227 while West Pakistan’s per capita income, is $1,543. In 1971, West Pakistan was 70% richer than East Pakistan; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than (West) Pakistan. Exports and fiscal prudence have been key factors in the Bangladesh success story. It has maintained a public debt-to-GDP ratio between 30% and 40% while Mauritius, India or Pakistan will all emerge from the pandemic with public debt close to if not above 90% of GDP.
Some will certainly add to that surprising resilience and exceptionalism, the cultural anomaly in a Muslim majority nation the fact that empowered women have been driving the country, and their unabashed focus has been on health, education and liberation of girls and women, combating child morbidity and malnutrition, releasing socio-economic development and entrepreneurial activities. After all, it was Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist and civil society leader who founded the Grameen Bank and pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance for which he was awarded the Nobel Prizein 2006.
In many ways therefore Bangladesh remains an interesting economic and cultural experiment of remarkable success which holds lessons for some of its neighbours. But lest we belittle them, the problems of Bangladesh are as bad as elsewhere: “Bribery, rent-seeking and inappropriate use of government funds, excessive lobbying, long time delays in service performance, pilferage, irresponsible conduct from the government officials, bureaucratic intemperance have made public sector departments the most corrupt sectors of Bangladesh.”
But at least they seem to have acted on that front. Under public pressure, the Government of Bangladesh and the Asian Development Bank called upon an external consulting firm to provide technical assistance to the country’s limp Anti-Corruption Agency in 2007. As per their website, “an Adam Smith International team worked on a range of initiatives including structural and procedural redesign, strengthening of investigative and prosecutorial capacity… Our work was subsequently commended as “pioneering” by the Asian Development Bank for delivering results in a highly challenging and sensitive political environment.”
Don’t we wish some of that re-engineering assistance was sought and applied here too even if pushed for by international lenders and bankers?
* Published in print edition on 24 December 2021
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