Future(s) of the past(s) in and around a proposed (Open Pit) Coal Mining area in Dinajpur, Bangladesh

map of the records_colour
Map showing the locations of archaeological places in the zone of possible effects.

Future(s) of the past(s) in and around a proposed (Open Pit) Coal Mining area in Dinajpur, Bangladesh
by Swadhin Sen
Questions and their conceptual terrains

Numerous archaeological records with wide-ranging varieties in form, space, temporality and culture have been recognized, recorded and mapped during the last seven years in the region within and on which the much-debated project of Phulbari Open Pit Coal mining is underway. Although the region is popularly known as Phulbari, areas of the neighboring thanas of Birampur, Parvatipur and Nawabganj have also fallen within the boundary of the proposed coal mining. The students and teachers of the Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University, who have systematically explored and surveyed the region, have completed initial analyses on various registers.1 The database and preliminary results have not yet been academically published.

The region has been under the gaze of archaeological inquiry since the colonial period. Five copper plate inscriptions of the Gupta rulers – Kumargupta, Budhagupta and Visnugupta – were found from present Damodarpur village of present Phulbari thana in 1915.2 Administrators, archaeologist-historians, and the Government Department of Archaeology, Bangladesh, have conducted explorations in the region in separate stages over more than one hundred years. We may find reference to several archaeological records, mostly monuments and big structural mounds, in the works of Francis Buchanan (later Francis Hamiltan), Westmacott in colonial period, and A. K. M. Zakaria, as well as the reports of the Government Department of Archaeology in the Bangladesh period.3 The Department of Archaeology in association with Dinajpur Museum also excavated records like Sitakot Vihara at Nawabganj thana in the early 1970s. In the commendable and noteworthy work of A. K. M. Zakaria, later published as the book entitled Bangladesher Pratnasampad, several archaeological records from this region have been mentioned.

However, aside from a few rare and vague references to this vast array of archaeological testimonies about this would-be development-affected region, the polemical narratives, considerably huge in proportion, for and against the proposed Open Pit Coal Mining project have been curiously and alarmingly silent about the possible destruction and obliteration of these diverse signatures of the past. Since in recent days we are noticing an upsurge of outcries in print and electronic media regarding the protection and preservation of the ‘rich archaeological heritage of Bangladesh’, this virtual silence is noteworthy and interesting. In this paper I would like to raise a few questions pertaining to this situation:

How could we define and interpret this silence about the impacts of mining on the archaeological records of the Phulbari region? And why are the raised voices, albeit very low in their tone and intensity, articulated in and shaped by the structural principle of a concept of Heritage which is constituted by the dominating narratives shared, ironically, by both colonialist and nationalist discourses? In addition, I want to ask, how could both utterances and non-utterances be conflated from the taken-for-granted normalized perspectivism of the search for golden ages and past glories? Why do the academics, experts, intellectuals, art connoisseurs and other people who protest against the destruction and smuggling of archaeological objects, assuming some sort of pride and responsibility, keep their lips shut about the fear of destruction of the archaeological records? An obvious reason for the silences, the involved parties may argue, could be the lack of academic and popular publications and coverage regarding the archaeological records in the region under scrutiny. Yet, I think this excuse is not convincing enough to be validated under the terms and conditions of serious narratives of resistance, considering the descriptions in the book by A. K. M. Zakaria.

I am not simply interested here in analyzing the interests and motives of the parties involved. Neither do I want to blame the individuals and collectives, as I strongly believe that, as agents, they are not autonomous and self-constituted. In contrast, I try to show that the silences (and non-silences) are implicated by the dominant ideals of temporality and associated conceptualization of heritage and archaeology. Moreover, I do not intend to suggest the ways and means of protecting these archaeological records. Rather I would like to argue that the established notions of archaeological heritage are not adequate to contest the propaganda and hype of development and doctrine of necessity (in terms of shortage of fuel, electricity and industrial production) inherent in the arguments for and even, against (open pit) coal mining projects. I want to point at the conditions which determine when and how selected and constructed ‘past’ is invoked in the present and/or for the ‘present’ and ‘future’ by destroying some versions of ‘pasts’ and also, when and how some versions of past are excluded and sacrificed for the sake of development and progress.

Instead of going into complex details of thematic issues, I want to touch upon the core conceptual matters and give a basic outline.. By presenting, in the first section, the archaeological records from the aforesaid region with their functional and cultural attributes, I dig deep into the conceptual issues of my claims and arguments.

A brief review of the archaeological records in the would-be affected region

As I have already mentioned, the students and teachers from the Department of Archaeology of Jahangirnagar University, the Ecological Archaeology Group in particular, have been surveying the region for last seven years. As one of the directors of the group, I would like to raise some important points regarding the concept of the survey.

