Churamon Hembrom, 48, an ethnic Santal Christian seen at his home in Koshia village under Tanore area of northern Rajshahi district. Many ethnic indigenous peoples like Churamon face social ostracism by local Bengali people every day. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Ever since he was a child growing up in western Bangladesh, Churamon Hembrom realized his ethnic Santal community was not just different but was regarded as somehow “lesser” than the majority Bengalis all around him.
Churamon, 48, a farmer father of four and a Protestant Christian belonging to the Church of Bangladesh, is one of 9,166 Santals living in Tanore, a sub-district of more than 180,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the district of Rajshahi.
In various parts of Tanore an unscripted but visible rule has existed for ages — Santals and other ethnic groups are nowhere allowed to sit with Muslims and are forbidden from even dining with them at social gatherings.
In village markets, restaurants and tea stalls, they are forced to eat and drink in separate corners, and use different plates, cups and glasses. Some restaurants completely prohibit Christian Santals from entering.
About 15 years ago, Churamon and a fellow Santal faced the worst form of such social ostracism.
They were on their way to sell a cow at a local cattle market and stopped to eat at a restaurant. When some nearby Muslims heard about it, they rushed over, scolded them and beat them up. They were only allowed to leave after paying a “fine” and vowing to never do it again.
“This humiliating experience is nothing new for local indigenous Christians,” Churamon told ucanews.com. “Muslims consider them untouchables for various reasons; they hail from poor and dirty households and they eat animals, including pigs, and drink haria [rice beer], which are banned in Islam.”
Still going after 200 years
Ethnic community leaders say thousands of indigenous people still face similar and even more extreme forms of social discrimination, as they have done in the Tanore, Puthia and Godagari areas of Rajshahi district, the Ghoraghat area of Dinajpur district and Pirganj area of Rangpur district for nearly two centuries.
During British colonial rule, thousands of people from Santal and other ethnic communities migrated to northern parts of present-day Bangladesh, starting in the late 18th century.
The British brought them from various Indian states, including Bihar, Odisha and Chhoto Nagpur, to employ them as railroad workers and farmhands.
While many Santals in northern Bangladesh switched to other professions after getting an education most, like Churamon, still rely on farming for their livelihoods. Many continue to face social ostracism on a daily basis even though they have become economically independent.
Churamon’s past poverty meant he failed to continue his education after grade five but his four children — three daughters and one son — completed their secondary education until the age of 16.
His eldest daughter got married, the second become a registered nurse and the youngest is still at school. His only son works on their farm with him.
“There have been socio-economic developments over the past decades but the mindset of Muslims toward indigenous peoples has not changed. It continues because we are small in numbers and we cannot protest against such discriminations,” Churamon added.
A Muslim restaurant waiter washes two separate sets of glasses to be used by local ethnic indigenous peoples and Bengali Muslims at Tanore in northern Rajshahi district. In various parts of northern Bangladesh, ethnic minorities face social ostracism from majority Bengali people. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Rakib Ali, 28, is a Muslim from the Chanduria Bazar area of Tanore and works as a waiter at a restaurant in the local market.
He showed us that his restaurant still maintains separate plates, cups and glasses for Muslims and Santals.
“Most of our customers are Muslims and they don’t want to share she same plates, cups and glasses with Santals, so we have to do what they want,” Rakib told ucanews.com.
He would dearly like to see an end to the discrimination and violence toward people based on their religions and ethnic identities, but he keeps quiet, fearing a backlash from his fellow Muslims.
“A Muslim man once mistakenly drank water from a glass meant for Santals. It was his own mistake, but he got angry and in a scuffle with me over it. So, it is better to do what they want, or unpleasant incidents can occur,” he said.
‘What’s the problem?’
Mujibur Islam, 44, is a local Muslim and a tricycle van puller who thinks there is nothing wrong in such social ostracism toward ethnic people.
“It is mostly about differences in religions. I will look for separate places to sit and separate plates and glasses to eat and drink, and that is my religious freedom,” he insisted. “Santals eat pig and rats, and they drink haria so if Muslims don’t want to touch them or the utensils used by them, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Social discrimination toward Santals is a frustrating reality, says Mujibur Rahman, chairman of Chanduria Union Council, a local government unit.
“In meetings and gatherings, we encourage people to refrain from such discriminatory attitudes because our country is mostly a land of harmony among its various religious and ethnic groups,” Rahman told ucanews.com.
“However, an atmosphere has been created that treat Santals here as an outcast group.
“It is true that social ostracism against Santals have existed for decades, but I am hopeful it will go away in next one or two generations, as people get more educated and become more open-minded.”
Rashedul Kabir, deputy director of the state-run Social Services department in Rajshahi, professed “surprise” over such discriminatory attitudes toward Santals.
“Our constitution guarantees equal rights for every citizen and the state policy promotes the harmonious co-existence of various faiths and ethnic groups,” Kabir told ucanews.com. “We were not aware of any such discriminations against Santals and other ethnic communities, and now we will take action to bring an end to it.”
‘A grave injustice’
Social ostracism toward ethnic communities is an expression of the cultural hegemony of the majority Bengali culture, says Father Patrick Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Christian Unity and Inter-religious Dialogue.
“Many Bengali people consider indigenous people and their cultures inferior to their own culture and social system,” said Father Gomes, a Bengali himself and based In Rajshahi. “It is a grave injustice toward these people and totally unacceptable in the 21st century.”
Many ethnic people have become Christians in recent decades and the Church has worked tirelessly to sweep away the discrimination toward them directly and also as it occurs through the Catholic charity Caritas, the priest said.
“We have helped ethnic communities to get an education and to improve their socio-economic conditions, so they can work to drive away discrimination,” said Sukleash Costa, acting regional director of Caritas Rajshahi. “Things are changing but it will take some more time to bring a complete end to the discrimination.”
In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, about 99 percent of more than 160 million people belong to the Bengali community and just three million from dozens of ethnic groups.
There are about 600,000 Christians, most of them Catholics, and about half of them also come from ethnic indigenous groups.