Ara Alam-Simmons: “Whether we are the people of the land or part of diasporic communities, are there connections we can make here to our own histories?” (Photo supplied)

The colonisation experiences of Māori have many parallels with the South Asian diaspora in Aotearoa who themselves come from countries colonised by the British. For Ara Alam-Simmons, connecting to her own Bangladeshi history helps her better understand and support the aspirations of tangata whenua in this country.

 

Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis don’t like to talk about how we were colonised.

Within our communities, there’s a general lack of critique of that period of our history — and anyone who attempts to have a conversation about the impact of the colonial violence and oppression that our ancestors faced is quickly shut down.

There’s also an unwillingness to consider how our communities here in Aotearoa may be perpetuating that lateral violence on others, including on Māori and Pasifika people. By lateral violence, I mean racism and discrimination, as well as our self-loathing and belief in the stereotypes about our own communities.

There are many reasons for wanting to forget the violence of past histories. These include just wanting to move on and placing little value on remembering. It’s painful to revisit or address our own deeply entrenched traumas — and because these histories aren’t often openly discussed, there are many among us who don’t even know our histories in the first place.

For many South Asians living here, the desire to successfully assimilate into a new country, and the striving to get ahead and secure status, cancel out everything else.

Some in our communities, which include Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the Maldives, even believe that being colonised by the British was a good thing that brought a more “civilised” South Asian into being. This point of view is often expressed by assimilated folk who are aspiring to be white. During the 2023 general election, for instance, it was deeply embarrassing to see some of our self-appointed South Asian community leaders carrying placards with the slogan “take our country back”. I could only reflect on how messed up this belief is.

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Ara’s father left for the UK in 1964, as a Pakistani. By the time he returned home, East Pakistan had become Bangladesh. (Photo supplied)

I am Bangladeshi British, born and raised in the United Kingdom, and Aotearoa is my home. I moved here 20 years ago after marrying a Pākehā New Zealander who then wanted to come home.

Last year, my father passed away in Bangladesh — and this prompted me to reflect on my own complicated family history. External colonial forces and trauma not only shaped my father’s shifting identity but also how he related to others. These forces also shaped my own identity.

My father was a Bengali, who spent his entire life trying to prove his worthiness to other South Asians around him, and even to his own community. He was a bit too dark for other people’s liking. His nose was too wide, and he was from the wrong side of town, from too near the Chittagong Hill tracts where Chakma (one of the Indigenous tribes of Bangladesh) live. He was, in other words, just a bit too Indigenous-looking.

He was born in India in 1936 (according to his passport, although births were often not recorded so we can’t be certain that this was his real birthdate). And he became an orphan just after the 1947 partition that divided what was then British India into two nation states: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. He was raised by his siblings who he later supported through his labour in the UK.

Going through my father’s things after he died, we found his old Pakistani passport and a British labour voucher which allowed him to gain entry into Great Britain in 1964. He left what was then East Pakistan for factory work in the North of England. When he eventually returned to his homeland, many years later, it had become the independent state of Bangladesh.

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Ara and her father, after planting chillies on ancestral land in Bangladesh, in 2017. (Photo supplied)

It had taken only five years after the 1947 partition for colonised cracks to appear in the newly-formed Pakistan. Bengalis (my anc

estors) soon began struggling for their linguistic, cultural, and political rights in their newly designated state.

Even before partition, Bengalis were an often-marginalised people, both at the hands of the British and those Indians who the British chose to carry out their colonising work. The Indian Civil Service of 1947, for example, consisted of just one Bengali officer. After partition, Bengalis expected this to change, but marginalisation continued. There is much literature on those who were once colonised becoming colonisers themselves.

Despite 44 million people (out of a population of 69 million) speaking Bengali, Pakistan made the decision to adopt Urdu and the language of the colonisers, English, as its two official languages. Bengali as a language didn’t feature. “Bangla choro — Urdu Bolo” (Let go of Bangla — Speak Urdu) was a slogan that my father often heard as a youth. Bengalis had to fight to ensure that Bengali also became a state language of Pakistan.

Bengalis in East Pakistan continued to suffer humiliation and cultural denigration, along with increased socioeconomic hardships. This all came to a head in the liberation war of 1971, where East Pakistan was able to free itself to become the independent state of Bangladesh. This is also remembered as a partition and a genocide.