As you would discover throughout the lists of archaeological records below, we rethought and tried to re-structure the very notion of archaeological records. (I have deliberately refrained from using the word ‘archaeological site’, because the definition of ‘archaeological site’, we have found, is problematic for understanding the heterogeneity and ontologically, it is imbued with a sense of monumentality. Consequently, cultural remains from the past with extremely varied spatial, formal and temporal attributes have all been included as archaeological record. This inclusive approach is also directly connected to these questions: What do we understand by archaeology? What kind of past we are trying to encounter, understand and interpret? The past is not singular to us and we think that we must try to recognize and record as many signatures and testimonies of the polysemous past as possible. Archaeologists, with all of their technologies and efforts, can detect only those testimonies which are left on the landscape after destruction, modification and transformation by various cultural, biological and natural processes. They could be equivalent to only five to ten percent of the entire material culture of past human beings. It is, therefore, essential to include all the testimonies, however flimsy they could be, to be explored and identified in archaeological surveys. It should be mentioned that this approach is oppositional to the nationalistic conceptualization of archaeology, archaeological narrative and object. I must address the fact that nationalistic outcries about the heritage and past in Bangladesh mostly take only the monuments (and big structural assemblages and mounds) and ‘valuable’ objects (i.e. sculptures, coins, inscriptions, etc.) into account.

The past(s) of the region that the Coal Mining Project intends to affect (as suggested by the area bounded by the Asia Energy Corporation) are being testified to by the archaeological remains included in this list. According to our conceptualization, moreover, any one category of record is part of one or many ‘wholes’. Damage and destruction to any one of them would distort the entirety, thereby limiting the translatability of the past(s) to the present.

Before going into the details about the archaeological records, I would like to elaborate upon a few terms pertaining to the categorization of the enlisted records. This elaboration, in the form of a short glossary, is as follows:

Category Explanation Related Local name(s)
Structural mound Mound usually refers to deposits of cultural materials in the form of an elevated space on the landscape. The form has, usually, resulted from the various processes of vertical and lateral accretion above and around the areas of cultural activities (i.e. living, worshiping, discarding, etc.) by the formation processes of archaeological record during the occupation and after the abandonment. Various structures and their components are decayed, collapsed and, often, moved around after the abandonment. Then, they gradually get buried under the sediments. At present, archaeologists have found remains in the shape of a mound with various shapes and contours. Dhap, Danga, Aara, Bhita,Tila, Dhip, Dhibi
Surface scatters The buried remains are continuously under modification processes through various natural, biological and human-induced activities. Some of the buried remains come up to the surface because of these activities and are scattered over and transported through space. These are called surface scatters. Bhita, danga,khet
Plough zone deposit and scatters Often, the buried remains come up because of cultivation. The remains that are confined mainly to the vertical zone of cultivation activities are called Plough zone artifacts. If the remains have a high density and proportion then they are called Plough zone deposits. If they are scattered over the space, then they can be called plough zone scatters Bhita, khet
Habitational deposit The buried cultural materials (most often excluding the structures) and their modified and relocated spatial forms are called habitational deposit Bhita, danga
Garbage Pit Pits are one of the most commonly found archaeological records. Human activities pertaining to pits and the digging of pits could be versatile. The pits which are used for dumping rubbish and used materials (i.e pottery/potsherds) are termed Garbage pits Gati, Garto, nala
Deposit of Iron slag Iron slags are the solid form of the impurities rectified during the process of Iron smelting and working. These are also a particular kind of rubbish which is discarded usually very close to the centre of smelting activities. The slags often get consolidated and modified during burial period and are called deposit of Iron slag Lohakuchhi, lohagachhi

Archaeological records which have been recognized and recorded by our team are listed in the following table. Please note that this list is not final, as the final phase of survey and recording is currently going on. At the same time, I have not referred to the temporal boundary of many of the enlisted records because of the absence of reliable and precise markers. Moreover, it should be noted that we have found that many of the separately recorded archaeological records (indicated on the map as a point) are part of distinct clusters. Because of this problem regarding spatial and formal complexity of archaeological records, the present occurrence of the records and their spatial patterning are not necessarily represented by a point on the landscape. They have lateral and vertical extension and distributions over a space. We are now working on this particular phenomenon of spatial patterning of archaeological records and their cartographic representations, for example, by applying polygons. The photographs of the records were taken by different members of the team at various points of time.4 In this paper, we have incorporated the terms prevalent in popular domain as the names of the records. They are in Bangla and many of them have been interpreted in this paper. Any other difficulties in conceiving the names of the records must be recognized as untraslatibility of culture and language.

