Racism and reverse racism in Bangladesh

Published : 2 Dec 2014, 12:59 PM
Updated : 2 Dec 2014, 12:59 PM

Recent print and electronic media reports show that law enforcement agencies are conducting a concerted drive to take legal measures against foreigners lacking valid permits to stay or work in Bangladesh. This is a common measure practiced almost in every country on earth and in a densely populated country like Bangladesh where many local people are jobless; this is a measure long overdue.

However, if one looks at the faces of those who are arrested, it is difficult for one to escape the fact that most of the people who are caught by this drive are 'black-skinned' people from Africa. Hard numbers are unavailable but it is apparent that people from other continents are nowhere near as affected by this drive as the Africans are.

One can argue that mostly African people are being arrested in this drive against illegal immigrants, as they are the largest undocumented group of people living in this country.

However, such an explanation needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. The geographical location of Africa makes a journey from there to this country a relatively expensive one. Newspaper reports indicate that people from other Asian countries, particularly the neighbouring South, East, and South-East Asian countries would probably be the majority of illegal immigrants in this country.

It may be that many people from neighbouring countries look very similar to Bangladeshis and hence they remain unnoticed and have so far remained unscathed. That being said, this drive of the law enforcement agencies reminds me of a question that my acquaintances from various walks of life, particularly those who are planning to study or settle abroad as migrants often ask me. This is about the mainstream Australian or Singaporean people's (because of my time spent for studying in those countries) attitude towards those who are racially different from them.

Categorising common people in a particular country or commenting on their attitudes on a particular matter is always a task fraught with the peril of over-simplification as human beings of any particular race, colour, or faith in a particular country do not follow any specific pattern of behaviour nor do they harbour a unified attitude towards people who appear different from them. But generally I respond that yes, some people in those countries may harbour some racist attitude towards people who are unlike them but they are probably no more racist than we, some Bangladeshis, are.

I feel that it is natural that many people will have some sort of feeling of ease about people who are like them and some sort of unease about those who are unlike them. In my childhood, I have seen that despite being identical in race, religion, and colour, temporary workers who arrived in Bogra from Monga-stricken parts of Rangpur and other northern districts would be called 'Pola' (meaning people from the alluvial land). Even years after some of them settled down and built families in Bogra; they would still remain 'Pola's and treated differently from the rest. Perhaps this attitude of differentiation between people, though unacceptable, is not very uncommon. However, in our country there is another and an inexplicable attitude towards people with white skin.

For many in Bangladesh, everything the affluent west does is good and most people in the west or with white skin are superior to Bangladeshis. I have seen many in the Bangladeshi expatriates to suffer from this syndrome even more and at times it has appeared to me, that belittling Bangladesh or Bangladeshis living in Bangladesh seems to be a favourite pastime for some of expatriate Bangladeshis. While racism would treat people unfavourably, many Bangladeshis (both resident and non-resident) tend to do the opposite and seem to undermine the group to which they belong.

For example, I once had a student who wanted to pursue studies at a western university put it to me like this: "I am thinking of applying for admission into this university's programme but I can see that there are too many professors from Bangladesh and India teaching in this university." Perhaps racism is the wrong term for this unusual attitude. As it does the opposite of what racism does, I think that 'reverse racism' is a more appropriate term for this attitude. I doubt that this phenomenon has any parallel in other parts of the globe.

Like many other malaise and oddities of this country, I think this has much to do with our colonial legacy. The scars of more than two centuries of colonial rule under the British and the Pakistanis will take some time to heal.

So, our genes may have carried our ancestors' fear or reverence for the fair skinned people. Nonetheless, it is perhaps not too late to appreciate that while for centuries, this country has been consistently under-performing on many fronts; the economic affluence and the concomitant diplomatic clout of countries has been a cyclical thing. There is nothing inherently bad or good about us, the Bangladeshis and this country would not lag behind forever.