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

Prologue

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

Abstract

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. 

Introduction

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. 

Notes


[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: http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/pdf_part.php?act_name=&vol=XV&id=367

References

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 http://tagoreweb.in]

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 http://himalmag.com/becoming-bangladeshi/

…….(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).  http://himalmag.com/jumia-jumma/

…….(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:  http://alalodulal.org/2013/12/17/indigenous/

……..(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):

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

Violence-torn hills and an idyllic stream

The canvas of Joydeb Roaja’s art[1]

[Prashanta Tripura]

Joydeb Roaja [a visual artist based in Chittagong, Bangladesh] grew up in Khagrachari, a place that I too hail from, which is situated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region that has undergone drastic changes and violent conflicts for decades. He had been known to me through kinship ties and as the nephew of a close friend of mine long before I got to know him through his artwork, which first caught my attention via social media and the internet [particularly the artist’s personal blog] about seven years ago. Through these media, I came across and was fascinated by examples of his artistic creations, including images of his drawings and paintings, and still photographs as well as occasional video clips of his performance art. To me, what was very distinctive about the samples of his artwork as put on virtual display was the fact that most of those used the violence-torn hill tracts as a backdrop, if not the main subject.[2]

tanks-guns-n-hajatoisha

Two samples of Joydeb Roaja’s art

It may be mentioned that based on casual observations of artistic depictions of the countryside in Bangladesh, the anthropologist in me had a general impression that urban artists tended to depict rural life and landscape in a timeless manner. This is a trend that seemed to be particularly strong when it came to staged performances depicting the cultures and livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as noted in an article of mine titled ‘Culture, Identity and Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ which was first published in 1998.[3]  In it, referring to an identity label of relatively recent origin, Jumma, which is meant to designate all the indigenous hill peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and is etymologically derived from jum, a local term for traditional forms of shifting cultivation as practiced in the region, I wrote: “The performance of dances or songs in which jum-cultivators are depicted in an idealised setting does not necessarily conform to the historical experiences of contemporary jum-cultivators. [But] how much do we educated urban Jummas know about the conditions under which today’s jum-cultivators live? ”

Against the backdrop of the kinds of questions noted above, I was struck by how a number of Joydeb Roaja’s drawings and paintings captured the armed conflict that had wreaked havoc on the region by juxtaposing depictions of indigenous subjects with that of objects such as tanks, guns and military fatigues. It was particularly visually stunning and thought provoking to find faces or heads of human figures representing indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts adorned with or replaced by materials like tanks. Similar motifs could be observed in still photographs and video clips of Joydeb Roaja’s acts of performance art as well, which also touched upon different types of conflicts, contradictions, inequalities and injustices that pervaded in Bangladeshi society more generally.

However, despite Joydeb Roaja’s artistic focus on violence in the hills and different types of incongruities of life in Bangladesh, the samples of his artwork on virtual display also included a contrasting stream centering on idyllic depictions of a little stream named Haja Toisha and its surroundings.[4]  The tranquility and harmonious relationship between nature and culture that his paintings of this series displayed evoked times and places that many of us who grew up in the Chittagong Hill Tracts remember from our childhood days. To be sure, if one moves away from expanding urban centers and sites of conflict, it is probably still possible to find actual places that Joydeb Roaja’s Haja Toisha paintings depict.

In fact, it is quite possible that on the edge of the artist’s ancestral village, there is an actual stream named, or very similar to, the Haja Toisha that the he has recreated on canvas. Nonetheless, in the context of the wider currents of changes and conflicts, the idyllic paintings look more like nostalgic trips to a remembered past that is fast vanishing.  At the same time, however, it is also possible to view such works as artistic recreations of social and aesthetic ideals that can serve both as a source of inspiration and a guide to a desired future as we pass through times and places that are full of conflict, dislocation and contradictions.  In any case, viewed in the context of Joydeb Roaja’s works of art as a whole, the Haja Toisha paintings could be seen as constituting an important counterpoint to his other creations that dwell on themes of violence and dissonance.

As indicated already, my initial encounter with Joydeb Roaja’s art was through samples that could be viewed virtually. While these created a positive impression in my mind about the artist’s sensibilities, I was further impressed by his keen interest in engaging with relevant contemporary issues when he approached me, in September 2012, seeking clarification on the concept of ‘indigenous culture’.  In response, I ended up writing what amounted to a short article (in Bangla) that I posted as a Facebook note[5] at that time.  One of my main points in that note was to say that cultures, including that of indigenous peoples, are neither static nor homogeneous, and that our ideas of ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional culture’ are often contemporary constructions.  Joydeb Roaja seemed to agree with this point of view readily, and in any case he and his peers discussed and debated such issues in connection to an art workshop held in Chittagong.  Even though I did not have the opportunity to take part in that workshop directly, I was glad to provide an anthropological input to it from afar.

