The ‘Indigenous’ Experiment

Posted on | februari 17, 2012 | No Comments

“The nation as understood by the nationalist, is a substitute god, nationalism of this sort might be called ethnolatry.” – Hugh Seton-Watson (Nations and States, An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism)

Ever since I started working with indigenous peoples’ rights activists, I have come to expect a broad range of reactions when I talk about my work — from a very blank look to one of complete contempt and a list of reasons why the activists are doing barabari (overindulging) about issues that go against the state.

Why advocating for the rights of people who are citizens of the same country equates to ‘anti-state’ activities is anyone’s guess. But anyone who thought that Bengalis, after having struggled for the right to self-determination based on their ethnic and linguistic identities from the start of Partition until the birth of Bangladesh, have learned to treat the minorities of the new country with special care and understanding, has been completely wrong. And the very government that has always promised to bring harmony in ethnic relations and respect, and to ensure the rights of minorities with swanky peace accords, election manifestos, UNESCO awards, and cravings for Nobel prizes, has in fact been doing the exact opposite.

Each of us is a Venn diagram of multiple identities, and which identity gets preference over another is only for the self to decide. If we start to discriminate against a person based on one particular aspect of his/her identity, then we really limit ourselves in how we socialise with each other. And we Bengalis are very good on that front. We go far beyond the ethnic, and into geography (“The people of Noakhali are like…”), class (“… but these clothes are for garment workers!”), religion (“… but the Hindus are so…”) and so many other generalisations based on a singular identity. A detailed study of why intolerance and suspicion of anyone culturally different from us are so ingrained in our national consciousness is beyond the scope of this article and beyond the understanding of this writer. But unless we actively fight state-sponsored prejudice towards indigenous peoples, we will be turning our own people against each other.

Particularly for the Adibashis living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), state-led and social discriminations have impinged on the survival of these Bangladeshis. Ever since the Adibashis in the CHT began their struggle for self-determination in the 1970s after Sheikh Mujib’s call for cultural assimilation, a simplistic perception has been planted very carefully and methodically into the Bengali/Bangladeshi nationalist psyche that the political activities of the Paharis were threatening the sovereignty of the country, that foreign NGOs and the UN were instigating their demand for rights, that there is a covert process of Christianisation going on in the CHT, that the Adibashis have loyalties on both sides of the border, and that the military presence is necessary to keep surveillance on their activities at all times.

Amartya Sen, in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny talks about the art of constructing hatred, where he says “…The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.” This art comes from a section of the media who have busied themselves in presenting this struggle for self-determination using a few politically motivated key-words as evidence — ‘separatism’, ‘possession of arms’, ‘western imperialism’, ‘East Timorisation’, ‘South Sudanisation’, ‘Christianisation’, ‘UN-isation’ etc.

But what are the media to do when the state itself is in the process of alienating a section of our own citizens as the ‘others’?

Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan recently made a public revelation about the 1971 War of Liberation in an interview with the Indian magazine Caravan1. He said that until he arrived in East Pakistan, he had been completely oblivious to the nature of the struggle of the Bengalis, and that he had accepted the version of the story given out by the West Pakistani state machinery that the Bengalis’ struggle was an India-driven rebellion. In the interview he mentions overhearing instructions from West Pakistani authorities to use violence against Bengalis to deflate the rebellion. He also expressed his dismay that Pakistanis did not learn a lesson from their experience in 1971 and thus continue to persecute various peoples within present-day Pakistan. He believed that if the perpetrators of violence in 1971 had been brought to justice, Pakistan would perhaps have proven to be a more tolerant state.

Pakistani journalist Afnan Khan of the Daily Times expressed a similar dismay in a piece published in Forum magazine on the West Pakistan Army’s atrocities2. Just as they had hoped they would eliminate the Bengali rebellion in 1971 with an iron fist in the form of killing, torture, abduction and rape, so they are carrying out the same acts against the Baloch. Just as the Bengalis’ initial demands were for equal rights and the right to self-determination, so were those of the Baloch.

But what about Bangladesh? Has Bangladesh learnt a lesson? Does our Constitution reflect equal treatment to all our citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, class or geographical background? And do government policies and regulations respect cultural and religious pluralism?

Unfortunately it’s not only Pakistan but also Bangladesh which has not learned a lesson from its own 1971 experience.

It was great to have UNESCO declare February 21 as the International Mother Language Day on November 17, 1999. The world had finally recognised the Bengalis’ struggle against the oppression of the Urdu-speaking rulers of West Pakistan. The struggle was not just against the attempt to wipe out the Bengali language, but also against the attempt to destroy the Bengali culture and cleanse East Pakistan of all Hindus. Among the various flaws of the Partition was the idea that that two discrete terrains 1500 kilometres apart with so very different languages and cultures would hold together on the basis of religious nationalism. In any case, the West Pakistanis never considered the Bengalis ‘true Muslims’ because of perceived Hindu cultural influence on them. The Pakistan Experiment3, as Willem Van Schendel coined the term for Partition, was destined to fail.

Despite there being dozens of languages spoken in Pakistan, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan claimed in parliament after Partition that it was necessary for a nation to have a state language, and that it should be Urdu. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, governor-general of Pakistan also made the same public statement during his visit to Dhaka in March 1948, which enraged and disenchanted the Bengali public from the governing elite of Pakistan. The Pakistan government wanted to take away the Bengalis’ right to identify themselves as Bengalis. Because Bengalis constituted the majority of Pakistan’s population, they were always seen by West Pakistan as a security threat, and as is obvious from Imran Khan’s revelation, a good propaganda machine always worked to present them as threats to sovereignty. This served the purpose of hiding the state’s bigotry and human rights violations against the Bengali people.

