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Islam in Arakan: An interpretation from the Indian perspective: History and the Present

 Category: Culture, History  Publisher: Dr. Swapna Bhattacharya  Published: 11 October 2016  Tags: ArakanArakan KingdomIndianRohingya |  Download


The history of Arakan or the Rakhine State of Myanmar is matchless due to various, partly, very complex, factors. The foremost among the factors which makes the history of Arakan so complex, at the same time, unique, is the region’s close contact with the Indian civilization. Unless the pulse of the interaction between the Buddhist world of Arakan and the Hindu-Buddhist civilization of India (especially Eastern India) with Islam of India in between is not felt, Arakan remains unintelligible.

Further, to estimate the nature of Islam in Arakan in the medieval period, we have to place Arakan in the context of Bengal-Delhi (Bengal regionalism versus Mughal imperialism) tussle for power in the Bay of Bengal region. The epic Padmavati by poet Sayyid Alol has so far been read as a masterpiece of a romantic literature of A class; however, it has been studied mostly by literature experts from West Bengal, and discussed in the context of Bengali literary tradition only. It is often stated in the numerous books ( all written by literature experts) that the Padmavati is unique since in this epic for the first time, the change of theme—from religious to secular ( romance) – is directly visible. The theme of divine love between Ratnasena of Chitor and Padmavati of Simhala makes a landmark, besides all others, alone for the selection of the theme. Prior to that, Gods and Goddesses and religious matters made the bulk of the Bengali literature. According to my understanding, the story of Padmavati is only an occasion. The complex political background behind its translation in the Arakanese court, however never attracted any attention of scholars. In my earlier contribution ” Myth and History of Bengali identity in Arakan ” (Amsterdam 2002) I tried to discover the political implication behind this so-called Bengali Renaissance at the court of Arakan, under Arakanese patronage. It is strange that in India, the perception about the might of this kingdom is very vague. But, who can deny that in the 16th and 17th centuries it was only Arakan which had the courage and means to challenge the Mughals. I am happy that my humble research on Arakan has drawn some attention among experts whose knowledge on the Arakanese history is no match to my limited knowledge on this region.

Now coming back to the subject of flourishing of Bengali literature in Arakan, I have to tell that we should not miss the fact that Padmavati is a work of translation of a very important Hindusthani epic written by Malik Mohammed Jayasi— an eminent Chisthi Sufi poet from North India. Jayasi’s name is always remembered in great respect since he was the first to have used Persian script for writing Hindusthani. This he did in Padumavat itself. We will go into the details of symbolism and syncretism drawn from the religious -cultural milieu of Indian tradition as reflected in this work. The same kind of symbolism is visible in the work Sati Mayna 0 Lor Chandrani written by Daulat Quazi, another court poet who enjoyed similiar patronage in the Arakanese court.. The later part of Sati Mayna 0 Lor Chandrani was written by Shah Alol. The scope of my contribution is wide, covering the medieval period, the British period and also the present crisis. I will argue that lack of knowledge about Bengal’s contact with Arakan among the Myanmar scholars is responsible for all sorts of misunderstanding. The post colonial state’s identity with a single religion is also a source of much confusion, though the history itself shows that in India as well as in Myanmar during the pre-colonial periods religious identity was in a fluid stage. There was also no bar for a single person to worship at a time Gods and Goddesses from various beliefs. One nation, one identity, one state is a colonial gift, which has its both, good and bad, sides.

It is interesting to note that even as late as in early 1990s, quite often, Muslims of Arakan (northern Arakan) were described as “Indians”. Occasionally they were described as “Bengalis”, and from time to time as “Chittagongians”. Further, the name, “Rohingya”, is quite justifiably “rejected” by the Myanmar people and Government, as there exists no such minority in Myanmar. According to the same opinion though, Islam is one of the most important religions of Myanmar. Indeed, visitors of Myanmar among the erudite audience have seen that the Muslims in various parts of Myanmar enjoy equal rights and privileges with other religious and ethnic groups. Islam in Burma/Myanmar has never been perceived as a religion of alien origin. Kings of medieval Burma needed Muslims for not only wars, but also for peace and stability of the economy. A large number of inter marriages and social interactions are visible all around. Indeed, quite interestingly, it was the Hindus, who quite often felt isolated in Burma. After the formal separation of British Burma from British India in 1937, a large number of Hindus left Burma permanently and joined their relatives in India, whom they might have not seen over generations. This happened during 1940s, 1950s and again with the advent of military rule in Burma in 1962. While in the case of the Muslim population of Indian origin in Burma, in spite of the fact that they were (like in British India) not awarded any special status, they peacefully, were accepting their positions within the Union. Even then, in the case of Arakan, as we will see, things took a different turn.

