<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 119 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 22, 2003

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Noakhali and the Noakhaillas

Afsan Chowdhury

Many thanks for the piece "On Being a Noakhalia" by Joe D'Silva which is remarkable for the intellectual potentials it holds and presents possibilities of exploring 'skin racism' -generally exogamous and perceived along colour lines - to this type of 'ethnic' racism which is much more endemic and affects almost all societies but especially South Asia.

"Noakhaillas" are the most well known "negatively" stereotyped people- cunning, clannish, uncouth etc- within Bengal but in the whole of South Asia, Bangalis are treated just as N's are treated within Bengal. I am sometimes a bit embarrassed at the venom of the hatred of non-Bengalis towards Bangalis when in Bharat. In India, both Bangali and Bangladeshi are thought of as the "Other' in the typical anthropological sense. In fact, some people are willing to tolerate Bangladeshis more than those coming from Kolkata land. But this is universal and we are also part of the mindset, which look down upon Biharis who are derided by all.

Being a Bihari is to be "filthy, illiterate and a congenital criminal " - my Harijan cab driver said it in one word -"kachra"- and this is epitomised by Laloo Prasad Yadav who on behalf of entire South Asia reinforces that racism. This is in the dominant North Indian imagination and really needs to be explored considering that Bihar is where 'Indian civilisation' developed or began if you will. Similarly Nepalis - Laicchavis of ancient India- are also trashed as darwans although in the Buddhist period they were so powerful that they challenged and nearly ended the Magadhan supremacy, later the Imperial dynastic Indian history. History is about employment status it would appear, the secular counterpart of caste.

Dislike of Bangalis can be - at least partially- traced to the fanning out of these people to various parts of India after the Brits came and took over the richest part of India while introducing education to generate clerks and lawyers. But once local wealth dried up Bangalis as usual never in charge of their commerce took to spreading the Babu culture - read taking over the white collar job industry wherever possible- because Bengal under the Brits couldn't hire so many educated Bangalis. Thus Uttar Pardesh, Orissa and Bihar - later Burma too- bore the brunt of the Bangali demographic expansion. Teachers, clerks and lawyerships were the dominant domains of employment. The Permanent Settlement of land revenue or zamindary system was introduced in 1789 which generated a lot of litigation and Bangalis took to law like ducks take to the proverbial pond which again helped the livelihood issue.

So they took the jobs and livelihoods here and far away and because they were migrants they worked extra hard because home meant no income. And they brought their cousins and nephews and became communities, which gave them a new identity and cause to hate them more. This dislike is still very alive in India today but doesn't interfere too much with the running of India one presumes especially when Bengal is a 'bemaru' or underdeveloped state. History has provided the fodder of revenge. The babu state is an impoverished state, a go-nowhere state compared to the once despised Marwari and Bhangra states.

Noakhali people have an interesting history. These coastal areas- east and south Bengal- were outside the pale of most Delhi influence and were considered too backward to be considered worth any imperial interest. They were probably followers of totemic /tribal culture ethnically and of course outside the Aryan circle, the 'Aryabarta". The swampy part of Bengal was 'outsidered' in the imperial imagination of whoever ruled 'India". The last point of imperial civilisation was Pundrabardhan or the present North Bengal which under Pala rule even tried to take over Delhi but was defeated though they held Kannauj for a very short period. No doubt they were held back by the Aricha ferry jam to venture beyond. In way this divided the Ghati (West) from and Bangal (Southeast) Bengal too.

When Mughals came they found a civilisation at least as developed as the central Asian one and were soon influenced by the culture of the people who resisted them the most, the Rajputs. It's interesting that present day Indians also only recognise the Pakistanis as equals -culturally and emotionally- and that's the one zone which resists/fights them, the Pakistanis. Both ignore the rest of South Asia. Enmity is a great creator of intimacy.

The Rajputs truly looked down on Bangalis, partly because the Bengali Hindus ate fish and that is sort of no-no in Rajput culture. Bangalis pass Vishnu's vehicle through their posterior is a common abuse of Bangalis - See Nirad Chowdhuri's book "Hinduism book- for greater details. Vishnu travelled on a giant fish and Bangalis or 'Bongs' according to the common description of all Indian Bangalis ate the vehicle of a god. Rajput aristocracy was vegetarian -non-fish eating- and racist. Mughlas were meat -non-fish eating -racist and even today vegetarians are considered curiously non-. Muslim by many and vegetables are rarely served in grand Muslim gatherings. Fish is not part of the Indian Muslim's imagination of celebration but meat is. Ilish mach on Eid day?

