Defining an entity: Issued during the Liberation War with the collaboration of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, these stamps were a nationalist effort to assert the existence of a distinct Bangladeshi state.
flickr / mskarim
Defining an entity: Issued during the Liberation War with the collaboration of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, these stamps were a nationalist effort to assert the existence of a distinct Bangladeshi state. flickr / mskarim

Becoming Bangladeshi

Reflections on the origins of identities in Bangladesh, and the perennially unfinished business of shaping them in Southasia and beyond.

There is a tendency for people to talk about ethnic divides and conflicts in terms of supposed genetic (or racial) groupings that are actually based on cultural or linguistic categories. This is true of many Southasian conflicts, and most recently of the violence in the Indian Northeast. Popular misconceptions aside, modern anthropology tells us that despite immense diversity, humans are really one, both biologically as a species and culturally in terms of the innate potentials and tendencies of diverse groups. The latter point basically expresses the postulate of the Psychic Unity of Mankind, originally formulated in the 19th century by German anthropologist Adolf Bastian, and which endures to date in one form or another in anthropology and various other disciplines. But how does the humanistic view expressed in Bastian's postulate help us comprehend real situations in which human groups locked in conflict either fail or refuse to see their common humanity across ethnic, religious or political divides?

This piece focuses on conflicts involving Bengali Muslims, which, briefly put, are of two types. First, within Bengali Muslim society in Bangladesh, there is an unresolved tension between two poles of collective identity – Bengali and Muslim. Second, since the British colonial period, the growth and geographical expansion of the Bengali Muslim population has been associated with conflicts against non-Bengali ethnic groups living along or across the borders of present-day Bangladesh. In this context, after reviewing the historical emergence of Bengali Muslims, I consider questions of identity and connections to the past as these relate to contemporary Bangladeshis.

Bengal's frontiers

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

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

Refreshingly, in the course of explicating his thesis, Eaton dislodges some conventional views regarding the emergence of Bengali Muslims. One of these conventional views, for example, is that large numbers of Bengalis embraced Islam to escape the stigma and oppression associated with 'Hindu' caste society. Against such views, Eaton makes the point – one that may be missed upon a cursory reading of his book – that Islam took root in much of eastern Bengal, which, unlike other parts of Bengal, had not been deeply penetrated by 'Aryan' or 'Sanskritic' models of social formation. So it is not necessarily the case that the Bengali Muslims of eastern Bengal were 'Hindus' – or 'Buddhists' for that matter – prior to their conversion to Islam. Rather, many indigenous communities possessing non-Aryan cultures came into contact with Islam without necessarily ever having been under much Brahmanic or Buddhist influence. Here, the Islam that Eaton speaks of is not one that was introduced by the sword or through trade, but rather by charismatic Sufi spiritual leaders – known locally by terms such as pir and aulia – who are still spiritually alive, so to speak, at numerous mazars or dargahs (shrines) devoted to them in Bangladesh. Eaton points out that this strand of Islam came to the subcontinent with the Turks, many of them Persianised to varying degrees, some of whose Sufi beliefs and practices went back to Turkish nomadic traditions predating their conversion to Islam.

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

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

Who is indigenous?

What indigenous communities did inhabit Bengal, particularly its eastern half, when the Turks and later the Mughals ruled the region? Before discussing this, let us note that lately the word 'indigenous' has become anathema in Bangladesh government circles. This is because internationally, Bangladesh has repeatedly faced criticism of its treatment of so-called 'tribal' people, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who now want to be known as 'indigenous people' in accordance with current usage among the UN and its affiliated bodies. Accused of violating the rights of indigenous people, representatives of the Bangladesh government sidestep their obligations under relevant international laws by falsely arguing that there are no 'indigenous people' in Bangladesh.

