Rabindranath Tagore and Bangladesh

Tagore’s poem 'Let My Country Awake' inspired Boston’s CityAwake

TODAY MARKS THE 158TH ANNIVERSARY of the birth of one of the world’s great poets and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, sometimes referred to as the “Bard of Bengal.”  

Tagore’s poem Let My Country Awake helped inspire Boston’s CityAwake, but generally he is totally unknown here; most Americans do not usually know that there is even a language called Bengali, although it is one of the world’s 10 largest languages and UN’s International Mother Language day is commemorated to preserve the fundamental right to speak one’s mother-tongue—something that came out of Bengalis fighting for such a right. Most Bostonians consider these things to be irrelevant here and thus they are unknown. There is actually much to learn from Tagore and Bengal, two-thirds of which makes today’s Bangladesh. 

First, why don’t we know these thingsThe most plausible answer is that Bengal declined economically in the last few centuries and became mired in poverty and political chaosMost Americans do not know that Bengal used to be a very rich land both in terms of agriculture and manufacture, from antiquity to two-to-three centuries ago. Its agricultural prowess came from rich alluvial soil that is natural to the delta of one of the largest river systems in the world; its manufacturing wealth cammostly from pre-industrial cotton and silk fabric. American dearth of knowledge and awareness about Bangladesh — its history, culture, economy, and significance – comes at a price. It’s time for an updated understanding of this strategically important nation of 165 million. Bangladesh is much more poorly understood than it is poor.  

Second, and more importantly, why is Bangladesh relevant? Economically, Bangladesh is re-emerging; its gross domestic product per capita of about $2,000 is something that China achieved only about a dozen years ago. With an annual growth rate of nearly 8 percent, its current $300 billion gross domestic product could easily double to $600 billion in a decade, allowing it to import $50-100 billion worth of goods and services from the United States. Bangladesh’s economic growthrate is now faster than those of China or India, and is one of Goldman Sach’s Next Eleven, the group of 11 emerging nations like Vietnam sprinting to become the next generation of economic tigers.   

Third, in terms of the environment, people in America often worry about Bangladesh. Bangladesh actually has much to teach the world as global warming causes extreme weather worldwide. Bangladesh has built effective storm-shelters, found ways to cultivate salinity-resistant crops, and adopted floating agriculture. In other words, Bangladesh did not cause the problem but could teach the world about the ways to mitigate it.  

Fourth, socially and politically, Bangladesh is the third-largest Muslim-majority country; it is also secular and democratic.  Its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is a woman who was recently ranked as number 10 by Fortune magazine in its list of the 50 Greatest World Leaders. In terms of human development, Bangladesh’s life expectancy is now 72 years, compared to 68 years for India and 66 years for Pakistan. It is ahead of its neighboring India and Pakistan on several other social factors. Starting in the summer of 2017, the people of Bangladesh and its prime minister accepted 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. This happened despite Bangladesh being a densely populated, low-income country and despite the current worldwide political climate that is anti-immigrants and anti-refugees. Imagine a million people suddenly walking into Boston.

How would Massachusetts manage it? Bangladesh managed it well enough that there has not been serious outbreaks of cholera or diphtheria, the kind of problems that are quite common in such situations. 

This takes us to our final point and back to Tagore, who insisted that there should be no division among people by caste, creed, color, religion, or any form of superstitions. In that poem Let My Country Awake, Tagore longed to be “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”—a message very apt for America today, just as Mahatma Gandhi’s message of nonviolence inspired Martin Luther King in our civil rights movement. Tagore’s message is that of celebration of life, land, and global humanism (his songs have been adopted as national anthems of both Bangladesh and India—not conquest, gallantry, and militarism.  

Tagore wrote in “A Cry for Peace” that “power cannot be secure only against power, it must also be made secure against the weak; for there lies the peril of losing its balance.”  In a world ravaged by terrorist bombings, intolerance, resentment, and religious strife, Bangladesh stands out as an example of a moderate Muslim nation, making its way, reclaiming its past, restoring its culture, building its economy, and strengthening its capacity to govern more equitably and fairly.  As Bangladesh acquires new strength, America should recognize its importance and welcome its reawakening. 

Iqbal Quadir is founder of Grameenphone in Bangladesh and senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Ira Jackson is former director of the Center for Business and Government at the Kennedy School.