recognizing, engaging, celebrating of cultural expression
an articulation from Bangladesh
The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, meeting in Paris from 3 to 21 October 2005 at its 33rd session, adopted the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions 2005 (henceforth CPPDCE) in order to, inter alia, 'protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions' (UNESCO 2005). A three-day Cultural Diversity Ministerial Forum of the Asia-Pacific Region was organized jointly by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and UNESCO in Dhaka from 9-11 May 2011, in order to urge all the thirty-three nation-states attending the forum to follow the example set by Bangladesh and 11 other nation-states of the region and ratify the convention. This meta-narrative is an articulation from Bangladesh that seeks to problematize the issues related to the notion of diversity, by taking on board the parameters set by the CPPDCE, which defines 'cultural diversity' as 'the manifold ways in which the cultures of groups and societies find expression [and] are passed on within and among groups and societies'; and 'cultural expression' as those enunciations 'that result from the creativity of individuals, groups and societies', and are laden with 'the symbolic meaning, artistic dimensions and cultural values'(UNESCO 2005). It proceeds in three parts, each of which attempts to delve into the problematics of the notion of diversity by 'recognizing' (i.e., cognizing anew a notion or a phenomenon that has been perceived before, perceiving or showing acceptance of the validity of the notion, and entering into a recognizance) minoritarian-becoming, 'engaging' (ie, entering into argument or conflict, and becoming meshed or interlocked) with majoritarian narrative of the nation, and 'celebrating' (ie, performing, extolling, and displaying) the creativity of the people.
Recognizing: minoritarian-becoming and cultural diversity
In living our lives that is always-already in flux, because matter is inevitably without stable form, and because 'subjects' or 'objects' are comprised only as specific, diverse, and fluctuating relations of force, always a temporary product of a channelling of this flux, there are no principal forms or identities but a continuous play of re-configuration and difference. In terms of Deleuzoguattarian conceptual apparatus, the play is a manifestation of the process of 'becoming' – a process not of imitation or analogy but of overcoming strictures of identity and generating a new way of being that is a function of influences rather than resemblances (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 20). It is 'the movement by which the line frees itself from the point' (294), a simultaneity 'whose characteristic is to elude the present [and] does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or past and future' (Deleuze 1993b: 39). 'Becoming' affirms the variation and creation of life generated by the 'molecular' or 'minor' processes, which in turn facilitates transformations resulting from the instability of difference, and at the same time contests the terror of unified identities and the order of sameness of the 'major' or 'molar' processes.
The process of becoming is inextricably nestled in the 'minoritarian' propensities of life, which subjects any normative abstract standard to continuous variation, and is set in a dialectical opposition to the majoritarian, ie, the propensity to extract a normative abstract standard from life. The majoritarian propensities 'are premised on the formation and defence of a constant or an abstract standard that acts as a norm and a basis of judgement'; they are the fixed and denumerable 'relations of identity' (Thoburn 2012). On the other hand, the minoritarian are non-denumerable in so far as these are relations 'not of identity but of variation and becoming which deviate[..] from any major axiom or standard' (Thoburn 2012). What characterizes the non-denumerable 'is the connection, the “and” produced between elements, between sets, and which belongs to neither, which eludes them and constitutes a line of flight' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 470).
Although everyone is impelled, in one way or another, by the minoritarian propensities of life as potential, which, if opted to be followed through, would lead to unknown paths, it is the numerical minorities who need to 'be thought of as seeds, crystals of becoming whose value is to trigger uncontrollable movements and deterritorializations of the mean or majority' (106). The triggering of 'uncontrollable movements' leading to minoritarian becoming is generated in the numerical minorities as their movements and expressions, 'cramped' on all sides by 'the gap that separates them from this or that axiom constituting a redundant majority' (469), invariably propelling them to becoming a line of fluctuation.
