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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Statement of Raja Devasish Roy in protest of Dr. Dipu Moni's statement

AS REPORTED IN bdnews24.com on 26 July, 2011

Dhaka, 27 July, 2010

I am constrained to have to make a statement controverting a statement of the Hon’ble Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Dipu Moni, as reported in the bdnews24.com on 26 July, 2011 and in national daily newspapers of Dhaka on 27 July, 2011 – including the Prothom Alo and The Daily Star - regarding the indigenous status of the hill peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (hereafter “CHT”), generally, and in reference to a report of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, at its tenth session at UN Headquarters in New York, in May, 2011.

The Hon’ble Foreign Minister is reported, among others, as having stated the following:

(i)             “In the constitution, all minorities were recognized generically as minorities, and through the 15th amendment, the present government has categorised them as 'ethnic minorities' and no longer only as 'tribal' people," she said.”;

(ii)            “Giving a special and elevated identity to enfranchise only 1.2 percent of the total population of 150 million by disentitling the 98.8 percent cannot be in the national interest of Bangladesh.";

(iii)           “[The] foreign minister said very well recorded recent history of the Indian subcontinent and the CHT region reaffirm that the tribal people of CHT migrated to Bangladesh between 16th and 19th centuries from neighbouring countries and Mongoloid nations. "They came here as asylum seekers and economic migrants." The original inhabitants or first nationals of Bangladesh are the ethnic Bengalees by descent that constitute nearly 99 percent of the country's 150 million people.”; 

(iv)          “The ethnic Bengalees are not colonial settlers, neither are they foreigners or non-indigenous to their own native land and never will be," she stressed.”;

(v)           “From an institutional and legal point of view, the 'ethnic minorities' or 'late settlers' residing in CHT region had been officially recognized as 'tribal' people in all historical documents and references of the Indian sub-continental and colonial documents, she added.”   

Statement of the Chakma Chief & Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Raja Devasish Roy, on the Foreign Minister’s Statement

”Ethnic Minorities”
i) The Hon’ble Minister’s reference to the Constitution of Bangladesh, including its 15th amendment in 2011, is incorrect. There is no reference to “ethnic minorities”, or its Bengali version: “jatigoto shongkha-loghu” in the 15th amendment or indeed to any “minorities” groups. In addition to “upajati” (“sub-nations”?), the amendment, in the new article 23A, refers to “small nations/peoples” (“khudro jatishotta), “small ethnic groups” (“khudro nrigoshthi”) and “small communities” (“khudro shomprodai”). Just because the constitution does not explicitly refer to “minorities”, it cannot be denied that minorities groups – whether based upon religious, ethnic or linguistic affiliation - live in Bangladesh. Similarly, it is incorrect to say that there are no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh.

Enfranchisement & Disentitlement”
(ii) The Hon’ble Minister’s statement on the “enfranchisement” of 1.2 percent of the national population leading to the “disentitlement” of 98.8 per cent of the national population, is incorrect and misconceived. Constitutional recognition of the indigenous status of the excluded, marginalized and disadvantaged 1.2 per cent of Bangladesh’s population would provide a firm platform and legal basis to address the marginality of the members of these populations. It would not provide any privileged status to these groups or to their members. Recognition of the indigenous status of population groups in other countries, including Nepal, the Philippines, Scandinavian countries and Latin American countries did not disentitle non-indigenous groups. It is inconceivable to think that the mere recognition of ‘indigenous’ status of some citizens would “disentitle” or otherwise disadvantage other citizens in governance, political, economic or social spheres, especially when they constitute the overwhelming majority of the country’s population and constitute the political, social and economic elite of the country. Recognition of the indigenous status of peoples is only relevant when they do not constitute the dominant part of a country’s population. It is to address the marginality of of non-dominant population groups’ and their exclusion or marginalization in governance and development, and the discrimination suffered by them, historically and currently,       

”Asylum-Seekers & Economic Migrants”
(iii) The Hon’ble Minister’s statement about the CHT indigenous peoples being ”asylum-seekers & economic migrants” may be equally applicable to other Bangladeshi citizens that are of Bengali-speaking or Urdu-speaking origin (belonging to the Islamic faith, who migrated from present-day India or Myanmar). The political, social and economic causes of migration cannot be the basis of disentitlement to indigenous status or citizenship rights or freedom from non-discrimination. If it were to be, it would be discriminatory and violative of the tenets of non-discrimination that are enshrined in international human rights law as jus cogens (peremptory norms of international human rights law) and the fundamental rights clauses of the Constitution of Bangladesh on non-discrimination and special provisions

