The term ‘Bangladesh’ has been in use since as long as we can remember. Our parents’ generation, despite the fact that they lived through the Partition of 1947 and became, willingly or compelled by geography, citizens of the new state of Pakistan, generally referred to Bangladesh rather than to East Pakistan despite the division of India. Of course, it was a sentiment they shared with the Bengalis who, after 1947, became citizens of the Indian state of West Bengal.
The Hindus of West Bengal and the Muslims of East Bengal/East Pakistan shared between them the concept of Bangladesh as it had come down to them through literary and cultural tradition. Partition had sundered Bengal, but Bangladesh lived on in the Bengali consciousness. There was always Bangla or Banga in references to the concept of a Bengali’s affinity with Bangladesh. It did not matter that the name was never formally applied, prior to 1971, to the geographical entity that had been Bengal. But the idea of Bangladesh was one that Bengalis across the political divide were willing to uphold in their thoughts, in their everyday conversation. Tagore’s aaji Bangladesher hridoy hotey kept the fire of Bengali identity burning, despite the communalism which came into play in the 1940s.
On a personal note, when as a schoolboy I met Bangabandhu — and that was on a warm July day in 1970 in Quetta, Baluchistan — he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled them with much affection and asked me if I did not want to go home. Deshe jaabi na? That was the way he put it in Bengali. The question quite perplexed me. I was in Pakistan, wasn’t I? And Pakistan was my country, wasn’t it? Before I could stammer an answer, he rephrased the question: Bangladesh-e jaabi na? Won’t you go to Bangladesh? And that was it. For the first time in my life — and I was yet in my teens — I was hearing our paramount leader call the eastern part of Pakistan Bangladesh. The thrill was not so much in the use of the word ‘Bangladesh’ but in actually hearing Bangabandhu say it. After that day, in school, I dropped ‘East Pakistan’ from my vocabulary and insistently referred to Bangladesh at every conceivable opportunity.
But, of course, the name ‘Bangladesh’ had earlier and, I might add, formally been offered to the Bengalis of Pakistan by Bangabandhu at the end of 1969. The year, for those of us who lived through it or who have had cause to relive it through references to historical documents, was decisive in that it gave us a clear new perspective on our political aspirations as a nation. A determined drive to push Field Marshal Ayub Khan from power came through a sustained mass upsurge which lasted from January to March.
In the process, the regime was compelled, under public pressure, to withdraw the so-called Agartala conspiracy case unconditionally and free all thirty four of the thirty five (the thirty fifth being Sergeant Zahurul Haque, killed by soldiers in the Dhaka cantonment) Bengalis accused, among whom was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as accused number one. That was on February 22. The next day, at a huge public rally at the Race Course, the freed Bengali leader, already famous for the decisive manner in which he had placed his Six Point programme of regional autonomy before the two wings of Pakistan in February 1966, was conferred the honorific ‘Bangabandhu’ by the radical student leader Tofail Ahmed.
It was on December 5, 1969 that Bangabandhu told a rally in commemoration of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on the latter’s sixth death anniversary that East Pakistan would henceforth be referred to as Bangladesh. His reasoning was simple: if the federating units of West Pakistan could separately call themselves Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, Bengalis had all the right in the world to call their province Bangladesh. But, of course, the term ‘Bangladesh’, as said already, was not a new coinage. It had been part of the Bengali collective consciousness, even if in abstract form, for ages. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was merely giving it formal recognition. The institutional form would come later, through the War of Liberation.
Rabindranath Tagore clearly employed the term ‘Bangladesh’ in his songs. Our parents’ generation, in their conversations, spoke of Bangladesh. Bengalis, despite the bitter politics engendered in the 1940s and despite the subsequent divide, despite the efforts of Ayub Khan and Khwaja Shahabuddin in East Bengal to clamp a ban on Tagore in the 1960s, were careful not to let thoughts of the old Bangladesh vanish into time. An emotional Sher-e-Bangla made precisely this point when he visited Calcutta after the triumph of the electoral Jukto Front in 1954. He was unwilling to forget the Bangladesh of folklore, the Bengal of history. His administration was soon turfed out by an insecure West Pakistani political elite.
In the run-up to the general elections of December 1970, Bangabandhu and his political organization, the Awami League, consistently referred to Bangladesh in their political pronouncements. That raised hackles in West Pakistan, yes, but the nationalist sentiment among Bengalis was growing at such a fast pace that the regime really had no way to clamp a check on it. But note that the term ‘Bangladesh’, at the time and even till the end of the War of Liberation, did not follow the format in which it comes to us today.
During the non-cooperation movement initiated by Bangabandhu in early March 1971, a recurrent slogan, having militant as well as literary connotations, was Bir Bangali Ostro Dhoro Bangladesh Shwadhin Koro (brave Bengali, take up arms and free Bangladesh). In both Bengali and English, the name of the province, soon to be a country, was put across as Bangla Desh. It was only after the leadership of the Mujibnagar government returned home from exile on December 22, 1971 that Bangla Desh officially became Bangladesh.
Once Bangladesh emerged as a free nation, some people raised the pretty pertinent question of where the newly emergent circumstances left West Bengal in the Indian Union. Perhaps it would be called, simply, Bengal. Or maybe there would be no change in the name. It was the latter option that Indians went for, though not many of them were quite able to come to terms with what they saw as a commandeering of Bangladesh by the Bengalis of East Bengal.
Sometime in January 1972, soon after his return from incarceration in Pakistan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was asked by a foreign newsman at a press conference if he envisaged West Bengal someday becoming part of a greater Bangladesh. The Father of the Nation paused, smiled, took a puff on his pipe and then softly told the newsman: “I am happy with my Bangladesh.”
In the early 1990s, the writer Nirad C Chaudhuri, in an article in the reputed Calcutta weekly Desh, made a snide reference to Bangladesh as ‘so-called Bangladesh’. That prompted the Bangladesh government into banning the entry of the magazine into the country. Towards the end of the decade, I had occasion to attend a lecture by Chaudhuri in London. When the lecture ended, I went up to him and told him I was from Bangladesh. A broad smile spread across his face as he told me how much he loved Bangladesh and the degree to which he missed Kishoreganj.
The pejorative term ‘so-called’ did not recur in his references to Bangladesh as we spoke.