Who are indigenous?
Adebate has emerged among government officials, journalists, academics and politicians on the question of indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They argue that the current ethnic groups living in the CHT are not indigenous. They claim that they came from somewhere else, mainly pointing to Arakan of Myanmar.
According to the UN definition, indigenous peoples are descendents of the original inhabitants in a given territory who have been reduced to minority status due to invasion, conquest, colonisation, settlement and other means by the people coming from overseas. This definition is applicable only to the indigenous peoples living in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Rim Islands, and North and South America (also called New World).
This definition is not directly applicable to the indigenous peoples living in developing countries. Due to this reason, the Chinese and the Indian governments for example refused to accept this definition. They argue that we are all indigenous to our land and we have not come from overseas or conquered the people. They maintain that they have ethnic groups called tribal people, scheduled tribes, national minorities, etc.
Because of this definitional limitation and scope, the United Nations has drafted a second definition of indigenous peoples applicable to the indigenous peoples living in developing countries.
Three criteria are used to identify the indigenous peoples: (1) the people who live in relatively isolated regions from the mainstream population; (2) they have been able to preserve their language, culture and identity without much impact from the outside world due to their relative isolation; and (3) finally, they are not familiar with state structures such as police, administration, courts, army or modern market system. Basically, they are kin-based societies who mostly owe allegiance to their lineage chiefs, clan chiefs and tribal chiefs where power is not centralised and lacks coercive power.
Thus, the CHT ethnic groups are indigenous peoples in the CHT from the point of view of the second definition of the UN. They were previously relatively isolated for a long time from the mainstream Bengali population of Bangladesh (though not at present). They have been able to maintain their distinct cultural and ethnic identity because of their relative isolation from the people living in the plains of Bangladesh. All socio-economic and political relationships within a group (also between the groups) are based on kinship. And finally, all three chiefs in the CHT carried out their socio-economic and political functions through their lineage chiefs and clan chiefs.
No one knows who had first lived in the CHT because of the absence of recorded (both written and archaeological) evidence. We primarily have oral traditions through legends and stories describing migrations, inter-tribal feuding, raids and expeditions. The written history of non-western societies, including the indigenous peoples, often starts with the history of European colonisation of the non-European world. During colonisation period, the colonial administrators, missionaries, traders, adventurers left vivid impressions on the colonial subject population.
We find documented records on the CHT region from the old colonial documents and descriptions left by colonial administrators such as T.H. Lewin and other European writers. The colonial records show that the CHT was populated by a dozen indigenous groups, who had distinctive cultures, languages and identities.
The region of the Chittagong Hill Tracts appeared on the first map of Bengal made by Joao Baptista Lavanha in about 1550. The map shows a settlement called Chacomas in the area inhabited by one of the indigenous groups now known as the Chakmas as early as the sixteenth century (Willem van Schendel, Wolfgang Mey & Aditya Kumar Dewan. The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland. Bangkok: White Lotus press. 2000).
Therefore, the CHT ethnic groups can claim that they are the indigenous inhabitants of the CHT and no non-indigenous people had ever lived in the CHT before them. The non-indigenous people began to settle in the CHT only from the beginning of colonial administration, not before 1860 when the CHT was created as a separate district (within greater Bengal) with the status of an excluded area.
The recent emergence of this debate is more political and ideological to deny the obligation of the government to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples in the CHT. The Bangladesh government most recently identified the CHT ethnic groups and other indigenous groups in Bangladesh as "Chotta Nrigosti" (small nationalities), not indigenous groups. Some academics and journalists also refused to call them indigenous and many attempts have been made to distort the real history of the CHT.
There are hidden objectives behind all these denials to keep the indigenous people marginalised. They fear that the use of the term "indigenous people " may oblige the government to recognise and respect the rights of people the CHT in accordance with the UN definition of rights of the Indigenous peoples.
Today, indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are not passive, as their backs are against the wall. They are campaigning at the national and international level by using the media, holding protest demonstrations around the world, court challenges, and making alliances with national and international human rights organisations.