Language Identity and State

Last updated Jun 18th, 2020


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During the course of my field work for my doctoral thesis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), an elderly and much respected person of the area had posed the following question to me,

“why do you Bengalis call us upa-jati (literal translation is sub-nation, but otherwise tribe), we have a language, culture, religion and land of our own. We may be few in numbers but we are not sub of any group, we may be a small nation but not a sub-nation. The term upa-jati is not even existent in our language; this is a Bengali terminology, why do you want to impose your notions and categories upon us. We are an egalitarian people, please don’t impose your notions of hierarchy upon us, these are alien to us”.

Indeed I had no reply to his query and observation, which was a protest and rejection at the same time.

But the implications and substance of what he had said to me had haunted me ever since.

I have often wondered how the notions and categories of a dominant culture have marginalized and negated the cultures and lives of minorities.

Language indeed has played an important role in the construction of these categories and thereby marginalization.

Taking cognisance of the importance of language, UNESCO on November 17, 1999 has declared 21st February as the International Mother Language Day.

It maintained that languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage; and called upon the states to “encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education for the development of fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue”.[1]

Incidentally Bangladesh had taken the initiative for the above resolution, and the declaration did recognise the unprecedented sacrifice made by Bangladesh for the cause of mother language on 21 February 1952.

Yet, ironically, Bangladesh has one of the most hegemonic and chauvinistic language policies.

The state identifies itself with Bangla or Bengali and has imposed its own notions and categories of identification, development and education upon its non-Bengali population.[2]

The Ethnic set-up

Bangladesh is home to about 27 ethnic communities.

Controversy, however, exists as to the exact number of ethnic groups in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Census Report 1991 puts the number to 29.[3]

But Khaleque[4] quite rightly points out that in the Census Report in two instances, the same group has been listed as two separate ethnic groups.

This suggests that there are at least 27 ethnic groups in Bangladesh.

Members of the different ethnic communities, however, maintain that there are more than 45 different ethnic groups in Bangladesh, but the census report does not take the variations into account in order to project Bangladesh as an overwhelmingly Bengali nation.[5]

According to the census of 1991, the ethnic population of Bangladesh is 1.2 million, which constitutes 1.13 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh.

Gaps however exist between the official figures and private estimates.

Maloney[6] has pointed out that according to the Monthly Statistical Bulletin of Bangladesh [March 1991] the ethnic population in the five districts in Rajshahi division was 62,000, but various Christian missions in private censuses found the number to be double.

Members of these communities also dispute the official figures and see it as a government mechanism to establish them as numerical minorities.

The ethnic communities of Bangladesh can be divided into two groups based on their geographical habitats: the Plains group and the Hill group.

The plains groups live along the borders of the northwest, north and north-east of the country.

For instance, the ethnic groups like the Koch, Munda, Oraon, Paharia, Rajbongshi and Saontal have been traditionally living in certain parts of Bogra, Dinajpur, Kushtia, Pabna, Rajshahi and Rangpur districts in the northern border.

The greater Sylhet district in the northeastern border is the traditional area of Khasi, Manipuri, Pathor and Tipra community.

The Garo, Koch and Hajong people live in Mymensingh and Jamalpur districts in the northern borders and in Tangail[7] district in the north central region.

Besides scattered settlements of different ethnic people are found in Barisal, Comilla, Dhaka, Faridpur, Khulna, Patuakhali and other districts of Bangladesh.

The ethnic people of the Hill group live in the southeastern part of the country i.e., the CHT. The inhabitants of this group again live in two distinct ecological zones: the ridge-top and the valley.

The Chakmas, Marmas and Tripuras are valley living people; while the Khamis, Mro, Lushai, Banjogees, Kukis, Tanchangya, Chak and Riang live on the ridges of the hills.

The table below shows the linguistic and religious groupings of the ethnic communities.

One however has to be mindful of the paucity of recent written sources on these issues, therefore not all the communities could be included in the table.[8]

Bengali & Non-Bengali Relationship

The relationship between the Bengalis and the non-Bengali population of the state is historically marked by distrust, animosity and a certain degree of ambiguity.

During the colonial period the state had intervened in favour of the minorities and had established various protective laws like the Chittagong Hill Tracts Manual 1900, that restricted the movement and settlement of Bengalis into the area and imposed restrictions on land transfers from the Hill people to the Bengalis.