In fact so great was this racism that Mughals refused to convert people beyond Jamuna and Mirza Nathan in Bahiristan-e- Ghaibi mentions how a Mughal officer was punished for that crime. Bengalis were not considered worthy of Islam and this was a perception that is strong even till date amongst the non-Bangla speaking Muslims of India and Pakistan.

But the demand for goods produced were so high and
running the empire had become so costly that by the 16th century, Mughlas happily responded to the demand by European markets by converting and colonising. Thus began mass conversion and mass clearing of jungles, swamps and land for wet agriculture and textiles. It could be done using religion - cutting the cost of military actions and we see the dramatic rise of Muslims in number and curiously the first area to become Muslim was Noakhali. (See Eaton on the Frontiers of Islam in Bengal).

Thus the professional Muslim cleric - the Noakhali mullah - was a fact of history and the Mughal strategy worked as different parts of the fertile area became producing areas linked to Imperial India through religion and supply of goods. Mughal racism was won over by economic needs. Interestingly, the 'chapra' mosque and the mollah were a cheap but effective strategy where faith and power had the same imperial branding and produced the desired result. But the theology was not impressed upon- that was not the objective, cheap labour was- and read Nabi Banghso for an authentic description of that period showing how labour gathering became organised and sophisticated in the name of faith.

Thus Noakhali people had a long history of being "mollahs" but also being short of land couldn't sustain agriculture for long so they too fanned out to other parts of Bengal and even further later on selling whatever could be sold, religion or any other products. And later when education came they did a "Bengali" and took jobs and networked and 'clanned' up and in the end were hated just as Bengalis were hated in India at large.

The 'Royal District' is the microcosm of the Bengal province. The source of conflict lies in the livelihood takes over. Culture emerges as indicators of that resentment whether in Dhaka, Patna or Manchester.

But racial hatred doesn't disappear in history and the Pakistanis in 1947 tolerated Bengali Muslims because they were so many-politics of over-population- and provided the vote ballast which 'elected 'Pakistan in the 1946 referendum. M.A. Jinnah himself was confused about the identity of Bengali Muslims as is noted in so many speeches. He refers to Muslims and Bengalis in one speech as two different people, which still exists in many non-Bengali, mind. Indian diplomat and author recently told me that the problem is "you have not been able to decide whether you want to be a Bengali or a Muslim nation." The conflict between central and provincial Bengal Muslim league led by steadfast Abul Hashim, not so certain Fazlul Haq or Suhrawardy or a militant Sk.Mujib is well documented. (Foreshadowing of Bangladesh by H.rashid is a good analysis) It shows how identity and the crisis of self-imaging has become the major Otherizer, for ourselves and for others.

But a great source of Pakistani dislike of Bengalis can be traced to the Aligarh leader Sir Syed Ahmed Khan whose furious anti-Bengali speeches are some of the most racist utterances made by anyone. In fact, the Upper India Landowners Association which he founded with the Hindu Raja of Rampur (?) shows how religion was weak compared to linguistic ethnic rivalry. (Anil Seal's "Emergence of Indian nationalism" is a good read on this) .

That however hasn't prevented people from hating everyone else from all other districts - a typical example is the description of the 'lazy Rangpur person, the wily man from Comilla or the flat nosed tribals from Chittagong'. Indigenous People are considered inferior commonly all over Bangladesh and Bengal though they have not taken over livelihoods. Having a flat nose id in itself an ethnic crime in south asia, a sign of inferiority, a view shared by central Asian Muslims and Hindu Aryans.
Nose unites.

So march on, hate on but the answers are in history and biology of livelihoods and memories of exogamy left over from the hunting gathering stages of history. Since Bangladeshis celebrate lack of knowledge this is a great opportunity to celebrate racism.

PS. By the way, my father comes from Noakhali (hated in Bengal) who grew up in Kolkata hated by local Hindus, a mother who is a Ghati from Hooghly(hated in BD for being a Ghati). She grew up in Shillong (hated as a Bengali by the Meghalayans) and they all came to live in Bangladesh that many find difficult to tolerate along with the rest of the world.


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