Polarised Conflicts In Bangladesh And The Idea Of Bengali Culture


By M Ahmedullah (PhD in Epistemology and Politics)


The causes of polarised politics:

Many people are baffled by the intense levels of hatred that exists between different factions in Bangladesh and fail to understand the possible underlying reasons behind the current conflict. Complex factors are no doubt at play, including attachments to certain historical events of importance and their interpretations. There is also the inability of players and decision makers in the country to help break out of the confines of the seemingly sequential and deterministic process of cause and effect, and the effect becomes the cause for the next effect, strangling and suffocating Bangladesh. Rival groups have been engaged in tit-for-tat actions, reactions and counter reactions against each other for a very long time, driven by a revenge instinct and zero sum politics. A lack of respect for fairness and justice, a winner takes for all attitude and an inability to have empathy for rivals’ perspectives have lead to a continuous cycle of hate, violence, justification, outrage, more hate, more violence, more justification, more outrage and so on.

It seems that the current political conflicts in Bangladesh can be directly traced back sequentially to a very distant past, where some groups forcefully pushed forward changes without rational justification and used unethical means, muscle power or state resources, which some other groups opposed or could not oppose effectively at the time due to their relative weaknesses. The opposing groups then tried to undo, reverse or change the course taken by the previous group when their power increased by the use of similar or more unethical means.  Although chronologically this has not been a uniform process, in terms of the nature, size, issues and the ideological orientations of people involved in each stage of the conflict, along the long timeline, this kind of disputes has been a part of our political and social life for generations. The current political conflicts, accompanied by violence and polarisation within society, seems to me to sequentially go back to at least since the violent politics unleashed during the aftermath of the first Bengal partition in 1905. Some of the same issues and emotions of this partition are still alive and at play in the current conflict, although the players and their configurations are different. Individuals and groups involved in this tit-for-tat politics seems to be driven by some kind of logic, impulse or invisible power, beyond their control.




The process of cause and effect instigated by political rivalry could have been positive and constructive if it was minus the use of unethical means, disregard for fairness and justice and the use of violent force. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Bangladesh, and as a result, we have continually experienced, without an end or break, the domination of a dangerous and destructive political culture. One very important factor in generating and perpetuating the conflict, in my view, is the idea of ‘Bengali Culture’ – a powerful driving force behind motivations and destructive actions of many people in Bangladesh. The emotions, world views, anti-Muslim sentiments, desire for self sufficiency, pride in motherland, considering Islam and Muslim culture of Bengal to be outside the acceptable cultural and spiritual realms and heritage of mother Bengal, etc. of the movement against the 1905 Bengal partition directly links the Bangladesh Awami League’ s adoption of the idea of  Bengali Culture as one of the major underpinnings of their ideology of Bengali Nationalism.

The idea of Bengali Culture in Bangladesh, with associated emotions, intensity of feelings and hatred of the 1905-1911 and the Pakistan periods, which consider Islam and Muslim culture as foreign and originating from Muslim invasion of India, is a major factor in the country’s current divisive politics. This is really unfortunate and caused by a serious failure to understand how human dynamics, social evolution, world trade, power politics, artistic and dietary exchanges between peoples impact on the development and evolution of culture. The Bengali Nationalists have a serious misunderstanding of what constitutes human culture.


In Bangladesh when people talk about ‘Bengali Culture’ they are, in fact, not talking about ‘what is’ the actuality on the ground, rather, they are talking about ‘what ought to be’, which is actually an ideological aspiration, falsely dressed up as reality. This is because the cultural landscape of Bangladesh has so many components and diverse origins mixing and remixing for ever since time immemorial, a fact it shares with most other human societies. The dangerous consequences of this error, treating ‘ought’ of an ideology as the ‘is’ of our complex reality is that we have an unnecessary conflict in Bangladesh.  Many people are driven by this idea to engage in ethnic cleansing style cleansing activities against Islam and Muslim culture and their representatives in the country, wrongly feeling that this is completely justified.


