The Paradox of Citizenship as National Identity

The Chakmas without their rights have become “stateless” in India, and due to non-recognition, they are the “rejected people” in Bangladesh.


When India got Independence in 1947, the Indian sub-continent, however, was divided on the basis of religion and gave birth to the two nations- India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan was divided, not only geographically between East and West, but it was also divided culturally.

The map indicating the then West and East Pakistan.

East Pakistan was occupied by the Bengali speaking population which comprised of around 50% of the population. However, they were politically and economically discriminated. The political power rest with the western Pakistan, and Bengalis were considered lesser citizens than their western counterpart who are Punjabis or Pashtuns, and were not adequately represented both militarily, and politically. They were economically ignored and discriminated.  Later, the Pakistani government declared Urdu as the national language of Pakistan which greatly hurt the sentiment of the Bengalis. Later Pakistan was bifurcated on the basis of cultural differences between East Pakistan and West Pakistan in 1971.

The 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh was fought on the principle of secularism, to free from the tainted religious discrimination in Pakistan. Though Pakistan was created on the religious ground there were other religions, other than Islam. East Pakistan was often looked upon with suspicion that they have closer adherents towards India because of the presence of Hindu community though they are in minority. The Mujibur leadership of the Awami League mobilized the movement of partition on the cultural basis, doing away with the religious fervent.

Therefore, nationalism during the war was ‘Bangalee nationalism’. Post liberation, Bangalee nationalism was changed to ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, and the 1972 constitution declared that the citizens of Bangladesh will be Bangladeshi. Later, Bangladeshi government underwent a sea change, democratic government breakdown and there was continuous military coup until democracy was restored in 1990s.

In 1975, with 8th amendment of the constitution the word ‘secularism’ was removed from the constitution and declared Islam as the religion of the state (Husain, 1991). However, Bangladesh was not a homogeneous society, though the Bangalees constituted 99%, there are Urdu speaking population and also the tribals who speak their own dialect and language. Though the dominant religion is Islam, there are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists or other religion other than Islam.

Sheikh Hasina in 2011 cabinet meeting opined that the identity of the people of Bangladesh is Bangladeshi as citizen while their nationalism is on the basis of their ethnic identities. The representation of the national identity as ‘Bangladeshi’ excluded the non Bangalee Hindus or Urdu speaking population or the tribals of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) as members of the state. The secular fervent on which Bangladesh got independence was soon lost and the religious sentiments began to play its role. The representation of national identity as Bangladeshi becomes problematic for the tribals and non- Muslim communities as they faced religious discrimination and persecution from the government. The Urdu speaking populations were also constantly laid under suspicion of being associating with the Paksitani government. The tribals of the CHT are also constantly persecuted on ethnic and religious grounds. Historically, CHT has its own separate administration during the British rule. They were regarded with the status of ‘excluded area’ by the 1900 Regulation of the British administration.

Who are the Chakmas?

The portion with yellow shades on the map indicates the CHT.

The CHT refers collectively to the three districts of Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachari. The CHT is occupied by 13 hill tribals who are physically and culturally different from the rest of Bangladesh. Of the 13 tribes the Chakmas are the largest tribes who follow Buddhism, and the rest of the tribes such as the Marmas, the Tripura, the Lushai, the Pankhu either follow Christainity, Hinduism, or Animism or other religion other than Islam. The primordial understanding of their morphological traits is that, they are Tibeto-Burman origin unlike the Bangalee majority who are Proto-Australoid and Caucasoid . They are mostly agricultural farmers. However it is difficult to trace one’s origin with accuracy. As the identity of the individual is created and constructed through different temporality and spatiality.


The tribals of the CHT wanted to retain their 1900 Regulation Law of the British Empire and have consistently fighting for the same. However, both during the Pakistani regime and the Bangladeshi government the Chakmas faced persecution. During 1947, they wanted to be in the Indian sub-continent, but the Britishers placed them in the Pakistani territory. Though they hoisted the Indian flag, it was put down with threat from the Pakistani army. Again, in the 1971 war, though some tribals sided with the Banglees, others are reluctant to be in the military service and are not very supportive with the agenda. Therefore, the tribals are looked upon with suspicion of associating with the Pakistani army. The Pakistani government completely strapped the ‘special status’ or ‘Excluded Area’ from the constitution in 1964.

Children of Chakmas from Bangladesh in a refugee camp in Tripura.

Not to forget, the Chakmas are one among the earliest groups who are environmentally displaced. The hydro-electric project of the Kaptai Dam in 1965 displaced thousands of the tribals, as their arable land got submerged into the dam construction during the Pakistani regime. They were not adequately compensated and resettled. Later the Bangladeshi government constructed roads, electricity, paper mills and so on in the name of developmental project but the tribals are excluded from the benefits and employment in the factories. Instead, the government tactically allows the landless Banglees to infiltrate into the Hills, and occupy the tribal land. The high influx of the Bangalees into the Hill Tract threatened the cultural practices of the indigenous populations. This, however, was done deliberately to removed the Tribals from Bangladesh and completely turn Bangladesh as a land of the Bangalees.

The declaration of the Bangladeshi nationals as the Bangalees causes great discontent amongst the minority communities. The Tribals wanted the state to recognize their distinct identity legally under the constitution. However, the government denies such request and instead interpreted the law as the law of the land, and national identity different from nationalism as Sheikh Hasina opined. The chakmas considered they as a nation, as was referred in many of the insurgency documents (Jenneke and Chakmas 2002). The chakmas organized the Prabatya Chottogram Jana Samhati, Samiti (PCJSS) to assert the Bangladeshi government for the legal recognition of their ethnic identity, and when legal measures did not work out they organized an armed wing Shanti Bahini to fight against the Bangladeshi government.

Thousands of refugees flooded into the Indian Territory during 1965, when the tribals were displaced because of the dam construction and thousand more fled when they fear religious persecution in Bangladesh. They are resettled into the North East states of India because of their cultural and religious affinities. Some of the Chakmas are in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and in Mizoram, and so on. They are not recognized at ‘home’ state and are not granted citizenship right in India. Therefore, they are regarded as stateless in South Asia. However, the self perception of the Chakmas needs to be heard out.

Understanding National Identity

National identity can be understood in a multi dimensional manner. It could be understood as the cartographic representation of the nation-states, or the cultural or traditional representation. Since a nation is represented by its people national identity is often understood as the identity of the members of the people of the nation state. The term ‘national identity’ is used to refer to the identity of the state without taking into consideration the multiplicity within the state. As we have seen the idea of nationalism, created during the freedom movement and the liberation war was not based on the ethnicity or ethnic identity but on the ideological ground of secularism, as in the case of Bangladesh. National identity is created with certain ideology to attain a certain specific goal, it is the strategy of the state, without taking into account of the perspective of the people within which constitute the state perceived.

The problems of the Chakmas can be attributed to this kind of identity perception of the state. The reluctance of the state to take into account the cultural difference but rather impose state created identity which is the identity of the majority community to represent the state in a particular framework. However, State cannot be understood as the linear representation of having a fixed territory with sovereign boundaries and fixed populations because South Asian states are constantly evolving and do not have fixed territories. And also cannot be attributed to any homogeneous set of populations.

National identity is therefore a constitutionally created identity. It was primarily to create a sense of nationalism, an ideology to present a unified community. Thus, the particular state become the space of the dominant, majority community.

As mentioned at the outset, the liberation war was fought on the basis of ‘Bangalee nationalism’, with the slogans such as “Ekti Bangla Aksar, Ekti Banglis Jibon”(every single letter of Bangla alphabet epitomizes the life of a Bangli), “Jago Jago Bangalee Jago”(wake up, Bangalis) and so on.  Therefore, Bangalee nationalism grew out from the people’s frustration and disappointment as a natural reaction to the political attitude of the situation whereas ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ was created to represent a political identity of the state adopted according to the whims of the political elite. Thus, national identity can be constructed and reconstructed in different situation to adapt to the political ideology. The idea of nationalism was created to bring about the responsibility, and consciousness of unity.  Whereas, ethnic identity is more a creation of a social construct of the community.

Understanding Ethnic Identity

Chakma people in Kaptai Lake, CHT, Bangladesh.


