Garos aspiring migration and mobility in an ‘insecure’ Bangladesh

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, migration from rural to urban areas has accelerated in Bangladesh. Neighbourhoods of Dhaka, such as Kalachandpur or Baridhara, are now known as Garo neighbourhoods by local Dhaka residents.

Successful Garo migrants are investing in their home villages, constructing new houses, buying lands, or investing in small businesses.

The face of the rural landscape is altering rapidly due to these new forms of mobility. Yet, mobility as an analytical concept, whether understood in terms of physical or social mobility, is rarely used in studies of the so-called indigenous or tribal people in Bangladesh.

Elsewhere we have described how, during the nineteenth and twentieth century, a history of marginalization and exclusion contributed to the articulation of Garo ethnicity. Particularly, Garos who migrated to urban areas encountered a sense of difference, loneliness and loss, and emphasized and ‘reinvented’ their Garo identity.15

The establishment of an international border in 1947, separating hill Garos in India from lowland Garos in Bangladesh, limited the cross-border mobility dramatically and impacted Garo national ethnic and transnational identities in different ways.16

The India–Bangladesh border did not only divide the Garos over two distinct nation–states, it also disrupted agriculture in the borderland and cross-border trade, when a system of (violent) border control was established.17

In view of these historical developments, which operated to constrict mobility, it is interesting to observe how the recent phenomena of increased spatial mobility, digital connectivity and circulation of information amongst the purported ‘indigenous’ people in Bangladesh have remained nearly entirely unaddressed in dominant debates and the academic literature.

We attempt to fill this gap by employing mobility as the key analytical term in our study of the local implications of on-going globalization for indigenous communities in Bangladesh.

We also wish to demonstrate how globalization has produced contradictory tendencies on the ground: integration and differentiation, dispersal and concentration, inclusion and exclusion, and gain and loss.

In this article, we discuss three interconnected issues, which provide insight into the ways in which different forms of mobility play a role in the everyday lives of young Garos – both of those who are ‘on the move’ and those who stayed in their home villages and towns.

First, we argue that in the contemporary globalizing context of Bangladesh, young Garos have constructed future aspirations, which can no longer be fulfilled in their native villages.

Moving to urban centres in Bangladesh or abroad (spatial mobility) is perceived as a precondition for achieving their future aspirations, which include accessing higher education, obtaining college and university degrees, and finding well-paid jobs leading to higher status and economic security.

While upward social mobility is widely desired, individuals’ success is also believed to benefit the Garo community as a whole.

Second, while spatial mobility has become a possibility for many young Garos, the act of moving to urban areas in itself is not necessarily social advancement.

Instead, higher education and better-paid employment leading to upward social and economic mobility are widely desired, but a reality for only a few.

The ability to be mobile, motility, is not only dependent on class, but it also informs it. Following Flamm and Kaufmann,18 we examine which factors define access to mobility amongst young Garos and try to identify what type of knowledge and skills are required to become mobile (in a desired way).

By doing so, we also show how similar aspirations and conditions may in fact lead to divergent migration strategies (internal or transnational migration), challenging the dominant dichotomous understanding of migration as either internal or international.19

Third, we argue that the dynamic connection between an increasing desire for upward social and economic mobility, migration to cities (spatial mobility) and transnational connectedness through advanced media technology have accelerated two other interconnected processes amongst the Garos of Bangladesh.

On the one hand, access to higher education, and a more visible presence (through active political platforms or their sheer numbers) in urban centres have strengthened the feelings of belonging and ethnicity (Garo-ness).

On the other hand, increased spatial mobility and transnational connectivity have brought ‘the other’ and ‘the foreign’ into close quarters and thereby increased feelings of insecurity amongst the same groups both in urban and rural areas – varying from a fear of cultural disappearance to feelings of physical insecurity.

We will also show that the ethnic identity, strong feelings of ‘Garo-ness’, and concerns about the future of the community are tightly interwoven with the future dreams and aspirations of young Garos, simultaneously reflecting and informing the moment and context in which they occur.

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