It was one of Bengal’s greatest exports Amartya Sen who attacked the “solitarist” approach to human identity in his masterpiece Identity and Violence. The delusion of being tied to just one group, he goes on to illustrate, is at the heart of the greatest conflicts, from Hindu versus Muslim massacres to the notion of Aryan exceptionalism which lay at the ideological core of the Third Reich.
In a recent interview to the Spanish El Pais newspaper, renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said, “Today, every society is just a collection of diasporas…the connection between where you live and identity has been broken.”
Bangladesh has the fifth largest diaspora group in the world, estimated in 2015 by the data group Revision at 7.2 million, behind only India, China, Mexico and Russia. The bulk of this group is in the Middle East and represents a particularly downtrodden set of workers, manning the construction sites, cleaning the hotel rooms and driving the taxis. They are the modern version of the Dickensian working class, representatives of a country known for having cheap labour as one of its primary exports, its economy propped up by remittance payments.
The smaller but perhaps more significant group are the wealthier people of Bangladeshi origin living primarily in the West, be it the United Kingdom, North America and Australasia. Unlike the majority of migrants to the Middle East who plan to return to their lives and loved ones in Bangladesh, this group puts down new foundations in their adopted homelands but retain a longing for their roots. Despite many initiatives focused on non-resident Bangladeshis, their potential to contribute to Bangladesh remains dormant.
Ayub Khan, an Oxford educated British-Bangladeshi community leader and aspiring Sylheti politician, says the notion of diaspora in Bangladesh is limited to a view of uneducated Sylhetis in Britain running curry restaurants and sending money to their ancestral villages. He notes that the third and fourth generations of Bangladeshis do not fit this stereotype.
“We are seeing an emergence of highly talented, educated and skilled group who are very interested in the country of their parent’s origin.” he said in a phone interview.
This longing reflects the complexity of modern identity, where multiple influences- religious, occupational and cultural- must compete and mingle to form multi-layered, fluid selves. The upheaval in political economy wrought by modern communications is also felt at the level of personhood.
In my work as a psychiatrist, I have seen close up that this complexity is not always easily tolerated, particularly among those brought up to balance the outlooks steeped in clan, religion and tradition often present within Bangladeshi families with the ideals of individualistic, secular Western societies.
Psychological theories of home grown terrorism point to this identity disturbance as being critical to groups feeling they neither belong to their adopted societies nor to their ancestral cultures. The psychic space is filled sometimes by a rigid interpretation of Islam, one directly overlapping with Amartya Sen’s notion of a solitarist identity. In fact, many visitors from Bangladesh have observed that diaspora communities living in the West are often more religious than their equivalent demographic groups in Dhaka.
This is borne out further in multiple research surveys, varying from Pew to the British think tank Policy Exchange, that show Muslims are the only group that become more religious in latter generations after migrating to Western countries.
The distress felt in identity formation is only rarely directed towards religious extremism, but is present nevertheless. The ‘unbelonging’ is in part because people of Bangladeshi origin living overseas do not see their lives reflected in story telling industries. Bangladeshi media in the West is primarily directed to the first generation and has a strong nostalgic element. For example, the largest site aimed at Bangladeshis in Australia, bangla-sydney.com, is filled with stories about Dhaka and Rajshahi University reunions or a celebration of Bangabandhu’s legacy. This holds little appeal for latter generations.
But the mainstream media in the adopted homelands are also unlikely to tell their stories, in part because so few from the community are likely to enter the cultural industries, focusing almost exclusively on secure professions like information technology, medicine or engineering. This is understandable, but stories are critical in helping us make sense of our lives, reflect our lived reality and crystallise what may be possible. In helping the management of complex identity formation that the Bangladeshi diaspora experience, it is critical their stories are told more widely. This will also foster connections with their ancestral land, a connection for which there is a great yearning but few outlets. For example, I wish my children could access exchange programmes to Bangladesh when they are of working age.
While there is no suggestion they should not be British or American first and foremost, a multi-layered identity better blending ancestral culture, religion and the adopted West bodes well for cohesive multicultural societies in the West and offers potential to better engage emerging diaspora communities in the future of Bangladesh. The skills, networks and capital of this group remain untapped.
The writer is an Australian based psychiatrist, author of The Exotic Rissole, and founder of website www.bddiaspora.com
First published in http://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/politics/the-yearning-ancestral-roots-784810