Willem van Schendel, Chittagong in Four Scenes: Spatial Moments at the Indian Ocean's Edge (1600-2010s)


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Willem van Schendel, lecturer (male)

Willem van Schendel lecture entitled "Chittagong in Four Scenes: Spatial Moments at the Indian Ocean's Edge (1600-2010s)"

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Well, welcome everyone to the very first video conference lecture at the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University. For this inaugural event we are very honored to have Professor Willem Van Schendel who is speaking to us today from Amsterdam.
Professor Van Schendel is the Chair in Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam and the head of the South Asian Department at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and I think for everyone in this room he is a very well known scholar.
His provocative and influential work currently is contributing greatly to the study of spatial history but in addition he has published extensively: His new Bangladesh reader co-edited with him and with Meghana Guhathakurata, his recent history of Bangladesh,
his book Global Blue: Indigo and espionage in colonial Bengal as well as another recent book Bengal borderland: Beyond state and nation in South Asia. So his research project is quite voluminous and certainly very important for us here at Tufts as we are growing interested increasingly in spatial history and study of space as a way of studying society and power.
So, with that said let me with no further ado turn things over to Professor Van Schendel. He will be speaking to us on a talk entitled "Chittagong in four scenes: Spatial moments at the Indian Ocean's edge, 1600 to the 2010's" and I will also ask that since this is being recorded please turn your cell phones off so that we don't have any interruptions
and then another comment that once we begin and once we have the discussions section be sure to identify yourself for the recording so we know who in fact is asking questions and that will be good for the recording later on. All right, so having said all of that, let me turn it over to you, Willem. Please take it away.
Okay, thank you very much. I am very happy to be a guest in your intercontinental classroom and today's talk is one of several in the course you have devised and you have titled it, "Bay of Bengal: Flows of Change." That's a very nice title and it's a title that I can use to introduce the theme of my talk today which is names and places.
If you look at the name of this enormous expanse of sea it's called Bay of Bengal. You can wonder why because Bengal is a relatively small part of the shoreline of this enormous area and it's to the far north.
You could think of other names for this sea-it's been known as the Burma Sea which makes more sense because Burma has a much longer shoreline. It's also been known as the Great Sea, the Ganges Sea or the Chola Sea and there are many other names that you could think of.
What is interesting about this is that these are small examples of the human urge to name the world around us and names deal with the way we try to organize and categorize the world, but this is always a very temporary thing. Names change over time and I don't need to remind anybody who is connected to say with South Asia that many names have changed in the recent past.
One of the problems we have when studying the past of these regions-the Indian Ocean region-is that we tend to start our understanding of the past by using current naming, current names and it is very important to try and be sensitive to the need to understand the past in terms of its own name-giving practices
and that's important because names refer to essential social processes of place-making and place-making is really the theme that I want to talk about today. What is place-making? This is, it's probably useful to start from the way many human geographers think about place.
They make a clear distinction between space and place and space is really the physical three-dimensional expanse in which we live our lives. We can map space, we can determine position in it, you can measure distances, movements from one part of that space to another.
Different from that is place. Place is lived experiences, the social interpretation of space, the way people use and imagine space and that is important because that is of course much more changeable. Now, if you think about these ideas of space and place there is a whole sort of theoretical field that has developed,
usually termed social-spatial theories, and there's no time to go into that now but there are two things, two elements of that discussion that I think are useful for us today. One is the distinction between thick and thin places. What is a thick place and what is a thin place?
A thick place is a place to which we are committed, to which we feel we belong, that has great and complex meaning to us and for instance you can think of and thin places of course are the opposite-are places that we don't feel attached to, we have a fleeting acquaintance to but they don't mean much to us.
If you think of the place where you grew up that is a thick place to you-you have lots of memories, it's meaningful to you, you could never forget it during the rest of your life, but for the people sitting next to you it is a thin place they may have never heard of it or if they have, they have very few connections with it. So thickness and thinness of the place has to do with your personal connections.
So, that's one thing we'll sort of talk about a little bit. The other thing is that when you talk about processes of place-making you are obviously concerned with place, that is to say, how local histories and practices have created places. But, there are other dimensions that say social spatial theorists insist we should also take into account.
First is territory-the fact that the place you are studying or you are trying to understand is part of a much wider territorial organization, maybe a state maybe other forms of territorial control and these larger organizations also exert an influence on state-making. Sorry, place-making.
A third dimension is scale and that depends, for instance, when you think about place when you think about a town you can scale down and think about neighborhoods, streets, even individual houses and these different scales can all be constructed as places and on the higher levels you can also think a town is part of a district, a region, and so on.
And finally place-making is influenced by all kind of networks that are not necessarily territorial, but link people in a place like with cultural, religious, and trade partners in other places. So these are the two sort of elements that I want to use to explore places in the Indian Ocean region.
