March is considered to be springtime, the birth of new things and the start of hope and growth. For the Bengali people, it is a fitting month for the birth of Bangladesh. A nation forged from the blood and tears of too many people who would never live to see what their sacrifices created. But for the Bengali diaspora scattered around the world, it’s also a reminder of identity, a myriad of them, and where they sit in terms of cultural and moral significance.
To be part of a diaspora is an interesting thing. Your identity is a pyramid of different cultures that meld together to create you – a confused individual constantly balancing different parts of who you are, forever culturally shipwrecked, and for too long socially conditioned to feel a sense of shame about the identity that made you.
For a lot of British Bangladeshis, the base of our pyramid identity is our Asian roots, but it was often forcibly covered up. The cuisines, foods, music and beautiful language were never appreciated during our formative years when racist mockery created a need for protection by shelving aside the Bengali identity and being as British as possible.
When people made fish jokes or curry jokes or something about Asians being taxi drivers, you rolled with it because you were aware that minimising your differences to others could create social acceptance. And we were living in a country that developed amnesia over its historical imperial brutality.
Maybe you wished that your parents would speak better English. Maybe you wished that Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis wouldn’t be so nauseous or found strange the fact that areas there had roads with the Bengali language engraved along with the English name. You would never wear your cultural clothes outside because to do so would almost feel akin to walking naked. Different. Eyes staring at you. Standing out where you wanted to fit in. And so, you quietly assimilated and in doing so, lost something you didn’t know you had, something millions sacrificed for you.
But time brings with it an exposure to wisdom and a sense of shame for the view you previously held. The Tower Hamlet roads with Bengali signs that were once places of ridicule are now sources of pride. The clothes you never wore you now wear out of brazen patriotism and love. An emotional connection to a motherland only visited through the rare holidays is difficult, but it is forged through an understanding of our parents’ sacrifices and our people’s sacrifices both here and back home.
Three million Bengalis died during the Liberation War. Thousands were raped. A war had been waged upon the cultural identity. A particular grievous crime committed by the Pakistani military had been Operation Searchlight, in which the Bengali intellectual movement comprising of students, teachers, writers, journalists and activists were brutally targeted.
To this day, it remains one of the unspoken genocides of the world, but that seems almost to be expected. The sacrifices made by Bengalis go unappreciated, both by its descendants within the diaspora and the wider world. International Language Day is celebrated yet its historical significance is rarely understood. It stemmed from the Pakistani regime’s repression of Bengali students in 1952.
The Bangla language had been greatly oppressed in favour of Urdu but the Bengali people resisted. The language was the foundation of their shared identity, of a connection to others with whom they shared a nation and a home. It is the language from which the great poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote the timeless greatness that was “Ekla Chalo Re”. As our founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said on the 7th March 1971, “This time the struggle is for our freedom. This time the struggle is for our independence.”
They could not surrender it to become something they were not. They resisted, and they prevailed.
And then, they came to England during the seventies and faced unbelievable racial hostility from the far-right. Once again, they were attacked for their identity. They received no support but through bravery and solidarity after the murder of Altab Ali in 1978, assembled and drove back the far-right.
Today the presence of white supremacists in the East End is a rarity. The spread of Bengali restaurants and road signs with Bangla translation shouldn’t be seen as markers of ridicule and shame. They should have been received with joy and a pride that the Bengali people always survive. Today, to step into Brick Lane is to step into a world steeped in Bengali culture, with its fragrances and flavours. It is to step into the world of a settled community that is proud of its dual identity.
Bangladesh might be a stranger to many of us unable to afford regular trips there, but it is the motherland we will always be connected to. The difference that we feel to other Britons should not sought to be minimised but highlighted. Let others know what this identity is, the weight of the blood spilled for creating it. Let them know what it means to be Bangladeshi.