ABSTRACT

It has long been suggested that the search for a collective Bengali Muslim identity has historically been caught between the competing pulls of religion and culture: an (extra-territorial) ‘Islamic’ identity, and a local ‘Bengali’ social and cultural tradition (Roy 2001). Since 1947, the salience of these different ‘identity bases’ has altered in relation to shifting economic and political contexts, and been manipulated by competing elites to mobilize ‘the masses’ (Kabir 1995). Following the religious nationalism of the Pakistani period, it was the latter that gained ascendancy with the ethno-linguistic movements of the 1950s and 60s and in the aftermath of a liberation struggle in which millions of people lost their lives, ethnic identity, language and culture took on even greater meaning. The emergence of Bangladesh was widely seen as the fi nal triumph of a Bengali cultural identity over the ideology of Pakistan, however the infant nation soon found itself in search of a nationalism that could combine the two. In the mid-1970s, Islam re-emerged as an important factor, both socially and politically and ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ evolved as an attempt to accommodate a collective ‘Muslim consciousness’ alongside ethnic sentiments (Kabir 1995). As the Bangladeshi national imagination shifted, the position of the ‘Urdu-speaking population’ shifted too. With religion re-emerging within the architecture of nation-state, and the political landscape altered, it had been assumed that a space had opened up for Urdu-speakers as part of a Muslim nation. This chapter will investigate such claims, considering the limits, boundaries and intersections of an Urdu-speaking collective identity, formed and re-formed through the fl uctuating ideological frames of over sixty years of political transition.