Definition of culture

In 2009, I attempted to define culture for myself before embarking on an exhibition project called Powers of Festivals.  I visited a number of far distant places around the world  to see how minorities and native peoples use arts, culture and public celebratory events as a way of developing their confidence and survive in a world that is often hostile towards them, particularly bigger countries or communities who are either their neighbours or who dominate the country they share together.

The understanding that I arrived at is provided below.


Culture is about lifestyles and creativity of individuals and groups. It encompasses everyday living, special occasions and the beautiful and useful creations of poets, artists, musicians, writers, scientists, architects, businesses people, voluntary groups, etc. The social or isolated activities that people undertake are all forms of cultural expressions.

Interactions of people and their lifestyles do not happen in a vacuum. Individuals and groups do this or that because there are meanings associated with decisions and actions. Theories, myths, social values, religious rules, aesthetic feelings and tastes, etc. underpin all human activities. Over time actions and meanings mutually influence each other’s development and evolution.

Sometimes the process of change takes place predominantly through the interplay of a community’s own internal factors, if the group in question is relatively isolated. More dynamic and dramatic changes within a group are usually associated with greater levels of interactions with the outside world.

Whether internally caused or the result of external factors or a combination of both the changes in human activities and their underpinned meanings are primarily rooted within the original or earlier foundations of a community’s cultural base.

A better understanding of the dynamics and evolution of human cultures will enable people from diverse backgrounds to co-exist and benefit from increased interactions. (M Ahmedullah, 2009)


When I was in Bolivia in February 2013, visiting, taking video and still images of Oruro Festival and learning about I never heard anyone taking about Spanish culture or any other culture. They talked about their cultural diversity, made up of elements from Spanish, black African and various native ethnic groups and how they, over time, mixed and combined in different ways to create a Bolivian cultural repertoire. In Bangladesh its completely different where the proponents of Bengali Nationalists say that our culture is ‘Bengali culture’.


Superficial thinking

The strangulation faced by Bangladesh and the country’s inability to escape from years of vicious cycle politics, in my view, is partly caused by the idea of Bengali culture. People and leaders in Bangladesh lack the ability to understand how different factors are working in complex and mysterious ways to cause the country’s problems and then work through creative imagination to find solutions. This is because most Bangladeshis operate at a very superficial level and from a very poor knowledge base, including that of historical understanding.


As a result, not only is the country unable to find long term sustainable solutions of continuous improvements, various players are constantly blindly adding further complexities and barriers towards a better future. It also seems to me that very few Bangladeshis are interested in looking for the root causes of the country’s problems. Although it is never possible to fully get to the root causes of any complex problems and conflicts, attempts to understand root causes can help deepen one’s appreciation of the problem, and thereby, improve the chances of finding better quality solutions.


What is your identity: Bengali first or Muslims first?

I will briefly look at identity issues faced by Bangladesh and show, with examples and arguments, why the idea of Bengali culture is a major problem in Bangladesh. It is often asserted that many Muslims in Bengal, particularly between late 19th – mid 20th century, could not make up their minds regarding their cultural identity – whether they were Bengalis or Muslims. Further, it is also claimed that some Bengali Muslims even refused to identify themselves as Bengalis, or at least, tried to define themselves in terms of Moghul / Middle Eastern cultural forms. The Bengali language movement narratives have been combined with the above assertions and utilised to make many unfounded claims, which are found especially in public meetings, community interactions, magazine articles, etc. For example, Bengali Muslims who are very proud of their Muslim identity are often described as traitors who want to sell the motherland, Bengali culture and language to foreigners, such as to Pakistanis or Arabs, and instead adopt their cultures and customs.  Even though this is not true for the vast majority of the cases, this rather deeply entrenched view, within the minds of a sizable many, generates unnecessary misunderstanding and conflicts.


I have been asked many times by a wide range of people whether I was a Muslim first or a Bengali first. Naturally, I found the question strange, because I never thought of these two elements being separate and mutually contradictory as far as my life was concerned. At the beginning I used to answer without thinking properly, but still tried to be logical. The usual answer I gave was: I am a Bengali by birth and a Muslim by choice, currently living in London, and that my culture was a mixture of these three elements of my experience. I have heard other people responding to this question in different ways. Some people say that they are Bengalis first, and others say that they are Muslims first. There are some others who say that they are British Muslims, or British Bengalis, or British Bengali Muslims. There are still others who say that they are Muslims in Britain, or Bengalis in Britain, or Bengali Muslims in Britain.


