Why is the Bengali Nation Called Emotional?

Mohammad Abu Bakar Siddique*

Dhaka,  June 7 2015 (Alochonaa): That Bengalis are emotional is one of the most common things said about the Bengali speaking people. This is something that Bengalis take pride in and love to say about themselves. I do not know whether any other nation in the world would itself themselves as emotional but this has emerged as part of the Bengali identity.

I can’t say when the Bengali people began to identify themselves as an emotional nation, nor can I say if this idea spread from writing or folklore. In a conversation with me, professor Arild Engelsen Ruud expressed his curiosity to know how, or why, Bengali is an emotional nation, and he observed that no other nation or people of any other culture would say that they are emotional.

To find the out more about this Bengali emotional side, we went to Professor Rafique Ullah Khan, a literary critic and essayist. So, in May this year we went to see him, and he enlightened us with his ideas on Bengali emotion. According to Prof. Khan, this emotion is rooted in the ethnic background of Bengalis.

Every psychology of a collective group largely depends on the economic setting or the production relations. Prof. Khan claims that ethnic Bengalis have a mixed background, though their race is most prominently Australoid. Still, various ethnicities and cultural forces mingled with them over time, hence they have few strong ethnic traits. The openness, kind heartedness, and volatility of the Bengali mind have been shaped by this factor. They are not particularly rigid and their expressions or feelings are often unpredictable, particularly when they act collectively.

Khan also observed that the agrarian economy is mostly informal, which is why they don’t behave in a strict form of rituals. Bengalis are not very comfortable with any strict norms. He also considered the rivers as a massive influence on every aspect of life, one which shapes the peoples’ emotions. The river’s erosion and the uncertainty it brings to peoples’ lives are behind this emotion.

The influence of rivers on Bengalis’ social and cultural life is widely known. The uncertainty and the wideness of rivers have an impact deep in the mind of the people. It also shapes their ideas and imagination.

Khan also noted that whenever Bengalis united against oppression – colonial, semi-colonial, or oppressive regimes which ignored the differences in faith and doctrine – another instance of the nation’s emotional expression is recorded. He said the united and spontaneous participation in nation-wide mass movements, most notably the Liberation War or celebrations for achievements of the nation, symbolizes the emotion of Bengalis. So, whenever Bengalis united beyond their traditional divisions in society they marked their emotional side.

The armed resistance of the people, the mass movement against military autocracy in the eighties, the movement for capital punishment for the notorious war criminals who committed genocide, mass rape and other atrocities during the 1971 Liberation War, or even the widespread celebration on the important days in the national cultural life, or a victory by the national cricket team, can be considered as moments when emotion was displayed.

One key aspect of the emotional displays of Bengalis in the aftermath of some significant event is the way their emotions drive them to get out, take to the streets and move together, walk hand in hand, chant together, shout together.

Emotions like this can be sensed at the enthusiasm which comes with the Nababarsha – the Bengali New Year celebration. One important thing to consider is that all these expressions could only happened through defying religious bigotry.

When emotion is more about the masses than the individual, it denotes the tendency of people to rejoice at something that they feel they are hit by collectively.

The legendary emotion that we come across very often in conversations, discussions, papers and media said about the Bengali, has been basically defined as the driving phenomena of the making of the political entity of the Bengali.  This entity struggled in a quest for emancipation over the last two centuries, giving rise to a series of emotional dates.

Foreign rulers intended to divide the people by drawing borders on a religious basis, but the resistance against either British or Pakistani exploitation formed on the basis of a secular spirit. The resistance took the form of people’s spontaneous flow to the streets in defiance of the rules, and Bengalis from all walks of life protested. The legendary achievements of the nation in the last century were earned by these acts of courage and unity fighting with mightier adversaries.

We also see that there is a significant and consistent role of literati in making the consciousness and identity of Bengalis. The formation and evolution of the Bengali nationhood is connected to the 19th century Bengali renaissance and the introduction or adoption of modern ideas into Bengali literature. That the Bengali is an emotional nation is presumably their construction. Writers, particularly poets, had a major role establishing the glory of emotions and the permanent impressions which people would take pride in.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the British divided Bengal for their administrative convenience and, some say, for the policy of divide and rule. This frustrated and saddened the literati. People who dreamt of a nation coming out of the colonial regime, and fostered a nationalist consciousness, were the proponents of secularism.  They had always been concerned about communalism because foreign rulers could manipulate it. To the literati, Bengal was a mother, Bengali her language. The relation between mother and children is indefinable, intensely emotional, and this imagery of the mother in crisis was used to unite people.