Ethnicity is understood variedly and different in different context. It is a multi-dimensional concept. The primordial theorists understands ethnic identity as having continuous ties with the culture and tradition, and maintaining such practices across time and space. And therefore ethnic groups are regarded as the closed groups who have common historical and cultural values. The ethnic groups maintain their distinct traits and practices by remaining secluded from other groups.

However, such conception is refuted by many such as Barth (1969) who opined that ethnic groups can maintained their distinctiveness through their relations with other groups as the interactions does not necessarily diminished their identity. Rather, ethnicity does not change even when one changes its membership in the social system. The common perception that interaction within the larger social systems will lead to “liquidation” of the traditions or culture is not true, but him social interactions leads to maintain the ethnic boundaries among various ethnic groups as they become more aware of their identity through continuous interactions. For him, differences can be maintained in an interdependent society.

The concept of ethnic identity as constant and unchanging is contested. Traditions and cultural practices are continuously constructed and “invented” (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1992). Conventional analysis of identity concept basically focused on the territorial, morphological or traditional historical lineage, which is considered as a non malleable entity. Therefore, traditionally identity is understood as fixed and given, derived from certain immutable variables such as state, or other physical attributes. The construction of identity on such parsimonious ground gets reflected in the creation of ethnic boundaries between various identity groups, leading to identification of the self from the others. The constructivist, opined that ethnic identity is constructed through social relational factors, or through the elite representation of the particular identity.

However, as Madan (1998) argues,

“ethnicity is not only the characterization of identity, but also a set of strategies to establish a new state.”

As we can see in the state formation of India and Pakistan or Pakistan and Bangladesh, the ethnic groups are mobilized on certain basis such as religion and language to create a new state. Madan term this as “identity game”, which means

“deliberate choice by an ethnic group of particular aspects of its cultural profile for highlighting in the expectation that doing so will yield the desired results in a given situation. If the situation changes, appropriate adjustments or fresh choices may be made.”

The creation of Pakistan or Bangladesh at one point can be placed in this situation. Ethnicity is therefore the constructed identity. However, variations of the ethnic character across time and space does not assimilation or integration, but only changes of the characteristics of the ethnic group. The primordial understanding of ethnic identity as fixed, and thus needs to be constantly analyzed through the historical context has its own limitations as history has  been constructed and reconstructed across time and space and cannot be understood in a linear manner in any way.

To bring into context, the case of Chakmas assertion of their distinct identity, drawing upon their cultural and historical and traditional practices can be comprehended in the light of the above analysis. The Chakmas’ assertion and movement, gained its momentum when their land has been seized for developmental project and when the landless Banglee began to infiltrate into the Hills which they considered is their land. The interaction within the social system makes them realized and retains their ethnic character as their identity. Therefore, their ethnic identity is constructed is relations to the ‘others’. But to keep a note, this relational interactions does not imply being assimilated, but only realization of their difference.

Understanding  citizenship

Conventionally citizenship is understood as the legal status of the individual member of the nation state, who entitled with certain rights and duties, and as equal participant in the political processes of the state. It is also an identity to indicate that one is a member of a particular state. It is collective identity to represent the nation as a whole, having common history, culture and so on. However, such conception of citizenship is one linear and cannot be contextualized in many of the post colonial states. Also, it invites criticisms from various spheres such as the femininity or the global perspectives; the conventional notion of citizenship is one dimensional and does not account many other variables such as environment, economy and women.

In the post colonial states which are multi cultural in context, such replication of traditional concept of citizenship becomes problematic and leads to agitations from different social and ethnic minority groups. The overarching representation of citizenship as the national identity, overlooking the differences of various ethnic groups has caused violence and demand for creation of new states.

As T. H. Marshall (1950) point out that citizenship as a “full membership” is not to do away with inequality however, it was to take recognition of the inequalities. The whole process of evolution of citizenship was associated with civil, political and social rights in different phases of historical and social processes (Marshall: 1950). Acquisition of property is one of the essential criteria for acquiring citizenship in ancient era. Marshall asserts on the importance of education because only through education one can realized ones’ rights and duties. Membership in a political community does not only mean enjoying rights but participation in the political processes of the state.

Michael Walzer (1983) opined that

“distribution of goods to one another is membership in some human community.”

