Garos aspiring migration and mobility in an ‘insecure’ Bangladesh

Human chains, strikes and exploding Molotov cocktails are everyday news in Dhaka. Political unrest and violence has increased in Bangladesh over the past decade60 and the on-going trials of 1971-war criminals go hand in hand with violence and hostility.

At the time of the research, in February 2013, Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh, was sentenced life imprisonment for the crimes he had committed during the Liberation War in 1971.

The youth movement Gonojagoron Mancha (also known as the ‘Shahabag movement’, named after the square where the protest were held) mobilized Bangladeshi citizens from divergent social and economic backgrounds to engage in non-violent mass protests demanding Mollah’s death penalty.

The people’s movement also opened up a new platform for demanding social justice and democracy, which was joined by ethnic minorities who demanded that their rights as indigenous minorities be respected.

Their experiences of discrimination and racism however have rendered many Garos anxious about participating. The 24-year-old student Rubel joined the demonstrations together with his friends, because he was hoping for societal change.

At the same time however he was deeply concerned about the consequences of the protests for minorities. He feared that their participation could generate a backlash, leading to violence and retaliation from members of the majority community:

I can’t think of anything good coming from this. Because we are a minority community living in Bangladesh (…) we will have to face the consequences of what is happening here.61

Human security is an everyday concern for ordinary Bangladeshis. Being a member of an ethnic minority makes for additional reason for fear and insecurity.

Particularly ethnic minorities, who share a long history of discrimination, (violent) marginalization and racism often experience a deep sense of existential and physical insecurity.62

While access to city life style, expanded social networks and (international) connectivity have brought new opportunities for many Garos, moving to urban areas has also brought new existential concerns about their cultural survival as well as worries over their general well-being.

In Bangladesh, public sexual harassment or molestation of women by men, also referred to as eve teasing, is a common phenomenon.

Many of our informants felt that Garo girls had to face greater harassment than Bengali girls. One afternoon in March 2013, Raitapuro was having sweet tea, cha, with one of her friends at the rusty tea stall near the Parliament house in West Rajabazar, Dhaka, when their conversation turned to neighbourhoods inhabited by the Garos. Her friend said firmly:

We, Mandi people, like to stay together. But, most importantly, if something happens to us, there is someone close to help you out … that’s a safety issue, the main point.

Feelings of fear and insecurity are not only caused by experiences of violence or discrimination in cities, but they are also felt in rural areas.

Increased mobility has brought new insecurities for those living in villages as well. Many villagers experience a sense of unsafety and insecurity because of the increasing number of empty houses (owned by absent migrants), and the fear of these houses attracting burglars.

A shortage of labour during harvest times has also become a major concern for the remaining villagers, since agriculture is still their main source of income.

While only a decade earlier, daily labourers approached rich landowners in the hope of employment, landowners, in the present circumstances, are struggling to recruit sufficient labour to work in the rice fields and to engage in other agricultural activities.

Environmental change has also caused serious concern amongst the youth, since many fields have transformed into building sites and open spaces around the villages have almost disappeared.

Many of our informants in Birisiri hoped for a cleaner and greener future for their village, in view of the lack of sanitary facilities, the absence of a decent recycling system, and the practice of illegal logging leading to rapid deforestation.

While insecurity was a key issue in many of our informants’ narratives, we also observed that the increase in the numbers of Garos living in cities has strengthened feelings of community and belonging in these urban centres.

This awareness of a shared community identity and solidarity also provides a sense of security. Higher-educated Garos recognize security issues for Garos, especially for girls and women working as domestics or beauticians.

New initiatives have evolved to protect these women, as well as to battle harmful working conditions and unacceptable behaviour from employers.

For example, one of the two Garo lawyers practicing in Bangladesh (at the time of the research) organizes weekly meetings to discuss labour rights, and offers legal advice in cases of maltreatment of Garos in Dhaka.

In this case, ethnic identity also facilitates a certain sense of security. Young Garos are not only passively aware of their distinct ethnic identity as Garos or ‘indigenous’, but have also actively embraced their ethnic identity in urban areas and are acting accordingly.

A group of young Garos, for example, have established a rock band named Sacramento, which was planning to compose and perform Garo songs for wider audiences in the near future. One of the band members, Rinku Mankin, told Raitapuro that:

We started our band 9th of August in 2009, from World Indigenous Day (…) as the first Garo band. There are some other Garo bands coming up now, and we are helping them. I don’t know how successful they will be, but I want to make sure personally that a Garo band is included in the Bangladeshi music scene.63

An increasing number of young Garos have also joined hands with members of other ethnic or indigenous minorities to demand their recognition as full-fledged citizens by the GoB.

Global developments, such as the emergence of an international discourse on indigenous rights, had become part of the local language and mind-set of our research participants, many of whom aspired to become indigenous rights advocates or indigenous leaders.

Such feelings of ethnic pride, belonging and appreciation are also present in the rural areas. The Birisiri Tribal Cultural Academy, located in the centre of Birisiri, is home to a museum and a library, and hosts numerous cultural events. One of the Academy’s staff members, the 27-year-old dancer Sathi, has practised traditional Garo dances for years.

According to her Garos have themselves rapidly changed their attitudes towards Garo dance over the more recent years: ‘Nowadays others are giving importance to our work, but earlier they did not’.64

While some young Garos still perceive settling down in the cities as a synonym for ‘forgetting the language and culture’, new forms of Garo cultural celebrations, activities, and performances have in fact emerged in particular amongst the (upper) middle class Garos living in urban areas.

These urban Garos have a greater international awareness and sense of their rights as minorities, fuelling the articulation of their distinct ethnic identity.

Thus, while increased spatial mobility and access to (global) networks have brought ‘the far’ near, at the same time, the emergence of new opportunities for unity and connection, access to information and an increasing visibility and voice in the public domain (even though very limited still) have created opportunities for greater cultural participation and ethnic expression amongst minorities, informing a new sense of pride and competence.

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