I spent the past week in Dhaka, Bangladesh as the first part of my month in Southeast Asia. This week I was exploring Bangladesh’s political and cultural history with a special focus on the place of ethnic & religious minorities in this country on university-sponsored research. I’ve just arrived in Bangkok and am transitioning into the second part of the trip exploring the intersections of religion and grassroots democracy activism in a Buddhist context in Thailand and Burma. I’m excited; will hopefully be able to post on this later.
Bangladesh is a rapidly developing delta country with all the relevant wonderful and unfortunate elements. Bangladesh has rapidly rising inequality, with wealth concentrated in Dhaka; in this country money is king and political power is a means to get more. The country is green and beautiful and the culture is an astonishing mix of Hindu culture along with elements of the Muslim cultures of Pakistan and the Arab countries as well as Western trends. In the narrow streets of Puran Dhaka (now only a small part of Dhaka; most of the city was built post-1960 and even in old Dhaka, 1920 is ‘old’) there are small Hindu temples alongside bookstalls and large painted mosques. Social relations in Dhaka are like those in any city, a mixture of camaraderie and self-interest (this is not based on any scholarship on the matter!).
I don’t know how much Dhaka represents the ‘real’ Bangladesh and I wouldn’t feel comfortable making any comments about the country, not having seen past the city. Outside of Dhaka, where people tend to live in distinct communities based on religion or class, is also where things get interesting on the minorities issue. Over 2/3 of Bangladesh’s religious minorities have emigrated since Partition, so the number and size of communities have shrunk a great deal. In some areas, Muslims and minorities have lived integrated for generations, and in Kolna this led to a mass protest against the destruction of one Hindu temple a few years ago. In other areas they are more segregated and political events or malicious self-interest (motivated with a dose of religious nationalism) have produced attacks on homes, businesses, and temples that have contributed to the exodus of minorities. I spoke with several minority activists while in Dhaka (some very emotional conversations) and am looking forward to visiting other parts of the country to understand this issue more. It’s one thing to read reports of violence against minorities and discuss legalities but visiting the relevant communities, even if I can’t actually talk with people as a non-Bengali speaker, and talking with more NGO people, will help to make these ideas come to life.
One other note: it’s one thing to talk about homelessness in New York but discussing begging in South Asia is a whole ‘nother matter! I remember experiencing a bit of culture shock with this in India this winter, challenging my informal policy of ‘always give.’ I never moved about in Dhaka on my own and was with people who would always tell beggars to go away. The challenge here, I think, is that there are usually so many beggars in one area that if you give to one, you’ll be swarmed, especially by the children. When I was approached I would always smile and talk to the kids, and I gave a few times. (I received some money on Eid and wanted to give it away before I left.) I heard from a few people in Dhaka that one should never give because it’s a racket, and one friend also felt he had to justify this by saying that he gives to NGOs. (One can question the effectiveness of this, since most NGOs in Bangladesh don’t deal with urban beggars!) For those of you who have traveled in these countries, how do you generally deal with beggars?