The subordination of Bengalis was portrayed as the confinement of the mother, and to join the fight against oppression was a call from the mother. Like children thinking their mother was in trouble, Bengalis dived into the fight with whatever they had, not calculating the consequences.

The country had been divided on the basis of religious differences which left a deep mark in the mind of the educated class in Bengal.  This is evident in a series of works by leading literary figures of that time and afterwards. But when Bengalis stood against the imposition of Urdu as a state language, the struggle changed to establish a nation on a new identity – Bengali. The sacrifice of blood for the mother language or the motherland would inspire Bengalis to continue their fight against the Pakistani elite.

The people’s emotions allowed them to stand in front of police bullets, and it keep them in their mass movements in later years.  These movements still inspire the nation in the same way and inspired it in 1971. In the liberation songs we hear the call to end the confinement of the mother and the bravery of the fighters can only be defined by the emotion working behind them. So the nationhood that evolved from the struggle for language to independence was defined by emotion throughout.

A strong stream of literature has always gone together with the entire struggle of the people. The literary approach was modern, and the inspiration came from Europe as the values of the huge industrial settings in West enriched them with the conscience of the collective. This encouraged them to advocate for the well-being of the people. Literary creations manifested the intense urge for relief from the long rule by foreigners and the quest for emancipation of the people and nation. Symbols or contexts were mostly drawn from nature, a nature which was feminine. They recreated a free universe with the flower, blue sky, birds, rain, clouds and rivers. These ideas and imaginations showed the deep love for the motherland and nature, posing commitments to women – mothers, sisters, lovers – all of which are emblems of a motherland.

We will see that in the songs that were sung from the Swadheen Bangla Betar Kendra to inspire the freedom fighters it was said that “we would fight to protect or save a flower, we would fight to make our mother smile,” and another song is like a son telling his mother not to worry because he knows to resist and hold gun, in the time when it is required to do so.

We find in a poem by Shamsur Rahman a man taking a gun to save the dignity of his fiancé. This is how love, the symbolic love for a women, has been a driving spirit behind the making of Bangladesh.

Under foreign rulers, the native intelligentsia fostered rebellion by making crafty criticisms with the use of metaphor and symbolism. The central part of those constituted love for the people or nation, or depicted the strength of love, and aimed to instigate people’s emotion and passion for nature. Materialism was replaced by mysticism, where logics were revealed in a weaving of mysterious elements. If we consider Tagore or Lalon (among the most influential), we would see the same love for humans and nature comprise the core of their creations or works. Within the subordination by the foreign rulers, their doctrines were challenged through reviving the respect, worship, and love for mother, the women.

The people living on agriculture in the agrarian setting were dependent on the river and rains, so devotion and worship to these natural phenomena developed along with emotional attachments. This tradition of attachment to fixed places inspiring the collective resistance in these regions, providing them with strength.

Bangladesh’s huge population is related through language and is living a life against a set of natural adversaries, against which it was always awkwardly vulnerable.  This was due to the poor distribution of wealth and lack of knowledge, preparedness and inefficiency.

Interestingly, Bangladesh’s opponents are also imagined as women, but the reason is not to curse them, but rather, to worship or venerate them so that they become calm or pacific. Similarly, a snake, among other adversaries, is Manasa, personified as woman.

As a whole, in the cultural or social setting Bengalis have been living within, emotion has always been vital. Even the Bengali language is described in emotive terms because this language comes from the family, the mother and the society.  Foreign languages were conceived as patriarchal, and Bengalis fought back using the languages learned from mother. So, when Bengalis talk about self-determination, they talk about the freedom of their mother tongue and they expressed their emotion for their mother.

Overall, the turmoil Bengalis have come through could not have been surmounted without emotion. This is why their emotion is their pride, their identity.

*Mohammad Abu Bakar Siddique is a journalist, working at the Dhaka Tribune. He graduated from Dhaka University with a degree in Economics.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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