Bangladesh/Bengal: Contested Identities

Bangladesh/Bengal: Contested Identities

Seminar Leaders: Jack Gambino and Mohsin Hashim

Seminar Description

Bangladesh (“Land of Bengalis”) is a new nation in an old land.  From the moment of its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been beset by heated debates about its identity.  Located in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta (the world’s largest delta), Bangladesh shares a geographically-based cultural identity with West Bengal, India.  Yet Bangladesh’s predominantly Muslim population also distinguishes itself on the basis of religion from the Hindu Bengalis of India.  Are Bangladeshis, then, Muslim Bengalis or Bengali Muslims?   How do competing political narratives about the country’s struggles for national independence, first from British rule in 1947 and then from Pakistani rule in 1971, inform visions of national identity and their corresponding development programs (toward cultural and political secularization or toward a consolidation of an Islamist state identity)? And how are these narratives shaped by the geopolitical reality of being situated next to India, the regional superpower?  To what extent are traditionally marginalized groups, such as women and non-Bengali indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hills Tracts, challenging and reworking the terms of Bangladeshi identity?  In what ways has the rise of Bangladesh’s garment industry, the phenomenal growth of NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank, and the success of its public health and population control measures positively changed both international and domestic perceptions of Bangladesh?  Finally, how will the environmental impacts of climate change and the post 9/11 fencing of political boundaries between India and Bangladesh fundamentally alter both the natural and cultural geographies of the Bengal borderlands?  The readings and discussions in the faculty seminar will center on how Bangladeshis articulate, negotiate and manage their contested identities.

The faculty study trip will provide insights into these issues by visiting three locations.  First, we visit Dhaka, the political, cultural and economic center of Bangladesh.  We will visit sites/monuments that are historically and politically significant to the construction of Bangladesh’s national identity: the Martyrs Monument, the Shaheed Minar monument commemorating those killed during the Language Movement in 1952, the national Parliament building designed by Louis Kahn, Dhaka University, and the Liberation War Museum.  We also will have opportunities to talk and listen to political, cultural, and intellectual leaders and policy makers about contemporary articulations of Bangladesh identity.  Second, we travel by boat to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.  This part of the trip will provide insights into the central importance of the river delta, and the rural village life it sustains, in the cultural imagination of Bengalis.  We will have the opportunity to visit villages, trek in forests, swim in the Bay of Bengal, and watch for crocodiles, monkeys and the famed Bengal tigers.  Along the way, we talk to local people and experts on the impact that climate change is already having on the delta.  We will also get a sense of how nature and natural calamities have shaped and reshaped the folklore and self-identity of the local populations, some of whom face the prospect of becoming climate refugees. The third part of the trip is to Kolkata (Calcutta) in West Bengal, India.  By visiting the cultural, historical and political sites in this city, we hope to gain insights into the cultural continuities and discontinuities that unite and divide Bengalis on both sides of the border.

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