The Adivashis of the plains were similarly protected by the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908.

Thus during the colonial period the interaction between the Bengalis and the ethnic communities remained at a minimal, but the element of mistrust was there due to the land factor.

The Bangladesh state has however intervened in favour of Bengalis and has undermined the minorities.

In the CHT the government adopted a deliberate policy of Bengali settlement by amending the CHT Manual.

From 1979 to 1984 40,000 Bengalis were settled in the CHT through a government sponsored plan of Bengali settlement.[9]

These people have been settled by ejecting the Hill people from their traditional lands.

The government maintains that Bengalis have been settled in khas or government owned land; but to the Hill people these are their communal land that belongs to them, their ancestors and to spirits.

Land is sacrosanct to the Hill people, which is not to be commodified.

The gap in perceptions between the state and the Hill people obviously is an indicator of the failure of the state to understand and respect the culture of its minorities.

The Bengalis are also in control of the trade and commerce of the area. The feeling of animosity exacerbated during the two decades of insurgency in the region when the area came under military control.

The region witnessed numerous cases of human rights violations and rapes of women.

To the Hill people the Bengalis therefore appear as greedy, unscrupulous land grabbers and rapists.

The extent of their distrust can be understood by a lullaby that the Hill women sing to their babies.

In Bengali there is a popular lullaby that says that, at nightfall when the world became quiet and the baby went to sleep the Borgis (dacoits) came to the village.

The Hill people have translated this in their own languages and significantly enough they have substituted the word Borgi with Bengali.

A child in the Hills thereby grows up distrusting and fearing the Bengalis.

Language and the State

Language occupies a central position in the construction of nationhood of the Bengalis.

The state predicates itself on the linguistic and cultural identity of its dominant majority Bengali population.

The nomenclature Bangladesh, literally translates itself as the land of the Bengali speaking people.

The state thus has a distinct identity as well as bias.

The latter has its roots in the construction of Bengali nationalism as it evolved within the state of Pakistan.

Language, more specifically a common language for the entire population of the state was considered to be an essential part of nationbuilding and not surprisingly this language had to be reflective of Islamic traditions.

In this context Urdu written in the Arabic-Persian script was considered to be the product of Hindu-Muslim and the attendant Persian-Hindu contact during the days of Muslim rule.

It had become exclusively associated with Muslims and their culture in India.

While Bengali (spoken in East Pakistan) written in Nagri script, similar to that of Sanskrit was identified with Hinduism.

Accordingly Jinnah declared (in English) in Dhaka in March 1948:

Let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language … without one language no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.[10]

A religious orientation was given to the same by Liaqat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan.

He stated:

… the defense of Bengali language in front of Urdu, is against the laws of Islam.[11]

In 1949 the Central Minister for Education openly proposed the introduction of Arabic script for Bengali. It was argued that:

Not only Bengali literature, even the Bengali alphabet is full of idolatry.

Each Bengali letter is associated with this or that god or goddess of Hindu pantheon … Pakistan and Devanagari script cannot co-exist.

It looks like defending the frontier of Pakistan with Bharati soldiers!… To ensure a bright and great future for the Bengali language it must be linked with the Holy Quran … Hence the necessity and importance of Arabic script.[12]

To resist the imposition of an alien language and cultural identity upon themselves, the Bengalis counterpoised it by a secular nationalism with language and culture as its core.

Urdu was looked upon not only as a language but a politics, a politics of hegemony and domination aimed at destroying the cultural identity of the Bengalis.

Thus Bengali language was adopted as a counter weapon to fight this hegemony.

Language thus acquired an immensely political and emotive connotation for the Bengalis.

On 21st February 1952 the police opened fire in Dhaka on students who were protesting the imposition of the Urdu language resulting in the death of four.

The day henceforward became a day of national glory and celebration for the Bengalis.

It is celebrated as a day of martyrdom as well as victory.

Bengali language thus became the basis as well as symbol of Bengali nationalism.

From the demands of linguistic and cultural autonomy, the Bengalis later moved to economic and political autonomy culminating in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

The nine-month long liberation war remained identified with Bengali.

On 26 March 1971 the Secretary General of the district Awami League of Chittagong read out the declaration of independence.

He called on the Bengalis, not the people of Bangladesh, to resist the Pakistani forces.