Table: Simplified brief information about the archaeological records within

and (around 5-7 km) of the Proposed Coal Mining Area

Picture3

No.

Name of the Record

Date

(circa)

Union

Mouza

Category and relevant comments

DNJ. PHUL.1 Kali Pukur Than Betdighi Chintamon Surface scatters on a moderately high land which is considered and worshipped these days as kalir than (place of goddess Kali)
DNJ. PHUL.2 Rahamatpur Mandir Dhap 17-18 century ACE Betdighi Rahamatpur A temple
DNJ. PHUL.3 Bibi Shahebanir Darga 14th -17th century ACE Betdighi Chintamon It is uncertain whether it was a tomb, mosque or any other type of building. But presently it is worshiped and narrated as Dargah  
DNJ. PHUL.4 Chourait Kabarsthan Pre 13th century Betdighi Chourait Structural mound memorized and narrated as old graveyard
DNJ. PHUL.5 Bairagir Dhap Betdighi Chourait Low habitational mound
DNJ. PHUL.6 Jamdanga Dhap Pre 13th century Betdighi Chourait Low structural mound
DNJ. PHUL.7 Shibnagar Eidgaher Danga Pre 13th century Shibnagar Maheshpur Structural mound presently used as Eidgah
DNJ. PHUL. 8 Madarer Darga Shibnagar  Bajitpur Structural mound presently memorized and worshiped as Dargah  
DNJ. PHUL.9 Bura Bari Shibnagar  Bajitpur Habitational deposit probably with structure
DNJ. PHUL.10 Malipara Dhap/Dhap Shibnagar Nurpur Habitational deposits probably with structural remains and rubbish disposal area
DNJ. PHUL.11 Chaklapara Azharer/Rataner Danga Shibnagar Maheshpur Deposit of Iron slags
DNJ. PHUL12 Chhahir Alir Barir Daksiner Danga Shibnagar Maheshpur Deposit of Iron Slag
DNJ. PHUL.13 Paharpur Dhap Pre 13th century Shibnagar Dudhipukur Structural mound
DNJ. PHUL.14 Bakultala Masjid/Edgaher Math 17th – 18th century ACE Shibnagar Chak Kabir Monuments(Mosques)
DNJ. PHUL.15 Guti Bater Tala Shibnagar Chak Kabir Extremely disturbed habitational deposit/ structures
DNJ. PHUL 16 Puran Bhita Shibnagar Shamshenagar Plough zone scatters/ disposed rubbish
DNJ. PHUL.17 Kholabari Shibnagar Shamshenagar Plough zone surface scatters
DNJ. PHUL.18 Senra Dhap Pre 13th century Aladipur Senra Structural moundStructural (?)
DNJ. PHUL.19 Hazrat Gayn Mohammad Shaher Mazar 18th – 19th century ACE Aladipur Senra Dilapidated monuments which are being memorized and narrated as Mazar (grave of a saint)
DNJ. PHUL.20 Dalaner Par/Malsurer Mandir Pre 13th century (?) Aladipur Rangamati Structural mound (?)
DNJ. PHUL.21 Jharkathi/Nayapara (Gram) Pre 13th century Aladipur Barai Habitational deposits
DNJ. PHUL.22 Barai Chhoypukur(Gram) Pre 13th century Aladipur Barai Habitational deposit
DNJ. PHUL.23 Dhaper Par Aladipur Uttar RagunathPur Suface scatters
DNJ. PHUL.24 Basudebpur Garh Aladipur Basudebpur Habitational deposit/surface scatters
DNJ. PHUL.25 Khayerbari Daksinpara Kali Mandap Pre 13th century Khayerbari Khayer-bari Structural mound
DNJ. PHUL.26 Bairagipara Mahantadaser Bhita Khayerbari Khayer-bari A mixed deposit of disposed rubbish
DNJ. PHUL.27 Mahadipur Siva Mandir 18th – 19th century Khayerbari Mahadi-pur Temple
DNJ. PHUL.28 Brahmachari Siva Mandir First part of 19th century Khayerbari Amra-bari Temple
DNJ. PHUL.29 Garh Pinglai Dhibi-1 Pre 13th century Daulatpur Garh- Pinglai
DNJ. PHUL.30 Garh Pinglai Dhibi-2 Daulatpur Garh- Pinglai
DNJ. PHUL.31 Falaharini Siva & Kali Mandir First part of 19th century Paurasabha Shujapur Monument which is mostly destroyed but worship of various deities is part of present practice
DNJ. PHUL.32 Belpuri Dhap Pre 13th century Paurasabha Shujapur Structural mound
DNJ. NWB.33 Pirozpur Taldanga/Khiyaridanga Joypur Pirozpur Deposit of Iron slag
DNJ. NWB.34 Kalir than and Bhita on the west side of Kalir Than Joypur Chamunda Plough zone surface scatter
DNJ. NWB.35 Haranathpur Loha Kachu Bhita Joypur Haranathpur A deposit of Iron slag
DNJ. NWB.36 Uchu Bhita and densely vegetated mound associated with Bhagadubi beel Joypur Haranathpur Habitational deposit/rubbish disposal area now memorized and narrated as old graveyard
DNJ. NWB.37 Bhalka Joypur Graveyard/ Dargah Approxlate 17th century. Joypur Joypur Monument presently worshiped, memorized and narrated as Dargah

