A palimpsest or a chiseled stone?

THE history of Bangladesh has become a battleground of partisan narratives and counter-narratives, but this article is too short to delve into the details of these questions. The eye of the storm over historical configurations and identity imagination pitted the liberal establishment against those who have opposed secular homogenization as their existential threats since the birth of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is yet to find the right prism to look at its past and come to terms with its legacies, which is alarming for the country’s democratic future. The politics of history is not an isolated phenomenon in Bangladesh, but the whirlwind of the post-1971 trajectory has sidelined those who had different historical and identity inspirations. The earlier years of Bangladesh, as the back sliver of colonial Bengal and then as East Pakistan, truly survive as the institutional abiding power, as does the religious and cultural heritage of the old days along the lines of an indelible palimpsest – an ancient parchment that still the faded, but tough routes from the earlier era.

The current Indian challenge to rewrite history has parallels in Bangladesh, except that the historical vision of Bangladesh generally does not extend beyond 1971. The Hindu nationalists understand Indian history as a substantive struggle between the ‘indigenous people’ (Hindus) and ‘outsiders’ (Muslims and Muslims). Christians), which implicitly pits one ‘religious’ community against another. Alternative concepts of history require objective research, supporting documents, and a range of living experiences from times long past. But the accounts of what happened in earlier times usually fall victim to political hijacking. Ominously, politically circumscribed or judicially arbitrary historiography suffers from serious shortcomings: (a) legitimacy, achieved through erratic historiography, and the stark decapitation of the past are short-lived; (b) it will continue until the next elected or unelected regime reframes what happened in the past; and (c) the hasty trickery of history seriously undermines national unity and invites insidious polarization. Winners take the first shot at history, but the other side also has a story to tell, ultimately reinventing itself intellectually and politically.

One lesson for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other countries too: they need a flexible attitude towards their history. No group, religious, linguistic or populist leader should have the key to unlocking history! These countries are in greater need of a hybrid history loaded with diversity, which cuts through the labyrinth of claims and counterclaims from the past. Are there other lenses through which we can look at history? The multi-layered view of history brings balance to a nation. Beyond an exclusionary call for history, academic researchers are still looking for a “palimpsest methodology” to understand history, but also to resolve ongoing political impasse, identity resentment, and encounters with democratic institution building. The shared legacies include legislatures, elections, and bureaucracies; they are among the best-known colonial donations that increased democratic aspirations in postcolonial South Asia and elsewhere.

The palimpsest view 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 resemble a ship that needs both a rudder and a log, as Jamal Mahjoub, a British-Sudanese writer, reiterated in his The Drift of Latitudes (London, 2006). A nation must go about its business, but like a ship it must also keep a record of its previous ports of call! If the preeminent story of a nation compares itself to the uppermost text of the national imagination, can we equate the other historical rhythms as the indelible subtexts of a palimpsest – an ancient parchment in which the various currents are dim but not extinct?

Patriotic fervor, existential compulsions and external pressure forced the Bengali leaders of the government-in-exile in India to draw up a new ideological roadmap – one that differs from the Pakistani two-nation theory despised by India, the main host for the Bangladeshi ‘ freedom fighters’ and the refugees. on the run from across the border. The historiography and identity representation offered by the interim leadership, stranded in the neighboring country, were clearly not the product of open consultation. It was a formidable incentive in 1971, but neither the historiography nor the concept of identity are neatly stitched tapestries. What the exile government offered was more like a ‘summary judgment’ delivered quickly! Still in post-independent Bangladesh, the new chetona became a useful political asset for the ruling party to neutralize its competitors by dumping the identity legacies and their sponsors of the immediate past. The hastily planned 1971 series became the prevailing national playbook in post-independent Bangladesh, but failed to forge a pluralistic confluence of a multilateral democracy, which has repeatedly laid the foundation for future hegemony since the nation’s birth from one party. However, the old historical feelings of identity and politics still emerged, as did the remaining subtexts in the worn parchment. Conceptions of identity are difficult! For Leo Tolstoy, the history of identity – evidenced by centuries of Chechen resistance – bore a certain resemblance to a ‘trampled thistle’ defying destruction. (Hadji Murad).

Today’s politics are tomorrow’s history, which brings me to the threshold of historiography. Political science, with its structural-functional paradigm, is the top storyline that usually marginalizes the bottom line of political conflict. Symbolically, the layered history comes close to a palimpsest – ‘woven together, overwritten and wrestling with each other’ (MJ Alexander, 2005). A palimpsest in particular carries the resonance of what was real in the past. Often leaders reach back to the lost footprints to give impetus to the present, or previously maligned characters from history return to their lost pedestal. To the dismay of the previous historical and populist rhetoric, there is a growing realization that MA Jinnah does not deserve the hateful portrayal as the sole perpetrator of the 1947 partition! In today’s China, President Xi Jinping has revived the once discarded Confucianism by now blending it with Marxism. During my time in Kazakhstan in 1995, I noticed that Abay Kunanbayev (Abbay/Abai), once a popular Kazakh poet who was destroyed by the communists, found new life through special statues in the country’s public squares when the old Soviet control in Central Asia ended. . These sketches prove the power of historical content lost in a politically induced public amnesia!

My palimpsest visualization still has its own limitations! At the heart of this image is the struggle between the dominant text and the subtexts of historical inscriptions. But in Bangladesh, the boastful secular narrative has failed to eradicate pervasive Islam and Muslim identity; the majority of Bengalis would certainly refuse to regret being Muslims! This echoes the call of Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq (Don’t apologize for being a Muslim!) which originated in his diary from the 1940s and came to me through his son (now deceased) Faizul Huq, a former student of mine at the University of Dhaka.

The demographic weight of Bengali Muslims gives them undeniable empowerment, which most political and intellectual institutions are aware of. Even the Constitution of Bangladesh recognizes this need by retaining a provision for Islam as the state religion. Islamic identity, and not religious fanaticism, could work as a strategic resource for the future unity and integrity of Bangladesh. Therefore, Islamic identity exists in parallel with secular linguistic nationalism, which is easily manipulated by politicians to their advantage. Does it fit into a palimpsestic view? Repeated complaints about marginalizing Muslim identity and hurting the Islamic sensibilities of a Muslim-majority country are more enduring voices than the diminishing messages in the lower echelon of a palimpsest. In free and fair elections, the so-called ‘Muslim vote’ could decide the winners and losers in Bangladeshi politics in the future.

The reality is that Bengali secularism has not yet created a secular civil society or become an unchallenged political template in the larger political arena beyond the incumbents and their cohorts. The group of religious and other minorities is also lively in expressing their grievances. I wonder which stories deserve a higher transcription – the secular nationalism or the Muslim identity configurations that permeate the spectrum? Or those nuances are the similar impressions that deserve exploration, recognition and space! Nevertheless, the most palimpsest view of Bangladesh’s history takes on relevance: since independence, Bangladesh’s leaders have moved toward an exclusively historical narrative, but unlike a chiseled stone, the past is more like an old parchment in which the deep-rooted traces of the Bengali Chronicle have never erased their history. presence in the ‘collective mind’ of the nation!

M Rashiduzzaman, a retired academic, writes regularly on Bangladesh, South Asian political history and questions of identity. Parts of this essay were adapted from his articles previously published in academic journals, newspapers and some online media.