Mention may also be made of the first speech of the first Prime Minister, Tajuddin Ahmed of the government-in-exile of Bangladesh:

You have shown that a new Bengali nation has been born amidst the ruins of battlefield … whilst we remain true to our heritage Bengalis have shown that they are also a warrior people (emphasis added).[13]

It is important to point out here that the Garos, Saontals, Hajongs and Tripuras had also participated in the war along side the Bengalis.

“Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomae Bhalobashi” (O my golden Bengal I love thee), a highly patriotic song by the Bengali noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh.

Bangla, of course was used by the poet in a territorial sense, but Bangla is also a cultural and linguistic identity.

The non-Bengali population of the state thereby could not identify themselves with the nationalist movement and the liberation war of the state that remained overtly Bengali.

This identification with Bengali continued within the independent state of Bangladesh.

True to the spirit of the nationalist movement the new state predicated itself on the ideals of Bengali nationalism, as defined by Article 9 of the constitution:

The unity and solidarity of the Bengali nation, which deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bengali nationalism.[14]

Having identified itself constitutionally with one cultural group, the state embarked quite aggressively on an assimilative path.

Article 3 declared Bengali to be the official language of the state and the medium of instruction.

Through Article 6 Part 1 of the constitution the citizens of Bangladesh were to be known as Bengalis.

The idea was to have one language, one culture and one nation.

Manobendra Narayan Larma, the lone representative not only from the CHT, but also the only non-Bengali member of the then parliament refused to endorse this constitution:

You cannot impose your national identity on others.

I am a Chakma not a Bengali. I am a citizen of Bangladesh, Bangladeshi.

You are also Bangladeshi but your national identity is Bengali … they (Hill People) can never become Bengali.[15]

The Bengali political elite blinded and mesmerized by its victory was too arrogant to understand or even recognize the implications and logic of Larma’s contentions, who had walked out of the parliament in protest.

The insensitivity and arrogance of the Bengali political elite is reflected in the statement of the Deputy Leader of the House, Syed Nazrul Islam, following Larma’s walkout:

I request him (Larma) to come to the House to perform his responsibilities, to turn this resolution of Bengali nationalism and nationhood into a success.

I hope that he will accept this opportunity to identify himself and his people as Bengalis.[16]

It is indeed an irony that a people who had fought against the politics of hegemony of the Pakistan state using language and culture as its tool, themselves turned into hegemons and attempted to impose their own language and culture upon other identities.

The state thus created its own politicised ethnic minorities within a year of its independence.

Manobendra Narayan Larma had by then formed the PCJSS, the political platform for the Hill people. An armed wing the Shanti Bahini (Peace Forces) was subsequently added to it.

For the next two and a half decade the state was to witness an armed insurgency in the CHT.

The state consciously adopted measures to develop Bengali language. Bengali was adopted as the medium of instruction in all government academic institutions.

It is also the medium of official correspondence within the state. There is no state policy for the protection or promotion of the other languages within the state.

There have been no official attempts to give instructions to the ethnic minorities in their own languages even at the primary levels.

The road markers, nameplates, signboards, car plate numbers are all written in Bengali.

The moment a foreigner enters Bangladesh, she/he would take it to be a land of Bengali speaking people only, whereas officially there are 27 ethnic groups in Bangladesh with their own languages and cultures.

No reflection of those is found in the streets of Bangladesh unless one takes a trip to the CHT.

This indeed is a sad reflection on the state of ethnic affairs in Bangladesh.

The state also consciously promotes the national culture i.e., the Bengali culture. Article 23 of the Constitution states:

The state shall adopt measures to conserve the cultural traditions and heritage of the people, and so to foster and improve the national language, literature and the arts that all sections of the people are afforded the opportunity to contribute towards and to participate in the enrichment of the national culture (emphasis added).[17]

It is thus evident that the constitution recognises the people as one people i.e., the Bengali people.

At the national level a Bangla Academy has been set up to promote the development of Bengali language and culture.

Programmes marking the hallmarks of Bengali culture are celebrated with much fanfare. The days are observed as National holidays.

The Pohela Boishakh, marking the Bengali New Year, Ekushey February (21st February), marking the Martyrs Day are instances of the above.

In fact the entire month of February is celebrated as a month for the promotion of Bengali language and culture.

Month long Book fairs are organised.

