Adivasi rights in Bangladesh: Where have they came in the last two decades?
January 1, 2005 heralded the beginning of the Second International Decade for Indigenous Peoples. This was deemed necessary because the first decade was clearly inadequate to deal with the legacies of colonialism, racism and other ills perpetrated upon indigenous peoples over the centuries. The main theme of the First Decade from 1995 to 2004 was "Partnership in Action". The decade was preceded by the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, 1993, whose theme was "A New Partnership".
The major targets of the first international decade
When the International Indigenous Year was declared, it was hoped that a new and respectful partnership would emerge between indigenous peoples, states, the United Nations (UN) system and other sections of society. Similarly, it was hoped that the Decade would foster more effective mechanisms to protect indigenous peoples' rights. In particular, three specific targets were set for the Decade, two of which have since been fulfilled. One of these was the appointment of a special UN Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People. Professor Dr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen of Mexico has been appointed to this office. The other fulfilled target of the Decade was the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which reports annually to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and provides expert advice to ECOSOC and to the UN specialized agencies. The third major aim of the Decade was for the UN to adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which remains to be fulfilled.
Indigenous, adivasi and "tribal"
I shall interchangeably use the term "indigenous people/peoples", or their Bengali equivalent, "Adivasi", to refer to the aboriginal peoples of the country. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) the term applies to eleven montagnard or hill peoples: Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Lushai, Marma, Mro, Pangkhua, Tanchangya and Tripura, who are also known as Pahari or Jumma or as "tribals" [sic]. The word Adivasi is more in currency in central and north-western Bangladesh to refer to the Barman, Koch, Munda, Oraon, Santal, and Rajbangshi, among others. Then there are the other so-called "tribal" peoples in north-central, north-eastern and southern Bangladesh, including the Garo (Mandi), Hajong, Khasi and Rakhaing. None of these peoples accepts the term "tribal", or its Bengali equivalent, "upajati", on account of its pejorative connotations. The East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950 ("EBSAT ACT, 1950") uses the terms "aboriginal tribes and castes" to refer to the Adivasis of the plains. The CHT Regulation of 1900 uses the term "indigenous hillman" to refer to the adivasis of the CHT. Similar wording has been used in the national Budget Act of 1995 (Act 12 of 1995).
Land alienation and the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950
The overall situation of Adivasis in Bangladesh is far from good, as is even admitted by ruling coalition leaders. Ask a Santal or Oraon and she will tell you about the land alienation or social discrimination she suffers from. The Rakhaing of the south are on record for petitioning the current and previous prime ministers regarding land alienation, with little redress to date. This is so despite the restrictions contained in the constitutionally-protected EBSAT ACT, 1950, regarding transfer of aboriginal lands to non-aboriginals. Theoretically, an aggrieved aboriginal could go to court, but the impecuniosity of the dispossessed prevents any action to obtain legal redress. There are no viable alternatives to suo moto state action to implement this law.
National park, Eco Park and the human 'Denizens'
The Garo in Madhupur are far from happy. A "National Park" has been created on their traditional land, with a concrete wall that attempts to keep them away. A local leader, Piren Snal, who led a peaceful protest against the wall, had to give his life for his people. Go westwards towards Sylhet, the Khasi will tell you about the "Eco Park" created on their land, from which they are threatened with eviction. Just about a week ago, many Khasis were threatened with eviction by Forest Department personnel and Bengali villagers. The Khasis are not willing to be relegated to a status of human 'denizens' for the benefit of city-based visitors to the so-called Eco Park. Until the 1980s, many Khasi hamlets or punjis held formal leases from the Forest Department. Not any more, I am told.
Land alienation & denial of Self-Determination
Compared to the plains, the self-government rights of the indigenous peoples of the CHT are more secure, at least by law. However, you will find many Marma, Tripura or Chakma complain about not having their alienated lands restored. They may also complain about militarisation and human rights violations. Ask a Tanchangya, and he will tell you about the non-acknowledgment of their people's self-determination right. Other members of the smaller indigenous groups may complain of inadequate representation in the district and regional councils. Yet others may say that the 1997 Accord cannot adequately safeguard the CHT peoples' rights. And I have not said how the situation varies between men and women. In general, the situation of Adivasi women is worse than their men because they suffer as members of a disadvantaged minority and indigenous group, and also as women, even among their own people. I shall hopefully write more about these issues in future.
Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh and the UN year and decade
On 9 August, 1993, the Bangladeshi indigenous peoples celebrated the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, even though the government had ignored the event. They demanded constitutional recognition of their cultural integrity and political status. Leading members of Bangladeshi civil society, including the greatest living Bengali poet, Shamsur Rahman, extended their solidarity to the indigenous cause. The impact of the international events was thus felt within the country in various ways. Firstly, the UN events led to the forging of greater unity among the country's indigenous peoples. Secondly, it instilled a greater sense of pride in the indigenous identity. Thirdly, it led to the growing currency of the terms "indigenous" and "Adivasi", which has also facilitated intra-indigenous unity.
Indigenous identity and Bangladeshi political leaders
At United Nations fora, representatives of the Bangladesh Government have occasionally declared that there are no 'indigenous' people in Bangladesh, merely "tribals", or that all Bangladeshis, including Bengalis, are indigenous. The position is somewhat similar to that of the Government of India's, which too prefers "tribals" to 'indigenous'. However, barring some exceptions, the growing trend over the years has been to provide greater respect towards this identity. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have sent messages of goodwill to the Adivasis on Indigenous People's Day in previous years, addressing them as "Adivasi". More recently, the draft national Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper ("PRSP") has used the terms "indigenous/Adivasi" in the Bangladeshi context. History cannot be denied. The Bangladeshi indigenous peoples were living in and sustainably managing large parts of the country long before other ethnic groups settled in these areas. In any case, it is not the primordial basis of their identity that is important, but the fact that indigenous peoples have historically been denied a role in state-formation and state-building. International Treaty law and Customary International law on human rights and indigenous peoples' rights seek to reduce the unbalance, and do away with some of the legacies of these historical wrongs and inequities, including through affirmative action or protective discrimination.
Towards dialogue, peace and development
The overall situation of the indigenous peoples of the country is a case for serious concern and calls for concerted action through dialogue, mutual respect, and trust. The recent Government-indigenous dialogue on the PRSP was a positive example to be emulated. There may be differences between the two, but the gaps can definitely be narrowed down. Greater devolution of authority to the hill councils, and direct representation of the plains Adivasis in the Special Affairs Division that deals with Adivasi issues for the plains - would accelerate development in the long-neglected Adivasi areas. That would instil a stronger sense of "Bangladeshiness" than to continue to keep them excluded from governance and development. Certain sections of the government occasionally react in a frenzied manner to Adivasi protests against the violation of their rights. It is a norm of healthy and democratic societies for such complaints to be made. This happens also in the case of other countries, and the Government of Bangladesh should not feel that people who so complain are acting against the interest of the state.
The Adivasis of the country seek peace and stability in their areas and in the whole country. In the CHT, the indigenous people have suffered much during the 20-year conflict and will not easily support any further violence in the region. Whatever violence there is, can hopefully be ended, through the joint efforts of all concerned. The indigenous peoples of the region are more than ready to co-operate with all sections of Bangladeshi civil society to bring forth a truly just peace in the region.
Democracy and Self-Determination
The long-term interest of any state is to foster contentment, peace and development. And that is possible only by respecting true self-determination. The right of self-determination should not only be equated with the creation of a new state. Bangladesh has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 1 of both covenants reads: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." This right cannot be denied to indigenous peoples, including those in Bangladesh.
Speaking about self-determination, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples' Rights, Dr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, had this to say, among others: "The link between self-determination and democracy must be strengthened in theory and in practice. The violence we see around us is not generated by the drive for self-determination, but by its denial. The denial of self-determination, not its pursuit, is what leads to upheavals and conflicts. And the denial of self-determination is essentially incompatible with true democracy".
The author is the Chief of the Chakma and an ex-officio adviser to the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs.