Young scholar Uchacha-A Chak talks to Nahid Riyasad about the way politics of fear and exclusion affected the lives of youth, particularly the ones living in the margins of Bangladesh.
New Age: The mainstream representation of ‘youth’ or ‘young generation’ is quite exclusionary. If we take the example of youth magazines of major newspapers, it becomes very clear that, by youth they mean urban-middleclass-Bengali youth. As a researcher, how do you explain this exclusionary practice?
Uchacha-A Chak: As rightly pointed out, the mainstream representation of ‘youth’ or ‘young generation’ conveniently rules out there are ‘other’ youths in the society other than urban-middleclass-Bengali youth.
There are several reasons why it is so. First, the target audience is middle class, simply because they can afford these types of magazines. Sometimes, students in the margins, even fail to buy academic books, let alone magazines.
Cities being the centres, these types of magazines tend to promote culture and lifestyles related to urban lives and urban problems. They tend to look at the geography through urban lenses. Youth from villages are virtually absent there, may be because their lifestyles are not as ‘fasionable’! These urban lifestyles are reproduced endlessly and set the standard of ‘desirable’ clothing, food habits, career choices through advertisements, stories, and choices of art and music. It eventually creates a lot of perceived needs. A young person outside the city may feel an urge to measure up to their city counterparts. They may feel demoralised. In this way, besides popularising the urban lifestyle, these literatures help to expand the market — a crucial factor making these ‘other’ youths absent in mainstream representations.
We should look into these magazines more closely. They are blissfully oblivious to the youth who don’t fit in the category of ‘urban-middleclass-Bengali’. This absence creates a sense of prejudice against these ‘other’ youths in such manner, as if they don’t exist.
New Age: The mainstream youth movements too have somewhat failed to incorporate issues of youth in the margin. A striking example is the ongoing school-college students’ movement for road safety. On June 27, the day before Dia and Rajib were killed in road accident, a school girl, Krittika Tripura was brutally killed after being gang raped in Khagrachari. We have seen students in Chittagong Hill Tracts taking streets. Somehow, the ongoing movement in Dhaka couldn’t incorporate the demand for justice for Krittika. Is Bengali nationalism shaping this distance or there are other reasons behind these disconnect?
Uchacha-A Chak: Well, the time could not be more right to ask such a question! From the way the electronic and print media presents the incidents in CHT, the readers will often end up feeling something happened in CHT is ‘their’ (the paharis) problem. But, how can a problem in Comilla is ‘ours’ (the nation’s) problem? Both locations are peripheral, if compared to Dhaka, but each does not have similar importance to the media. For example, we remember how the rape and brutal murder of Tonu rightly earned sympathy and inflicted agony in mass population. Similar incidents in CHT neither gain as much attention of the media nor can it evoke such deep empathy across the nation.
This mindset is indeed a reflection of Bengali nationalism. Generally, when we imagine a Bangladeshi nation, we tend to dismiss the existence of people with different ethnic backgrounds. These exclusionary ideologies and practices are generated through lack of cultural exchanges on an equal level playing field, flawed and prejudiced representation of indigenous peoples’ cultures, values, and their lived experiences, struggles and dreams. Why there is not a single mainstream soap opera with an indigenous central character or with a theme on indigenous people? Same questions apply to all types of people who fit into the ‘other’ category.
On one hand, lack of proper representation, on the other hand, distorted representation in the media produces this disconnect through producing and reproducing stereotypes about the ‘other.’ Both electronic and print media along with textbooks portray distorted versions of ‘indigenous culture’ through endless reproduction of (stereotypes) girls dancing in their traditional cloths. It defies any logic — how can a photograph of topless woman or dancing girls constitute indigenous culture! They eroticise the entire landscape. For example, recently, I came across a music video ‘je pakhi ghor bojhena’ where the love story began as soon as a Bengali man reaches Rangamati. It’s the mythical place of sexual fantasies. To be more precise, the Bengali community is very much in the dark about indigenous people, their socio-cultural values in particular. How can the dominant Bengali people consider indigenous people as full human beings and sympathise with their issues with this fragmentary representation in their mind? For this reason, I think justice for Krittika failed to earn attention of the youths demanding justice for their fellows in Dhaka. It is simply because of inadequate knowledge about one another.