For the majority, insofar as it is analytically included in the abstract standard, is never anybody, it is always Nobody [because the standard is never actuated and therefore, by itself, it cannot fully exist in tangible form] whereas the minority is the becoming of everybody, one's potential becoming to the extent that [it is found in concrete moments as] one deviates from the model. (105)
It is thus that the minority as the seed or crystals of minoritarian becoming, ceases to be a subgroup of the majority, and emerges as the movement of groups that generate variations, mutations, and differences leading to diversity. In this regard, the minority 'has no membership, coherence, identity, or constituency in itself' (Thoburn 2012), and the minoritarian is 'a becoming to which one is engaged' (Deleuze 1993a: 221), over which no one exerts 'ownership'. It 'is the process of deviation or deterritorialization of life', one that calls forth 'the virtuality of the world against the molar standard' and 'it is active […] inasmuch as it escapes the already formed' (Thoburn 2012). As Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 106) forcefully declare, '[t]here is no becoming-majoritarian; majority is never becoming. All becoming is minoritarian.'
If it is acceptable that culture denotes signifying webs spun by humans to make meaning of life, and hence, in the last instance, culture is about life, it follows from the argument placed above that all cultural expressions generated by the process of becoming-minoritarian are invariably diverse, multiple and heterogeneous. It is even possible to argue that diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity are inescapable for the majoritarian cultural expressions as well, because the normative standard, homogenized identity and the molar axiomatic of the majority are never actuated in everyday life and living, situated as it is in a state of flux, in a continuous play of re-configuration and difference.
Engaging: community, identity, and majoritarian narration of the nation
Although diversity, heterogeneity and multiplicity are indelibly immanent to the very notion of cultural expression, we are urged to believe, even by the CPPDCE that '“cultural content” […] originate[s] from or express[es] cultural identities' (UNESCO 2005, emphasis added). Therein lies the trap. For 'identity', from Latin identitas, connotes 'sameness' and 'singularity', and, inter alia, concerns the quality or condition of being the same as something else. Hence, identity of any community – be it a nation, religious order, class, gender, race, or age – is an ideological discourse that erases difference by generating sameness in the subconscious conviction of a community. The insistence of identity draws up imaginary boundaries and renders transparent Cohen's (1985: 74) observation that although a community may present a mask of sameness to the outside world as its public face, differentiation, variety and complexity proliferate in the private mode. To ignore the 'private mode' and insist on cultural 'identity' of a community on the ground of its 'public face' is to allow majoritarian axiomatics to slip in uninterrogated through the back door.
When a majoritarian axiomatic manages to embed itself in the culture of a community by means of the politics of identity, ie, when the process of assigning meaning to its experience of life is ordered and organized according to a singular identity of sameness, the community in question is inevitably trapped in defending a constant principle or an abstract standard or a categorical schema that acts as a norm and a basis of judgement. The sites in which such embeddings take place most insidiously are communities predicated on national identity. Bangladesh serves as a striking example of how a community of nation is trapped in the politics of identity.
The emergence of the nation-state in 1971 was greeted 'as the first flowering of post-communalism' in South Asia 'both because its mental map was no longer the British colony and because it ignored that kingpin of late-colonial politics, communalism – the juxtaposition of two separate religious communities: Hindus and Muslims' (Schendel 2001: 108). Predicated on an unequivocal rejection of Islamic signs of national identity, the Constitution of Bangladesh adopted in 1972 argued that the Bengali nation derives its identity from Bengali language and culture, and hence, these signs alone are 'the basis of Bengali nationalism' (Article 9); further, it asserted that the 'principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of [...] communalism in all its forms' (Article 12) (“Constitution” 1972: 5). However, rise of Islamism in the country from 1975 led to a series of reversals in the Constitution, which included the declaration that '[t]he state religion of the Republic is Islam' (Constitution 2010). By the 1990s, the narrative of the nation assumed essentialist, coercive, oppressive and exclusionary character as it attempted to manage the numeral minorities 'into articulated, hierarchical, predicative meanings, intentionalities and desires compatible with and amenable to the controlling interests of prevailing political powers' (Finn 1992: 113). Islamist militants began to execute acts of terrorism with the objective of establishing Islamic hukumat (rule) in line with the shariah.1 In the first decade of this century, they even attempted to stage an Islamist revolution in northern Bangladesh (Manik and Ashraf 1). Although the secular character of the Constitution has been reasserted by the 15th Amendment Bill adopted by the parliament in 2011,2 the state religion of Bangladesh still remains Islam (Constitution 2011).
