Being ‘bad’ Muslims in a Muslim majority state: The ‘Bedes’ of Bangladesh
By Carmen Brandt
The Bengali term bede and its variants, e.g. bādiẏā, bāidyā, and bediẏā, in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal refer to a host of itinerant groups that move about in boat fleets or on land with clusters of plastic tents from one region to another, offering diverse services (snake catching and charming, monkey shows, medical treatment, umbrella repairing, etc.) and/or goods (herbal medicine, cheap cosmetics, glass bangles, household utensils, pearl jewellery, etc.) to the sedentary population. Their diverse occupations and the wider society’s inconsistent usage of terminology for them suggest that these groups — similar to the so-called ‘Gypsies’ in Europe — do not, actually, form one community, and indeed often have their very own denominations, for instance Lāuẏā, Māl, Sāndār, etc.
Apart from the problematic lumping together of diverse groups as one community since British colonial times — be it as a caste, tribe, or ethnic group — these people are in present-day Bangladesh also often suspected of not being ‘proper’, i.e. being ‘bad’ Muslims, despite the fact that so-called ‘Bedes’ overwhelmingly, especially in Bangladesh, identify as Muslims. For instance, in the often quoted Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh Jainal Abedin Khan states, “As they [= ‘Bedes’] claim to be Muslims, they tend to maintain a minimal relationship with the local Muslims. They also practice many rites and rituals of Hindu religion.” The notion that ‘Bedes’ only claim to be Muslims can be traced back to the 19th century, to English and Bengali sources similarly furnishing arguments to underpin the un-Muslimness of ‘Bedes’. But whereas in the past alcohol consumption among ‘Bedes’ was the main argument, today the strong role of their women for income generation, and supposed Hindu rites and rituals, serve to raise doubts regarding their Muslimness.
Such charges against ‘Bedes’ were and are obviously based on normative and from the empirical point of view often erroneous notions that Muslims do not, for instance, drink alcohol, wear this or that (e.g. saris or a bindi on the forehead), or do not follow certain rites and rituals that are today often exclusively identified with Hinduism. Interestingly, none of the sources that charge ‘Bedes’ in Bangladesh with practising Hindu rituals actually describes one of these. However, during my field studies in Bangladesh I did meet a young woman from a Māl community who for her community’s celebrations of Eid al-Adha was wearing white bangles with red ornamentation that resembled the shankha bangles, traditionally made of conch-shell, nowadays worn almost exclusively by married Hindu women. When I asked her why she was wearing them and from where they were she replied that her brother had bought them for her in Calcutta, and she thought they were beautiful and matched her dress, a black and white salwar kameez. She was obviously not at all aware how outsiders might perceive these bangles, and I, of course, refrained from telling her so.
The increasing pressure, also on other Muslims in Bangladesh, from inner-Islamic missionaries like the Tablighi Jamaat, and from militant extremists, today often highly influenced by Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, who claim to be the representatives of ‘true’ Islam, has especially in the last decades been changing the face of the otherwise very heterogeneous Islam in Bangladesh. The recent Hijab fashion among young women in urban Bangladesh and the decreasing support for Sufi shrines in rural areas are only two effects of Bangladeshis catching up with ‘true’ Islam. But while the majority of Bangladesh’s inhabitants have easy access to global media that might tell them how to be ‘good’ Muslims, many ‘Bedes’ even today live under simplest circumstances, in boats or plastic tents without electricity, that also do not allow them to be connected to a mosque community where they could learn the basics of Islam as prevailing locally.
