A Montage on Bangladesh

Paramita Banerjee highlights various parts, memories of Bangladesh in her trips to meet the women who fought in the Tebhaga movement, the peasants who were idealistic and different perceptions as they change over time and experience …

‘Samasussa liste palante palante . . .’ Words learnt way back in 1971 as an eighth standard student who had just stepped into her teens, the meaning of which I do not know till date. Don’t even know if such words exist at all. Part of a Russian song apparently. Can’t remember the source of it, but we’d learnt it and would sing it with gusto as it was supposed to be a song in support of the freedom struggle in Bangladesh. It was one of the first. Soon, a Bangladesh Betar (the Bengali word for wireless) would be set up under the wings of the All India Radio’s Calcutta station and we would hear Sheikh Mujibar Rahman thundering with Amader keu dabaye rakhte parba na (no one can repress us any longer). And of course, a host of Bengali songs starting with Shono ekti Mujibarer theke lokkho Mujibarer kanthaswarer dhwani pratidhwani akashe batase othe roni (listen how from one Mujibar the voices of a million Mujibars are reverberating in the sky and echoing in the air) to Chalo chalo hey mukti senani (march forward oh soldiers of liberation) . . .

Indira Gandhi would then step in to help the Mukti Sena (Soldiers of Liberation) with Indian forces and General Manekshaw would force the Pakistani army’s General Niyazi to sign a truce to secure the birth of a new nation: Bangladesh. In a state poignant with the memories of a partition so artificial that we still have people on both sides of the border whose bedroom is in one country and the kitchen in another (yes, literally – no metaphors here; one just needs to go to Hili in the Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal or the town of the same name in the Dinajpur district of Bangladesh) – the romance when Bangladesh declared independence, the tension during the war, and the celebrations after the victory among the Bengalis this side of the border were palpable. Hence the songs that I still remember – quoted here to jog the memories of other contemporary Bengalis who might read this piece, as also to give others a taste of the romanticism that had gripped all Bengalis, young and old, this side of the border.

For me as a teenager, albeit a precocious one who had already decided that she would have to become a radical left activist, this was my first close rendezvous with what it means to fight and win a battle for freedom. India’s struggle for freedom was something learnt in history texts at school. This was live; this was real. My keenness to learn the songs and stay glued to the few broadcasts from the temporary Bangladesh Betar and the news from All India Radio was no less than my parents or other adults around me. Some years later, when I did manage to actually connect up with a radical left outfit, I was shocked out of my wits to learn that they condemned the Bangladeshi liberation war as India’s aggrandisement to acquire a colony. (The first of many jerks that would eventually lead to my utter and complete disillusionment, but that’s another story.)

Lucky to have a village home close to the Beniapole border in the North 24 Parganas district of the state, I was delighted to discover during the puja vacation (which is when I had a chance to spend time there) that we could take a bus up to the border, cross the no man’s land (as a child I used to think these stretches belong to women only, a lovely idea that would have to fade as I grew up) on foot and hop on to a cycle-rickshaw to see some parts of Jessore town for the princely sum of Rs 12. Till 1973, going to Bangladesh was that easy and that is how I had gone for the first four/five times. It would be more than two decades later in 1996 that I would fly to Bangladesh with a passport and a visa. With the memories of the liberation war and the romance around it far from faded, the thought of going to Bangladesh for two full weeks during which I’d be travelling to different districts of the country was thrilling, to say the least.

Dhaka in 1996 had a skyline higher than the Calcutta of those days. Toyotas and Nissans filled the country’s streets instead of the Ambassadors and Maruti 800s and Omnis that one was accustomed to see on Calcutta streets. The pride of winning independence was still strong among the people. I was mesmerised by their love for the Bengali language, which had been the main force behind their freedom struggle. Equally stunning was their incredible warmth for Bengalis from this side of the border. They looked upto West Bengal as the more developed, more erudite kin they had been admiring for years and were desperately happy to be able to welcome any Bengali from that state. The adulation was embarrassing at times. One common refrain in all conversations was that the two Bengals should be united since West Bengal had little in common with other parts of India. Irrespective of the validity of this statement, the craving for a united Bengal was unmistakable. Bangladeshi people believed that only such a unity could give them a chance to fully benefit from the literary and cultural progress that this side of the border had been fortunate enough to witness; a progress that had been deliberately stunted there before independence, they believed. It would take another decade for this blind admiration to fade and snide jokes about the lack of hospitality amongst people in Calcutta would begin to surface. I first heard such jokes in 2005. Another four years down the line, children rescued from some vulnerable situation or the other and instituted in shelter homes run by non-governmental organisations would look at me wide-eyed when I spoke to them in Bengali. So did most of the staff in these organisations. By then, the belief that people from India speak only Hindi had become rather wide-spread and only the more educated upper echelon of Bangladeshi society was still aware that India is a land of many languages and that there are also people this side of the border who have Bengali as their mother tongue.

