becoming Bengalis” – says Willem van Schendel
Professor Willem van Schendel, chair of Modern Asian History,
Amsterdam University, said that he does not see a future when the
national minorities of Bangladesh will become Bengalis.
“I don’t see any future of Chakmas, Marmas, Garos, Tripuras, Khasis
becoming Bengalis. Of course they will be fluent in Bengali, but that
does not change their identities and self-awareness. The idea that the
problem will resolve itself through assimilation is a myth.” he said.
Mr. Willem made this comment in an exclusive interview titled
“Bangladesh is not just a Bengali nation” with New Age Xtra magazine
In reply to another question he said: “I am very worried about the
future [of the non-Bengali communities] because I think it is a time
bomb ticking away under Bangladesh. The awareness among Bengalis
generally has increased enormously since I first started writing about
it. Now there is a broad understanding of the problems, but they are
not being resolved.”
He also said that there has been a lot of injustice done to the minorities.
Mr. Willem, a researcher and author of a number of books on
Bangladesh, gave the interview to Mubin S Khan during his recent visit
Read the full interview :
‘Bangladesh is not just
a Bengali nation’
Willem van Schendel is a researcher working in the fields of history, anthropology and sociology of Asia. He teaches at the University of Amsterdam (chair in Modern Asian History) and at the International Institute of Social History and has authored a number of books on Bangladesh, including A History of Bangladesh, Global Blue: Indigo and Espionage in Colonial Bengal, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia, The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland and Gramin Bangladeshe Krishok Gotishilota. He spoke to Mubin S Khan during a recent visit to Dhaka
photo by AL-EMRUN GARJON
These things are usually coincidences in a person’s life. As a student I had a teacher who was a specialist on Asia, particularly Indonesia, and he was very inspiring. He made me interested in societies based on irrigated rice cultivation and the complexities of such societies.
As a student we had an opportunity to spend six months in a country to do research and I decided to go to one of those countries. For a number of reasons I decided to go to Bangladesh and spent time doing field work in a village in Rangpur. I became fascinated with the place. I then decided to come back and do my PhD research. After that there was so much more I wanted to know about the country that I continued coming back.
In an essay in 2001, you have written extensively about the crisis surrounding nationalism in Bangladesh and d ifferent narratives that are fighting with each other. Through what historical circumstances did these narratives emerge, specifically the two main narratives – that of Bangladeshi nationalism and Bengali nationalism – and where would you say they stand now in 2010?
First of all, I have a particular point of view about nationalism which has to do with the history of the part of the world I myself come from, where nationalism has been a terrible force in the twentieth century. We all have in our families stories about the destructive force of nationalism. I have always been fascinated about the very positive idea about nation in Bangladesh, which I find worrying, because of how bad nationalism can be.
The discussions and the manipulations of the nation by the different regimes are of particular interest. This whole discussion about whether it is a Bengali nation or a Bangladeshi nation is interesting, because it is a fairly young nation and it is very malleable, very easy to manipulate. Even at the level of party politics you can play with it for short term gain.
I found this fascinating, yet worrying, because Bangladesh is not just a Bengali nation, it is a multilingual society, there are many non-Bengalis just as there are many non-Muslims. So, to talk about Bengali Muslims or Muslim Bengalis as the only identity is worrying because it spells trouble for the future.
I don’t think the discussion has changed very much in the intervening period. The rules of the game are still the same.
In which case, how does a society build its identity without the adverse effects of nationalism?
It is a problem. Any nation is artificial and it is over time that it becomes natural. Nations start as political projects by a group of intellectuals who then try to sell this project to the wider society, whether to the state or other classes. And Bangladesh is an example of a highly successful political project which started in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But it remained unstable, especially in the early 1970s. This state had suddenly fallen into people’s lap after this terrible war, but what does it actually mean to talk about this nation? The fashion in the 1970s was trying to fill up this space that had suddenly been created. This instability is only to be expected in a new connection between nation and state.
