|Volume 5 Issue 09| September 2011|
Who is 'Indigenous?'
WASFIA NAZREEN elaborates on the concept of indigenousness in the context of Bangladesh.
The recent debate on 'indigenousness' in the context of Bangladesh has thrown up many questions on the appropriateness of the 'indigenous' identity of the peoples of Bangladesh, particularly the Pahari (hill) peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The government line is that the Paharis are not indigenous to Bangladesh, while Bengalis are. On the other hand, the Jumma peoples and the Plains Adibashis insist that they are indigenous peoples.
Who is right? Who are the Indigenous -- the Adibashis or the Bengalis? Or are they both indigenous?
Context of indigenousness: Human rights vs. etymology
And, of course, we must not ignore history. Let us therefore explore the history of settlements in Bangladesh, and the implications of the recent amendments of the constitution.
Ancestral backgrounds of the Adibashis
Citing the Government of Bangladesh's communication to him, the UN Special Rapporteur Martinez Cobo wrote that the government regarded members of tribal and semi-tribal populations as indigenous on account of their descent from populations which are settled in specified geographical areas of the country (emphasis added).
Thus the question is, were the different Adibashi peoples settled in the different parts of the country such as the CHT (e.g., Chakma, Marma, Tripura), the Barind tract (e.g., Santal, Munda, Oroan), the Madhupur tract (Garo, Hajong) and so forth, before the Bengalis settled there?
Indigenousness of the CHT Adibashis (Jummas)
Portuguese accounts refer to “Chacomas”, separately from Bengal, Arakan and Tripura in the mid-16th century. Migration of Jummas to and from present-day Bangladesh, the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram, and Myanmar happened for centuries. It was not a one-off event. Thus it is understandable why the CHT Regulation of 1900 defined an indigenous person of the CHT as “Chakma, [Marma] or a member of any Hill tribe indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Lushai Hills, Arakan Hill Tracts, or the State of Tripura”.
In contrast, Bengalis were the last to settle in the CHT.
Most importantly, the CHT was not part of Bengal until after British advent. Eminent historians and sociologists therefore have noted the following: “In 1860 the British occupied the hills to the east of Chittagong and annexed them to their colonial empire. For the first time in their history, the Chittagong hills were administered from Bengal. Before that time, political power in the hills had been dispersed among many chiefs.”
Indigenousness of the Plains Adibashis
As in the case of the CHT, the plains Adibashis were also present in Bangladesh from before there were written histories, imperial conquests and colonisation.
Even today, despite the de-recognition, and subsequent non-recognition by the state, it is the traditional institutions that these peoples turn to for resolving their internal disputes and for carrying out other cultural activities (Manjhi: Santall, Nokma: Garo, Myntri: Khasi). They do not turn to the mainstream state-centric institutions, unlike the Bengali peoples.
Indigenousness of Bengalis
But the crucial point here is that by having assimilated into the dominant groups and adopting the dominant identity (regardless of the religious and nationalist aspects of that identity) Bengalis can no longer claim the indigenous mantle as it is understood in the human rights context. The indigenous concept only makes sense when the peoples are "non-dominant" in statecraft and otherwise.
Contrary to the popular belief portrayed in the media, having an 'indigenous' status does not give anyone privileges of any sort over and above that of other citizens. Essentially, it means the recognition of their full participatory rights as citizens, keeping in mind the exclusion and discrimination historically meted out to them in the process of state-formation, nation building and development, which Bengalis have enjoyed from the formation of the State. It also means the creation of an enabling environment, in which they may preserve their distinctive cultural identities, which are threatened on account of their marginal situations from the beginning of State formation.
The Debate at the UN Permanent Forum and Economic and Social Council
The Foreign Ministry's PR campaign also reported that Russia had leaned towards GoB's concern, but in fact, the position taken by Russia is just a known cautious position on IP related matters -- nothing new, and they say something like this at ECOSOC every year. What GoB, quite understandably suppressed in the media -- is the overwhelming rejection of GoB's views by states at ECOSOC of it's two major requests: 1) to agree that PFII had no mandate to discuss the CHT Accord, on the ground that the CHT Jummas were not indigenous peoples; and 2) to delete two paragraphs from the PFII's report concerning human rights violation by GoB security personnel and prevention of peacekeeping duties by HR violators.