No.

Name of the Record

Date

(circa)

Union

Mouza

Category and relevant comments

DNJ. NWB.38 Bhagolpur Manjapara Dhap C. pre 13th century Joypur Manjapara An area with 1km to 0.5 km dimension is partially covered by present habitational area
DNJ.NWB.39 Kachua Dhap C. pre-13th century Kushdaha Kachua Present habitational areas are around the mound
DNJ.NWB.40 Khalifpur Paikurtala Kushdaha Khalifpur Ploughzone surface scatter
DNJ.NWB.41 Bhita to the east of Segun forest Kushdaha Khalifpur Ploughzone surface scatter
DNJ.NWB.42 Kushdaha Dhap Pre-13th century Kushdaha Kushdaha Partly destroyed structural mound
DNJ.NWB.43 Kushdaha Low Mound Pre 13th century Kushdaha Kushdaha A dilapidated structural mound
DNJ.NWB.44 Kushdaha Sasthir Dhap Pre 13th century Kushdaha Kushdaha Partially destroyed structural mound
DNJ.NWB.45 Muhuripara Aambagan Bhita Pre 13th century Kushdaha Khalifpur Low structural flat topped mound
DNJ.NWB.46 Damail Narikel Tala Kushdaha Damail Habitational deposit (?)/ structural remains
DNJ.NWB.47 Shibpur Imaner Bhita Kushdaha Shibpur Low mound with habitational and structural remains. Also, surface scatter in plough zone
DNJ.BRP.48 Rakkhinibabur Bari 18th – 19th century ACE Khanpur Prayagpur The house of local zamindar
DNJ.BRP. 49 Rakkhinibabur Mondir  18th – 19th century ACE Khanpur Prayagpur
DNJ.BRP.50 Mofij Mia’s Vhita Khanpur Dhanjuri Kalisohar A cut with the fill of rubbish disposal.
DNJ.BRP.51 Bastu Bhita Khanpur Dhanjuri Kalisohar A deposit of rubbish disposal(?)
DNJ.BRP.52 Kallar Dhibi Pre 13th century Khanpur Joydevpur Ploughed structural low land in flood zone
DNJ.BRP.53 Chor Chakrabartir Dhap Pre 13th century Khanpur Charkhai This huge mound is protected by the Govt. and according to the oral communications on the 6m × 6m exploratory trench on the eastern edge of the mound, the structure beneath could be a Buddha Vihara.
DNJ.BRP.54 Bibi Sahebanir Darga Pre 13th century Khanpur Charkhai This structural mound is probably associated functionally with the Chor Chakrabartir dhap. It is highly disturbed by the construction of non-metalled road and present habitations.
DNJ.BRP.55 Tasar Fakir er Dhibi Pre 13th century Khanpur Charkhai Structural and habitational deposit
DNJ.BRP.56 Galan Chollir pratnasthan Khanpur Charkhai A test scraping revealed that the furnace was used for smelting iron.
DNJ.BRP.57 Bualar Mondap Pre 13th century Khanpur Sandalpur The scientific report of the excavation is under preparation. As far as the experts opinions are concerned this structural assemblage has no parallel in it ground plan in Bengal
DNJ.BRP.58 Tileshwari Aara & associated low lands and small mound Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur The scientific report is under preparation. Experts on Eastern Indian Architecture have postulated that the structure could be a Hindu temple contemporary to the Pala dynasty. If the inference is confirmed, then it could be the first Hindu temple in Bengal contemporary to the Pala dynasty.
DNJ.BRP.59 Nurul Haq er Bhita Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Low land with present habitation
DNJ.BRP.60 Natar Dhibi 1 Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Mound with moderate size
DNJ.BRP.61 Natar Dhibi 2 Polyprayagpur Chandipur Mound with moderate size.
DNJ.BRP.62 Shiblal er Dhibi/ Ragda bhita Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Structural mound
DNJ.BRP.63 Puratan Barir Dhibi 1  Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Structural mound
DNJ.BRP.64 Puratan Barir Dhibi 2 Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Structural mound
DNJ.BRP.65 Samsuddin er Bhita Polyprayagpur Chandipur Habitational deposits on low land
DNJ.BRP.66 Tipka Tila Pre 13th century Polyprayagpur Chandipur Structural assemblage

