‘Our Past, their pasts’: Cultural heritage and popular domain in Bangladesh

THESE days, the urban middle class is increasingly becoming familiar with the notion of ‘safeguarding our heritage’. The ‘credit of this awareness’ goes principally to growing media coverage of sensitising archaeological discoveries, and of destruction of cultural heritage or recovery of smuggled antiquities by the law enforcing agencies. This is a new phenomenon in Bangladesh urban sphere. The rise and development of the new intensity and formation of a newfound desire for ‘our heritage’ in the metropolitan urban space can temporally be bound within the last decade or so. The last decade saw differential changes and shifts in the consumerism and outburst of media and communication network. A different version of cultural heritage is being produced in contemporary Bangladesh. It is different than the previous one. It has a very different aura and attraction, particularly to the elite consumer middle class. It is a brand. A commodity. A product on which intellectual and financial investments can be made. A product that can be consumed, and more importantly, the consumptions transform and celebrate the identity of the predominantly urban consumers. During the last decade or so, various non-governmental institutions and organisations have been established to work on cultural heritage in Bangladesh. Here, I am talking strictly about the archaeological aspects of heritage, although these arguments are viable for non-archaeological aspects of heritage, also. In academic and institutional terminology, the former type of heritage is categorised as ‘tangible heritage’.
I may cite several examples that overtly manifest the growing and shifting impact of ‘heritage’ on particular sectors in metropolitan space. I will refer to those examples later. Before doing that, I think I must elaborate on some interesting aspects of heritage from the recent discussions and debates around the world.
THERE are intimate connections among heritage, past and identity. In recent archaeological literature, these connections are analysed and substantiated from various perspectives. Considering the space and context, it wouldn’t be necessary to go into the details of those overtly theoretical issues. These connections are represented through various assumptions that we think as normal, as established, as emancipatory. Let me summarise those simply:
First, the past can be read, reconstructed and circulated through archaeological remains that are identified as ‘heritage’ (a more common term is now cultural resource in the US). The heritage is local and global at the same time. The heritage is essential for the identity of a ‘nation’ and ‘ethnic groups’ in the sense that the root of a collective (as nation or ethnic group) can be traced back, reconstructed and interpreted through archaeological works on ‘heritage’. The heritage, it is stated and circulated over and over again, helps us to know and reconstruct the past glory, pride and all the good traits of a nation. The glorious and prosperous past of a nation is essential for building a better national future. At the same time, heritage is perceived as entangled to the identity of universal humankind, as it endorses the history of the human race.
Second, heritage can be protected and preserved. It is our sacred duty to protect heritage for the posterity, for the specialised study at the present. We can protect our heritage. We must protect our heritage. The destruction of heritage is regarded as anti-national, anti-state, inhuman, and uncivilised. The desire and action to protect heritage thus become a standard as well as process to become true citizen and patriot. Without the apparent expressions for the protection of heritage someone could easily be labelled as ‘unconscious’ and ‘ignorant’ of her/his civilised and true self identity.
Third and most interestingly, the norms and processes of protection and the codes of conduct for preservation are now codified within a systematic management system. Heritage must be managed. Fixing the terms and conditions of the management must remain under the jurisdiction of some particular institutions (such as, state and trans-national agencies like UNESCO, ICOMOS, etc and some experts). In the heritage vocabulary, the idea of authority of the institutions and specialists is popularly known as ‘stewardship’. In the US and West European countries Cultural Resource Management has turned into an established discipline and institutional practice. State legal and juridical system has endorsed this particular aspect of stewardship. Renowned universities are offering degrees on CRM.
Fourth and finally, heritage has turned into an industry. A sector where both financial and intellectual investments are made and profit is sought. Branding is done with nationalist aura. Selective symbols from the past are commodified and consumed within an exoticised marketing policy. Tourism and sustainable development, in this way, become enmeshed into the neo-liberal economy. Past is manufactured, sold and appropriated in many different ways and means. Objects and monuments connected to the memories of distress, pain and suffering, such as Nazi concentration camp like Auschwitz, turns into an object of modern touristic gaze. Scraps and rubbish from the Twin Towers in New York are transformed into replicas, and sold and consumed as a metaphor of loss and tears, as well as a validating artefact of United States imperial policy over the globe. Taj Mahal is transformed into replicas and consumed in thousands in the celebration of immemorial love. Brick pieces from the Babri Mosque, demolished by the Hindu nationalists, were taken and worshiped as the symbol of Rama. At the same time a piece of brick becomes the representation of the strength and power of a Hindu Indian nation, and of the weakness of the minority Muslims in present India.