Here is a, if you are interested in this sort of discussion, this is a very useful article that is an introduction to these discussions. So places are temporary outcomes and should be seen as spatial moments-moments in time when certain meanings comes together and people understand a particular place in a particular way.
But the question is how can you study histories of place-making and what I'd like to do here is to do a very small experiment about histories of place-making and that's why my title has to do with Chittagong in four scenes and I want to look at this place Chittagong. You may not necessarily be aware where this is so let me show you a map of the Indian Ocean.
This is where Chittagong is and we started out with naming, this place has been known under many different names. In recorded history we come across the following names: [Pentapolis, Sudkawan, Porto Grande, Xatigam, Bengala, Chottogram, Saitagong, Islamabad] and finally, Chittagong.
So all these different names refer to different place-making practices over time and that is the topic I want to discuss, but it's impossible to of course cover all of Chittagong's history so what I'll do is I will talk about four points in time.
Four spatial moments, four places that were located in the space of Chittagong so they were in the same place, in the same space, but they were very different places. First, I want to look at Chittagong or whatever it was called at that time-I will just use the word "Chittagong" for brevity's sake-in 1600, in 1900, in 1950 and in 2010.
In 1600 Chittagong can be described as an Asian trade hub, in 1900 it was a colonial town, in 1950 it was Pakistan's lifeline and in 2010 it had become a Bangladeshi metropolis. I'll look at the first spatial moments around 1600 in a little more detail than the others just to show you how these different dimensions of place-making can be used.
So, in 1600 Chittagong was part of a, was a very important town, a very dynamic trade hub in the northern Indian Ocean. It was part of what has been called a poly-centric network realm across the Indian Ocean and it was by far the most prominent northern port of this realm. Like other costal ports in this connected trade network,
Chittagong was inhabited by a plurality of trade groups across the region just as people from Chittagong lived in many of these other parts, other towns that you see on this map. I will show you a map here of what this looks like in a very simplistic form. This was the sort of network that made Chittagong so important.
But if you look at a map of travels around the southern seas of Asia, this is a map showing the Chinese fleet of Jiao Yu earlier than 1600, what is striking is this includes sort of a side trip to this northern port of Chittagong. You wonder why they took the trouble to go there.
What was so important about this out-of-the-way port and you can explain that if you look at Chittagong as another important port from another point of view and that is it was the outlet to the sea for another poly-centric commercial network, this time river borne, and it linked Tibet, western China, Yunnan , northern Burma and Assam to the sea.
So this was another triangle in which Chittagong was involved and that made it such an important swivel of trade in Asia. Now if you look at the area around Chittagong what you see there is it was linked to, it was close to the mouth of a major river, the Brahmaputra and it was the only stable port.
The areas to the west of Chittagong are very unstable. It's the active delta of the large rivers of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges and it was not possible to have cities on the water front, on the seashore, it's still not possible but, Chittagong was just outside the delta region
and therefore was very stable and it had a good harbor so it was perfect place to use to move trade from inner Asia to the sea and from the sea to inner Asia. What is important to realize because it was very different from the way it is now is that the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra were actually not connected at that time. The Brahmaputra flowed through a far more easterly course than it does today.
Today it's linked to the Ganges and they have a joined delta. At that time that was not the case and so that made Chittagong especially interesting because it linked the eastern delta to the mountains to the north and east and these were not just any mountains, they were mountains that contained very important rivers. I will show you four.
The first here "S" is Sittang River that runs down to southern Burma, the second better known is the Mekong which runs through southwestern China, southeast Asia and reaches the sea near Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.
The third is the Yangtze River which runs from this particular area all the way east reaching the sea near Shanghai and finally the Yellow River which also runs east and reaches the river south of Beijing.
So, if you carried goods up the Brahmaputra and then ship them, well that's not the word perhaps, transported them across the mountains by mule to these other rivers you had very good connection to areas in southeast and east Asia and that's why that connection was so important.
So, in 1600 this connection of say the river borne trade and the sea borne trade made Chittagong as important as it was. So, I have been talking about networks, one of the dimensions of place making that I talked about earlier. So what does this mean for Chittagong as a place? It meant that you had important groups of people from far away.
In 1600 Chinese traders would visit Chittagong to buy cotton textiles and horses from Bengal and sell ceramics. But Chinese never settled there as far as we know. Traders from the west, especially from Persia and Arabia, had long formed communities in Chittagong but by 1600 they were being crowded out by newcomers-
the Portuguese who had arrived in Chittagong some 80 years before and turned out to be very aggressive traders. They made their presence felt especially in the cowry trade. Cowry, they are small shells that were used as currency in Bengal, northeast India, northern Burma and in southwestern China, cowries were collected in the Maldives,
the left corner of the lower triangle here, brought to Chittagong, moved across the rivers to these areas to the north and east and the Portuguese became very prominent in this trade. So, Chittagong place-making had a lot to do with these trade communities, these networks of trade, but there were other types of networks that were extremely important in the way Chittagong took shape.
