The new identity of the Bede in Bangladesh
A.S.M Riad Arif, SARRC Silver Jubilee Scholar, South Asian University, New Delhi :The Bede is mainly an occupation-based community. The life style, social category and social integration of the Bede people are highly linked to their occupation. And because of their occupation, they are neglected and deprived of their rights in the society, for centuries.
So they are shifting to other professions for last few decades. Modernization of the society has marginalized their professions, taking a toll on their income.
The history of Bede community in Bangladesh is of almost 400 years (Laiju,2011). A short description of the Bede was found in James Taylor’s Book ‘A Sketch of the Topography & Statistics of Dacca’ in 1840.
This community never wants to involve with agricultural activities. Though Bangladesh is a highly agriculture-based country and 60% of its population are directly and indirectly involved with agriculture. The Bebe are actually travellers as they travel from one part to another of the country.
Basically, they travel by boat. Bangladesh is a riverine country. They could easily move by boat, mostly large, all over the country. There were at least three chambers in each boat, where they live with their family. But they never travel alone. Rather they travel in large group, with some 40-60 boats sailing together.
Duly, they do not permanent address. Even ten year ago, they did not have any piece of land of their own. A close look to the cultural dimension of Bede community is depicted through The Mymensingh Geetika( Mohuyar Pala) collected by famous Folklorist Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen. The Story of Behula and Lakhindar also tells us about the cultural dimension of Bede. Tarasankar Bandhapaddya has drawn a wonderful picture of Bede culture in his novel “Nagini Konya.”
Celebration is an inseparable part of the custom of the Bede. They observe numerous unique festivals, when they dance and sing songs in their language named “that /thar”. When they work together, they talk in that language. The method of their marriage system is unique. From the last few decades, many of the Bede people left their traditional profession. They do not live in boat anymore.
Shofiqul Islam, one of the Bede leaders living at Savar, said they are forced to come back from boat because if they live in boat, they are exploited and deprived in the society. Now many of them are permanent settlers and some of them are doing ‘ferry’ business. Throughout the year, and especially during harvest season, they move out in groups from village to village and carry out their trade—a journey which they term Gawal. They carry with them wicker-baskets of snakes or bags of herbal medicines. Usually, it is the women who go in Gawal. Catching snake and snake-charming are a major source of income for them. Towards the end of December when winter starts, and in the last half of July when the summer gets hotter, they go in Gawal with their families. Bede people now are involved with new professions as garments works or rickshaw pullers etc.
Then again, changing the profession has not been a piece of cake just owing to the attitude of the society towards them. Language is also a major cause behind them being ignored as they communicate within themselves in their own dialect.
But they have learnt and developed their skill in Bengla too. Now it will be difficult to identify one as a Bede man or woman just by talking to him or her. This is happening because language earned them that confidence. So we must say: language is an identity, language is the culture.