The Colonial Foundation of Pahari Ethnicity

~ Prashanta Tripura ~

This post consits of excerpts of an article of mine first published in 1992. A scanned copy of the full original article by be downloaded by following the link provided below.*


In 1869, Captain T. H. Lewin, the first Deputy Commissioner of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and also one of the first ethnographers of the area, wrote: [1]

Among a simple people like our hill men there is no…desire [for excessive wealth]; their nomadic life precludes any great accumulation of wealth, and they enjoy perfect social equality.

Lewin may have overstated the simple, egalitarian nature of pre-colonial social life in the Hill Tracts, but he was certainly right in speaking of ‘our hill men’.   As an idealized type of humans, the ‘hill men’ were an invention; they existed not so much in any real time and place as in the imagination of the British. Of course, the ‘hill men’ of the British corresponds to the people of the Hill Tracts who identify themselves, and are identified by others, as ‘Pahari’ (i.e. hill people) or ‘tribal’.  Their existence is real enough.  But this does not mean that these Paharis always constituted a single category of people in the past.  My argument in this paper is that Pahari ethnicity was constructed during the British colonial period.

In British India, the term ‘hill men’ referred to all the ‘tribal’ peoples living in the hill tracts bordering Assam and Bengal. …

British views of the ‘hill men’ were also influenced by nineteenth century evolutionist thinking…. Accordingly, compared to the people of the plains—the ‘Hindus’, the ‘Bengalis’ etc.—the ‘hill men’ were seen to be at a lower stage of cultural evolution.  As such, the ‘hill men’ marked the boundary of the Indian civilization, of the Hindu caste system, of the pre-British empire of the Mughals, and so on.  Again, no truly historical perspective was adopted towards the ‘hill men’, who simply served as a prop for the British in their ethnocentric attitudes towards the colonized majority of the plains.  When the Indians (or the Hindus or the Muslims or the Bengalis) came to articulate their nationalist aspirations, they largely accepted British categories of ethnic differentiation.  That the Paharis or the ‘tribal’ people of the Hill Tracts cannot identify with the Bengalis today, or vice versa, is usually attributed to British ‘divide and rule’ policies.  In order to divide, however, what the British had to do was, first of all, to classify.  The real legacy of colonialism is that colonialist classificatory schemes continue to be meaningful to date, and perhaps more so than before.  At least, that is the case with the Pahari/Bengali (or tribal/non-tribal) dichotomy that we confront in the Hill Tracts today.

In what follows, I discuss more fully some of the basic issues that relate to the colonial foundation of Pahari ethnicity.  First, ‘Pahari’ and ‘tribal’ are synonymous terms; in this context, the implications that the notion of tribe has had for the societies so designated need to be examined.  Secondly, as already indicated, categories such as ‘hill men’ or ‘hill tribe’ were meaningful not only in terms of a general Western discourse on the nature of human society, but also in terms of how Indian society and history in particular were viewed in this discourse; this latter aspect of the discourse will be dealt with more fully in this paper.  Thirdly, I will discuss how the British ignored certain theoretical as well as empirical inconsistencies in their construction of the category ‘hill men’/‘hill tribe’.   Finally, I will show how British discourse has altered the boundaries of ethnic differentiation for the ‘hill men’ of the Hill Tracts, and for the Bengalis as well.

Evolutionism, Colonialism, and the Notion of Tribe

In common usage the word ‘tribe’ has various meanings and connotations. …  Nonetheless, the concept of tribal society, whether clearly formulated or not, is applied by almost every anthropologist and by scholars in other disciplines. A tribal society is generally understood to be one in which social, political and economic relations are organized around kinship. By definition, tribal societies do not live under state organization, and this is the primary feature that distinguishes them from ‘peasants’.  This conceptualization forms part of the accepted view of human social evolution. It is the view that before the emergence of the earliest states—or civilizations as they are more popularly called—in a few isolated areas of the world, human beings everywhere were organized into small bands of hunter- gatherers or into larger tribal units of shifting cultivators and pastoralists. With the emergence and expansion of state-organized societies, tribal people everywhere began to be incorporated into, or displaced/exterminated by this new type of society, unless, of course, they themselves were to make a transition to the advanced evolutionary stage.

[While] Marx and his followers … saw European colonial expansion as bringing about a global system of exploitation, [in their view] in order to bring this system down, all societies needed to go through capitalism.  ‘Tribal’ societies thus came to be seen as pre-capitalist societies, or at best, as incipient forms of feudalism.  Their subjugation by states, whether capitalist or not, was mandated by history.

Thus the incorporation of ‘tribal’ peoples in colonial empires took place without any serious practical or ideological difficulties, except for the weak resistance the ‘tribal’ peoples themselves offered.  It was inevitable that the various ‘hill tribes’ living near Assam and Bengal would in time become subjects of British India, and thus citizens of the post-colonial states of Pakistan (Bangladesh) and India.

The Tribal/Non-Tribal Dichotomy in British Discourse

In British India, the category ‘hill tribe’ did not simply entail applying the notion of tribal society to people living in the hills.  It was part of a larger constellation of colonialist ideas, images and categories that formed the British ‘Orientalist’ discourse on Indian society and history.  In this discourse the category ‘hill tribe’ (or more generally ‘tribal’) was contrasted with various ‘non-tribal’ categories, e.g. ‘caste’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Indian’, ‘Bengali’ and so on.

Anomalies:  Peasants and Slaves

Although the hill men were generally seen to be simple, honest and egalitarian people—thus distinct from the people of the plains whose moral worth was more dubious—not all of them fit this ideal picture.  [Many facts pointing towards all kinds of anomalises] were known to Lewin, but he tried to stick to a homogeneous ‘Children of Nature’ representation of the ‘hill men.’ In a highly instructive manner, after a year of the publication of The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein (published in 1869 from Calcutta), Lewin changed the title of his book to Wild Races of South-Eastern India (published in 1870 from London).  The idea of the wild races was no doubt a colonial fantasy.  Such a category of people ought to have existed, so they might as well be invented.  Thus the Chakmas, the Marmas, the Tripuras and others turned into ‘wild races’, though they were hardly worthy of such a romantic designation.

The Shift of Ethnic Boundaries

However problematic the categories ‘tribal’ or ‘hill men’ may be from a historical or anthropological perspective, it is obvious that they are no longer simply a matter of British imagination.  In the Hill Tracts today, two terms, Pahari (‘hill people’) and ‘tribal,’ are used to designate the collective ethnic identity of Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras etc. vis-à-vis the Bengalis.  That ‘Pahari’ denotes an ethnic category is obvious enough.  But it is not difficult to see that ‘tribal’ also functions more as an ethnic/racial label than as an anthropological concept. 

The significant thing about the tribal/non-tribal or Pahari/Bengali differentiation is that it had not existed, at least not in the same form, before the British introduced the categories ‘hill men’ or ‘tribal’. … When Lewin presented ‘his’ hill men as a single category of people, he was well aware that “none of them appear to have any general term for all the hill dwellers.” The British categories ‘hill men’ and ‘tribal’ more than fulfilled this ‘inadequacy.’ But one wonders whether the tribal/non-tribal (i.e. Pahari/Bengali) boundary would have carried any meaning today had the British not altered the ways in which different groups articulated their identities in relation to one another.


In 1906, Hutchinson, one of Lewin’s successors as an administrator of the Hill Tracts, expressed his concern about the future of the hill men in the following terms:[2]

The dark and silent forests, at present the home of the elephant and tiger, will be succeeded by fields of smiling corn.  But with this change the Hillman, with his simple ways and curious customs, will also disappear, and the charm and innocence of his present life will be a dream of the past.  That this fate will finally overtake the Hill Tracts I have not the slightest doubt, for the changes and progress of the last few years are in themselves an indication of what is to come.  It seems well, therefore, to collect while we may all available data as to the manners and customs of these interesting people ere, with the resistless march of evolution, they merge forth and become identified with the people of the plains.

Despite the simplistic colonialist notions, Hutchinson did correctly forecast many of the changes that would take place in the Hill Tracts since he ruled it.  But he was completely mistaken in thinking that the hill men would “merge forth and become identified with the people of the plains.”  If anything, the Paharis have diverged greatly from the Bengalis since the British, having drawn the Pahari/Bengali line of division, left the scene.  Of course, objectively speaking, cultural interaction between the Paharis and the Bengalis must have increased manifold, but the politically unequal nature of this interaction has only reinforced the gulf of social and psychological distance that separates the two categories of people.

The problem facing us is primarily a political one.  But it seems to me that it is no less important a task for the Paharis and Bengalis to seriously examine many colonialist categories and notions by which they think about their identities and about the differences between them.  That the categories ‘Pahari’ (hill men) and ‘tribal’ are products of British colonialist discourse may by now seem clear enough, but a corollary of this is that the categories ‘Bengali’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ may also be bound by the same historical forces.  In order for us to free ourselves from such restrictive power of history, we must examine even our ‘scientific’ categories of classification.

All these issues [as raised above] are important because they influence how we imagine who we are, who we were, and who we want to be.  If we want to imagine the ‘imagined community’ of the nation-state of Bangladesh in such a way that the Paharis feel at home, and that the Pahari/Bengali differences do not translate into bloody conflicts, then we must begin to decolonize our received notions of who we are, our sociologies, and our histories.  This is a task both the Paharis and the Bengalis need to take up in earnest. 


A scanned copy of the full original article can be downloaded as a PDF file from the link below.

Notes and References

*The article was originally published in The Journal of Social Studies (Journal of the Centre for Social Studies, Dhaka), No. 58, 1992.  It was later reprinted in Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladeshi Nationalism, ed. Naeem Moyaiemen, Dhaka: Drishtipat Writers’ Collective, 2010. A Bangla version of the same article is also available at the following link: পাহাড়ি পরিচয়ের ঔপনিবেশিক ভিত্তি

[1] Lewin, Thomas H., The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein.  Calcutta:  Bengal Printing Co. Ltd., 1869

[2] Hutchinson, R. H. S.  An Account of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.  Calcutta:  The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1906

Posted in General | Leave a comment

On the supposed Arakanese origin of the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT

~ Prashanta Tripura ~

I have read an article by Abid Bahar, titled ‘Burmese invasion of Arakan and the rise of non Bengali settlements in Bangladesh: Origin of the Tribes of Chittaging [sic] Hill Tract (CHT)’ (published in two installments in the October 22 and October 23, 2012 issues of the New Age), with interest.[1]  However, I found the article rather disappointing because of its selective use and dubious interpretation of historical facts.  In fact, I found the title of the article quite misleading, not so much because of the use of the word ‘tribe’, however problematic, but for the simple reason that the supposed Arakanese ‘origin of the tribes of the CHT’ is only mentioned in passing, that too in a postscript without reference to any solid and detailed historical evidence, not to mention critical analysis of the sketchy information provided.  Moreover, some of the terminology, interpretation and implications of the article border on racist stereotyping of the ‘non-Bengali’ others that the author has in mind. 

Since the author’s affiliation is not indicated anywhere, it is not possible for me to judge where he is coming from.  I will not attempt any detailed critique of his article, but want to share a few of my observations that will illustrate the concerns that I have raised above.  It is interesting to note that the article begins with a reference to the reported killing (towards the end of 1660) of the Mughal prince Shah Suja and his family by the then king of Arakan, where the former had sought refuge after being pursued by the Mughal General Mir Jumla.  The author explains why he is bringing up this reference: ‘In our contemporary period the event of Suja and the massacre of his family is not the reason why understanding the dynamics of ethnic relations in Arakan and by extension in Burma becomes so central; it is largely to watchfully understand the roots of racism in Arakan and to recognize the refugee production trends of the region.’  The author rightly draws attention to the plight of the Rohingyas – the real focus of his article – who have indeed been subjected to racist discrimination in present day Arakan. But what does the killing of a Mughal prince by an Arakanese king of the seventeenth century tell us about contemporary racism?   The author glosses over the fact that Suja’s flight to Arakan was a result of fratricidal conflicts over succession among the four sons of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. (It may be mentioned in passing that according to available historical information, Shah Suja, during his exile, developed friendly relations with a king of Tripura, Govinda Manikya, who is said to have lived in exile in what is Dighinala in Khagrachari district today, after the latter himself had been deposed by a brother of his own, originally with Mughal military assistance dispatched by Suja!  Later, after he regained the throne, Govinda Manikya built a mosque – which came to be known as Suja mosque – in Comilla, in the memory of his friend. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a novel called Rajarshi, centering on the life of Govinda Manikya).

Apart from making reference to the killing of Shah Suja or his family members by an Arakanese king, Abid Bahar also states that the Kingdom of Arakan once thrived on piracy and slave trade, and refers to the Arakanese generally as ‘Mogh’, noting that the term in Bangla is associated with lawlessness.[2]  I do not know whether the author is aware of the sensibilities of the Marmas or Rakhines of Bangladesh, who feel offended to be called ‘Mogh’ today.  In any case, the author seems to be implying that since the ‘Mogh’ or ‘Rakhine’ kings of the past indulged in killings and other acts of ‘savagery’, the Rakhine people of today generally show the same criminal tendencies.  I find such generalization objectionable.  In order to the trace the roots of racism against the Rohingyas, the author himself is resorting to terms or selective interpretations of history in a way that too smacks of racism. The kind of ‘historical facts’ that Abid Bahar has drawn on seem to be by and large unexamined accounts left to us by British colonial records and selective readings or misinterpretations of the same, or worse even, contemporary fabrications that have little basis in any historical records. 