Some memories from that first proper trip to Bangladesh are unforgettable. Being on an assignment to interview women involved with the Tebhaga movement[1] presented a chance of meeting some amazing women and men. They were all in their eighties, but the modernity of their thoughts was unmistakable. I had read about a woman from Jessore, Phulmoni Dasi, who had tied the Chief of Police to a tree using indigenous towels to allow the rebellious peasants to escape from the village the police were about to raid. When I met her in 1996 in a remote village in Narail, earlier a sub-division of Jessore later declared an independent district, she was a frail woman in her eighties whose response to most of the questions was that her memory had faded and she could not remember much. However, when asked about her encounter with the police chief, she let out a tinkling laughter like a little girl; her eyes brightened and she narrated the entire incident in great details – stressing that she had bound him so tightly that it took three policemen more than ten minutes to free him. Her face lit up with a brilliant smile when she mentioned that the police chief remained tied long enough for all the revolutionaries to escape safely. During the trial, she had asked the judge whether or not he would ask his daughter to be suspicious about an unknown man entering the house at dusk. She had insisted for his response, and he had to respond in the affirmative, of course. Triumphantly she had argued back that she had done just that. Since the police chief was an unknown man entering the village at dusk looking hither and thither, she had mistaken him to be a thief. She was acquitted.

I had walked out of that village wondering what has been lost in course of time to corrode the kind of politics that could spark such brave actions from a young housewife in a peasant household and such fine argument from an illiterate village woman; the kind of faith that could shake frailty off and bring that spark back in her all those years later. Has the colour of the red flag faded, or do we have different filters in our eyes? A question I’m still grappling with.

Perhaps one of the factors behind Phulmoni’s courage was the towering presence of Amal Sen, the Commander-in-Chief of the Jessore branch of the Kishan Sabha during the Tebhaga movement. The youngest son of a zamindar family, he had relinquished his medical studies along with all contacts with his family to become a party whole-timer.  When I met him, he was 83 years old and the President of the Bangladesh Workers’ Party. The Communist Party of India had certainly not been prepared for the influx of women activists – both from rural peasant families and from the urban student community, he had told us clearly, corroborating what we had already heard from women leaders of the movement this side of the border. But, he reminisced, the Party had not yet become so repressed by its own rule books that it wouldn’t be open to learning. The then leaders had the wisdom and humility to throw their hands up and admit to the women that they were at a loss; that they did not know how exactly to respond to a host of questions the women cadres and sympathisers were rising. Questions about wife beating by male party members, even when their wives, too, were fellow comrades. About the roles women were expected to play in party meetings and within the domestic space. Modern, rational, feminist questions that so many still believe to have their roots in the western world were being asked by women activists way back in the late 1940s! Mr Sen had rued the fact that somewhere in the course of time these glorious days of the CPI and the newly-formed Women’s Association learning from each other and developing together had been forgotten; that the conservatism of the 1940s had not lessened but been strengthened in his beloved Bengal on both sides of the border. I had walked out of that three-hour long discussion feeling so enchanted that I told my fellow researcher that if this 83 year old bespectacled man invited me to live with him, I would forsake all and run to do just that. I was 38 – not a romantic in her twenties, but he still had that effect on me. How many of us this side of the border have even heard the name of this wise old man who was so clearly modern in his thoughts, I wonder.

Another woman – also in her eighties, petite, dressed in a spotless white borderless sari of the Hindu widow, her white hair tied in a neat bun – her bright piercing eyes looked at us from behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. Then she broke into a smile and said that the Tebhaga movement gave her much more than she could ever do for it. It was her involvement in the movement that gave this child-widow the strength to pursue her studies afresh, complete her matriculation (tenth standard in today’s terms) and intermediate (twelfth standard now) and become one of the first lady teachers in a primary school in what was then East Pakistan – later to become Bangladesh. Her appearance, her diction – everything dispelled the notion of the helpless or cantankerous old woman that an illiterate child-widow in rural settings is believed to become. She was a lady of strength and wisdom – a shero whose story has not been chronicled in history. Many of us do not even know that there is a district called Neelfamari in northern Bangladesh, let alone know about a forgotten child-widow there who had once led a march against the British and the landlords supported by them to fight for a fair share of the harvest for sharecroppers.

We seldom go anywhere with a tabula rasa of a mind and I was no exception during that first trip to Bangladesh. I must have gone with the pre-conceived notion of finding burqa-clad women at least in the rural areas for I was surprised not to find them even in remote villages. My curiosity got the better of me and I finally asked one lady about this phenomenon. That rural housewife in a peasant family who had barely studied till the sixth standard told me unequivocally that burqa was not at all common among Bengali Muslim women; that it was more a custom of the Muslims from Bihar and Punjab. That the border of the sari draped over the head was enough to cover a Bengali Muslim woman’s face when necessary. She might have been right or wrong about the Muslim women from Bihar and Punjab, but burqa-clad women in the Bangladesh of 1996 were a rarity even in villages.

