Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

June 16, 2011

Bengali Muslims are new (?)

Filed under: Bengali,Identity,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 10:33 am

A quick follow up to Zack’s post on Rohingya. On the demographics, if you believe the claims of Muslims and Christians in Burma, they are the majority of the population, not the Theravada Buddhists. This means ethnic Burmans are a minority, as are the combination of Burmans, Mons, and Shans, three ethnic groups that are overwhelmingly Buddhist (the majority of Karens are also Buddhist, but these Buddhist Karens tend to assimilate to Burman identity, while the large and politically mobilized Christian Karen minority remains distinct). I wouldn’t put too much stock in the demographic exaggerations, though because of Burma’s lack of a good census it seems plausible that there’s an undercount of minority groups. Until democracy comes, the government and minority activists can keep making up whatever numbers they want.


More interestingly, the Rohingya’s have an ambiguous ethnic identity. As a matter of fact they are clearly derived from the southeastern Bengali people. Their language has affinities to the dialect of Chittagong. And they have the standard look of South Asians (ergo, the Burmese accuse them of being ugly black trolls!), with the tinge of Southeast Asian which is very common amongst eastern Bengali. But from the reading, and some interaction with a few Bangladeshi Rohingyas I’ve met personally (these are the descendants of recent refugees), they have an ambivalent attitude toward identification with the Bengali nation. Some of this is political, as the Rakhine of Arakan amongst whom they reside of accuse them of being arriviste interlopers. This has some truth, the Rohingya demographic heft probably is a function of the last few centuries. But then, so is the white American demographic heft! I tend to think that if a people have a rootedness of centuries in a locale they are local…but then I’m American, so I would think that!

But some of the ambivalence is I think a function of the reality that the Rohingya were not part of the creation of the Bengali Muslim identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is clear when you notice that they don’t utilize the Bengali script! The Rohingya are folk Bengalis. There are many of these in Bangladesh and West Bengal. They speak a Bengali dialect, but are not participants in high Bengali culture, and wouldn’t know literary Bengali because they’re not literate. But there’s a vertical integration between the peasantry and an elite culture which is nationally self-conscious. In West Bengal this is led by the intelligentsia of Calcutta. But in Bangladeshi it’s focused on Dhaka.

To do a quick summary from the history that I’ve read, there’s a two act aspect to the self-consciousness of Bengali Muslims. The first act preceded the Mughals, when Afghans and other Islamic groups patronized literary Bengali as a counterweight to the Sanskrit favored by local Hindu elites (though these groups also patronized Persian naturally). With the rise of Mughal power though the Muslim elite of Bengal shifted toward an Urdu orientation. A large proportion of the Muslim peasantry were Bengali speaking in dialect, but in the 19th century they didn’t have a natural leadership class which identified with them in both religion and language. The Bengal Renaissance was a Hindu affair, because the elite Muslims of Bengal were participants in the high culture of Urdu speaking North Indian Islam.

Economic and social development in the 19th and especially 20th century led to the reemergence of a Bengali Muslim elite. This class did not assimilate to Urdu literary norms, and though it gave due deference to the cultural attainments of Hindu Bengalis, it also asserted its own religious distinctiveness, as is made clear by the strength of the Muslim League in eastern Bengal. Middle class Muslim Bengalis who came to maturity in the time before Pakistan resented the Hindu elite of Calcutta a great deal because of its cultural and political hegemony. They felt their religious difference keenly, not their ethnic one. I know this personally because my grandfather, who was often the only Muslim doctor in a given town where he practiced, expressed this attitude (he began practicing medicine in the 1920s). This is in contrast to my parents’ generation, who were more resentful of the racism and discrimination which they experienced from Biharis and West Pakistanis, and had a somewhat rose-tinted view of the beauty and elegance of Hindu Bengali culture in Calcutta. They felt their ethnic difference more keenly, and have no social discomfort around Bengali Hindus, because they have never have the memory of Bengali Hindu hegemony.

Shifting back toward the Rohingyas: their ambivalence to Bengali identity is due to the fact that they “missed out” on these centuries of interplay between Muslim and Bengali self-identification, at least at the elite level. The Rohingya nationalists don’t want to make aliyah “back” to Bengal. They don’t consider themselves from Bengal, they’re from Arakan, they’re from Burma. Their identity is as nationals of Burma, if not ethnic Burmans. Like many South Asian Muslims they are wont to construct a false identity of descent from Arabs, but at least they often used the Arabic script, unlike Bengali Muslims in Bangladesh and India! The Rohingya are assertive in their Islam, and they certainly wouldn’t part with that. But I suspect that it wouldn’t be a major issue for them if their descendants no longer spoke the Rohingya dialect. The Burmese Rohingya I’ve met exhibit little of the fixation with the Bengali language which Bengali Muslims steeped in Tagore express as a matter of course. I know my parents will be sad when the last Bengali speaking generation passes. The term “mother tongue” has more than clinical descriptive connotation for them (part of this is obviously due to the Language Movement, but part of it is probably the reality that Bengali Muslims accept some of the metaphorical aspects of linguistic unity which Bengali Hindus also espouse).

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