Although not quite accurate historically, it is highly significant that Abid Bahar lumps together the non-Bengali ethnic groups of the CHT with the Rohingyas as all being ‘migrants from Arakan.’  It is true that following the Burman invasion and annexation of Arakan in 1784, many people sharing close ethnic ties with people living in the Chittagong region did flee to territories under British control at that time. But to say that most of the indigenous (non-Bengali) people living in the CHT today are ‘migrants from Arakan’ is definitely not based on proper understanding of available historical evidence. Such conclusions can only stem from treating contemporary boundaries (e.g. of Tripura and Arakan of today) or identities (e.g. ‘Mogh’, ‘Bengali’) as having been the same throughout history.  Clearly, that is not the case.  Abid Bahar reproduces another offensive generalization – a gross lie – about the people of the CHT in the following terms: ‘After the liberation war of Bangladesh, the tribals staged armed rebellion against Bangladesh claiming them as being the aboriginal people; on this ground they even wanted the independence of Chittagong Hill Tracts.’ Finally, the author makes a most remarkable claim about the presence of Bengalis in the CHT from ‘prehistoric’ times:  ‘Artifacts found and the given names of Chittagong Hill Tracts show Bengalis have been in Chittagong Hill Tracts from Prehistoric times.’  It is not clear how the author defines prehistory.  However, statements like these seem to carry uncanny resemblance to occasional leaked briefs from certain Bangladeshi agencies that operate near the centers of power, without much regard for democratic sensibilities, political correctness or historical accuracy.


[1] This post was originally written in reaction to the above-mentioned article by Abid Bahar, and was published in the New Age on November 2, 2012 under the title “Misleading article about the supposed Arakanese origin of the non-Bengali ethnic groups of the CHT”.  It may be mentioned that the name ‘Chittagong Hill Tracts’ was erroneously shown as ‘Chittaging Hill Tract’ in the title of Abid Bahar’s article, as published in the New Age.  In publishing the present blog version of my reaction to that article, I have not made any changes except for the modification of the title of my own piece and the additioni of this and subsequent end notes.  

[2] I have an article – in Bangla – on the connotation of anarchy or lawlessness that the term ‘Mogh’ conjures up in Bangla. Originally published in the daily Prothom Alo on November 14, 2012, this article is now available on my Bangla blog. Here is the title with hyperlink: চট্টগ্রাম-আরাকান অঞ্চল কি আসলেই মগের মুল্লুক?

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Debates over Indigeneity in Bangladesh: A personal retrospective

~ Prashanta Tripura ~

What follows is a compilation of excepts from some of my writings on the question of what self-identification as ‘indigenous people(s)’ by the so called ‘tribal’ ethnic minorities of Bangladesh has meant for the proponents of this identity, vis-à-vis various attempts – by those in power as well as many ordinary citizens – to question or reject such identification.

I have uploaded this post against the backdrop of a recent government letter (dated 19 July 2022) issued by an official of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to the heads of various TV channels, urging all concerned to refrain from using the term ‘adibashi’ – Bangla for ‘indigenous people(s) – to refer to the so-called ‘tribes, minor races and ethnic sects’ of the country in talk shows organized on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Such directives are hardly new in Bangladesh but were issued on several occasions in the past as well. For example, it was a similar directive – issued by the same ministry in 2014 – that prompted me to write an open ‘letter to Bangladesh’ that is one of the pieces that this compilation consists of.

The excerpts of my selected writings are presented below in reverse chronological order of their original publications or presentations. For each piece, I start with a piece of brief contextual information about it. Readers interested to read the full articles may do so by following the hyperlinks provided. I urge the discerning readers to reflect on not only what is explicitly addressed, but also on matters that are only dealt with tangentially or meant to be read in between the lines. 

I thought that there was little need for (or value in) writing up something new.  Anyway, while presenting the excerpts of some of my writings – in reverse chronological order of their original publication or presentation – I also provide brief contextual information on some of the pieces. Readers interested to read the full articles may do so by following the hyperlinks provided. I urge the discerning readers to reflect on not only what is explicitly addressed, but also on matters that are only dealt with tangentially or meant to be read in between the lines. 

Identity Grabbing, 7 September 2015, Himal Southasian  

‘Land grabbing’ is something that is often talked about in the context of the indigenous people, who are often the ‘victims’ of the process that the term refers to.  But in Bangladesh, those in power have resorted to an even more subtle for of appropriation in relation to the self-identifying indigenous people of the country.  They started saying that the ‘true’ indigenous people of Bangladesh are the Bengalis, and not the ‘tribal’ ethnic groups, who are nomads or recent ‘immigrants’ to the country!

For some years now, a bitter dispute has raged in Bangladesh over the question of whether the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are entitled to that identification.

The indigenous people of Bangladesh constitute more than 45 ethnic groups according to the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, although the Bangladesh government lists 27, while other independent reports estimate as many as 75. Averaging below two percent of the national population, they have been more commonly categorised as ‘tribal’ and ‘aboriginal’ in various official documents since British colonial times. In Bangla, the term ‘adibashi’, which used to be understood as ‘primitive’ and as being equivalent to ‘aboriginal’, was used quite freely by educated Bengalis to refer to various non-Bengali ethnic minorities.

The UN’s observation of 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People marked the beginning of an era when the term ‘adibashi’ began to take on added significance, and became the focus of much discussion, debate and action within the country. From that year onwards, activists and organisations representing ethnic minorities started demanding that they be recognised as ‘indigenous peoples’ as per international law and that new provisions be included in the constitution. Despite all their efforts, however, the demands have not been met.

More than disappointment, the indigenous people feel a sense of betrayal, as official pronouncements dismissing their demands has become more frequent under the very political leadership that had previously promised otherwise.

What had happened? The answer to this question sheds light on the nature of the Bangladeshi nation state as seen from the margins. As we will see, the non-recognition of the indigenous peoples in Bangladesh was more than just a setback for ethnic minorities looking for some special safeguards under international law. More generally, from the perspective of all those who conceive of Bangladesh in more pluralistic terms – as consisting of multiple ethnicities, languages, cultures and so on – it was yet another signal that the inherent diversity of the country remained largely denied at a fundamental level.

Letter to Bangladesh from a Non-Existent Bangladesh, August 27, 2014, The Daily Star

This ‘open letter’ was written following a government pressed hand out – issued around 7 August 2014 – urging academics, newspaper editors and others to refrain from using the word ‘Adibashi’ in referring to the so-called ‘tribes’ or ‘minor races’ of the country.

Dear Bangladesh,

I don’t know if you remember me, but I am writing to you in the hope that you do.  Having witnessed and celebrated your birth when I was little, and having grown up with you, I have always cared deeply about you, as I will always do.  But I am not sure that you feel the same way about me.   In fact, I am not even sure that you know or acknowledge that I exist.  I am saying this as a member of one of the many ‘small’ ethnic groups that have been consigned to the margins and darkest corners of your geography and history.  People who speak and write on your behalf have rarely made any serious effort to change this order of things.  On the contrary, many of them have been busy pushing these marginalized groups out of tracts that have nourished them for generations.  As if that were not enough, the same powers have lately sought to erase them from various government documents and public discourse as well. The latest instance of such efforts came recently when, two days before the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a government press handout urged academics, newspaper editors and others to refrain from using the word ‘Adibashi’ (Bangla for ‘Indigenous People’).  The handout made use of an extraordinary logic:  The constitution does not talk about the Adibashis, so they don’t exist! I think we have had enough of such nonsense.  So I am compelled to write this letter to you and I sincerely hope that you will hear me out.

The Quest for Indigenous Identity in Bangladesh, 1993-2013, 17 December 2013, Alal O Dulal

Abridged version of a paper titled ‘The Quest for Indigenous Identity in Bangladesh:  Reflections on Achievements and Setbacks since 1993 ‘, which was presented at the 2013 International Seminar-Workshop on Indigenous Studies, 26-28 June 2013, Legend Villas, Mandaluyong City, Philippines, jointly organized by the University of the Philippines Bagui City and the Tebtebba Foundation.

There can be endless debates as to whether matters like Article 23A of the current constitution, or the status of the implementation of the CHT Accord, represent half-empty or half-full glasses.  However, faced with developments that seem to indicate lack of progress or setbacks, it is important to view matters against larger developments.  For example, we need to keep in mind the inordinate influence wielded by certain opaque institutions or interest groups, as seen behind the coming into power of the previous military-backed caretaker government, which had received considerable support from members of civil society as well as the international community.  We have to also keep in mind that the government as a whole rarely operates like a monolith.  For example, despite reported attempts by some quarters within the state machinery to ‘ban’ the term ‘indigenous people’, many important government planning documents still retain the same. Moreover, a number of ministers and MPs never stopped using this word, and have always expressed their support for the IP cause.

In search of adibashi (indigenous) consciousness, 11 August 2012,

My own translation of an article that I originally wrote in Bangla and was published in a magazine in 2004. 

We may say, and usually do, that indigenous peoples have a heritage of having lived in harmony with nature for ages, in a manner in which it is rare for land to be treated as personal property. Sharing and reciprocity are powerful values among indigenous communities, thus it is unimaginable that in such a community some would be dying of hunger while others indulge in excesses of feasting and drinking. In such communities, there are also no permanent or clear differences among individuals on the basis of power, prestige or wealth. No individual or group imposes its decisions on others by brute force. The relations between men and women are based on mutual respect and interdependence. To sum up, indigenous peoples have those very qualities that the deprived and dispossessed classes of people throughout the world have fought to achieve throughout ages, for which many revolutions have taken place.

Now, in reality, to what extent does one come across the ideal version of indigenous life depicted above? 

Since most of the communities designated as ‘indigenous’ have undergone, and are undergoing, various changes in the course of time, what is their current standing in relation to the ideals described above? What will be the social-cultural-economic-political basis of maintaining indigenous identity? What will be place of equality, sharing and harmony with nature in all this?

International Year of the World’s Indigenous People and the Indigenous People of Bangladesh

This is my own translation of a Bangla article which was presented as the keynote paper at a seminar organized in December 1993 in Dhaka on the occasion of the UN’s observance of 1993 as the “International Year of the World’s Indigenous People”.   

Literally, the term ‘indigenous’ means ‘of local origin’.  If we go far back in the past in search of origins, we will find that in many parts of the world, there are people whose ancestors came there from different directions at different points in time.  Given this, identifying a group of people as ‘indigenous’ in relation to a given territory is to acknowledge that they are the descendants of the oldest known inhabitants of that place.  Clearly, such identification is a relative matter.  It depends on how we set the boundaries of time and space.  If we go back far into the prehistoric past, the word ‘indigenous’ loses its meaning.  In that case we can at best say that all humans are indigenous to this planet, i.e., that we are not the descendants of anyone from the heavens or alien planets, rather we all have a common origin.

The history of how European colonial expansion led to the decimation, displacement, or cultural destruction of the original inhabitants of continents such as the Americas and Australia, and of other parts of the world, are relatively well known to all.  The term ‘indigenous’ is most applicable to those descendants of the original inhabitants of these lands who have survived the colonial impact and have retained their distinct cultural identities. In the past, Europeans referred to these conquered peoples by different names such as savage, primitive, tribal, Red Indian, Aboriginal etc.  Usage of the term ‘indigenous’ began as a way of avoiding the derogatory and racist connotations of such words.  But that does not mean that the term ‘indigenous’ is only applicable in places like the Americas and Australia. On the contrary, it is equally applicable in many countries of Africa and Asia as well.

While there was European colonial rule in different countries of Asia and Africa, all local people were seen as ‘natives’, and inferior in the scale of civilization, in the eyes of the Europeans.  But in these countries, the new ruling classes and members of majority dominant ethnic groups have started colonial-style rule, exploitation, and oppression over different marginalized groups.  The latter groups of people who are victims of internal colonialism in many parts of Africa and Asia – particularly those who can be identified separately on the basis of distinctive cultures or socioeconomic characteristics, and who are interested in holding onto these characteristics – may also be termed indigenous.  It is such an expanded meaning of the term that is intended in the usage adopted by the United Nations.  In this context, the question as to when the ancestors of different groups of people settled in a given country is secondary.  Instead, basically all the people who are victims of so-called progress or ‘spread of civilization’ and have been designated by various colonial labels like ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’ etc., can all legitimately call themselves indigenous.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

A Talk on the CHT Peace Process

~ Prashanta Tripura ~

What follows is a slightly edited version of the handout that I had prepared for a lecture that I delivered on 2 August 2017 at the Defence Services Command and Staff College at Mirpur, Dhaka.[1] During the actual talk, I used a PowerPoint presentation covering roughly the same points included in the handout, but I did not dwell on all of them equally. Moreover, I brought in additional stories and angles not indicated in the handout. It may be mentioned that I was the last of three speakers of the seminar that the host institution seemed to have organized as part of activities under what from their point of view was an umbrella called ‘counterinsurgency operations’. The two other speakers were Major General Md. Jahangir Kabir Talukder, the [then] GOC of Chittagong (24 Infantry Division) and Barrister Rokon Uddin Mahmud, a prominent legal expert of Bangladesh. Both also spoke on different aspects of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) ‘Peace’ Accord from their respective professional perspectives. When my turn came, I began my presentation by pointing out that I was speaking as someone who wore many hats. However, it was the hat of a student of anthropology that I tried to keep on most of the time as I spoke. I also tried to make references to some of the points made by my fellow speakers, offering gentle critiques in a few cases in which I thought it made sense to do so. I like to think that I tried to turn the tables subtly to encourage my audience (some 200 officers of the armed forces of Bangladesh and 69 of their course mates from other countries) to dwell on bigger issues than what their professional roles might demand.[2]

Lecture Outline (Handout)

Challenges of Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Process


Overview of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) as a special region of Bangladesh: Its distinctive features in terms of geography, ethnic diversity, livelihood patterns and governance structures

‘CHT Peace Process’ implies more than just the ‘Peace Accord’: The accord of 1997 is just one step of a process, which can be viewed in different ways, e.g., in terms of timeframes considered, levels of analysis, and the points of views of different historical actors involved.

Multiple perspectives: There is need for us to look at the given problem at various levels and from multiple perspectives. This speaker combines the perspectives of someone who wears different hats: an anthropologist who has researched on the CHT; a development professional who has worked in the region for many years; someone who happens to be a ‘son of the hills’ (cf. Tripura 1992, 1998, 2012a, 2012b, 2013, 2014, 2016)

Unpacking the quest for ‘peace’ in the CHT

Different meanings of the term ‘peace’: How one understands ‘peace’ depends on who is defining it and in what context, e.g., peace from the point of view of the colonial state vs. that of ethnic groups (‘tribes’) that sought to live without and outside of the state.