The story of Time, heritage and object

The clash and compromise between the ‘knowable as well as estranged past’ and ‘unknown yet predictable future’ is a fundamental feature of the modern temporality in which progress is the essence of historical time. The very idea of history and time, according to Koselleck, went through a decisive shift in Europe between 1750 and 1850. It was the selection, modification and invention of ‘historical times’ that marked this inception of a new age and ‘a fundamental reorientation towards time’. Koselleck contends, “Time is no longer simply the medium in which all histories take place; it gains a historical quality. Consequently, history no longer occurs in, but through time. Time becomes a dynamic and historical force in its own right.”5 One of the most crucial outcomes of this shift was the way in which the temporal schemas were homogenized and transformed into a linear and evolving discursive formation: Past → Present → Future. Concurrently, this transformation into ‘time’s arrow’ conditioned the conceptual terrains from which the modern and secular ideals of development and science have gained their present authoritative status.

This is not to say that the past has become irrelevant for the present and for the radically different future. But now not all the experiences and knowledge about the past are considered as useful. “Historical experience descending from the past could no longer be directly extended to the future.”6 This experience and knowledge, I would like to argue by drawing on Koselleck, could be selectively manipulated, reproduced and even reinvented into new forms with the mediation of interpreter(s) and interlocutor(s) who are working under the canopy of her/his situatedness. This situatedness is conditioned by the dominating power structures and relations (e.g., of and among multicorporate agencies; the nation-state and its dominant ideologies and institutions; and other agents, e.g., print and electronic media).

We have to acknowledge that ‘Time” is the central thematic around which the modern disciplines of archaeology and history hinge. Debates on time and the issues of temporalities have been very crucial in history and especially in archaeology in the last three decades.7 Without going into the theoretical details, I would like to point to a few key issues in the polemics on time in archaeology. ‘Past’ is essential to the schema of the discipline of archaeology as a discipline. The etymology of the word ‘archaeology’ embodies this essence. The linear, homogenized and abstract Eurocentric temporality has been essentialized to this discipline throughout its formation in the post-enlightenment periods. Linear and abstract (i.e. numerically enumerative) time has become central to various regulatory (and non-regulatory) mechanisms and institutions of modern nation-states, imperialistic ideologies, capital and also to various spaces of living. The formation of the grammar of nationalism and the nation-state has lain heavily upon an uncritical invocation to the past ‘glory’, ‘golden age’, ‘civilization’, and ‘oldness of the nationhood and collective identity’. Archaeology has been dominated by the representations of the aspirations and the desires to be the oldest in almost all nationalistic narratives. Many thinkers have argued that these aspirations and desires are entwined with and shared by the very colonial temporality against which these nationalisms contested. But simultaneously, it is often argued that the importance of this discipline, which is often marginalized in the unequal power dynamics of the academy and state, lies in the rationale that the past should be known for the sake of a better present and evolved future. The study of the past, hence, is rationalized axiomatically in Bangladesh under a temporality in which the past is only validated in relation to an anticipated future worthy to be aspired for.

The ideals and aspirations of progress and development become integral to all the enterprises of knowing the past and doing archaeology. ‘We were developed and prosperous in the past; so we as a nation are capable of making our future better’ – the appropriating narratives thus legitimize many of their agendas. ‘Past and heritage are important for the present as long as they contribute to the betterment of the future. We must sacrifice them, if it is necessitated, for the future greater common good of the nation’- the rejecting narratives asserts. Don’t we sniff a strange sharing of ideals between these two apparently contradictory and contesting validations for and against the past and its knowledge? As a consequence, in a (third) world where development and progress with the aid of (foreign) investment and/or by national capital and enterprises are normalized and invoked as central, past and heritage are always prone to be relegated to a secondary and auxiliary status, if conditions of the project of modernity, progress and development require that it be so.