Against the backdrop of the kind of interaction with Joydeb Roaja as indicated above, I was very happy when finally, in December 2014, I had the opportunity to see some of his paintings directly at an exhibition held in Dhaka. This was a group exhibition by artists who hailed from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.  While the paintings, drawings and other works on display at the exhibition fascinated me greatly, I was readily drawn to some of Joydeb Roaja’s paintings that depicted scenes that I had already been familiar with.  There were a few paintings of the Haja Toisha series, and I was very glad to be able to bring one of these with me to my home.  It is now a permanent fixture inside my study at home, and when I look at the tranquil scene depicted by the painting, I often think of my own childhood memories and ideals (e.g. living in harmony with nature) that I still hold dear in my heart.  As we try to make sense of and counter the violence and dissonance around us from various perspectives, images of tranquility as represented by the Haja Toisha paintings can take on various meanings, including our memories of the past and hopes for the future.

~~~

jdr_japan-tour-poster

Notes

[1] This article, bearing the full title ‘Violence-torn hills and an idyllic stream: The canvas of Joydeb Roazj’s art’ has been reproduced from a publication titled Dream without Pillow: Reflections of Joydeb Roaja’s art journey (2016), which has been published in connection to visual artist Joydeb Roaja’s Japan tour from November 17 to December 1, 2016, when there will be solo exhibitions, performances and a talk by him in Osaka, Nagano and Tokyo, along with a talk at Musashino Art University in Tokyo. In a Facebook post, the artist provided the following explanation as to the title of his publication: “Most of my thoughts and paintings are products of midnight. I don’t have a studio of my own. It is when my two children fall asleep that I get the opportunity to work on my art. Thus instead of having happy dreams while asleep on soft pillows, I weave my artistic dreams while awake at or past midnight.”

[2] In the same Facebook post alluded to in the previous note, Joydeb Roaja goes talks about growing up at a village in Khagrachari, where he faced language barriers at school, but developed an interest in copying drawings found in school books. Later, encouraged by an uncle, he went on to receive formal training in the fine arts at the Chittagong Art College.  He suggests that much of his art has been shaped by his experiences and memories of growing up amidst violent conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.  He has memories of having to flee his village quite often for safety, but as a child he also played games of battles with other children, one group posing as guerilla fighters, and the other as government soldiers. While playing such games, some of the children actually got hurt.  In Joydeb Roaja’s own minds, all this has shaped his artistic journey so far.

[3] P. Tripura (1998) Culture, Identity and Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Downloadable  PDF version)

[4] Samples of paintings for this series are available at Joydeb Roaja’s personal blog: Haja Toisha

[5] P. Tripura (2012) On ‘Indigenous Culture’ (Facebook note in Bangla)

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

Letter to Bernardo

An open letter to Bernardo, a Mexican-American friend of mine of  ‘Aztec descent’, written while the world was waiting for the results of the US elections and in Bangladesh, members of an indigenous community dealt with loss of lives and houses being burnt down at Gobindaganj, Gaibandha in northern Bangladesh 

November 9, 2016, Dhaka

Dear Bernardo,

Do you remember me? We used to be friends at the University of California, Berkeley, where both of us lived at the International House for a while. It has been so long – twenty-five years to be exact – since I left Berkeley for good and lost touch with you that you may not recall my name or recognize my face instantly.  But I am sure you would remember that we used to play pool together quite often. Initially, we spoke little about our personal backgrounds, until one day when you announced – over a game of 9-Ball – to me that you were of Aztec descent.  This was right after I had presented a slide show, which I called ‘Glimpses of the Fourth World’.  During that event, I showed photos that I had taken in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh and talked about the violations of human rights that the indigenous peoples of that region were facing in the 1980s.

I used the concept of the ‘Fourth World’ as a category for all the indigenous peoples whose rights and interests were not served by the modern system of nation states. Although members of my audience – which consisted of fellow residents of the International House – did not include any person of known ‘indigenous’ background, you would later make the surprise announcement to me around the pool table.  I remember the exact words that you used.  You said to me, “Did you know that I am a full-blooded Aztec”?  I realized that this was just your way of expressing quiet solidarity with me, and to say that you could understand issues that I presented readily.

However, the anthropologist in me could not help remarking to you, “Is there really any such thing as ‘full-blooded’ Aztec? Aren’t the majority of modern Mexicans considered to be of mixed descent, at least in a cultural sense? For example, your first language is Spanish, and you don’t speak Nahuatl or any other indigenous language, so at least culturally speaking, you cannot claim to be a full-blooded Aztec. Can you?”  You probably missed my point, and gave me a reply that was quite extraordinary, “If there is any European blood flowing in my body, I am prepared to cut open my veins and drain it out.” Even though my anthropological training taught me to recognize the problematic (and Nazi-like) nature of such views, I simply took it as a reaction against the deeply entrenched racism that many Latin (and Native) Americans either internalized or were subjected to. However, I digress.  The reason I thought of you today is in the context of two different developments:  one is the US elections which the whole world seems to be fascinated by, and the second is the deep racism that the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh continue to face.

In terms of racist policies and practices towards the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, I am thinking specifically of a very recent development about which this Dhaka Tribune report of November 7 2016 will give you an idea. Briefly, at a place in the northern part of Bangladesh,  the authorities subjected a community of Santals, an indigenous people, to atrocious measures by the police and local gangs in order to reclaim lands at the Sahebganj Bagda Farm –  in Gobindaganj, Gaibandha –  that the state-owned Rangpur Sugar Mill claims to own, but members of the local Santal community and some other locals believe should now be handed back to them as the conditions of land acquisition by the government.  Instead of seeking peaceful means of resolving the ensuing dispute, local vested interest groups – possibly with the tacit approval of some political overlords in Dhaka – got police to open fire on the Santals who resisted the eviction drive, and allowed thugs to loot and burn down the houses of hundreds of Santal households.  As of yesterday, at least two Santal men are reported to have died of gunshot wounds, and two more Santal men are believed to have suffered similar fates, though their dead bodies are yet to be accounted for. What is most disturbing is that most outlets of the mainstream national media, instead of covering this development properly, are either ignoring it, or presenting matters only from the perspectives of those in power.  And right now, most middle class Bangladeshis are more interested in  finding out about who will become the next US President rather than be bothered about some ‘tribals’ getting killed somewhere out there.

Bernardo, I don’t know if you are still living in the US, and if so, whether you have voted in the ongoing US elections this time. As a Mexican-American, I doubt that Trump would be your favorite candidate, since Latinos in general seem to be more inclined to vote for candidates of the Democratic Party, and those of Mexican descent have been generally offended by various remarks and announcements made by Trump.  (It so happens that I wrote another open letter four years ago, addressed to Francisco, whose name I misspelled as Francesco at that time.  You knew him, did you not?  Anyway, you may take a look at the letter if you have time.  It talks about how Latinos have emerged as a key factor in US electoral politics.)  However, since you thought of yourself as an Aztec, i.e. a member of an indigenous people of the Americas, I wonder whether you relate to the difficulties that Native Americans generally seem to have in the US.  Does it make sense to you that a Native American Electoral College Voter Says He Will Not Vote For Hillary Clinton Even If She Wins His State?