Historical background: The creation of the CHT and the category ‘Hill People’/’(Hill) Tribes’ (Tripura 1992); ‘pacification’ of the so-called Kukis by military force as well as a bit of colonial ‘magic’ (প্রশান্ত ত্রিপুরা ২০১৬); designation of the CHT as an ‘Excluded Area’.

The creation of the ‘Shanti Bahini’ or ‘Peace Force’: The armed wing of the PCJSS, one of the signatory parties of the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord of 1997, used to be popularly known as ‘Shanti Bahini’, which literally means, ‘Peace Force’; an interpretation of this naming.

Peace process as managing conflicts: ‘Peace’ is a relative concept, and a relational term that is meaningless without an antonym like ‘conflict’; to social scientists, conflicts are normal in social life – there can be no society, no country, no world of absolute peace; seen in this way, ‘peace process’ is another term for ‘managing conflicts’; to do this well, one has to identify the root causes of conflicts, and address them systematically.

The root causes of conflicts in the CHT: Historically, people in the CHT have had to deal with mounting threats to their livelihoods (declining access to land), top-down ‘development’ interventions (e.g., Kaptai dam) and cultural marginalization; the deeper factors behind this situation include ethnocentrism of the ruling elites (e.g. the view that ‘hill tribes are primitive’), poor governance, and denial of well-recognized rights.

Challenges specific to the implementation of the CHT Accord of 1997

Champions and opponents of the peace process: The CHT Accord of 1997 was a significant achievement for all parties directly involved; however, there were different quarters that opposed it from the outset, though not necessarily for the same reasons; to some, it was too little too late; to others, it involved too many concessions.

Early recognition of the challenges involved: That timely and full implementation of the accord would be challenging was always known; as early as in June 1998, a report in the Daily Star on an International Conference on Peace and Chittagong Hill Tracts’ (jointly organized by GOB and UNDP, June 21-22, 1998) had the expression ‘Challenges of Implementation‘ in its title (Haque 1998).

Disagreement over what constitutes ‘implementation’: An example would be the PM’s February 10, 2016 response in the parliament to a question by an MP (reproduced in Tripura, NBK 2016) vs. the PCJSS’s open letter to the PM on 16 February, 2016 as a rejoinder to the PM’s response (PCJSS 2016); an international institute, on the other hand, determined 49% implementation after 10 years of the accord (Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, n.d.; cf. Roy, Chakma, Chowdhury and Raidang 2010).

Is the glass half empty or half full?, or
Is the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord mostly implemented or mostly unimplemented?

Some of the more difficult areas of implementation: Resolution of land disputes (not a single case solved so far since the accord); identification and rehabilitation of ‘internally displaced people’; demilitarization; local government elections.

Issues of mutual trust and confidence, shared understanding, and democratic processes: A typical [misleading] question heard is, “If a Pahari from CHT can own land in Dhaka, why can’t someone from the plains not own land in the CHT?”; but there are more fundamental questions to be asked [that are overlooked], e.g. is there political will at different levels to solve some of the most difficult problems (land disputes, HDC elections), and who benefit from the status quo and who are the losers?

The importance of seeing the bigger pictures: CHT as a window to the situation of Bangladesh as a whole, and in fact of the entire planet; the worst abuses of power in the CHT took place at a time when there was no democracy [i.e. formally] in the country as a whole; the plight of the indigenous peoples of the CHT, or in other parts of the world, can give us a clue to the direction of humanity and the planet as a whole (cf. Tripura 2012b).

[1]An earlier version of this blog post was shared as a Facebook note on 3 August 2017. 

[2]A little before posting the Facebook note referenced in my note above, I also shared – on the same platform on the same day – a photo of mine that had been presented to me at the end of the previous day’s seminar at the DSCSC.  In that post, I commented, “I don’t know if I was able to win any hearts and minds among my audience… but having been invited to speak on a preset topic, I decided to handle my talk in a way that would encourage participants to reflect on bigger issues than what their professional roles might demand.”  Then, after sharing information about other speakers and my different ‘hats’ as indicated at the beginning of this post, I added, “Judging by the feedback that I received directly and indirectly, I think I was able to put across the points that I had planned to make quite clearly without ruffling any feathers.”  


  • Haque, Mahfuzul (1998) CHT Peace Accord: Challenges of Implementation. The Daily Star, June 24, 1998.
  • Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies [University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA]  (n.d.) Peace Accord Matrix: Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (CHT)
  • PCJSS (2016) An Open Letter from the PCJSS to a speech delivered by Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinav in reply to a starred question relating to implementation of the CHT Accord in the Parliament on 10 February 2016. In English, accessed on August 1, 2017, at the following website:
  • Roy, Raja Devasish, P. Chakma, M. S. Chowdhury and M. T. Raidang (2010) Hope and Despair: Indigenous Jumma Peoples Speak on the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. Baguio City, Philippines: Tebtebba Foundation
  • Tripura, Naba Bikram Kishore, ed. (2016) Chittagong Hill Tracts: Long Walk to Peace and Development. Dhaka: Ministry of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs.
  • Tripura, Prashanta (1992) The Colonial Foundation of Pahari Ethnicity. Journal of Social Studies, No. 58.   Reprinted in an downloadable anthology named Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism

______(1998) Culture, Identity and Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In Discourse: A Journal of Policy Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2

______(2012a) Becoming Bangladeshi. In Himal Southasian, October 11, 2012

______(2012b) In search of adibashi (indigenous) consciousness. In The Opinioin Pages,, August 11, 2012

______(2013) From Jumia to Jumma: Shifting cultivation and shifting identities in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. In Farms, Feasts and Famines [Himal Southasian, April 2013], Kathmandu, Nepal: Himal Southasian

______(2014) Letter to Bangladesh from a ‘non-existent’ Bangladesh. The Daily Star, August 27, 2014

______(2016) Learning in mother tongue at schools. The Opinion Pages,,

Posted in General | Leave a comment

My midlife reflections as ‘Shahbagh happened’

An article about trying to define ‘my’ generation as protests over the sentencing of a convicted war criminal of Bangladesh unfolded at Shahbagh, Dhaka in February 2013 around the time of my 51st birthday.[1]

Prashanta Tripura

How does one define a generation? This question has been on my mind since February 2012, when I turned fifty, an age that made me interested in a form of retro/introspection involving what the US sociologist C Wright Mills called the ‘sociological imagination’[2], whereby individual biographies could serve as mirrors for larger historical processes, and vice versa. I noted down many points that I wished to weave together into a narrative that I thought could be of interest to potential readers, at least to those of my generation. But I was not sure of how to define ‘my’ generation, or, to put the matter differently, which of the different generational names in circulation best described the one that I belonged to. This uncertainty was one of the factors that led to my repeated postponement of writing up the intended narrative, and when another birthday approached, I decided to shelve my notes indefinitely. Then ‘Shahbagh’ happened, catching many by surprise, announcing the coming of age of a new generation of Bangladeshis in an unprecedented and highly spectacular fashion. Against this backdrop the word ‘generation’, which was being uttered and inscribed widely, was back on my mind again.

Shahbagh, the site of a spontaneous gathering, on February 5, 2013, of mostly young men and women – brought together by a group of bloggers and online activists – protesting what was widely seen as an unjustly lenient verdict for a convicted war criminal of 1971, suddenly emerged as the center stage of a nationwide reawakening process that is still taking shape. The place was promptly named ‘Projonmo Chottor’, translated in English as the Square of the New Generation. Although the Bangla word projonmo just means ‘generation’, in the naming of the square, it acquired the connotation of ‘new generation’. Earlier, the word ‘Projonmo’ had been mainly associated with a movement led by the children of martyred intellectuals killed by pro-Pakistani forces during the Liberation War of 1971. This group – which calls itself Projonmo Ekattor (Generation ‘71) and has been at the forefront of a movement to revive long standing demands for justice for the martyrs of 1971 – consists of individuals who are in their forties. However, the people who turned out in large numbers at Shahbagh, and have continued to occupy the place continuously since the 5th of February, are, generally speaking, a younger crowd, including students – many probably in their teens – and online activists, writers, artists and young professionals in their twenties or early thirties. These vocal youths have laid a claim to the word Projonmo as their own, by emerging as the generation that seems most intent on burying the ghosts of 1971 and reinvigorating the Spirit of Ekattor (‘71) in national life.

Shahbagh Square or “Projonmo Chottor” on February 8, 2013

With the sentencing [on February 28, 2013] of the third person accused of committing war crimes in 1971, politics in Bangladesh has just entered a new, violently contested phase, with different sides trying to exploit the process and outcomes of the ongoing trials, as well as the associated debates and public reactions, to their own advantages. At this juncture [as of March 3, 2013, when this article was originally published], it is too early to say how those constituting the New Generation will adjust their stance(s) and path(s) amidst the threat of escalating violence, but they have already captured the attention and imagination of all those people who care about, or have some interest in, Bangladesh, regardless of their location and nationality. As one such individual, I offer this piece as my attempt to figure out how people from ‘my generation’ could connect to the New Generation on whom so much hope is now pinned.

* * *
Back to the question of how one defines a generation: let me start with some facts at the intersection of the biography and history surrounding one specific individual that I know reasonably well: me!

I was born in 1962 at a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of what used to be East Pakistan. It was the final year of the first phase of martial law in Pakistan; the year when the military rulers of the country that came up with a new constitution, which took away the ‘excluded area’ status of the CHT, which became redefined as a ‘tribal area’; it was also the year when the Kaptai Dam was completed, when a young man named M. N. Larma organized a student conference in Rangamati. Regionally and globally, it was the year when India and China fought a war; when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out, and the first person trying to cross the Berlin Wall (built a year earlier) was killed; it was also the year when Nelson Mandela was arrested for standing up for freedom, dignity and equality in South Africa.[3]

My parents – who are from a generation whose cohorts in the West have been dubbed as the Silent Generation, people born before 1945 but too young to have taken up arms during the World War II – lived in a rural area in Khagrachari, situated along Chengi valley, that would experience, soon after my birth, a sudden influx of people displaced by the Kaptai dam. In 1971, the five sons (I was the second) that my parents had were all too young to bear arms, but we did have relatives who became freedom fighters. As the Liberation War broke out, we knew which side we were on, and our search for safe refuge took us to different places, including – for a very brief period – Tripura, India. Towards the end of the war, our final refuge was a village not far from what is now the Khagrachari district headquarters, where our own home village was located. I remember returning there with my brothers and some other young boys singing ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, the national anthem of Bangladesh, right after the Day of Victory, the 16th of December 1971.

As an adolescent, I would leave Khagrachari in 1977 to go to school elsewhere, including Dhaka, where I studied for three years before going abroad, on a scholarship, to the US, where I spent a big part of my youth (1982-1990). As a young man, I was deeply unhappy about all the happenings in the CHT, in Bangladesh as a whole, and in the wider world as well. Bangladesh was under actual or de facto military rule from 1975-1990, when the heaviest brunt of undemocratic governance was borne by the people of the CHT. Globally, the world was then heavily polarized across ideological divides represented at opposite ends by the US and the USSR. As a student in Dhaka, I had been briefly drawn to a student organization that looked up to the socialist world as a source of inspiration, yet I found myself switching over to the ‘other side’, much to the dismay of the leader of the organization that I had become actively involved with. Before leaving for the US, I had inhaled tear gas in Dhaka, and in the CHT, witnessed, and even experienced at a personal level, abuse of power and violations of human rights perpetrated by agencies of the state. But to me, the US or the ‘capitalist world’ that it represented – led by the likes of the then US President Ronald Reagan or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – were not places to feel at home either. I remember that at the convocation ceremony of the class of 1986 at my college in the US, many of us graduating students wore red ribbons signaling our demand for divestment from South Africa, where apartheid was still in force. At a smaller graduation ceremony held at my department, where I was nominated as a commencement speaker, I touched on my angst for deciding to pursue further studies in the US at a time when people in the CHT that I knew and cared about were literally fighting for survival.[4]

Having endured the mental agony of spending much of my youth under the regimes of rulers like General Ershad (1981- 1990) at home, or Reagan (1981-1989) and Thatcher (1979-1990) abroad, in 1991, I returned to Bangladesh for good, not necessarily with high hopes or big dreams, but just searching for my own little place under the sun as an individual. By this time, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had dissolved, and the reign of military rule in Bangladesh had also come to an end. Just before returning home, seeing Nelson Mandela live at a stadium in Los Angeles[5] was a great moment of joy and celebration for me and my friends, a reason for us to feel upbeat about the direction that we thought the world was taking.

However, there would hardly be any peace in the world. On the very day I reached Bangladesh in January 1991, a US-led coalition force invaded Iraq in response to the latter’s occupation of Kuwait. At home, while democracy had formally returned in Bangladesh as a whole, the same was not true for the CHT region. I will not, however, narrate the larger events from this point onwards except to note that as a young university teacher – the role that I took on soon after returning home – I would become loosely connected with several movements, dealing with issues ranging from the rights of indigenous people to that of the trial/‘eradication’ of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971. However, the little activism that I engaged in largely dissipated when I morphed into a development professional–partly by chance and partly by choice – in 2001, the year of 9/11.

During most of my working life in Bangladesh so far over the past twenty-odd years, one vacuum that I have been keenly aware of is the relative absence of people of my cohort – particularly in terms of my former classmates and friends – living in the country. I have often wondered whether this was simply a matter of perception, due to my individual circumstances, or whether there were macro forces at play that had pushed many people from my cohort out of the country, or into professional orbits that did not intersect with mine (For example, I learnt that the student leader who once opposed my going to the US had turned into the owner of a garments factory!). Be that as it may, my perception led me to the idea of defining my cohort as a Lost Generation, a notion around which I even contemplated writing a book, but it turned out that this particular label had already been taken, at least in Europe, by those who fought in World War I.

In terms of categories used in the West, as can be found through Google searches, people of my age fall somewhere between the tail-end of the Baby Boom Generation (those born during 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1961-1982).  Some subsets of the latter generation have also been called Yuppies (self-centred ‘young urban professionals’), the MTV generation (named after Music TV, first aired on cable in 1981), et cetera. Last year, I even came across the notion of the Theory Generation that seemed to be a very apt description of individuals like me who had to cope with the postmodernist turn of academic life in the 1980s. Nicholas Dames, author of an article titled  ‘The Theory Generation’ writes, “If you studied the liberal arts in an American college anytime after 1980, you were likely exposed to what is universally called Theory. Perhaps you still possess some recognizable talismans: that copy of The Foucault Reader…. A Thousand Plateaus…; Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; a stack of little Semiotext(e) volumes… Maybe they still carry a faint whiff of rebellion or awakening, or (at least) late adolescent disaffection. Maybe they evoke shame (for having lost touch with them, or having never really read them)… But chances are that, of those studies, they are what remain…” After this introduction, the author announces, “If so, you belong to what might be called the Theory Generation.” As part of characterizing this generation, the author at one point uses excerpts from a novel where one character, a woman named Mindy who is in her forties, displays an admixture of the “high theoretical and the personal”. During a conversation with a twenty-something travel agent, who shows ‘structural hatred’ towards Mindy, though she does not take it personally, the latter answers a question about the contents of her backpack: “Anthropology books….I’m in the PhD program at Berkeley.”  Having once carried the same baggage at the same place, the article, shared on Facebook by a ‘lost and found’ friend living in the US, felt like a blast from the past. But, to me, here and now, the notion of the Theory Generation seems more like a distant echo from the past, helping us little in reading Shahbagh.

* * *

Or perhaps people like me, those who were somewhat reluctant members of the Theory Generation, simply feel awkward to be putting back on our postmodernist glasses in trying to ‘read’ (or ‘write’) Shahbagh. Yet I cannot help thinking that Bangladeshis of my generation, or the generations that preceded ours, are watching Shahbagh from a distance, if not showing up there in person. One feels this by tuning to the waves after waves of a wide spectrum of people – old and young, men and women, Bengalis and Adibashis, liberals and conservatives, and so on – who have been drawn to Shahbagh, virtually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Amidst such diversity, one also realizes that the people who are the driving force of Shahbagh are overwhelmingly young, who seem to be finding their feet at the crossroads of global capitalism and an emerging new Bangladesh. Their contemporaries in the western metropolitan centres comprise of two generations, one known by names like Generation Y, Generation Next, the Net Generation etc. (people born from 1982 to early 2000s), the other as Generation Z, or Generation I (I for ‘Internet’), Generation AO (‘Always On’), Generation Text etc. (people born in the early 1990s onwards).

In the Bangladesh context, the youngest generation named above could also be called the ‘post-autocracy’ (i.e., post-Ershad regime) generation, people born after Bangladesh’s formal ‘return to democracy’ in 1991. Members of this generation would be voting for the first time in their lives in the upcoming national elections, and I am sure political strategists will be busy counting, and courting, such potential voters. The youth of this country have already begun to make themselves heard. Can they make their votes count as well? More importantly, can they bring in fresh ideas, raise totally new slogans, and paint a new picture of a Bangladesh that is not haunted by the ghosts from the past, but driven by forward-looking dreams, projecting a country that would be more inclusive and pluralistic, and more livable? Can they also bridge the digital divide that is little talked about, but we know to be there, separating different classes of people from the same age group into different worlds (e.g., garments factory workers within the country or migrant workers overseas, who are sacrificing their youth – and sometimes lives – to keep the wheels of the economy of this country running)? I believe that the answer will depend on what we – people from different generations – choose to do, or not to do, in the days, months and years ahead.

Hopefully our actions will prove the predictions of a recent survey by The Economist, which placed Bangladesh at the 77th position out of 80 countries sampled in terms of the ‘best country for a child to be born in 2013’, to be wrong. After the arrival of the New Generation at Shahbagh, 2013 has ushered in new hopes for this country, making many expatriate Bangladeshis wish they were here. Can we not use such energy to imagine and build a future in which the newborns of this year will look back to 2013 as the year when they were lucky to be born in a land called Bangladesh?



[1] This blog post was originally published under a different title – Defining a generation: Making sense of our lives and times, before and beyond Shahbagh – at the Opinion section of on 3rd March 2013.  Except for addition of notes and references, along with a few minor edits and one correction (noted in an endnote below), the article has not been modified in any significant way. 

[2] C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1959.

[3] Such biographical details have been used in a Bangla article of mine as well, which – written as an open letter to the youth – was originally published in 2015 in a magazine published by a student organization that I had once been affiliated with.  

[4]My commencement day remarks, posted on this blog, may be found  here.

[5] In the original version of this article, I wrongly mentioned San Francisco to have been the city where I had seen Nelson Mandela in 1990.  This error went undetected until a friend of mine, who lives in the US and was with me at the stadium where we listened to Mandela speak, reminded me – in 2021 – that it was during our trip to LA that we had done this.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Indigenous Peoples and Education in Asia

~ Prashanta Tripura ~

This post consists of excerpts from a chapter that I wrote – titled ‘Indigenous Peoples and Education in Asia’ (Chapter 3) – in the UN publication State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: Education, 3rd Volume, which was published in December 2017. The PDF version of the entire publication may be downloaded by following the links provided at the end of this post.


It is estimated that Asia accounts for about two thirds – or some 260 million people – of the total population of the world’s indigenous peoples. Globally, languages spoken by indigenous peoples are estimated to represent the vast majority (70-80%) of the five to seven thousand languages spoken in the world.  Using linguistic diversity as an indicator of ethnic diversity, it may be estimated that Asia is home to about one third of the world’s distinct indigenous peoples (counting the number of ethnic groups rather than their combined population).

It may be mentioned that in Asia, the groups that identify themselves as indigenous peoples are referred to by dominant groups and governments with labels such as tribal, hill tribes, scheduled tribes, adivasi, janajati, orang asli, masyarakatadat, ethnic minorities, nationalities, etc. Regardless of the original or intended meanings, many of these terms have acquired the connotation of ‘primitiveness’ or ‘backwardness’, hence the official or dominant labels are often rejected by representatives of indigenous peoples today.

When the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted in 2007, almost all the states in Asia voted for it, with only three countries – namely Bangladesh, Bhutan and Azerbaijan – abstaining. In practice, many Asian states regard the term ‘indigenous peoples’ as inapplicable or irrelevant in their contexts, thereby diverting attention away from the core issues that its international usage is meant to address. Hence, indigenous peoples’ collective rights are often not recognized, and especially their rights to lands and to self-determination are viewed with suspicion by those in power throughout the region. 

Invisibility in statistics

Although there are no disaggregated data showing the proportion of indigenous children among those who remain out of school, based on trends observed on the ground, it is safe to assume that they constitute a disproportionate share of the total.

Disparity in literacy rates and access

In terms of literacy rates, which may be viewed as a good indicator of the level of access to education, indigenous peoples in most countries of Asia lag behind the national average.  For many peoples in Asia, one reason why access to education remains limited is the fact that they live in geographically difficult and hard to reach terrains that are not prioritized by governments, including in terms of budget allocations.

Multiple factors behind limited access to education

Despite the prevailing limitations, piecing together data and analysis that exist in different sources reveals that the trends observed globally for indigenous peoples also apply in most countries of Asia.  Such trends include:

Limited access to formal education, due to geographical as well as political marginalization;

Absence of recognition or respectful reference to the identities and cultures of indigenous peoples in national education systems and curricula;

Inadequate provision of school supplies and school infrastructure in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples; and

– Insufficient numbers of teachers who speak the languages of indigenous peoples.

As a result of such multiple factors, indigenous students tend to have lower enrolment rates, higher dropout rates and poorer educational outcomes than non-indigenous students across Asia as in other parts of the world.  This is the pattern in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Philippines and Viet Nam, regardless of overall socioeconomic development of the country concerned.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008 explored ‘ethnic discrimination in schools’, including in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal, Pakistan, and Viet Nam. The report stated that indigenous children were less likely to enroll in primary education and more likely to repeat than non-indigenous children. Further, in order for indigenous children to have access to good-quality education, there was a need for appropriate and accessible schooling opportunities, adequate resources in schools and cultural relevance of the education offered. The importance of language of instruction and bilingual education was also stressed.

As pointed out by many observers and analysts, indigenous peoples’ education cannot be separated from economic, social and political realities, and therefore it is necessary to look at their situation holistically. Poverty, cultural marginalization, land dispossession, and lack of access to quality education are all inextricably linked to one another. Moreover, there is a need for new meanings and visions of education that enables indigenous peoples to retain and nurture their ties to their cultural roots, while also preparing them to adapt to a rapidly changing world.  While the global order is changing rapidly everywhere, the rise of new economic powerhouses in Asia poses special challenges for the indigenous peoples, putting enormous pressure on their resources, cultures and identities.  Even if education-related initiatives do not respond to such challenges directly, they need to be informed by holistic analysis and long term perspectives that take such factors into account. 

Changing the measures of education for indigenous peoples

A cursory glance through the literature on indigenous peoples’ education reveals that the discussion is often conducted in terms of indigenous peoples ‘lacking’ various things, such as expertise, funds, qualified teachers, learning materials, scripts, orthography and so on. However, the yardsticks by which qualifications, competencies etc. are measured are standards imposed from outside. At the same time, such measures are often based on untested or implicit notions of indigenous peoples having to acquire something they don’t have, rather than building on their strengths and assets of their own cultural and linguistic knowledge, values of reciprocity and sharing, and as custodians of natural resources. Indigenous adults can serve as teachers not only for their own communities, but also for members of dominant groups that are searching for alternative models of education and development. Such a shift would transform indigenous peoples from passive recipient to active innovators of locally developed and managed interventions, as agents with knowledge and skills to be valued and transmitted to the next generation. 


Here is the PDF version of the full chapter, if anyone wants to read/download it.

The file may also be downloaded from here (as posted directly by the concerned UN agency).

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes on the emergence of Bengali Muslims

Prashanta Tripura

This blog post, the main part of which was originally posted as a Facebook note titled “My take on Eaton’s The Rise of Islam” on December 10, 2016, consists of excerpts from Becoming Bangladeshi, an article of mine published in Himal Southasian. The excerpts reproduced below draw on two sections of this article: one is titled ‘Bengal’s frontiers’ - reproduced in its entirety below - which consists of my summarization of some aspects of Eaton’s interpretation of the rise of Islam in Bengal; the other is the final section, named ‘Unaccommodating nation’, of which a segment wherein Eaton’s perspective is invoked has been reproduced below.[1] At the end of this post, a brief email exchange of mine with Richard Eaton from January 2017 has also been added as a postscript.

Bengal’s frontiers

As is well-known to students of Bengal’s history, it was a military commander named Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji, who, through his conquests around 1204-1205, ushered in Muslim rule in a region that came to be known as ‘Bangala’, and later as ‘Bengal’ in English. Legend has it that Bakhtiyar Khilji – who was operating under a Delhi-based Turkish sultan named Qutb-ud-din Aibak, and who himself hailed from the Turkic Khilji (Khalji) tribe long settled in what is now southern Afghanistan – defeated Lakshman Sen, the king of Bengal at the time, with just 18 horsemen. This fact (or myth) has led to much caricature and Hindu-nationalist anguish regarding the latter’s incompetence. The history of the rise of Islam, particularly the emergence of a Bengali Muslim agrarian society, may be known in broad outlines, but the ethnic and cultural processes involved in this transformation remain poorly understood among the educated classes in Bangladesh, and in Southasia generally. In this regard, Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 is one of the few books to significantly address this lacuna.

Much of Eaton’s analysis rests on his notion of Bengal – in particular eastern Bengal, or present-day Bangladesh – as a ‘frontier’ in several senses of the term: geographical, agrarian, cultural and political. Geographically, a change in the course of the Ganges, with a decisive shift taking place in late 16th century, made the active Bengal delta move eastward, thus creating landmasses that would eventually come under rapid and intensive cultivation, and marking the expansion of the agrarian frontier, specifically during Mughal rule (1576-1717). Culturally, eastern Bengal was a frontier as it had once been home to indigenous communities that were considered to be outside the Aryan fold. These communities, described in ancient texts by terms like ‘Mleccha’ (roughly ‘Barbarian’ or ‘uncivilised’, ‘other’), were considered so impure that Brahmans who entered their territories later had to undergo ritual cleansing to regain their status. The advent of Muslim rule created an additional cultural frontier involving the spread of Muslim beliefs and practices. Finally, Bengal was politically a far outpost of empires controlled from Delhi, and this relative remoteness prompted the early Turkish rulers to quickly assert their independence.

Refreshingly, in the course of explicating his thesis, Eaton dislodges some conventional views regarding the emergence of Bengali Muslims. One of these conventional views, for example, is that large numbers of Bengalis embraced Islam to escape the stigma and oppression associated with ‘Hindu’ caste society. Against such views, Eaton makes the point – one that may be missed upon a cursory reading of his book – that Islam took root in much of eastern Bengal, which, unlike other parts of Bengal, had not been deeply penetrated by ‘Aryan’ or ‘Sanskritic’ models of social formation. So it is not necessarily the case that the Bengali Muslims of eastern Bengal were ‘Hindus’ – or ‘Buddhists’ for that matter – prior to their conversion to Islam. Rather, many indigenous communities possessing non-Aryan cultures came into contact with Islam without necessarily ever having been under much Brahmanic or Buddhist influence.

Here, the Islam that Eaton speaks of is not one that was introduced by the sword or through trade, but rather by charismatic Sufi spiritual leaders – known locally by terms such as pir and aulia – who are still spiritually alive, so to speak, at numerous mazars or dargahs (shrines) devoted to them in Bangladesh. Eaton points out that this strand of Islam came to the subcontinent with the Turks, many of them Persianised to varying degrees, some of whose Sufi beliefs and practices went back to Turkish nomadic traditions predating their conversion to Islam.

What is novel about Eaton’s interpretation is that he saw the expansion of the agricultural and cultural frontiers as twin, interdependent processes, whereby the spread of Islam and the growth of new agricultural settlements went hand in hand. As explained by Eaton, this connection was somewhat accidental, an unintended consequence of a policy of the Mughals who, in the interest of enhancing revenue through agricultural expansion, provided incentives – often tax exemptions for lands acquired on behalf of mosques and shrines – that encouraged new settlements to develop around Sufi spiritual leaders. These pirs provided the world view and cultural orientation necessary for indigenous communities to conquer uninhabited forests and marshlands full of feared beings such as tigers, snakes and spirits. In the process, local communities were absorbed into a new social formation, consisting of an expanding ‘Bengali Muslim’ peasantry that would emerge as Bengal’s main productive force under Mughal rule, and subsequently during British colonial rule.