With trade came cultural pluralism and anyways you can talk about it, first of all Chittagong must have been a mutlilingual town where local languages such as Arakanese, Chittagonian and Bengali were spoken as well as Persian and Portuguese. It was also religiously very plural. Chittagong found itself at the intersection of four major religious cultural realms:
Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian. Theravada Buddhism linked Chittagong at that time to Arakan in the south to Burma and to Sri Lanka. Through its Muslim inhabitants it was part of the Islamic cultural sphere of Persianized and Arabicized communities in coastal south and southeast Asia and increasingly communities in the Bengal delta and the Ganges valley were coming up so it was also linked to them.
Chittagong was at this time a point of embarkation to Mecca. Religious practices connected with Hinduism also linked Chittagonians to vernacular communities to the west. In Christianity in the form of Portuguese Catholicism was a vigorous newcomer.
We don't know exactly how all these different world views and vernaculars met and mingled but it is clear that they left many traces in the city's cultural practices today. For example, the Chittagonian language today spoken by 10 million people is an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali and it is peppered with Arabic, Persian, and Portuguese expressions.
By the early 1600's communities of Christians had developed, some of them Portuguese speaking and today Chittagong town still has its Firingi Bazaar or Frankish or Portuguese market, a neighborhood that is still very visible.
In another neighborhood of Chittagong called Badarpati lies the symbolic tomb of 15th century Persian Islamic preacher Badar Shah who became the focus of an extensive coastal network of pilgrimage and cross religious worship going down all the way to the Malaysian coast and this network persists today
so we see different types of networks worked in the making of the place that Chittagong was at that time, but it was not only networks that we should look at, it was also territory.
Chittagong was an important town but it was never the center of a state-it was a bone of contention between states that came up to the north, to the west and to the east.
In 1600 Chittagong was part of the Kingdom of Arakan. Arakan is the region to the south-you see this green spot-and that is what the sort of the Kingdom of Arakan looked like around 1600. This kingdom depended very heavily already on Chittagong's long distance trade. Chittagong was the main town of Arakan at that time.
It had an important naval garrison and its exports of textiles and its agricultural produce were very important in keeping the Arakan state afloat. So territory was also important and the fact that the Arakanese, who were predominantly Buddhists, were in charge of Chittagong meant that it was [...] Buddhism was a very important cultural expression in Chittagong.
If we look at scales, it is important to realize that what I have just been telling you about-the networks, the trade networks that is the standard way in which people talk about, say, networks across the Indian Ocean at that time, but actually there are all other kinds of networks and other kinds of trade going on that you should also take into account when you think about a place like Chittagong in 1600.
For example, there were exchanges between the local towns people, the peasantry, and the fisher folk around Chittagong-we know very little about them. There were also exchanges between the people of the planes and the people in the hills to the east.
Chittagong is situated on a very narrow plane and about say, I don't know, about 40 kilometers to the east, mountains where population was very different from the planes so the exchanges when you scale down, you should also take them into account. It's very hard for 1600 because we have seen little information about these smaller exchange systems.
Scale is also important if you think about cultural networks, I have talked about these big ones, Buddhism, Islam and so on but the, you can also think of other networks for example, the fact that the Ganges Delta and the Brahmaputra Delta were not linked means that what happened in the eastern part of what is now Bangladesh and the western part of what is now Bangladesh
in West Bengal in India was actually quite different and you could think of following two historians who have written about this Jos Gommans talked about a frontier between arid and monsoon Asia and Rila Mukherjee has talked about, has suggested that Bengal was divided between a western part that was culturally Indic and an eastern part that was not.
Chittagong was clearly on the non-Indic and monsoon side of the division. So, in 1600 Chittagong was a highly networked, multicultural and open place. It was a major trade entrepôt and it was meaningful not only to its inhabitants but also to those who visited it, even to some half way around the world who had only heard of it such as the Portuguese poet Camoes who referred to Chittagong in one of his poems at the time.
So, Chittagong for all these people was a thick place, an important place.
Let me now go to the second spatial moment: Chittagong three centuries later. At that time Chittagong was a much less thick place, it was a much thinner place. The maritime networks that had sustained it had collapsed and major ecological change had affected its position.
Its cultural situation had changed dramatically and so had its political situation. Earlier, for 1600, I had started talking about the network dimension of place-making. For 1900 it makes more sense to talk about the territorial dimension of place-making first. Two things had happened in the region that made Chittagong such a different place in 1900.
