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Ongoing nationality debate: are we Bangalee or Bangladeshi?

Written By: NazirAhmed
29/05/2014 11:10
Thoughts and Ideology

Bangladesh is deeply divided on many issues along political lines.  If the government says one thing, the main opposition party will say something else and vice versa.  This trend has been going on since the independence.  Among all those issues that have deeply divided the nation, the most notable one is the issue of nationality.  Are we Bangalee or Bangladeshi?  The two main opposition parties have been representing two doctrines of the nationalism: Bangalee nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism.  It is very unfortunate that the country became independent 43 years ago, but out politicians (and academicians and intellectuals too) have been unable to agree on the issue of our identity.  

The original Constitution of 1972 introduced Bangalee nationalism.  Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution says “the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees.”  The Fifth Amendment, among others, changed this by amending Article 6 to read “6. Citizenship. (1) The citizenship of Bangladesh shall be determined and regulated by law. (2) The citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis.”  When challenged, the entire Fifth Amendment - which included, among other things, the provision of “Bangladeshi nationalism” - was declared illegal by the High Court.  But in its crucial judgment, the Apex Court, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, agreed with the High Court, scrapping the Fifth Amendment but retaining some matters done for public good including the provision of “Bangladeshi” as the national identity of the people of the country.  The Apex Court commented that the nationalism should be “Bangladeshi” instead of “Bangalee.”  

The concept of Bangalee nationalism was not in the Proclamation of Independence or in the Provisional Constitution of Bangladesh Order 1972.  In fact, in both instruments, the term “the people of Bangladesh” was mentioned more than once, connoting each and every citizen of Bangladesh.  Certainly all people and citizens of Bangladesh are not Bangalees.  There are many ethnic, indigenous and tribal groups who are neither Bangalees nor do they consider themselves as Bangalees.  The framers of the Constitution inadvertently incorporated the Bangalee nationalism in the Constitution.  The matters became worse after the independence of Bangladesh when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman forcefully advised Sontu Larma, a non-Bangalee tribal leader, and his followers to become Bangalee. 

Under national and international law, the nationality of the people of a particular country is determined by the adjective used to describe them and the objective sense of the name of the people of that country, whatever other factors or history of their nationality might be.  For example, various Immigration and Nationality Acts determine the nationality of the UK citizens and all UK citizens are called British citizens, though there are many other communal, ethnic, religious and regional characteristics of British citizens - like Muslim, Christian, Irish, Scottish etc.  If any communal, cultural or linguistic heritage based nationalism were imposed on all the people of a state as their national identity from the view point of citizenship, unnecessary chaos and tension might occur between the majority communal group and the minority group or groups.  That may consequently lead to riots or civil war.   

There is no doubt that the Bangla language has distinct history and culture – just as the English language has in the Great Britain and the Arabic language has in the Middle East.  That does not mean that the language would have to be the only component determining the nationality of those living in a modern nation state.  Using the language spoken as the sole determinant of the citizens’ state identity or nationalism would clearly have problems.  What would be the position of minority groups who do not speak that particular language?  What would be the position if one language is spoken in more than one country of the world?  The main language of the UK is English.  If the English language was to be the basis of the UK’s nationalism or identity, what would have been the position of its citizens who were not English or whose first language was not English?  The UK is not the unitary state.  It is a Kingdom consisting of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Each country has distinct value, culture, heritage, language and even accents and dialects.  What would have happened if nationality was to be determined by a particular language (i.e. English or Welsh) or culture (i.e. Scottish or Irish)?

Not only this, English is the mother tongue and official language in many countries of the world.  For example, the mother tongue and official language of the US and Canada are English.  If the nationality was to be determined based on the status of the English language, then the nationality of the UK, US, Canada and many other English speaking countries of the world would be English.  Similarly, if the nationality of Arab world were to be determined by the use of the Arabic language, the nationalities of more than dozen countries of the Middle East would be Arabic.  Would that be possible and viable?  Bangla is the mother tongue of all Bangalees living in Bangladesh, but more than 100 million Bangalees live in India and nearly one million Bangalees live in Pakistan.  What would their nationality be?  Likewise, nearly one million of ethnic minorities and tribal groups living in Bangladesh do not speak Bangla.  So, if the nationality was to be determined by the use of Bangla language, what would be the position of these ethnic and tribal groups?  These vital points need to be considered and thought out properly by the politicians who base their emotional rhetoric of nationalism on the question of language.          

The concept of Bangalee nationalism in independent Bangladesh, where people of many diverse ethnicities live, is both an ill conceived and misconceived idea.  Since 26th March 1971, all the people in Bangladesh have been 'Bangladeshi nationals, for they have been living under an independent nation state.  There are nearly 200 nations in the world and the nationality of almost each and every country is known by its name.  There is a strong logic for this.  A nation with multiple nationalities cannot be united and march forward.  All the people in India - although there are many ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions among them - are known by 'Indian' nationality.  Similarly, all the citizens of the USA – a country with a diverse population - are known as "Americans.”

If we fill in forms at foreign airports and write "Bangalee" next to the Section or Column of Nationality, it will be unrecognized.  If we visit Delhi or Mumbai, for example, and someone asks us about our nationality and if we say “Bangalee", they will be confused, for they will think that we are from Kolkata, their own country!  Around 100 million Bangalees live in India but their nationality is not Bangalee.  Their nationality is Indian and they are proud to be called Indian.  They do not want to join (to them) the so called Bangalee nation named "Bangladesh".  If the West Bengal Province of India merged to Bangladesh and the name of Bangladesh changed to "Bengal" or United Bengal”, then we could call our nationality "Bangalee."

Ethnicity and nationalism is not the same thing.  Unfortunately many people mix up one thing with the other.  In India, Bangalees say their ethnicity is "Benagalee", the Punjabees say their ethnicity is "Punjabee", Gujratees say their ethnicity is "Gujratee" and so on and so forth.  They never say that their nationality is Bangalee, Punjabee, Gujrahtee, etc.  If anybody in India says his 'nationality' is Bangalee or Punjabee or Gujratee etc, he will be considered a traitor and/or separatist and he will be punished if prosecuted.  All people living in India have one nationality and that is 'Indian.'

It was probably appropriate to call us "Bangalees" when we were part of Pakistan or British India in order to distinguish ourselves from Punjabees, Sindhees, Pathans, and Sikhs, etc.  But since we are an independent country now, we are all Bangladeshis as opposed to Bangalees.  Imposition of the Bangalee nationalism on other non Bangla speaking people would cause problem, as the Chittagong hill tract problem was made more aggravated and shati bahini fought against our independent Bangladesh for decades when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman imposed Bangalee nationalism over the tribal people who were not Bangalees (but were certainly Bangladeshi).

Nationality and nationalism are not a matter of emotion and rhetoric.  Rather, it is a well thought out and defined legal term to be construed based on the recognised legal principles.  Political party or parties may use nationalism based on language due to their political reasons or out of ignorance.  That does not mean that they cannot correct their wrong use of the terminology.  Especially after the judgement of the Apex Court confirming that Bangladeshi is the national identity of the people of the country, a party or parties have no right to use the term Bangalee to represent the national identity of Bangladesh.  The Bangla language, without doubt, has a rich history.  Bangla is the only language for which people made the highest sacrifice by giving their lives in the early 1950s.  The day of that utmost sacrifice, 21 February, is being observed as the “international mother tongue day” by the UN throughout the world.  But that should be a matter of our culture and heritage in the domain of linguistic, history and sociology.  That should not be the basis of the formal nationality of 160 million people consisting of Bangalees, non Bangalees, indigenous and tribal people.

Nationality is the most important component that unites a nation.  Unfortunately, the hostile debate and disagreement on the issue of nationality have deeply divided our nation.  Enough has been done.  Let us be united at least on the issue of nationality, putting aside the narrow party interests for the sake of national interests and integrity.  Bangladesh has suffered a lot due to divisiveness within its society.  If the nation was united, Bangladesh could march forward at the speed of a running tiger.  Due to deep division on various issues including the issue of nationality along party lines, Bangladesh is marching forward at the speed of a tortoise.  In fact, when Bangladesh marches two steps forward, deeply divided societies bring it one step back.  The sooner the leadership of the country realises this, the better for the country, the better for the nation.

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About NazirAhmed

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  • Name: Barrister Nazir Ahmed
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    Nazir Ahmed is a UK qualified solicitor with many years of experience of advising and training the public sector on all aspects of immigration and nationality Law, civil litigation, constitutional law welfare rights law and environmental health and safety law.
    He is a director of Policyy Review Centre(PRC), London and a consultant with Lincolns Chambers Solicitors. He has conducted training sessions for many national organisations as well as local authorities. His notable clients include various government departments. 
    Apart from his legal profession he is a prolific writer, authored few books and analyst on socio political issues.
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