Racism – Why fight over superficial differences when made identical on the inside?

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Fuad M. Hossain and Muktasree Chakma Sathi seek out the reasons why there remains an ongoing racial prejudice against the indigenous population in this day and age.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty’.

Racism has several definitions dependent upon varying contexts, yet as we call it today, and in relation to our subject matter, you the reader will find out later that it is better termed as, ethnocentrism. The definition of ethnocentrism is ‘the tendency to believe that one’s ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one’s own.’ The late William G. Sumner, Professor of Sociology at Yale University, coined the aforementioned term. He based this upon observing the tendency of people to differentiate between the in-group and others.

Here is an interesting fact. Biologists were puzzled by the fact that race/ethnocentricity is one of the three characteristics most often used in description of an individual (the others being age and sex). They reasoned that natural selection would not have favoured the evolution of an instinct, for using ‘race’ as a classification, since us humans almost never encountered members of other races throughout human history. The above-mentioned information is not meant to give you a crash course in anthropology or sociology. Rather it is to demonstrate that racism as we see it today has no true origin. According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, racial prejudice is interpreted as ‘An irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling one-self and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.’ In other words, racism and ethnocentrism today was very much introduced by us as people. However, it is also agreeable that such behaviour can be a result of a fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Humanity’s history is tainted with several types of racist ideologies and some of these ethnocentric ideologies have found their way into Bangladesh, as you will read later on.  The inception of these ideologies goes back as early as the 3rd century BC. The late Bernard Lewis, who is a British-American historian, cited the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his discussion of slavery, stating ‘While Greeks are free by nature, barbarians (non-Greeks) are slaves by nature, in that it is in their nature to submit to autocratic governments.’ Following the Aristotelian ideas during the Middle Age and Renaissance periods, a lot of historians and geographers in the Middle East and North African region have expressed racist opinions within their works. Later on, the Catholic Spaniards formulated the so-called ‘Cleanliness of Blood’ doctrine and that Christianity should be the dominant religion; thus, forcing all Muslims and Jews to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Moving onto the 19th century, where racist ideologies had reached its climax, i.e. in the United States during early 19th century, the American Colonization Society was established to return black Americans to supposed greater freedom and equality in Africa. This movement was led by Henry Clay who stated ‘Unconquerable prejudice resulting from their colour, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.’ Racism/Ethnocentrism spread throughout the New World in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, it took a catastrophic and a much-hated turn mid-19th century, when the Nazi, led by Adolf Hitler, authorized the Holocaust, which is considered today to be the biggest incident of genocide in the history of humanity. Approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II were selectively wiped by state-sponsored murder. The Nazi believed that anyone who is not of the Aryan race, according to Nazi race terminology, is sub-human and thus have a biological right to displace, eliminate and enslave those inferior to them.

Bangladesh, with its 160 million people, has also had its fair share of discriminatory acts, in regards to the indigenous and tribal cultures. These groups of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh include Meitei, Khasi, Santhals, Chakma, Garo, Oraons and Mundas. Bangladesh’s tribal population enumerated at 897,828 in the 1981 consensus. However, according to 1991 consensus, the tribal and indigenous groups comprise of two percent of the countries entire population. Although this information is backdated, we were not able to locate more recent demographics. According to the 169th Convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a sub organization of the United Nations does not define who the indigenous people are. Rather, their approach is more practical and they provide criteria describing the groups of people they want to protect.

Hence, the elements of indigenous peoples include the following with traditional lifestyles, communal ownership, culture and way of life different from other segments of population, for example, ways of making a living, language, customs, having their own social organizations and political institutions and living in historical continuity in a certain area before others ‘invaded’ or came to the area.

In the previous paragraph, you came across the word ‘protect’. This protection in its broadest sense means protection in every aspect but with relation to our subject, it is to protect them from discrimination. As with the indigenous, they have been constant victims to various sorts of ethnocentrism. Chandra Roy (Chakma), a student of University of Chittagong, when asked about her experiences regarding racism/ethnocentrism, told The Joven ‘Ever since I enrolled at the university, I constantly felt dozens of eyes on me, be it while I walk down the corridors of the university library or linger around the faculty buildings. The eyes constantly gazed at me with an expression that screamed, ‘She is peculiar’. I felt as though I was being discriminated against and kept wondering, ‘Am I being subjected to racism?’ Many of the females in the same educational institution said they experienced a near-same experience for just being indigenous female.

In contrast to Chandra’s experience, The Joven interviewed Trijinad Chakma, a student of Dhaka University and a tribal activist to share his experiences as an indigenous male, to which he replied, ‘Indigenous males are constantly targeted and face ridiculous questions, such as ‘Do you have bathrooms? Do you use salt and oil when cooking? Hey, I have heard that you eat cockroaches alive. Is that true? Don’t you face any problems socially if you choose to live with your partner?’ He further added, ‘The aforementioned questions do not demonstrate any respect, whatsoever. How would you feel if I asked, do all the males in your community have four wives?’

Trijinad further points out that linguistically, culturally, socially and politically, they also face discrimination, if not for just being ‘indigenous’, for example, an incident that took place on February 20, 2010 wherein Bangladeshi military opened fire on a group of indigenous Jumma villagers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. The ordeal resulted in eight deaths and more than a dozen people injured. In addition, four villages sponsored by the United Nations were also burned to the ground by a group of Bengali settlers. These Bengali settlers began to illegally invade the Jumma’s land on February 19. It is assumed within the local indigenous populace that the military was deployed to specifically defend these very settlers. Collectively over February 19-20, it was reported that eight Jumma villagers including a woman were killed and 25 Jumma villagers were wounded in this attack. Around 200 houses of Jumma villagers including a Buddhist temple and a church were completely burnt to cinder. This massacre was carried out to implement a settlement plan for Bengali settlers by the Bangladesh military. They completely disregarded the fact that the Jumma villagers have been living on these lands for decades. Inadvertently they cried for help to the government and no measures were taken to prevent this oppression.

The above-mentioned story may very well not be youth related. However, it evidently demonstrates what Trijinad was trying to point out. A vast majority of indigenous youth want respect and recognition, as in they want to be given the chance to establish their own rights as Bangladeshis. An important point to note is that they are Bangladeshis since they are citizens of Bangladesh but not Bengali.

Hasanul Haque Inu, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Posts and Telecommunication Ministry, said in response, ‘The indigenous community was excluded from the Bangladeshi Constitution. This above-mentioned exclusion has been since 1972, and as such is very regrettable.’ The Joven spoke to Lina Jesmin Lushai who is a representative of both the Bawm and Lushai communities. She said, ‘Yes, we are different. More precisely, we are distinct from the mainstream people. We may very well comprise a smaller demography. However, that is more reason to help us in establishing our own rights. Demanding our rights does not mean we want to hamper yours.’ She further  added, ‘We practice our culture and we demand our rights, but it becomes insanely intolerable when we hear that we are demanding ‘Extra Favors’. We just want you to respect our beliefs the way we respect your cultural, traditional, and religious beliefs. I think demanding this notion and not being considered inferior is justified, is it not?’

Reminiscing on all of the above, The Joven interviewed Raja Devashish Roy, member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Asia Region. He said, ‘The government needs to take an initiative ‘context-wise’, as most of the indigenous people come from rural areas. Thus, if the government really wants to address issues/problems that the indigenous youth face, they need to think from their perspective and only then will the solution materialize.’ He further mentioned, referring to Section 23(A) of the constitution after the 15th amendment, that ‘The term ‘tribal’ and its Bangla version ‘Upojati’ are derogatory and unacceptable. Hence, it is unacceptable to use the term ‘tribal’ in the amended Constitution to describe these groups. I hope that the government would use the correct terms to describe and identify them.’

The Joven received many queries from some of the youths from the indigenous community and addressed their questions to lawmaker Jatrindra Lal Tripura, who is also a member of the Taskforce for the Repatriation of Tribal Refugees and the Rehabilitation of Internally Displaced People. Tripura said that, ‘The diversity of the languages that the indigenous people hold, their culture, norms and values, need to be preserved. Necessary steps should be taken by the government to nurture these distinct languages and cultures of such communities and incorporate them holistically into our nation.’

We may not yet have been successful in finding solutions, but we have found that there is an ongoing victimization of those within the indigenous communities and they shared their concerns over the frustration that has been brewing and have received no attention from the government. Despite that, they still hold onto their beliefs and are ready to work side by side with the rest of the nation to build a prosperous and racism-free country. No matter what color, ethnicity, or race, we cannot forget we all are part of the human race and no matter the cost; we need to better realize that in diversity is beauty and in plurality is strength.

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Published at the Joven (New Age), December 04, 2011

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