New Age: In a recent public discussion, you have made a very important intellectual intervention while addressing the question of brain drain — why so many of our youths leaving or escaping their homeland for foreign destinations. Drawing from Zygmunt Bauman, you insisted that, we have to start the discussion with an attempt to understand the pervasive fear. Tell us more, why do you think ‘fear’ has become the major indicator to understand the current political reality.
Uchacha-A Chak: The discussion was about the striking number of youth from countries like Bangladesh is willing to leave their country. The Global Shapers Survey’s Aunal Report 2017 estimated that as high as 88.3 per cent of the youth (under 30) from the so called Global South or developing countries are willing to migrate for better life opportunities.
Apart from the apparent economic reasons, I was pointing out the pervasive fears and uncertainties at the core of this reality. Referring to Bauman’s notion of ‘liquid fear’ in the time of ‘liquid modernity’, I was trying to understand the youths’ situation in current Bangladesh. Bauman points out three types of menaces that generate this sense of constant and overwhelming fear: first, uncertainties concerning physical safety and security of goods; second, insecurity about the stability of the social order, livelihoods; and third, real and perceived threats based on socio-political identities. More or less youths today are faced with similar threats. It is not surprising that so many of our youth are trying to escape these uncertainties for places where uncertainties are not that extreme.
In this context, for indigenous youth, their fears and uncertainties are more intense and multilayered than those in the ‘mainstream’. The fears are deep-seated and more overpowering since they are the ‘other’ youths, and structural violence and discrimination in accessing justice based on ethnic prejudices are added burdens to them. Recent incidents of human rights violations, be it Krittika Tripura or Romel Chakma or burning villages in Langadu haunt the indigenous youths even while they are asleep. Absence of fear or levels of fear are the indicators of their quality of life. What I am arguing here is that this is the reality for entire Bangladesh. However, the ‘other’ youths — non-middleclass, non-urban, non-Bengali Muslims, indigenous, dalits, transgenders, non-heterosexuals and so on; for them, the reality of fear is more persistent.
New Age: Fear and exclusionary politics seems to be an issue that you are consistently working on. You have been involved with an initiative of Centre for Bangladesh Studies on ‘displacement, development and people’s right.’ Tell us about the initiative.
Uchacha-A Chak: In fact, it is the other way around. I am consistently working on the areas of hope and inclusionary politics! Let me give you an example. From Maleya Foundation, we conducted a study led by anthropologist and writer Prashanta Tripura on four national policies: health, education, land and culture. Our main aim was to find means to make our national policies more inclusive. My work with the Centre for Bangladesh Studies is also a part of my journey to find spaces of hope and inclusion. This initiative on development and displacement is part of a bigger initiative of CBS — Displacement Archive. A team of youth is continuously putting effort to enrich the archive on a voluntary basis. The importance of this particular effort is that it helps to archive memories of trauma and voices of unheard people ranging from people who are forcefully displaced by so called development projects to organised grassroots movements which also the mass media fails to cover. And, we all know that memory is all we have to fight against power.
New Age: What role do you think youth could play to make a change in this time of political crisis in Bangladesh?
Uchcha-A Chak: Who am I to tell? I mean, we saw what the youth did. They organised a social movement without waiting for a leader. Most importantly, to a large extent, they strategically kept it non-violent. They stood up against fear. They have been able to challenge the culture of impunity. They forced the government to agree with their terms. Judging from the positive trends set by the school going youths’ movement, be it for Krittika in CHT or for Diya and Rajib in Dhaka, we as a society should instead learn from them to stand up against fear for a non-violent society.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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