Those who are not members are stateless, and do not have guaranteed rights, nor can they participate in the distribution of goods. The notion of member takes us to the understanding of citizenship as it denotes membership of a particular society or state. However, people migrate and change membership every now and then, from one state to another and from one social setting to another. Then how do we determine whether is one is member of the community or not leaves us to an open debate.

History’s biggest migration during the India-Pakistan partition.

The South Asian states experienced a massive population movement because of the partition in 1947, and war in 1971. The high human mobility in this region is because of the porous boundaries, social and historical relations among people across the borders and so on. The notion of nation state is to be understood differently in this context as for the people, nation is their own ethnic community or the social groups. The national borders are not definitely defined. The human populations are diversed. Therefore representation of citizenship as the national identity causes great furore. As the minority community feels they are not represented, begin to doubt their sense of belongingness to the state. Often the states’ attempt to replicate the westphalian notion of state as having a fixed territory with more or less homogeneous populations failed terribly. The homogenizing tendency often leaves out the minority communities. The tussle the conflict between the majority and the minority, with majority trying to impose upon the other, thus notion of nation state itself is problematic in itself. The debating concept of state sovereignty and citizenship lead us to further arguments as to who are the members of the state and who are entitled to be citizens of the state.

Myron Weiner (1993) observed that three categories of people in the population movement. First, “rejected people” who are “citizens or legal residents of a country forced to leave as a result of persecution, violence, or threats to their lives or property and whose departure is sought by their government or by those among whom they live”. Another category he identified is the unwanted migrants by which he means “people crossing an international boundary, legally or illegally, who are unwelcome and are often asked or forced to leave”. The chakmas are the rejected people, according to this paradigm, because they are state sponsored migrants and at the same time they have been persecuted on various grounds. Therefore, they are settled in the neighbouring states of North East India for many decades. But they are denied citizenship rights and till today only a handful of the Chakmas have citizenship rights. They are constantly asserting to the government of India to grant them citizenship rights and recognized as the Scheduled Tribes under the Indian constitution. According to them they have always settled in India with their own piece of land therefore, can be granted the citizenship rights.

As discussed earlier the characteristics of citizenship is not merely having rights but participation in the political processes. The chakmas without rights and duties become “stateless” in India and due to non recognition in Bangladesh they are the rejected people. They do not participate in the official and formal political processes, however, their causes has been ardently addressed through NGOs and other organizational institutions such as UNHCR and other civil societies.

Concluding Remarks

The identity of the Chakmas is ambiguous. On the one hand they draw their identity lineage from the historical and cultural distinction from the East Bengal and Pakistan, on the other hand they construct their identity on the basis of them being resettled in Indian because of the religious persecution in East Bengal and Pakistan. The Chakmas’ claimed for Indian citizen is self justified. “Since we were born here in India, we are Indians. Our parents may not be Indians as they came from East Pakistan. We want to coexist peacefully with the locals, but it is they who never intermingle with us and keep avoiding us. They call us refugees and want us to go back to Bangladesh. But I don’t consider myself a refugees as I was born here in India. Iam very much an Indian, if not a legal citizen of India. We have been trying so hard to get Indian citizenship, but have not been able to acquire it till now. Our parents may leave for the heavenly abode anytime, as they have grown old. Where would we go then? Nobody knows us in Bangladesh, nor do we know anybody there. We would thus continue to live here and die here too”. (Sushil Kumar Chakma) . Their claim is justified on the ground the Indian constitution guarantees citizenship by birth. While they claimed their rights for citizenship the local communities of Arunachal Pradesh feels that the recognition of their citizenship rights will in turn jeopardized their communities. They fear that the Chakmas will share and control their land holdings and resources and thus they will be deprived and become landless. However, the rights claimed by the Chakmas’s Commititte for the Citizenship Rights Of The Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh (CCRCAP) is supported by various international organizations for Indigenous rights.

