Mahmudul Huque, a Professor of History, Chittagong University, has edited a substantial volume of essays (in his words, a festschrift) written in honour of Professor Alamgir Muhammad Serajuddin, Professor Emeritus of History, Chittagong University, and its former Vice Chancellor. Although the editor and the person the approximately 600-page compilation is honouring belong to the History discipline, Politics, Economy, and Society and Culture also find generous space in it. This is a formula that has been tried before, in Bangladesh, as well as in other countries. 31 contributors (mostly from Bangladesh) have written 30 articles that have been apportioned among four sections, in sequential order: History, Politics and Governance, Economy and Development, and Society and Culture. It stands to reason that, given space constraint, only a few essays will be highlighted, which, emphatically, does not mean that the ones not touched upon are devoid of merit. Far from it. Of course, while strolling along a beaten path of an anthology honouring a distinguished personage, one could reasonably expect to occasionally stumble over some ordinary stuff. And, so one does, in the book under review, but, doing justice to its overall quality, they are rather less frequently encountered.
P.J. Marshall (Ch. 1, “The Shaping of the New Colonial Regime in Bengal”) reiterates the riches of Bengal when the British made it a colony, and the impact it had on the foundation and consolidation of the British Empire in India. “The incorporation of Bengal and Bihar within the British empire…marked a momentous change in the nature of that empire,” he observes. “Bengal had a highly productive agriculture and well developed manufactures. Very large sums in taxation were levied from its huge population under a relatively centralized system that had funded Mughal authority and could be expected to fund the British Empire.” Ranjit Sen (Ch. 2, “Revisiting the Eighteenth Century Debate”) points out that, even before the British colonization had begun, “in the eighteenth century global capitalism had touched shores of Indian economy and reinforced the global trade network which had already started enmeshing India within its web…. The concept that the British Empire with its civilizing mission was a need of the time cannot thus be put forward any longer in justification of the advent of the British Empire in India.” A.B.M. Mahmood (Ch. 3, “Evolution of the British Land Revenue Policy in Bengal from Diwani to Permanent Settlement”) is critical of the Permanent Settlement policy of the British in Bengal, arguing that, “Unlike the village settlement of Delhi which gave security to individual cultivators, the Permanent Settlement did not provide a stable social base with fair prospect of success. It did not encourage rural uplift, and its future growth.”
Syed Anwar Husain (Ch. 5, “My Historical Testament”) has written a very interesting essay based on his sixty years of having fallen in love with History and spending more than two-thirds of his life in teaching and researching History. His conclusion on the subject matter? “History contains seeds as well as roots of all the extant disciplines. History is also a discipline with a global outlook; and, as such, history cannot be parochial and communal in approach and orientation.” Not many would be inclined to argue against that perspective. Mahmudul Huque's (Ch. 6, “US Policy Towards the Bangladesh Liberation War”) is a routine, methodical chronicle of American policy in relation to Bangladesh's liberation struggle. It was grounded on Cold War realpolitik, and waged by two stalwart practitioners of the concept of political realism: US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Iftekhar Iqbal (Ch. 8, “Situating the Sonar Bangla: Ecology, Economy and Wellness in the Long Nineteenth Century”), concentrating on the narratives of nineteenth-century agrarian society in East Bengal, is in no doubt that, “If the nationalist idea of a “Sonar Bangla” denoted a territorial basis, it must be East Bengal.”
