Bengali migrants

Bengali migrants in Chittagong Hill Tracts
Placed on June 27, 2013

image for Vamos BienI am Nasrin Siraj Annie, born and brought up in a Bengali Muslim family in Bangladesh. My father was a banker and my mother a housewife. I am their eldest child. I graduated in Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka in 1998. Later, in 2010, I completed my Masters in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University, Amsterdam. In between my studies I worked for private television stations and NGOs in Dhaka.

Being a PhD student of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University I am conducting a research now focusing on Bengali migrants in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in South East Bangladesh, bordering India and Burma. The aim of the study is to better understand how the shifting demographic situation influences local power relations among and between minority and majority populations and the identity politics involved. I also want to scrutinize the use of labeling (i.e. majority and minority) in these processes, and examine how labels can both empower and undermine the positions of individual actors.

The prevalence of (in particular ethnic or culturally determined) categories seems to play a significant role both in framing the ethnic problems and in the formulation of resolutions in the in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I would like to propose that many of the general insights into the dynamics of the Asian borderlands also help to understand what is going on in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It is, as we shall see, also highly important to contextualize the borderland situation within the context of the nation state, and global dimensions impacting Bangladesh.

Besides doing research I like to take photographs and make films. Follow this link to see my latest documentary:

I am thankful to Vamos Bien for supporting my PhD field work financially.


Blog: Seeing and Accepting Munafek in Khagrachari1
Placed on November 11, 2013

View from my study room in Khagrachari. Photo taken by: Sina Hasan

View from my study room in Khagrachari. Photo taken by: Sina Hasan

The green skyline, visible from the valley of Khagrachari hill-town, fades under gray clouds that announce the rain that will soon fall on the corrugated iron roof of the Buddhist temple, the Kyang. The neighborhood is mainly populated by the people of the Chakma and Marma communities. It is where I, an ethnic Bengali anthropologist from Dhaka, have been living for the last three months to conduct my ethnographic research on Bengali migrants in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh as a PhD student of Jahangirnagar University.

Map of Bangladesh in the world

Location of Bangladesh in the world

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (in short CHT) of Bangladesh are inhabited by eleven ethnic minority communities along with a majority community of ethnic Bengalis (van Schendel and Bal 2002)2. It is in fact this extreme ethnic diversity which is a common feature not only of the CHT but also of the entire Indo-Bangladesh-Burma borderland region. For example, more than 200 of India’s 635 communities listed as tribal are found in the North East (Bhaumik 2009:1)3. India’s North Eastern seven states and Sikkim alone are inhabited by around 475 ethnic groups speaking over 400 different languages. The borderlands in the Northeast and Northwest of Bangladesh along with the CHT in the Southeast are home to the bulk of the country’s so called tribal communities or indigenous groups.

The ethnic diversity has turned the Bengal borderlands into “cultural hot spots” but it has also contributed to their instability. In this part of the borderland, in the CHT, a low intensity war was fought from 1975 to 1997 between the local ‘tribal’ or ‘indigenous’ insurgents and the state (van Schendel 2009)4. Even the Peace Accord of 1997 could not bring an end to the conflicts and violence. Throughout the war a large scale displacement of ‘tribal’ people took place and after the war there was a massive influx of Bengalis. This has changed the demographic situation in the CHT. Now, the local ‘indigenous’ communities or ‘tribes’, the Paharis (hill people) are a minority in the area. In the midst of this chaos my research focuses particularly on the Bengali migrants and their perspective on the meaning of migration to the CHT.

Since this morning I have been checking the skyline over the roof of the Kyang from the window of my flat, wishing for a splash of rain. Rain is the only thing that brings coolness here, however temporary it may be. During the daytime the strong sun rules, turning quickly to vapor the brief rain that showers on the trees and yards; that vapor makes the day all the more sweltering. Although I am a native of Bangladesh and habituated to the extreme heat and humidity of vadra (August-September) the heat is plainly unbearable.