One was that the Brahmaputra River had moved its course westwards away from Chittagong in the 18th century. It was due to earthquakes, flooding, and possibly other tectonic movements that this huge river moved its main channel westwards. This meant that the old connection was more difficult to maintain
and it was easier for a person on the western side of the delta to access the northeastern regions that Chittagong had served earlier. This meant that Chittagong lost its commercial edge and it was struggling to sort of keep up with a newcomer in the west-Calcutta. Calcutta was important as a port, but also as an administrative center because it was the capital of a new state that had come up.
After the Arakanese lost their power over Chittagong, Chittagong had been mostly under states that had had their center of power to the west-the Mughal Empire from the 1660's to the 1720's, the semi-independent Nawabi state of Bengal from the 1720's to the 1750's, and then British India from the mid 18th century onwards. So the earlier southwards orientation of Chittagong towards Arakan had disappeared.
If you look at this map what you see is what we now call the Bay of Bengal had become what historians have called a "British sea." All the greenish yellow, I don't know what color comes up, here I think the green areas were under the control of the British so almost all the shores of the Bay of Bengal were now British.
Chittagong no longer needed a strong naval garrison or anything like that. It had become a small provincial town. It was the headquarters of a number of districts in eastern Bengal and it acted as a feeder port for Calcutta, so produce from east Bengal would go to Calcutta for consumption or for further production.
Chittagong had a military presence but that was not dependent from the sea, but to expand the British Empire to the east. So here the picture of Chittagong as it was connected in 1900's so Calcutta had become important and here you have a picture of a British Indian Army force in Calcutta, sorry, in Chittagong.
They were used to attack the hills to the east now known as Chittagong Hill Tracts and Mizoram and so it, Chittagong, was now used to expand the state from the seashore to the mountain ranges. So, Chittagong had lost its commercial importance but by 1900 it was regaining some of that importance.
That was because of valuable export crops or export products that had come up to the northeast and I hope you can see those black lines are railway tracks so around 1900 a railway was built from Chittagong to the northeast, to what is now Upper Assam and the purpose of this was to extract commodities from that region.
What is green here is the area in Assam where tea was produced where oil had been found and coal and the railway line was very useful in getting these commodities to other parts of British India and beyond and you see the yellow part this is another important crop that came up-jute which was also shipped from Chittagong first to Dundee where it was processed and later to Calcutta,
so in a way the ancient river borne network was being revived now through the railway. The cultural mix of Chittagong had changed completely-the old trading communities had disappeared, the Arakanese presence was gone, as I said, and a place was taken by British overlords and traders and their Bengali helpers.
The Bengalis who came to Chittagong on the whole saw it as a backward place, as the local Chittagonian language they considered an impure form of their own language, Bengali, and they felt that their culture was more important than the local culture. Together with these two groups, British and Bengali, and came also the Marwaris, a north Indian commercial group
and they were very important in the financial revival of Chittagong. I don't know whether you can see this picture very well, it doesn't show very well on my screen, but it is a slightly earlier 19th century picture of Chittagong and what is interesting is that it is a classic colonial town with the white town and the native town.
In Chittagong this took an interesting spatial form that the British lived on the top of the little hillocks you see there, they had their bungalows there, they had removed the huge Buddhist temple on top of one of them and constructed the hospital and the locals lived in the valleys and on the seashore.
So what had happened between 1600 and the 1900 was a strong Bengalization of Chittagong and this had two effects: One was that the political networks were very different now. Islam and Hinduism were far more important than Buddhism and Portuguese Christianity had been replaced by British forms of Christianity
and by 1900 about half the population, the native population, claimed to be Muslim and the other half Hindu. Okay, so this is about what happened to Chittagong in its territorial context and its population. If we think about scale again what you see is that Chittagong was now clearly part of the Indic cultural sphere which had moved eastwards to embrace this area
but only just, because 40 kilometers to the east and about 100 kilometers to the south there was still, it didn't reach the [...] that was basically the Buddhist, say Arakanese, Burmese sphere of influence. So, Chittagong was really at the outer edge of the Indic cultural sphere.
If we scale up we can think of, we have talked about links with Calcutta and so on and of course if we look at what was happening in Chittagong at the time was part of a much larger story that of the worldwide reach of European resource extraction under conditions of empire and Chittagong which is one of thousands of places where this was happening at the time.
So this is about Chittagong in 1900, a much thinner place than in 1600, but it seemed to have passed its lowest point. Let's move half a century forward. Again, the same space, but a very different town, and again it was territorial change that was more important than network change at that time.
In 1950 Chittagong had been part of a new state, new post colonial state, Pakistan for three years and it was as you know, I will show you, this meant a very different setup. Here we have Chittagong again in 1950. It was not Calcutta that was important anymore but Dhaka and West Karachi because the state of Pakistan looked like this.
Chittagong was East Pakistan's only port, only sea port and this was a very important time when air traffic was very limited and road and rail connections between East and West Pakistan were non-existent because India did not allow it. So the link between East and West Pakistan was really overseen through the ports of Chittagong and Karachi
and this was a five kilometer long shipping route which and that is why I call it Pakistan's lifeline because it was the only way or almost the only way in which goods moved between the two parts of Pakistan.