The scene was different in 2005, though. Women in burqa with just their eyes visible were everywhere – even in Dhaka, which had earlier been experienced as more liberal than other cities of the country in terms of women’s dress code. Fundamentalist groups in the country were in alliance with the ruling party. There were other visible signs as well of the impact of their proximity to power. The three-wheeler auto rickshaws would earlier carry the police control room number on the tarpaulin at the back now had adages like ‘Do namaaz five times a day to ensure your path to heaven’ and ‘Allah is omnipotent’; the Bank of Bangladesh had become the Islamic Bank of Bangladesh’; the Hindu population of Khulna district had shrunk from 26% to 4% of the total population of that district; and so on. But people were upset and angry. The synchronised explosion of 500 bombs at 300 different locations across 63 of the 64 districts of the country on 17th August, 2005 had also left them scared and unsettled. Most people I had chances to interact with – from rickshaw pullers to auto rickshaw and car drivers, from NGO workers to university students and teachers – most of them wanted an election. They wanted change, apparently. But then, I also met some people who had very strong anti-India sentiments and openly talked about why Pakistan would be a better ally for Bangladesh. The country they had fought to earn freedom from seemed a better friend than the country that had helped them in that struggle. A position that had left me to remember the cliché: politics makes strange bed fellows.

My last visit to Bangladesh was in 2010 and the scenario had changed again. So had the government, by the way, in 2009. Auto rickshaws again carried the police control room number. As for the burqa – well, as I stood in the immigration queue for ‘foreigners’, next to me was woman in one of the queues for Bangladeshi citizens who was literally tearing away at her burqa as she mumbled audibly to herself about her refusal to ever return to a country where women could not step out without a burqa. I must have been staring at her like anything, for a little while later her husband called my attention and said, by way of explanation I guess, that she had accompanied him to Saudi Arabia and the last five years there had not been easy on her. A Muslim woman from one Islamic state openly revolting against the suffocation experienced because of the dress code in another Islamic country. Against the burqa, at that – believed almost to be co-terminal with a Muslim woman across much of the globe. The prejudices we nurture!

Our prejudice as a nation against our neighbouring Bangladesh made me feel terribly ashamed to be an Indian when in course of a research assignment I met boys after boys in the 11 – 18 age bracket incarcerated in different government-run Observation Home for Boys across Delhi, Mumbai and West Bengal. In our country, any Bangladeshi girl or woman intercepted at the border or anywhere in India are treated as victims of trafficking. But boys beyond the age of 10 are slapped with the Foreigners’ Act, i.e. treated as illegal immigrants who have to serve sentences. Boys who had crossed the border at Hili for some pandal-hopping during the Durga pujas. Boys who had crossed the border to meet Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai. Boys who had crossed the border to come and find employment. Some of them were school-going; some of them were not. Some of them knew they were stepping into a different country; some of them did not. (The pandal hopping boys from Hili did not even realise that they had stepped beyond the boundaries of their country.) But for all of them – one thing was common: they did not have the slightest that they were committing an international crime. As one of the boys in Shubhayan Observation Home for Boys in Balurghat, Dakshin Dinajpur district, West Bengal, broke down and asked through a flood of tears whether his unknowing act of crossing the border was so terrible a crime that his entire career had to be robbed away for that – all of us adults around him, the Superintendent, the House Father, my fellow-researcher and I – could only hang our head in intense shame. He would have taken the Matriculation exam a few months later, had he not been intercepted by a Border Security Force guard at a Durga puja pandal. H e and his four friends had no intention of making India their country of residence, but they had already spent more than three years in the Observation Homes – throwing their academic careers into complete jeopardy. (Incidentally, we do not offer any educational facilities for children in conflict with law in our Observation Homes.)

India is a signatory to the United Nations Child Rights Convention and has ratified it also. Important steps, though inadequate, have also been taken in the country for the protection of children’s rights – including those in conflict with law. How longer will it take us to realise that international borders are an adult affair; children should not be made to pay for that? ‘How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see’ – as Bob Dylan would sing.

Note: Most of the encounters described here happened in course of work assignments and I would like to acknowledge the Jadavapur University School of Women’s Studies, Sanjog Kolkata Initiatives, Sephis, Groupe Developement (now Act for Life), the European Commission and the Oak Foundation for their support to these studies.


[1] The Tebhaga movement was a peasants’ struggle in 1946 – 48 to reduce the landlords’ share from half of the produce to one-third, so that the sharecroppers, i.e. the actual tillers of the land could retain two-thirds of the harvest. Launched by the Kishan Sabha (Pesants’ Association) under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (the undivided CPI), it is perhaps the strongest peasant movement of the country till date. It also paved the way for women’s participation in the struggle, leading to the formation of the Mahila Samiti (Women’s Association) under the leadership of the CPI.

Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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