The past could be reread, reinterpreted and selected for constituting and articulating a grand narrative of heritage, as has been the case in present Bangladesh, for strengthening, manipulating and maintaining the gross inequality in power. Both these narratives show a reverence to the linear, progressive and abstract ideal of historical time and heritage which is homogenized and applicable for the interests, desires and requirement of the inequality integral to processes and products of progress and development under the projects of modernity. This is done through the actions and processes of subversion of conflicts, contradictions, dialectics and heterogeneity of polysemous past(s) and heritage. I may take, as an example of such actions and processes, the myth (in the modern sense which recognizes myth as oppositional to fact) of communal harmony in Bangladesh (and Bengal) from time immemorial. The majority of elite intelligentsia invoke such a homogenous ‘glorious’ past by excluding and subverting evidences and interpretations which might elucidate completely different pasts. The pasts constituting conflicts and contestations over power and supremacy of sects and states, on one hand, and on the other hand constituting political strategies in turning Buddhist religious places into Hindu temples, destroying Hindu temples and using the debris to built Mosques and using Buddhist symbols in Hindu establishments and vice versa.

The perpetrators and the victims, we find, inhabit the same conceptual space, and the rationality of greater common good and development triumphs every time in spite of consistent and continuous failure of their promises for a better and happier future. I must refer to the point that archaeologists in recent days have argued for that the nature of evidences with which archaeology deals to interpret the past challenge this dominating notion of temporality.8 The journey from the ‘static’ evidences toward the ‘dynamics and dialectics’ of time and culture is not so much straightforward as it is taken-for-granted. The temporality could be multilayered, overlapping, plural and even chaotic. The theories (i.e., how the past will be approached as an object of study) have a profound effect on the very methods of knowing and doing archaeology. Therefore, they contend that questions about the past must be reflected upon a mirror with a critical gaze for any alternative re-conceptualization of temporalities.

It is from this conceptual terrain of time and temporality, I want to place the marginalization and often virtual absence of pasts and their testimonies of the proposed open pit coal mining and surrounding area in the plethora of debates-discussions-round table conferences-seminars-symposiums on negative and positive impact of the mining. It should be noted that the people active in the resistance against the Open Mining Project and associated campaigns invoked the past with the rhetoric of Oitihya (Bangla synonym for the both the words ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’). It is explicit in the slogan: We don’t want to destroy our heritage by mining coal. I have suggested elsewhere that this invocation of past, along with other rhetoric, does not account for resistances on conceptual terrains. It is articulated, I argued, on a conceptual terrain of resistance which is shared by the dominant and the dominated alike. Also, I called for a re-conceptualization of the resistances and their relationship to the past by citing particular examples of the interconnections among memories, narratives and archaeological evidences in the Phulbari region.9

More concisely, I point to the absence of the references about innumerable archaeological and historical records falling directly within the proposed mining area and indirectly within the impacts of the mining activities. My contention here is more importantly to claim that the arguments in which the issues of the probable destruction of archaeological ‘heritage’ are invoked are predominantly ‘object-centric’ and hence, conceptually and practically destructive for the spaces of the occurrences of archaeological records. I draw on some of the results of the recent survey and research in the aforesaid region by the students, teachers and the Ecological Archaeological Group of the Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, to contest the dominating politics of time.

Here, I want to argue that the established, accepted and taken-for-granted idea of heritage in Bangladesh is not adequate to contest the destruction of the archaeological records. Rather they are subversive to and destructive of the records of the past. It is mainly because of the fact that the dominating concept of heritage in Bangladesh is principally and foundationally structured by elitist, masculinist and nationalistic principles. The very term ‘heritage’ is actually and apparently confined to the urban middle class public space in contrast to the dominating and, often, contesting notions of ‘tradition’ which have transcended various boundaries of class, sect, religion and regionalism despite the fact that the established ideals of tradition have their genealogy along with that of the essentialized discourses of ethnocentrism, communalism and nationalism. While there are spaces, although limited and regulated, where contestations among traditions in Bangladesh are recognizable, the idea of heritage is limited by and articulated within a more homogenized perspectivism of a middle class which is hungry for a past which could be regulated, molded, represented and dominated for the legitimization of its aspirations, desires and interests. The nation-state and transnational agencies are acting as two of the most powerful force and condition in shaping the aspirations with the mediation of news media and academia. I am not saying that there are no conflicts and incongruence in the aspirations and interests in this class or in the structural principles of the conditions. I simply want to address the shared terrains of past termed as ‘heritage’ by seemingly conflicting collectives and individuals.