Culturally, the emergence of the Bengali Muslim peasantry took place almost imperceptibly, going through phases in which indigenous cultural beliefs and practices co-existed freely with exogenous ones of both Islamic and Aryan origin. It was only much later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, that different religious reform movements, such as the Faraizi movement of the early 19th century, attempted to delineate sharper boundaries of religious identity. This means that unlike individual conversions, the ‘conversion’ of ‘Bengali Muslim’ communities cannot be dated precisely in the conventional sense. A corollary of this type of analysis is that most of the Bengali frontier communities that came to be identified as ‘Hindu’ also underwent similar cultural processes around the same period, significantly influenced by Bhakti (devotional) movements like that led by Sri Chaitanya, which stressed devotion to gods such as Krishna over Brahmanic rituals and mediations. In this context, it is worth pointing out that the propagation of Bhakti movements also owed much to the development of a vernacular Bengali literature under the patronage of the Turkish Sultans, who established themselves as independent sovereigns in Bengal by the 14th century. In order to establish their independence from Delhi, the Turkish rulers of Bengal had to develop closer ties with local populations, and in the process they developed indigenous ‘Bengali’ roots.

Unaccommodating nation

If we look beyond the present national boundaries and take a historical view, the arrival of Bengali Muslims in [places like] Bodoland [in Assam] – and India’s Northeast more generally – can be seen as a continuation of the expansion of the Bengali Muslim peasantry that Eaton describes. The process has spilled over the political boundaries of eastern Bengal in all directions, moving up along the river valleys. The conflict over land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh can also be seen as a manifestation of the same process. There, until the 1960s, indigenous ‘hill people’ were protected by laws dating back to British colonial period which barred the settlement of Bengali peasants. But in the 1960s, the CHT’s special status was lifted, while the Kaptai hydroelectric project submerged 40% of the region’s prime agricultural land and displaced some 100,000 people, most of them indigenous, who had begun to switch to wet rice cultivation. Similarly, the Rohingyas of Arakan – who live mostly in areas bordering southern Chittagong and speak a language that is mutually intelligible to the Chittagong ‘dialect’ of Bangla – may be seen as an offshoot of a peasant social formation which originated in the Bengal delta.



I had the opportunity to meet Professor Richard Eaton in person briefly in December 2016 at an event organized at Dhaka University as part of celebrations of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh History Association.  During a brief chat with Eaton at that time, I took the opportunity to give him a copy of the full article from which the above excerpts have been extracted.  To my pleasant surprise, he sent me an email message in January 2017 saying that he had read my piece, while also adding a piece of information as to how he got interested in studying the spread of Islam in Bengal. I have taken the liberty to reproduce below our brief email exchange of that time though I have not sought his permission in this regard.      

My email exchange with Richard Eaton in January 2017

Email from Eaton to me, dated January 25, 2017:

Dear Prof. Tripura,

        This is a short note to say what a pleasure it was to meet you last month when I was in Dhaka.  It has taken me some time to recover from all the rush of that trip, plus going to Denver to attend the American Historical Association annual meetings, followed by the beginning of teaching here. 

        But now that I have had a moment to catch my breath, I did get a chance to read your article “Becoming Bangladeshi,” a copy of which you had kindly given me in Dhaka.  I read your article with great interest, and was fascinated to see how you used some of my own arguments to explain the arrival of Bengali Muslims in Bodoland, and India’s Northeast generally.  I probably didn’t mention this when I was in Dhaka, but my interest in Islamization in Bengal was an outgrowth of earlier work I had done in the 1980s on the conversion of Naga communities to Christianity in the 20th century, based mainly on a study of missionary records that I happened to find in  St. Paul, Minnesota. 

      I do hope you can stay in touch and keep me informed on your current and future research projects.  

                                   With best wishes,

                                          – R.M. Eaton

My reply to Richard Eaton, dated January 29, 2017:

Dear Professor Eaton,

Thank you so much for your note, which came as a very pleasant surprise and a source of great delight for me. I also feel honored that you took the time to read my article and to give me your reaction on it.  I wish I had the opportunity to talk to you more in person while you were in Dhaka, but unfortunately it was not to be.  Anyway, about how you came to be interested in the history of Islamization in Bengal, I did overhear you mention about the prior work that you had been doing on Naga conversion.  

At Jahangirnagar University, where I used to teach at the Department of Anthropology (1991-2001), I taught a course named ‘Bangladesh: History, Society and Culture’ for about three years (around 1998-2001) when I used your book (The Rise of Islam) as a required reading. Later, I was away from academia for a long time (2001 – 2012) but later – after I quit my [full-time job of that time] in June 2012 – I tried to start writing again, but mainly for fun, and it was in that mode that I started working on the paper that you read.  My original version had other themes woven into it, but after I submitted it to Himal, the editor encouraged me to trim it down.[2]  I mention all this so that you know it was not written in an academic context but now that I am back into teaching (albeit part-time, at BRAC University) – if and when I do work on anything that might be of interest [to you], I hope to seek your guidance if possible.  I also look forward to reading more of your works.

Regards and best wishes,

                                                            – PT 

End notes:

[1] It may be noted that my article Becoming Bangladeshi, as published in Himal Southasian (Vol. 26, No. 1) in 2012, is not about Eaton's work per se.  Instead, it consists of general “reflections on the origins of identities in Bangladesh, and the perennially unfinished business of shaping them in Southasia and beyond.” Other parts of the article – not reproduced in any form in the present piece – include a brief introduction, and two sections titled ‘Who is indigenous?’ and ‘Tracing foreign ancestry’.

[2]The parts that were left out of the Himal article have been put together into a recent blog post of mine, titled Random Musings on Identity.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Random Musings on Identity

Prashanta Tripura

This post consists of excerpts of an article titled ‘Two Weddings, a Funeral, and Riots in Assam:  Musings on Genes, Memes and the Psychic Unity of Humanity’, as written in July 2012.  After the article was submitted to Himal Southasian, the editors of the magazine suggested me to shorten it considerably by focusing on some of the discussion the middle of the original piece.  Thus, after cutting out some parts of the paper – which was originally nearly 8,500 words long – a shorter piece of less than 4,000 words, and bearing the title ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’ was, published.  Later, another article titled ‘Humayun Ahmed, Himu and identity conflicts in Bangladesh’ was published in bdnews24, an online Bangladeshi paper.  The excerpts published below mainly consist of remaining segments of the paper that have not been used in any of the two published articles referenced above.  

Mural photographed somewhere in Shillong or Assam during the author’s trip to Kokrajhar, Bodoland, June 2012


The two weddings that I have in mind both involve grooms who happen to be of Turkish origin.  One took place involving a reception, which I attended, in Dhaka during the first half of July 2012.  The groom lives in Sweden, where he met his would be wife of Bangladeshi origin.  He came to the reception venue on a horse drawn cart, escorted by a marching band, wearing a traditional Bengali Muslim wedding suit that is probably fashioned after regalia from times when Bengal was ruled by Turkish sultans or Mughal governors.  A big contingent of family and friends of the groom flew in from Sweden for the reception, with tall Nordic blondes in sari or shalwar-kameez adding an extra exotic touch to proceedings.  The other wedding took place at the end of the same month, in Scotland. The groom involved is a close friend of mine from my student days at Berkeley.  Originally from Turkey, he is presently settled in the US.  We have not seen each other face to face for 22 years now [as of 2012], but Facebook has recently helped us keep in touch more easily than was possible a decade ago.  He married someone who I presume is of Scottish origin (not that it matters), as their wedding took place in Scotland.  In any case, he had a kilt as his wedding dress, as he had mentioned to me, while exchanging comments over a Facebook post related to Inti Illimani, a Chilean musical group that we once often listened to together.   

A Turkish-Swedish groom arriving at a wedding reception in Dhaka, July 2012

The funeral that I am thinking of is one in which thousands of Bangladeshis took part in person, and millions more virtually, by following live coverage of proceedings over a period of two days from July 23-24, 2012.  I am of course talking about the celebrated Bangladeshi novelist-playwright-film director Humayun Ahmed, a master story teller, a magician of a writer, who had woven – through his novels, TV serials, drama and films – captivating tales that faithfully reflected, while also adding some color, humor and tenderness to, ordinary, mostly middle class, Bengali (Bangladeshi) lives.  His death, which came in a New York hospital, has been mourned in an unprecedented manner by his countless fans and admirers in Bangladesh, and among the Bangladeshi global diasporas, with reminiscences, reflections, and commentaries flooding the print and electronic media, social network sites and the blogosphere.  There has also been much drama and controversy surrounding the funeral, centering on disagreements among family members of the deceased (who had married a young actress after divorcing his first wife of thirty years) over the selection of his final resting place.  There were more subtle tugs of war over the deceased and his legacy on the public domain, leading to headlines like, “Let Humayun Ahmed Die in Peace.”

The riots in Assam that have invaded my consciousness broke out in an area known as Bodoland in Assam on the same day (July 20) when one woke up in Bangladesh to news of the death of Humayun Ahmed.  I had known for some time about the long standing problems in Bodoland.  There, militants belonging to an ethnic group (Bodo) that once held sway over much of the Assam region and beyond is trying to hold onto what they see as their last remaining stronghold, where they feel threatened by the ‘encroachment’ of Muslims of Bengali/Bangladeshi origin.  In the past, I would have looked at news related to this with a certain emotional distance or academic detachment.  But this changed after a trip that I made very recently, in June, to Kokrajhar, the capital of Bodoland, where I went together with my wife and son to attend a seminar on Bodo history.  The mention of my wife’s ethnic identity may not be out of place here.  She is a Bengali Musilm, whereas I belong to a group (Tripura/Borok) that has close ethno-linguistic affinity to the Bodos.  While making the trip to Kokrajhar, I had jokingly remarked to my wife that we were going to a place where Bodos and Bengali Muslims did not get along.  But I never imagined that barely after a month after our return from a memorable trip to Bodoland – where my wife and I were both received very warmly – ethnic strife would flare up there on a massive scale, with 53 deaths and up to four hundred thousand people displaced as per latest news reports I checked (The Daily Telegraph, online edition, 29 July 2012). 

The author speaking at a seminar on ‘Bodo History’ in Kokrajhar, Bodoland, June 2012

The motivation and motifs of my patchwork

There is no intrinsic connection among the aforementioned events, except that in some ways each one reflects the increasingly globalized nature of contemporary human social life, with its intricate and endless connections at many different levels.  However, at a personal level, as never-ending streams of images and words parade through our conscious and unconscious selves, our minds tend to sift through such material to come up with discernible patterns and meanings.  In my case, for reasons that I need not elaborate here, lately I have also been sifting through a trunk full of personal memorabilia, some of which I have started sharing with family & friends through the Facebook. Being in this frame of mind, after attending the first wedding that I mentioned, I was thinking of my Turkish friend from Berkeley days (not yet aware that he too would be getting married soon).  I was then reminded of a poem-like entry [posted as Of Tatars Down the Memory Lane in this blog] that I wrote down in my diary, twenty-two years ago [i.e. in 1990], when I was still studying anthropology at Berkeley. It began as follows: 

Under the California sun

Twenty-two Tatars talk about the Psychic Unity of Mankind.

Just as I was wondering whether it would make sense to share the above-mentioned diary entry with my Facebook friends, the news of Humayun Ahmed’s death cast a huge pall of gloom all around.  At the same time, the disturbing news of outbreak of violence in Bodoland began to catch my attention, through Facebook posts.  So the idea of sharing my private musings from 22 years ago had to be shelved, or so I thought.  But some motifs or associations that my diary entry contained, particularly the ‘Tatars’ and ‘Psychic Unity of Mankind’ as included in the second line above, would not go away from my mind.  Instead, they started to act like key threads around which my mind started to weave together a personal narrative, drawing together disparate images, ideas and news that were coming my way. 

Why Tatars? The reference to Tatars in my diary entry was probably a cryptic record, or poetic interpretation, of conversations that I had with my Turkish friends at Berkeley.  Since the Tatars belong to the Turkic fold, I might have used their name as a straightforward code for ‘Turkish’.  However, upon reflection, I came to realize that in my mind the word ‘Tatar’ has a deeper association, which I can trace back to two lines of a Bengali poem–by Jibananda Das–which I had read at a younger age, reproduced below (my translation). I do not remember the title of the poem, nor any other lines, but these two lines somehow got permanently etched in my memory, conjuring up a rather romantic image of the ‘Tatars’:  

The Tatar marauders of life’s path

Have roared past raising clouds of dust

Apart from its association with ‘Turkish’, the label ‘Tatar’ also brings to mind some other related categories, like ‘Mongol’ and ‘Mughal’, which had ethno-linguistic and historical links with Turkic groups.   In my mind, these labels serve to remind us of a kind of pluralism, from a previous era, that began to disappear with the emergence of modern nation-states.  We know how the Ottoman Turks once ruled over a huge empire spread over three continents.  Before them, the Mongols once reigned over an even bigger empire.  The Mughal Empire too was quite vast, and very diverse in terms of the ethnic and linguistic composition of the people living in it. Today, in the age of globalization, we are familiar with high degrees of mobility of ideas and images, goods and services, and of people as well.  But the empires built by the Ottomans, the Mongols, or the Mughals, were also all characterized by immense diversity, fluidity and mobility of ethnicities.  Given all this, the word ‘Tatar’, and the images and associations (with Turks, Mongols and the like) that it conjures up in my mind, help me to weave together, in the form of a bricolage, some patterns that begin to look, feel or sound comprehensible.  

Before I elaborate further as to what I mean, let me say a few words about the other terms in the title of this piece: Genes, Memes and the Psychic Unity of Mankind. 

