Historian Tamina Chowdhury's book brings new insight to indigenous identity in Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi academic and researcher of history has shed a new light on the contentious indigenous issue in Bangladesh in a book released in Dhaka on Tuesday.

Senior Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 24 Jan 2017, 05:01 PM
Updated : 25 Jan 2017, 06:06 PM

Tamina M Chowdhury used unexplored archival sources in her ‘Indigenous Identity in South Asia’ to explore how the concepts of ‘territory’, and of a ‘people indigenous to it’ have come to be forged and politicised.

She challenges the general perception that indigenous claims coming from the Chittagong Hill Tracts are a recent and contemporary phenomenon, which emerged with the founding of Bangladesh.

She argues in the book, by analysing the processes of colonisation in the CHT, that identities of distinct ethnicity and tradition “predate the creation of Bangladesh, and first began to evolve under British patronage".

British publisher Routledge published the book that adds a new dimension to the existing studies on Bangladesh’s borders and its history by showing “a far deeper” historical lineage of claims being made in the hill tracts.

It was released in a ceremony at the BRAC University on Tuesday.

Professor of economics Shapon Adnan, professor of international relations Amena Mohsin, professor of anthropology Prashanto Tripura and journalist and teacher of history Afsan Chowdhury took part in the discussion on the book, among others.

They appreciated the effort to bring a new insight to the issue, but were also critical of the use of some words, terminology and references in the book.

The hills people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, more commonly referred to as Paharhis, demanded official recognition, and autonomy, as the indigenous people, soon after the birth of Bangladesh.

This demand for autonomy was primarily based on the claim that they were ethnically distinct from the majority Bengali population of Bangladesh, and thereby needed to protect their unique identity.

Tamina in the book asserted that “claims to indigeneity must be understood as an outcome of prolonged and complex processes of interaction between hill peoples – largely the Hill Tracts elites – and the Raj.”

Afsan Chowdhury said the book was “very important because it shows the parallel nature of identity formation and parallel nature of politics".

“It helps us to understand our history, their history and together the history of the region,” he said.

Prof Adnan appreciated it and said “we may or may not agree but we must appreciate the effort. It gives a new insight”.

Tamina said she tried “to produce an administrative history to bring to light their interaction with the state".

"I am not using tribal arguments. I am not going to anthropological and social way of the things.”

“I am not saying those are facts or those were just it happened. I just collected them and I am trying to make a picture.”

She had her PhD from Cambridge University on the political history of the Chiitang Hill Tracts and claims of indigenous identity that emerged from the region.

Tamina is currently a fellow of Georgetown University in Washington and also works as a consultant for the World Bank office in Washington.

Earlier she worked at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.

Her research interests are in global governance institutions, democratic governance in Bangladesh, borders and frontier territories, minorities and state formation, nation-building and methodological nationalism.

She said the book would be “a key resource for scholars of South Asian history and politics, colonial history and those studying indigenous identity”.

General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum Sanjeeb Drong said this book would be “a good source of promoting knowledge of the administrative history of Chittagong Hill Tracts”.

He said there was “no universally accepted definition of indigenous people, but there should be scope for creating debate and knowledge about the indigenous people”.