Ontologically and very importantly, unlike tradition, the idea of ‘heritage’ is essentially ‘object-centric’ in Bangladesh. The object is taken as the most reliable proof of truth in dominant western ontology. “Objects” dissociated from their context and associations have achieved a much more superior ontic status in the European search for truth and meaning of the past during the post-enlightenment period. The narratives about and on the past have been formed and shaped from their colonial origin and later transformations in ways that kept the ‘object’ as central and as essential in the grammar of the (re)construction and rationalization of the past. This ‘object-centrism’ is shared, supported and promoted by the knowledge production power of Archaeology as a discipline. In the accepted terms of reference, an imposing monument, a sculpture, an inscription, a coin, a road(?) claimed to be 2500 years old , a pit dwelling claimed to be 4500 yrs old, a urban centre or a manuscript may gain superiority as evidence with an uncritical reverence to ‘pseudoscientific imagination’. We see that the pioneers of our archaeology, partly to contest the colonial narratives of past and partly by sharing the same thematic, ran out of home in an Indiana-Jones-like adventure to collect as many objects as possible for personal collections and/or for furnishing museums. There have been consistent debates about the origin an decline of Harappan civilization, about the origin of second urbanism in Ganges plains, about the oldness of cities and their glories in South Asia. Objects and monumental remains are interpreted as keys in these debates. In one of my recent paper, I have tried to show that this paranoia of chasing after civilization back to the past cities and objects have gained impetus by the colonial knowledge/power dynamics. Colonialist and modernist discursive formations like ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ have been crucial in the genealogy and transformations of the burning desire to be civilized, urban and progressive from the time as old as one may imagine.10

It should be noted that this ‘object-mania’ has been very selective, as it was generated within the conditions of modernity and colonialism. The modernity as a project has an ontic essence of de-contextualized and selective objects. Some objects are given more value and status over others for their usefulness in imposing the capacity and quality of beauty, value, authority and evidential authenticity. These were identified and constructed as ‘trade-mark’ of the collective identity or nationhood contesting colonialism. The heritage discourses in present Bangladesh have inherited this object-centrism. An earthen ware identified as imported and/or as a luxury item [i.e. Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), Rouletted Ware (RW), etc.] has become the signifier of the past golden ages and urban development of the anti-colonial nationhood and of the testimony of the civilized capacity to make connection to the classical (Western) civilizations at the same moment. A sculpture, in addition, is recognized as the embodiment of the spiritual and the mundane authenticating the oldness of the earthly prosperity of a spiritually superior collective identity. The objects signifying the common mass (i.e. Common Earthen ware) have been relegated and left for going into oblivion. The evidences in the contextual association of those objects are excluded and marginalized methodologically.

It would not be difficult, then, to comprehend the logic that for the sake of development of the nation and the state, the contexts of the objects can be sacrificed and even destroyed. The logic enumerates that rescue or salvage or preventive excavation, if necessary, could be performed to retrieve the objects without taking into account their contexts, both spatial and cultural. After all, these objects could be displayed, the logic asserts, in the National Museum even if some of them (for example, sculptures) are found to be reused in worship by the local Hindu minorities or if the mounds are taken as the signifier of identity in the memories and narratives of ethnic nationalities and religious sects through their reuse and re-conceptualizations. The entire logic connotes that by displaying a Buddhist or Hindu sculpture in a museum, it would be easy to testify to the myth of communal harmony in time immemorial on one hand, and of security of the ‘archaeological treasures’ (please don’t be surprised at this recently popularized word in Bangladesh hinting implicitly to the hunt for lost treasures by the Orientalists and pirates), on the other. These ‘archaeological resources’ can thus be used the logic goes on to add moreover, to raise the consciousness of the ignorant masses. Please note that the people who are worshiping a mound or a sculpture are identified as being unconscious of their ‘glorious’ heritage. I want to point here to the strange similarity in the use of the term ‘resource’ for both coal and archaeological records at the same time. As the word denotes, any resource is exchangeable with some other resource as well as with money; so that most of the self-proclaimed conscious intellectuals wouldn’t find any problem in identifying a coal chunk and a piece of archaeological object to have the same value.

Concluding remarks

My arguments in this paper were to point at the fact that the heritage discourses as popularized and propagated by the intellectuals and media have certain pitfalls. They cannot act as the protector of the past(s) in the Phulbari region. Past material cultures and their present manifestations as identifiable entities in relation to the landscape and as embodied popular memories, practices and rituals must be taken into serious account in order to include them into an effective discourse of resistance against the (open-pit) coal mining project. Without transforming and questioning the conventionalized and taken-for-granted ideals and concepts of past and heritage, it is not possible to achieve that.

Acknowledgements

I am thakful to Julia Tabuut for going through the manuscript and suggesting necessary grammatical corrections. I would like to acknowledge the debt of gratitude to our friends in Birampur-Phulbari-Nawabganj region. Above all, the work in the region couldn’t have been possible without the constant support of the team members of Ecological Archaeology Group of the Department of Archaeology. All the credits of the work goes equally to them.

