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A Long View of Bangladesh

A History of Bangladesh by Willem van Schendel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2009; pp xxvi-347, $24.99.

A Long View of Bangladesh

Iftekhar Iqbal

illem van Schendel’s A History of Bangladesh is an ambitious project to relate the multiple stories of Bangladesh from the pre-historic period to the present (2007). The author clarifies in the introduction that it is intended for “general readers and for students who are beginning to study the subject”. If this heuristic limit of the book is kept in mind, one finds it quite comprehensive. There is hardly anything to disagree with about the narratives in the book. Yet, it deserves critical attention and engagement in terms of the context in which the book has been written and some of the important observations the author has made.

Despite the remarkable growth of south Asian studies over the past few decades, Bangladesh has received relatively limited attention in the global academia, both in terms of its specific historical trajectory and contemporary salience. A History of Bangladesh is perhaps the first of its kind of book that brings such a long span of time within its covers. In terms of the scholarly studies on Bangladesh history generated within the country, there are a number of useful works, but most of them are edited and encyclopaedic in nature. A lthough these volumes accommodate useful articles and chapters they do not offer a cohe rent narrative of the dynamics of long-term transformation. At the same time, a majority of the existing literature is pervaded by some form or the other of nationalist sentiment. A History of Bangladesh offers a c oherent and refreshingly broader account of the country’s historical developments.

Geology, Cuisine, Ecology

The book comes from a scholar who has engaged with the study of the region’s history, society and culture for more than three decades and that has resulted in the publication of dozens of books and articles. The author uses his personal experience and expertise as well as major existing

book review

A History of Bangladesh by Willem van Schendel

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2009; pp xxvi-347, $24.99.

literature on Bangladesh. The book has 22 chapters arranged under five parts: “The Long View”, “Colonial Encounters”, “Becoming East Pakistan” “War and the Birth of Bangladesh” and “Independent Bangladesh”. Between the chapters the author touches on subjects ranging from geolo gical formation to culinary practices. Of the myriad issues, themes, observations and analysis that this book accommodates, four broad categories are discernible: ecology, politics, economy and culture. The author sees remarkable dynamism in each of this category from a perspective of “frontier”. In other words, the Bengal delta which corresponds to today’s Bangladesh is presented here not only as a geographical frontier, but also as a cultural and economic one through which the region’s historical developments can be best appreciated.

Ecology is a key point of reference for A History of Bangladesh, which is reflected in the author’s use of the term Bengal delta interchangeably with Bangladesh. Ecology in the book does not come as mere prelude to social, political or economic history, but as a dynamic ingredient to the broader historical developments in the country. The author meticulously describes how ecology has been playing both formative (in the form of vast extensive water regime, silt-driven fertilisation process, biodiversity, transport and so on) and destructive role for the region (cyclones, flooding, climate change and some environmental problems linked to direct human intervention, such as pathogen water pollution, arsenic and adverse impact of the Farakka barrage built inside India). High density of population in a small country like Bangladesh with ecological constraints has led to numerous

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social and economic problems including that of internal and cross-national ecological refugees. The impact of dual dynamics of the environment has been so immense that the author remains inconclusive about

whether the delta was headed for boom or bust (p 250).

Failures of the Young State

Although Schendel usefully refers to regional political developments in the precolonial times, his narratives of political dynamics take clear edges in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Drawn on more recent historical researches, his observations on major political events take a materialist perspective that stands between nationalist and apologetic interpretations of history. For example, he suggests that the east Bengalis opted for Pakistan not primarily because of a shared religion, but with a view to getting rid of economic exploitation under a landed elite who happened to be Hindu. Unlike the Hindu communalists, however, the Muslim League did not strive for a division in Bengal: “Certainly, it wanted to create a homeland for Muslims – but its vision of Pakistan included all of Bengal. It was Congress that insisted upon the division of Bengal in order to eliminate the Muslim League from India’s post-independence political equation” (p 93). Similarly, in the Pakistan period, economic well-being was far more important to the peasant than division of state power or questions of language and religion (p 116). But the Bengali elite and the middle class had a different demand. They did not have a sense of owning the post-1947 state (pp 116-17), and hence aspired for the institutional framework of power, e g, through the six-point movement of the Awami League that, according to Schendel “did not envisage social change”. This “socially middle-of-the-road or conservative” approach of the Awami League, therefore, was not compatible with the more radical approach of the far left about the role of the state (p 123). Although in the context of the liberation war of 1971 the 11-point demands of the radical student fronts, who were “ahead” of the established political order, were placed along with the six-point demand, the