Heritage, it could be understood through its essential manifestations in our modern living, is embedded into our existence. In celebration of our joy. In memorialising our pain and distress. In manifesting our love and loyalty for country. In circulating the nationalist pride. In representing our ethnic supremacy and others’ ethnic inferiority. In validating war on terror and killing millions. In legitimising religious dictums, and so on. However, what is most crucial to point is that the heritage has profound political implications. By embedding deep into the memories, by manufacturing and consuming in the global market, and by making it an essential tool to construct identities, heritage often validate dominance and repression. Simultaneously, heritage may symbolise and mobilise resistance. It depends upon what heritage means in the relationship of the powerful and the weak.
IT IS clear by now that heritage is not as simple as it seems. It is not only something from the past. It is enmeshed into our present. The meaning of the same heritage can be very different to people who view it, who perceive it. The most fundamental question that is raised by the activists of indigenous right groups from CRM sector: Who owns the past? In the United States, remains from the burials of the indigenous groups were perceived normally as objects of heritage and objects for the scientific study of the past. The objects of heritage thus were appropriated into a grand American national identity. The history of the colonisation of the land what was named as America was not so important to the specialists. The ethnic genocide committed by the Europeans in a not so distant past was out of focus in the scientific study of the past and objects. The projects were being launched in the name of the search for a multiple and flexible American identity.
Under these circumstances, in the early 90s, archaeologists, and indigenous right activists began to raise their voice in terms of ownership. They proclaimed that the relics and human remains from hundreds of burials were part and parcel of the identity and history of the indigenous groups. These remains can not be owned either by some community of experts, scientists and archaeologists, or by the white Americans. The object and skeletal remains have deeply implicated religious significance that is intimately linked to the identity of the groups they belong.
Various indigenous groups endorsed this position and claimed — ‘We own our past’ and started concerted mobilisations and protests against the very process of the study, manipulation and exoticisation of the identity by the experts and the state. In the mid-90s, as an outcome of the protests, Native American Grave Protection Act was enacted. In Australia, parallel and contemporary to these events in America, resistance movements have given rise to the amendments of the existing laws and regulations pertaining to archaeological heritage. A set of code of conduct for the archaeologists and CRM managers have been formed.
These events have brought the issue of democracy of heritage to fore. From another perspective, the movements of indigenous groups in America and Australia were for democratising the heritage, to establish rights of the dominated and less privileged groups on their pasts. It was also about emancipating the past from the monopoly of a few experts and institutions.
MOST of readers know the archaeological site of Mahasthan, Bogra. This site has been identified as the ancient capital of Pundranagar. The site’s history is under close scrutiny of the historians and archaeologists since the colonial period. Archaeological excavations have been conducted and the history of the place is being written and revised over and over again. These histories are written by the experts. Yet, the experience of the past and the history is different in many ways to the commons in the area. The oral narratives by the local people narrate the histories in the ways that are completely opposite to the established historical narratives on the site.
Any visitor at Mahasthan can easily find small booklets in the shops of Mahasthan Bazar. These booklets narrate the narrate the history in fictions; in the scripts of drama written by local authors, published in local press, these books represent histories in the margin. Tabibur Rahman, a local, is the most popular writer. A mythical Hindu king Parashuram and a Muslim peer Shah Sultan Mahisawar are the main actors in these history that would be categorised by the experts as legends or myth. The defeat of the local Hindu King Parashuram in the hand of Mahishawar is described in the story. The hi(story) has supernatural interventions unlike our established history writing. The line of narration does not follow the experts’ version of cause and effect oriented history and archaeology. More importantly, the conclusion of the story has two different versions. One version describes the defeat of the Hindu raja as a consequence of the supernatural power of the Muslim saint. Another version describes the win as an effect of betrayal and treachery of the Muslim saint who threw a piece of beef in the palace of the king to cease the king’s supernatural supremacy. Many archaeological places at Mahasthan are identified by the locals in reference to these histories — Parashuram Rajar Bari, Khodar Pathar Bhita, Jiyat Kunda, Sila Devir Ghat, etc.
I have referred to the case of Mahasthan for different reasons. The example is one among the many about the existence of different and oppositional narratives about the past pertaining of archaeological heritage site in contemporary Bangladesh. It makes the varieties in history apparent. It shows us that histories produced in fundamentally opposing principles and norms can exist, even when authority and dominance of one norm is evident in the urban space. Moreover, the versions, including the experts’ one, are politically implicated. The histories have signification differently to the identity of two religious groups — the Hindus and the Muslims. Respective versions represent historically proved and justified supremacy of one community over the other. They also represent that historically one community is inferior to the other.
The dominant version, supported by the archaeological proof and objective support, on the contrary, is invoked by the experts, media and academia for asserting a nationally owned past. This version corroborates to state ideology of nationhood. This is a past of glory, prosperity and communal harmony of the nation; A past that is owned by the dominant groups and desired by the powerful ideology of the state. The heritage of different period, this version claims, proves that the nation became civilised thousands years ago, that the ancestors established a prosperous urban centre many years back, that the coexistence of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim monuments and artefacts proves that from the very remote past the people of Bangladesh are living in communal harmony and peace. But, the hi(story) of the commons defy and de-legitimise this version.
At this point I want to call upon a very recent series of event at Mahasthan. In November of 2010, construction of a multi-storeyed building started by the Sultan Mahiswar Mazar Committee. Initially the local representatives of the Department of Archaeology failed to stop the construction on this prominent heritage site. It was stopped after the High Court’s rulings and intervention. The incident got huge media coverage. Enquiry committees with experts were formed at different times. The issue eventually became international.
I was among the few who protested from a different point. Of course, the construction of a new building on the site was deplorable. However, the existence of different narratives of the pasts and archaeological heritage and its oppositional relationship with the dominant history must be taken into account, I argued. This is not to say that we have to endorse the perception of the past and heritage from the popular domain. Rather, this was the events among many that overtly show the undemocratic terrain of history writing and heritage making in Bangladesh.
The hi(story) proves that the narrative of communal harmony and apolitical ideal of heritage are not valid. The commons are heterogeneous. Their perceptions of the past and heritage are multiple. We must not assume, as often we do, that the commons have no perceptions of the past. They are identified as unaware and ignorant about the past and heritage. This position also presupposes that they are not as good citizens of the country as the believers in the dominant historical narratives are. They are uncivilised and they could be civilized through education and awareness raising programmes. Interestingly, the prospect of these civilising programmes opens the door for direct financial investments in the heritage sectors. Possibilities for the transforming the commons heritage and past into a heritage industry lurks on the horizons of the present. Please note that the Asian Development Bank has recently allocated huge amount of fund for some selected heritage sites to promote tourism and sustainable development. Mahasthan is one among them.
MANY of us could remember the Guimmet Museum debacle by the end of 2007 and in the beginning of 2008. The proposed exhibition of various representative artefacts from Bangladesh in Guimmet Museum in Paris raised severe critics and protests in the metropolitan urban space of Dhaka. Eventually the exhibition was cancelled after the loss of a Visnu sculpture from the international airport in Dhaka. Of course, there were disparities and conditions of inequality in the agreements between the Bangladeshi and French stakeholders. I want to recall that event as a marker of shift in the urban notion of heritage. The artefacts were selected and taken even from the display of different museums in Bangladesh including the hundred years old Varendra Society Museum, Rajshahi. It is interesting how ‘heritage’ became referent around which invocation and mobilization of a particular nationalist collective identity hinged. In the claims of the protesters the artefacts became the embodiment and representative of the glorious national past of Bangladesh. It is the ever present past that justified the aspirations and desires of the present.