Apart from the lack of knowledge about how to be a ‘good’ Muslim and the obvious dilemma that this knowledge is nothing static and can differ from local community to local community, a floating lifestyle outside the mainstream society does not automatically demand the adaptation of norms and rites of the majority population, especially in the case of ‘Bedes’ that were and are often treated as ‘untouchables’. Their position at the bottom of the social and religious hierarchy is well documented since British colonial times, for instance by James Wise who wrote in 1894 that ‘Bedes’ were not even allowed to “enter the public mosque or find a resting place in the public graveyard.” Although ‘Bedes’ from different communities told me that they are today allowed to enter mosques, some still have their own separate graveyards in case they are settled. In general, they are very much aware that the majority population looks down on them and for this very reason would never marry their girls off to mainstream Bengalis; they are too afraid that their girls would be treated badly in the long run. Hence, the marginalisation of ‘Bedes’ from outside is at least in the case of some groups reciprocated by a voluntarily isolation due to their endogamous marriage patterns. In those cases, the inner-group cohesion, for which traditional rites and rituals — today perceived from outside as “Hindu” — might be essential, seems to be far more important than the pleasing of people who look down upon them anyway. Thus, adaptation strategies, i.e. the wish to become a ‘good’ Muslim, become secondary or redundant.
However, in the case of ‘Bede’ groups that have settled down for good the wish to mainstream, to be accepted as members of the wider society, and adequate strategies to reach this goal can be observed. Apart from the compliance with norms and rites that are generally assigned to Islam, for instance the observance of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan and the strict abstinence from alcohol, two observed strategies are particularly absorbing. The first one refers to the strong income generating role of ‘Bede’ women, which has also drawn the attention of many Bengali authors — for instance, Al Mahmud, Jasimuddin, and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay — that have exoticised the bold, self-confident, strong and at times vamp-like and incalculable itinerant woman. In order to counter these stereotypes and prove that ‘Bede’ women are as modest as any mainstream Bengali Muslim woman, in sedentarised ‘Bede’ communities, women often abstain from pursuing erstwhile occupations and hence any contact with male strangers, and are in some cases even excluded from any form of income generation. This religiously justified gender segregation can be also observed among other Bengali Muslims while climbing the socio-economic ladder.
The second strategy can only be utilised by ‘Bedes’. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, most ‘Bede’ groups seem to have their own denominations and actually reject the term bede or any of its variants. This pertains even more to sedentarised ‘Bede’ groups that often want to fully shake off any association with ‘Bedes’. Nonetheless, this very term is at the same time instrumentalised in order to convince outsiders that the ‘Bedes’ are not only ‘good’ Muslims, but above all, descendants of Arab migrants, of Bedouins, the itinerants of the Arab world that allegedly made their way up to Bengal where their denomination changed to bede over the time. The construction of a foreign, preferably Arab origin is today one of the pivotal elements for socio-religious hierarchy among Muslims in South Asia and divides them mainly into Ashrafs, Muslims of an allegedly high and pure origin, and Ajlafs (also Atrafs), ordinary people whose ancestors have only converted to Islam. ‘Bedes’, however, have in various sources, been considered to be neither Ashrafs nor Ajlafs, but are categorised, for instance, by Reuben Levy, as Arzals — the so-called ‘untouchables’ among South Asian Muslims.
The fanciful etymology of the term bede is obviously a desperate attempt to escape the low position of ‘Bedes’ in society and illustrates another strategy of socio-religious upward mobility among South Asian Muslims often called Ashrafisation, following the concept of Sanskritisation among Hindus. While the growing spread of this etymology due to its reproduction by media and scholars might indeed contribute to a higher acceptance by mainstream Bengali Muslims, it automatically leads to another dilemma: the term bede that is until now rejected as a denomination by the majority of ‘Bedes’ needs to be accepted by them themselves, and might thus contribute to the stabilisation of the presumed group identity which especially sedentarised ‘Bedes’ are trying to get rid of. Hence, a strategy to convince outsiders in Muslim majority Bangladesh that one is a ‘good’ Muslim might reinforce the very ‘otherness’ that actually provoked this strategy.
Carmen Brandt is a lecturer-cum-researcher at the South Asia Seminar of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. She has written her PhD thesis on the perception of itinerant groups in Bengal in fictional and non-fictional sources and focuses in her habilitation project on the socio-political dimensions of script in modern South Asia.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.