Courtesy: New Age, Dhaka, 14 July 2010
by Omar Khasru
One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.
Franklin Thomas, a former president of the Ford Foundation
HERE is a chronicle and chronology of a series of objectionable and unpleasant events and incidents, according to a recent newspaper report (Prothom Alo, July 4):
1. The headmaster of a high school at Tanore in Rajshahi was refused service at a local restaurant because of his ethnicity. Kamel Mrandi, an ethnic Santal and headmaster of Mundamala High School, was not served food because the restaurant did not have a separate set of cutleries and crockery for the indigenous people. The frustrated, enraged and offended teacher commented that when he taught their children they never refused the knowledge he imparted but they refused to serve food.
The local Santals and their enlightened and outraged sympathisers formed a human chain on June 13 to protest against the reprehensible act and flagrant discrimination. Thankfully, the local police did not foil this non-violent protest, unlike the thwarting of opposition parties’ similar peaceful protest recently through brute force.
When the restaurant owner was asked the reason for such abrasive and abusive behaviour, his response was that he had to do business with others and be acutely conscious of the wishes of everyone. He did not elaborate but implied that the local majority Bengali population was generally reluctant to eat from the same pots and pans as the Santal people.
2. Biswanath Soren and Jogen Besra, two adivasi college students attending a seminar on the famed Santal Rebellion were served snacks on old newspaper pieces at a confectionary whereas the Bengali attendees were served in plates.
3. The plates and pans of Santal hall members of Tanore Degree College were set apart from those of other hall residents. To protest against this blatant bigotry, 11 Santal student residents moved out of the hall.
Before undertaking an assessment of these narrow-minded acts against the Santal minority, here are a few pertinent facts about these people. The Santal are the largest tribal community in India, who live mainly in the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam with a significant presence in neighbouring north and north-western Bangladesh (nearly a hundred and fifty thousand mainly in Pabna, Bogra, Dinajpur and Rajshahi), and a small population in Nepal.
The Santali language is part of the Austro-Asiatic family, distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. According to many Indian anthropologists, humans first came to India some six hundred thousand years ago. Historians believe that tribal communities such as Kols, Mundas and Santals may have been the descendants of these early migrants. So, Santals were here long before Bengalis evolved or settled in. By archaeological and historical considerations, therefore, these people have a greater claim on the land than the subsequent majority Bengali presence and encroachment.
The situation is similar to indigenous Americans (commonly and politically incorrectly known as the Red Indians) and the occupation and usurpation of their land by the European white settlers. The Native Americans once faced the same repression and discrimination in the US as the Santal and other tribal do in present day Bangladesh.
The Santal script is a relatively recent innovation. They did not have a written language until the 20th century and used Latin/Roman, Devnagri and Bangla writing systems. A need for a distinct script led to the invention of new script called Ol Chiki in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu, revered and popularly known as Guru Gomke among the indigenous people. Dr Byomkes Chakrabarti (1923-1981), a Bengali researcher on ethnic languages, showed in ‘A Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali’ how our mother tongue was influenced by the Santali language and how Bengali language as a result acquired unique characteristics different from other Indian languages.
So the Santal, rich in history, tradition, art and culture, resorted to peaceful and constitutional means to protest against the uncivilised, illegal, immoral and prejudicial acts against them in the greater Rajshahi area. They seem placid, moderate and tolerant. They, however, were not always this peaceful in their historical protests. Once they asserted their rights against oppression, subjugation and deprivation through an armed rebellion, the anniversary of which was commemorated recently on June 30.
In June 1855, two Santal leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, mobilised ten thousand Santals and declared a rebellion against British colonists. Through the Santal Rebellion (1855-56), the tribal objected to the colonial intrusion of their areas, the imposition of alien norms, alien property laws, the abolition of customary rights (especially control of forests), and above all the intrusion of traders, moneylenders and revenue collectors under British rule.
