Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Rohingya Question - Part 4

The Rohingya Identity
It has been sometimes argued, especially amongst the anti-Rohingya demagogues, and the numerous suppositions which some biased scholars have made, that since the designation “Rohingya” did not appear in the Baxter Report and some of the papers associated with it in the National Archives and the British Library in the UK, it was an invented term used by the Arakanese Muslims to claim ethnic status in Burma. In so doing, as if suffering from selective amnesia, they forget to state that the term ‘Rakhine’ was not used for the Arakanese Buddhists in many such reports either. Instead, we find the use of the words like ‘Mugs’ (see, e.g., Charles Paton’s work) and ‘Magh’ to refer to the Rakhine Buddhists. The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan were similarly referred as Arakanese Musselmans and Mohamedans.

British reports have often mentioned Muslims in various parts of India as Mohamedans, Mahommedans and Musselmans. In some reports, all those terms were used interchangeably. Similar kinds of names were also used by the colonial administration for other communities, which served either their policies or whims.

There are numerous examples in our world where even the same place is called by different names by different communities. For example, Bangladesh is commonly known as Manjala (Mangala) in Chinese. In ancient times, Bangladesh was known as Banga, which later came to be known as Bangala by Arab and Persian geographers.

In the ancient times the land of Arakan was known as Arakan Desh, which in the pre-Burman annexation period, in the writings of writers and poets of Arakan and Chittagong, like Quazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamser Ali, Quraishi Magan, Alaol, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others, came to be referred to as ‘Roshang’, ‘Roshanga’, ‘Roshango Shar’, and ‘Roshango Desh’. However, in the local tongue Arakan was called Rohang by its Muslim population and as Rakkhapura or Rakhinepray or Rakhine Pye by its local Buddhists. In the Rennell’s map (1771 CE), Arakan is shown as ‘Roshawn’. The Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions it as ‘Roshang’. The Chakmas and Saks of the 18th century called the country ‘Roang’. [Note that words which sound like ‘sha’ are often changed to ‘ha’ by many people living in adjacent areas north and south of the Naaf River demarcating today’s Rakhine state from southern part of Chittagong in Bangladesh. That is, Roshang and Rohang mean the same thing.]

To most Bengali speaking people America and Britain are known as Markin and Bilat in Bangla. The British colonizers also anglicized many of the local names of towns and cities. Chatga, for instance, came to be known as Chittagong in British records. Sri Lanka, which was known by ancient Greek geographers as Taprobane and as Serendib (or Saran Dip) by Arab geographers, came to be known as Ceil√£o by the Portuguese when they arrived on the island in 1505, which was transliterated into English as Ceylon.

Can such use of altered forms of the name of a country, place or people by outsiders obliterate their original names? Surely, not! What is important here is to realize that such changes or uses of nomenclature do not and cannot alter how the people identify or feel about themselves and their places.

Calling a people based on the region or district that they come from is a common practice in many parts of south Asia. For example, a person from Sylhet is commonly known as a Sylheti (speaking a dialect which is not quite understood by most Bangalis); a person who is from Faridpur is called Faridpuri and a person from Dhaka is called Dhakaiya. And yet, the British records did not make that distinction between these peoples. They were all lumped as Bengalis in spite of their colloquial differences.

It is worth noting from the Baxter report that the British census records originally mentioned only religion, and that only much later they tried to classify people by any of the 40 races or ethnic groups for the entire Indian population. As to the classification by races in 1921 and 1931, the report says, “For these years the Indian constituent of the population is taken to be the number of persons who then returned themselves as belonging to one of the forty specified Indian races, or who were tabulated as “Indians of unspecified race” where their records though indefinite showed they belonged to an Indian race.” 
It is, thus, understandable why the British authority would rather classify the Rohingya Muslims under Bengali or Chittagonian race because of their cultural similarity with people living on the other side of the Naaf River. It is also obvious from the report that many of the inhabitants were concerned about the 'hidden' agenda of such census reporting, and did not feel comfortable in sharing such information about their race or origin. 
So, the mere debate around why the Arakanese Muslims were not called Rohingya people in the Baxter report sounds like raising tempest over teapots.

As we have noted elsewhere there are other records, including British, which mention the name Rohingya. Consider, for instance, the account of the English surgeon to Embassy of Ava, Dr. Francis Buchanan (1762-1829 CE), who visited Burma decades before the British occupied the territory. He published his major work “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” in 1799, in the fifth volume of Asiatic Researches, which provides one of the first major Western surveys of the languages of Burma. What is more important is that his article provides important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups in the first half of Bodawpaya’s reign (1782-1819). He wrote, “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan. The second dialect is that spoken by the Hindus of Arakan. I procured it from a Brahmen [Brahmin] and his attendants, who had been brought to Amarapura by the king’s eldest son, on his return from the conquest of Arakan. They call themselves Rossawn, and, for what reason I do not know, wanted to persuade me that theirs was the common language of Arakan. Both these tribes, by the real natives of Arakan, are called Kulaw Yakain, or stranger Arakan. The last dialect of the Hindustanee which I shall mention is that of a people called, by the Burmas, Aykobat, many of them are slaves at Amarapura. By one of them I was informed, that they had called themselves Banga; that formerly they had kings of their own; but that, in his father’s time, their kingdom had been overturned by the king of Munnypura [Manipur], who carried away a great part of the inhabitants to his residence. When that was taken last by the Burmas, which was about fifteen years ago, this man was one of the many captives who were brought to Ava. He said also, that Banga was seven days’ journey south-west from Munnypura: it must, therefore, be on the frontiers of Bengal, and may, perhaps, be the country called in our maps Cashar [Cachar].” [Notes: 1. In the above account, the word Rohingya is spelled as Rooinga.. 2. Cachar district, part of the state of Assam in India, is located north-east of Sylhet in Bangladesh; it is located between the Indian state of Manipur and Bangladesh.]

Dr. Buchanan’s above statement is very revealing in that it shows that before the British occupied Arakan and the rest of Burma there were already Muslims living there who had identified themselves as the Rohingya, and that it was not an invented term. This observation squarely contradicts the current campaign by ultra-nationalist Rakhines and Burman racists that the Rohingyas settled in the Arakan only after the British occupation.

In his massive work - A Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Description of Hindostan and the Adjacent Countries in Two Volumes, published in London in 1820, Walter Hamilton wrote about Arakan (the Rakhine state), “The Moguls know this country by the name of Rakhang, and the Mahommedans, who have been long settled in the country, call themselves Rooinga, or the natives of Arracan.”

Thus, we can draw the conclusion that before the British even entered Arakan, the Muslim inhabitants called themselves by that name and were known as such by others.

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