I am using the word ‘gene’ in its ordinary sense, as used in biology and known by all educated people. Therefore there is no need to say much about this term.  The other term, ‘meme’ (pronounced /meem/) may be familiar to you, the reader, but I personally was not familiar with, or had just forgotten about, this term until I heard my 14-year old son mention it several times recently.  It seems to have become a term that is quite popular among internet users, particularly young ones.  Originally coined by Richard Dawkins, a British Evolutionary biologist and author of the popular but controversial The Selfish Gene (1976), ‘meme’refers to basic units of culture involved in the social transmission of ideas, symbols and practices.  Among internet users like my son, the term probably refers to a combination of visual symbols and written words meant to transmit and promote new ideas, views, choices etc. (But my son insists that the real meaning is more complex than how I have described it here).   

As for the notion of the Psychic Unity of Mankind, it is an anthropological postulate originally formulated by Adolf Bastian, a 19th century German polymath and humanist who is regarded as the ‘Father of German Anthropology.’  This postulate essentially says that despite great diversity in terms of race and culture, the minds of humans everywhere operate in the same way.  This basic idea has been adopted by different schools of thought, accepted as a given, though often only implicitly, in diverse theoretical and conceptual frameworks.  While the advent of post-modernism  has established ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’ as a dominant intellectual trend, I think it is safe to say that the postulate of the psychic unity of humanity endures in one form or another in anthropology and other disciplines.

The notion of Psychic Unity of Humanity does not presuppose that all humans think the same things, or that they all feel as one.  But it does hold that regardless of the different forms of cultural expressions, the underlying thought processes are the same everywhere. For example, different societies may define good and evil differently, but the fact that distinctions between good and evil tend to be made in so many different societies is seen as reflecting a fundamental tendency of the human mind.  To give another example, when we analyze accounts of ethnic strife in Bodoland, or anywhere else for that matter, we will realize that different human groups tend to define themselves in opposition to the ‘other’, with the self-other dichotomy appearing as a cultural universal.  Some would recognize this type of analytical approach as the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss’s brand of structuralism, which rests on the Psychic Unity of Humanity as a given.   Here, let me try to give another example, representing an analytical framework from an earlier generation, but equally based on the same postulate. When a tug of war came in public view among the family members of the deceased writer Humayun Ahmed over the place of his burial, some commentators observed that from a religious point of view, the site of the grave was not as important as the need to dispose of the dead body as quickly as possible.  Some suggested that the undue importance attached to the site selection might be a reflection of the influence of the mazar cult, consisting of magical beliefs and practices that are not necessarily Islamic.  Such distinctions, that between ‘magic’ vs. ‘religion’, or ‘religion’ vs. ‘science’, can be found in the work of the anthropologist James Frazer (the author of The Golden Bough, once very widely read), whose analytic framework may also be said to take the Psychic Unity of Mankind as a given.

Side notes on ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’

[Excerpts under this heading mainly consist of unused segments of paragraphs that were incorporated in the published article ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’.]  

Image accompanying the author’s ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’ as published in Himal Southasian

Now, to go back to our ‘Turkish’ motif, let us recall the legendary Ikhtiayar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiar Khilji, who, through his conquests around 1204~1205, ushered in Muslim rule in Bengal. 

In order to establish their independence from Delhi, the Turkish rulers of Bengal had to develop closer and deeper ties with local populations, and in the process they developed indigenous, ‘Bengali’, roots!

What types of indigenous communities inhabited Bengal, particularly its eastern half, when the Turks and later Mughals came to rule the region? …  Those familiar with historical linguistics of Bangla know that although this language is classified as belonging to the Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) linguistic ‘family’, it owes much of its structure and vocabulary to non-Aryan languages, first of all to languages of the type belonging to the Munda branch of Austro-Asiatic ‘family’ (Santali belongs to this branch, whereas Khasi belongs to ‘Mon-Khmer’ branch of the same family and is perhaps the only language of its kind still extant in the subcontinent). The second group of languages that have influenced the emergence of Bangla, or more correctly, many of the so-called ‘dialects’ of Bangla (such as Chittagonian, Sylheti, Mymensinghi etc), belong to the Tibeto-Burman family, which includes many languages ranging from  Bodo (including Koch, before the language was largely lost), Garo, Kokborok (Tripura), Meithei (Manipuri), Marma (and all other languages spoken in the CHT except Chakma and Tanchangya, which would be classified as ‘Indo-Aryan’ in terms of their current vocabulary).

Now, is there any evidence that indigenous groups belonging to any of the above-mentioned ethnicities transformed into modern day Bengalis?  …

Franz Boas, the ‘Father of American (US) Anthropology’ and a student of Bastian, the proponent of the Psychic Unity of Mankind, was one of the pioneers in addressing the misconceptions and racist notions that existed at his time regarding linguistic and racial classifications of different groups.  Clearly, people who speak a common language may come from different racial or ethnic origins, while people belonging to the same race or ethnicity may end up speaking different languages belonging to different ‘families’.  In today’s world, this may seem obvious, but such observations are applicable in understanding past histories as well. 

Unfortunately, as the popular saying goes, it is a bitter lesson of history that people do not learn from history.  So racist and fascist thinking still pervade our minds in many parts of the world.  That this is the case when people try to kill each other off just because of ethnic or religious differences is very clear. 

When I attended the Seminar on Bodo History at Kokrajhar in June 2012, I heard many participants speak in terms of categories and concepts left to us by colonial British administrator-authors, e.g. seeing the Bodos as Indo-Mongoloid. Many also talked about how the Bodos were once treated as ‘Mleccha’, roughly comparable to ‘Barbarian’, since the time of the Mahabharata (Some Bodo groups, e.g. in Nepal and Koch Bihar, have in fact come to be known as Mech, a word that is most probably a derivative of ‘Mleaccha’).  Now, Bengali Muslims who have emerged as a present day threat to the Bodos are also largely of ‘Mleccha’ origin, in the sense I described earlier.  But here we are, one group of former Mlecchas fighting another.  This is hardly surprising, particularly when human groups internalize notions and concepts imposed on them by dominant groups.  …

At the seminar in Kokrajhar, where I had the privilege to speak without having prepared any paper on the topic assigned to me, “The History of the Boroks of Bangladesh”, I found myself raising more questions than answers that I could provide.  For example, I asked, “Is history mostly about the past? Is it not more about where we want to go, what we want to be?”  I also wondered aloud, invoking Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community, “In the age of internet, how relevant is nationalism, which flourished during the time of print capitalism?  Should we not be thinking of defining our identities in terms of the new imaginative possibilities that are opened up by communication technologies at our disposal?”   I suppose these are questions that do not concern only the Bodos, or small ethnic groups like the Tripuras of Bangladesh.  They are questions that should be and are being tackled in one way or another in all countries of the world, and not just in the context of modern nation-states, but in other contexts as well.

The ongoing ethnic conflicts … around the world can be collectively seen as the birth pangs of a new political-economic global order, though we do not yet quite know what it will or should look like.  Will all the people of the globe want to make a concerted effort to imagine into existence a new world in which we can really live as one, or do we want to cling onto and fight to death over different pieces of ‘mother earth’?  We earthlings have to make some very important decisions pretty quickly.  

Some questions raised in the context of Humayun’s Ahmed’s passing

[Excerpts under this heading mainly consist of unused segments of paragraphs that were incorporated in the published article ‘Humayun Ahmed, Himu and identity conflicts in Bangladesh’.] 

Final homage to Humayun Ahmed, July 2012 (PC: bdnews24)

After the death of Humayun Ahmed (henceforward HA), a lot has been said, written, televised and uploaded on the internet about many facets of his life and work, his private life, his legacy and much more.  It was clear that there was hardly any educated Bangladeshi who had not at least read a few of HA’s numerous novels, or watched some of his TV dramas or films.  Many have commented, rightly, on how HA almost single-handedly developed a huge Bangladeshi readership, weaning them off Bengali writers from West Bengal, and hugely benefiting a fledgling publishing industry.  One of the reasons given for HA’s huge popularity was his magical ability to tell captivating stories in a very accessible language, stories in which ordinary middle class Bengalis (of Bangladesh) found characters and environments they could easily identify with.  Actually, even I, although not a Bengali as such, remember having identified with characters in a couple of HA novels I read more than two decades ago, as I mentioned in a post on the Facebook.  Later, after seeing some comments, a question came to my mind as to whether HA ever wrote or said anything regarding the predicament and struggles of the indigenous people of this country.  I posted my question on the Facebook as a comment to the original post, but have not found any answer yet.  I have also followed with interest Facebook and blog posts by others, touching on myriad of issues, including one relating to the reported lack of adequate coverage of HA’s death in the West Bengal media.  To me, many of the comments and questions that came up through such posts functioned as a reminder that that the imagined community in the form of the nation-state of Bangladesh remains an unfinished business.  At one level, there is yet no satisfactory reconciliation between the Muslim identity of the majority on the one hand, and their Bengali identity on the other.  At another level, many indigenous people of the country, or marginalized groups of all kinds for that matter, do not quite yet feel at home in a country that came into being promising equality and socioeconomic emancipation for all.

The problem of the ‘nation-state’ as just mentioned is actually there in different forms in almost all the countries of the world.  For example, the recent outbreak of violence in Bodoland, which is just one among many places in India where longstanding conflicts of one kind and another have been going on, is a reminder of this.  To take another example, and to return to our Turkish motif, we note that there is tension between secularists and Islamists in present day Turkey, where ethnic Kurds and possibly religious minorities also are not quite at ease.  At a broader level, whether Turkey will, or will be allowed to, join the European Union remains a bigger question, bringing into focus some of the various possible directions that the new world order may take. 

It has been a dream, e.g. as propagated by major world religions, for more than two millennia for the whole of humanity to live as one, free from inequality and injustice.  We are still far away from that dream, yet the pursuit of that dream in many of its variants still continue.  In many ways, we already live in a world which is already one single mega entity technologically and economically.  Whether or not one believes in the Psychic Unity of Humanity, it is also clear that the lives of all humans are inextricably bound up in a world wide web of interconnectedness and interdependence of various kinds.  Advances in genetic science have also told us something that religions and social theories have postulated long ago, that humanity is really one.  At the seminar on Bodo history, there was a Bodo software engineer, who is originally from Kokrajhar now living in the US, who shared his findings from a genetic test that he got done for himself, trying to trace his ancestry.  He said that he could trace the footprint of his genetic ancestry to faraway places and groups, including Africa and Africans! This would be equally true, albeit in different degrees, of all modern humans.  Now, this is hardly a surprise to anthropologists, but it is good to have hard ‘scientific evidence’ of views that have been around as religious ideas, theoretical constructs or artistic conception.

Some evolutionary biologists tell us that humans, like all other life forms, are ultimately driven by ‘selfish genes’.  This may be true on a geological time scale, but from a historical point of view, we need not be too worried about our genes whispering into our inner selves to do things that our intellect or our values tell us to refrain from.  Whether Bodos and Bengali Muslims can come to peace in Bodoland, or Paharis and Bengalis will reconcile their differences in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, cannot be determined by performing genetic tests of their origins or differences.  These questions will have to be resolved through dialogues, through mutually beneficial political and economic interactions, and ultimately through cultural processes that enrich the lives of all, without eradicating diversity.  In this context, to use a word that I am still learning to use, perhaps we need to pay attention to the ‘memes’ –  cultural units of ideas, behavior or style – that are being transmitted to, or circulating among, new generations.

Genes may be transmitted through the bloodline, but memes or cultures cannot.  They have to be taught, and transmitted through education and cultural practices.  In some ways popular beliefs in many parts of the world still equate human worth and cultural continuity with the purity of bloodline. Such thoughts are dangerous, as already noted.  If genetic inheritance really dictated human cultural achievements, the world today would have been populated by Genghis Khans, as it is said that one in every 200 men are direct descendants of the great Khan!  Although in Bangladesh we often say that there are too many leaders, too many people trying to establish chiefdoms in all sectors of life, we need not conclude that it is because many of us carrying Genghis Khan’s genes. …

Concluding reflections

I wish to bring my random musings to an end by reflecting on the question of identity in a way that relates to me on a personal level, but has relevance to large issues.  Ethnically, I am a Tripura; my first language, my ‘mother tongue’ is Kokborok; and my national identity is as a Bangladeshi, though the 15th Amendment of the Constitution has made the matter a bit more complicated, by suggesting that I am a Bengali too.  Anyway, it so happens that in Bangladesh ‘Tripura’ identity has been constructed a bit differently than what it means in the present Indian state of Tripura, where the Kokborok-speaking ethnic groups are classified as different ‘tribes’ as per the list prepared under the provisions of the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution.  In this context, in Tripura state, there is as yet no consensus on a common name for all the Kokborok speaking people (in Bangladesh, ‘Tripura’ already serves this purpose).  Some are in favor of using terms like Tiprasa or Twipra, which were the original Kokborok words that became Sanskritized into ‘Tripura’.  Others are in favor of using the name Borok (Kokborok means language of the Boroks), a term which is closely related to ‘Bodo’ (which should really be written as ‘Boro’).  But there is a catch. Among some groups of Kokborok speakers, the word Borok has already acquired an expanded meaning to mean ‘human’.  On the other hand, in some cases, the word (in its variant forms like Bru or Brung) may have acquired a narrower reference, to mean just one’s own subgroup.  Now, as I reflect on it, as a Tripura, do I want to limit my identity to a narrower conception of ‘Borok’hood, or do I want to embrace its expanded definition, as human?   There is no easy answer to this type of question.  It does not depend on my own individual answer, but has to relate to the historical experiences of a much larger number of fellow Tripuras or Kokborok speakers.  In the state of Tripura, Bengalis, most of them Hindus uprooted from what is now Bangladesh during the Partition of 1947, and  the Indo-Pak war of 1965, are the overwhelming majority today.  Although politically a large number of them subscribe to communism (with CPM being firmly in power), my observations suggest that that deep down many of them are Bengalis first, and some possibly Hindus second, before being communists.  There are also signs that Bengali political leaders of Tripura do not quite understand, or sympathize with, the ethnic or linguistic aspirations of the Kokborok speakers, whom they are happy to see divided in many officially recognized ‘tribes’.   For a Bengali communist, there is not necessarily any contradiction between being a Bengali and a communist at the same time, but for a Tripura, raising the issue of ethnicity might be seen as stooping to ‘identity politics’.   Faced with such experiences, could one blame nationalistically inclined political actors who may veer towards increasingly narrower, more militant interpretations of Borok or Tripura identity?