Bengalees not being “colonial settlers”, “foreigners” or “non-indigenous”
(iv) The Hon’ble Minister is equating the status of those not regarded as ‘indigenous’ as being “colonial settlers” and/or “foreigners”. While this might be the case in the Americas or in Australia, if at all, the current and progressive discourses on indigenous peoples’ rights do not necessarily construe those not regarded as indigenous to be “colonial settlers” and/or “foreigners”. The status of Bangalees as natives of Bangladesh is not challenged or questioned by the assertion of the indigenous identity of other ethnic groups. Non-indigenous does not mean “settlers”, at least not in Bangladesh and in several other countries of Asia. The indigenous peoples of the CHT fulfill the criteria of “indigenous’, among others, by being (i) descendants of pre-colonial or pre-conquest societies; and (ii) adherence to pre-colonial or pre-conquest political, social and cultural institutions’ norms and customs, among others.

The government is probably stuck in the early 20th century construction of the term “indigenous”, which was confined to the Americas and Australia and New Zealand. This understanding has moved on, in United Nations, and in international human rights, development, environmental, Climate Change and other international processes to include groups hitherto regarded as “tribal’. The misconceived, inaccurate and artificial distinction between “tribal” and ”indigenous” is no longer relevant to the international human rights discourses. The identification of citizens other than as ‘indigenous’ or ‘adibashi” in Bangladesh is not going to exclude the application of international human rights instruments and processes to the groups identifying themselves as ‘indigenous’ or ‘adibashi’ in Bangladesh.

Recognition of 'Ethnic minorities', 'Late Settlers' as 'Tribal' people
(iv) The Hon’ble Minister’s reference to the CHT indigenous peoples as “late settlers” and of their recognition as “tribal people” is substantially incorrect.

The Chakma people, for example, are recorded in history as having lived in a country called “Chacomas”, which was separate from Bengal, Arakan and Tripura, from at least the 1550s, within the boundaries of present-day Bangladesh, such as in the accounts of Portugese geographers and historians. They may have lived in their present territories centuries before that date as well as did other indigenous peoples of the CHT and elsewhere in Bangladesh. In the CHT, Bengali people are not known to have permanently resided in the region before the 19th century. Nowhere in Bengal is there a record of the indigenous peoples or adibashis having displaced Bengalee people and settled therein. Whenever they may have settled therein, these territories were not inhabited by Bengalee people at the time of settlement of the indigenous peoples. In order to qualify as indigenous peoples within the meaning of the ILO Convention No 107 – ratified by Bangladesh – they do not have to have resided therein for millennia – as in the case of indigenous peoples in the Americas or in Australia. The need to have merely settled/lived therein “at the time of conquest or colonization” (18th-19th centuries, for example) and lived in conformity with the political, social and cultural institutions of pre-colonial times is sufficient to qualify as indigenous according to the above convention.

The CHT Accord of the 1997 and some laws of the British period and of the period after the signing of the CHT Accord do regard the indigenous peoples as ‘tribal’ or ‘upajati’ (sub-nations). However, the ‘upajati” term is known to have been accepted under duress, as is confirmed by statements of representatives of the Jana Samhati Samiti (which signed the CHT Accord of 1997) in their public statements on the issue.  The terms “indigenous” or “aboriginal” have also been used interchangeably. Examples include the following:


East Bengal State Acquisition & Tenancy Act, 1950  (protected in the First Schedule to the Constitution of Bangladesh)


§  CHT Regulation, 1900

§  Finance Acts of 1995 and 2010

§  Poverty Reduction Strategy  (PRSP-2008, 2019-10)

§  Judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of Bangladesh in Sampriti Chakma v. Commissioner of Customs & Others (5 BLC, AD, 29)


§  Statements of Hon’ble Sheikh Hasina, Begum Khaleda Zia and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, on goodwill messages on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

§  PRSP, 2005

§  Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutions Act, 2010
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The original statement can be downloaded from the following link:

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