Do you see this narrative achieve any kind of stability?
I think, by now, it has stabilised. In the early 1970’s many people were elated to be in Bangladesh, instead of East Pakistan, but were very insecure towards the outside world. That has completely gone now. For the outside world, this is a stable national identity, though inside, there are still fights about what this means. The anxiety is gone.
In Bangladesh, would you say that this anxiety has somewhat been transferred in relation to India, at least to a section of the population? How do you see Bangladesh-India relations as an outsider?
This again resonates with my own personal history. I come from a small country, the Netherlands, which has always felt threatened by its big neighbours.
It all has to do with the fact that in India people are not very often aware of the separate identity of Bangladesh. Sometimes, Indians talk about Bangladesh as if it is another Indian state. They are poorly informed about the sensitivities here. They do not realise that the Pakistan period here turned East Bengal into something very different from what it was in 1947 and that in 1971 there was no desire to return to India. The tension between Bangladesh and India is very understandable, although, I am always impressed by the fact that individually Indians and Bangladeshis have a very easy relationship.
How far do you think the Pakistan narrative still impacts modern day Bangladesh?
May be not so much the narrative as the institutional changes that took place after 1947. I think the modern Bangladesh state still looks a lot like the modern Pakistan state that was put in place in 1950’s and 1960’s. You could extrapolate this back to the colonial period, and you could say that this still very much resembles a colonial state. When you talk about things like democratic representation, which was never a part of the colonial state – Pakistan has had trouble with it and so has Bangladesh.
In the ‘nationalism’ narratives in Bangladesh, the non-Bengali communities remain largely marginalised. Despite much academic attention to their predicament, the majority Bengali race appears largely unconcerned. Do you ever see the emergence of plural narrative in which their identity and concerns are represented properly?
I am very worried about the future because I think it is a time bomb ticking away under Bangladesh. The awareness among Bengalis generally has increased enormously since I first started writing about it. Now there is a broad understanding of the problems, but they are not being resolved.
For example the peace accord, the most important parts of which have not been implemented. There is political complexity that wasn’t there before. A lot of time has been lost. There has been a lot of injustice done to them. They feel they are not being treated as full-fledged citizens.
That is just the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But the other people who do not fit the dominant model of Bengalis and Muslims, have similar problems. If you are a non-Bengali Muslim you have a problem and if you are a non-Muslim Bengali you have a problem as well. All these people need to be given more space and that’s not really happening. These problems do not go away if you ignore them, they become bigger.
In terms of numbers, the minorities in Bangladesh are still very small. Do you see this becoming a bigger problem or do you see them become assimilated with the mainstream in the future?
There are various scenarios that you can think of. One thing that is happening is that they are being pushed out to India like the Garos for example. The other scenario is them disappearing in the larger population, and you are right they are small in numbers, which should be a reason to be generous with them because it is cheap in a way. But one reason the CHT is so important in all of this is that it is not a small area.
I don’t see any future of Chakmas, Marmas, Garos, Tripuras, Khasis becoming Bengalis. Of course they will be fluent in Bengali, but that does not change their identities and self-awareness. The idea that the problem will resolve itself through assimilation is a myth.
You take strong interest in borderlands. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documents the killing of 930 people at the hands of BSF since 2000. How far do you think, the haphazard, ahistorical and un-geographic nature of India-Bangladesh borders contributes to such violence?
The border is a problem for Bangladesh because there are so many areas where you don’t know where the border is. There are many parts where India and Bangladesh don’t agree where the border is. This uncertainty about territory is something modern states cannot live with. Earlier, this was not much of a problem. Now you really have to know – this inch is mine, that inch is yours. If you don’t know that, and both Bangladesh-India as well as Bangladesh-Burma doesn’t have that, then you have this suspension – anything can happen at the border, it’s hot and dangerous, and that of course impacts the rest of the society.