The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland by Willem van Schendel, Wolfgang Mey Aditya Kumar Dewan White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2000 ISBN: 974-8434-98-2
A pictorial narrative of an unexplained land.
I have never been to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) and I first heard of it in the campus of Brandeis University during the fall of 1984. I had just arrived in the suburban Boston campus from Kathmandu, and befriended some Bengali students from Calcutta. Some weeks into the semester, one of them, Kaushik Ghosh, asked me if I wanted to accompany him to visit a senior student from Bangladesh who lived off-campus. The idea of going outside the campus and the additional possibility of acquiring non-cafeteria food for dinner was quite attractive. That is how I first met Prasanta Tripura and got to know a bit about his homeland—the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The same evening I got to hear about the differences between the Bengali and the Chittagong hill person. Prasanta had asked Kaushik if he was a Bengali. After a yes, Kaushik, who knew Prasanta came from Bangladesh, had bounced back the same question. In replying, Prasanta had paused a bit and said, “Yes… but actually I am a Tripura from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.” Many dinners later, and perhaps after trying to explain things to those of us who had not known homes outside of urban environments, he had said, “You guys from Kathmandu or Calcutta have more in common with people from Boston or New York than with me!”
These conversations among three South Asians and the play of identities contained within them, have defined my fascination for the CHTs since then. The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland by historian Willem van Schendel and anthropologists Wolfgang Mey & Aditya Kumar Dewan, records many such encounters at several levels, and it is no surprise that Prasanta, now an anthropologist, is thanked by the authors for help rendered in the making of the book.
Talking of encounters, this book is first a record of the encounter between photographic technology and the land and the people of the CHTs. More than 400 photographs—many of them being published for the first time—make up the bulk of the book. Many of these photographs come from private collections of families with ties with the CHTs. The original photographers were both outsiders—travellers, colonial and post-colonial officials, academics, missionaries, journalists, development workers—and insiders who could afford a camera. Although the authors do not dwell at length on shifts in photographic technology and their implications for the political economy of access to the medium, these factors certainly influenced the medium’s engagement with the CHTs.
Photographic technology had established itself in the plains of South Asia by the 1850s, and had reached its borderlands such as the CHTs or Nepal by the 1860s. The photographs included in this volume cover the century plus period between the 1860s and the 1970s. Till the early decades of the 20th century, the photographers were predominantly outsiders. But as costs reduced, many CHTs people began wielding the technology, and started consuming it in various capacities. As part of the growing practice of the use of these visual cultural evidence by historians and anthropologists of South Asia, the authors interpret the photographs both as an evidence of the conventions that were imbibed in the consumption of the medium and as a record of the social history of the region. The latter is told as a history of encounters and self-fashionings.
The CHTs are strikingly different from the alluvial plains of the rest of Bangladesh. As the American geographer David Sopher (who is seen in one of the photographs but whose work is surprisingly not listed in the references) put it in the 1960s, the hills are “an expression of simple folding in youthful sedimentaries: the resulting ridges, 1500 to 2000 feet high, are seven to ten miles apart.” But the social identity of the region was constructed within the political history of encounters between the region and its people with outsiders.
In the pre-colonial era, the hills were run by small self-governing entities of various tribes. By the first half of the 19th century, this ‘government’ was controlled by two hill chiefs living in Rangamati and Bandarban, who were assisted by various subordinates. The British, although they took over the Chittagong plains, did not change this arrangement with the hills. The CHTs remained a part of the Regulation District of Chittagong until 1860 when the British took over. The tribal leadership was incorporated into a larger colonial bureaucracy but the CHTs still maintained the status of a ‘unique district’. In 1947, the CHTs were included in what became East Pakistan, and the land and its people became subject to the developmentalist whims of the Pakistani government. The construction of the Kaptai dam in the late 1950s disrupted the physical and social geography of the CHTs in a major way. After the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, the CHTs be-came the subject of ‘national integration’ discourses of the majority Bangladeshi Bengalis. Subsequent developments saw the rise of tribal militancy in the form of armed groups. An accord has put an end to this violence, but that took place after the period covered in this book.
Within this political history, the photographs and the texts given in 19 thematic chapters tell us about the creation of the colonial aristocracy, the public display of power by the local chiefs and elites, the overlordship of Pakistan, and the development projects that were initiated in the CHTs. Within these power relations, the photographs and the texts also discuss the Westerners’ discovery of “a rustic paradise” of “simple” people and the paternalism of the post-colonial Bengali sahibs. Other obsessions in the form of bodies and costumes, images of nature, religious practices in the hills (including missionary efforts), and the coming to terms with modem machines are also dealt with.
Another encounter that characterises this book is contained within the theoretical terrain of history-writing. The photographs and the accompanying text speak of a framework that asserts to decentre the dominant nationalist narratives of the history of Bangladesh and recognise an alternative telling of social history—one in which attention is paid to gender and class dynamics. The two themes that have characterised nationalist history writing in Bangladesh have been the making of the Bengali nation and the emancipation of the Muslim. By refusing to mould the social history of CHTs within this bi-polar nationalist framework, the authors give birth to a new social memory of the region using written and visual sources as their primary archive. It is a largely successful effort.
However, one wishes that they could have also considered framing their analysis more fully against the post-1971 imperatives of development nationalism and the accompanying Bengali discourses of national integration whereby efforts were made to “bring the tribes of CHTs within the national mainstream”. While the authors do dwell on this kind of Bengali paternalism in the conclusion and elsewhere, it is a theme that deserved a much fuller treatment. Such an analysis could have dissected, for example, the book Tribal Leadership and Political Integration edited by R I Chowdhury and published from the University of Chittagong in the late 1970s. And for a book described as the first comprehensive work on the CHTs, the reference list is too brief and selective.
As far as recent books on historical encounters and the politics of identities in South Asia are concerned, this volume does not match the comprehensiveness of a work such as Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (1999, Princeton) by the anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner. But for its use of photography as the building block of an alternative history, it is an exemplary text for our region. Like the authors, one can only hope that it will give rise to comparative historical narratives that overcome the dominance of a variety of “low-land-oriented nationalisms”.