Later, during my personal evolution and life’s journey, when I started to think more deeply about the question I came to the conclusion that this was not a simple question to answer. I also wanted to understand why people are interested in this question in the first place. I began to realise that essentially there can only be two possible meanings to the question. Depending on the perspectives and ideological orientations of individuals people adopt the meaning most appropriate for their circumstances. On the one hand, the question may be concerned about whether it was regarding ‘first’ in a chronological sense, in terms of the time dimension, either the history of one’s community or the development of one’s own consciousness. On the other hand, the question may be interested in finding out the ‘first’ in the order of importance – that is, which one is more important to a Bengali Muslim, being a Muslims or a Bengali. I thought about these two possible meanings and found that they are often related and can also be complementary, rather than necessarily separate and mutually contradictory.

In many cases when one decides on one’s own ‘firstness’ from the two possible options one relies on the other for support. For example, when some people assert that they are Bengalis ‘first’, in the order of importance, they try to show that they are also Bengalis ‘first’, chronologically. For example, according to Abdul Huq, a Bengali writer and activist during the Pakistan period, religion seems to be ‘second’ both in the order of importance and in chronological terms.


After the birth, a child is known only as a tiny man. Then he is known as a Bengali, a Punjabi, an Arab or an English and that according to his mother tongue and or his home land. At last he is known as a Muslim or a Christian according to his religious beliefs.

(Islam in Bangladesh, page143)


I wonder how Abdul Huq came to such a bizarre conclusion. Did he undertake any long periods of study involving a large number of people or did he just feel that this was the case? Second, as far as my own consciousness was concerned, I tried to identify when I thought I was a Bengali and when I thought I was a Muslim. I found it infinitely difficult to answer this except to say that my earliest recollections were a dream consisting of an aeroplane flying over our mud house in Bangladesh and a discussion I had with some boys about the day of judgement (what it was, what it meant and when it would come). Other people with different upbringings will have different recollections.


It is really a ridiculous claim to make that you are known as a tiny man first, then a Bengali and so on. The term ‘known’ implies a prior categorising and defining process involving history and society.  Therefore, even if Abdul Huq was right in some cases he was wrong to generalise with regard to how the natural development of the life of a child takes place over time as he or she grows up and becomes an adult. This means that there are pre-existing structures and contexts that a child is born into, linked to and partly defined by politics, society, culture and history. In addition, a tiny man, a Bengali, a Muslim seem to be mutually contradictory qualities, according to Abdul Huq. It seems that one quality cannot exist with the other quality in the same person at the same time. Therefore, a tiny man cannot be a Bengali and vice versa. However, when he says that at last he is known as a Muslim or a Christian, does it mean that when the child grows to become an adult and becomes known as a Muslim all the other earlier identities, such as Bengali or Pakistani, are no longer part of the identity or superseded by or contained as a sub identity under the Muslim identity, or just vanishes in thin air.

Based on the above view expressed Abdul Huq tried to demonstrate how chronologically a Bengali Muslim was a ‘Bengali first’ in order to show why in the order of importance a Bengali Muslims was also a ‘Bengali first’.  According to Ghulam Murshid, a Bengali academician, Abdul Huq

 can be identified as a Bengali first, then a Pakistani, and at last as a Muslim. It seems that he had no confusion whatever regarding his identity (Islam in Bangladesh, page 143).

Although Mr Huq may have thought that he was not confused, but from the above, I have no doubt that his thinking was quite muddle up. Also just because this is how he thought and felt about himself it does not mean that this was also true of other Bengali Muslims. There has been similar and too many generalisations from various sides during the history of our land.