Of course there will never be a situation when all Tripuras will have uniform views of what being a Tripura means, or should mean, just as it will never happen for Bengalis, or for any other group.  This is as it should be. At some point, rigid ethnic and national boundaries have to come down to accommodate other forms of identity and communion. My son, whose mother is a Bengali Muslim, is growing up in a country where religious identity (though not necessarily piety) matters socially.  He is growing up with questions that we cannot help him have easy answers to.  My wife and I have convinced him that he is first of all a human, a Borok in the larger sense of the term.  But will Bangladesh, or the laws and customs of this country, allow him to define his identity in a way that he, or other children of his generation, would be most comfortable with?  I imagine if the two weddings involving Turkish grooms that I mentioned at the outset lead to children, they will also have to grapple with hyphenated identities, including what to do with their Muslim heritage at a time when Muslims are being forced into stigmatized identities once seen with the Jews. The way we find the answers to questions raised above will vary from person to person, context to context.  But one thing is clear: our children may carry our genes, but they do not have to be stuck with their parents’ cultural and political failings.  They can make better, informed choices if we help them do so,  not necessarily as a one way transmission of ideas and values, but also through learning about, and from, them, as I have, for example, (re)learned the concept of ‘meme’ from my son.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Ethnic diversity and cultural hegemony in Bangladesh

Excerpts of a paper ‘presented’ at the 9th South Asia Conference: Culture and Regional Cooperation in South Asia, November 26-27, 2015, organized by IDSA, New Delhi[1]

Prashanta Tripura


Bangladesh is home to at least 45 ethnic minority groups (as per unofficial estimates) that account for less than 2% of the total population of the country.  Living in scattered pockets in different parts of the country, with significant concentrations in areas along or near international borders, most of these groups have ethnic kinsfolk across the border in India and/or Myanmar.  While the majority of these ethnic minorities self-identify as ‘indigenous peoples’, this is an identification that remains hotly contested in Bangladesh.   Officially, they are now referred to as ‘tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’, which are terms that were introduced through a new clause appended to the existing article on national culture in the country’s constitution, as part of  its 15th amendment undertaken in 2011.  Taking such factors into account, this paper examines the extent to which the cultural and linguistic diversity represented by the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh are accommodated within the dominant notions relating to national culture and language.  It is argued that the forms of cultural and linguistic hegemony that prevail in Bangladesh are the results both of different strands of narrowly conceived nationalisms and of a colonial legacy that continues to operate within South Asia as a whole.  Democratization and decolonization of hegemonic cultural categories are presented as an important precondition for a future South Asia that is more at ease with cultural diversity both within and across national boundaries. 

N.B.:  The actual talk, which may be viewed by clicking on this Youtube link, ended up being quite different from the paper presented below in excerpted form, as hardly any part of it was read out. 


Bangladesh is often perceived and represented as a homogeneous country in terms of language, culture and ethnicity.  Officially – as articulated in present constitution of the country – it is a state of one people, the ‘Bangalee’ nation, which recognizes just one language, Bangla, and one ‘national culture’.  But from sociolinguistic or anthropological perspectives, this imposed homogeneity begins to break down if we take into account the diversity of actual speech forms and cultural variations that exist among Bengalis of Bangladesh across geographical, class and religious boundaries.  Moreover, the country also has many ethnic groups that may be small in terms of population sizes, but represent a rich storehouse of cultural and linguistic diversity.  The ways in which this diversity has been largely left out from the conception of the Bangladeshi nation-state constitutes our subject matter, which is treated for its potential relevance for South Asia as a whole.

There has been an attempt, through the 15th constitutional amendment of 2011, to accord recognition to the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh.  But the specific provision involved remains mired in terminological issues that bring to light hegemonic tendencies and colonial baggage of the mindset of the elites of Bangladesh.  This is particularly the case in terms of singular and exclusionist conceptions of key notions such as ‘nationality’, ‘nationalism’, ‘state language’ and ‘national culture’, whereby the diversity of languages and ethnic identities of the country are overlooked, or at best relegated to a marginal and inferior status.  Against this backdrop, this paper examines how and why the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Bangladesh remains largely excluded from dominant nationalist representations of the country’s history and identity. It is argued that this exclusion results from prevailing forms of cultural hegemony perpetuated by the country’s elites, and their hegemonic views in turn rest on colonialist notions that continue to operate within South Asia as a whole.

An overview of ethnic and linguistic diversity in Bangladesh

Ethnically, the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh are considered to be Bengali, an identification that has made this label (with variant spelling) largely synonymous with ‘nationality’ or national identity of all Bangladeshis. At least this is how the present constitution of the country treats the matter.  However, it is common knowledge that in Bangladesh there are many ethnic minority groups that do not think of themselves as Bengalis, or have Bangla as their first languages.  Officially there are no well-established figures as to the exact number and populations of such ethnic minorities.  The number of ethnic groups mentioned in different sources range from 27 to way over 50, with their combined population constituting a small share, between 1% to 2%, of the total population of the country.  Living in scattered pockets in different parts of the country, with significant concentrations in areas along or near international borders, most of these groups have ethnic kinsfolk across the border in India and/or Myanmar.  While the majority of these ethnic minorities self-identify as ‘indigenous peoples’, this is an identification that remains hotly contested in Bangladesh (Tripura 2014).  Officially, as per the terminology introduced through the 15th amendment of the constitution undertaken in 2011, they are now referred to by different combinations of the following terms: ‘tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’. 

Geographically and demographically, the heaviest concentration of ethnic diversity is found in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, where  the self-identifying indigenous peoples are also known as Paharis or Hill People and Jummas (a term that originally meant ‘jum-cultivator; cf. Tripura 2013) who are divided in 11 distinct ethnic groups – namely Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khyang, Khumi, Lushai, Marma, Mro, Pangkhua, Tanchangya and Tripura – which have varying population sizes ranging from barely a thousand (Lushai) to over four lakhs (Chakma, the largest ethnic minority group of Bangladesh).  A few of these groups are found in other parts of Bangladesh as well (e.g. the Tripuras, who live in scattered pockets in Chittagong, Comilla and Sylhet as well), and most groups have ethnic kinfolks in India and/or Myanmar. Outside of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the main areas with significant presence of indigenous peoples include the north-west (Rajshahi and Dinajpur divisions), central north (Dhaka and Mymensingh divisions), north-east (Sylhet division), and coastal areas in the southeast/south (Chittagong, Barisal and Khulna divisions).  The ethnic groups found in these areas include Barman, Banai, Dalu, Garo or Mandi, Hajong, Khasi, Koch, Mahali, Mahato, Malo, Manipuri, Munda, Oraon, Pahan, Patro, Rajowar, Rakhine, Santal, just to mention some of the better-known groups. 

In terms of socioeconomic status, the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh tend to lag considerably behind aggregate national trends.  While detailed disaggregated data relating to the ethnic minorities are hard to come by, their disadvantaged condition is generally acknowledged in different official documents. While the problem has been known generally for decades, and some special measures to address the situation have been included in official development strategies, plans, programs and various national policies formulated by successive governments, there has been little progress on the ground to date. 

Linguistically, most of the self-identifying indigenous peoples (adibashis) speak distinct speech forms that are quite different from Bangla.  Collectively, the languages of these ethnic minorities represent all the major ‘language families’ found in South Asia, namely Indo-Aryan (Bishnupriya Manipuri, Chakma, Hajong, Sadri, Tanchangya), Austro-Asiatic (e.g. Khasi, Santali), Tibeto-Burman (e.g. Chak, Garo, Khumi, Kokborok, Marma, Mro, Meitei, Rakhine) and Dravidian (Kurukh, spoken by some Oraons).  At present, this linguistic diversity is not recognized anywhere in the constitution of Bangladesh.  It should be added that apart from the self-identifying indigenous peoples, there are also the so-called Biharis – non-Bengali Muslim communities that speak Urdu or other variants of Hindustani languages such as Bhojpuri – who remain extremely marginalized in terms of their national identity and civil rights. 

Bengali hegemony and the denial of diversity in Bangldesh

Although Bengali nationalism was the main driving force of Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971, it was by no means a struggle of Bengalis only. Instead, numerous individuals and communities belonging to ethnic minority groups throughout the country took active part in the war, which they saw as a rejection of the idea of Pakistan, defined as a state for Muslims, an identification that had left most of them out. Like the Bengalis generally, they were also inspired by visions of socioeconomic emancipation.  However, for the ethnic minorities, the newly independent Bangladesh did not turn out to be an inclusive state as it came to be defined as a ‘nation of Bengalis’. In addition to denying the distinct identities of ethnic minorities, the constitution of 1972 provided for no constitutional safeguards for them except for an indirect cover under a vague and demeaning category called ‘backward segments of society’. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the backdrop of fresh wounds experienced by the indigenous hill peoples due to two major shocks in the early 1960s – the lifting of the special (‘excluded’) status of the region and the building of the Kaptai Hydro-electric – the denial of their identities and aspirations in the newly independent Bangladesh would soon lead them to wage an armed movement for regional autonomy.

From the point of view of those in power at present, Article 23A of Constitution, titled ‘The Culture of Tribes, Minor Races and Ethnic Sects and Communities’ (introduced through the 15th amendment in 2011), is presented as responding to the demands by self-identifying ‘indigenous peoples’ for their constitutional recognition.  It is true that this clause represents the first ever attempt to acknowledge within the constitution the existence minority ethnic groups in Bangladesh.  However, from the point of view of indigenous peoples, this accommodation is hardly acceptable since it uses terms deemed derogatory (e.g. ‘tribes’ and ‘minor races’) in lieu of the desired category ‘indigenous people’.  Furthermore, even if the actual terms used are ignored, the recognition accorded is actually largely negated by problematic formulations elsewhere in the constitution, e.g. in Article 6, which states that ‘the people of Bangladesh will be known as Bengalees as a nation’.  This statement is further elaborated through singular notions of nationhood, national language and culture, e.g. in Article 9, which is reproduced below:[2]

The unity and solidarity of the Bangalee nation, which, deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bangalee nationalism.

Taken together, formulations such as those indicated above offer no proper recognition of the diversity of cultures, languages and ethnicities that exist in Bangladesh.  Even Article 23A, which talks about preservation and promotion of ‘local culture and tradition’ (note the singular nouns) of the ‘tribes, minor races, and ethnic sects and communities’, deploys the term ‘culture’ in a very narrow sense, without any mention of the distinct languages, livelihoods and land rights of the indigenous peoples.  On the whole, rather than foreshadowing any new laws, Article 23A is actually nothing but a gist of the National Culture Policy formulated in 2006, when Bangladesh Nationalist Party – which promotes what it calls ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ – was in power.

It may be noted that in the National Culture Policy 2006, the main term used to refer to the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh is ‘tribal’ (i.e. its Bangla equivalent), although another term (nritattwik jonogosthi) that literally means ‘ethnological or anthropological people’ is also used, though its intended meaning is nrigosthi, i.e. ‘race’ or ‘ethnic group’.  Regardless of the terminology used, the indigenous peoples (i.e. tribal or ethnic minority groups) do receive mention in several key areas, ranging from the objectives of the policy, the principles underlying it, and the strategies and institutions involved.  This policy generally refers to ethnic and cultural diversity of the country, and there are quite extensive sections devoted to the indigenous peoples.  However, while the need to promote and protect the cultures of the indigenous peoples are acknowledged, there is more prominence given on Bangla language and ‘Bangalee’ culture as constituting the ‘mainstream’, and there is also explicit reference to the need to make the indigenous peoples more familiar with and ‘involved’ (or ‘immersed’) in the mainstream. There is also a fairly lengthy section dealing with various ‘tribal’ academies and institutes that were set up mostly during the rule of General Ziaur Rahman.  It may be mentioned that it is these institutions that have been renamed as Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutes through the similarly named act of 2010.  Despite the apparent differences between Bengali vs. Bangladeshi nationalisms, from the perspectives of the indigenous peoples, there is little to choose from, with both brands of nationalism seeing the ethnic minorities as the ‘other’, and seeking to assimilate them to the national mainstream.  There is also similarity at another level among governments subscribing to different notions of nationhood.   The ‘cultures’ (defined narrowly, consisting of items such as staged performances of dances, songs etc.) of indigenous peoples have been viewed as exotic resources and potential ‘tourist attraction’ waiting to be exploited for commercial gains.

The Bengali-centric views reflected in legal and policy provisions as noted above are perpetuated through various means, including in representations in school textbooks.  For example, let us consider the first article in a school textbook for fifth graders, in Bangla, titled My Bangla Book.  Bearing a title that may be translated as ‘This country and its people’, this article begins with the statement, ‘It is our great fortune that we have been born in this country.  We are the Bengalis of Bangladesh.’  This statement is immediately followed by an explanation as to what it means to speak of ‘Bengalis of Bangladesh.’  It asks, ‘Are there Bengalis outside of Bangladesh?’  To answer the question, the young readers taken on a imaginary train ride up to Akhaura station, which is situated right across the India-Bangladesh border near Agartala, Tripura.  In the 2013 edition of the textbook, the reader is informed that ‘all the inhabitants of Tripura are Bengalis’.  When the erroneous nature of this statement was pointed out in the social media, subsequent editions of the textbook corrected the statement by saying, ‘many of the inhabitants of Tripura are Bengalis’.  Later, the article goes on to talk about other ethnic groups that live in Bangladesh, and declares that the whole point of the article is to emphasize the beauty and value of ethnic and cultural diversity that exist in the country.  No other change has been made in the article.  No one has apparently raised the question, why should an article that is meant to highlight diversity start with the statement, ‘We are fortunate to have been born as Bengalis of Bangladesh’ (Tripura 2015)!  This is just one of countless manifestations of Bengali cultural hegemony that pervades through numerous school textbooks, literary creations, and representations in popular media along with the kinds of legal and policy provisions noted above.

