Enacting Secular Utopia via Hidden Transcripts: Bengali Cultural Activism, Communism, and Contentious Aspirations for a “Secular” Society

Secularism and criticism of religion, including atheism, have long been highly contentious issues in Bangladesh. Even those who strongly aspire to and struggle for a “secular society” often choose, for various reasons, to avoid open criticism and activism around these issues. Instead, they often seek to enact their aspirations in more indirect ways, such as through engagement with communist politics or cultural activism. Why do people choose such indirect means of engaging with the issues that are so close to their hearts? And how have the ways in which aspirations are articulated and imagined changed over time and space? Taking the strong association between nonreligion, certain Bengali performative art genres, and communism as a starting point, this study investigates the dynamics of enacting secular politics via such more or less indirect forms. The research project is thus located at the intersection of the study of nonreligion and aspirational politics and addresses fundamental questions about the (im)possibilities of aspiring to and articulating socio-political projects, power structures, and moral orders.

Empirically, the research focuses on one of Bangladesh’s most significant communist cultural organisations, but it is informed also by my previous long-term ethnographic research on party politics and nonreligion in Sylhet. Based on ethnographic research among people who engage with that organisation at different places in Bangladesh, Calcutta, and London, as well as biographic interviews and archival sources, the project traces the above-mentioned tensions between the desire to fight for a secular society and to cultivate a critical stance towards certain forms of religiosity and a reluctance to address these issues explicitly. How have they changed over time and in relation to specific spaces and audiences? And how do they intersect with shifting local, national, and transnational configurations?

With its focus on situational shifts inspired by the extended-case-method, the research thus highlights diverse power structures and variations across space and time. At the same time, this study draws attention to questions about how aspirational politics and secular imaginations become activated, circulate, and are (or not) articulated. Thereby, it seeks to provide a detailed account of the particular form that politics and its mediations take in a specific context. It asks, for instance, when and why certain forms of performative arts and Bengali cultural genres became regarded as conducive for cultivating secular sentiments. How should we conceptualise the relationship between forms of embodiment and politics when the very object of aspiration is often avoided? Furthermore, the case demonstrates that certain aspirations, even when they lead to political action, might not target a general “public”; instead, they target very selective audiences or “publics” and are coupled with intense attempts to control public appearances. The research thus engages with the politics of identity, identification, and articulation by examining the significance of audiences and the conditions under which aspirational politics remain hidden or become public in the form of demands.

This project is part of the ERC project “Religion and its Others in South Asia and the World: Communities, Debates, Freedoms” (ROSA). It is headed by Jacob Copeman and funded by the EU European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 817959).

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