In fact, some government spokespersons went so far as to say – much to the dismay of some sensible intellectuals and political leaders – that the 'tribal' people who claim indigenous status are in fact 'nomads' or 'recent immigrants', and that it is the Bengalis who are the true indigenous people of Bangladesh. It should be noted here that such a position – that the 'tribal' people are not indigenous – is not entirely new, having been pursued by Bangladesh's civil and military bureaucracies for over two decades. Ironically, this type of official position is at odds with the self-perception of many status-conscious Bengalis who regard themselves as descendants of ancestors who came from outside. For example, Bengali Brahmans and other 'upper' caste Hindus who regard themselves as descendants of 'Aryans' are essentially asserting non-indigenous ancestry. In the case of Bengali Muslims, those who claim to belong to one of the four categories of 'noble' origin – Sheikh (Shaikh), Syed (Sayyid), Mughal or Pathan – are also asserting their descent from 'forefathers' who came from outside Bengal. The first two titles presuppose Arab ancestry, with 'Sayyid' suggesting direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima's sons; those who claim Mughal or Pathan descent often use 'Khan' as a family name.

Be that as it may, let us address the question as to who the indigenous communities of eastern Bengal were from a linguistic point of view. Those familiar with the linguistic history of Bangla know that although it 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 – primarily to those belonging of the Austro-Asiatic family, and particularly its Munda branch which also includes languages such as Munda and Santali. The second group of languages that have influenced the emergence of Bangla – or, more correctly, many of the 'dialects' of Bangla in areas like Chittagong, Sylhet, and Mymensingh – belong to the Tibeto-Burman family. These include Bodo (including Koch, before the language was largely lost), Garo, Kokborok (Tripura), Meithei (Manipuri), Marma, and all other languages spoken in the Chittagong Hill Tracts except for Chakma and Tanchangya, which would be considered 'Indo-Aryan' in terms of their current vocabulary. Although the specific connections between various non-Bengali indigenous languages and the local 'dialects' of Bangla spoken in Bangladesh have not been studied very extensively, scholars of Bangla generally agree on the deep influence of Munda-type languages, and the secondary influence of Tibeto-Burman languages. In other words, indigenous communities speaking Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages contributed significantly to the emergence of Bangla and Bengali identity.

Now, is there any evidence that the indigenous groups belonging to any of the above-mentioned ethnicities transformed into modern day Bengalis? There are not many historical documents that can help answer the question, let alone resolve it conclusively. Oral history is also mute on this subject, but there is good reason why this is so. The 'national poet' of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, in his famous poem Samyobadi ('The Egalitarian') asked the question: "Who are you? A Jew? A Persian? Kol, Bhil, Garo? Yes, go on!" He was, of course, bemoaning the fact that people see themselves in terms of religious, ethnic, caste or other identities rather than as just 'human'. Note the three indigenous ethnic groups the poet mentions – Nazrul probably picked them because Bengalis considered them to be of relatively low status, to be 'primitive' and representative of the 'other', the 'Mlecchas' of ancient texts. Newspapers and human rights activists inform us that in northern Bangladesh, some indigenous groups, generally clubbed together as 'Santals', are treated like untouchables even in this day and age! Given all this, why would status-conscious, upwardly mobile Bengalis retain memories of an ancestry tracing back to marginalised and stigmatised ethnic groups?

Tracing foreign ancestry

Nonetheless, there is much evidence, both direct and indirect, of indigenous groups having become Bengalis, in some cases on a large scale, through the Sanskritisation or Islamisation of their cultures and the 'creolisation' of their languages. For example, there are significant numbers of people who use titles such as Roy, Rajbangshi and Barman, who speak Bengali and identify themselves as 'Kshatriya' (ie. Aryan) Hindu. Most of them are, as per historical and ethnographic records, of Koch or Bodo origin (in the linguistic sense of the latter term), but very few of them would openly admit it, or even be aware of it, today. There are also occasional instances of specific individuals, families, or even whole communities that are regarded as Bengalis, but have a clear Koch lineage; for instance, according to the work of anthropologist Ibne Golam Samad, the famous Bengali folk singer Abbasuddin was of Koch origin. But how many Bengali Muslim families today would pass on such information about their origins, particularly after adopting titles like 'Shaikh', 'Syed' or 'Khan'?

