Multiculturalism in Bangladesh: where our political and intellectual debates end

By Fardin Hasin for Alal O Dulal

image source:www.7equals1.com

The intellectual and political circles of Bangladesh have, for a long time, based their ideas and actions on or around a monolithic image of Bangladesh. Most discussions and debates have considered our ‘Bangalee’ identity as a constant, and the history of ‘Bangalees’ as linear; the other side of the story, as seen by much of the right-wing intelligentsia, seems to focus solely on our identity and history as ‘Muslims’. Both sides have a point, but we are all missing a greater part of the picture, that is, a country cannot progress in peace if it chooses to reduce all its citizens into a singular identity.

We Bangladeshis have been doing exactly that for a long time. Whether it’s Awami League with its Bangalee nationalism or BNP with its Bangladeshi nationalism with a strong emphasis on our Muslim identity there’s simply no space left for Bangladeshis who aren’t Bangalees and/or Muslims. This has caused a lot of conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts among the tribal people, who are neither Banglaees nor Muslims, leading to their struggle for self-assertion by both political and military means. It has also closed the door to a multicultural environment.

What’s multiculturalism really about? It is the view that the various cultures in a society merit equal respect and scholarly interest. We Bangalees like to think that our country has a singular culture (which we treat as never changing). It doesn’t; cultural norms and standards vary quite a lot between different fractions of our society. And we also like to think that our culture cannot be ‘foreignized’; if it does, it’s no longer our culture. That’s also a romanticized idea which historical facts don’t support.

The problem is that most of us didn’t know what our culture is to begin with. Yeah, we call it a ‘Bangalee’ culture, but the Bangalees who lived a thousand years ago had a distinctively different but aesthetically similar culture to what we have now. The change was done through the infusion of cultural traits imported from foreign rulers and their chosen elite. Yet the product of the transformation was still ‘Bangalee’ culture. It’s not like that now because, unlike our ancestors, we are not wise in our import of cultures from other societies and countries; we take the faulty parts and leave out the good ones.

One of the reasons we get away with never talking about multiculturalism is because our country doesn’t have much of an immigrant issue, and the foreigners who come here don’t generally settle. The notable exception were the Biharis who came here during the early days of Pakistan, and presently the Rohingyas seeking protection against persecution from ultra nationalist Rakhaines in Myanmar.

For us Bangladeshis, the Bihari issue is always uncomfortable; we don’t like seeing them as citizens in a state whose birth many Biharis opposed militarily and some acted as collaborators in the genocide committed by the Pakistani army. There was a time when we referred to them as atke pora Pakistanis (stranded Pakistanis) but Pakistan stripped them of their citizenship in 1978 after 500,000 were repatriated. Most of the Biharis who were left lived without citizenship in refugee camps. In 2008, Dhaka High Court granted rights of citizenship to Biharis who were minors in 1971. And the right to citizenship in Bangladesh is the right to become a part of the mainstream Bangladeshi culture and politics, though many of us don’t want to face the reality that way.

We are much less conflicted when it comes to Rohingyas because they only started coming after we were already liberated. As with any other refugees fleeing a war zone, Rohingyas often come in a single cloth and without any money or previous educational experience. Naturally enough, the worst professions of the country absorb them out of their desperation: from tourism prostitution to violent terrorism, the availability of food and shelter is enough to convince the refugees to join the trade; people on empty bellies sleeping under the sky think twice before making bad career choices. We the majority can silently live by as these things happen, or do something about the Rohingya situation before it worsens beyond control. No court has yet granted them citizenship rights, but some Rohingyas have registered for voter id-cards and more by assuming a Bangalee alias. Such aliases, in the wrong hands, are a major concern for security.

It’s worth noting that some Biharis also assumed Bangalee aliases to have better prospect of job and education, and are living among Bangalees in areas of better economic standards and lower crime rate. But they also absorbed the Banglaee identity; and from cultural and political viewpoints, it’s hard to distinguish them from Bangalees without prior knowledge of their roots.

But it’s not just Rohingyas and Biharis; there are a few other foreign locals in Bangladesh who have achieved, or are working towards, getting a citizenship. From my personal experience, I know a Nepali medical student who fell in love with a Bangalee batch mate and decided to marry him and settle here, a Korean businesswoman who owns two garments and lives in Banani, and a Cameroonian educationist currently serving as the Head of the Department of TVE at the Islamic University of Technology. We have seen a lot of African footballers in our national football league, and Bangladesh Football Federation has encouraged the better performers among them to apply for citizenship here.

Granted, the number of these immigrants is microscopically small in comparison to the rest of the population, and they certainly don’t possess a distinctive vote bank. Hence the political parties are not bothered by their presence and so they don’t have any effect on political ideologies whatsoever. Our intellectual circle rarely talks about issues lacking political relevance; and so, our discussions about our ‘Bengalee’ heritage or our ‘Muslim’ faith never take into consideration these people.

Thankfully enough, these immigrants, as far as I know, haven’t had much problem with racism. Bangladesh has always been open to people around the globe who wanted its shelter or wanted it be a part of their empire, which is the reason our language shares vocabulary with almost every major language of Asia. But that doesn’t mean that these foreigners don’t feel distant in this country; they are far away from feeling like just another average Bangladeshi citizen.

This begs another question: how do we define an average Bangladeshi citizen? If the only qualitative conditions required are being a ‘Bangalee’ and/or a ‘Muslim’, then why is there so much conflict between people of the same ethnicity and/or religion?

It’s because sharing the same ethnicity and/or religion doesn’t mean that everyone has the same political priorities. Our political parties have been so busy manufacturing an uber nationalistic dogma in order to stir up the patriotism in people (obviously to get votes), that they have completely forgot (or choose to forgot) the notion that being of the same ethnicity and/or religion can’t be the only reason a group of people want to live together and function as a state.

It’s the sharing of certain sociopolitical and economic goals, and an acceptance of the diversity that may exist among the ideas and philosophies directed towards achieving those goals. The day we stop talking about unity found from cultural and political conformism, and start addressing our lack of tolerance to the differences among us, is the day we’ll be able to define what being a ‘Bangladeshi’ is really about.

Fardin Hasin, is an engineering undergraduate student at IUT Dhaka, Bangladesh.

2 thoughts on “Multiculturalism in Bangladesh: where our political and intellectual debates end

  1. This article is really refreshing and hopefully it will be followed by many more people putting their thoughts and pens / keyboards into exploring the bizarre culture and identity fascism in Bangladesh.

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