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Bangladeshi tribal people march for rights, end of repression

Indigenous leaders warn govt of ‘fitting answers’ in the upcoming general election if their demands are not met
Leaders of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (JAP), a national forum of ethnic minority groups, accused the government in the Muslim-majority Bangladesh of not fulfilling any of the promises made to their people. They held a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of its foundation on Sept. 3

Leaders of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (JAP), a national forum of ethnic minority groups, accused the government in the Muslim-majority Bangladesh of not fulfilling any of the promises made to their people. They held a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of its foundation on Sept. 3. (Photo supplied)

Published: September 04, 2023 10:52 AM GMT
Updated: September 04, 2023 11:06 AM GMT

Some 700 ethnic minority people marched through a street in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Sept. 3 asking the government to make legal provisions to save their land and to protect their lives and rights.

They gathered from different parts of the country and some of them wore traditional costumes and carried bows and arrows. As they marched they shouted slogans against the ruling Awami League government for its failure to meet their long-standing demands.

Leaders of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (JAP), a national forum of ethnic minority groups, accused the government in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation of not fulfilling any of the promises made to their people. The rally marked the 30th anniversary of its foundation.

Their six major demands include constitutional recognition of all ethnic minorities, a separate ministry to protect their interests, and reservation of five percent of government jobs and seats in education facilities for their younger people.

Bangladesh recognizes the existence of 50 ethnic minorities. However, during the 2011 constitutional amendment, ethnic minority groups were referred to as "tribes, minor races, and ethnic sects and communities" despite repeated demands from ethnic groups to be recognized as "Adivasi."

The country has some three million ethnic minorities, roughly two-thirds of them living in plain land, their leaders say. 

About half of the country’s estimated 600,000 Christians are tribal people.

Bichitra Tirkey, a tribal leader, addressed the gathering saying the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ignored several of their demands.

"Why we are not yet recognized as Adivasis in this land?” Tirkey asked.

Following the 2011 constitutional amendment, the government issued a circular asking the media and civil society not to use the word Adivasi to refer to tribal people in the country. The Sanskrit word, used across South Asia to denote tribal people, means original inhabitants.

Tirkey, an ethnic Oraon, who is a survivor of gang rape, said tribal people are victims of violence as rape and murder of them continues. 

She was reportedly beaten and raped by three Muslims while a mob looted her house in northern Chapai Nawabganj district over a land dispute in 2014.

She wanted the prime minister to redress various forms of repression of Adivasi people, often patronized by the state apparatus.

Her rape case was dismissed about two years ago and the three accused were acquitted due to “lack of evidence,” according to JAP president Rabindranath Soren.

Tirkey is facing a court case as the Muslims accused her of a land grab. She is now the president of JAP unit in Chapai Nawabganj.

The tribal people also demanded justice for victims of the 2016 violence in a northern district that left three Santal tribal people killed, dozens injured and thousands displaced.

Alik Mree, a Garo tribal man said the nation failed to ensure equal rights for ethnic groups more than five decades after it became a free country.

Mree, a leader of tribal students alleged that on both hills and plain land, vested groups, backed by the state machinery, are unleashing violence to evict ethnic communities.

Bangladesh Socialist Party politician and former lawmaker Nazmul Haque Prodhan who joined the rally agreed. 

“Adivasis are framed in cases and obstructed from holding protests,” he said, adding that Adivasi people are considered "vote banks" by political parties.

Bangladesh is expected to hold a national election next January with Hasina's Awami League, in power since 2009, seeking another re-election.

The U.S. State Department’s 2022 report said tribal people frequently face “targeted violence” with impunity in Bangladesh.

The poverty rate among them is much higher than the national rate of 20 percent, the report noted.

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