Okay, Chittagong was a different place again in the same location than in the colonial times because the state that governed it now saw itself as a developmentalist state. It tried to turn Chittagong into the commercial dynamo of East Pakistan and Chittagong was very rapidly industrializing.
Jute and cotton mills were built, tanneries, East Pakistan's only oil refinery was there and so it became an industrial city. By now you can talk about it as a city and its port was expanding rapidly. In terms of network, the river borne network was broken because the areas of Assam and beyond were beyond the reach of Pakistani traders
so this was very different from Chittagong in its earlier phases. The financial networks that the British and the Marwaris had created in the colonial times were also fading because most Marwaris left and of course the British also left. Chittagong's new commercial ties were with far away Pakistan, West Pakistan, and these soon turned out to be largely extractive
so what you get is a settlement of West Pakistani businessmen, bureaucrats and technicians who take over much of the growing economy of Chittagong and these immigrant groups, notably the Mohajirs, members of Urdu speaking trading groups from north India who had settled in Pakistan after 1947
and Punjabis from West Pakistan, took over the roles of the colonial elite and they soon clashed with the local elite in a conflict of interest that expressed itself in the politics of language and this of course was the Chittagonian version of the language movement that became so important in East Pakistan during the 50's and 60's.
There were two other new groups in Chittagong: One was western expatriates who were brought in with foreign aid and who were sort of the vanguard of a large group of western expats who would come to this part of the world to assist in development and to engage in trade. Another group that came in and had already settled in parts of Chittagong in 1950's
and would become more important over time were Muslim refugees from Arakan from Burma and known as Rohingyas, and these two groups settled in very different roles in the Pakistani Chittagong. This looked like a very dynamic place in 1950 and it was a very hopeful place and people were thinking that Chittagong,
now that it had shaken off the shackles of colonialism, would really develop into a major commercial and industrial town and it did to some extent but again a twist of state formation led to a very different development. Here you see, this is an interesting ad, because it's a mix of an ad for tea and for heavy machinery.
The Ispahani family was one of the families that immigrated to East Pakistan after 1947. They came from Bombay and Madras, and I don't know if you can read the advertisement at the bottom but it says, Karachi, Lahore, I think Dhakka and Chittagong, the headquarters were in Chittagong in East Pakistan and they became very important industrialists.
There were many others but this was one of the dominant families. Okay, let's move to the last phase of Chittagong. In 1971 the tensions between East and West Pakistan exploded into large protest movements. The Pakistan army decided to put it down by force, wasn't able to, and this led to the Bangladesh Liberation War and by the end of 1971 the independent state of Bangladesh came into being.
The result is that today Chittagong hardly resembles the city of 1950. It became in the war, it was really seriously damaged and in 1970's Chittagong was a very dismal place. It has sort of come back from that abyss and it could do that because now it became the major sea port of Bangladesh and it handled 80% of the imports and exports of a country of about 150 million people
so, it became very active it became the industrial and commercial center of Bangladesh. 40% of the heavy industries of the country are in this city and the Chittagonians developed a new relationship with the political elite in Dhaka. As you so often see in cities there is competition between the commercial center and the political center
and you can hear Chittagonians say things like, "We make the money and they spend it." So in terms of network, the networks that now connect Chittagong to the rest of the world are no longer regional, they are worldwide. The exports were of mainly ready-made garments, jute products, leather, and shrimps go all over the world but mostly to Europe and the United States
and its imports-machinery, chemicals, iron and steel, textiles, food stuff, cement, etc. largely come from China, India, and the Gulf region. What made Chittagong interesting in this network was its competitive advantage in terms of cheap and pliable labor. So, what you see is that new commercial groups established themselves in Chittagong.
There is a Korean export processing zone and so on and you see with the rise of east Asian economies their interest in this city has grown remarkably. Another industry of Chittagong and its neighbouring beaches is the industry of ship wrecking that came up in 1980s and has now become a very large business where end-of-life ships are stripped here
and their waste products repackaged are reused. What is interesting is that it seems that the reconnection with the old river borne Brahmaputra and hills region might happen. There have been demands both from Bangladesh side and from commercial interest in northeast India to reestablish this connection. Nepal is very keen. You can see Nepal here on the map in the upper left corner.
Nepal's territory is very close to Bangladesh. Nepal is very keen to become less dependent on Indian ports who are dealing in imports and exports and has tried to move India to allow it across this very narrow bit of land between Nepal and Bangladesh and to this port of Chittagong or a new port that has come up, Chalna Port.
