‘Are we citizens of Utopia?’


The issue of immigrant identities (and those of their future generations), while powerful, is a tricky subject, especially when these identities are otherised due to real or perceived association with an oppressive force that is overthrown after a bloody war. Much can be said, therefore, in favour of Bangladeshi filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel for his powerful documentary, ‘Swapnabhumi’ (‘The Promised Land’), which was screened on Saturday at t2f as part of Travelling Film South Asia (TFSA). The 90-minute film, originally in Bangla but presented with English subtitles, is a powerful tale of of around 160,000 members of the Urdu-speaking community of Bangladesh, who live in 116 ‘camps’ across the country. ‘Bangladesh says we’re not Bangladeshi, Pakistan says we’re not Pakistani; and the UNHCR says that we are not refugees,’ one of the interviewees says with a wry smile. ‘I’d like to ask everyone: are we citizens of Utopia?’
The first generation of ‘Biharis’ in Bangladesh migrated to what was then East Pakistan in 1947. ‘All we knew was the slogan “Le ker rahengey Pakistan” (we will have Pakistan),’ first-generation immigrants interviewed for the film said. ‘We came here during the 1947 riots in Bihar because it was closer. Who knew that one day it would no longer be Pakistan?’ Soon after Independence, when the West Pakistan elite decided to impose Urdu as the official language of the country, Bengalis, already reeling under oppression in the form of usurped resources, revolted. The ensuing riots, according to one Bengali interviewee, resulted in anger against Urdu, the language, and Urdu-speakers who were living in the region.
Eventually, West Pakistan’s military high-handedness and State-sanctioned brutality against the Bengali citizens of then-East Pakistan resulted in the bloody riots of 1971 and the independence of Bangladesh. On account of the collusion of some Biharis in the country with the West Pakistan military, the entire Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh was branded as traitors and collaborators – tags which became synonymous with their identity and enabled brutal otherisation. ‘The Promised Land’ sets aside the sins of State-sanctioned players and focuses on the micro – stories of Bihari citizens whose sole crime perhaps was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Mukti Bahini reprisal of 1971 pushed well-off members of the Urdu-speaking community of Bangladesh into West Pakistan; the poorer ones – the bulk of the community – fled to ‘camps’ in the hopes that they would eventually be repatriated to Pakistan. Some were; most, however, were left to suffer in limbo as citizens of nowhere. For them, the ‘promised land’ was not to be. Today, four decades and almost four generations later, the residents of these camps are undergoing an identity shift. While the first generation might be stuck in dreams of some ‘Swapnabhumi’, the younger lot is beginning to question this unfounded and unrewarded adherence to an identity that has caused them nothing but suffering. Distanced from their Bengali friends by culture and lived history, younger interviewees wonder where they belong and question the imposed burden of a history in which they did not play a part.
Amidst this turmoil, the Bangladeshi courts have played a heroic role by declaring that all residents of camps are citizens of Bangladesh and granting them voting rights. As the lawyer who argued these cases rightly observed, the problem is ‘social and not legal’ and hence, must be dealt with accordingly. Education in Bangla and intermarriages, meanwhile, are now beginning to erode some of these socially- and historically-imposed boundaries, while younger generations begin to accept the uselessness of isolation. The film also holds important lessons closer to home: while seemingly integrated socially and financially into the country, the identity of Urdu-speakers in Pakistan is no less fragile.
The claims of some self-proclaimed Sindhi nationalists about how post-1954 immigrants are not citizens of Pakistan and should not be granted citizenship rights, are not only divisive, they are also incredibly short-sighted. Perhaps they need to watch ‘The Promised Land’ and take a page or two from the lessons presented in the film – that chauvinism is not the answer to contemporary political questions; it only leads to fascism and violence. Mokammel pays tribute to the rich cultural and traditional contributions of Biharis to Bangladesh, and questions whether these should be abandoned in the quest for assimilation.
A UNHCR representative interviewed for the documentary perhaps has the best solution to the dilemma: ‘They are Urdu-speakers. They are not Bengali; but they are Bangladeshi.’ Right after the moving narrative of ‘The Promised Land’, meanwhile, Ben Campbell’s ‘The Way of the Road’ was a disappointment. Campbell, an anthropologist, tries to explore the effect of a new Asian Development Bank (ADB)-sanctioned road that will, by 2012, connect an ancient Himalayan trade route through Nepal’s Rasuwa district with ‘global traffic’. The ADB claimed that the building of this route, which, incidentally, met with no opposition from Nepal’s Maoists, would alleviate more poverty than any other road.
Several questions, however, have cropped up during the execution of the project, the most important being whether the Tamang villagers, who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the project, agree with the ADB’s assessments. ‘The Way of the Road’, meanwhile, raises this question, but does not answer it, leaving viewers to interpret conflicting interviews presented during the hour-long film. While ‘neutrality’ might be understandable – though not acceptable – in filmmakers, Campbell takes even this to the next level, treating an extremely fascinating topic with incredible blandness. As such, though the effort is well-meaning, the result is a blundering narrative that does little to address some extremely important questions about the efficacy of the project.
The last screening of the day, meanwhile, stifled all yawns that might have been produced by ‘The Way of The Road’. Korean filmmaker Yi Seung-jun’s 89-minute ‘Children of God’, shot in 2008, is about the lives of children who ‘live’ at the Pashupatinath temple / crematorium in Kathmandu, Nepal. Occasionally wandering off into unrelated tangents, the film primarily focuses on three siblings, two boys and a girl, and their alcoholic mother. The family is originally from a beautiful village just outside Kathmandu. More than 10 years into an abusive marriage, the children’s mother decided to run away from home, taking them with her. The four of them eventually come to ‘live’ at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, where the younger boy, Alek, tries his best to look after his mother and his younger sister, Puja, who was four years old at the time the film was shot.
Alek fishes out coins sent down the Bagmati River along with the remains of people cremated at the Pashupatinath temple, and occasionally begs to make ends meet. Disgruntled with the meagre earnings, the oldest sibling, David, who was 12 at the time, decides to move out into the streets to beg for money and attempt to wipe away the conditions of his life by sniffing glue. ‘I’m 12 now, and I will be dead by the time I’m 13,’ he says. ‘I want to die.’ He doesn’t, however. David eventually gave up sniffing glue and came back to the temple compound after being constantly urged to do so by young men at the crematorium who act like ‘older brothers’ and watch over the younger lot. ‘I used to sniff glue too,’ one Dai (older brother) says. ‘Then I got very sick and had to take a lot of medicines before I got better. Who will look after you if you fall sick?’
After the first screening of the film in Kathmandu in July last year as part of Film South Asia (FSA) 2010, during which the three siblings were present, philanthropists came forward and collected money to help get the children enrolled at school. According to last reports obtained in early October 2010, they were said to be doing well. Travelling Film South Asia (TFSA) is a project of Himal Southasian, the only monthly regional magazine for Southasia. On Sunday (today), screenings at t2f will begin at 1 p.m. with ‘Mayomi’ (Sri Lanka, 2008; 50 mins), about a young girl who was left holding her troubled family together after the 2004 Tsunami. This will be followed by ‘The Salt Stories’ (India, 2008; 84 mins), which follows the trial of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March; ‘In Search of the Riyal’ (Nepal, 2009; 86 mins), about the plight of migrants labour in the Gulf countries; ‘Chalo Hamara Des’ (India, 2008; 98 mins), which searches for the poet, Kabir’s ‘des’; and ‘Saamam’ (India, 2009; 42 mins), which pays homage to Carnatic music and M.D. Ramanathan.