It was during a classroom session that a student asked me “Sir, is Joy Bangla a seditious slogan?” This was not the first time that I had to face this question. I have been riddled by such questions and snide remarks ever since the slogan came into prominence a couple of years ago thanks to a resurgence of Bangaliyana – Bengali sub-nationalism – in West Bengal. This Assembly election saw the Trinamool Congress pit Joy Bangla against BJP’s Jay Shree Ram. Either party was looking to drub the other, and the BJP soon found itself at the receiving end. During the build up to the elections, however, the TMC did find itself in the soup. As the BJP made inroads into Bengal riding its Hindutva agenda, the TMC was left looking for a straw. It soon found its saviour in Bangaliyana and clutched on to it for dear life. Ultimately it was Joy Bangla that saw it home.
Ever since the TMC leaders began chanting Joy Bangla in their election rallies their former allies began crying foul. The BJP was already busy crafting an anti-Hindu image of its adversary. But Joy Bangla seemed to drive its men mad. Joy Bangla, they proclaimed, was the slogan of a foreign country, a Muslim country, and thus seditious on our blessed lands. Their pitch has subsided after the elections but the slogan still remains controversial. It is frowned upon in India and that is because people don’t read history these days. I have met lots of urban Bengalis, who bare their fangs at the very mention of the two words. To them it is tantamount to belittling Jay Hind! So, what is the hum and din about? To start with Joy Bangla is not foreign to our shores. It was birthed on Indian soil in the midst of a storm and later used as a war cry during the birth of a nation. Back in the twenties, a war ravaged British Empire was trying to fill its coffers with the great Indian loot. As the subcontinent quaked, revolutionaries began to chip away at the Empire’s foundations. It was in this hellfire that one Bengali revolutionary poet began to shore up nationalist sentiments with his fiery writings. Kaji Nazrul Islam wrote Purna Abhinandan in 1922. It was an ember of a poem. Kaji had poured his formidable heart in each line and stared the Empire straight in the eye. In the fifth stanza he writes:
Joy Banglar Purna Chandra
Joy! Joy! Adi Antarin
Victory to Bengal’s full moon
Victory! Victory! To the forever imprisoned
This was the birth of the slogan and Kaji had to suffer the wrath of the Empire. For his writings he was incarcerated and banned from publishing. But it is impossible to douse a conflagration with gunpowder. My grandfather, a decorated Indian Revolutionary, would often narrate tales of his life in British prison camps. As they chequered his back with whips and glowing red iron tongs, and later cast him in frigid cells, he sought comfort in Kaji’s poetry. And he did chant Joy Bangla!
Jump cut to 1947 and we see the collapse of a beautiful dream. As India is partitioned, a line is etched across the flesh and blood of Bengal at the behest of one Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who has as much empathy for Bengalis as a hyena has for a wounded tiger. Bengal was divided and East Bengal was shaped into East Pakistan. Back in the day there were talks of a separate United Bengal nation but such talks never came to fruition. Soon afterwards the Bengalis of East Pakistan began to grovel under the weight of an imperialist West Pakistan. The Lahore Declaration had been defenestrated. Bengali Nationalism erupted and more than two decades of violent convulsion birthed a separate nation for Bengalis – Bangladesh. On the 7th of March, 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, delivered a speech from the Ramna Racecourse ground in Dhaka. That speech has gone down in history as an ignitor of revolutions. Towards the end of the speech Mujib proclaimed:
Ebarer sangram amader muktir sangram
Ebarer sangram swadhinawtar sangram
Joy Bangla! Joy Bangla!
This struggle is the struggle for our emancipation
This struggle is the struggle for our Independence
Victory to Bangla! Victory to Bangla!
It was a strident declaration of war on West Pakistan. Joy Bangla became a war cry. After Mujib’s assassination, the men at the helm of Bangladesh did try to supplant Joy Bangla with Bangladesh Zindabad. The regime was aware of the volatility of the slogan. Needless to say Joy Bangla hung on in people’s hearts and was finally granted its official status in 2020 by the Bangladesh High Court.
Because of its illustrious history and use as a war cry, Joy Bangla stands out as a rebellious interjection among slogans. Consequentially it is often unsettling to people who aren’t aware of its full history and hear it only as a rant emanating from Bangladesh. To such people it comes across as arrogantly seditious with a tinge of anarchy. Indian Bengalis with fervent love for Bangaliyana, the abstract of Bengali culture, are often frowned upon. The suspicion runs so deep that an Indian web series has actually concocted a separatist outfit for a villain – Azad Bangla Association! This is at once hilarious and disparaging. Bengalis have to live with the bitter truth that we are forever separated into two peoples. But our bifurcated existence hardly warrants questions on patriotism. We the Bengalis of India have spilled our blood and guts in service to our nation. Yet, the taunts never cease. Joy Bangla is the grand ark of my people. It has never failed to deliver us in tumultuous times. It is the warmth of a mother’s embrace and a flambeau at once. No political party holds patent to those two magical words. It is by the Bengalis, for the Bengalis and of the Bengalis.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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