Thursday, 18 November 2010

Searching for Identity

Last week I travelled to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the home of the majority of Bangladesh’s Indigenous Communities. I followed this up by celebrating Cow Killing Eid with some colleagues and neighbours, i.e. members of the majority Muslim Bengali population. Both were extremely enjoyable but they also served to highlight something which I’ve been thinking for a long time: that Bangladesh as a State, is greatly confused about its raison d’etre and its identity.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts

The CHT is pretty much the only area of Bangladesh with hills (slideshow in the sidebar). From the two days I spent there, I reckon it’s also the only place here that is reasonably quiet, clean and culturally diverse (there are 12 languages spoken there). The indigenous peoples are Christian, Buddhist and (I think) Hindu. Right now, however; Muslim Bengalis make up 50% of the area’s population in large part due to a government policy resettling landless Bengalis on land which legally belonged to the indigenous peoples. This policy as well as the creation of a hydro-electo power plant which led to the flooding of hundreds of acres of indigenous community lands (round of applause for US AID), created an atmosphere of oppression and caused the local communities to fight for the autonomy required to protect their cultures and for the settling of land disputes which go back fifty years. In 1997 a peace accord was signed but with little sign of its implementation, the area remains highly militarised. Some living in the Hills spoke of the belief that the military were involved in some of the violence which kicked off last February; that their presence increases the tension between communities and that the reason behind their continued presence is political i.e. Bangladesh government (regardless of the party) desperately needs to keep the oversized and very powerful military happy and thus must keep them busy and well paid. This is not some conspiracy theory but a matter which greatly hinders the development of many post-war, post-independence states.

Killing and Eating those cows!

Returning to the plain lands, Eid fever had begun in Dhaka: temporary cattle and goat markets were established all over the city; cow shit decorated the pavements and men with goats risked their lives crossing some of Dhaka’s mental roads! Generally, each family (in Bangladeshi terms this means the wider family so about ten-twenty people) will kill a cow and/or a few goats as a sacrifice to Allah in order to have some kind of redemption. I arrived in Satkhira on Eid Morning and though I missed the hour’s prayer, at 10am I headed off with a colleague to witness the cow killing itself. In true Bangladeshi style, I had eaten three breakfasts in three different houses each consisting of different types of rice puddings and noodles, before even catching a glimpse of our soon to be main course. I don’t need to go into the details of the surprisingly quick and humane slaughter as you’ll get a fair idea from the photos, but there are a couple of important details: the person who kills the animal must be a religious leader. The family can keep 30% for themselves, offer 30% for the local poor and give 30% to their neighbours. Later that afternoon, having completed the cooking, I was invited to four more houses this time to eat beef or mutton only. Needless to say by 9 o’clock I was very must like a beached whale.

The link between both of these experiences is not that obvious and in truth it’s just a way of bringing up an issue I’ve been thinking about for a long time: identity.

From great ideas to contradictory implementation

Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 following a liberation war against Pakistan which had its roots in the language movement. The language movement itself was led by, from my limited knowledge, a more liberal community of students and professors embodied by the institution which is Dhaka University. The crux of their gripe with Pakistan was that they did not like the official status of Urdu to the detriment of Bangla nor did they accept the imposition of a theocratic system on their ‘people’ and finally they could not accept the false autonomy which Pakistan was granting them. The Liberation War therefore was a fight for self determination, for the protection of identity and also for the protection of fundamental liberties.

And yet, the war istelf and its aftermath seem to me to prove that there was and remains little common understanding on what identity it was they were fighting for. Firstly, the genocide by the Pakistani Army was carried out with the help of extremist Bangladeshi Muslims (many of whom will hopefully be convicted in the coming months) and focussed specifically on the Bangladeshi Hindu Communities. Secondly, while the peoples of the CHT certainly fought against the Pakistani army, from some conversations I’ve had, it seems unlikely that they did so united around some fundamental belief in a non-communal independent state. It is indeed more likely that they fought with whoever they felt might guarantee them a better deal. Thirdly, the naming of the country automatically promotes one people over the others as the constitution also goes on to do, namely those for whom Bangla is their mother tongue. Fourthly, the constitution fails to recognize the specific indigenous community rights. Fifthly, a reference to Allah in the Preamble as well as crazy amendments by various governments and generals thereafter, shows that there was and remains very little freedom of religion in the 95% Muslim country. Finally, the contradictions of fighting a war on the basis of cultural freedom only to impose a single culture on all are painfully obvious and yet the country’s mistreatment of its indigenous peoples has yet to be resolved.

For me, it all goes back to big ideas by a small number of people and the fight for the freedom of identity and personality in East Pakistan. The Dhaka University Elite at the time of the language movement were perhaps wonderfully liberal free thinking people, and no doubt brave human rights activists. But only fearful Bangladeshis can believe that these elite represented the entire population. There was no agreement in 1970 on the identity which a new independent state would take on and there is still no agreement today. But this is a challenge which the peoples of Bangladesh will have to face up to if they are ever to live together in harmony and discover what it is that brings them all together. Whatever that is, it’s not one religion, it’s not one culture and it’s certainly not one languag

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  2. I've found a similar situation here in Namibia. There is such diversity of cultures, languages and attitudes, I wonder what keeps the country known as 'the land of contrasts' united since Independence. Some suggest 'mtc', the main mobile phone network (!) sometimes seems the only thing to be common across the country even down to the remote/flooding villages in the bush and the contrasting deserts.

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