With the rise of Islamic intolerance to diversity and heterogeneity in Bangladesh, the Hindu population in the country has dwindled from 13.35% in 1971 to 9.52% in 2001 (Heitzman and Worden 1989: 255; BBS 2007: xiv), and since 1974, almost 750,000 Hindu families have been dispossessed of agricultural land, as a result of which, many have migrated from the country (IDMC 2010).3 What is most chilling is that the process of dispossession was mostly carried out not by the state or the Islamist fanatics 'but simply Muslims who lived in the area and knew they could have their way with the family, seize their land, and get away with it' (Benkin 2011). Today, acts of majoritarian religious intolerance towards divergent faiths, such as the bombing of a Christian church, an Ahmadiyya mosque and two Sufi shrines, slaughtering of a Buddhist monk, and disgracing of mystic Bauls have become common-place incidents to such an extent that these can be forgotten after a few days of furor, till they resurface again as an un-eradicable virus.4
Today, the nationalist narration of the Bengalis, laying claim both to Bengali language and culture as the normative signs of national identity and Islam as the state religion (Constitution 2011), constructs ethnic homogeneity in Bangladesh as obvious by arguing that 98% of the citizens are Bengalis (BANBEIS 2006) and 89.58% are Muslims (BBS 2007: xiv). What is erased from the myth as insignificant and non-consequential is the existence over 40 living languages (Ethnologue 2009) and 45 distinct ethnic communities in the country (Kamal 2007: xxiii-xxi).5 Hence it is not surprising that 'there is no constitutional amendment regarding the recognition or patronization of indigenous languages and their cultural heritage, nor are there government initiatives to address the [...] issues of economic and land ownership' of the ethnic communities (Debnath 2010: 24). Their marginalization is not only the result of internal colonization by the Bengali hegemons, but it also involves power and knowledge production. By exercising power through overt coercion and torture, limiting public dialogue and debate, and manipulating the thoughts of subjugated peoples (18), the majoritarian narrative of the nation has emerged as a neo-colonial tool mobilized for the continuation and reinforcement of centuries-old discrimination, stigmatization, marginalization, pathologization, criminalization, and romanticizing mind-set against the ethnic communities (14). If numeral referent is the sole criteria for erasing the creative acts of these communities from the dominant discourse, then it is time to reconsider whether the mental space in which the Bengali-speaking people dream and act may not have already turned barren and dangerous in a manner not too dissimilar from the autocratic regime of Pakistan, against whom these people have always prided in rebelling.
This is not to imply that the nation-state of Bangladesh is the sole perpetrator that attempts to manage the numerical minorities into an abstract standard to be compatible with and amenable to the controlling interests. Each and every nation-state in this world is already-always implicated in the act if only because the state has to mobilize nationalism (or patriotism as it is known in the US) as a hegemonic tool and ideological glue to bind the nation. The point is not that it is ethically unacceptable for any nation-state to mobilize nationalist narrations. Rather, the point is, the task of managing the minorities by nationalist narratives is never accomplished. This is because, as argued in the first part of this essay, our lives are always-already in flux, and because there are no principal forms or identities but a continuous play of re-configuration and difference, and because the 'majority' is always Nobody. Hence, we are forever too late or too early in arriving at the majoritarian norm, always seeking but failing because the ideal, the principle or the schema is never actuated, although the controlling interest of prevailing relations of power attempts forever to manage us, contain us with it, and 'organizes and obscures [,] organizes to obscure' (Finn 1992: 115) that we are inevitably 'fated' to fail in actuating the majoritarian norm.
