Indigenous Identity in South Asia: Making claims in the Colonial Chittagong Hill Tracts
Almost as soon as Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign independent country, a protracted armed struggle began in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), based on, in Tamina H. Chowdhury's construct, “the claim that the hill people of the Tracts were ethnically distinct from the majority 'Bengali' population of Bangladesh, and therefore needed special protection to preserve their traditions and customs.” This preamble to Indigenous Identity in South Asia: Making claims in the Colonial Chittagong Hill Tracts is followed by an extensive discussion over five Chapters and a Conclusion on the progression of the complexity of the Hill Tracts situation from 1760 to 1947. The time span covers the sunrise to the sunset of British colonialism in India, and the book's subtitle makes the point quite clear.
The book, as the author Tamina Chowdhury reveals, is an extension of her PhD dissertation at Cambridge University, UK, and it is a good one. Indications of a carefully and thoroughly researched work may be found throughout the book, and, she professes with justification that, “The claim to originality for the book lies not only in its analysis, for the first time, of the social history of the Tracts under British rule, but also in locating the late twentieth-century indigeneity claims within a historical framework.” Her objective is even more ambitious: “The study of indigeneity in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is also potentially relevant to understanding the impact of colonialism on peripheral societies.” Now that the myriad problems directly associated with societies having just come out of the shackles of colonialism have largely taken a backseat to more pressing issues coming up in the Internet Age, it would be interesting to relate Chowdhury's findings to the post-colonial peripheral societies, and, that too, would make reading her book worthwhile.
Going back to the span of her study, one cannot fail to notice that CHT in Bangladesh has not been covered in the book. However, in a quite comprehensive literature review, she has managed to take stock of the writings of several Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi authors who have expounded extensively on various issues relating to the CHT as a part of Bangladesh. Shapan Adnan, B.P. Barua, Amena Mohsin, Willem van Schendel, and James Scott are critically, if succinctly, discussed. Chowdhury chooses to concentrate on the period of rule by the British East India Company and then the British Crown in “an attempt to show how colonial rule impacted upon the region, prompting claims to indigeneity to emerge in the 1920s.” The brief concession she makes to the post-British Raj CHT may be found in this concise passage: “Paharis in the Hill Tracts had long struggled to communicate their discontent to successive authorities, both in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The founding of the Shanti Bahini in the mid-1970s, was a sign that political mechanisms through which their discontent could be addressed had hardly developed in the post-1947 era. In the years leading up to 1971, the Tracts remained on the periphery of the political movements taking place in the rest of East Pakistan….”
In fact, the Shanti Bahini launched a persistent insurgency against the Bangladesh government in 1977 over the issues of autonomy and the rights of Buddhist and Hindu Jumma people, the Chakma population, and CHT tribes, and the intensity only simmered down following the 1997 CHT Peace Accord. Chowdhury remarks on the region's political institutions being weak in comparison to its neighbouring regions, and believes that the explanation for this situation lies in the period of British colonial influence in CHT. She begins by looking askance at the British idea of “civilization”, which was influenced by the notions of evolutionism and the Enlightenment, “which saw tribes as a less evolved social type and their 'barbarism and nomadism' as a manifestation of less than human qualities.” She refutes such notions as myths dished up to serve British colonial purposes. Equally, she debunks the nostalgic image of the colonial era in the Tracts as another myth created by its contemporary elites. In fact, from its very inception, the British Raj recognized very few traditional rights of the region. They, along with other British policies, had a far-reaching negative impact on the people, the region, and its relations with the bigger entities it was subsumed under.
Interestingly, the Chittagong Hill Tracts was thus named only in 1860 after its annexation by the British Crown. It used to be called Kapas Mahal. Territorialism was the preeminent policy that guided British expansion in CHT. “Territorialization in the Tracts,” Chowdhury contends, “manifested as the spatial, economic, agricultural, as well as political expansion of the Company state in the region.”
Following the rebellion of 1857, the British Crown took over the governance of India, and became more involved than before in the Tracts, with adverse effects for the people. From 1860 onwards, many older rights were either curbed or scrapped altogether, the powers of the chiefs eroded, and, in 1860, the Tracts were taken over by the Crown authority. However, “the British struggled to find a balance between the traditional and 'enlightened formulations' of how best to govern these territories.” From the very beginning, the government had sought to diminish the tribal chiefs' authority and influence over the people, which led to growing tension between the chiefs and the colonial officials. As Chowdhury emphasizes, “At the heart of British rule in the Tracts, the idea of territoriality had a major influence on how its administrators imagined and designed their structures of control.” She comes down heavily on a draconian British policy pursued in the Tracts following a famine in the region in the wake of a bad harvest and cyclone in 1876. She summarizes the outcomes of British policy: “…we must not lose sight of the fact that those most affected by the Raj's political and economic policies were lay inhabitants of the Tracts, who, as each year passed, were taxed more heavily even as they lost access to forest produce and areas in which to jhum.”
On the overall British policy and its impact, the author is harsh in her assessment: “Yet a hundred years after its first entrance into the Hill Tracts, it was clear that British economic and political institutions were not only unpopular among ordinary paharis, but that they were increasingly impoverished. Their voices of discontent, along with that of the chiefs and other local elites, went unheeded, with profound consequences for the future of the region.” One of the quirks of the British rule (or is it misrule?) in the region, and one that resonates to this day, is its officials' perception of the Bengalis who resided there. “On the one hand, they stereotyped and commended the Bengalis as possessing good entrepreneurial skills and as being assets to the Hill economy, unlike the 'lazy' paharis; while on the other hand, they were wary of, and at times sought to keep in check, too much 'Bengali influence' over the 'simple-minded paharis.”
By 1929, the chiefs were reduced to titular positions only, and, the author speculates, this could have had an influence on the Indian National Congress' stand on CHT as 1947 loomed. The Government of India Act, 1935, while being instrumental in bringing the politics of the Bengal countryside into the political mainstream, it hardly had any impact on CHT. The Congress in Bengal spoke for only some of Bengal's minorities who had been awarded reserved seats under the Communal Award, a political expediency, but did not reach out to the tribes, while neither the Muslim League nor A K Fazlul Huq's Krishak Proja Party made any effort to mobilize the hill people. “Hence the Chittagong Hill Tracts did not experience the political winds of change that were blowing through the rest of Bengal at this time, and went unrepresented by all the major parties that dominated Bengal politics.” The British were equally to blame. Even in 1942, when the Cripps Mission was in India to mediate a smooth transfer of power, and met a variety of stakeholders in the process, no opinions were solicited from the CHT spokespersons.
After 1947, “the Hill Tracts remained isolated from the mainstream politics of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, partly because it was seen as an eccentric addition to otherwise largely homogenous nation-states. This isolation meant that political institutions in the Tracts, already relatively underdeveloped, did not grow at the same pace as they did in the plains…. It appears that contemporary claims to indigeneity also have links to this historical institutional deficiency, and cannot be understood in narrowly political, ethnic, or economic terms.” Tamina Chowdhury set out to “shed some historical light on how and why this 'institutional inadequacy' emerged in the Hill Tracts.” She has done a good job in doing just that.
The reviewer is an Actor, and Professor and Head, Department of Media and Communication, IUB.