Getting relief from the heat and humid of vadra by switching on a ceiling fan or air conditioner is a dream here. Power-cut in the summer in Khagrachari is worst, according to the locals. “It gets better in the winter,” they say, and I found it to be true. Since my arrival power-cuts sometimes last the whole day, or even longer. In order to survive, I’ve taken to fanning myself with a bichon (hand operated bamboo fan) just like the old days in my grandparents’ village house.

As I sweat in the heat, I think about a short discussion that I had couple of days ago with a Bengali-Muslim man in a taxi. “Muslims do not drink mod (alcohol). If someone drinks then he”–never she—”is a munafek (hypocrite),” he told me as he sat beside our CNG (local taxi) driver. He was responding to my inquiries regarding drinking local rice wine made by the ‘tribal’ people in Khagrachari. We were on our way back to Maischari Bazar, a bus station, from Matai Pukuri (the pond of God), a holy place and a tourist spot in Khagrachari. The man and his friend went to the pond for fishing. Both guys were CNG drivers by profession and had developed a friendship with our CNG driver. In fact, the free ride for them was from our taxi driver as a token of friendship. Not only did they share a profession, but also the three were from same neighborhood in the vicinity of Matai Pukuri. Though all three of them were members of Tripura communityonly our hired taxi driver lived there, the other two lived in a cluster village established for Bengali ‘settlers’ (migrants directly supported by the state).

Alcohol is restricted in Bangladesh by state law; however, I never felt there was a shortage of drinkers or drinks around me. Both local and foreign liqueur are available in the local bars, particularly in Dhaka. However, the legitimate customers such as foreigners, Bangladeshi drinkers who have license to drink (either because they are non-Muslims or tribal)and Muslims with medical ground to consume alcohol are not the only group that frequented the bars. Instead, majority of the alcohol consumers in Bangladesh are Muslims. Some of them are seculars and others are strong believers of the religion but reluctant about the religious taboo on alcohol. Many Muslims disregard the laws around the consumption and selling of alcohol. The police also intentionally overlook the customers while hiding in their own petrol van or in the tea stall at the entrance of the bars. They ignore it because, as it is commonly known, the police take their share of profit from illegal businesses in Bangladesh. The police only trouble themselves with the under-aged bar goers but release them after seizing the bottle and pocketing some bribes. Sometimes they make phone calls to father or male guardians to enhance the morality of the ‘child’.

Alcohol is expensive in Bangladesh. Particularly the foreign liqueur is expensive as the importers are required to pay a high tax for it. However, cheap alcohol is also available outside the registered bars for the ordinary drinkers. For example, being a local of Dhaka I came across Bangla mod which is home-made and the cheapest alcohol available in the capital. This alcohol is still found in the older part of Dhaka. Per liter of this alcohol costs 300 taka (3.75 dollars). It is commonly known that the professionals like sweeper, chamar (cobbler), dom (morgue attendant), people in prostitution, “businessman of old Dhaka” and the male students of capital city’s colleges, engineering and medical schools and universities are the main consumers of this alcohol. Beside Bangla mod spirit is available as cheap alcohol. This is actually a solution imported for medicine manufacturers and to stop consuming it as alcohol sometimes methyl is mixed in it. Each year many people die by drinking this poisonous solution.

However, there are lavish drinkers in Dhaka as well. Some of them belong to the upper social class, with houses in the posh area of Dhaka, cars, foreign passports, or links with ‘dealers’ and aristocratic clubs. Others are the young professionals of this mega city who have grown particularly with the rise of the corporate media houses, mobile phone companies, NGOs and advertising farms in Bangladesh. These highly paid professionals developed rapidly from the beginning of the 1990s, the end of the military regime and the beginning of democracy in Bangladesh.