That has not happened but discussions have gone on for quite some while and it may well happen. Now, to show you the importance of Chittagong in terms of population size here you see the three big cities in Bangladesh: Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna and Chittagong is growing very fast, not as fast as Dhaka, which is poised to become one of the really huge cities in the world in another 20 years,
but here you see how important Chittagong is in terms of power. This is the power grid of Bangladesh and you see it all sort of points to Chittagong. Here is to give you some idea of what Chittagong looks like now. Its port.
I want to conclude by showing how Chittagong is also becoming important in new ways, in new connections that have to do with its strategic position. First, I want to talk about the what is known as the String of Pearls. Don't know if you've heard about that, but this is a big discussion in India
where India is very worried about Chinese attempts to set up fueling stations and possibly naval points in countries around India. So, this, there are discussions going on and some agreements with Burma, with Bangladesh, with Sri Lanka, with Pakistan, and in Bangladesh the Chinese are going to build two very large container ports
and this worries the Indians and so they talk about the Chinese String of Pearls around India. So, suddenly Chittagong has become a part of a great game, a great maritime game you can say, that is one thing that is happening. Another thing in which Chittagong is involved is the Trans-Asian railway that is planned.
I'll just make this a bit larger here, you can see that the idea is to link Chittagong to northern Burma and in this way you can see the revival of the old connection to the mountains that Chittagong was so known for in earlier periods. A twin to the railway idea is the Asian Highway. Again, I'll make this a bit bigger.
Here you see that Chittagong could be very important as a port by supplying the region to the north and east. The connections are not yet there, there's talk about it there's a lot of worries about it in certain quarters, but it is not unlikely that at least some of them will materialize.
A final word about Chittagong as it is today in terms of what it looks like because, of course, the old white town and native town have long gone, it's still the elite that lives on top of the hills and but there are many, many new Chittagonians mostly people who are refugees from rural stagnation and who are unable to find steady jobs in the city and they form communities in slums of their own.
There are huge slums of course, but importantly more and more of these people find their way outside of Bangladesh and find jobs abroad and sending back remittances. So, Chittagong is now profiting from a new network that was hard to imagine a generation ago.
Okay, so let me close by reminding you of these two linked triangles to say a few things just a couple of things about place-making. These four snapshots from Chittagong's long past were simply intended to help us think about how people create places and how extraordinarily different these places can become over time.
So the first thing is it's good to remember that places are moments, the meeting points of history, of material practices and they change all the time. So, the snapshots are really misleading. We should think in terms of film. Second, the thickness of places varies enormously and this could be a study in itself.
Chittagong became a much thicker place for Bengalis over time. So, from thin it became thick. If you think of the Mohajir community that migrated to Chittagong in the 1940's and 50's before 1947, to most of them Chittagong was a very thin place, they had no links with it, they were not interested in it probably,
but when they came to Pakistan and settled in Chittagong it became very important to them. They invested wealth, labor, and emotion in the new venture and Chittagong became a thick place for them and yet, a quarter of a century later, the Pakistani place of Chittagong that they had helped create had disappeared and their contributions were denounced.
They were expelled from Bangladesh, if they were not killed during the war, and they were left with fading feelings of nostalgia and recrimination as the Chittagong of yesterday thinned out in their minds.
And finally, it may be interesting to think about the fact that the thickness or thinness of a place may be less related to a personal physical presence today than in the past. Because of the new social media, it's much harder to leave a place. Many migrants from Chittagong still feel intimately connected to it
because they can remain actively involved in place-making through remittances, through day-to-day decision making, think of Skype, and so what you get is a new form of place-making that you could call long-distance place-making. The case of Chittagong shows the limitations of contemporary perspectives that see it only as a major city in the nation state of Bangladesh.
Chittagong's identity reaches out well beyond the national territory it has been and will continue to be a pivot in flows of change linking the open sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the mountains of China, Burma and beyond. Thank you.
Thank you very much. As is our tradition here in Boston, at Tufts, we will open up for discussion. I trust that you can hear us fine Willem. VS: Yes.
To begin, why don't I pose the first question as others formulate yours and we'll go for about another 20 minutes before we end at 5:00 p.m. Amsterdam time. And, first of all, thank you for a fascinating talk and one that really lays the groundwork for the course "Bay of Bengal: Flows Change" and does so with a number of concrete examples.
The question that I had has to do with the 2010 Chittagong, in particular the question of the Bangladeshi state today. It's a very important point that I thought you make in the introduction to the collected edition on Bangladesh, that Bangladesh is still today not an international power, so to speak, it is not thought of as an international power.