During this partition, the West Pakistan military approved state-sanctioned violence under what was known as Operation Searchlight. This included the systematic killing of Bengali intellectuals and the rape and brutalisation of women. Between 200,000 to 400, 000 Bengali women and girls were held in camps, violated and raped to deliberately interrupt bloodlines. There are stories from women who, when they asked for water, were given coconut shells filled with urine to drink. This barbaric savagery was not dissimilar to what many Indians had previously faced under British colonial rule.

Ten million Bengali refugees fled to India, in the largest refugee movement in history, with another 30 million people internally displaced. If you’re Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, you will remember partition (and what you consider partition) quite differently.

It was a time when power politics and violence mattered more than the humanity and rights of people to self-determine, which is what we’re seeing now in the genocide of Palestinian people by the Israeli military, playing out for all of us to see on Instagram and TikTok.

Back in 1971, there was no social media to record the slaughter. Foreign journalists were encouraged to leave the area formerly known as East Pakistan before the murders took place. There was very little international media coverage as evidence of what took place.

America refused to condemn the genocidal actions of the West Pakistan military but instead shipped their army weapons from Turkey, Jordan and Iran. This is a repeat of what we’re seeing happening in Palestine, with different brown bodies, while the oppression, enablers and global forces remain the same.

Nine months after the 1971 genocide began, Bangladesh was born out of what was formerly known as East Pakistan. That genocide is still not recognised by the United Nations, 53 years on, because of politics, power and money.

Kill the knowledge, defile the women and bloodlines, kill multiple members of families, and displace millions of people from their homelands. Does any of this ring familiar to us here in Aotearoa?

Whether we are the people of the land or part of diasporic communities, are there connections we can make here to our own histories?

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Ara with her partner and children, during a visit to Bangladesh in 2016. (Photo supplied)

Our communities have called for more inclusion in wider Aotearoa New Zealand society, but we also need to look in the mirror and reflect on whether we’re doing enough to tackle the supremacist thinking that exists within ourselves.

We can be anti-Māori, Islamophobic, transphobic, homophobic, anti-refugee and anti-poor.

Here in Aotearoa, we also rarely hear about the Indian caste system — a system of dividing people into a hierarchy of different social classes from birth. It’s been around for more than 2000 years and continues to operate within the diaspora to this day. There’s evidence and discussion of caste harassment and discrimination in places like the UK (where caste discrimination is recognised within the Equality Act 2010) and in the US, but very little awareness of it here. It would be foolish, though, to think that we’re immune to this here in Aotearoa.

The legacy of empire continues to cast a long shadow. Colonised minds, if left unattended, seek to colonise.

When I think about the language suppression in my own history, it helps me to connect to the activism of Hana Te Hemara, Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society who, in 1972, gathered 33,000 signatures for a petition calling for te reo Māori to be offered in schools. It reminds me of the experiences of those who, while collecting signatures, were set upon by dogs, followed by the police and had to endure racist insults. It’s sobering to think that te reo Māori only became an official language here in Aotearoa in 1987.

When we can create connections to each other’s histories, we also get to see how we’re entangled together in the global project of colonisation that continues its violence.

When I think about the precarious nature of the immigration status of my father who had been invited to work in the UK, and how it took him years to become a citizen, it makes me think about the Dawn Raids of the 1970s, where Pacific peoples endured racist state violence by the government. My own parents often lived in constant fear that the authorities would send them back, even though they had legitimately arrived in the UK. We were constantly reminded of this as we grew up.

There is an interconnected thread running through all these histories.

Keeping silent on our own colonised histories is not the answer. That’s what white supremacy wants us to do.

Not critiquing and reflecting on the role that we as the more established members of our South Asian communities play in upholding white supremacy, is not the answer.

Critiquing our own communities is not about throwing shade. It demonstrates a love for the diaspora to be better and to do better.

It’s convenient to forget that our communities get to be in Aotearoa because of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and not in spite of it, when we muse that Te Tiriti no longer has any relevance, or when we receive our residency or citizenship. Te Tiriti o Waitangi protects us all: our whānau, our communities and our environment.

When we begin to know ourselves by returning to our own histories, it can also lead to better understanding and acceptance of tangata whenua aspirations and solidarities with other communities here in Aotearoa.

 

Ara Alam-Simmons is a mother, sister, aunty and the daughter of Bangladeshi migrants, who was born and raised in the UK. She comes from a line of people who continue to live through, and resist, the violence of colonisation.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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