Any almanac, such as the Britannica, will tell you that around 85 per cent of the people of Bangladesh are Muslim, that Hindus trail at about 10 per cent, with Christians, Buddhists, animists…bringing up the rear. This article concerns itself with two religions – and one of them is Islam, and the other? Nationalism! No almanac announces this surreptitious religion in the body politic, but its tokens and totems are as visible as those of the more run-of-the-mill variety.
A secular religion? No, not an oxymoron, but an ascertainable fact. How does one define “religion”? According to Ninian Smart, in his book The World’s Religions, every religion has seven characteristics, or dimensions. We tick them off one by one, with respect to nationalism: (1) the ritual dimension: speaking the language, saluting the flag, national holidays, secular pilgrimages to sights considered important; (2) the experiential or emotional dimension: nationalism has a powerful emotional side, a fact that seems to me to explain why children are peculiarly susceptible to it, as during the Chinese May 4th Movement, or the 21st February 1952 students’ movement in the then East Pakistan (today Bangladesh); these emotions are always kept simmering below the surface through patriotic or heroic songs, dramas…(3) the narrative dimension is obvious in nationalism: the history of the nation; the stories (fictionalized, or embellished) of great men, women and even children who made the nation what it is; (4) unlike the emotional dimension, nationalism lacks a strong doctrinal dimension, reinforcing my observation that the power of the emotional aspect renders nationalist sentiments peculiarly appealing to children; however, nationalism can appeal to a set of doctrines, such as democracy, individual freedom and rights (or it could appeal to purely religious doctrines as well); (5) the ethical dimension of nationalism refers to loyalty to the nation, martial values needed during defense (or offence), family values; (6) the social and institutional aspect of the nation-state consists in such public figures as the head of state, the army and its military ceremonies, the education system – a formidable apparatus for collective indoctrination – and even in games (the Olympics is the egregious example); (7) finally, the material dimension of religion are the physical monuments and artistic objects that have been created by the “nation-builders”.
There are those in Bangladesh who are proud to be “secular” and perform “secular” pilgrimages to the shrine of the language martyrs every 21st February, promote the language at fairs and cultural soirees, in short, place themselves diametrically opposite the religion of Islam, which, naturally, has its own, sharply differentiated dimensional contents. In fact, of course, the “secularists” are not secular at all: they have a religion, just like the people they despise (and who despise them).
Now, to what extent are these dimensions shared across the nation? To a very minor extent. The Bangladesh Television interviewed crowds of ordinary people about such seminal events as 21st February, asking them what the day meant, and nobody could reply. I write “21st February”, when in fact I should write “Ekushey February”, for that is how the day is commemorated. The ordinal number occurs in Bengali, and the month belongs to the international calendar, not the corresponding Bengali month. It is the same with other “national” dates: “sholoi December” (16th December), “Chabbishe March” (26th March)…Other dates are entirely in the Gregorian calendar: “Martyred Intellectuals’ Day (13th December)”, “Homecoming Day (10th January)”, “Asad Day (20th January)”, “Declaration of Independence Day(7th May)”…. These considerations would indicate that the language and nationalist movement has been a purely elite, urban phenomenon, highly influenced by western ideas and totally divorced from the people.