Adivasis or indigenous peoples in Bangladesh
by Jens Dahl
WE ARE all indigenous or natives to somewhere, but we are not all indigenous peoples. To be an indigenous people depends, first of all, on the group’s marginal position in relation to the state, to the state authorities and institutions. States which were created as a result of decolonisation—among them East Pakistan and later Bangladesh—were established with borders that roughly followed colonial borders. And these were originally defined from the colonial and military logic and not from the needs or wishes of the local populations. In most colonial territories, and again Bangladesh included, the new and independent states had to accept these borders and then to defend them. There was very little choice and the political set-up, the constitutions, etc reflected the wishes of the majority of the people or at least those in power. In Bangladesh, the constitution of 1972 reflected in the first instance, and as a natural thing, the wishes of the large Bengali majority of the population. As a kind of colonial heritage, this process, nevertheless, left groups of people marginalised in the geographical margins of the new state. Small ethnic groups who made up the majority populations within their traditional lands and territories were nevertheless discriminated against because they had religions, languages, histories, traditions and cultures, which were different from the large majority of the population. The Chakma, the Tripura, the Mru, etc in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Khasi, the Garo from the north, etc are examples. These people had no influence on the first constitution and it did not reflect their wishes, and the result was a mono-cultural constitution in which there was no room for the distinctive identities of the Garo, the Santal, the Chakma, etc. These people mentioned are indigenous within Bangladesh but they are also indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and territories. On paper they may have the same individual rights as all other inhabitants of Bangladesh but in practice they are being discriminated against.
In the aftermath of World War II and the decolonisation process, all states—in North America, Asia and Africa—established development activities in the frontier regions with few benefits to the people concerned. In the Canadian Quebec province, a hydroelectric project inundated the lands of the Cree and the Inuit and, similarly, thousands of people were evicted from their lands when the Kaptai Dam was constructed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The people who had lived in these places were neither consulted nor were their interests considered. The states were concerned with satisfying the interests of the great majority of the population and on defending the national unity and did completely overlook that there were people who were completely marginalised and most often not even considered in the constitutions.
When decolonisation had come to an end, the United Nations realised that there were peoples in countries all over the world whose rights were not respected because they were not minorities in the sense of the United Nations’ system, and they were also not part of the majority population of their countries. The United Nations called these peoples ‘indigenous peoples.’ The marginalisation and discrimination of these, often tiny, minorities compared to the total population is fairly simple to observe because the languages of these groups are not being taught in school; lands are being taken away from them without compensation: organised re-settlement of mainstream people on the indigenous land aimed at reducing them to minorities, major development projects are established without consulting them and without any or few benefits to the people concerned, etc. In the US, in Canada and in Bangladesh the states wanted to assimilate all populations within their borders, but some people were nevertheless treated differently. It is interesting to observe that these people started to organise themselves at roughly the same time in the US, in Latin America, in Canada and in Asia in protest against what they saw as violations of their rights. They could not appeal to the courts or to the constitution because they were not considered there; there was, and is, a general trend in the ruling circle, as in the case of Bangladesh, to build a monolithic state erasing its existing pluralist character; the political parties were mostly uninterested because there were no votes in supporting them; and often the press did either not care or they were under censorships. Such situations invariably lead to conflicts and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts it lead to a more than 20-year long armed conflict. As a last remedy, the indigenous peoples of the CHT and later other indigenous peoples from Bangladesh turned to the United Nations and met with people from other parts of the world, who had become victims of similar processes.
In the United Nations indigenous peoples have used many efforts to learn from each other, to exchange experiences. After three decades of considerations, governments and indigenous peoples have come to a common understanding of some key points, which finally led to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which now seems to be recognised as an international instrument by basically all governments in the world. The key issue is the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, which to most indigenous peoples means constitutional recognition. Constitutions are, however, difficult to change, and it is therefore of key importance that they reflect the realities. Colonialism is now far behind us and the scenario is completely different than it was forty or fifty years ago. When Norway changed its constitution in 1989 they finally included the Saami indigenous peoples. My own country, Denmark, has not changed constitution since 1953 but a constitutional process has been ongoing for quite some years. When it comes, it will no doubt include changes for the indigenous Inuit who lives in Greenland, and as a preliminary step the Danish government has now recognised the Greenland Inuit as a people according to international law. Countries so different as New Zealand, Norway and Burundi have parliamentary seats reserved for indigenous peoples and in still other countries like the Philippines and Nepal are indigenous peoples in different ways recognised in the constitutions. In June 2008, the parliament of Japan passed a resolution formally recognising the Ainus on the Hokkaido Island as indigenous people with distinct language, religion and culture. Malaysia maintains in its constitution special rights for the indigenous communities and the application of special provisions are important in a country with a diversity of races and religions.
