Battlefield to Borderlands: Partitions and the Rohingya Question, 1942–52

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 2:10 PM
Lincoln Room (New York Hilton)
Jayita Sarkar, Boston University
Following the Anglo-Burmese Wars, the nineteenth-century imperial networks that began connecting British India with British Burma engendered both circulation of people as well as ascribed on these migrants various degrees of loyalty to the Raj: who were the most loyal subjects and to what end? In the Second World War, these divided loyalties determined battlefield strategies. The “Chittagongian Muslims” (as per British War Office records) or the “Rawangyas” (as the Rohingya people called themselves) were recruited to fight in the Arakan Campaigns on the side of the British against the Japanese. These divided loyalties became entangled with post-imperial nation-building through partitions and the borderlands that those created. One of the bloodiest rounds of communal violence in the Arakan between pro-British Muslims and pro-Japanese Buddhists (or “Mog” as Rakhine Buddhists were known at the time) transpired during the War. The organization, training, and firepower that came with the War fueled further conflict in the Arakan in the postwar years reaching a peak in 1948. The wartime ammunition dumps became a source of re-armament for Rohingya groups as some of them violently campaigned to join the recently partitioned Muslim-majority nation-state, Pakistan. The Communist success in the Chinese Civil War in the north and Malaya in the south transformed the Rohingya question into a Cold War concern for British and American officials: how much did they actually align with the Communists? The rise of Bengali language movement in East Pakistan that reached a crescendo with the violent police crackdown of February 1952 made the Rohingya groups’ affinity for joining Urdu-speaking Pakistan complicated and even traitorous. These ambiguities in language, religion, and territoriality produced in the battlefield and reproduced in the borderlands continue to haunt their identity till this day.
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