Several news sources have referred that “Raja Devasish Roy 'led' a 12-strong team to UNPFII” -- which is factually incorrect. Raja Devasish Roy is one of the 16 Expert Members at the PFII, and it is not one of those Climate or Biodiversity conferences where he 'led' a team from Bangladesh (including Government officials) to represent our country. As an expert member at the Permanent Forum, he is a voice of entire Asia, appointed by the ECOSOC after securing an overwhelming number of votes from Indigenous organisations across the continent.
At the UNPFII, the participants from Bangladesh represented several independent organisations of our country. I was one of those 12 participants at the 10th session of UNPFII, and my organisation presented its statement on the status of the implementation of the CHT Accord, and the state of human-rights in CHT as a result of the delay in the implementation of the Peace Accord. With all due respect to Raja Devasish, I or the other Bangladeshi civil society members did not attend the PFII under his leadership. We were each sent by individual, independent organisations to participate, in my particular case, an ECOSOC-accredited member, the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). When the media portrays such absurd connection to his leadership roles and those who attended the PFII in our individual capacity and merits, it is feeding into an already convoluted situation fed by racist and communalist misinformation campaign.
Indigenousness in UN instruments and practices
The ILO Conventions 107 (ratified by GoB)
2.1. Pre-colonisation or pre-conquest social, cultural and economic institutions
In contrast, hill communities of the CHT, and Adibashi groups of the plains, “irrespective of their legal status” are quite the opposite. Traditional institutions in the CHT are formally recognized by law, and while those in the plains are not -- still conform to their ancestral institutions' traditions norms and mores.
In the case of “economic institutions”, Bengalis clearly do not retain very many practices of the pre-colonial or pre-conquest period, unlike Pahari groups, for example collective forest management, subsistence-oriented jum or “shifting” cultivation, etc.
2.2. Indigenous are tribal
2.3. Social, economic and other position of disadvantage
The concept of indigenous peoples is meaningless in the case of Bengalis from a human rights perspective because Bengalis are at the helm of state power, while the Adibashis were, and still are, substantively, the 'excluded' citizens, marginalised and disadvantaged.
GoB at the UN in the past
Let's look at how the then Bangladesh Government defined and recognised the Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh. Under the Ancestry criteria: “In Bangladesh, the Government states that the members of Tribal or Semi-tribal populations are regarded as indigenous “on account of their descent from the populations which are settled in specified geographical areas of the country.” (Emphasis added).” Under the Culture and Language criteria: “In Bangladesh some of these isolated or marginal groups are said to “speak a language of their own, have their own dances, music and love songs and a uniform style of home, dress, food and customs distinct from the other tribes”, in some cases also including religions which may be “a mixture of Buddhism and totemism”. Several of these groups are described as “small communities leading a life undisturbed by alien influences” for a very long time “because of the heavy monsoon that cuts off their area from the outside world for much of the year.”” Several similar recognitions by the GoB can be found in the historic document in the link provided.
The 15th Amendment terminology and why it does not work?
Nevertheless, khudro (small) or brihot (large), the constitution refers to jatishotta. Jatishotta is surely either a peoples or nation, in English. And jatishottahood, peoplehood or nationhood has nothing to do with the size or population of the group concerned and of their indigenous or other status. At the same time, deleting 'indigenous' and all related phrases from Government documents will neither erase the consciousness of those who are Indigenous, nor affect the conscience of those who have been fighting with them.
The spirit of the CHT Regulation and customary laws are embedded in the customs of Bangladesh, which cannot be uprooted merely by a change of terms. In an important case before the Supreme Court on the succession of the Bohmong chieftain-ship, the court stated that neither the GoB nor the Court had the right to interfere with customary laws. Thus the Customary laws of the Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh are now part of the customs of the Republic and cannot arbitrarily be revoked through mere legislation, particularly where that contravenes the constitutional tenets of non-discrimination.
Having said that, the entire exercise smacks of crass and feudal times discriminatory acts. It would be equivalent to legislation in Europe and America -- or this country for that matter -- to overturn the positive legal developments regarding non-discrimination on race, gender and so forth. If GoB wants to continue to be the laughing-stock in the world podium of progressiveness -- the curtains are raised, refreshments have sold-out… all are queuing up for some good laughs, at the expense of our national image.
1. Ethnic minority, not indigenous people, FM tells diplomats, editors, Daily Star, July 27, 2011.
Wasfia Nazreen is a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective (www.drishtipat.org/dpwriters) and was a delegate of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) at the 10th session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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