It goes without saying that the hegemonic nature of Bengali views towards the ethnic minorities is not without material underpinnings. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts as well as in the rest of the country, the Indigenous peoples have faced large scale loss of their ancestral lands, a process that started during the Pakistan period, but accelerated in independent Bangladesh. A host of different factors, ranging from illegal land grabbing by powerful people, application of the vested property act, and major land acquisitions by different government agencies for various purposes, have been behind this development.  To take one specific example, it has been reported that in case of the Garo people, “three-fourths of the total dispossession has occurred after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971” (Barakat, Hoque, Halim and Osman 2008:173).

Colonial roots of nationalist Bengali hegemony

Much has been written about how linguistic nationalisms represent relatively recent phenomena throughout the world, representing ‘imagined communities’ constructed by literate classes of people under what Anderson (1983) calls ‘print capitalism’.  In case of Bengali nationalism, we can find its earlier expressions in what used to be ‘undivided Bengal’ under British colonial rule, although the process took on a new life, shape and historic turn in the post-colonial period within the framework of the state of Pakistan.  The Bengali nationalism that spread and took roots in what used to be East Pakistan drew heavily on the literature produced by the Bengali bhadralok class that had come into being around Kolkata under British rule. 

Among students of anthropology, it is common knowledge that in the nineteenth century, the concept of culture was based on an evolutionist paradigm that distinguished between different stages of culture, from ‘lower’ or ‘primitive’ to ‘higher’ and ‘civilized’.   Although such evolutionist notions, including the practice of calling contemporary societies ‘primitive’ would soon become unfashionable as well as conceptually untenable within anthropology, the same ideas and practices continued in different guises among newly emergent literate elite classes in different parts of the world.  In this regard, Bengal or British India as a whole was no exception.  In fact, the very word chosen as synonymous with culture in Bangla and several other South Asian languages including Hindi carries the older evolutionist meaning to the term. The word we have in mind is sanskriti,a term that is based on a notion of refinement and is often equated with categories such as ‘fine arts’. 

It is said to be common knowledge that Rabindranth Tagore had a strong aversion to the word ‘krishti’ as a synonym for ‘culture’, apparently because it invoked the drudgery of agricultural work instead of the refinement and civilized achievement suggested by the term ‘sanskriti’ (cf.  Sartori 2008:3).  In Tagore’s own words, in a lecture that he delivered in English in 1919, we can find clear signs of his evolutionist understanding of the notion of culture (Tagore 2003: Section IX). 

In the earlier stage of her culture the whole of Europe had Latin for her language of learning. It was like her intellectual bud-time, when all her petals of self-expression were closed into one point. But the perfection of her mental unfolding was not represented by that oneness of her literary vehicle. [Emphasis added]

We will come back to Tagore later, but for now let us turn our attention to another set of notions – that of ‘tribe’, ‘tribal society’, ‘hill tribe’ – that may be seen as representing older British colonialist/evolutionist views about the history and social makeup of the peoples of South Asia.  As I argued in an older article of mine (Tripura 1992), in British India, the category ‘tribal’ was part of a larger constellation of colonialist ideas, images and categories that formed the British ‘Orientalist’ discourse on Indian society and history (cf. Said 1979).   In this discourse the category ‘tribal’ was contrasted with various ‘non-tribal’ categories, e.g. ‘caste’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Indian’, ‘Bengali’ and so on.  Coupled with the theory or ‘myth’ of Aryan invasion, the tribal/non-tribal dichotomy served to produce a racialist interpretation of how the complex ethnic make-up of the subcontinent had come about.  In this view, ‘Indo-European’ speaking ‘Aryan’ races came in successive waves to the subcontinent and over time formed the upper strata of the Hindu caste system; native races formed the lower strata; but there were also those who resisted being incorporated into the caste system, or simply remained outside of it due to ‘isolation’—the ‘tribal’ people.  Thus, on the fringes of British Bengal, many of the so-called ‘hill tribes’ came to be viewed as ‘Tibeto-Burman’ speaking ‘Mongoloid’ ‘immigrants’ who had managed to live in relative isolation from the societies of the plains. Colonial administrators generally viewed the tribal people as ‘simple’ and vulnerable that needed protection against the ‘corrupting influence’ of the people of the plains.  Thus they designated many ‘tribal’ inhabited areas as excluded or partially excluded for the purposes of settlement by ‘non-tribal’ communities.  While some laws including such provisions have been removed or modified during the postcolonial periods, many of the extant policies and legal provisions relating to the indigenous peoples can still be traced back to British colonial rule (e.g. the CHT Regulation 1900 and State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950, which, in Section 97, contains ‘Restriction on alienation of lands of aboriginals’).  From the point of view of the indigenous peoples, the ruling classes of the post-colonial nation-states simply inherited and carried on with the same colonial mindset as the British in many ways. Article 23A of the constitution, as amended in 2011, containing outmoded categories such ‘tribes and minor races’, is just one recent manifestation of this tendency.

Conclusion: Diversity as an end itself, and as a means to achieving unities

Bangladesh is a unitary state in which national identity is presently conceived of in narrow and homogenous terms that do not quite recognize the full extent of ethno-linguistic diversity that exists in the country.  But such a situation is hardly compatible with contemporary international norms and standards that the country’s own constitution aspires to.  In practice, however, the recent attempt by those in power to update the constitution through Article 23A has failed to satisfy the demands of the ethnic minorities of the country.  On the contrary, colonialist notions employed by the newly introduced article, along with exclusionist formulations elsewhere in the constitution, have further alienated Bangladesh’s ethnic minorities which continue to press their demands for more inclusive and diversity-sensitive notions of national identity.  Clearly, there is a need to decolonize various categories with which dominant social classes in Bangladesh think about all kinds of culturally constructed identities and differences.  In so far as colonialist terms such as ‘tribe’ and ‘backward’ are deeply entrenched in dominant discourses in various countries of South Asia, the problem noted in the context of Bangladesh is one that exists on a larger scale throughout the region. 

Clearly, democratization and decolonization of hegemonic cultural categories must be seen as an important precondition for a future South Asia that is more at ease with cultural diversity both within and across national boundaries.  This is a problem that Rabindranath Tagore recognized and thought about in his own lifetime a century ago.  He was by no means free from colonialist or imperialist notions and tendencies implanted by the British, but he was keenly aware of the need to continuously strive to free our minds from the restrictive powers of received notions. Tagore thought in terms of geographical and historical imaginaries in which ‘India’ was conceived of as an entity that was above and beyond what is present day India.  Instead, it would be closer to what we refer to as South Asia today. Tagore had not possibly anticipated the birth of Bangladesh either.  Yet, considering the influence that he has had in giving birth to a country that adopted a song penned by him as its own national anthem, one wonders what Tagore himself would have made of the fact that the ‘Sonar Bangla’ of his imagination has become a political reality in which only one language, Bangla, is presently recognized by the constitution which also defines the national identity narrowly as ‘Bangalee’.  We end by a quote from his 1919 lecture that we have already referred to earlier in this paper:

The bringing about of an intellectual unity in India is, I am told, difficult to the verge of impossibility owing to the fact that India has so many different languages.

But every people in the world, in order to attain its greatness, must solve some great problem for itself, or accept defeat and degradation. All true civilizations have been built upon the bedrock of difficulties. […] We must bravely accept the inconvenient fact of the diversity of our languages, and at the same time know that a foreign language, like foreign soil, may be good for pot culture, but not for that cultivation which is widely and permanently necessary for the maintenance of life.

Then let us admit that India is not like any one of the great countries of Europe, which has its one language, but like Europe herself branching out into different peoples having different languages. And yet Europe has a common civilization with an intellectual unity which is not based upon uniformity of language.

The diversity of our languages should not be allowed to frighten us; but we should be warned of the futility of borrowing the language of our culture from a far-away land, making stagnant and shallow that which is fluid near its source.

We are thus faced with two stupendous problems: the first, about our poverty of intellectual life; the second, about the poverty of our material life.

The first, I have discussed in some detail in this paper. I have come to the conclusion that for the perfection of our mental life the co-ordination of all our cultural resources [including our languages] is necessary. […]

Our material poverty, likewise, can only be removed by the co-ordination of our material resources…. […] Our centre of culture should not only be the centre of [our] intellectual life…, but the centre of [our] economic life also.

The self-identifying indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have merely been asking for recognition of certain rights, e.g. pertaining to their languages and livelihoods, as have been foreshadowed in the quoted passages from Tagore above. These are aspirations that any state in the contemporary world should recognize and value as an end in themselves as well as means towards fostering greater unities at national and regional levels. 


[1] The full title of the original paper was “Ethnic diversity and cultural hegemony in Bangladesh: Imperatives for more inclusive national and regional identities.”  A revised version of the paper, with a modified title, was submitted for a post-conference publication planned by IDSA [Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis].  However, as of August 2019, it was not yet published though the editor informed this author that it was still under process.

[2] Excerpts from the constitution are as found on a website of the Ministry of Law, Government of Bangladesh:  


Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism.  London: Verso

Barakat, A., M. Hoque, S. Halim, and A. Osman (2008) Study on the Land Dispossession and Alienation of Adivasis in the Plain Districts of Bangladesh, Human Development Research Centre, Dhaka

Said, Edward (1979) Orientalism.  New York:  Vintage Books.

Sartori, Andrew (2008) Bengal in Global Concept History:  Culturalism in the Age of Capital.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Tagore, Rabindranath (2003) The Centre of Indian Culture. Kolkata: Rupa & Co. [Also available online at]

Tripura, Prashanta (1992) The Colonial Foundation of Pahari Ethnicity. In Journal of Social Studies, No. 58

…….(2012) Becoming Bangladeshi. In Himal Southasian, October 11, 2012

…….(2013) From jumia to Jumma: Shifting Cultivation and Shifting Identities in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. In Himal Southasian, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April 2013).

…….(2014) The quest for indigenous identity in Bangladesh, 1993-2013. In Unsettling Discourses: The Theory and Practice of Indigenous Studies. Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines Baguio, Baguio City, Philippines. Abridged version available online at:

……..(2015) Bohujatir Bangladesh [‘Multiethnic Bangladesh’ – a collection of essays in Bangla].  Dhaka: Sangbed.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Musings on the name ‘Neolithic Musings’

I don’t know if any visitor to this site – my personal blog  called ‘Neolithic Musings’ –  ever wondered about its name, particularly the sense in which the word ‘Neolithic’ is used in it.  Anyway, as I mark the sixth anniversary of my blog, I would like to share my reflections on what its name possibly means to me.

It may be mentioned at the outset that I launched ‘Neolithic Musings’ in August 2013 together with two more personal blogs:  আলুটিলা ছাড়িয়ে (‘Beyond Alutila’) in Bangla and Lamani Kok (‘Stories of the Road’) in Kokborok (Tripura).  I started these blogs with the intention of posting articles and poems of mine not previously published, or not published in any easily accessible media.

The following excerpt from the About my blog  page of my blog gives an indication as to the types of posts that visitors to this site may expect:

This blog contains my reflections on topics [such as] questions of identity, our views of history, and our hopes and despairs over the times and places that we live [or have lived] in.  My writings draw on my memories of growing up in the Chittgong Hill Tracts, long years of studying abroad, and my experiences in the academia [as a student/teacher of anthropology] and the development sector.

However, neither the above-mentioned page nor any other part of my blog contains a direct explanation as to why it has been named ‘Neolithic musings’.  In fact, now that I think about it, if someone were to ask me, “In what sense do writings on the kinds of topics indicated above constitute Neolithic musings?”, I would not be able to provide a straightforward answer.

The fact that I studied (and taught) anthropology may hold a clue as to why the word ‘Neolithic’ features in the name of my blog.  But in this regard I must clarify that although the Neolithic (or ‘New Stone’) Age is of special interest to archeological anthropology, this happens to be the subfield of anthropology that I have had the least exposure too.  In any case, the word ‘Neolithic’ in the name of my blog is not meant to be a technical term with specific meaning as used by anthropologists or archeologists.  Instead, I picked this word in naming my blog because of the poetic connotation that it evokes in my mind.

In order to convey the kinds of connotations that the word ‘Neolithic’ is associated with in my mind, it may be mentioned that there was a time – some two decades ago – when, while passing through a critical juncture of my life, I was preoccupied with the idea of an autobiographical book for which I had chosen a name already:  Neolithic Songs.  In the end, I shelved the idea of this book indefinitely.  At present I don’t know if I’ll ever get to write it, but if and when I do, I can imagine that it will draw on many of the articles and poems that I have posted on ‘Neolithic Musings’.

Sitakunda (Image from the internet)

Another piece of relevant information that I could add here regarding my idiosyncratic use of the word ‘Neolithic’ is that I used it in a transliterated form in Bangla in a diary entry of mine dating back three decades ago.  It was a record of a chance encounter with a fellow Tripura (i.e. someone of the same ethnicity as mine) in Sitakunda, Chittagong.  The person that I met was from a very small local community that was holding on in that area against many odds.  I was in Sitakunda to visit a relative of mine at his office, and had some free time before returning to Chittagong with him. So I was just walking around somewhat aimlessly on the road when I met the fellow Tripura.  I asked him for directions to the Chandranath temple that pilgrims visited in that area. During the brief conversation that followed, I found out that he was a Tripura.  And it so happened that it started raining during our conversation, and he was carrying an umbrella, which he opened and held towards me in a way so that we could both be shielded from the rain.  My diary entry about this encounter included the following (translated from Bangla; the original text may be viewed in the section headlined “A Day in Sitakunda” in blog post):

Two isolated streams of history suddenly came face-to-face today at the feet of the Sitakunda range. On one side it was me; on the other side it was a fellow Tripura (‘Our Borok’) whose name I did not know.  With the help of a Neolithic way of reckoning relatedness, we both overcame instantly all the hesitations, doubts, surprises and traces of forgotten histories.

What did I have in mind when I wrote about ‘Neolithic way’ of reckoning relatedness? Was I thinking of our supposed common ‘tribal’ background? Was I not partly influenced by colonial era anthropological discourses that treated contemporary ‘tribal’ societies as relics from the Stone Age?

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment