Thursday, March 04, 2010

‘The Chittagong Hill Tracts; living in a borderland’- Willem van Schendel, Wolfgang Mey& Aditya Kumar Dewan.(The university press limited, Dhaka,2001)

Sucharita Sengupta

The book entitled ‘The Chittagong Hill Tracts; living in a borderland’ written by Willem van Schendel, Wolfgang Mey & Aditya Kumar Dewan explores a theme of neglect- to quote the authors- “…the Chittagong Hill Tracts form part of one of Asia’s most ignored regions” (Introduction), a story of marginalization of communities and yet another saga of partition politics. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) are perhaps one of the most glaring examples of how certain communities are still bearing the brunt of colonial rule followed by the partition of India. The authors trace uniquely the insecurities, identity crisis and dilemmas of communities living in the borderland. The CHTs are a borderland between Burma, India and Bangladesh which is inhabited by almost twelve distinct ethnic groups with strong cultural links to South East Asia. At the outset the authors make it very clear that they have employed photography as a methodology to study their subject. Although a photographic survey of the CHTs was ordered as part of this project, the authors have relied largely upon personal photographs to weave their arguments. Covering around 20 chapters the book manifests the struggle of the inhabitants to retain their indigenous identity amidst shifts in political control and cultural infiltration. It does not narrate the conflicts but rather focuses on the background that gave birth to the schisms.

The introduction begins with a claim of the authors that the book is solely based on a singular non written source of information which is photographic survey. Over 400 photographs have been used in the book to provide the readers an insight into the cultural heritage of the inhabitants. In fact it was a deliberate move on part of the writers since photographs can be considered as potential contributors to the understanding of history. The authors however do not deny the risk of doing so. In Chapters one and two they acknowledge this fact by stating that objective photography reflects reality in a controlled way. This point has been substantiated by images (Plates 1 and 4 in Pg 11) where it is shown how physical anthropologists have displayed people by making them stand in attention ready to be scrutinized. With the dawn of the 20th century thus the “trust in the objectivity of photography began to decline”(Pg-13) for fear of manipulation of visual image. Things started to look up from the 1970s with the emergence of visual anthropology. Now onwards ethnographic photographs started to be scrutinized as source materials of history. This book therefore bears testimony to how photographs can be used as a means to document the complexities of a trouble zone like the Chittagong Hills. The photographs were meant for personal use and therefore the authors had taken a lot of pain to compile and present them in the several chapters of this book. The photographs were taken by both the outsiders like travelers, anthropologists, missionaries and also by the inhabitants. The ones taken by the local people were mainly used to record family events. The authors here again warn the readers of how in absence of written materials one tends to depend on personal judgments. Like in the case of this book, the authors have used photographs and framed them with contemporary texts. While in certain cases the value of the photographs has been selected, in others focus has been given on what these photographs depict in terms of reality.

Chapters three to six deal with the history and nomenclature of the Chittagong Hills and the transition of control from one authority to the other. One of many instances can be sighted here to show how images have been used in the text. Like through some images the authors have tried to show how the chiefs in the hills used to dress up publicly in unique style, each distinct from the other. While the Chakma Rajas (plates 22, 23 & 24-Pgs 36, 37) liked to dress up like Bengali aristocrats, the Bohmong and Mong chiefs chose a different style.

In the subsequent chapters the authors sketch a brief history of the hills. Before the British annexation the hills were ruled by the ‘chiefs’. After the British took control in the 1860s the chiefs’ public display of power became restricted and although the hereditary system to power was still practiced the final say on the matter rested upon the colonial rulers. The authors here also note why at all the history of the hills were crafted by historians. The Chittagong Hill tracts never gained much prominence in the history of Bangladesh or Pakistan for that matter. It was not until an armed rebellion broke out between a regional political party and the Bangladeshi armed forces that historians began to eye the region with interest. Through a wide range of images, the book narrates the background of the genesis of the problem in the hills. The lives of the local people were always at the mercy of first the British, then the Pakistan government and finally the Bangladesh government after 1971. In 1947 with the end of the British rule India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Much to the surprise of the people of the hills the area came under the domain of Pakistan control. The attitude of the Pakistan government towards the region was one of ignorance. While the government was interested in the rich natural resources of the region, the people were despised. All previous undemocratic measures like taxation and hereditary claim to power were retained by the new administration. This was the start of differences between the people in the plains and the hills. The authors meticulously sight not only the geographical but also the cultural division between the hills and the plains as another major cause of the problem of confrontation. While the plain was inhabited by the Bengalis, the hills were resided by several groups like the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Mru and Taungchengya. The problem further mounted up and reached its zenith in forms of armed clashes after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 following which the privacy of the hills were infringed upon due to a large influx of Bengali muslim settlers.

The final section of the book spans over the remaining twelve chapters. In this section the authors refute the pre-conceived myth of a romanticized lifestyle of the ‘natives’ in the hills which is ‘anti-development’. The locals were perceived by the westerners and Bengali settlers as innocent and nature friendly. This kind of a notion stems out again from a particularistic pattern of clicking the inhabitants. “Many photographs and writings on the Chittagong Hill Tracts project a vision of innocence and charm” (pg – 83). A sharp distinction was drawn in the images between the photographer (fully dressed and civilized) and the photographed (nude and uncivilized) like a semi nude woman is clicked spinning cotton (Pg-84, plate 89). The inhabitants were assumed to be associated with notions like ‘backwardness’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘anti modern’. The visitors took pleasure in painting the ‘other’ culture as “looseness of morality” (pg-95), which never existed. ‘Nudity’ further contributed to creation of such a strange construction. Fanaticized open sexual life and nakedness have been the constant point of reference of visitors to the hills. The glorification of natural beauty again had an inherent implication that brands the people of the hills as ‘primitive’. Thus the Pakistan government was clear in its developmental endeavors in the hills which deprived the local people at large. The creation of the huge Kaptai reservoir by the government was a catastrophe as it floods around 650 sq kms of valley displacing around 100,000s of people whose houses and villages were submerged. So development in the hills was never attempted at doing well for the people rather it was development for the people neglecting the people.

To sum up, the book is an excellent documentation, probably the first of its kind to record the poignancy in the lives of the people of the hills trough images. The authors succeed in driving home certain key arguments, in particular the criticism of the construction of the ‘other’. They also put forth arguments on why they have decided to choose photography as a method in the book. The dearth of written materials and not so helpful archives shaped their decision. The ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’ encapsulate perfectly the introspection of the writers. The book also stands out because it argues each contention through images and the plethora of images that have been used in the document itself are unparalleled. The book would surely be of immense help to researchers interested in this subject as it covers a wide array of issues in the borderland, ranging from the early history of the region, to the fallacious developmental policies of governments resulting in violent clashes and also for throwing light on themes like how a notion of ‘other’ is always considered backward, opposition of civilizations and creation of a westernized notion of ‘modern’ and ‘primitive’. Any culture which does not match up with the accepted notions of developementalism and modernity is necessarily ‘uncultured’ and ‘anti-modern’.


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