Consider the last of the above-mentioned titles – 'Khan' – and examine the assumptions that go with it. We all know of the most famous Khan of world history: Genghis (Chenghis). The descendants of Genghis, founder of the Mongol empire, and many other Mongol chiefs and generals also used 'Khan' – a Mongolian word with cognates in Turkic languages – as a title to mark high status. The Mughal emperors – 'Mughal' is derived from 'Mongol' – did not use this title for themselves, but conferred it on some of their followers. Many Turkic chiefs and generals also used this title, as do many people who claim Pathan descent. I know of one former colleague, a university professor, who used to wear his 'Khan' title proudly, and claimed that his ancestors had come to Bengal from Afghanistan. Once, this claim of ancestry prompted a quip from another colleague of ours who added, 'via Tamil Nadu' – a swipe at the professor's dark complexion, which, in popular belief, is more common in South India than in the north.

The anecdote narrated above reveals confusion regarding the relationship between race and language, or race and culture. This is something that anthropologists have addressed widely, but still persists in popular conception, as well as in textbooks. 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 racist notions that existed in his time regarding the linguistic and racial classification of different groups. He rejected the idea that people thought to be primitive culturally were also considered to be so racially, and vice versa. He also demonstrated that 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 fact, in modern anthropology, the concept of 'race' has largely been abandoned as being problematic and useless for the purposes of understanding cultures.

To illustrate the problematic nature of the concept of race, take the racial category Mongolian or Mongoloid. Although western stereotypes regarding the 'typical' looks of Mongols gave rise to this label, it is quite clear to discerning eyes that the Mongols themselves did not always look Mongoloid enough to qualify. For example, if we look at paintings of Mughal emperors, who were known to be direct descendants of Genghis Khan, we do not see many features that we would consider to be Mongoloid.

To take another example, the taunt about Professor Khan's ancestry mentioned above derives its punch from received notions about what people of a certain origin, or belonging to a particular region or linguistic group, are supposed to look like. The professor's ancestors may very well have come from Afghanistan, via other places, but these other places are not likely to have been in southern India, despite a common misconception among many Bengalis that 'Dravidian' is another of their sources of linguistic or racial ancestry. In fact, categories such as 'Dravidian' or 'Aryan' are best used as purely linguistic or cultural classifications. Hence, the official languages in most of South India are classified as 'Dravidian', whereas the official languages of northern India – Bangla, Assamese, Hindi, Urdu, Nepali – are mostly classified as 'Aryan'. But in the popular imagination, and in much academic literature on Southasia, these terms have very often been used as racial categories. We know what this kind of misconception may lead to, as when the Nazis tried to cleanse their 'Aryan blood' by killing off the 'Semitic' Jews and other 'impure races' like the Gypsies.

Unaccommodating nation

Unfortunately, racialist notions concerning human diversity still persist in many parts of the world, partly because unexamined notions abound in the textbooks, journalistic writing, art and literature that shape people's understanding of themselves and 'others'. After the recent outbreak of interethnic violence in Bodoland, Assam, the news and reactions on the internet were alarming. Facebook posts and comments included racist remarks and views. The media, including the BBC, described the problem as one between 'Bodos' and 'Muslims', one group defined by their ethnicity, the other by their religion. There were hardly any questions as to why this should be so.