Women are not allowed in the bars, but that does not stop my girl friends in Dhaka from drinking any less than their male counterparts. When there is a celebration or heartbreak they acquire alcohol by calling their male or foreigner friends. Usually they drink at house parties. Very recently a new bar was opened in a posh area of Dhaka city where the women are allowed (perhaps not legally) to enter, but the place is too expensive even for high-paid women in Dhaka. Besides, it is increasingly unpopular among my girl friends because of the unpleasantly large crowd, the annoying sexual advances of drunken customers, and the inattentive bartenders. It is important to note that women, among many communities in Bangladesh, are in fact the makers of alcohol. There are Bangla Mod and Tari, Santali Haria,Garo Chu, Pahari Chuani and many other rice wines. A few of my Bengali girl friends also had learned the technique of making alcohol at home from adibashi or ‘tribal’ women. Sometimes they throw house parties to show off their new accomplishment.

Thus when the guy in the taxi labeled the Bengali-Muslim drinkers as hypocrites I found it quite amusing. His comment not only reminded me of my “munafek” friends in Dhaka but also made me glance at my male companion. He was visiting Khagrachari for the first time and had his best adventure, except for climbing the hills and entering the caves, while buying Chuani just the day before. Although my companion was not very fond of drinking, he enjoyed the novelty of readily available homemade rice wines without the threat of police harassment, and given its extremely cheap price (compare to foreign liqueur often obtained on the black market in Dhaka), he fully intended to taste it. It is important to note that the restaurants, in Khagrachari, mainly managed by Marma people, were popular among visitors and tourists for their exotic ‘tribal’ food and drink. However, considering the Bengali Muslim cultural norms, the liqueur is served in secrecy to avoid conflict. They serve it in recycled plastic bottles, and set the tables for the drinkers in the backside of the restaurant and using code names (i.e., modhu or honey) for the liqueur. But I wanted to see how a new visitor in Khagrachari manages to get a drink, so I did not take my companion to the restaurants already known to me. But his search did not end in vain. Indeed, he very quickly found a different shop in which to buy Chuani with the help of an enthusiastic tomtom (local taxi/auto-rickshaw) Muslim and Bengali driver who had experience with the taste and effect of the drink. It was like a man-to-man talk about beer in Hollywood films.

Many days have passed in the field since that conversation in which the CNG driver labeled Bengali Muslims who drink alcohol in Khaghrachari as “munafek.” My new friends in Khagrachari, both Bengali and Pahari men, first ask my jaat (religion or nationality) and follow up with a offer of a special evening with rice wine and other ‘tribal’ food (i.e. pork, snail) which are haram (forbidden) for Muslims but specialties in Khagrachari. Besides just being a good host, I think they also want to test how nationalistically and ethnically Bengali-Muslim I am. Of course I eat haram food and drink alcohol. This is not only because I try to be a good guest and a good anthropologist but also my habit is to explore beyond traditional and religious border.

Since it took me two months to set up my own kitchen and I had no choice but to go to the ‘tribal’ restaurants for lunch and dinner, I had the chance to observe the back side of the restaurants. What I regularly observed was that there were a few Bengali men, beside the Paharis, who were drinking rice wine merrily. However, like I mentioned earlier, secrecy is carefully maintained so that no one could label themmunafek. At the end it all made me think that when there are so many munafeks living around us merrily, then aren’t those who refuse to acknowledge and accept them guiltier of greater hypocrisy?

1 Thanks Laura Wagner for being my English editor.

2 van Schendel, W and Bal, E (2002), “Beyond the tribal mindset: Studying non-Bengali peoples in Bangladesh and West Bengal”, in: George Pfeffer and Deepak Kumar Behera (eds.), Contemporary society: Tribal studies, New Delhi, Concept publishing company, Page 121-138.

3 Bhaumik, Subir (2009), Troubled periphery: The crisis of India’s North East, Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd. India.

4 van Schendel, W (2009), A history of Bangladesh, Cambridge University Press.

2 Reacties op Bengali migrants

  1. Avijit Banerjee schreef:

    My Ph.No +9433364709

  2. Tapas Mondal schreef:

    My Ph.No-+9433364709 or

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