The point is that indigenous peoples all over the world feel let down by major political parties of most nations, regardless of the specific political stripes of those in power. Bangladesh is no exception.  The main parties in the ruling coalition that has been in power in this country once presented themselves to be champions of the rights of indigenous peoples, but after coming to power, went on to introduce legal and constitutional measures that continue to be widely (mis)interpreted as amounting to rejection of the very notion of indigenous people.  At any rate, what happened to the Santals at Sahebganj, Gobindaganj in the last few days is indicative of a wider pattern of how the present ruling coalition is more interested in catering to the powerful interest groups that support it than looking after the rights and interests of the indigenous peoples.

bagdafarm-burning

Image source:  Dhaka Tribute

I would like to mention one final point about Bangladesh. It is that some quarters in the government here have been very active in promoting the idea that the term ‘indigenous people’ is not applicable in Bangladesh, and that ethnic minorities of the country should be referred to by a newly coined term that was originally conceived of as a synonym for ‘racial minority’ (Not surprisingly, since 2011, the term ‘minor race’ has been there in the English version of the constitution).   My training in anthropology has taught me to treat the concept of ‘race’ as a social construct, not in terms of outmoded ‘anthropological’ categories like Mongoloid, Caucasoid etc. that the notion of ‘minor race’ (‘nrigoshthi’) is based on. (You may read my piece Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racism and the Idea of Race in this connection.  This will hopefully explain to you why I was not comfortable with the idea of your self-perception as a ‘full-blooded’ Aztec. ) Bernardo, as most Americans and the whole world are too preoccupied with trying to find out who will become the next US President, let us take a longer-term historical view, and remind ourselves that the indigenous peoples have a different view of nation-states and of the present world order, views that can actually help correct many wrongs that are relevant for the future of the planet as a whole than the ones that voters and politicians  are too fixated on.

Take care.

Prashanta

Dhaka, Bangladesh

P.s.: I forgot to tell you that I was back to Berkeley a year ago (2015), when I stayed at a hotel about an hour’s walk away from campus.  After arriving there, I wanted to walk to campus, but was surprised to realize that some pedestrians that I asked for directions did not know where UC Berkeley campus was.  They were young white men who lived in that area, but did not know about the university not too far from where they lived.  I found this astonishing.  Did they represent the part of the demographic makeup of the US that may go on to override the preferences of other categories of voters?

Letter first posted at 11:30 am on November 9, 2016 (USA: 9:30 pm Pacific Standard Time, November 8, 2016).  An updated version re-posted at 2:00pm BD time or 11:30pm PST on the same date(s).

Update (2:00pm BdST, Nov 9): We know by now who the next US President will be, but the substance of this letter remains the same.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

The magic of scripts

Excerpts from a paper titled ‘Scripting Minority Identities: Nationalism and Linguistic Diversity in Bangladesh’, by Prashanta Tripura[1]

SacrificialGoat&MroDance

A goat about to be sacrificed in a Tripura Ritual in Khagrachari (Photo by PT 2008) and a group of Mro performers in Bandarban (Source: National Geographic 1973)

While growing up in a Tripura village in Khagrachari, Bangladesh, I learnt a mythical tale that explained why the Tripuras did not have a script or writing system of their own. According to this myth, once upon a time the Tripuras did have their own alphabet, the letters of which were written on the leaves of a plant.  Unfortunately, one day those precious leaves were eaten up by a goat, thus the Tripuras lost their script for ever.  (To date, when goats are sacrificed on different rituals, Tripuras with flairs for the occult talk about how the lost letters can be discerned vaguely on the entrails of the slaughtered animals.)  It turns out that such myths are not unique to the Tripuras, but are found in different forms among many other ethnic groups in Bangladesh and beyond. For example, the Mros – a people indigenous to the Bandarban hill district of Bangladesh and in some areas of Myanmar – too have a similar myth. In their case the mythical scapegoat is a gayal, a bovine that had been tasked by the god Turai to deliver the script and scriptures meant for the Mro people, but on the way it ate up its payload, thus depriving the Mros of a holy book of their own.  Similarly, the Garos or Mandis have a myth that says that their ancestors lost their script during a long journey through a mountainous region as they got very hungry and ended up boiling and eating the animal skins on which the script had been written. While reflecting on such myths, this author speculated – in a Bangla article published in 2000 – that these stories could be interpreted as justification by non-literate cultures as to their distinctiveness vis-à-vis literate civilizations. Recently James Scott, in his The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (first published in 2010), has brought up the possibility of a far more radical explanation as to what such stories mean, by suggesting that these may be treated as legends that ‘embody a germ of historical truth’ relating to societies that in many cases may be better conceptualized as having been postliterate as opposed to preliterate.  In other words, the societies under consideration may have abandoned, or deliberately avoided, literacy along with state organization and intensive agriculture to pursue an alternative mode of being.  However, this paper does not seek to dwell on or add to the perspective suggested by Scott.  Instead, it invokes a much older anthropological notion that equated literacy with cultural advancement, and examines how similar notions continue to inform dominant views about the languages of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh.

The older anthropological notion referred to above has to do with the fact that in nineteenth century anthropology (and in Western social thought more generally), literacy and the use of writing systems were widely viewed as important measures of the evolutionary heights achieved by different cultures or civilizations. The most ‘civilized’ societies were assumed to be those that possessed alphabets, particularly of phonetic varieties, whereas cultures lacking any form of writing system were thought of as ‘primitive’ (e.g. see Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture, and Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, published in 1871 and 1877 respectively).  Although the label ‘primitive’ would soon become unfashionable as well as conceptually untenable within anthropology, it was simply replaced by categories like non-literate or preliterate that  continued to reproduce, albeit in a less recognizable form, the same types of evolutionist notions and pejorative connotations that dichotomies such as civilized-primitive carried with them.  For example, the very term ‘preliterate’ betrays a hidden assumption that literacy is an inevitable direction to which all societies have to move towards inexorably.

Given the cultural pride stemming from the idea of an ethnic group having its own script, in case of groups that do not possess their ‘own scripts’, there have been repeated attempts by many individuals to invent new ones. For example, as mentioned in my 2000 article referred to already, I personally knew of three Bangladeshi Tripuras who had invented scripts for Kokborok independently. Similarly, five Bangladeshi Garos are reported to have invented scripts for their language.  Recently, I came across – on Facebook – two new scripts for Kokborok as invented by individuals in Tripura, India, where similar attempts have been observed among many Adivasi groups, as reported in a recent article titled Writing a new-identity: Indigenous tribes across India devising scripts.

2. Invented Kokborok scripts

Two of several invented scripts for Kokborok, as found on separate Facebook posts

