Politics: January 2010 Archives

We woke up early the next day to run errands, then off to the Liberation War Museum. We  spent the afternoon with friends old and new, meandering through crowded allies in Old Dhaka, and checking out local Hindu Saraswati Puja pandals (community altars).

Dhaka's Liberation War Museum documents the struggles of Bangladeshis to win political and cultural autonomy, culminating in independence in 1971. (The standard outline: when India and Pakistan gained freedom from Britain in 1947, geographically-separated but majority-Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan (then "East Pakistan" and "West Pakistan") were lumped into the common Muslim nation of Pakistan. West Pakistani leaders clamped down on Bangladesh's Hindu/Muslim hybrid language and culture, and engaged in economic exploitation. Bangladeshis fought back, first within the system, then calling for more autonomy, and finally winning independence in the face of a West Pakistani military campaign of mass repression, rape, and murder.) The Liberation War Museum is excellent, with a wide range of exhibits, and very clear paragraph-length descriptions for each object. We walked away with a PDA full of notes on names and stories to research. It's all fine and good to speak of people's struggles in impersonal terms, but the museum was effective in bringing three decades of struggle down to a human level:

  • a newspaper clipping reporting the Pakistan government's banning radio stations from broadcasting works by Bengali Nobel Prize winner (and Hindu) Rabindranath Tagore
  • an photo of a female student leader at Dhaka University, standing up to police repression
  • stories and personal articles of soldiers who died in the war
  • lovely liberation war posters, calling for pan-Bengali cultural unity across religious lines
  • photographs, and skulls, of the dead, murdered by West Pakistanis

The loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican was in our heads that day. Signage at The Liberation War Museum described Ted Kennedy's role as an ally to the Bengali people in the face of Nixon's pro-Pakistan anti-Bangladesh stance; a photograph shows him with Mother Teresa, visiting an Indian camp for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing Pakistani terror. The very previous day, we'd read an editorial in the newspaper calling on the government of Bangladesh to honor critical foreign supporters like Ted Kennedy.

It's very hard being half a world away, and seeing all the good that can be done by a lone senator from Massachusetts with a penchant for international human rights -- and then seeing that seat occupied by a man best known nationally for railing against the health care reform process. Whether we like it or not, our provincial domestic U.S. politics casts a long shadow around the world.

Gopal Chandra Ganguly didn't touch Muslims. When they came to his house, they were served with separate plates and glasses, to avoid having his Hindu Brahmin family contaminated by their ritual impurity. My grandmother's grandfather didn't hate Muslims; he worked and interacted with them, as long as they knew to keep their infernal Islamic cooties out of his upper-caste Hindu home in Calcutta, India.

The British would finally quit India the following year after a century of anti-colonial struggle, but in 1946, the future of the nation was still being hotly debated in conferences and dining rooms across the subcontinent -- and no issue loomed larger than the Hindu-Muslim question. In formerly peaceful Calcutta, in both majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, racist mobs led attacks on members of the religious minority--the Great Calcutta Riot.

Anti-Muslim riots were spreading closer to his neighborhood when my great-great-grandfather approached two neighborhood Muslim merchants, asking them if they needed help. Could he give them shelter? My grandmother doesn't know what her grandfather was thinking, the mental calculus crunching away in his head, but he said yes. Yes, knowing the disastrous consequences for the two men if they were caught. Yes, knowing the possible violence his family would potentially face from their co-religionists if word got out.

Sheltering hunted minorities in the face of religious violence was no easy task. Gopal Chandra was the head of a large household, comprising about two dozen family members and a number of servants. He had to think fast. If word got out that their household was sheltering Muslims, the house might be attacked by angry Hindu mobs. And he couldn't trust the servants to keep mum. He needed a plan.

Gopal Chandra led the two men into an unused room upstairs, usually left locked. They were cautioned to remain absolutely silent. Late every night, after the servants had gone to bed downstairs, the door was quietly opened so the men could be let out and fed. Most families in the area were living on very limited rations, but the Gangulys was better off than their neighbors. A friendly local merchant, fleeing to a safe area, had given them some extra food before he left, his last gift to a family that had treated him well.

The two men remained hidden away in the unused room as anti-Muslim riots raged. Ten days later, the violence died down and Gopal Chandra Ganguly bid the men goodbye as they fled to safety. My great-great-grandfather's story wasn't exceptional. A people's history of South Asia is filled with these tiny acts of solidarity across communities, at times of peace and crisis.

If I'm ever so tested, I hope to be able to show the same kind of courage under fire, standing up to personal and community prejudices.

Sadly, I am tested every single day, with critical issues of life and death, injustice and war, where I can safely respond without needing to make these difficult decisions, just by exercising my basic democratic rights and wielding my checkbook in the richest country on the planet. I sometimes do a little, but my great-great-grandfather's story challenges me to do more, to take greater risks, in the battle to be human.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Politics category from January 2010.

Politics: August 2009 is the previous archive.

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