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Indigenous debate reaches boiling point

The rights of millions in Bangladesh depend on gaining constitutional recognition

Bangladeshi ethnic people have been demanding constitutional recognition for long time Bangladeshi ethnic people have been demanding constitutional recognition for long time
  • Porimol Palma, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • May 10, 2011
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Bangladeshi indigenous (tribal) people have been holding meetings, human chains and rallies frequently in different parts of the country, demanding constitutional recognition.

They say they don’t want to be termed as “tribal” groups or “small ethnic” groups but as “adivasi” (indigenous people), in line with UN conventions, to protect their cultural, traditional and land rights.

The words are derogatory and discriminatory, they say, adding that the majority Bengalis will have the chance to belittle them through these “word holes.”

The indigenous debate arose after some remarks from the co-chairman of a special parliamentary committee that has been working to amend the constitution to have it resemble the first and original version of 1972.

Suranjit Sengupta, a veteran parliamentarian and constitution expert from the ruling Awami League Party said on March 15 that the committee would recommend recognizing them (tribal people) as “small ethnic groups.”

He also asked a question: “Would Bangalees [Bengalis] be termed ‘intruders’ or ‘invaders’ if the ethnic groups are called adivasi?”

The original constitution drawn up a year after the 1971 war of liberation also included these people as ethnic groups.

Indigenous people were not consulted or recognized in Bangladesh’s original constitution, though they fought for the liberation of the country. That constitution said all citizens of Bangladesh will have Bangalee nationality, despite the presence of 45 indigenous communities that make up about three million of the total 160 million population.

Many of them embraced Christianity and currently tribal people account for a sizeable part, about half the country’s almost 400,000 Catholic population.

The present debate regarding their ethnic identity, which is one of the most talked-about subjects today, might add to the woes they have endured for decades if it is not addressed.

They have already endured humiliation from influential Bengalis in recent years, who have grabbed their lands, stolen forests and turned subjugation into a usual practice.

Various human rights groups and activists have joined campaigns to put forward the cases of these downtrodden people.

Some of their leaders emphasize the need for the term “indigenous,” saying there are good reasons for doing so.

“We want to live as people with equal rights while maintaining our cultures and traditions, and don’t want to be looked upon as inferior ethnic people,” said Sanjeeb Drong, a Catholic and secretary-general of the Bangladesh Indigenous People’s Forum.

Drong who is a Garo added that Bangladeshi indigenous people have certain characteristics -- their own languages, customs, cultures, traditions, and a distinct way of life in the hills, forests and on plains -- which are recognized by a number of UN conventions.

Devashis Roy, a lawyer of the indigenous Chakma group from the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region and member-designate to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in an article in The Daily Star on November 12 last year wrote their status as “indigenous,” “aboriginal” and “adivasi” is already recognized in certain laws related to the CHT and indigenous people.

These laws are, however, deemed insufficient to protect their identity and rights because they often remain unimplemented or subordinated on the basis of the political exigencies of the governments, he wrote.

At other times, legal provisions that contain safeguards are subject to constitutional challenges under threat of being declared ultra vires (beyond the powers) of the constitution or otherwise illegal. So, their constitutional recognition as adivasi is crucial to protecting their rights in every aspect.

Even, the international instruments – the ILO's Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (No. 107) of 1957, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – all recognize the adivasi and ensure equal rights in all terms, he said. All these are ratified by Bangladesh.

“We support the demands of the indigenous people,” said Nirmal Rozario, general-secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association.

Rozario, a Bengali Catholic said Bangladesh is not a country only for the Bangalees, but for people of various languages, cultures and traditions. Recognizing them as adivasi would enhance the country’s image as a secular state, he noted.

Syed Abul Maksud, a Muslim columnist, said indigenous people must be recognized as adivasi, because they meet all the criteria for it.

“They were done an injustice in 1972, and this time a similar mistake should not be repeated,” he said, adding that they should be given their rights in full by recognizing them in the constitution, legal documents and in protecting their land, cultures and traditions.

Porimol Palma is a staff reporter with Bangladesh’s leading English daily The Daily Star.

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