A Linguistic Anthropology to Rohingya Identity

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A Linguistic Anthropology to Rohingya Identity
By Abdullah Al Yusuf is a doctoral candidate at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. He obtained his Master of Arts in Peace Studies from International Christian University, Japan as a Rotary Peace Fellow.   

 The history of civilization is replete with conquest, capture, expansion, defeat and contraction of territories. As the empires expand and collapse, so do the physical borders. When people move across the borders, we call them migrants; but when the border moves across the people, we do not call them so. Nonetheless, the erstwhile natives, when included into the new boundary, often have troubles with their identity.

In the past two thousand years, Arakan (now the Rakhine State of Myanmar) has been captured, ruled and expanded by rulers from multiple origin (Alam 6; Hossain 13). As they came, they added new culture, religion, ethnic identity and historical narratives to those existing. Amid the bewildering set of contending narratives, the historiographers today are divided into multiple schools, each with their own sets of assumptions and arguments (Leider 192-94). So much so, that one such school even questions the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the land who now constitute an inseparable part of the Rohingya identity. Ironically, the controversies surrounding the Rohingya identity have been generated by the pro-Rohingya scholars. To be more precise, selection of wrong identity markers and the consequent selection of the wrong reference points in history have generated this undesirable confusion.

Those who have attempted to circumscribe Rohingya identity using political markers suffered the worst. Critics challenged this as a reactive identity framed purposefully in the 1950s to claim an autonomous region for the Muslims in the Mayu Frontier District (Leider 200). Thus, the identity claim lost much of its assertive power in the pre-independence period. Those who followed an etymological approach had slightly better success in extending the claim as far back into the past as early fifteenth century when Mrohaung was the capital of the great Mrauk U Empire. The etymological origin of the word ‘Rohingya’ from ‘Mrohaung’, ‘Rohang’ or ‘Rosang’ confers a certain degree of credibility to the claim (Alam 5). However, this approach does not explain the status of Rohingyas before fifteenth century. Those who used religion as the identity marker fared slightly better, back-tracking the claim of Rohingya existence in Arakan from the Seventh century when Arabs first arrived in this land (Leider192). Again, this narrative loses in its own ground when one seeks to trace the existence of Rohingys in Arakan prior to seventh century.

Scholars who attempt to use “ethnicity” as the identity marker face the critical challenge of defining Rohingya as a unique ethnic group from a singular geographic origin. As an ethnic group, the Rohingya people constitute a complex admixture of people from multiple geographic origins. One can trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Afghans, Tamils, Central Asians, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people (Alam 9). Consequently, identifying a single thread to constitute a well-knit ethnic fabric becomes a daunting task. Those who attempted to find the union in religion had, despite securing limited success of extending the claim a bit longer, the trouble of taking the non-Muslim Rohingyas on board.

On the contrary, the use of linguistic anthropology, archaeology and epigraphy promises better chances of establishing the well-deserved claim of Rohingyas being the earliest inhabitants of Arakan. While the specific word ‘Rohingya’ may not have appeared in the earliest traceable artifacts, the language used by Rohingya ancestors, and by others to define them, can be traced back to the second millennium BCE.

A good point of departure could be the name of the land itself – ‘Arakan’ or ‘Rakhine’. The word ‘Arakan’ has the closest similarity with the Arabic word ‘Rukn’ (Principle) or ‘Arkaan’ (Principles) attaching some credibility to the claim that the land might have been known, at least among some quarters, as ‘Arakan’ since the arrival of Arabs in Seventh century; much before it was known as ‘Rakhine’, a name conferred by the Rakhines who arrived in tenth century (Alam 5-7; Ibrahim 21). However, I prefer not to take this reference point in history as it limits the search for Rohingya narrative to the period after seventh century.

Instead, the popular Rakhine narrative better substantiates the claim of Rohingyas living in the land since antiquity. According to Rakhine chronicles supported by early Buddhist missionaries, the word ‘Rakhine’ has been derived from the Pali word Rakkhapura (Raksapura in Sanskrit) meaning the “Land of Raksas (Ogres)”. The Ramayana (500 BCE) and the Mahabharata (400 BCE) identified the land by that name describing its inhabitants as ‘Raksas’. These Hindu mythologies offer three descriptions of ‘Raksas’. Firstly, they are cannibals; secondly, the ‘Raksasis’ (female Raksas) having the magical power to take attractive female shape to seduce men into sexual intercourse to produce more ‘Raksases’; and finally, they are ‘Kala Mukha’ (black faces) (Singer 2).

The earliest recorded historical evidences provided by the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemaeus (127-145 CE) show the presence of cannibals in the Andaman Islands including around the Gulf of Martaban but make no specific mention of their presence in Arakan (impassably separated from Gulf of Martaban by ArakanYoma).Thus, the assumption of the early inhabitants of Arakan being cannibals does not go uncontested (Singer 2). That leaves us with two other suppositions: the inhabitants of Arakan being black-faced or dark-skinned and their female folk seducing.

The Hindu mythologies were composed by fair-skinned Aryans who invaded Indian continent from the North-West in 1500 BCE pushing the dark-skinned Dravidians down south. Given the age-old trend of demonizing, vilifying and demeaning the opponents, there could be a distant possibility that the Aryans used all these derogatory titles to describe a people whom they did not want their men to associate with lest their white skin and superior blood loses purity. Not surprisingly, till today, the Burmese people in Myanmar address the Rohingyas as ‘Kala’ (dark-skinned), the demeaning title assigned to their ancestors by the Aryans (Crouch 14).

Some scholars are reluctant in accepting a mythological explanation due to the apparent reason that myths are unreal and lack hard evidences. Nonetheless, myths are composed by real people. The language they use represent the one practiced in their contemporary society; and the stories they frame represent the concurrent beliefs. Yet, I shall now offer some hard evidences about the identity of people living in Arakan in those ancient days.

Ptolemy’s map of ancient Arakan (127-145 CE) shows the name of two coastal cities as ‘Sada’ and ‘Berabonna’ (Singer 1). Noel F. Singer provides a convincing explanation about the evolution of the word ‘Sada’, thought to be the capital city at that time. In this part of the region, the written language for the ruling classes and pundits at that time was Sanskrit while the ordinary people used a more naturalized version – ‘Prakrit’ which later evolved into ‘Bangla’ (Bengali language). Ptolemy was informed that Arakan was ruled by the ‘Chandra’ (Lunar) Dynasty. The Sanskrit word ‘Chandra’ was pronounced as ‘Chada’ by his informants using the ordinary Prakrit (old Bengali) parallel. Due to linguistic difficulties, Ptolemy’s interpretation became ‘Sada’, which he also used for naming the capital (Singer 6). ##

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