Lost in translation: key issues in debates on national and indigenous identitiesPrashanta Tripura, Mohammadpur, Dhaka
I commend the New Age for its editorial on August 10, 2012 under the heading ‘Minority communities must get due constitutional recognition.’ As a regular reader of the daily, I know that the New Age has been consistent in urging the ruling classes of this country to settle this question by taking into account the grievances and aspirations of ethnic minority communities. I am also aware of, and respect, the paper’s policy of referring to the non-Bengali ethnic groups of the country as ‘national minorities’, instead of ‘indigenous people’, an identification that leaders of these groups have been calling for over two decades now. In this context, I wish to point out one problem - that of translation - which often comes in the way of clear articulation and understanding of the issues involved. For example, the Bangla word ‘jati’, depending on the context, has different meanings including ‘caste’, ‘ethnic group’, ‘race’ and ‘nation’, or even gender (as in nari jati) and species (as in manob jati). However, in the context of Bengali nationalist discourses, and in official formulations associated with them, there has been an attempt to appropriate this word and its cognates exclusively in the sense of ‘nation’, ‘nationality’ and ‘nationalism’. It is such tendency that, I believe, is partly responsible for the strange formulation of the 15th amendment of the constitution that says that the “People of Bangladesh shall be known as Bengalees as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis.” On the other hand, the Bangla expression ‘khudro jatisotta’, translated as ‘minor races’, has been used, along with those translated as ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnic sects’, in the 15th amendment to refer to the minority groups that we are concerned with. In my view, a more appropriate translation of the above-mentioned expression would have been, ‘small/minor nationalities’, which would be more in keeping with standard usage of the term ‘jatisotta’.
One final example of the problematic application of terms that abounds in official circles of Bangladesh is an act that has been mentioned in the above-mentioned New Age editorial as “The Cultural Institutions for Small Anthropological Groups Act 2010.” Here, ‘Anthropological’ is a literal translation of Bangla ‘Nritattik’, although the intended meaning of the latter term, as seen in government documents and in the media as well, is really ‘ethnic’, as is obvious from the context. Otherwise, in English, ‘anthropological group’ makes no sense unless a very special meaning, such as ‘groups studied by anthropologists’ is intended. In my experience, the failure to distinguish between literal and contextual meanings and connotations of different terms is at the heart of the debate surrounding the question of whether the ethnic minorities can be identified as ‘indigenous people’. As I pointed out in an article I wrote in 1993, the Bangla word ‘adibashi’ (also transliterated as ‘adivasi’) has been used – largely in the sense of ‘primitive’ – since long before the notion of ‘indigenous people’, as promoted by international bodies, had become commonly known. Thus even though political leaders and academics alike in Bangladesh have been using the term ‘adibashi’ in its older sense (‘primitive’), reservations about the word crept in it came to be used interchangeably with the English ‘indigenous’, largely as a result of the aspirations of marginalized ethnic groups for what they see as their rights under international law. Although relevant UN declarations and conventions make it very clear that ‘who came when’ is not necessarily a defining criterion for determining the identity of a group of people as ‘indigenous’, nowadays one sees many political leaders, officials and their academic backers pronouncing that the non-Bengali ethnic minorities of Bangladesh are really outsiders who came to this country from other countries! One likes to think that the main reason behind such statements is the lack of appropriate understanding of terminology, as contextual meanings and connotations are lost or corrupted in translation when we switch back and forth between Bangla and English. But who is to say that the statements of those in power do not also belie far deeper, frankly racist, sentiments?
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