While most invented scripts fail to generate sufficient support for them to be considered seriously, there are also a few notable exceptions. In Bangladesh, one such exception occurred among the Mros, the ethnic group whose script and scriptures had been eaten up by a mythical gayal. In a significant development, in the mid 1980s, a messianic figure by the name of Menlay arose from among the Mros, who were among the ethnic groups that had remained most resistant to external cultural influences.  From the perspective of outsiders, until recently, one sign of the Mros remaining less acculturated was their semi-nude bodies, along with long hairs worn by men, very low rates of literacy and heavy dependence on jum (shifting) cultivation.  In this context, Menlay emerged as a messianic leader who not only invented a script for his people, but also came up with a religion – complete with its own written codes – that came to be known as Krama. This new religion – which prescribed among other things a new dress code and hairstyle that would make converts look less exotic or ‘primitive’ – gained considerable following very quickly among the Mros (and even among many Khumis, a different ethnic group, members of which live closely with the Mros) in Bangladesh as well as across the border in Myanmar.  Followers of the new religion were also expected to learn the new script, which began to be used in writing down codes of the Krama religion.[2]

5. Mro_Script WoodCarving

Krama (‘Mro’) script on wood curving. Source: Language Log post on ‘Endangered Alphabets’ project, 2012

It so happens that there are also adherents of other religions – including traditional ‘animism’, Buddhism and Christianity – among the Mros. In case of Mros who converted to Christianity, some got used to using their language in written form in a limited way using the Roman script.  However, with the spread of Krama, the newly devised Mro script caught on and was also quickly picked up by NGOs and other organizations that provided material support to promote its use at various levels including in schools at preprimary and primary levels.  It is estimated that around 60% of Mros of Bangladesh are literate in their language (This figure probably includes individuals who learned the use of the script not from attending schools, but as part of taking part in Krama rituals). However, on the whole, official literacy rates among the Mros – measured in terms of formal schooling – still remain one of the lowest among all ethnic groups of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh.

Mro Kids & Mro Primer

Mro children with ‘My Bangla’ textbook (left) and a Mro primer in Krama script, prepared under a donor-assisted project (Photo: PT 2014)

There are some indications that for a long period in the past (say over fifty years ago), the Mros used to be fairly contented and accustomed to a self-sufficient way of life. However, in the context of the recent history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh, the Mros have suffered immensely in various ways. For example they were armed and pitted against PCJSS, a regional political party that waged an armed campaign since the 1970s until the ‘peace’ accord of 1997, demanding regional autonomy for the indigenous peoples of the CHT region.  It was in the context of such a violent background that the Mro script emerged.  Menlay was among the first cohort of students attending a boarding school built exclusively for Mro children by military-backed regimes that ruled Bangladesh from 1975 to 1990.  Menlay must have been an unusual student in the boarding school (launched around 1980) as he is said to have been 18 [but see footnote 3 below] when he enrolled as a first grader![3] The school was managed by teachers and administrators who were members of dominant ethnic groups that never tried to learn the Mro language.  Reportedly they were reluctant to take Menlay in, but relented at his persistence (he camped out on the school compound where he had gone on a fast). However, by around 1984 he lost interest in school as well as in worldly affairs, and went away on a quest that would lead to the Krama script and religion by 1985.  Within a year and a half of his dramatic revelation of the Krama script and religion, he ‘disappeared’, not to be seen or heard from again so far, though his followers believe that he will return one day.

Now the Mros have their script alright, but their lands continue to be grabbed by powerful interest groups of all kinds. They also continue to face increasing levels of poverty and violence, and there is indication that some of them reorganized into armed groups in recent years under names like Mro National Party.  In this connection, it may be mentioned that Menrum Mro, a well-known educated person who had developed computer fonts called ‘Riyen’ for the Krama alphabet in 1996, is believed to have been a founder of one such group, but he is reported to have been killed sometime in 2012 or 2013 under circumstances that this author has not been able to find out any definite or reliable information on. If the above information about him is true, the question that we need to ask is, what are the circumstances that would drive a computer savvy educated Mro take up arms?  Seen in a broader context, the story of the rise of the Mro (Krama) script is a remarkable one which has many layers that need to be examined far more deeply and thoroughly than what we can achieve in this paper.  There are many more questions that remain to be asked and answered.  In Bangladesh, the Mros are a minority among minorities, and as yet have very low literacy rates by formal standards.  Yet in a remarkable development, almost in no time, they can now boast of a script of their own that has a Unicode version under development.  What do we make of this?  Will Menlay, who disappeared after leaving behind the ‘Mro script’, ever return as the messiah his followers believe him to be? Will the Mros be able to hold onto their remaining ancestral lands and their traditional livelihoods against all odds?  Or does the tragic fate of Menrum Mro signal a realization on the part of some Mros that the Krama script or religion are not the magic bullets that can protect them from the onslaught of external forces (represented and/or facilitated by the state, market and development organizations of all kinds)?

6. Nilgiri.Resort

Nilgiri – a military-run exclusive resort set up in traditional Mro territory (Photo from internet)

[1] The paper referred to was presented at the International Seminar on Comparative Literature: Questions of Language and Minority, held from 14th to 16th October, 2015, and organized by Centre for Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, University of Hyderabad, India. The excerpts reproduced here include selections from the introduction, and a sub-section that appears towards the end of the 10,000-words long paper prepared for the seminar. Feedback on the views and information presented here or any relevant queries would be most welcome, either as comments to this blog post, or by email to prashanta.tripura@gmail.com.

[2] Some of the details regarding the story of Menlay are taken from a Bangla article, by Mong Sing Neo, as retrieved from a CHT-related website where it had been posted in 2011. During my personal communication with him, M S Neo clarified that his article under consideration was originally a Kabishabha Yahoo group post of 2007, and that it had been published under a different title in a Chittagong-based daily later.

[3] [UPDATE, April 6, 2016] In a Bangla book on Menlay, titled Kramadi by Yangan Mro, published by Anagh Prakashan, Dhaka in 2015 (ইয়াংঙান ম্রো, ক্রামাদি, অনঘ প্রকাশন, ঢাকা, ২০১৫), it is mentioned that Menlay was aged 12 (not 18 as mentioned above) when he first enrolled at Mro Residential School in 1977.

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

I was once mugged by someone who left a BMW car behind!

Help - I am being mugged

Image source: Internet

This story of my getting mugged near the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where I used to be a graduate student from 1986-1990, has been extracted from an article of mine, Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racism and the Idea of Race, published recently.  I present the story on its own here – exactly as narrated within the above article – since it is interesting in itself.  I have also added a couple of light-hearted images to go with some of the details that have comic aspects, even though on the whole we are dealing with serious matters, which are addressed accordingly in the fuller article.

BMW logo (small)

In the summer of 1987, one evening I was walking alone along a street that ran from Berkeley to Oakland.  I was at a relatively quiet residential area right outside our campus.  I had taken out cash from an ATM while running an errand, and as I headed back to campus, I saw a couple of men whom I had already passed by once earlier loitering suspiciously in a dark area on the sidewalk.  I remembered reading some safety tips that advised crossing the street on such situations.  I did that, only to realize that the men that I was trying to avoid did the same and were coming towards me.  The safety tips that I had gone through did not prepare me for this, so I was not sure of what to do.  Anyway, upon crossing the street, I tried to walk in the opposite direction but the two men caught up with me.  The standard safety tip for such situations is not to struggle, nor to cry for help.  However, as the two men grabbed me, and reached for my wallet inside one of the pockets of my trousers, I started struggling and crying out ‘Help! Help!’ almost instinctively.  Fortunately, I was not harmed physically as the muggers released me and took off as soon as they got hold of my wallet.