And nevertheless, there are a number of features of Bangladesh that show that it is of rising significance, its geographic location in the kind of new great game, the quality of its labor force, the cheapness of its labor force, coming up digital media and so forth
but, if we think about the way that the Bangladeshi state is changing given this new approach, well new form of global capitalism, inter-regional capitalism, do you think that the Bangladeshi state today, particularly in you know the way it makes alliances with China for example or with Burma, particularly in terms of capitalist logic,
is it in a position to on the other hand to address questions that may have to do with social exploitation, social injustice and so forth? If we compare you know the, for example, what we might think of as the exploitative state of the colonial period under the British, and then in 1950 example we have had a sense of a kind of exploitation of Chittagong that was taking place,
how do we think of exploitation in 2010? Is it happening? How is it happening? And, how is it being addressed now that the exploitation may be in some ways less visible, but I am guessing probably not nonexistent?
Oh, that's a big question. I'd like to focus that on Chittagong as we have been talking about that. What you see in Bangladesh is something remarkable from the 70's to today, in that there have been many predictions that Bangladesh was not a viable state, that it couldn't survive, that it was chaotic, that it didn't work, that it was one of the most poorly run states of the region, and so on.
And that has not materialized at all. It is a state that is turbulent in a way but it has been able to develop. You have to remember that when the state of Bangladesh came to power in '71 they had lost. These were not the people who had long experience running states,
they had not been in power in the East Pakistan period, they had not been in power in the British period and during the war many got killed, the elite people got killed. So, the new state of Bangladesh was very inexperienced and yet it developed into an effective force
with a lot of infighting for sure and it learned very quickly so what you see in Bangladesh today is an amazingly networked state and that in itself is an achievement I think. It is able to talk at a level with other states.
It has developed fairly clear foreign policies, it has fairly clear economic policies even though in Bangladesh they switch from one government to the next which occurs fairly regularly, it seems a huge change in fact, economic policies don't change that much over time,
so it has been able to stabilize itself and you see that in Chittagong too in terms of the policies to attract capital to Chittagong by various governments have been fairly stable and also quite internationally oriented so the idea of export processing zones and so on were taken from examples abroad and were developed in ways that fitted the local situation.
You talked about exploitation, the fact that labor has very little power in Bangladesh and was great concern and it's very clear that it's hard for labor to establish more rights and this is something that we come across in the news when people talk about these fires in the textile factories
but there are many other examples of how labor is kept from power in Bangladesh and this is something that is of course worrying in the longer term because it is leading to two things: One is people voting with their feet and leaving the country in the millions and another is of course social unrest.
So, the state is turbulent not only because the elite is prone to infighting, but also because of its class character. Thank you.
AJ Thank you very much. My question is [...] VS: Sorry, can you speak up a little? I can't hear you. AJ: I am Ayesha Jalal. VS: Oh, hello. AJ: How are you? VS: I am very fine, thank you. Long time, no see.
Yes. We hope to have you here in person soon, but I just wanted to ask, I was intrigued by your periodization and I want to talk to you about how your periodization of the four moments that you talk about in Chittagong's history, which strike me as rather conventional political periodization. At the same time you talk in a very interesting way about thick and thin spaces.
Now, thick and thin spaces to my mind entail feelings of people-how people envisage the place-and yet we didn't hear very much about what people inhabitants of Chittagong envisage their place. To what extent does your thick and thin dialectic with the periodization result in some slippages?
In other words, what I am trying to ask is, are these political periodizations that you present, the four moments, are they really marked by as decisive ruptures to justify classifying a place as a thin place after a political moment?
Okay. Thank you. I don't think of this as periodization. These are just moments in time that I thought could sort of show how different a place Chittagong has been. There are many other times or moments that I could have taken, but these I found interesting because of the contrast so, it's not to say, this is not a history of Chittagong that I try to give.
There are lots of very important things that happened in Chittagong that I haven't mentioned. It's more a presentation of how different a place Chittagong has been over time and you can try and express that in different ways and I thought thick and thin would be one way of making this a little clearer and, of course, I have not talked about voices from Chittagong,
how Chittagonians have presented their town over time-I mean that could be a huge and a very interesting project, but this I really wanted to present to make us start thinking about place-making and how that might help us understand that when we use a word like "Chittagong" we are not always communicating with each other
because I may have a very different idea about it than you or the other people in the room and by looking at how this process of place-making is cut into slices the way I've done it we might actually start a discussion on place-making.
So, I am not trying to give sort of a compressed version of the history of Chittagong. I am not trying to say that these are important periods. It's simply an exercise in thinking about place-making. AJ: Thank you.
Other questions please. SR: Thank you for your talk. My name is Shayan Rajani. I am a PhD student at the Tufts History Department. So you described four places that are produced by embeddedness. Can you hear me? You have a strange expression. VS: Yeah, it's a bit hard to hear you. Go ahead.