Celebrating: the creativity of the people
The CPPDCE urges all the nation-states to 'protect' the diversity of cultural expressions by adopting measures aimed at their 'preservation, safeguarding and enhancement' (UNESCO 2005). What the convention fails to cognize that once a nationalist narration has been embedded as a majoritarian axiomatic in a community of nation, the state, even if it is a signatory to the CPPDCE, will inevitably fail to adopt all measures necessary 'to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions' (UNESCO 2005). There can be accusations, demands made by the civil society, or even the game of naming and shaming be played, but as has been the case with the implementation of the so called 'universal' human rights legal system, each state will continue to serve the majoritarian narrative of the nation, which in turn will continue to manage the numeral minorities into predicative meanings compatible with the controlling interests.6 Hence, the convention should remember that 'the masses no longer need [the intellectuals] to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than [the intellectuals] and are certainly capable of expressing themselves' (Foucault 1977: 207). As Deleuze and Parnet (1987: 2) observe, '[m]ovement always happens behind the thinker's back, or in the moment when he [sic.] blinks.' During the time intellectuals ponder and wonder, 'there are becomings which are silently at work, which are almost imperceptible' (2), because the people are always-already engaged in doing what is to be done.
The people are always-already at work in spinning stories – or narratives, fictions, tales – call it what you will – constructed as bricolages of 'indetermination' (ie, the wish, the possibility, that which 'could be, perhaps even should be') (Turner 1982: 76-77), to serve as 'drawing boards' on which they sketch out 'more apt or interesting “designs for living”' (Turner 1987: 24), and as reflexive tools that may even allow them to seek minoritarian becoming. This is because stories demand 'telling', and in each act of story-telling, when the maya or 'illusion' constructed not as a false perception of the 'real' but its lila or playful reconstructions and 'pleasurable misreadings' (Leicht 1983: 59), the play of signification extends to infinity following Derrida's (1978: 280) suggestion that 'the original or transcendental signified is never absolutely present outside a system of difference.' At this level, the performativity of story-telling is an act of subverting majoritarian norms because in playful reconstructions of the 'real', it generates diversity, difference, multiplicity and hybridity. And this is where stories as cultural expressions of people's imagination are always deterritorialized lines of flight to infinity, always acts of celebrating fluxing – pulsing – life and living.
Where subversion of the majoritarian norm is the question, it would only be fitting to turn to the ethnic communities of Bangladesh, whom the Bengali hegemons have reduced to the status of 'minor in tutelage', and confined in their ghetto territorialities. In a country where 98% of 150 millions are Bengalis, the Santhals are one of the 45 'minor' ethnic communities with a population of only about two hundred thousand. Descendants of Austric-speaking Proto-Australoid race and animists by faith, the Santhal people, who are one of the oldest and largest ethnic communities in South Asia, have been fragmented by political boundaries demarcating the nation-states of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
As related in the Santhal myth of origin, in the beginning there was nothing on the entire earth except water. In order to populate the earth with life, the greatest of gods Thakur Jiu created aquatic animals such as the crab, the earthworm, the tortoise, the crocodile, and the lobster. Then he set upon creating two human forms with clay from the bottom of the water. But before he could breathe life into the forms, the Sun-god sent the sinister horse Sansadom and had them destroyed. Jiu was grief-stricken, and created a pair of drake and duck to console himself. The pair floated over water and finally, growing tired, requested Jiu to create a resting-place. He asked the crocodile to fetch earth from under water but it failed as all the earth dissolved in the water. Then Jiu asked the crab and the lobster, but they too failed. Finally he sent the earthworm. It requested Jiu to have the tortoise stay floating above water. Then it anchored its end on the back of the tortoise and descended to the bottom. There, it ate the clay with its mouth and excreted on the back of the tortoise. Soon, the excreted clay accumulated into a landmass. In order to consolidate the landmass, Jiu planted grass and trees on it. The duck laid two large and shining eggs on the landmass and the drake went in search of food. After nine months and five days, the eggs began to move and after five more days, a beautiful pair of a boy and a girl emerged from the eggs. They grew up to be a man and a woman, and came to be known as Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Buri – the first pair of humans on this earth.
