Authentic History of Myanmar and Rohingyas - Scapegoats of Modern Nation-State

Published on Tuesday, 21 February 2017
Amid the atrocities, tensions and brutal military crackdown backed up by their political authorities, the Ministry of Religion and Cultural affairs of Myanmar vows to write the 'authentic' history of the country based on research where Rohingyas are to be proved as outsiders, not 'indigenous' precisely (The Daily Prothom Alo, 15 December, 2015) . The news brought shock to many, but perhaps not to those who pay a little attention to the pattern of forming nation-states. Arguably to some extent, the Bangladesh government and especially some of its constitutional regulations share the same ideology. In the history of the formation of nation-states and the post-colonial countries, concept of 'authentic' history is not a new phenomenon and for very similar reasons, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay asserted, 'Bengal has no history. Bengal must have her own history, or else there's no hope'[i]. It's eventual and 'natural', to form a nation there has to be a national history. Since there has to be a history of the nation, it must be an authentic one and the liabilities of authenticity are cross-checked by the supreme power holder state only.
Why history? What purpose does it serve to the nation? The answer in short- forasmuch the 'authentic history', it determines who comprises the history and who gets left out. The history itself decides who is Rohingya, who is Bengali, who is Siamese and who is English. In this discussion, I will try to point out some tendencies which elucidate the pattern of this kind of history formation directly or indirectly patronised by state and its affiliated institutions and organisations. And at the same time, I'll try to explain why this kind of 'authentic' history formation is intricate to the modern nation-state followed by why Myanmar Government is trying to re-write 'authentic' history of the nation and on which ground they exclude Rohingyas as not being a part of them.
To answer this question, we have to keep in mind that, writing history is not the key factor which serves the purpose of the state, rather why history is written and what the instrumentalisation of history entails becomes the prime issue. Suppose, as history does not comprise the Rohingyas, therefore this significance of writing history is directly interrelated with the Rohingya atrocities and obliquely (although now explicit) sanctions this state regulated deportation established on a moral ground of refusing to take their liabilities. Those who do not notice the spectre of fascism underlying nationalism or firmly embrace that some 'nationalism' is required in order to consolidate a cultural history- along with creating a self-identity, they consequently construct an 'other' within their territory. This entire process is a modern one. There could be several elements of constructing the 'self' and 'other' within the boundary; language, culture, religion- anything.
The idea of 'nation' is relatively a modern phenomenon per se, so the utmost importance is generally given to the language which is assumed to be seemingly innocent and 'secular' in a so-called sense. However, there are anomalies. A state must possess a mutual history in order to solidify a national identity; and the question of nation's integrity is of chief importance to the nation-state. For instance, what the Pakistan state wanted to impose on the Bengali people in the name of Islam was not the internal dilemma of Islam; rather the problem lied in the instrumentalisation of Islam for concreting nationalism. But as this process of stimulating national sentiment is itself a modern practice, people who are for and against the Pakistan's exploitation of Islam to provoke national sentiment- both the categories are 'modern' and thus should be evaluated on modern standards and historical contexts.
As the process of regulating and solidifying unfolds, some awaken this community identity using language, some with religion- basically a symbiotic and complex process carrying multiple dimension and point of conjuncture. It can't be also asserted, national integrity has consolidated through language only anywhere in the history. Example can be cited from the trajectory of modernity of Western Europe, as they are the supreme wholesaler of secularism.
From the beginning of western secularism, the state incessantly dictated where to relegate religion in order to privatise it. Moreover, the state had to establish a moral ground in order to justify the privatisation of religion in particular spheres, and in doing so it repeatedly had to intervene into the personal domain of religion. The state in one hand ensures the right to practice one's religion; and pretends to stay neutral on the other- a modern contradictory position of statecraft. Because the right to practice one's own religion falls into the domain of private right; but history bears witness the public-private domains are de facto fake dyads. The private sphere can easily be controlled and regulated through public sphere (e.g. religious family law in post-colonial countries, about which anthropologist Saba Mahmood has a brilliant writing named 'Sexuality and Secularism') and vice versa. The resultants are these sorts of discrepant ideological positions and its effects in realm of modernity are frequently creating anxiety in different regional context and of different patterns. So the 'separation of church from state' is, in fact, doesn't work smoothly in reality. There is no single place or moment in history where the state didn't intervene in religious matters. The justification of pretending to be neutral by claiming the separation of church from state is one of the major myths of modern era. And the logical liberals are the shareholders of this myth which has no practical ground. But whenever the question of religion is raised, these liberal nationalists would say- no civilized country's people muddle up religion with politics. Furthermore, to what extend these liberal nationalists are clear about the answer of how private sphere is apolitical is a relevant point to raise question about.