During my brief scuffle with the muggers, although there was a steady flow of cars on the street, none stopped for me.  However, upon hearing my screams, a young man had come out from a nearby house, and he started chasing the men who were running away with my wallet.  Moreover, a pedestrian coming from the opposite direction realized what was happening, and tried to grab one of the fleeing men from behind, and managed to hold on to a jacket worn by that person who simply slipped out of it and kept running.  In the meantime, the other Samaritan who had come out of a nearby house called 911, and struck up a conversation with me as we waited for the police to arrive.  Upon learning that I was a foreign student, the young man spoke very apologetically and said to me, “What a bad impression this experience will leave in your mind about our country!”  I had to comfort him by saying something like what follows, “Actually, we have muggers in our country as well, so I am not going to judge your country by this incident.”

Anyway, if all the help that I received up to this point in my story was rather uncommon, all that happened next were even more extraordinary.  After the police arrived – they did so fairly quickly – when the jacket left behind by the muggers was handed over, they discovered a car key in one of its pockets.  It was a BMW car key, and after looking around a bit, the police found a matching car parked nearby!  It was probably a stolen car which nonetheless must have contained important clues left by the suspects.   However, it was for the police to look into such matters.  Personally, despite remaining calm on the surface, I was rather shaken by the experience, and was very thankful when one of the police officers who had come to the scene – a Korean American man whom we shall call Kim henceforth – offered me a ride to my campus residence.  On the way, when I expressed my anxiety as to whether the muggers would come after me, Officer Kim assured me that the last person the muggers would want to face again was me!

As I tried to get over the shock of getting mugged for the first time in the fifth year of my stay in the US, two interesting developments occurred in the following couple of days.  First, I got a phone call from someone who informed me that they had found my wallet with its contents – except for cash – strewn all around on a sidewalk.  I took a friend with me to meet the caller, from whom I was happy to collect my wallet.  As for the second development, a detective came to me and showed me some photos out of which I picked one that looked like the face of one of the muggers.  He told me that I might be contacted again if needed, and sure enough, as soon as the new semester started, I received a subpoena that asked me to be present at a court hearing as a witness in a case involving the ‘People of the State of California’ versus an accused who had a name that I vaguely recall to have been something like McCoy. Anyway, on the day of the scheduled hearing, I found two familiar faces in the courtroom: one was Officer Kim, and another was ‘Mr. McCoy’, who looked very much like one of the muggers whom I had encountered earlier.  There was something about his look that I remembered quite vividly.

However, when I stood on the witness stand, and was interrogated by the Defense Attorney, I told the court that although I could not be 100% sure that Mr. McCoy was the person who had snatched my wallet, I was 95% sure.  At this point, for some reason that I can only speculate on, the Defense Attorney asked me to identify the racial identity of the muggers that had preyed on me.  I don’t know whether he wanted to suggest the possibility that I could be someone to confuse one Black face for another.  Anyway, instead of answering in the way that the question posed to me demanded, I started questioning the concept of race, leading to agitated deliberations on the part of the Defense Attorney.  I don’t remember the exact details of how the whole exchange went, but the point that I was trying to make was that as a student of anthropology, I had reservations about the concept of race, and that I believed that unnecessary or uncritical uses of racial categories led to perpetuation of racism.  I tried to clarify my point further by adding, “In Bangladesh, where I come from, we too have people of various skin colours, but we don’t categorize them in different races as such, and if someone is apprehended for a crime, we do not talk about what ‘race’ they belong to.”  The Defense Attorney became quite unsettled by my response and started saying something that amounted to the following: “The concept of race has perfect scientific basis, and I expect you to answer my question directly.”  Fortunately, the judge – who happened to be a woman – intervened on my behalf by saying, “I think the witness has clarified his point, so we can move on.”

[My story ends here.  I never found out how the case ended eventually.]
Mugging without prejeduce

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Commencement day reflections on studying anthropology

[Prashanta Tripura][1]

I am very glad and proud to be part of this happy occasion, an important rite of passage for us graduating seniors.

While I am here, I cannot help thinking that in today’s rapidly changing world, every moment of our lives is a rite of passage.

Throughout the world, whole societies are the initiates of a kind of transitional ritual that is often painful and violent.

Here I am thinking of the struggles for cultural as well as physical survival that many societies around the world are facing today.

In particular, I am thinking of the painful transition that the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh are undergoing currently.

The region which I am talking about is where I was born. It is home to a number of small ethnic groups – I belong to one of them – which face an uncertain future today.

Before I came to Brandeis, I had spent most of my life in the CHT. Throughout that part of my life, I had seen and [heard of] killings, riots and fear of persecution from a very close distance. When I visited home last summer, all I saw around me were military troops, and I felt totally alienated in a place where I was born and spent [most of the first] eighteen years of my life.

This feeling of alienation has pervaded the entire region. The various small ethnic groups feel and fear that the government of Bangladesh is deliberately trying to annihilate them culturally. This fear of extinction has led many people to take to armed resistance.

Even before I finished my tenth grade, many of my classmates and playmates went to the jungle, so did even some of my school teachers. And many of them have been killed while fighting or [after being detained by security forces].

As recently as two weeks ago, ethnic violence … broke out even in my hometown, where two villages adjacent to my own were burned down.

One of the reasons for such violence is that the government has been [relocating] many landless peasants from the plains … to the Hill Tracts. The [indigenous] people fear and are already experiencing cultural engulfment in the face of such development.

What is saddening, in my view, is that the government does not truly represent the interests of the landless peasants, while at the same time it disregards the legitimate concerns of the [indigenous people of the CHT].

Cultural and demographic extinction, [however,] is in no way unique to the CHT. While I was watching a movie by Woody Allen last night, I was struck by the way he put the question: “People wonder how the extermination of millions of people [i.e. the Holocaust] could have taken place. The real wonder is that this does not happen more often.”[2]

In a way genocide is taking place all over the world … all the time, as it has throughout history. At this very moment at this very place, I can hear the sighs of those souls to whom this land, I mean the [so-called] New World, once belonged.

My interest in anthropology grew out of my close encounter with this dark facet of humanity. I became interested in anthropology because it promises to give me a common perspective from which I can look both at myself and the world.

To my mind, anthropological inquiry has equal room for every society and every human group. It tries to find the meaning of what is meaningless existence for millions of people.

Some of my friends and even one part of myself accuse me that by deciding to study anthropology, I have strayed from my social responsibility.[3] They say, you cannot understand all of life but must play some of its games without knowing why. Perhaps they are partially right. But I still hold onto my conviction that understanding must [precede] action, and it is with this conviction that I will be attending Berkeley next fall to pursue graduate study in anthropology.

I share the poet’s conviction that those also serve who try to understand and wait.[4]

[Before I end], I would like to thank Professors [David] Murray, [Robert] Hunt, [Judith] Irvine, [George] Cowgill and [Neil] Gomberg.

Thank you all very much.

Commencement 1986

Class of 1986, Brandeis University [5]