The storyteller-bricoleur of the Santhal myth of origin plays on the mirror of the mind of the listener to '[c]reate the opposite dream' (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 27) in the imaginative sky within. By suggesting that the act of creation of the first humans was a social endeavour where even the most insignificant had to contribute actively, the Santhal bricolage of indetermination challenges majoritarian creation myths endowed with masculine heroics where an omnipotent creator performs the task of creativity single-handedly. It is here that the Santhals as 'minor in tutelage', a subsystem of 'the majoritarian as a constant and homogeneous system', transcends to a state of 'the minoritarian as potential, creative and created becoming' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 105-106) by deviating from the majoritarian axiomatics of the Bengalis.
More ubiquitous than the omnipresent Creator, popular storyteller-bricoleurs are ever present in Bangladesh as shape-shifters in innumerable guises and attires, playfully weaving and reweaving their illusive wisps of stories by playing with the real, and forever and on, attempting to breach the walls of the permitted, the sanctioned, and the norm. Their narratives have travelled in the manner of snowballs from generation to generation, even across time-space grids, as the story of the Hermit and the Mouse. Surfacing in the Panchatantra, a South Asian collection of animal fables in verse and prose complied in 3rd century BCE, the story travelled to Persia where it was retold in Pahlavi language, and then was translated into Arabic by Khalifa Mansur in the 8th century. It returned to Bengal, possibly with Arab traders and merchants of the medieval age (Chaudhury 1982: 28).
As recounted in the story, a hermit of manifold accomplishment saves a she-mouse from an eagle. He takes pity on it, and upon the advice of his wife, turns her into a little girl so as to bring her up in a purposeful way. When she attains marriageable age, the hermit wants to know her choice, and she requests him to select the most powerful being as her husband. With his adopted daughter at his side, he sets upon the search of the most powerful being, and summons the Sun. But the Sun directs them to the Cloud as more powerful because he can shade him at will. When the Cloud is approached, he directs to the Wind, for he can blow the Cloud at his will. The Wind directs them to the Mountain as more powerful, for he can block the wind at will. But the Mountain directs the hermit and his adopted daughter to the mouse because he is powerless to the animal's burrowing holes inside him. At last, when it is the turn of the mouse, he says, he cannot marry a woman. In dismay, the hermit turns to the girl, only to find she is agreeable to marrying the mouse, and requests the hermit to turn her into a she-mouse (Chaudhury 1982, 28-30).
As tales such as the Hermit and the Mouse travelled across time-space constructs, they have been rewritten as polyvocal palimpsests by the creative imagination of the people, defying boundaries – inter-national as well as intra-national. These travelling stories, in the absence of the original or transcendental signified, have extended the play of signification to infinity, conjuring numerous versions as bricolages of indetermination. In all these, 'meaning' is inevitably rendered 'floating' and always-already deferred – caught up in a 'circle of meaning' – woven by numerous strands inscribed with fragments of history. Does the story of the Hermit and the Mouse subvert relations of power, or does it hegemonize the subalterns by gifting them a make-believe notion of the power of the insignificant? Does it teach the insignificant to be content with their insignificance? Does it negate social mobility by insisting that varna/class positions need not be challenged? It is here that the storyteller-bricoleur is a trickster, forever engineering the maya-lila vector, forever inviting you and me to re-question the normative template, to dare to engage in minoritarian becoming forever and on, and thus to celebrate the fluxing pulsing vortex of life. And if you are a believer of whatever denomination, perhaps the creator is the effervescent trickster who plays with all the storyteller-bricoleurs in an unending chain of creation as fables, stories, and fictive constructs of all forms, and who is as much created by the stories as s/he creates them – and is celebrating his/her creation as the creation celebrates him/her – in an eternal dance that we call the fluxing pulsing vortex of life.