This description was for to create the backdrop of Rohingya as they also have an anomaly of religion as well and this backdrop unfolds the technical dilemma of linear modernisation process and its adaptation to get over any kind of state and religion fuss. Considering Rohyingas as only 'Human' blurs their religious identity along with its political manipulation. Practically state machine doesn't count them or anyone only as 'human' (ideally may be, but never in practice. In fact, religion always played a vital role in different forms to control and consolidate identities), Rohingyas are constantly pushed towards the realm 'other' and elements of constituting 'otherness' includes their religion too- covertly or overtly, in both the ways. So not discerning their religious identity emanating from a higher ethical value actually fails to address one of the vital questions.
However, the main problem in writing this kind of territorial history based on religion or language lies on how the national identity is being summarized. This claims homogeneity and groups don't include on the question of homogeneity could be obliterated from the history easily, sanctioned by the supreme authority of the state. But, those who resided in between the territories; or in modern frame, those who could not or did not or perhaps lacked the historical 'chance' of essentially manifesting their allegiance towards any state and those who fell into the category of 'minority' in turbulent chronology of history (in terms of power relation, not demographically) - their overall miserable condition expresses the fundamental crisis of writing territorial history. Besides, in different parts of the world this sort of crises is frequently coming to surface. I don't know much detail about the history of Myanmar, nor Rohingya compared to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh- however; I can cognitively understand the true form of their inconvenience, for reasons explained above. Probably, Rohingya Muslims don't fall under any kind of sharing on that modern framework which signifies them as "authentic' Myanma.
Nationalist history-makers have the propensity to establish the notion that, in every country people have been residing in the same linguistic and cultural realm for thousands of years (e.g. "Hajar Bochhorer Bangalee Shongskriti"). But, in fact, even two hundred years ago people in this region have lived in a boundary less space where free association, linguistic and religious diffusion were prevalent. In other words, what we understand by the modern notion of identity was absent or perhaps it was never required politically; or have been persistently subjected to suppression to this day- where communities such as of Rohingyas, unable to find a shore and being victimized by the name of requirements emerged from modernity and as a result, constantly wiped out from the scenario. Regarding the loopholes within the tendency of nation-states (both being interrelated), we can't just pretend there is no harm in consolidation through a general spirit. The spirit of nationalism might work in some points of history; but after accomplishing its primary goal, it gradually accommodates power, swollen up and becomes coercive in nature to its own population as well. And when it finds any kind of anomaly which doesn't coincide with its ideology- it exercises its systematic and brutal force to get that out of its pathway. The Rohingya Deportation issue is in the later phase which we all can see.
Perhaps it is not feasible to be so foolish to sit on ivory tower and ignore nation-state policies while writing about these issues. Lalon's 'Shotyo Kaaj' could be most vital here. Yet questions remain- Is there de facto any need of national history? If so, then to what extend it holds the right to control and regulate us? Is it possible for a modern individual to disregard the state?
[i] Bankim's understanding of 'History of Bengal' is a troublesome account of our modernity under colonial rule. Ahmed Sofa in his brilliant essay 'Shataborsher Ferari: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay' (1997) explained the proclivity of non-realistic, selected and disconnected historical formation by Bankim which dreamt of a Hindu-state, giving no space and importance for Muslims in the chronology of history. Muslims are often depicted as violent, barbaric, uncivilized in nature and most importantly, outsider of the land. Bankim, probably for the first time motivated to create a 'history' which would serve to crystallize the unity among people of this region. But, in his novels, for example- 'Anandamath' completely omits the role of Muslim fakirs revolting against the colonial power along with hindu Sanyasis. Of course, he was inspired by the enlightenment philosopher, and that's why the urge to create a 'history' was felt by him, but there were loopholes and factual errors on different level. For so many reasons, it would be naïve to say this wasn't intended. 'Anandamath' might not be a successful novel, or a fictionalised narrative of history, not a history book - but considering the influence of this book and overall current of historical events related to writing of Bankim ardently support that he was a pioneer of sectarian politics in Bengal. In my later part of the essay, (though in different context and practical emphasis) I've explained why and how this kind of initiatives of deliberate amnesia like Bankim becomes an inextricable part of modern history formation of the state.