These emphasise the publications in the Bengali language (though these days English books published in Bangladesh are also displayed).

Cultural programmes are held in the nooks and corners of Bangladesh depicting the glory of Bengali language, culture and its history.

Most of these programmes are sponsored and promoted by the state.

The state ofm Bangladesh in its present form indeed appears to be the imagined community of the Bengalis.

The state has set up some tribal institutes at the district levels.

But these institutes are catered towards the promotion of a tourist culture.

All their publications are in the Bengali language.

No serious attempts have been made by these institutes to promote the local languages and cultures; rather the tourist culture is a distortion of the local culture.

This is strongly resented by the local people.

The electronic media, radio and television, have their programmes in Bengali language.

At times programmes on the different ‘tribes’ of Bangladesh are telecast on the television.

But the programmes are presented in the Bengali language, only the songs are performed in the local language.

The ethnic people allege that the programmes are catered to the needs of the Bengali people and do not reflect their culture.

A Hill student of Dhaka University pointed this out to me by referring to a bamboo dance from the CHT.

According to him, the dance used to be performed at the death of pregnant women, so there is an element of sadness and grief in it, but in the television, performers perform it with smiling faces.

He insisted that the performers smile because they are supposed to appear pleasant on the television since the programmes are supposedly for ‘entertainment’.

The academic curriculum also reflects the State bias towards Bengali.

Article 17 Clause A of the Constitution calls for the establishment of a uniform system of education.

Uniformity in the context of Bangladesh is understandable as the state promotes a particular language and culture.

The histories, cultures and lives of the ethnic communities are totally absent from these curriculums.

The books provided by the National textbooks Board narrate the glory of Bengali heroes, its culture and history.

The consequence is not only the hindrance of diversity; but also and more dangerously so, the silencing of many voices and the creation of a High culture within the state; while the rest are relegated to the periphery and the other languages are referred to as dialects.

The shift from Bengali to Bangladeshi nationalism after the political changes in 1975 did not in any way change the state policy towards Bengali language or culture.

Bangladeshi nationalism only incorporated Islamic ideals to the contours of nationalism and replaced the state principle of secularism with absolute faith and trust in the Almighty Allah.

In 1988 Islam was declared as the state religion of Bangladesh (Article 2 Clause A of the Constitution) with the provision that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in the Republic.[18]

These changes further marginalized the ethnic communities as they were now turned into religious minorities as well.

It is a matter of fact that no regime in Bangladesh has made any concessions or space for the ethnic minorities.

The state constitution declares Bangladesh to be a culturally homogenous state.

The BNP regime had refused to observe 1993 as the Year of the Indigenous people, as declared by the UN.

Its position was that there were no indigenous people in Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina, then the Leader of Opposition, had extended support to the indigenous people’s cause.

After assuming power however, the party’s position changed. Now Sheikh Hasina maintains that there are some Nritattik jonogoshti in Bangladesh.

It is a very ambiguous term, the nearest English equivalent being ethnographic people.

There thus is complete consensus among the Bengali political elite on the question of Bengali hegemony and the nature of state; the occasional variations in position are for the sake of opposition only.

The state’s identification with one linguistic and cultural community has disempowered the other ethnic communities and has marginalized them.

But this marginalization has helped them to construct their own identities and thereby reassert and empower themselves.

Language and the politics of Dis-empowerment

Raja Devasish Roy, the Chakma chief quite rightly points out that Bengali is a very powerful language, it does not need any state protection or promotion; it is the other languages that needs protection and promotion but the state is doing the contrary.

He further points out that in case of religion there is a protective device that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony, but no such clause exists in case of language.

He indeed echoes the sentiments of the ethnic communities when he describes the state constitution as a repressive and hegemonic one.[19]

Bengali being the medium of instruction certainly puts the non-Bengali population of the state at a disadvantage.

Students of these communities allege that they find it difficult to compete with the students whose mother tongue is Bengali.

The dropout rate among the students of these communities is also very high. In in-depth personal interviews of eleven outstanding students of different communities studying in the top ranking academic institutions of the country, the author found that all of them had suffered from inferiority complex during their childhood because of their different pronunciation and accent.

They were teased by their fellow students so they were shy to speak out in the class.

They all felt that they could have done much better if they had their primary education in their mother tongue.[20]

The schools as well as the teachers expect the students to confirm to certain conventional norms and patterns that the students from the other communities find difficult to adapt to.

An informal survey carried out in 1996 at Dhaka University in the departments of Anthropology, English, History, Library Science and Sociology found that out of a total of 3,012 students only 23 belonged to ethnic minorities.

The figure indeed is reflective of the dismal state of affairs!

The students also feel depressed at the state of their own languages that are often referred to as dialects in the mainstream discourse.

They feel alienated when they don’t see their own history, their lives, or any role models of their communities in the national curriculum.

The Garos and Saontals had fought in the liberation war of Bangladesh, yet no recognition has been given to the same.

The Hill people had also participated in the liberation war.

During the course of my own research I found that in the CHT 400 women were raped by the Pakistan army and their collaborators but no recognition has been given to the above.

The discourse on the liberation war is absolutely silent about the sacrifices and contributions of the different ethnic communities.

Language is responsible in two major ways for the economic marginalization of the ethnic people.

These are the inability of the ethnic people to understand or communicate in Bengali language; the inability or refusal of the state to understand or accommodate the economic modes associated with cultures different from the mainstream.

In case of the former mention may be made of land alienation of the different communities like the Garos or Mundas.

They have lost most of their land to Bengali mahajans (moneylenders). During the lean seasons they borrow money from the latter.

Their inability to communicate in Bengali make them put their thumb stamps on documents that in many instances charge exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 400 percent in a year or demand their land in return.

Consequently many of them have become landless.

The ethnic people also allege that the official language being Bengali, they face tremendous problems in the courts where they often have to go for land settlement disputes.

These difficulties discourage them from taking resort to legal measures as well.

Forests constitute an integral part of the lives of the Hill people of CHT and the Garo community.

Today, they have been dispossessed from these resources as the state has taken over most of the forests as Reserved Forests (RF).

Language barriers have again played a major role behind their alienation from these resources.

This has been due to their inability to understand the Bengali language and secondly the state’s refusal to understand their language and culture of association with the forests.

One may refer to the process of conversion of community forests into RF. There is a process of announcements and appeal.

However, the local people in many instances don’t understand the language and are unaware of the legal procedures since the latter are often not in tune with their cultural mores.[21]

The state regards lands that do not have ownership deeds as government owned land; while the concept of private ownership is quite alien to people practising jhum mode of cultivation.

Communal ownership of land is at the basis of their community living and cultural mores.

Not only land and forests have been acquired but a ban has been put on jhum cultivation as well.

Consequently, many had to take to plough cultivation while others became ‘landless’, a phenomenon unknown in the Hills before.

This has affected the cultural basis of their lives.

The societies have lost their egalitarian basis and are moving towards stratified ones based on the concept of private ownership of property.

Since the signing of the CHT Peace Accord many NGOs have moved into the region.

Their activities are failing to yield much positive results because the Hill people are not yet fully acculturate to the notion of gender segregation of work.

Community basis of work through jhum in which men and women participate as equal partners is still central to their work ethics.[22]

The Garos who consider themselves as ‘children of forests’ have also been affected likewise.

It is a matrilineal society, but with the gradual alienation of land and the introduction of private property the society is moving towards a patrilineal one.

Since many of them are still dependent on forest resources so the women try to get into the forests to collect resources.

But in many instances they are caught by the security personnel guarding these forests, and in order to save themselves most often they have to give in to the physical desires of the latter.[23]

The Politics of Empowerment

In the CHT the PCJSS has constructed the identity of Jumma nationalism.

Taking its seeds from jhum cultivation the PCJSS claimed that the Hill ecology has set them apart from the Bengalis of the plainland.

The Bengalis used the term Jumma to denote the Hill people in a negative way; the PCJSS had deliberately invoked this term to imbibe the Hill people with a sense of pride in their own past and present, for jhum as pointed out earlier is not only a mode of cultivation but also a way of life.

Language had played a very important role in this construction as there are certain symbols and traditions in the Hills that can be translated only through their language.

It is important to point out here that though each Hill group has its own language but a pidgin Chittagonian is the lingua franca in the Hills.

Jumma nationalism thereby stands as a counter hegemony tool .

At another level each generic group in the Hills is also engaged in the construction of its own identity along its own linguistic lines.

This on the one hand is to counter the dominance of the dominant cultures in the HT itself, for instance the Chakmas, Tripuras and the Marmas constitute about 85 percent of the Hill population of the Hills.

On the other hand it allows them to maintain the cultural diversity of the Hills.

The process of cultural exclusiveness is reflected in two major ways, firstly in the naming of newborns.

Previously the Hill people used to name their children with Bengali names, now there is a tendency to name the newborns in their own language.

This not only distinguishes them from Bengalis but also from the other cultural groups in the Hills as well.

Secondly, the Hill groups are engaged in the construction of alphabets for their respective languages.

Alphabets, or more precisely the form in which the alphabets might be written has a special significance for the Hill people.

It denotes the politics of the region. There is almost a total rejection of Bangla. [24]

The formulations indeed are a reflection of the assertiveness of the identities of the Hill people.

In this context Prashanta Tripura an eminent anthropologist from the region has quite rightly pointed out that only a Hill person who has had to live under the dominance of the Bangla language all his\her life can understand the significance of these alphabets.

For the Hill people the alphabets are symbols of their identity and autonomy and they have a life and dynamics of their own.[25]

The ethnic communities in the plains have also resisted the state assimilative policies.

These protests take place at various levels and acquire various forms.

At the individual level they identify themselves with their own generic names, for instance in an interview carried out by this author among 100 Garos and 100 Saontals of the Dhaka and Rajshahi Divisions in August 1999, 90 percent of the Garo respondents see themselves as Garos within the state of Bangladesh; in the case of the Saontals the number is 85 percent.

But at a collective level they see themselves as Adivashis. The status of Adivashis, they believe would force the state to recognise their customary rights over land and forests.

They resist the ideas of Bengali\Bangladeshi nationalism as they identify these with Bengali culture, language and Islam.

But they do perceive themselves as Bangladeshi citizens; in this context they frequently refer to their role in the liberation war of Bangladesh.

By their resistance to cultural assimilation and making the distinction between citizenship and nationality they are taking a conscious political stand.

The Adivashis of the plains while recognising the importance of written language have not as yet endeavoured to form their own written alphabets.

Of late, however, the Garos are attempting to form their own alphabets in Roman alphabets.

There is a strong feeling among the other communities as well of the need to develop their own written languages.

This they believe is vital for the survival of their languages, which they consider to be the core of their identity.

This year on the occasion of the celebrations of the Eikushey, the students of the different ethnic groups studying in Dhaka had for the first time brought out processions and chanted slogans in their own languages on Dhaka University premises.

This indeed is a forceful and creative assertion of their distinctiveness.

As pointed out earlier the UNESCO declaration has at least open up spaces within the civil society.

Towards A Citizen-State

The Language policy of the state is but a reflection of the hegemonic nature of the state.

The Bangladesh state has clearly identified itself with the dominant community.

The state nationalist ideology, its development ethos and cultural policies are a reflection of this identity.

The analysis above has shown the resistance and refusal of the non-Bengali community to identify itself with the state imposed identity.

Boundaries have been drawn between the Bengali and non-Bengali community of the state, and between the state and the non-Bengalis.

The assimilative policy of the state has only resulted in exclusions, violence and polarisation.

In order to come out of state hegemony a holistic approach has to be taken.

The Bangladesh polity has to accept the fact that a singular, culturally homogenous population is not necessarily the basis of a state; rather there can be several culturally homogenous communities within a state.

In other words the state would seek its unity through common citizenship, and at the same time the cultural identities of the different groups would also be retained.

This it is argued here would do away with the threat of Bengali hegemony.

All this requires a major shift in our approach to ‘governmentality’ and also ‘state’.

But what is most encouraging and indicative of the forthcoming change is that a space is being created within the civil society for the imperative for such a change.

It is hoped and expected that this space and force would ultimately compel the political society to acknowledge the reality and the necessity for change towards a humane society- a society where language is used as a means of communication and understanding, not one of rupturing communications and building barriers.

The Bengali as well as the non-Bengali civil society must join hands in this endeavour.


1. Ct. from the UNESCO Resolution, The Independent, Dhaka, 21.2.2000.

2. The paper does not include the Bihari community as the issue of their citizenship is still a disputed matter between Bangladesh and Pakistan.

3. Bangladesh Census Report, 1991, V. 1. Analytical Report, Dhaka Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Govt. of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 1994, pp. 195-198.

4. Kibriaul Khaleque, “Ethnic Communities of Bangladesh,” in Philip Gain ed. Bangladesh Land Forest and Forest People, SEHD, Dhaka, 1995, p. 7. 5. This has been stated to the author by the Garo, Oraon students of Dhaka University.

6. C. T. Maloney, “Tribes of Bangladesh and Synthesis of Bengali Culture”, in M. S. Qureshi ed. Tribal Cultures, p. 8.

7. Kibria, “Ethnic Communities”, 1995, p. 13.

8. The table has been compiled from the following sources (a) T.H. Lewin, The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein, with Comparative Vocabularies of the Hill Dialects, Calcutta, Bengal Printing Company Ltd., 1869; (b) G.A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India: Bengal (Lower Provinces), Calcutta, 1898; (c) Herbert Risley, Tribes and Castes of Bengal: Ethnographic Glossary, Vol. 1, Calcutta, 1891; (d) W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol. 6. CHT, Chittagong, Noakhali, Tipperah, Hill Tipperah, London, 1876; (e) E.T. Dalton, Tribal History of Eastern India, Calcutta, 1872; (f) R.H.S.Hutchinson, Eastern Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers, CHT, Allahabad, 1909; (g) Robert Shafer, Classification of the Sino-Tibetan Languages, Word, No. 19, 1955; (h) Maloney, op.cit; (i) Lucien Bernot, Ethnic Groups of CHT, in Pierre Bessaignet ed. Social Research in East Pakistan, Dhaka, 1964 (j) Shugata Chakma, Parbattya Chattagramer Upajati O Sanskriti (The tribes and culture of CHT), Rangamati, 1993; (k) Abdus Sattar, In the Sylvan Shadows, Dhaka, 1983; (l)Major Playfair, The Garos, London, 1909; (m) Subhash Jengcham, Bangladesher Garo Shomprodae (The Garo community of Bangladesh), Dhaka, 1994; (n) P.R.T. Gurdon, The Khasis, Delhi, 1975; (o) Qureshi, op.cit; (p) Father Stephen G. Gomes, The Paharias, Dhaka, 1988; (q) Mostafa Mojid, Patuakhalir Rakhaine Upajati (The Rakhaine tribes of Patuakhali), Dhaka, 1992.

9. The Guardian, 6.3.1984.

10. Jamiluddin Ahmad, ed. Speeches and writings of Mr Jinnah, Vol. 2. Lahore, 1964, p.490. 11. Safiqul Islam, Failure in State- Building: The Case of Pakistan, Asian Profile, 1984, p. 585.

12. Anisuzzaman, Creativity, Reality and Identity, Dhaka, ICBS, 1993, p.107. 13. Bangladesh Documents, Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. of India, New Delhi, 1971, p.83.

14. The Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. Govt. of Bangladesh, 1972, p. 5.

15. Parliament Debates, Govt. of Bangladesh, 1972 p. 452.

16. Ibid, p. 461.

17. Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh (as amended up to 30 April 1996), Govt. of Bangladesh, 1996, p. 16.

18. Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, Govt. of Bangladesh, 1994, p. 6.

19. These were to the author in a personal interview on 9.3.2000

20. These interviews were taken in April 2000, and the students belong to the Garo, Saontal, Hajong, Chakma, Marma, Tanchangya, Tripura communities.

21. Earth Touch, SEHD, Dhaka, Oct. 1999.

22. Anthropology of Macro and Micro Development in CHT: A Critical Review, Ahmed F.H. Choudhury & Farid uddin Ahamed. Paper presented in a national seminar on “Tribal Culture and Development” organised by the Institute of Applied Anthropology, Dhaka, from 14-16 April, 2000. 23. Bangla Bazar, 5.12.1999.

24. Fariduddin Ahamed, Ethnic and Cultural Identity, Paper presented at a workshop on Chittagong Hill Tracts, organised by BRAC, in Dhaka from October 19-23, 1999. 25. Proshanta Tripura, Bhasha, Horof O Jatiyota: Tripura Jonogoshtir Obhiggota (Language, alphabets and nationality: The experience of the Tripura community), Prothom Alo, 21.2.2000

Abbreviated excerpt from an essay originally published in “Fighting Words: Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia”, Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly ed., MIT Press, 2003

Writer : Amena Mohsin

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