Constitutional recognition can be seen as a kind of reconciliation and as an alternative to claim for independence or cessation, which has only been claimed in countries with large groups of indigenous peoples. East Timor is probably the only case known in this respect and is not relevant for countries with several indigenous peoples living in different geographical regions. Constitutional recognition opens for a new dialogue between the state and the indigenous peoples, based on mutual recognition. Constitutional recognitions will signal a new road for the indigenous peoples whose lands and territories were included in the new states of first Pakistan and then Bangladesh without any consultation or acceptance. It also opens a new road for dealing with peoples who de facto have been treated differently by the state authorities. And finally, it gives protection for indigenous peoples’ cultures, languages, lands and livelihoods which otherwise are unprotected.
In many countries where there are groups who claim to be indigenous there is a discussion on who these people are and how they are identified? First of all we should notice that they identify themselves as indigenous, in Bangladesh as adivasis. There is no definition on indigenous peoples and it is futile to find a definition on who has the right to claim rights as an indigenous people, and the United Nations has never seriously considered it as an option. We only have to remind ourselves that few countries in Africa and Asia would be independent today if the global society should agree on a definition on which people had the right to become independent. Any definition is made by those who have the power and can only be used to halt a process. So this is no way out.
But we can find a number of indicators that set some peoples apart and of which some are applicable in specific cases and specific societies. First of all, there are peoples who are being set aside by the states and the majority population because they have a different culture, religion, language, etc. In Bangladesh most of those calling themselves indigenous are non-Muslims (Buddhist, Christians, etc), speak languages different from Bangla, and have traditions which in the historic sense point to people today living in Burma and north-eastern India. And, as part of this, some of these people have their own political or quasi-political institutions that exist parallel with the national institutions. The indigenous peoples may also have a different adaptation to the land, such as shifting-cultivation. Indigenous peoples have common histories, share many emotional and cultural connotations, and have been united by shared conflicts with the state. Secondly, those calling themselves indigenous have linkages to territories of their own, with ties that point back to pre-colonial and pre-independent times. The ethnic identity of indigenous peoples is linked to these ancestral lands. The continuity with the past does not imply authenticity in the sense of unchanged originality but that indigenous peoples live in conformity with their own institutions as these have been formed and developed in contact with those of the colonisers or the states. Thirdly, the indigenous peoples want, as groups, to keep their own traditions and their own linkages to their ancestral territories and to keep their ethnic identity as the basis for existence as a people as conditions for mutual co-existence with the other peoples of the state. This is in contrast to minorities who are not associated with a specific territory and who aim at being integrated in the state but keeping their individual minority rights; indigenous rights are collective rights in contrast to minority rights, which are individual rights. Fourthly, to be indigenous in Bangladesh today refers to descent from people living in specific geographical regions at the time of the establishment of the present state boundaries. Fifthly, those calling themselves indigenous are those who came to the area claimed as their lands and territories before some of those other people living in the area today. This is not the same as saying that ‘we were here first’, which is difficult in most countries not the least in Asia, because should we go 50, 100 or 1,000 back in history? We only have to remind ourselves of the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians to recognise aboriginality as an impossible criterion. Some indigenous peoples have been forced from their lands but this should not rip them of all their rights, however. Others have, as individuals, moved to Dhaka and other urban places outside their homeland but it does not imply that they lose all their rights as being a member of an indigenous peoples. In the colonial days people were recruited in one country to work on plantations or in the mines in other countries and some of these settled in the new place to become cultural or religious minorities. Such peoples are protected as belonging to a minority and have rights as such, but they are not indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples who migrate to urban or metropolitan areas often lose their indigenous language, are employed in urban professions and adopt traditions associated with living in urban areas. They no longer live on their ancestral lands but the ancestral lands remain for them an anchor-point and give them a distinct identity — symbolically, practically or culturally.
There are also indicators, which has to do with state policies towards indigenous peoples. Let alone that exactly these people are called by specific names such as ‘adivasi’ in Bangladesh and ‘scheduled tribes’ in India and as such they have in practice been treated as different from the rest of the population. Throughout the colonial and post-colonial history there have been acts and provisions in which the colonial and Bangladeshi governments have used and recognised the special rights of those people called adivasi. Or the government has kept them separate from the rest of the population (the CHT is a semi-closed area, controlled by the army) and established special procedures for the territory of indigenous peoples, such as appointing a special minister for Chittagong Hill Tracts, established a regional council, or in some ways annulled the normal democratic processes in the area, such as postponing elections for the district councils.
For the Chittagong Hill Tracts, inclusion in the constitution can finally be seen as a logical result of the peace accord of 1997 and should give new impetus to the implementation of the accord. For adivasi in the whole country constitutional recognition will recognise a distinctiveness of indigenous peoples, which in many respects are already there.
Jens Dahl is an adjunct professor of regional and cross-cultural studies at the University of Copenhagen. firstname.lastname@example.org