Relative backwardness and identity issues faced by Bengali Muslims in late 19th and early 20th century Bengal

Regarding the question why some people who lived in Bengal during the late 19th and early 20th century, who can be classified as ethnically Bengalis, refused to identify themselves as Bengalis, according to Ghulam Murshid, Abdul Huq thought the communal attitudes of some Bengali Muslims were the determining factor in this regard. Many people who share a similar standpoint as Abdul Huq also blame Muslim communalism for encouraging Muslims to distance themselves from the Bengali linguistic and cultural identity. Although this is no doubt partly true, what they fail to consider is the period earlier and the cause that created this effect. This is an example of the superficial thinking of too many Bangladeshis. They do not seem to know and understand who first defined and categorised Bengali Muslims as Muslims and contrasted them with Hindu Bengalis, who were categorised as Bengalis. Bengali Muslims at that time were not able to respond effectively by assessing and redefining their identity generated by outsiders, due to their relative backwardness.


Although at the moment, the language controversy and the question whether we are Bengalis first, or Muslims first have been solved to an extent, because a large section of the people in Bangladesh or Bangladeshis abroad, if asked, will say that their Islamic and Bengali identities are one and the same and that their language is Bengali, it is still the case that a section of the people in Bangladesh derive enormous propaganda values from the controversies which took place many years ago. The Pakistan period was a golden opportunity for them to take full advantage of the relative weaknesses of arguments brought to the fore in favour of the identity of ‘Muslims first’. This is because ideas and world views developed during 19th century Bengal excluded Bengali Muslims, because of their relative poverty and the British divide and rule policies. This inability was perhaps inevitable given the context of the period.  I will not explore this issue further in this paper but will write in greater details about this the future.


The Bengali Muslims found themselves in a position of relative intellectual weakness and poor material base. Their social and economic position meant that they were not in a position to respond in appropriate, creative and sophisticated ways to the exclusion they suffered from and the outsiders’ attempt to categorise and define them during the late 19th and early 20th century. They responded in various ways, mostly in my views, many of which were inadequate and some were quite  silly and inconsistent. This gave fuel to those who wanted to further ridicule Bengali Muslims and their culture and way of life.


The Idea of Bengali Culture

The controversy with regard to Urdu as a state language policy of Pakistan triggered a backlash in East Bengal, the name of the eastern wing of Pakistan at that time. The revolt and opposition to the policy created the language movement, which most Bengali Muslims supported. The overwhelming support base of the language movement was later hijacked by a group in Bangladesh espousing Bengali nationalism. The process of language movement in Bangladesh during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the creation of the idea of Bengali Culture in the Bangladesh context.  According to this idea, some aspects of our life and culture are seen as legitimately ours, while anything originating with Islam framed as something alien coming from the outside as a result of the Muslim invasion of India. Thus excluding 800 years of the deep Islamic cultural roots that not only Bengali Muslims but also others in Bengal developed as a result of centuries of multi dimensional links and relationships with the worldwide Muslim communities.


The exclusion of Islam from Bengali identity and Bengali culture is one of the main causes of our current problems. On the one hand, Bengali nationalists see Muslim culture in Bangladesh as alien, the result of Muslim invasion of India, even though it has been our adopted way of life for more than 800 years. On the other hand, how can Bengali Muslims see Bengali culture as theirs when the idea of Bengali culture represent an attempt to annihilate who they are as cultural and moral human beings with aims, values, customs, life’s goals and dreams linked to Islam. Considering Bengali Muslim culture as alien, originating from the Muslim invasion of India and therefore illegitimate, is an assumption of Bengali nationalism and underpins many of the other their beliefs or practical undertakings. This assumption drives many Bengali Nationalists, who have not thought through the implications of their views, to consider Bengali Muslims as people who do not want to be Bengalis but prefer to be like the Pakistanis or Arabs. The Bengali nationalists very often and quite offensively suggest that they leave Bangladesh for good and go to Pakistan or the Middle East.