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failure of the Awami League to form a national government after independence widened the gap between the state and the broad political spectrum. This continues to inform political instability in Bangladesh today. It is precisely this earlier failure of the state, rather than any specific ideological pitfall, to catch up with the popular thrust for well-being and social justice that gave way to the military rule which remains a potential and sometimes direct threat to political players. In this context, Schendel concludes that the 1970s were a replay of the 1950s (p 195). This may even be true of the situations in Pakistan and Bangladesh at this point of the 21st century.

For Schendel, the economy of the region took a dramatic downturn following the British takeover. He thinks that the battle of Polashi (1757), due to which the British created their initial stronghold in south Asia, was not a watershed in Bengal his tory, but a continuity of Mughal imperial legacy (pp 49-50). Yet, by noting that the British used the Bengal riches to conquer the entire subcontinent, the author speaks of a pre-colonial longue durée economic autarky in the region. A vibrant domestic and international trade, and a dynamic agronomy even under the huge imperial tax burden from the Mughals only began to decline in colonial times. A semi-feudal economy, unremunerative commercialisation and exploitation through the Permanent Settlement made the prospect of Pakistan attractive to the emerging middle class as well as the peasantry. But Pakistan failed to address the economic aspirations of the people. Although the Permanent Settlement was abolished in the 1950s, sharecroppers were still denied any right to land, turning more than 20% of the landless into wage labourers by 1960. Foreign aid-driven modernisation failed to make things any better, rather it led to a flourishing coterie of aid-addicted elite and non-mobilisation of internal resources.

It was no wonder then that an independent Bangladesh would emerge on the wing of a second utopia. But, as Schendel has shown very clearly, some of the macroeconomic tendencies have continued to haunt independent Bangladesh until today. If the Bangladesh government stood as

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august 22, 2009

“inept, indifferent and heartless” by 1974

when a famine killed more than 1.5 million

people, and when an almost similar

number of lives were lost during Bangla

desh’s liberation war (p 81), these qualifi

cations are not entirely inappropriate to

describe the Bangladeshi state today. The

only remarkably efficient entity that has

emerged in the public sphere has been the

non-governmental organisations (NGOs);

but, as Schendel notes, not as much as lib

erating forces as creators of a “state within

state” that nourish themselves and whose

fortunes are not matched by those of their

millions of clients (pp 221-22). Despite a

little upward shift in social development

sectors such as adult literacy and gender

parity in primary education, the broader

socio-economic field remains shattered.

Remarkable urbanisation is taking place

mostly around the capital city of Dhaka,

but, as the author indicates, these are not

signs of thriving industrial development,

but the agronomic failure to offer even

subsistence to a large number of rural

dwellers. No wonder this cosmetic urbani

sation is bound to lead to a phenomena

that Schendel terms as “bursting at the

seams” (pp 237-39).

At a time when Aryan (“Sanskritic”, to

use the author’s Bengali phrasing) cul tu

ral influence began to finally come to

terms with the pre-Aryan cultural domain

by the 11th century, Islam had already

a rrived in the deltaic shore and more re

markably so in the 13th century. Although

the author does not make it explicit, his

narratives seem to suggest that much of

the contemporary cultural salience with

all its plurality in Bangladesh derives from

the engagement and contestations among

these tripartite cultural relations. But un

like many narratives of Bengali cultural

history, Schendel secures particular place

for the ethnic non-Bengalis such as the

Chakmas, who live mostly in the peripheral

hilly tracts. These groups did not convert

to Islam nor did Islam climb the hills (p 3).

Through their political struggle against

the Hindu and the Urdu-speaking Muslim

elites in the colonial and Pakistan periods

respectively, the people of Bangladesh,

Schendel suggests, were able to strike a

middle ground between Indian and Paki

stani cultural domination. Yet following

the birth of Bangladesh, the “middle

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ground” turned out to be too chauvinistic to call for blending of all non-Bengali ethnic identities with broader Bengali nationhood. In this context, Schendel compares Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who, as the founding leader of the independent nation state of Bangladesh and Pakistan, respectively, wanted to impose dominant lingua-cultural hegemony on all citizens of the nation state irrespective of their cultural beliefs and practices (pp 184-85). Despite such cultural controversies forged around the formation of an abstract homogeneous nation state, as Schendel graphically shows, today’s Bangladesh presents a cauldron of cultural diversity.