As the organization of the present seminar itself speaks for, the Muslims of Arakan makes a special case. In all the British sources, Arakan’s historic link with Bengal, and Chittagong in particular, are upheld. Immigration in Arakan from Chittagong, Noakhali, Comilla always added to the rise of the population figure of Indian origin in British Burma. Even after the formal restriction of immigration by the Indians into Burma in early 1940s, Arakan had to be treated as a special case. It was decided to allow 20,000 Chittagingian labourers to reap the paddy of the fields of Arakan. What is known further is that, during the period of the Japanese occupation, a large number of Muslims of Arakan extended their support to the British with the hope of award of a kind “Arakanistan” ( parallel to Pakistan), or, at least a “National Area” for the Muslims of northern Arakan. The story of this has been told by Moshe Yegar in his book The Muslims of Burma as well as by Klaus Fleischman in his book Arakan Konfliktregion zwischen Birma and Bangladesh. In the repeated exodus of people from Arakan to Bangladesh, Fleischman saw a formidable genesis of, whether or not, a largescale conflict in this area where South Asia meets Southeast Asia. True, such no conflict has broken out in last 25 years, but this entire region remains one of the most sensitive areas of South and Southeast Asia in terms of refugee generation, poverty, arms smuggle, trafficking of human beings and goods ( rice in particular).Twice in recent past, in 1977-78 and again in 1992-96 the north Arakanese townships saw exodus of an unprecedented nature ( S. Bhattacharya, 2002) Interestingly, the historical backdrop of such a spectacular reftigee problem has remained little studied, just like the origin of the Rohingya language and culture has also remained shrouded in mystery. In his otherwise very informative and well argued article ” The Origin of the name Rohingya” , U Khin Maung Saw vehemently rejected the name. staling that Ba Tha is the only cultural advocate for this rather marginal group of people, who are actually in large part “illegal immigrants” from Bengal (now Bangladesh). U Khin Maung Saw is of the opinion that this name “Rohingya” was “founded” jointly by the Red Flag communists and the Mujahids. The Mujahids of northern Arakanese villages of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and partly Rathedaung, were fighting for their separate homeland and were getting support from the Red Flag communists. U Nu’s Government of course was not in a position to show any mercy to these separatists. This piece of information became available to U Khin Maung Saw courtesy the eminent journalist, Kyemon U Thaung ( U Khin Maung Saw in J. Lorenz & U Gaertner eds, 1996, 96). This journalist, Kyemon U Thaung worked for the famous newspaper Bumakhit in 1950s. The creation of a name connecting the northern Arakanese people in the historical experience of Arakan and Burma as a whole was a need of those days. The Muslims of Northern Arakan wanted to justify their fight for more autonomy and perhaps total independence from Burma( U Khin Maung Saw, 96).

In this writing I do not intend to support one view against the other, as every contribution that fell to my attention has some kind of truth and is helpful towards understanding of this remote region of Myanmar. The nations of South and Southeast Asia have come a long way in their struggle for survival as individual nation. Cultural plurality and religious diversity have made the foundation of all the nations, rich or poor, solid. No one wants to go back to the colonial past, nor any one wants to ignore the factor ” peace ” and “stability”. The relations between the nations ( though ASEAN may be seen more successful than the SAARC) , is extremely cordial. No country wants to loose her integrity. As a result, the parallel existence of tensions and peace is perceived as more natural than unnatural. The periodic exodus of people from north Arakan to Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar remains to me as problem to be dealt by the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar bilaterally and if they want, with involvements of other countries and agencies. I am much more interested to deal with certain neglected facts of Indian history which are equally important for Bangladeshi and Myanmar historical researches. In recent years two scholars, Mujtava Razvi and Dr. Md. Akhtaruzzsaman (Dr. Md. Akhtaruzzsaman 2003 pub. in the proceedings of the Conference of UHRC, 2001) have shed some lights on Islam in Arakan and Burma as a whole. The present contribution aspires to uphold the importance of Bengali linguistic and religious traditions as experienced in Buddhist Arakan within the Indian context. The opinions of western scholars about the expansion of Bengali population in Arakan as a result of the slave trade, wars and occasional ship wreckages – are all well-founded and may be true. But, what remains to be stressed is that Bengali language and religion (Islam) spread to Arakan also in a most natural way. Bengal’s highly synchretic and rich religious tradition turned to be an asset, the patronage of which enhanced the prestige of the Arakanese kingdom itself, at the height of their glory—a fact for which all the Rakhines of present Myanmar ( no matter Muslims or Buddhists) can feel proud. On the other hand, the Indian people can also take pride on the fact that their Padumavat which sang the song of tolerance and love reached as an asset, worthy to be translated, by as remote a country as by Arakan. Modern people have only to look back to history to learn the message of tolerance. The Myanmar people can also feel proud of their liberal approach to life and eagerness to promote knowledge. After all, all the Indians living in medieval Arakan were not slaves; there were astrologers, singers, priests, poets, ministers and advisors, a milieu which made Rosanga ( Mrohaung) was popular a destination. The present contribution drew a lot of inspiration from a wide number of Bangladeshi and Indian scholars. Many of them successfully located an intermediary stage between Hindu-Buddhist period and Islamic period. The fertile ground for such unique stage was made by Mahayna Buddhism, Vaishsanvism and Nathasim. Bengal, the closest neighbour of Arakan, absorbed the best out of the Indian traditions. Orthodoxy in any religion had been and will continue to be “a man-made” trouble. And all the orthodox schools from all three religions. Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, were challenged by their own co-religionists. Therefore the mantra of Reconciliation was found immediately, since over thousands of years, the people of Southern part of Asia have been living in peace and prosperity. Unless one hears this message, one will be searching for a black cat in a dark room only.