That violence has also been described as a backlash against illegal immigration from Bangladesh, though it is unclear to what extent such claims are backed up by facts. However, regardless of how one interprets the facts in a contemporary context, if we look beyond the present national boundaries and take a historical view, the arrival of Bengali Muslims in Bodoland – and India's Northeast more generally – can be seen as a continuation of the expansion of the Bengali Muslim peasantry that Eaton describes. The process has spilled over the political boundaries of eastern Bengal in all directions, moving up along the river valleys. The conflict over land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh can also be seen as a manifestation of the same process. There, until the 1960s, indigenous 'hill people' were protected by laws dating back to British colonial period which barred the settlement of Bengali peasants. But in the 1960s, the CHT's special status was lifted, while the Kaptai hydroelectric project submerged 40% of the region's prime agricultural land and displaced some 100,000 people, most of them indigenous, who had begun to switch to wet rice cultivation. Similarly, the Rohingyas of Arakan – who live mostly in areas bordering southern Chittagong and speak a language that is mutually intelligible to the Chittagong 'dialect' of Bangla – may be seen as an offshoot of a peasant social formation which originated in the Bengal delta.

Failure to see beyond rigid lines of identity often leads to absurdity. Many years ago, at my home in Khagrachari in south-eastern Bangladesh, I had some Tripura visitors from another district. Upon learning that my guests were Christians, another Tripura visitor from within Khagrachari district, where most Tripuras are Hindu, remarked: "So, they are Mlecchas!" As mentioned earlier, the term 'Mleccha' had been used by Aryans to refer to groups considered outside the Aryan fold. Some Bodo groups, like those in Nepal and Koch Bihar, have come to be known as 'Mech', probably a derivative of 'Mleccha'. Yet there is historical evidence, as mentioned already, of Bodo-speaking groups in the region having become Bengali Muslims; Ali Mech, a Bodo man from the 13th century, is said to have been the first Islamic convert in Assamese history.  Even if they are not necessarily of direct Bodo origin, the Bengali Muslims who have emerged as a threat to the Bodos today share their non-Aryan, 'Mleccha' origins. But here we are today, different groups of similar origins denigrating and fighting one another!

In the age of the 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 opened up by the communication technologies at our disposal? These are questions that concern Bodos, Bengalis, and others alike, and are being tackled in all countries, particularly as nation-states fail to accommodate the identities and aspirations of many of their citizens in a changing, ever more interconnected world.

To take one example, it is clear that the imagined community as represented by the nation-state of Bangladesh remains an unfinished business. There are questions among Bengali Muslim families over how to perform weddings and funerals, in terms of the relative importance to be attached to 'Islamic' as opposed to local 'Bengali' practices; there are also similar questions regarding the relative importance of 'Islamic' and 'Bengali' identity in defining the Bangaldeshi state. It is also clear that the Bangladeshi national project fails to encompass the many identities that exist within Bangladesh's borders today.  One recent manifestation of this failure has been the definition, through the 15th Amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh, of Bangladeshi national identity as 'Bengalee', disregarding the concerns of the country's non-Bengali ethnic minorities. Similar tendencies can be seen in other spheres as well – in popular literature, for example – as became clear in discussions about the legacy of the late writer Humayun Ahmed, who was widely praised for his role in reviving the 'Spirit of the Liberation War' through some of his novels and films. After Ahmed's funeral, questions surfaced as to why the writer's fictional universe did not have characters representing Bangladesh's ethnic minorities. Given his role in almost single-handedly developing a huge Bangladeshi readership and weaning them off Bengali writers from West Bengal, Humayun Ahmed became a major institution of Bangladeshi nationalism. The absence of ethnic minorities in Humayun Ahmed's novels and scripts is probably not accidental, since the author mainly depicted average Bengali middle-class characters as they existed in a society where ethnic minorities had disappeared from view, or at best receded to the fringes of a deeply fractured collective imagination. As with the spokespersons of the Bangladeshi state who hold the dominant view that Bengalis – and not the 'tribal' people – are the true indigenous people of the country, it may be argued that Humayun Ahmed also revealed and perpetuated the myopia of the Bangladeshi nationalist imagination.

~ Prashanta Tripura is an anthropologist and development professional, and a former Associate Professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh.

Correction: This article earlier incorrectly stated that Ali Mech was from the 14th century, whereas in fact he was from the 13th.

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