Garos aspiring migration and mobility in an ‘insecure’ Bangladesh

All around the world, people are exposed to information and imageries that may have been generated in far-away places, but by implication become part of their everyday lives.

These cultural imaginaries, whether ‘realistic’ or not, are widespread and have real-life consequences. They do not only produce new self-images, aspirations and ideals, but also transform notions of (aspired) belonging.1

It has been widely acknowledged that mobility is a fundamental social issue of our times2 and that a focus on societies as bounded territories or units is no longer significantly relevant.3

Yet, it is equally important to emphasize that images and ideas of other, better places to live in, travel in a highly unequal global space and that these idea(l)s are ultimately filtered through people’s personal aspirations.4

Moreover, these ambitions, desires and needs may be informed by global possibilities, but in practice they are limited and reshaped by local restrictions.

The Garos of Bangladesh are one of the country’s estimated 54 ethnic minorities who are neither Muslim by religion nor Bengali by ethnicity.5

They comprise a population of approximately 100,000 people, and are generally referred to as an indigenous (adibhasi) community by civil society and the international community.

The community is widely known as Garos, but the people commonly refer to themselves as Mandi, which means ‘human being’.6

This article is primarily based on the ethnographic data collected by Minna Raitapuro during an intensive period of three months of fieldwork amongst the Garos in Bangladesh, between January and April 2013, in and around Birisiri and other Garo villages, as well as in Dhaka.

The study is embedded in our long-standing research experience amongst the Garos of Bangladesh, which began in November 1993, with Ellen Bal’s research on Garo ethnicity in Bangladesh, allowing us to witness several socioeconomic transformations in Bangladesh at large, and amongst the Garos in particular.

The ideas for Raitapuro’s ethnographic study and this article sprang from our observations that a significant transformation of the prospects, role and impact of mobility has taken place over the past few decades.

When talking to the authors, our informants employed the names Garo and Mandi interchangeably. In this article, we use the term Garo, which allows us to relate more directly to a broader academic discussion.

Furthermore, ‘Garo’ includes the people from the same ethnic imagined community on the other side of the border in India, whereas Mandi does not.

In dominant state discourse and by the constitution of Bangladesh Garos and other ethnic minorities in Bangladesh are currently labelled as khudro nrigosthi (small ethnic groups).

Other frequently used categories for ethnic minorities are ‘tribe’ or upojati (‘sub-nation’). These labels carry connotations of racial inferiority and denote (post-) colonial policies of exclusion.

Through the self-identification as ‘indigenous people’ (adibhasi), members of the same ethnic minorities try to counter their marginalization by the mainstream of Bangladeshi society, which has resulted from a long-standing nation-building project based on a Bengali cultural identity and/or on Islam as the dominant religion.7

Even though the meanings and implications of these different terminologies differ widely, observers have consistently referred to Garos and other indigenous communities as primitive and traditional people without history, who also share a deep sense of attachment to their natural habitat.8

In the dominant national narrative, indigenous communities or tribes are still characterized by stasis or stillness, rather than mobility. Indigenous people(s) in Bangladesh remain amongst the most persecuted of all minorities, being discriminated on the basis of their religion and ethnicity, but also for their indigenous identity and socioeconomic backwardness.9

Garos and other ethnic minorities have not only been disregarded by the government in terms of rights and recognition, they are also affected by a reifying and essentializing approach to their culture and traditions by the state.

The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) has approached their culture as something that needs to be preserved in museums, thereby promoting a static image of ‘indigenous’ people, differentiating them from ‘civilization’ and rendering them as something attached to the past.10

At the same time, studies of indigenous or tribal communities, which often emphasize rootedness rather than mobility, stasis rather than change, go forth in further articulating these conceptions of ethnic minorities as immobile people, frozen in time.11

Notwithstanding the hegemonic imaginaries of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh, in practice they are no different from other Bangladeshis for whom Dhaka and other big cities have become desired destinations, despite the major challenges caused by unplanned urbanization.

Encouraged by Christian missionaries, who successfully introduced Christianity to the Garos around the turn of the twentieth century, most Garo parents have long sent their children to school. Levels of education have therefore been comparatively high for both girls and boys.12

The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) does not collect statistical data based on ethnicity. We are therefore unable to give any specific or detailed information on the numbers of Garo youth enrolled in education, the number of migrants from villages to cities, the consequences of investments in the home villages by migrants, or the number of migrants who have gone abroad. From the 1960s onwards, and especially since the 1980s, many Garos began to migrate to other parts of the country, especially to Dhaka and to Chittagong, to pursue higher education, or to find employment in one of the many NGOs, as household servants, in the garments industry, and lately, and very successfully so, in the beauty parlour industry.13

Christian Garos had a distinctive advantage in particular job opportunities in the cities, such as nursing or hairdressing, which used to be regarded as polluting both by Muslims and Hindus.14

With the growth of the Bengali urban middle class, the beauty industry has expanded rapidly, creating new job opportunities for Garo women.

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