An indigenous Garo girl lights a candle in Dhaka, Aug. 8, 2016, to mark the International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In Bangladesh, ethnic, indigenous communities continue to struggle for recognition and rights. (ucanews.com photo)
Two disastrous events in the past month have once again highlighted the vulnerability of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh.
On June 2, a Bengali Muslim mob, enraged by the alleged murder of a local politician by indigenous men, attacked their villages at Rangamati district in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The violence reportedly left seven villagers killed, dozens injured and 300 houses destroyed, with police confirming two deaths. Among some 300 accused, only a dozen attackers were detained.
The ridiculous failure to protect indigenous peoples from violence is a prime example of state negligence toward them.
Two weeks later, deadly landslides hit southeast Bangladesh, badly affecting the Chittagong Hill Tracts in particular. Over 160 were killed, dozens injured and thousands lost their homes. Most of the victims were poor indigenous people.
This was a disaster waiting to happen. Just days before, Cyclone Mora had lashed its wild tail, causing massive deforestation and cutting off the hills from Bengali Muslim settlers. The fatalities surpassed the 2007 landslide that killed 127 when it struck the same region.
The goodwill, support and sympathy from government agencies, rights groups, environmentalists and media in the wake of the communal violence and landslides will soon run out until another disaster strikes again. Hope for justice and remedy in those cases will soon blow up in smoke. After all, indigenous people in Bangladesh have a long history of political, economic and social discrimination at the hands of the state and mainstream Bengali society.
The forgotten people
In 1971, when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan, the political leadership was obsessed with Bengali nationalism that helped propel the independence movement and engender war. Thus, in the first constitution of 1972, the new nation accepted religious pluralism but denied ethnic and cultural diversity. The ethnic minorities were forgotten in the charter, despite the fact that many of them fought against the Pakistan army side by side with Bengalis and took the brunt of the violence.
Nearly half of these ethnic communities live in the plain lands in the north, south and coastal regions, while others live in three hill districts: Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari, otherwise known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Until the 1991 national census, they were completely disregarded.
Even in the most recent 2001 census, they were erroneously enumerated. The government calculated between 1.5 and 2 million people, belonging to 25 small ethnic groups, as part of Bangladesh's population of 160 million.
Indigenous leaders claim the number of groups is 45. However, independent researchers estimate the figure to be as high as 90 groups contributing a much larger population of 3 million.
A struggle for recognition
The unique ways of life, cultures, traditions and heritage of the ethnic groups are extremely valuable to Bangladesh's history and multi-cultural identity, but they face increasing threats against their survival and struggle for recognition.
Constitutionally unrecognized, they are driven toward the edges and made to feel destitute. Forced to abandon their ancestral homes, they long for the forests that have been cleared and their lands that have been grabbed by Bengali people. This has led to a dislocation from their land, culture and history and a forced migration to the towns and cities in search of work. Bengali society has imposed its lifestyle and identity on them.
In 2010, at the time a constitutional amendment to citizenship identity was proposed, indigenous leaders appealed to the government to recognize them as "indigenous peoples," only to be rejected. Instead, they were given the new identity of "small ethnic groups" in the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutes Act of 2010 leaving their identity in obscurity.
Our constitution guarantees equal rights to all people irrespective of race, caste, creed and religion but does not recognize non-Bengali ethnic minorities as distinct cultural groups.
The charter recognizes Bangladesh as an ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation of Bengali people whose national language is Bangla or Bengali. It calls for "establishing a uniform, mass-oriented system of education" which undermines the struggle of ethnic groups for protection of their culture and language from hegemony of Bengali language and culture.
Bangladesh is a signatory of the International Labor Organization's Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (No. 107), but it has not ratified the Convention of Biological Diversity (No. 169) that contains more-detailed protective measures for indigenous peoples.
This country is governed by a strong, anti-indigenous nexus of ruling elite, bureaucrats, political parties, ultra-nationalists and bigots. They continuously put barriers up against the recognition, development and empowerment of indigenous peoples.
"No indigenous peoples"
The United Nations declared 1994-2004 as the First International Decade for the World's Indigenous Peoples and 2005-2014 as the Second International Decade for World's Indigenous Peoples. Annually, Aug. 9 has been designated as the International Day for the World's Indigenous Peoples.
This international day has never been officially celebrated in Bangladesh and the government perpetually discourages private celebrations. Political leaders, ministers and government officials claim there are "no indigenous peoples" citing historic references that say there were "no such groups" in this land before the 17th century.
The statement is based on a misguided interpretation of the label of indigenous.
The United Nations defines indigenous peoples as those "practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live."
Yet, our ethnic minorities still struggle for official recognition. Moreover, Bengali society often taunts them with the term "tribal" that they deem derogatory.
Time and again, ethnic groups such as the Garos of the Modhupur forests, the Santals in the north and Khasis in the northeast have faced threats of eviction, torture and even death over land disputes. Hamstrung by their lifestyles, indigenous people live modestly, are illiterate and ignorant of state economic or political processes. Many of them have lived on ancestral lands for decades but don't possess documentation for land rights. This helps to explain why they are susceptible to fraud and forgery, and have progressively lost their lands.
A double minority
The Chittagong Hill Tracts make up the country's only mountainous region, which borders India and Myanmar and is home to some 25 ethnic groups. The majority are Buddhists but there some are Christians.
Outside the Chittagong Hill Tracts, indigenous peoples don't typically have political parties. Where they do, they are often engaged in in-fighting and rivalry, which prevents them from truly safe-guarding their communities.
Ultimately, the fringe communities are politically marginalized, insecure and under-represented, seriously limiting their access to socio-economic development.
The indigenous peoples are mostly non-Muslims—Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and ancient religions — making them a double minority. Some ethnic groups such as Garo, Khasis, Santal and Tripura, are largely Christian. Four out of the country's eight Catholic dioceses are predominantly indigenous.
Often the Catholic Church stands beside the indigenous people to protect their lives, livelihood and culture. Thus, the church also faces the ire of the state machinery and opportunist Muslims. In 1967, Archbishop Lawrence Granner of Dhaka was forced to leave the country after he strongly criticized state-sponsored communal riots against indigenous peoples.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Islamic radicals sometimes accuse the church and church groups of acting as agents of foreign countries and fueling unrest to secede the region to create an independent country. Fearing backlash, the church works with indigenous people silently, sometimes compromising the interests of the people to save them from the threats of Bengali Muslims.
In general, indigenous peoples are poor, have little access to resources, are progressively losing their lands and properties, and continuously face social, political, cultural exploitation, discrimination and harassment. Constitutional and legal protections should be applied to help uplift them from their current struggle for survival. Support from aid agencies and civil society groups also play a vital role for their development and empowerment.
At a minimum, indigenous peoples deserve to be recognized as equal citizens to their fellow Bengali countrymen and given their entitlements to rights so they may prosper as equal human beings.
Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist based in Dhaka.