On the other side, the artefacts were selected for the exhibition in the Orientalist logic that they represent the past glory of ancient Ganges delta. In that sense, the organisers themselves shared the same grammar of presenting the past of this region in terms of achievements. They were trying to construct a glorified national image of Bangladesh. Some people from the same urban space who tried to justify the exhibition claimed the need for uplifting the image of Bangladesh in international arena through the exhibition. The entire event, simultaneously, became an expression of democratic rights in a regime of military caretaker government in reference to heritage. However, the democratic urge had its limitations and pitfalls. Being completely urban in nature the mobilization could not address the fundamental aspects of a democratic past. The artefacts that were returned to their usual location of Varendra Research Museum were at a disastrous state of preservation and display. The museum, presently regulated by the Rajshahi University, did not have enough space. Still, they don’t have any fund to restore the artefacts in their previous positions in the gallery. The entire procedure of restoration needed money and specialists’ support. These artefacts are being decayed and damaged owing to absence of proper care. Yet, the urban ‘heritage-lovers’ who were on the street to protect nationalist glory keep mum about the entire assemblage of atrefacts. Is it because Varendra Museum is not in the metropolis centre? Is it because the artefacts of this museum away from Dhaka do not amuse the metropolis elites in their celebration of identity? An urban love affair with the heritage thus ends as it fails to challenge the limits of the stewardship of the nation-state.
HUNDREDS of archaeological sites and artefacts are being destroyed, looted or smuggled in various parts of Bangladesh. Internal migrations, growth of settlements, expansion of agricultural lands along with the legal problems and institutional bureaucracy of the concerned Government Department of Archaeology and absence of funds for implementing the protection and preservation measures are few reasons among many for the destruction of archaeological heritage in Bangladesh. We have found during our last ten years field work in north-western part of Bangladesh that people who are destroying the archaeological sites are from powerful quarters. They are somehow connected to the status quo of the state. They are acting under the umbrella of present state laws regarding land and property. Their actions, I have argued in several past cases, were conditioned by the structure of law, rather than by their ignorance and unawareness.
Moreover, as it has been pointed to in reference to Mahasthan case, it could be argued in case of this part of Dinajpur-Joypurhat-Naogaon in the same way. Urban perception of the past rallies round experts’ knowledge, and nationalistic aspirations and validation of the politics of the nation-state, on one hand. On the other hand, the popular perceptions are performance of memorialisation. Unlike the urban elitist experience of the heritage in museums, in air conditioned conference rooms, during touristic gaze on heritage sites, or in the mobilisations, their everyday experience is shaped by the heritage and pasts. Their invocation of past is more the celebration of their living in the world through the mediation of communitarian and religious identity. They address, for example, the archaeological heritage in terms of worshiping a mazar that is built on some ancient remains of temples or shrines. In a way, there is a covert recognition of the past conflicts in the common understanding of heritage. These histories of conflicts are not recognised in the grand nationalist history.
IN JULY 2011, the foreign minister of Bangladesh claimed that Bangalees are the indigenous people of Bangladesh. The Bangali Jaati had originated from the Archaeological place of Wari-Bateshwar 4,000 years ago. The archaeological site of Wari-Bateshwar is much debated among the experts. Yet, the site has been popularised by media hypes with spectacular and faulty archaeological claims and interpretations. A heritage site when transformed into a spectacle, a celebration of civilised national identity may easily be manipulated by the nation-state as the cradle of dominant ethnic group. Indigenous groups of Bangladesh are fighting for their constitutional recognition and rights. Their fights and struggles have their long violent and non-violent history. What is completely new in the history is the use of heritage to legitimise the repression and dominance of a particular state ideology of a particular nationhood. It is important to look into the matter also in terms of growing circulation of trans-national and civil-military-corporate capital in the Hill tracts and its possible nexus, with the upcoming heritage industry in Bangladesh. Increasing amounts of investments in the heritage management enterprises in recent years could be a good indicator.
PAST is always present. Politics of the past is part of our living in the modern world. The authority of the experts’ and the dominance of particular majoritarian ideology can only be contested by engaging with the perceptions and practice of the past in the margin — in the popular domain.

Swadhin Sen is associate professor,
Department of Archaeology,
Jahangirnagar University.



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