Legacy of Resilience

There are certain issues that the author has raised, but which I feel demanded a little more critical treatment. First, Schendel seems to be a bit too sensitive to intraregional cultural differences. For instance, he points out that “even today clashes between Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic can be observed in Bangladesh’s culture and even territorially in eastern Bangladesh” or that east Bangladesh is more puritanical than west Bangladesh (pp 20, 38). Such observations may have to be taken cautiously. The relatively puritan “Ahl-e-Hadith” movement, a faction of which is considered to be linked with the terrorist organisation the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), has the strongest roots in northern Bangladesh. Second, it would have been useful if the author had made a broader assessment of the environmental movement which has, so far, failed to grasp the deep environmental dynamics of agrarian Bangladesh in general. Third, the author refers to Monga (seasonal food insecurity) in terms of internal migration that has been caused by it, but not with respect to the problem of starvation at a time when rice production has increased at the aggregate level. Fourth, in terms of the cultural diversity, the author has remarked that the “emergence of Bengali as the lingua-franca and then as a mother tongue was very uneven”. He argues that not e veryone in Bangladesh speaks or understands Bengali, particularly some of the communities living in the hilly regions. From the perspective of the chauvinistic


Bengali cultural nationalism, the author’s comments are understandable. But even though this may be too harsh a verdict, the language’s predominance in the region has not always been perpetuated by the ruling and hegemonic power. Bengali has its own subaltern ethos and locale. Fifth, the author has rightly observed that the failure of Bangladesh’s first leaders to deliver on their dreams has weakened the appeal of their vernacular model, a mix of the refinement embodied in the colonial gentlefolk (bhodrolok) and popular Bengali ways. Schendel, therefore, sees the rise of a new generation of “mofussolisation” in which local mafias (mostans) thrive (pp 251-2). This is an interesting and real observation. But this is perhaps more a manifestation of sharper patron-client relationship than that of cultural dynamics of which the author has made an exciting assessment. Sixth, at the cultural frontier, the “new Islamic sensibility” is perhaps more nuanced than just opposed to secular-liberal cultural manifestations. For instance, some of the most popular albums by the younger generation of artists seem to contain one or two religious songs. In the emerging literature also, a trend has developed that mimics the literary forms and style used by so-called liberal secular writers, but remains discursive about secular or religious ethos.

Apart from these minor shortcomings, which arise more from the scope of the book than from the author’s oversight, Willem van Schendel offers an excellent synthesis of myriad issues and developments that have shaped Bangladesh. If the broader angle that the author takes is understood well, it would seem that the pre-colonial times he brings under “long view” of the region facing the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal is like a mini-Mediterranean a la Braudel. It is in this pre-colonial setting, that the boundary between romantic and nationalist vision blurs. To the author, the colonial and post-colonial times are a category broadly different from the “long view”, which convey a general sense of economic and social autarky. While existing literature would hardly speak otherwise, I would have enjo yed less sharp qualifications of historical trajectories on both sides of the temporal fence. Understandably

Sage AD

much of the instability resulting from political, economic and social problems in modern times originated in colonial times and got new colourings in the Pakistan period. Some of the trends continue in contemporary Bangladesh: military threats, social inequity, lack of governance and so on.

Yet, Schendel does not concur with many contemporary observers that Bangladesh is a failed state. He suggests that “from uncertain beginnings and through many permutations, the state has grown and strengthened its control over the Bengal delta” and that “today’s inhabitants of the Bengal delta cope – often m agnificently – by bringing into play a flexible, upbeat resilience that is one of the region’s most valuable historical legacies” (pp 218, 269). The strength of the book lies in the author’s insightful discovery, by wading through both long and short-term historical steams, of the brighter sides of a nation that looks in many ways doomed, while clearly showing the hollowness of the rhetoric of nationalism.


august 22, 2009 vol xliv no 34

Economic & Political Weekly

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