~~~

Notes:

[1] Remarks made as a designated ‘senior speaker’ at a graduation ceremony organized by the Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University, Massachusetts, on May 18, 1986; reproduced here from a pre-written script with minor edits indicated by square brackets. This and subsequent endnotes have been added at the time of uploading this post.

[2] The movie was Hannah and Her Sisters. The comment referred to was by a character named Frederick (played by Max von Sydow), a misanthropic artist whom one of the sisters lived with.

[3] This remark was probably a reflection of ongoing questioning by family and friends as to why I had changed my course of study, halfway through college, from computer science to anthropology. I should add that before going to the US to pursue undergraduate studies on a scholarship, I had been a student of Electrical Engineering for one year at BUET. Given this background, I had a hard time explaining to family and friends (and also to myself) why I decided to change track and study anthropology.

[4] I cannot remember where I picked this up from, but through a Google search, I have been able to determine what must have been the original source, a poem by John Milton called ‘On His Blindness,’ which ends with the line, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.

[5] An explanation of the red ribbon that I am seen wearing in this photo is provided in  my bdnews24 article titled ‘Defining a generation’: “at the convocation ceremony of the class of 1986 at my college in the US, many of us graduating students wore red ribbons signalling our demand for divestment from South Africa.”

Posted in General | 6 Comments

Thoughts on Culture, Identity and Development in the CHT

Challenges for contemporary Jummas, or Duties of a Tripura holding a responsible position in the CHT today[*]

Letting our experiences guide our present actions, lest we repeat past mistakes[**]

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
– George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905-1906)

Tripura boys peeking out

Photo: Taken in Khagrachari in 1985, (c) Prashanta Tripura

Imagine a Tripura boy growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in a village located next to a market-cum-administrative centre where all the traders and shopkeepers and most of the government personnel were Bengalis. At home and in his own village, he interacted with relatives and friends who spoke Kokborok (Tripuri).   But at school, he was shy because he could not yet speak Bengali very fluently.  His shyness was further intensified when one day a teacher humiliated him by mistaking his difficulties in expressing his thoughts in Bengali for a lack of aptitude. There he was also intimidated by a few Chakma boys who bullied him and made fun of him for being a Tripura and a sissy.    He began to dislike school, and maintained a distance from the marketplace and the government office buildings. The only place where he felt at home was his own village.  Although many of the boys of his age in his village did not go to school, he saw them as friends whom he liked to play sports with and whom he could converse with fluently.

Our Tripura boy, however, gradually learnt to distinguish himself from other Tripuras he saw around him.   He saw them as poor, illiterate, ignorant, superstitious and so on–in short, ‘underdeveloped.’ He dreamt that one day he would do something for their development.  Some of his Chakma friends also had similar thoughts, which they shared with one another.  Together, they used to dream of becoming doctors, engineers, magistrates, pilots, and so on.   But soon many of them changed their minds as an armed conflict engulfed the whole region.  Many of them wanted to join the Shanti Bahini, and they did. One day, after being beaten by a Bengali soldier,  the Tripura boy also thought of joining this guerrilla organization.   Did he?….

Hatio thangnairok

Photo: Taken in Khagrachari in 1985, (c) Prashanta Tripura

I want to leave my story incomplete and return to the present.   More than a year has passed since the Peace Accord (much acclaimed or vehemently condemned depending on one’s point of view) was signed.   While the implementation of the accord drags on at present, one hopes that it will be completed some day.  If this process ends well, then in the near future we are likely to see a greater number of ‘tribal’ people occupying important positions in various institutions and organizations responsible for formulating policies, plans and regulations that will shape the future of the CHT.  Suppose the Tripura boy of the story above, now a grown-up man, is one of these individuals.  He used to dislike schools, markets and government offices.  So if he is put in charge of any such institution, how will his past experiences influence the way in which he would like to run and develop it?  One hopes that he would try to make these institutions more accommodating, and more open and responsive to the kinds of people he grew up with.  But as long as he views such people as ignorant, superstitious and inferior to him, he is not likely to achieve the results that he may think he wants.  Instead, he is likely to repeat the same kinds of ‘mistakes’ that others before him–Bengalis, Punjabis and the British alike–have made.

I would like to end this brief discussion by posing some questions to ourselves.  In various cultural programs [we often come across] dances and songs in which one would get a glimpse of the rich cultural diversity of the CHT.  But what is the extent to which such performances represent the circumstances and the dreams and aspirations of all classes of people?  The performance of dances or songs in which jum-cultivators are depicted in an idealized setting does not necessarily conform to the historical experiences of contemporary jum-cultivators.  It seems that for many urban Jummas, the quest for identity is confined to such symbolic and romanticized reconstruction of a way of life that they themselves have left behind and will never return to.  On the other hand, there are still many people in the CHT for whom jum continues to be important as a principal means of subsistence.  So the questions that I would like to pose are as follows:  How much do we educated urban Jummas know about the conditions under which today’s jum-cultivators live?  What are their futures?  And so long as they want to continue to practice jum, how can it be ensured that they look like the happy people that we see depicted on-stage?

Huk

Photo: Taken in Khagrachari in 1985, (c) Prashanta Tripura


[*] Excerpts from an article, titled ‘Culture, Identity and Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ by Prashanta Tripura, first published in 1998.  Click the following link to view/download the full article: P Tripura – Culture & Development

[**] The original title of this blog post was ‘Lest we repeat past mistakes’, which was later changed to ‘Thoughts on Culture, Identity and Development in the CHT’.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

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

[Keynote paper – originally written and presented in Bangla, by Prashanta Triprua – at a seminar organized in Dhaka on December 18, 1993 as part of the celebrations of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People][1]

1993 rally photo (enlarged)

Celebrations of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People 1993 in Dhaka included a rally held on 18-12-93. (Photo courtesy: Maung Hla Prue Pintu)

 

The United Nations has declared 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.[2]  Although this is mainly a symbolic gesture, it has a special significance to people(s) all over the world who can identify themselves as ‘indigenous’, as this move signals an effort to draw the attention of the international community to the history of centuries of dispossession and oppression that they have faced, and to the neglected space that they occupy in the contemporary world order.  However, this move by the UN has not necessarily been welcome equally by all member states.  While some countries have officially recognized the notion of indigenous people(s) and their special rights, no similar measures exist in many other countries.  Instead, there is an attempt to sidestep, through rhetorical ploys, the main objective of the UN declaration.  In this regard, Bangladesh is no exception.  Here the government has taken no initiative to observe the UN Year of the Indigenous People, on the ground that there are no indigenous people in this country.  But to a Garo, Santal or Mro, this government explanation is tantamount to denying his or her very existence.  Up until now s/he has been labeled, derogatorily, as ‘adibashi’.[3]  Now just as she wants to assert herself on the international stage by wearing this label proudly, her government is telling her that she cannot claim to be ‘indigenous’.  Naturally, the questions that arise foremost in this context are:  What does the word ‘indigenous’ mean?  Can those people of Bangladesh who are known as ‘adibashi’ or ‘tribal’ be termed ‘indigenous’?

