Piash Karim (1958-2014) : Language, nation, and multiplicity

Piash Karim

Piash Karim


“One doesn’t have to succumb to a teleological faith in historical progress to ascertain that language-based nationalism is a step forward from its religion-based counterpart. But it is also equally true that like any other form of identity, linguistic identity also includes some at the expense of others.”

A Collective linguistic awareness, as experienced and articulated by the Bengali middle class, was a major point of departure around which Bengali nationalism in this territory evolved. The mainstream historical narrative of our national liberation struggle, originating in the language movement and coming to fruition in 1971, testifies to the way the language issue was deployed in the middle-class consciousness. This narrative, of course, obscures, among other things, a plethora of struggles that took place until 1950, including the revolutionary movements carried out by the peasants of Hajong and Santal nations (discussed in volume II of Badruddin Umar’s extraordinary study of the language movement) as precursors to national liberation. The failure to make the connection between peasant uprisings and the national liberation war is not a simple question of textual bias. It is rooted into the actual trajectory through which the Bengali middle-class national liberation sensibilities unfolded. If the language movement and the peasant rebellions, along with other working class movements, could be connected under a radical class hegemony into an organic struggle of national liberation, the history of this part of the world would have been phenomenally different.

One point needs to be added here. There is no reason, Benedict Anderson’s Eurocentric narrative notwithstanding, why a nation inevitably has to be formed on a common linguistic awareness. Language is only one of the possible markers on which a nation is imagined and lived. A common geographical space (or an imagined geography), a collective memory, or a common religiosity (no matter how loosely its adherents may subscribe to the sacred-profane dichotomy inherent in it), with or without a common linguistic thread, may also be the bases of a national identity. No universal, trans-historical language-nation nexus, but the concrete materiality of the history of a nation which brings the language factor to the fore.

Language was a significant point of inauguration for Bengali nationalism within the political boundary of the Pakistani state. As a rallying point of democratic resistance against the Pakistani political- economy-ideology that revealed its colonial character almost at its very moment of birth, language became the primary signifier of Bengali nationhood. That nationalist discourse, as any average student of Bengali history should know, grew mature with increasing senses of economic, political, and cultural deprivation by various segments of the Bengali population, the strengthening of the Bengali middle class as a coherent social category, the inability of the Pakistani state to maintain its hegemonic grip, and the hegemonic ability of the Bengali bourgeoisie (without getting into the debates on the bourgeoisie character of the middle class leadership) to mobilise the popular-national classes under its leadership. The fact that all these dynamics, again, were linguistically constructed, mediated, and accessed is of central interest for theory of knowledge, but that is not the focus of my essay.

It is true that the language-based nationalism is relatively compatible with the emancipatory political agenda to which many of us on the Left subscribe. In opposition to the failed articulation of a religion-based nationalism by the Pakistani state and right wing political forces, language-based nationalism offers more this worldly, secular, and democratic possibilities. Many of us still believe that secularism, not as an ‘Objective’ Grand Narrative that vainly attempts to exile imagination and mythology from life (after all, as Horkheimer and Adorno reminded us, myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology) by producing a totalising, futile dichotomy between the secular and the non-secular, but as a historically and materially specific discourse with formulations about the separation between the state and religious institutionality, is something worth fighting for.

But, as any nationalism is not without its pitfalls, a language-based nationalism is not without its inherent problems. Nationalism can be a two-edged sword, as thinkers from Franz Fanon to Serajul Islam Chowdhury have recognised. Nationalism may be a site of opposition to chauvinism, colonialism, or imperialism. But nationalism, let’s not forget, can also become ideological justifications for all these oppressive institutions and practices. One doesn’t have to succumb to a teleological faith in historical progress to ascertain that language-based nationalism is a step forward from its religion-based counterpart. But it is also equally true that like any other form of identity, linguistic identity also includes some at the expense of others. And when that inclusion/exclusion process, inherent in any identity formation, becomes embodied in a nation state, it has more disastrous consequences for the excluded. The point will become more obvious if one draws a parallel between national identities and another concrete site of identity, let’s say, gender. Within the present historical-material context, there is no realistic possibility in the foreseeable future that women, oppressed under patriarchy, will vanish all non-female members of society by establishing an exclusively female state, political economy, military-industrial complex, and hegemonic ideology. But a nation state, established in the name of a hitherto oppressed nation, has done that many times in recent history by implementing its own policies of domination, de jure or de facto segregation, ethnic cleansing, including expulsion and genocide.

The point is, thus, not to replace one form of nationalism by another, a chauvinist nationalism with an apparently anti-chauvinist one, as a permanent solution. The latter, if history is any guide, may easily collapse into the former. It is only an eventual supersession of nationalism by a new configuration of international alliance through which the democratic integrity of national identities can be protected. Keeping the national liberation sensibilities alive without being trapped into the straightjacket of nationalism is a practical possibility that deserves our close attention.

The dominant nationalist discourse, whether in its Bengali or Bangladeshi, in its secular or quasi-religious forms, lacks the willingness and ability to accomplish this supersession. Hence their failure to come to terms with the fact that Bangladesh is a pluri-national state with multiplicity of national identities within its boundaries. Recognising this multiplicity is not about a shallow celebration of cultural diversity. Something way more serious, way more desperate is at stake here. In the first and last instances, it is about democratic ownership of economic, political, and cultural resources by all people living in Bangladesh in non-hierarchical, equal settings.

But it is not only the asymmetrical relationship with its others, the subjugated languages and nations, through which a language-based nationalism like Bengali nationalism can ascertain itself. As if in a striking parallel with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s argument that the domination of nature by human beings and the domination of nature within human beings are interlinked, the domination of one linguistic identity over the others seem to be connected with the internal domination within a specific language community.

As Bakhtin showed, every language contains certain centripetal forces which act to render it monoglossic and unitary. But simultaneously, as any language is lived over diverse social positions, it becomes an interacting, at times a contested fusion of different language users. This is how heteroglossic, centrifugal forces persist in any language. In this sense, every language, to use Volosinov’s term, is always multi-accentual. Bakhtin, thanks to the bureaucratic authoritarianism of Stalinism and post-Stalinism, was never able to push this argument to its political logic by developing a critique of the monoglossic theory of politics and language promoted by the official Soviet Marxism (Stalin himself, curiously, formulated a theory of unitary, contest-free language, not unconnected, by the way, with a unitary, contest-free, monolgic version of Marxism).

Although Bangla language, like any other language, as lived and spoken in diverse social sites, is unavoidably heteroglossic, the hegemonic ideology of the written Bangle text, produced and consumed by the educated middle class, tends towards a monoglossic centre. This textual Bangla is a continuation of the Sanskritised Bangla produced by the ideological state apparatus of the Fort William College, through a specific colonial-class-communal route. It is through this high Bangla textuality that modernity, ultimately a lopsided, thus disabling interpretation of our collective reality, made its appearance in Bangla language and literature. This monoglossic centre of Bangla language remains tragically divorced from the ways in which language is produced and experienced by the multitude of our language community.

Posing a deconstructive challenge to this textual Bangla, something that Akhtaruzza-man Iliyas did so brilliantly and skilfully in his two memorable novels, is not a sheer intellectual exercise either. This is an unmistakably political task. If Bangla, as a language, needs to embody the lived experiences of different classes, regions, genders (yes, language can also be gendered; patriarchal language oppresses and silences its non-patriarchal margins) and other social collectivities, it has to be able to discharge its heterogeneous energy with full vigour. Its multi-accentual, democratic possibilities have to be released and radicalized. An authentic, plurivocal, open-textured democracy cannot sustain itself without opening up these polymorphous possibilities. This is a position misrecognised not only by the hegemonic secular-nationalist intelligentsia, but by a large part of the political and intellectual Left. Maybe it is through continuing to raise polyphonic yet collective voices to recognise language as a site of serious political struggle that we can acknowledge our debt to Bangla language on this February 21.

One thought on “Piash Karim (1958-2014) : Language, nation, and multiplicity

  1. Thanks for posting this article. I had a quick look and it seems quite interesting. I have been looking at Shahbag episode as being the last fury of Bengali nationalism which I hope to write about soon. I think this article will help me develop a better understanding of Bengali nationalism and inform my exploration of the Shahbagh movement.

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