[The archaeological places and their understandings and interpretations were a part of my doctoral thesis]

End Notes:

  1. The systematic archaeological prospection in Dinajpur-Joypurhat region started in 2001 as field work under the regular coursework of the 9th batch of the Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University. Subsequently, 10th, 11th and 8th batch conducted preliminary explorations in Birampur, Hakimpur, Nawabganj and Phulbari thana. The more systematic and meticulous prospection as well as correction and modification of earlier data started with a project funded by Ministry of Science, Information and Communication Technology after 2005 by Ecological Archaeology Group of the same department under the direction of Swadhin Sen and Syed M. Kamrul Ahsan. Meanwhile, Umme Habiba Lipi, a student from the 8th batch, did a preliminary survey in Phulbari thana and submitted her report as Graduate level thesis. The students whose works and efforts have been crucial for the archaeological prospection are: Md. Nazmus Sakeb, Ahmed Sharif Sunny, A. K. M. Syfur Rahman Polin, Afroza Khan Mita, Md. Kamal Hossen Akanda and Khandakar Mehbubul Islam. The survey works have also been assisted by students from various sessions. They are A. S. M. Sajjad Hossen, Sajidur Rahman, Asma Ara Jahan Happy, Md. Mozammel Hoque Rimon, Md. Asiquzzaman, Md. Musfiqur Rahman and Md. Kamrul Ahsan Jimi.
  1. Five copper plate inscriptions were found during clearing a heap of earth between two ponds in Damodarpur village by the workers employed by the local chairman Mr. Chhamir-ud-din Mondal in April 1915. They were collected by J. A. Ezechiel, then the District Majistrate and he handed them over to Varendra Research Society. Varendra Research Society placed them in the hands of Radhagovinda Basak who deciphered the inscriptions and published the texts in Epigraphica Indica, Vol. XV. Two inscriptions were from the time of Kumaragupta 1 (of Gupta Era 124 and 128), two were from Budhagupta (of Gupta Era 163) and one was from the time of Visnugupta (of Gupta Era 224). [Please, add c. 320 years to convert Gupta Era into Gregorian Calendrical dates]. For the full text please, see Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum (Vol. III), Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings, (Eds.) Bahadurchand Chhabra and Govind Swamirao, New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1981.
  1. Please see Francis Buchanan, A Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Description of the District, or Zila, of Dinajpur, in the Province, or Soubah, of Bengal. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1833. E. V. Westmacott, On traces of Buddhism in Dinajpur and Bogra. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal vol. 1, No. 3, 1875. S. A. Cunningham, Report from a Tour in Bihar and Bengal in 1879-1880, from Patna to Sonargaon. ASI Report, vol. 6, Calcutta, 1882. Mohammad Ali, Archaeological Survey Report of Greater Dinajpur District. Dhaka: Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Govt. of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh, 1995. A. K. M. Zakaria, Bangladesher Pratnasampad. Dhaka: Bangla Academy,  1989.
  1. The photographs of the archaeological records have been taken by Nazmus Sakeb, Ummed Habiba Lipi, Md. Kamrul Ahsan Jimi, Ahmed Sharif, A. K. M. Syfur Rahman, A. K. M. Kamal Hossen Akanda and Swadhin Sen
  1. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures’ Past: On the semantics of historical time (trans. by. K. Tribe). MIT Press, 1985. Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Trans. by Todd S. Presnar and others). Stanford University Press, 2002. John Jamito, Koselleck’s Philosophy of historical Times and the Practice of History. History and Theory, 43, 2004.
  1. Ibid.
  1. James MCglade, Archaeology, Narrative and Non-linear Causality in Tim Murray (ed.) Time and Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1999. Gavin Lucas, The Archaeology of Time. London: Routledge, 2004. Tim Murray (ed.), Time and Archaeology, London: Routledge, 1999. Julian Thomas, Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretive Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1998.
  1. See for an example Tim Murray, A Return to ‘Pompei Premise’ in T. Murray (ed.) Time and Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1999.
  1. Is it only survival? Is it politics without science? Meghbarta, 2006    [http://www.meghbarta.org/nws/nw_main_p01b.php?issueId=6&sectionId=20&articleId=161]
  1. Prachin Sabhyata, Chirantan Sampriti ebong Pratnasampader Janya Byakul Kamana! Bangladesher Pratnatattwer Dapute Dharana o Anushilaner Jamite ekti Anusandhanmulak Khanan. [http://arts.bdnews24.com/?p=1133#more-1133}

[This essay was first published in the Meghbarta. Now it is unavailable in their archive. I think that the issue is still important, and the entire aspect of archaeology in the proposed coal-mining area is not adressed by anybody. I hope this essay would be able to attract our attention towards the crucial role of archaeological places in contemporary human life and their living]

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