Literally, the term ‘indigenous’ means ‘of local origin’.  In this sense, any person who is a citizen of a given country by birth can claim to be an ‘indigenous’ person of that country.  However, 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 descendents of anyone from the heavens or alien planets, rather we all have a common origin.  The ancient religious belief that all humans are the descendants of Adam and Eve is in a way supported by science too.  But the place where Adam/Eve might have lived as postulated by scientists was not any heavenly paradise, but most likely somewhere in Africa, from where the early humans branched out to various parts of the world.  However, the history of humanity is not just that of being divided into various branches or sub-branches.  These branches or sub-branches have also reunited in new ways at different points in time.  However, in many cases such reunions did not take place in a fraternal manner, but instead took place through the conquest of one group by another.  It is through such unequal relations among various groups of people, a system known as the ‘state’ emerged in the history of the world.  Although the word ‘civilization’ is often used to refer to the earliest state-organized societies, the history of civilization is really a history of barbarism in the sense just indicated.  Since the advent of the state, state-organized societies have expanded their empires by subjugating other groups of people, or by killing or driving them off and taking control of their lands.  It is in the light of such ruthless historical processes that the concept of indigenous people is meaningful.  It is particularly applied in the context of the worldwide European colonial expansion of the past five centuries.

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.  This proposition may seem apparently illogical, as it is local people who are now in power in various countries of Africa and Asia. [But let us examine the matter more closely.]

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.

From the preceding discussion, it is clear that the various groups of people that are known as ‘adibashi’ (adivasi) and ‘tribal’ in Bangladesh may all be identified as ‘indigenous’ in the sense in which the word is being used internationally.  The position of the government of Bangladesh that there are no indigenous people in this country is not based on any strong logic.  It is not because of the opaqueness of the word ‘indigenous’, but in order to keep the indigenous/tribal people of the country deprived of their legitimate rights that the government has taken such a position.  Since there is an international move underway to promote the rights of the indigenous people around the world, recognizing the adibashi/tribal people as ‘indigenous’ would mean expressing a commitment to support this international initiative. However, in a context where all successive governments of Bangladesh have tried their best to conceal the history of the violation of the rights of the adibashi/tribal people of this country, the present government too does not have sufficient will or preparation to observe the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.

Singling out the people known as adibashi and tribal as ‘indigenous’, however, does not mean taking a position that the roots of the majority people of this country, i.e. the Bengalis, do not lie in the soil of the country.  The history and identity of Bengalis have evolved on this land by absorbing various invading groups of people that arrived at various points in time since very ancient times.  But today it is the Bengalis who hold state power.  Therefore, the context in which Bengalis may be called indigenous vis-à-vis any group of foreign rulers does not exist now. On the other hand, in case of those who are known as adibashi or tribal, the Bengali ruling classes are trying to eradicate the roots that these people have established on the soil of this land.  Under the circumstances, the concept of indigenous people that has developed internationally is very relevant and meaningful to the Adibashi/tribal people of this country.

In terms of language, culture or identity, a Santal, Garo or Mro is not certainly Bengali.  Some reflection will make it clear that various labels that are commonly used to denote their distinctive identities like ‘Adibashi’ and ‘tribal’ are actually more or less synonymous with the term ‘indigenous’, although the Bangla labels also carry some derogatory connotations, which make them unacceptable to many.  In terms of dictionary definitions, the Bangla word ‘adibashi’ and the English ‘indigenous’ are completely synonymous.  However, the word ‘adibashi’ has been in usage in Bangla language long before the word ‘indigenous’ became widely known, and in general usage the word (adibashi) has taken on a slightly different meaning in place of its original, literal meaning.  In Bangla, the word ‘adibashi’ has come to be used to mean ‘primitive’ and ‘of lower standing in terms of civilization’. That is the reason that in books such as Aaranya janapade by Abdus Sattar, we find that groups such as Santal, Garo and Chakma are being referred to as ‘adibashi’ (which literally means ‘original inhabitant), but at the same time it is also asserted that ‘none of the Adibashis are the sons of the soil of this country’!

Instead of getting drawn into a meaningless debate over who are the sons of the soil of this country, and who are not, the issue that we may consider is whether the Bangla word ‘adibashi’ may be used as equivalent to the English ‘indigenous’.  The word ‘indigenous’ is relatively new, and so far it hardly has any negative connotation.  On the other hand, in Bangla, the word ‘adibashi’ carries derogatory meanings.  Thus it does not quite convey the special meaning and purpose that is associated with ‘indigenous’ as it is being used internationally.  In this sense, it would make more sense to use the English word ‘indigenous’ directly in Bangla spelling, or to coin a new word.  But personally I believe that at least for the time being it should not be too problematic to use the word ‘adibashi’ as a functional equivalent of ‘indigenous’.  If the people who are known as ‘adibashi’ themselves can stand up with their heads held high within the country as well as abroad, then this label will one day carry positive connotations.  It is from this point of view that in the rest of this article, I will use the term ‘adibashi’ as synonymous to ‘indigenous’.

The demand that the Adibashis of Bangladesh are making to be known as ‘indigenous people’ in the light of the UN declaration means that they want the rights to continue living in this country by keeping intact their distinct identities and cultures, the kinds of rights which no government has yet recognized fully.  Regardless of whether the government accepts the notion of indigenous people as put forward by the UN, the government has no moral ground to dismiss the demand of the Adibashis.  The BNP government[4] does proclaim that their Bangladeshi nationalism and politics of development can lead to the socioeconomic emancipation of all people of the country including the Adibashis. Apparently the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism does provide an answer to the identity question of the Adibashis.  When, after independence of Bangladesh, all the people of the country were declared to be Bengalis, it was a serious blow to the identities of the Adibashis.  The way in which Bengali nationalism was imposed on the Adibashis actually undermined the democratic and non-communal (non-sectarian) spirit of the war of liberation.  On the other hand, under the guise of Bangladeshi nationalism, successive governments moved even further away from the ideals of secularism and non-communalism. An identity as Bangladeshi does not by itself resolve the problems of the Adibashis.  Besides, it is not the case that the idea of Bangladeshi nationalism was developed in order to cater to the Adibashis; rather, it was during the rule of the late president Ziaur Rahman, the proponent of Bangladeshi nationalism, that the magnitude of the violations of the rights of Adibashis intensified, especially in the CHT.

It is not that no government of Bangladesh has tried to bring about socioeconomic development of the indigenous people, but the concept of development that is now established in the country mainly serves the interests of the ruling classes and various multinational agencies. That is why we see that in the name of afforestation, attempt is being made to force the Garos out their homes and lands, or to turn the jum cultivators into rubber planters. If the government’s objective is really to protect forests, then there are ample reasons to uphold the traditional agricultural systems of the indigenous people.  Many experts without any real knowledge of ecology tend to issue the verdict that the system of jum (shifting cultivation) is harmful to the environment. But they do not consider the fact that the kind of damage that jum cultivators could not inflict on the forests over centuries have been brought about by recent development activities of only a few decades.  The jum cultivators do not cut down the trees of vast tracts of land at a time; instead they allow natural regeneration of forests in abandoned jum fields.  They grow various crops that are appropriate for the local environment, and their beliefs and practices also help maintain ecological balance of forest lands.   But the British colonial rulers wrote off jum as outdated in their own interest, and the history of the violation of the rights of cultural, economic and political rights of the indigenous people has gone on unchecked since then.

The cultures and economies of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have undergone significant changes over the past century.  The lands on which the indigenous people used to practice jum (shifting) cultivation have now passed into the hands of the Forest Department, different government agencies and wealthy individuals. Those among the indigenous people who switched to plough agriculture by giving up jum too are losing the last possessions of livelihood against the onslaught of huge numbers of Bengalis who have arrived in search of land, and are backed up by state patronage.  Poor and landless indigenous people are turning into wage laborers, and nowadays some among them have even taken up begging. On the other hand, those indigenous people who are still holding on to the age-old system of agriculture (jum), are doing so not out of ignorance, but because they do not find any viable alternatives.  Government planners or economists may look at rubber plantation as an alternative to jum, but a jum cultivator knows that s/he cannot use rubber as food, and s/he also does not see any guarantee that s/he will get fair price for rubber if s/he were to produce it.  What indigo plantation was to Bengali peasants during British rule, rubber plantation is to the jum cultivators today.

It is of course not the case that all indigenous people are poor and landless.  But the type of land that we consider to be land in the conventional sense [i.e. plain land suitable for plough cultivation] was limited to begin with in areas inhabited by indigenous people. Besides, those indigenous people who began to gain ownership of such pieces of land too started losing their possessions to Bengali moneylenders and peasants.  One may nowadays also come across some indigenous people who no longer have any direct relation with land, but are nonetheless landowners, but their numbers are not high. It may be said generally that the majority of indigenous people are finding out that they do not have much land underneath their feet to stand on, and whatever may be there, is being taken away from them.  The indigenous people are not only losing their land, but many of them have also lost, or are in the process of losing, their right to protest, their right to justice, their lives, and their dignity.  We know that a sizable proportion of the indigenous people of the CHT still live homeless lives as refugees in various refugee camps in India.  The numbers of those indigenous people who have taken shelter elsewhere within the country after losing their homes, lands and family members are also not that small.  Actually, in one sense, all indigenous people are already homeless psychologically.  Those educated indigenous people who are scattered around in various urban areas of the country still have their identities and spiritual existence rooted in various remote corners of the country.  Regardless of where an indigenous person may live, they cannot accept colonialist takeover of the land where he or she was born, wherein lie the memories of their ancestors, and where their brothers and sisters are still fighting for survival.  It is through such resistance that their political consciousness and their attitudes towards life have evolved.

There is solidarity among indigenous people of all classes and all regions on the question of securing their cultural and political rights.  This solidarity may not have yet taken the shape of any unified and organized movement, but there are efforts underway to make this happen.  Because of their geographically scattered settlements, there have not yet been sufficient linkages developed among indigenous peoples living in various parts of the country, but all of them understand one another’s problems, because essentially they are all faced with the same fundamental problems.  In this country, none of these groups have their existence recognized constitutionally; their traditional land rights have been ignored in the laws of the state; there is no guarantee that they can develop by keeping intact their own languages, cultures and identities; their human rights and basic civil rights have been grossly violated many times over in different ways.  Based on these common problems and shared experiences, the indigenous people can organize a unified movement.  Alongside, the indigenous people of this country will need to link up more closely with the international effort that is underway to promote the rights of indigenous people around the world.  To say this, however, does not mean that the indigenous people will try to establish their rights by moving away from the national mainstream.  The indigenous people themselves have never tried to keep themselves apart from the national context; rather, it is the ethnocentrism/chauvinism of the educated middle class Bengalis that has kept them at a distance.  The indigenous people have at various times tried to present a picture of their problems at the national level, but their appeals have never left much of an imprint at the national psyche.

The history of Bangladesh is not only a history of Bengalis.  Alongside the Bengali peasantry, the indigenous people of this country have also stood up to resist colonial rule and feudal exploitation in the past.  The Santal rebellion of Nachole, the Hajong rebellion etc. are proofs of this. Many indigenous people took active part in the war of liberation of 1971 as well.  Indigenous elements are pervasive in the Bangla language, in Bengali culture, and even in the make-up of the Bengali population.  But no textbooks have proper mention of the roles of the indigenous peoples in making the history and culture of this country.  They have been banished from history, from the national psyche, and now efforts are underway to wipe them off from the map the country as well.  The existential crisis in which the indigenous people of Bangladesh find themselves in is no isolated incident in the global context.  Indigenous peoples the world over are facing similar crises.  But the problems that the indigenous peoples around the world face are not theirs alone; the question of their existence is tied to that of the future of the entire human race.   The indigenous people are victims of progress in the sense in which the concept has been propagated globally by the West.  But the limit and dangers of this type of progress has become clear today.  Just as the indigenous people of the Amazon basin are facing economic and cultural extinction with the disappearance of the rain forests there, the ecological balance of the entire world too is in peril.  It is from such realization that the international community has taken the initiative to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people.  In observing the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, it is in such light that we have to view the whole matter.

~~~


[1]The present English version, being published for the first time to mark the 20th anniversary of the historical celebration of the International IP Year in Bangladesh, is the author’s own direct translation of the original article. No attempt has been made to change any of the facts or arguments as presented in the Bangla version in 1993. It may be mentioned that the seminar held on December 18, 1993 was part of a series of activities – including a rally, cultural program and publication of a souvenir on the same day – that were organized under the supervision of a IP Year celebration committee that was co-convened by two opposition MPs of that time, Mr. Dipankar Talukdar and Mr. Promode Mankin (both of whom happen to be State Ministers at present).

[2]In 1993, it was still a common practice in the UN for the term indigenous people to be used in the singular (i.e. without the plural suffix).  Thus, the name of the year as declared by the UN was International Year of the World’s Indigenous People (not Peoples, which is used in latter day contexts, e.g. when we speak of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.)  In the present (translated) version of my 1993 article, the previous practice has been followed in referring to the international year under considdration and its related contexts.

[3] ‘Adibashi’ is a Bangla word (আদিবাসী) of Sanskrit origin – it literally means ‘orginal inhabitant’ – that is quite synonymous with ‘indigenous’, but has acquired the connotation of ‘primitive’.  The word is more commonly transliterated as ‘Adivasi’, particularly in India.  It should be noted that in Bangladesh as well as India, many authors who use the word in Bangla (or other South Asian languages) and in English (in the transliterated form ‘Adivasi’) without any problem often object to the Adivasis being recognized as ‘indigenous people’ in the sense the term is used internationally!

[4] Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was the party that was in power in 1993.

Posted in General | 3 Comments