The insurrection spread rapidly. The Santals roundly defeated the initial military expedition by troops loyal to British colonial masters. Martial law was declared on July 19, 1855. Three regiments of forces, equipped with modern firearms and war elephants, were sent to subdue the Santals and crush the revolt. The hills were drenched with Santal blood. Their villages were razed. The captured Santals were made railway construction labour in chains. Most of the leading Santals were captured and executed by March 1856. The rebellion subsided and eventually crumbled by May 1856. To stop any future uprising on the part of the Santals large number of Bengalis were settled in the hills with proprietary rights, similar to Bengali settlements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Although the revolution was brutally suppressed, it marked a great change in the colonial rule and policy. The day of rebellion is still celebrated among the Santal community with great respect and spirit for the thousands of the Santal martyrs who sacrificed their lives along with their two celebrated leaders in their glorious attempt to win freedom from the rule of the zamindars and the British operatives. Even though the impact was shadowed by the Indian war of independence of 1857, the legend of the Santal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in their pride and identity.
Nobody is suggesting or expecting another armed insurrection by the Santal minority to ensure their legal and constitutional rights. But what is absolutely necessary is the enforcement of anti-discriminatory laws by local administration, law enforcement agencies and strong, independent action by the judiciary. It is also up to the people to single-mindedly seek, attain and safeguard their civil rights through constitutional means.
It is unfortunate that the ethnic minorities in this country have to struggle for their rights similar to the ones that the African-Americans had to undertake in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s before the enactment of Civil Rights Laws. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the pre-eminent civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate for Peace, ‘We have gained a new sense of dignity and destiny. We have discovered a new and powerful weapon — non-violent resistance.’
But it is not merely the constitutional, human or civil rights of the Santals that are being violated by the bigots and an inept and indifferent administration. The abuse and mistreatment is similar to that meted out to untouchables (those outside the confines of caste Hindus) in neighbouring India and that to majority Black population during the apartheid system in South Africa. This society beset by corruption and political violence has been tainted by systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities, and oppression and widespread violence against women. It is now bereft of a moral high ground.
Women suffer in this country from inhuman repression for dowry, acid burns inflicted by unsuccessful suitors, or as an easy, perverse and atrocious act to get even in family disputes. An alarming number of them are subjected to rape, all too frequently followed by murder. In the past, we related these repugnant evil acts against women taking place in New Delhi or elsewhere in India. These have crept into our society with misogynist ferocity and wrath. In the absence of political will, inaction by law enforcing agencies and blasé attitude of the male dominated society, these heinous crimes against women will not subside unless stern, swift and exemplary punishment is meted out to the perpetrators. With all the murder and mayhem, other high-profile crimes, and political violence, crimes against women is ascribed a low priority and is in the lower end of the totem pole of justice, prevention and redress.
Bangladeshis largely belong to a homogenous racial and ethnic group. The exceptions are the adivasis or people of indigenous ethnic origin. There is hardly any possibility of widespread racial tension. The majority Bangla speaking people and the rulers have not generally treated the indigenous people fairly, justly or honourably. The evidence is clear from the lingering Chittagong Hill Tracts conflict and lack of urgency and earnestness on the part of the government to implement the peace treaty with sincerity and goodwill. And on a micro level, it was displayed with criminal ferocity in the murder of Santal leader Alfred Soren and abduction and disappearance of the general secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, Kalpana Chakma; with justice delayed and justice denied in both cases.
Totally unacceptable and repulsive is the prejudicial treatment of the minority Santal members by a section of the Bengali majority. They are treated as the blacks were during the South African apartheid regimes and the scheduled caste Hindus. These derisively called ‘untouchables’ were referred to as ‘Harijan’ or Children of God by Mahatma Gandhi to grant them social acceptability, dignity and honour. The way the Santal in greater Rajshahi district have been maltreated and abused, are they then the children of a lesser god?
A country that attained its independence through a war of liberation to protest against unfair practices, discrimination and abuse and to ensure the democratic rights of the people, it is a shame that the women and tribal minorities, weak and powerless in a male and majority dominated society, would face such serious and systematic breach of their civil and human rights.