The representation of the national identity as one single homogeneous identity causes a significant crisis both politically and culturally. The identity crisis of the Chakmas as we have analysed at length is caused by the ‘integrationist’ or ‘assimilationist’ attitude of the state, despite the different genealogical identity affinities of the people. The state becoming the legitimizing agency to integrate or homogenized either through political exclusion or other means such as genocide is one of the prime factor for the continuing crisis of the refugees and stateless populations in South Asia. The state rather than becoming a protector and provider of rights and security becomes a threat to the society as it tries to impose a legitimizing political identity upon the people of the state who have diverse ethnic identity. The general perception of drawing upon the territorial boundaries or locations to construct an identity is thus problematic. National identity is a continuously constructed entity to suit the political and ideological situation and not to represent the membership of the people of any particular nation. And so is citizenship, which is a legal entitlement to the individual with both rights and duties, and such laws are not static but have been framed and reframed across time and space. The struggle for the ethnic groups, who are often minority community, is for the recognition of their identities as distinct yet legal in their ‘nation state’, and not get subsumed with the majority community.

Notes and Reference

  1. Chowdhury R Abrar, “On the Margin”, Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (ed.), 2000, pp.69-192.
  2. Deepak k. Singh, “Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India, Sage and the New India Foundation, 2010.
  3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition”, Cambridge university Press, 1992, pp.1-14.
  4. Fredrik Barth, “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference”, Waveland Press, 1969, pp.9-37.
  5. Imtiaz Ahmed, Abhijit Dasgupta and Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff, “State, Society and Displaced People in South Asia”, University Press (ed.), 2004.
  6. Iqthyer Uddin Md Zahed, “Conflict Between Government and the Indigenous People of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh”, IORS Journal of Humanities and Social Science (IORS-JHSS),Vol.16, Issues 5,Sept.-Oct. 2013,pp. 97-102.
  7. Jenneke Arens and Kirti Nishan Chakma, “Bangladesh: Indigenous Struggle in The Chittagong Hill Tracts”, in Monique Mekenkamp et. al.,Searching for Peace in Central and South Asia, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002, pp.304-323.
  8. John Hutchinson, “Ethnicity and Modern Nations”, Routledge, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.23, No.4, 2000, pp. 651-669.
  9. Mehna Guhathakurta, “Cartographic Anxieties, Identity Politics and the Imperatives of Bangladesh Foreign Policy”, Peace Prints: South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding, Vol.2, No.3, winter 2010.
  10. Michael Walzer, “Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality”, Basi Books, 1983, pp. 31-63.
  11. Myron Weiner, “Rejected Peoples and Unwanted Migrants in South Asia”, Economic and Political Weekly, August 21, 1993.
  12. Nasreen Chowdhory, “The Politics of ‘Belonging’ and ‘Exclusion’: A Note on Refugee in South Asia”, in Paula Banerjee, Unstable Populations, Anxious States: Mixed and Massive Population Flows in South Asia”, Samay, (ed.), 2013, pp.70-111.
  13. Rogers Brubaker, “Ethnicity without Groups”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp.7-27.
  14. Smruti Pattanaik, “Defining the Frontiers of Identity: Balancing Language and Religion in Bangladesh”,, (, accessed on 03-03-2015.
  15. Swarna Rajagopalan, “State and Nation in South Asia”, Viva, 2006.
  16. Syed Anwar Hussain, “Religion and Ethnicity in Bangladeshi Politics”,BIIS, journal, 12:4, 1991, pp. 421-445.
  17. Syed Aziz-al Ahsan and Bhumitra Chakma, “Problems of National Integration in Bangladesh: The Chittagong Hill Tracts”, University of California Press, Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No.10, Oct. 1989 pp. 959-970. (, accessed on 03-03-2015, 5:11 P.M.
  18. Syed M. Ibrahim, “Insurgency in The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh”, AAKROSH, Vol.3, No. 9, Oct. 2000, pp.37-62.
  19. T.H. Marshall, “Citizenship and Social Class and other essays”, Cambridge university Press, 1950, pp. 1-85.
  20. T.N. Madan, “The Dialectic of Ethnic and National Boundaries in Evolution of Bangladesh”, Vikas Publication House, Studies in Asian Social Development, No.2, 1974, pp.158-183.
  21. T.N. Madan, “Coping with Ethnicity in South Asia: Bangladesh, Punjab and Kashmir Compared”, Routledge, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.21, No.5, 1998, pp.969-989.

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Yaoreiphy Awungshi

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