Another end result is that a political party like the Bangladesh Awami League often ends up becoming unintentionally fascist.  Among the Awami Leagures some are either unaware of the fascistic implications of one of the main underpinnings of their ideology, which is Bengali nationalism, or in self denial. According to Bengali nationalism the culture of West Bengal and Bangladesh is Bengali culture, practiced by the Bengali ethnic group, derived from local history and traditions going back to thousands of years – rich traditions of arts, music, dance, folk stories, etc., including the contributions of poets like Tagore in the development of Bengali culture.  This kind of definition and representations of Bengali culture generate a deep feeling in many Bengalis of a love for their motherland and a desire to carryon, enjoy and build on that cultural tradition. This is something quite positive. However, this definition also has dark and negative implications. The problem with this idea of Bengali culture is that it does not include the experiences and traditions of 800 years of Islam in Bengal, which is treated as alien, directly and openly by more fanatical individuals, and in indirectly, by the more tolerant and liberal supporters of Bengali nationalism.


All shades of Bengali nationalism, with the exception of a tiny minority as there must always be exceptions, see Islam and Muslim influence in Bangladesh as alien, originating from Muslim invasion of India and Bengal. This creates a variety of nationalistic feelings and responses against Muslim culture and practices in Bengal. Initially this attitude was developed, adopted and articulate by some Bengali Hindus, particularly based in Kolkata, but subsequently and especially after the creation of Pakistan many Bengalis from a Muslim background also adopted this nationalism for themselves. The end result is the creation of a culture clash where a large number of people feel a significant element of their life does not belong to them as Islam is not a part of Bengali culture.  Very strong nationalist feelings are often generated against Bengali Muslim way of life and culture. Off course the idea of Bengali culture is nonsense but it is this nonsense, which is the root causes of Bengali nationalist fascism in Bangladesh.


According to my definition of culture above Islam and Muslim norms, manners, values, traditions, belief systems are a very much part of the Bengali culture. If this was not the case then the logical deduction would be as follows: the majority of the people in Bangladesh do not practice Bengali culture. Therefore, in order to better understand the nature of the cultures of Bangladesh it is necessary to undertake new researches, generate fresh explanations and develop new terminologies to map and explain the cultural realm of Bangladesh..



In this short paper my purpose was to introduce a number of issues concerning what I call the sequentially deterministic cause and effect politics of Bangladesh and suggest that one of the major factors causing the problem was the false idea of ‘Bengali Culture’. Bengali culture as an aspiration or a major element of the lifestyles of a very tiny percentage of the people of Bangladesh is not false. However, with regard to the life of the 160 million people in Bangladesh there is no basis for thinking that the actual culture practiced in Bangladesh is Bengali culture as defined by the Bengali Nationalists, which excludes the vast influences of Islam and worldwide Muslim communities in our culture – way of life, values, aspirations, celebrations, dresses, social interactions, our names, greetings, prayers, get buried after death, etc.


There is a very poor understanding of the nature and evolution of human culture in Bangladesh and it is this misunderstanding that is responsible for many of our seemingly unsolvable problems. There is an urgent need to have a serious, civilised, ongoing and wide ranging debate and discussion about culture within Bangladesh and Bangladeshi Diaspora. A better understanding and appreciation of human culture, cultural evolution / development, cultural diversity will help us collectively to redefine the cultures of Bangladesh. This will help us better understand who we are actually, rather than be driven by an aspiration to destroy a large element of who we are, which is an impossibility to achieve.

One thought on “Polarised Conflicts In Bangladesh And The Idea Of Bengali Culture

  1. Take the religions out of the equation and you will see the problems will still be there.

    Most Bangladeshis, regardless of being Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Jew don’t know what Culture itself is or what it means in the first place! As a People they hold deep distrust and ignorance of the arts and culture and this gradually eradicates any sense of confidence, hence the outsider perceives them as ‘backward’ people. It’s little wonder their country is in a mess and people deemed worthless (Rana Plaza, continued political murders, post-Mollah killings etc.)…. Bangladeshis should continue to be economic slaves to American/ English/ Indian/ Saudi nations because that’s all they are good at at this present moment.

    I have hope for the new emerging generation who are stronger in mind, thoughts and actions but most of all they have forgiving hearts. If they can forgive India for continued unfairness as well as Pakistan for oppression they will move forward.

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