If such be the strength of cultural expression of the people, if indeed they 'know perfectly well, without illusion' and are engaged in 'becomings which are silently at work, which are almost imperceptible', doing what is to be done and needs to be done, then our role as intellectuals is not 'to express the stifled truth of the collectivity' (Foucault 1977: 207-208) and thus to act as vanguards in the act preservation of cultural diversity. Our role as intellectuals – i.e., as those endowed with intellect, those endowed with the capacity of understanding, knowledge or thought, as well as those engaged in mental labour – is to struggle against the 'system of power which blocks, prohibits, and invalidates' the creativity of the people, 'a power not only found in the manifest authority of censorship, but one that profoundly and subtly penetrates an entire societal network', a power that transforms us as intellectuals 'into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge”, “truth', “consciousness” and “discourse”' (207-208). By struggling against the prohibitive system of power, we can let the people be – let them continue doing what they have always done but in a milieu that ceases to prohibit, censor, block, invalidate and subjugate cultural expressions of the people – their deterritorialized lines of flight to infinity. And then perhaps we can join them in their celebration of diversity, difference, multiplicity and hybridity. At this instance, preservation of cultural diversity is redundant. This, then, is what needs to be done.
- These include, setting off bombs at Bengali New Year's day celebration in Dhaka killing eight people (2001), grenade attack on the rally of the leading opposition party in Bangladesh killing 24 and injuring scores of others including the current Prime Minister (2004), and country-wide serial bombing at 459 locations, which killed at least two people and injured 100 others (2005). Besides these, the Islamists detonated bomb blasts at the following places: a cultural soiree hosted by the performance troupe linked to the Bangladesh Communist Party at Jessore (1999), a Communist Party rally in Dhaka (2001), the party office of the leading opposition political party Awami League at Narayanganj (2001), Awami League election rally at Bagerhat (2001), Awami League meeting at Sunamganj (2001), a cinema house at Satkhira (2002), four cinema houses at Mymensingh (2002), a second blast at the shrine of the Sufi saint Shah Jalal at Sylhet (2004), two cinema houses at Sylhet (2004) (Daily Star 2004: 17).
- The 15th Amendment has reinstated Articles 8, 12, 25 and 38 of the Constitution (1972).
- The Hindu population dwindled to 18.5% in 1961, 13.5% in 1971, 12.2% in 1981 (Heitzman and Worden 1989: 255), and the dispossession was carried out mostly by the legal instrument known as the 1974 Vested Property Act, 'which authorized the government to confiscate property from individuals it considered an “enemy of the state”' (IDMC 2010).
- Bombs were set off at an Ahmadiyya mosque in Khulna killing eight people (1999), a Roman Catholic church in Gopalganj killing ten (2001), the shrine of a Sufi saint at Tangail killing seven (2003), and the shrine of Shah Jalal in Sylhet killing eight (twice in 2004). Further, in 2002, a Buddhist monk was hacked to death in Chittagong; in 2003, an Ahmadiyya preacher was killed, 'excommunication' and illegal house arrest were imposed on Ahmadiyya villagers and Ahmadiyya publications were burnt; and in 2011, 28 bauls were disgraced by shaving off their hair and moustaches (Daily Star 2004: 17; Amnesty International 2004; HRCBM 2002; Daily Star 2011).
- The number of ethnic communities is according to Bangladesh Adivasi Forum.
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- UNESCO. (2005). Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions 2005. Retrieved 6 April 2012 from http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=31038&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
SYED JAMIL AHMED is a proactive theatre personality and scholar, and professor at the Department of Theatre, University of Dhaka. He is the author of In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, Reading Against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics, and a number overnacular publications on theatre and performances of the region. He is also member of the editorial board of Depart.