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The Financial Express

Bangladesh: Inclusiveness versus xenophobia

Shihab Sarkar | Published: August 04, 2016 17:40:02 | Updated: October 17, 2017 18:59:07


Bangladesh: Inclusiveness versus xenophobia

Even 10 to 15 years ago, busy Dhaka roads and popular social and commercial hubs were frequently used to watching foreigners moving about freely. They were seen taking photographs, trying to pick a few Bangla words from passersby, or eating out at ramshackle restaurants.  None of them would feel wary. Being mostly tourists, these people were from European and American as well as some regional countries. They were greeted with innocent curiosity of the general people. Thanks to their warm and welcome gestures towards foreigners, the residents of Dhaka and other cities unfailingly proved the reputation of Bangladesh as a hospitable country.
Despite Dhaka's being a relatively bland destination compared to neighbouring Kolkata, which teems with overseas tourists round the year, it has many distinctive features. The Indian mega-city developed its typical 20th century urban character nearly a century ago. It had long been acquainted with the urban spectacles filled with foreigners. Foreign tourists were a routine spectacle, and thus blasé, to them. Moreover, a number of Britons had stayed back in the Indian cities for a considerable period of time after the end of the British colonial role. Given these social and historical factors, the Europeans visiting Kolkata did not normally receive the warm attention which they would experience in Dhaka. The capital of Bangladesh had all along been prepared to welcome their foreign guests with love and excitement. The man of the street could not hide his surprise at the spectacles of foreign couples walking on Dhaka sidewalks in groups, or haggling over the price of something with a vendor. As a general rule, overseas people received wide and unalloyed acceptance of Bangladesh people in those times.
Those were the good old days, those of peace and fraternity. Things have lately gone awry in the country. The number of foreign visitors, especially those from the West, began dropping all of a sudden. It all started with a series of violent terror activities in the country in the early 2000s. Then came the uncanny feeling of being marked, and shadowed, which began hounding the small number of foreigners who still loved to visit and do business in Bangladesh. In just one and half decade's time, the sight of foreigners in public places has virtually vanished. Apart from the once-ubiquitous tourists, they include people working for diplomatic missions, donor agencies and charity organisations. A handful of them are linked to commercial enterprises.
   These days death in its most ominous shape stalks the foreigners in Bangladesh. To the incredulity and surprise of many observers of socio-political trends, it's a fraction of the otherwise hospitable and genial people who are now out to do foreigners harm. Things have taken a grave turn lately. Scores of foreigners staying for long in Dhaka and other parts of the country have left the country, some are contemplating to leave. Of those who have left are reportedly not willing to return anytime soon. Many have termed this exodus of foreigners an embarrassing blot on the image of Bangladesh. After the recent killings of foreigners in Dhaka, the travel alerts normally released by a few foreign missions have been raised to advices to intending visitors not to come to Bangladesh except on urgent business. The foreigners compelled to stay in the country have drastically restricted their spheres of movement.
Given the alarming developments of late, it seems we are fast falling out with the foreigners. Known as a nation which has greeted friendly foreigners with affection and honour throughout its history, it is being made to turn hostile towards them. Never in its past has Bangladesh gone through such a confusing time filled with the feelings of animosity and hatred towards strangers. Without its being aware, is the nation being led by some quarters to the path of xenophobia? Nothing could be more dreadful for this nation if it finally emerges as xenophobic, that too after all these centuries. Keeping the nation's past in perspective, many would dismiss such a possibility as oxymoron. To them it amounts to a distortion of truth of monumental proportions.
Had the country been foreigner-hater, it would not have welcomed the medieval travellers from different parts of the globe. Like many other countries, Bangladesh has been blessed with the charm and beauty unique to it. Travellers were attracted to this country in different periods from lands ranging from China to Morocco. They included Faxian, commonly known as Fa-Hien (337-422), Xuanzang, commonly Hwen Ts'ang (602-664) and Ibn Battutah (1304-1369). A few of them stayed for long in the country. Great Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Jalal (born in Sultanate of Rum, now in Turkey; 1271-1349) arrived in Sylhet of Bengal in 1303. He settled in the Sylhet region with his disciples, spread Islam and died in the district.  The ships of merchants from the greater Arab and northern African regions would dock at Chittagong port.  Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Bengal and the simplicity and easy-going lifestyle of its people, many of them stayed back. They married Bengalee women, raised children and assimilated with the land's environment and socio-cultural realities. After the British colonial people had left the country, a handful of them, especially those engaged in charity activities, stayed back in Bengal, including today's Bangladesh. A few British missionaries, social workers, educationists and others could be found in the country even in the 1960s. They were later joined by Good Samaritans from the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Many of these foreigners sheltered Freedom Fighters during the Liberation War in 1971. Apart from the English-speaking nations, expatriates from some other far-away continents also provided material and moral support to the Freedom Fighters. After the Pakistani junta let loose a barbaric genocide on  March 25in 1971, it was the British and American journalists who broke the news to the outside world.   In fact, people of the country accepted the foreigners as their trusted friends during that critical period. Thanks to this generous love and admiration for these people of completely different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, resident foreigners in the country have never felt being discriminated against. The people of Bangladesh have attached great value to the virtue of humanity personified by these noble souls. As time wore on, they found people like Richard William Timm, the American popularly known as Father Timm.  He has dedicated the greater part of his life to social service and the spread of education in Bangladesh. There are a number of Japanese whose selfless love for Bangladesh and its people has earned them the sobriquet of the 'True Friends of Bangladesh'. They include, among others, Tsuyoshi Nara and Takashi Hayakawa.
The foreigners' admiration for Bangladesh could be seen also in the 17th -18th centuries, when Armenians and Greeks discovered in Dhaka a peaceful abode of theirs. During the Second World War, nationals of dozens of countries arrived in Bangladesh as wounded soldiers. Local people accepted them in warmth. Many of these foreign soldiers died in this country.
The Bengalee people's acquaintance with outsiders developed during the reign of the Sultans. It was followed by the Mughals. After the British colonial administration took the helm in the then India, Bengal reaped great benefits in terms of enrichment of its language and literature. It was a few enthusiastic British grammarians and orientalists like Nathaniel Brassey Halhed who had helped Bangla grow as a strong and modern language.    
Like its eclectic language Bangla, Bangladesh, traditionally, is an inclusive nation. It never showed any tendency to become a closed society. The recent careering towards being closed, apparently shutting windows on the vast outside world, does not reflect the true identity of the nation.
shihabskr@ymail.com      

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