Bangladeshi ethnic minorities demand recognition of rights

End to land-grabbing, erosion of culural identity highlighted as indigenous groups mark Santal rebellion against Britain
Bangladeshi ethnic minorities demand recognition of rights

Santal students re-enact a battle with bows and arrows on June 30 in Dhaka to mark the 162nd anniversary of Santal Rebellion against  British colonial authorities. ( photo)


Indigenous Catholics in Bangladesh marked the 162nd anniversary of the Santal Rebellion against the British Raj on June 30, calling for the recognition of fundamental rights for ethnic minorities in the country.

In the capital Dhaka and various districts in northern Bangladesh, indigenous Catholics marked the day with rallies, fairs, cultural programs and a seminar on life and the struggles of ethnic minorities.

The Santal Rebellion, popularly called Santal Hool was a major armed struggle by largely agrarian Santals, one of the largest ethnic indigenous groups in the Indian subcontinent, against British colonial authorities and their local cohort zaminders that began on June 30, 1855. It aimed to bring an end to their slave-like conditions due to an exploitative and discriminatory land and revenue system.

Led by four brothers — Sido, Kahnu, Chand and Bhairab Murmu — the rebellion lasted about six months before it was ended by British troops on Jan. 3, 1856.

"Many anthropologists believe some ethnic communities, including the Santals, were among the first inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, but we are still fighting for our rights to land, our culture and for official recognition," said Subodh M. Baskey, a Santal and president of the Dhaka chapter of Adivasi Mukti Morcha, an indigenous rights body that organized the seminar to mark the anniversary.

The government should ensure land rights of ethnic minorities by setting up a separate land commission, justice for abuses and killings of ethnic minorities and take measures to save ethnic languages and culture from dying out, he added.

"Our ancestors fought against British colonists for their rights, and that battle is far from over today as we are pushed to the edge due to oppression," he said.

The government officially terms indigenous groups as "small ethnic groups" and discourages official celebration of indigenous festivals including World Indigenous Peoples Day on Aug. 9, maintaining the official line that "there are no indigenous people" in Bangladesh.  

However, Catholic charity Caritas sponsored and participated in the Santal rebellion anniversary programs including a large festival and fair in Naogaon district in northern Bangladesh.

"Our goal is to empower social organizations of indigenous communities, to make them educated and financially solvent. In current socio-economic-political backdrop, ethnic minorities are facing a hard time, and they need support for survival and to live a life of dignity," said Denis C. Baskey, a Santal Catholic and regional director of Caritas Rajshshi that covers northern Bangladesh.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians make up less than half percent of the 160 million population. The majority of them are Catholics and nearly half hail from indigenous groups.

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