It was this chauvinistic nationalism that othered the Bengalis from the West Pakistanis, and made it apparent that this marriage of the two Pakistans was not meant to last. Is it a surprise that the same propaganda is used against indigenous minorities of Bangladesh?

The Bangladesh government systematically uses the same security lens and ethnic-nationalist and sovereignty indoctrination to further sideline the Adibashis. The latest government policy of alienation and bigotry in the CHT is a planting of territorialism from foreigners. And the more the UN and other international eyes are focusing on the reports of the discrimination and human rights violations, the more territorial and threatened the government seems to become.

Recently an American national who was visiting Bandarban to oversee the work of a Pahari project was deported from the district when he was found talking to a Pahari journalist and some friends whom he knew from before. The reason given to him was that his activities were found to be ‘suspicious in nature’. A British national was also evicted from the same district in August 2011 for taking part in a solidarity demonstration on World Indigenous Day. Foreigners are handed a ‘dos and don’ts’ list when they enter the CHT — not to make any cash endowments without the Deputy Commissioner’s prior knowledge, not to allure local people to convert their religion, not to stay at any tribal residence, to inform the police about every area they plan to visit and the people they talk to in advance. There are reports that hotels have been asked not to take any bookings from foreigners without informing the DC. In the meantime, NGOs have been asked to submit reports about the number of Bengali and Pahari employees in their offices and the number of Bengali and Pahari beneficiaries of their programme.

By keeping an aura of threats in place the government achieves its objective of keeping the area under tight security, breeding a culture of impunity and letting various interest groups have their way. It was the same aura of a security threat that resulted in the area not having mobile phone networks until 2008. Such fears have since been proven unfounded. What the mobile phone prohibition, restrictions on foreigners’ activities and other such policies achieve is to provoke public paranoia and create what Noam Chomsky calls the ‘bewildered herd’4 to explain how the mass media is used as a propaganda tool to manufacture public opinion to serve the agenda of those in the ruling power structure, which thereby does not have to use any direct coercion.

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s paranoia about foreigners and the CHT began after the Baghaihat arson attacks in February 2010, when the European Union issued a statement saying that it was aware of allegations that the incident involved army personnel and labourers employed by army.5 From then on her Ministry has been fighting tooth and nail to establish that there are no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. Beyond her misinterpretation of the term, pointed out by various experts at various forums and her own application of the term at Adibashi solidarity gatherings before being elected to office, her approach of sidelining the Adibashis and taking a unilateral stand proved once again that the Government was taking a complete U-turn over the Adibashi issue. The 15th amendment has revived Bengali and Muslim nationalism by first inserting the phrase “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim” before the preamble to the Constitution, by making Islam the state religion of Bangladesh and by saying that “the people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis”6. If all the people of Bangladesh are ‘Bangalees’, then are the indigenous peoples not the people of Bangladesh?

It would be a grave mistake to think that George Orwell’s 1984 is taking place only inside the CHT. The High Court recently ordered the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to file a case against a Jahangirnagar University teacher for making a derogatory comment about the Prime Minister on Facebook.7 However, derogatory comments about the leader of the opposition apparently went unchallenged. A head teacher from Pirojpur was recently arrested by police after a copy of Taslima Nasrin’s book Lajja (‘Shame’) was discovered in the college library.8

The Bangladeshi government’s first mistake after 1971 was to take a confrontational approach towards the Paharis. It seems the same people who were ready to give up their lives for the protection of their cultural and language rights under Pakistani rule were now as the majority asking the minorities of Bangladesh to give up their own languages and cultures. The oppressed had become the oppressor.

Ever since the Awami League-led government came to power in 2009, indigenous peoples of the CHT have been urging the Government to implement the 1997 ‘Peace’ Accord. During the insurgency there were many allegations of massacres and mass rapes of indigenous villagers by the security forces. It was not until much later that some of these attacks were reported. Since there was a managed local media blackout, it was the international human rights organisations that brought it before the eyes of the world. So, it should not surprise any of us that the indigenous peoples are increasingly looking towards international human rights activists for solidarity and support when much of it is drying up within our own country.

After 40 years of independence, perhaps it is time to rethink our idea of nationalism and make it more inclusive and less chauvinistic.

1 ‘Pakistan learnt no lesson from 1971: Imran relates govt’s treatment of Pashtuns to Bangalees’, The Daily Star front page, 15 January 2012.
2 ‘Afnan Khan, ‘On Lessons yet to be Learnt and an Apology Pending’, Forum magazine, December 2011.
3 ‘Willem Van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
4 ‘Noam Chomsky, ‘Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda’, 2002.
5 ‘Dhaka terms EU claims baseless’, The Daily Star, 1 March 2010.
6 ‘Article 6(2) of the Constitution.
7 ‘File sedition case against JU teacher, HC asks IGP’, The Daily Star, 8 January 2012.
8 ‘Bangladesh teacher arrested over banned book’, AFP, 4 January 2012

This article was published in the February 2012 issue of the Forum magazine, The Daily Star.

AUTHOR: Hana Shams Ahmed
E-MAIL: hana.s.ahmed [at]


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