So, you described these four places as produced by their embeddedness in certain systems and networks. I think what caught my attention, similar to Professor Jalal, how you describe the transition of thickening and thinning of places. It seems that as new systems and networks laid claim to the space of Chittagong,
a new place starts to thicken and an old one starts to thin out and so I was wondering about the durability of old places, about what kind of claims old places leave on the new ones or, if not claims, then traces that they leave and how perhaps built environment provides some sort of intractability
or an anchor for old places even as new systems and networks are creating thicker new ones. VS: Okay, yes, I couldn't agree with you more. This is exactly what I was trying to imply:
That even though people may not know the history of their place, there are traces that they deal with. I mentioned, say this Firingi Bazaar, the pilgrimage tradition that continues from a much earlier period and that shapes the ways in which Chittagong is experienced now.
There are of course much more infrastructural things that carry over from one moment to the next. For example, the building of bridges across the river connecting different parts of Chittagong, the building of the harbor, the creation of a railway colony around 1900 there in Pakistan period you see the first attempts at urban planning,
not very successful, but there is an idea that industry should be at one part of the city and administrative services in another and these of course, these discussions, have an impact on Chittagong in later periods. So, yeah, I agree with you this, the embeddedness, carries over.
Hello, I am Aniket. I am an undergraduate student in the history department and I really enjoyed your talk. Thank you so much. I have a question about, I feel if you look at the position of Chittagong it looks as if it's in a boundary or a border and a boundary between many spheres at many levels
as you said between Indic, non-Indic cultures, between the mountains and planes, between Hindu and Buddhists realms, between land and sea and this has existed for a long time, even in the kingdoms of Samatata and Harikela which is before the scope of this talk, but that border line has existed.
But, as we saw through your talk, it's not just a border, it is something more than a border, you know, sociologically marginalized in the true sense. So, how does your case-study and exploration of Chittagong help you to define what a border is or what is the special definition of a border?
Thank you. I don't really think of Chittagong as a border in this way. I think of it as a node in various networks and I was really interested in Chittagong as a center of, you know thinking from Chittagong to the, say to the outside world rather than thinking of Chittagong as a border of something else
and what I have tried to sort of suggest is the fact that Chittagong is located in the space it is located and that it is connected to both the sea and the hinterland in a particular way means that when you try and cut off Chittagong from these two wider realms this would always be temporary.
So, attempts to make Chittagong marginal will work for a little while, but not very long and so what we are seeing after the partition of India is an attempt to make Chittagong linked to a much smaller area than it was before and I think that here it is now sort of passing and
so the northern triangle that you have here may very well come up again making Chittagong anything but a border, but again a center of exchange. So that's what I would like to say. Of course, in terms of territorial position, Chittagong is at the margins of the state territory of Bangladesh
and I don't know if you have personal knowledge of Chittagong, that would be interesting to hear, but my impression is that many Chittagongians have been fighting this image that exists in Bangladesh, "Oh, Chittagong. It's down there out of things. The real Bangladesh is happening in Dhaka."
Well, I think one or two more questions and then we can close up. I had a question. Kris Manjarpa, History Department, about the contemporary politics of water in Bangladesh. We know that West Bengal has been quite uninterested in granting the 2010, the 2011 water treaty kind of agreement particularly around the Teesta as well as uninterested in some of the swapping of enclaves.
So that's happening on the western border. What's happening in terms of the politics of rights to river usage and so forth on the eastern border, particularly in terms of the Brahmaputra? Are we seeing kind of transnational tensions on both flanks or is it something that is happening really only in the west along the kind of West Bengal border?
Or, does this pose a kind of political problem in general for Bangladesh given its geographic position and the importance of rivers for its economy? VS: Okay. Let me try and find the map of Bangladesh here. Okay, as you can see, the Brahmaputra is no longer an eastern river. It ends, I mean, it reaches the sea in the eastern part of Bangladesh.
The Indian connection is to the northwest. There are rivers from the east, the Meghna which runs say from you can see it just east of Dhaka and the river of Chittagong, the Karnaphuli. These rivers are much less important in terms of say economic significance but there have been similar discussions.
For example, if you look to the area east of Chittagong, Mizoram, local politicians in Mizoram are very keen to reestablish links with Chittagong through the Karnaphuli as used to be the case in pre-Pakistan times, but they had not made much headway with Delhi, so it's not happening.
The other eastern water problem, if you can say that,is a little bit more to the north. So, this is the Meghna river and also rivers flowing into where you see Mymensingh and that has to do with the Indian plans to construct various dams in rivers to the East and this would of course impact on the flow of water into Bangladesh.
So, there is a movement in Bangladesh to try and stop this. So, I would say that the water sharing problems are the same but, they are at a smaller scale than what you get in northern Bangladesh and western Bangladesh.
Thank you. Okay, one last question. All right, well its exactly 5:00 p.m. your time Willem. Thank you so much for this talk. It's been a real pleasure in our inaugural event for video conferencing lectures and we do want to see you here in person for part two however. Thank you very much.
Well, thank you very much. It was very enjoyable and thank you for coming. KM: Cheers, goodbye. VS: Okay, bye-bye.