Kamal Hossain (Ch. 9, “Religion under National Constitution and Laws: Some Reflections from Bangladesh”) reflects on the very important subject of a country's constitution defining the relations between state, law and religion: “By entrenching freedom of religion and expressly recognizing the non-communal character of the state, a constitutional basis is provided for promoting tolerance and inter-faith harmony.” Nizam Ahmed (Ch. 11, “Party Politics and Parliamentary Behaviour in Bangladesh, 1991-2013”) has composed an instructive essay on a vital aspect of Bangladesh's political culture: falling standards in parliamentary practices and behaviour during a largely unbroken stretch of parliamentary democracy following the end of protracted military and quasi-military rule. He presents these arguments: “Overall, the failure of the government and the opposition to behave in a “responsible” manner led to a gradual decline of Parliament…. The Parliament degenerated into a “talking shop”, ratifying the actions of the government.” Furthermore, “The opposition frequently alleged that it was not allowed to raise issues it considered important…. On the other hand, the opposition (when in the House) also had a natural tendency to oppose whatever measures the government proposed.” So it is no surprise that, such confrontation encourages violence outside the Parliament, with the general public often becoming the victims. Ahmed also takes issue with the rise to political prominence of business people, believing that they have contributed significantly to the deterioration in the country's political culture.
Ahmed Shafiqul Huque (Ch. 12, “The Path to Governance: Political and Administrative Development in Bangladesh”) has written an extensive essay on a problematic area for Bangladesh, good governance, although some of his prescriptive measures to stem the rot and turn things around appear to be tautological and a matter of who will bell the cat. For instance, “The colonial approach to governing characterized by centralization, strict control and repression, lack of representation and accountability, rent-seeking behaviour and disregard for rule of law needs to be replaced by an open and democratic approach that will enable state institutions to perform at a high level of competence to ensure good governance.” He might be on firmer ground with this more realistic suggestion: “Bangladesh could do well by aiming for “good enough governance” with limited scope instead of aspiring for comprehensive and overambitious programmes of governance and selecting areas in which the country has the capacity to succeed.” Of course, it could be argued that, Bangladesh will then be able to only identify areas to succeed that are of less importance than the ones that are far more vital to its governance. Abdullah Al Faruque (Ch. 14, “Prohibition of Enforced Disappearance under International Human Rights Law: A Bangladesh Context”) provides a sound backdrop to arguing against enforced disappearance (in Bangladesh) as being inherently wrong and going against the norms of human rights.
Nasir Uddin (Ch. 15, “Identity Politics and Indigenous Activism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts”) argues with reason in the depiction of the degeneration of indigenous people in Bangladesh: “The identities imposed by the state and state-power holders during different regimes have always been problematic since these identities --- hill people, Pahari, tribal, upajatee and khudra nrigosthi --- contain more or less the same colonial connotation and colonial ideology of depicting the indigenous people within the framework of “primitive”, “uncivilized”, “exotic”, and “savage” categories though they now live in a decolonized and independent country.” Muhammad Yunus (Ch. 16, “Giant Problems and Tiny Solutions”) appropriately remarks on social business: “The basic message of social business is to think of taking on the biggest problem around and then take the smallest doable step possible to tackle that problem. If that tiny step shows result, we can take more such tiny steps. These add up and make the change visible.” Wahiduddin Mahmud (Ch. 17, “Beyond Education for All: Meeting the Human Capital Needs of Economic Development”) believes that the public education system has fallen short in responding efficiently to increasing demand, necessitating in the private sector ameliorating the situation, although it has “created other problems, including those of quality and equity.”
M. Mufakharul Islam (Ch. 18, “The Bengal Famine, the Famine Inquiry Commission and Amartya Sen: A General Review”) reiterates Amartya Sen's conclusion regarding the Great Bengal Famine of 1943: “…through several acts of omission and commission, the government not only failed to avert the food crisis that struck Bengal in 1943 even though there was no severe food shortage, but also it failed to mitigate the suffering of its victims. Consequently, some three million lives were lost and a vast number of those who survived suffered decline in economic condition and social status.” Nazrul Islam (Ch. 27, “Nature in Modern Art of Bangladesh”) has an instructive piece on modern art in Bangladesh. All in all, Bangladesh: History, Politics, Economy, Society and Culture allows the reader to pick and choose from a variety of topics, generally written with erudition by various scholars.
The reviewer is an actor, and Professor and Head, Media and Communication department, IUB.