Aggrieved adivasi, deprived old and the children
It is a shame that the 45 small groups, recognised by the United Nations, international organisations and other countries, of weak, outnumbered and powerless adivasi people face serious and systematic breach of their civil and human rights, and the very basic recognition of their status and ethnic identity. The crucial and final question in this matter is: have the once oppressed and discriminated people now become the oppressors and discriminators through brute majority? Omar Khasru wonders
THE education minister, during his convocation speech in 2009, made a fervent plea to grant scholarships to adivasi students. The university readily agreed and requested the vice-chancellor to make a proposal to set aside full tuition waivers for students of indigenous ethnic origin. The vice-chancellor did that and the university expeditiously granted two tuition waivers per semester to bright and needy indigenous students who met the eligibility requirements. The financial aid offer was published in local press in late May 2009.
That was then and this is now. It has become clear that, despite the genuine fervour of the education minister, the adivasi people are not in the official priority list. When the new Private University Act of 2010 was approved last year, there was no mention of aborigine quota for admission or scholarship. There was no special consideration for the adivasi offspring.
Things were about to get worse. Now the government has officially withdrawn the very recognition and stoutly declines to categorise the 1.2 non-Bengali tribal, hill and indigenous people as adivasi. The simple way to look at it is that they are here and they have been here for ages but they are not really here as they were and as they truly and justifiably like to be. Or more succinctly and absurdly, they have been here for eons but officially not really here anymore.
The foreign minister has evidently been entrusted with the responsibility to explain the reasons for the denial of indigenous or adivasi status to these people. She and other official mouthpieces have done so vigorously and single-mindedly at home and overseas forums and among the foreign envoys to deprive their age-old and longstanding basic identity.
The government’s attitude and actions seem in direct conflict with the opinion of the kinder and gentler education minister. News reports in Prothom Alo have pointed out that the foreign minister in her pre-ministerial days had spoken strongly in favour of the rights of the indigenous people. Also, the pledge to uphold their rights was a part of the ruling party election manifesto.
So the first question is what has changed? Has it been revealed through intense and significant research that these people are not really what they claim to be? Has there been a genetic finding through state of the art DNA exploration and investigation that there really are no adivasi people in the country and the claimants are just small, out of place, displaced ethnic and minority tribal settlers, as the government and the usually eloquent foreign minister claims?
Here are a few generic and common comments and observations, not specifically directed at anyone in particular. The duplicity, prevarication and manipulation of politicians, especially those who are in power, know no bounds. They would change their stance on issues, deny what they said and did, claim credit for what they did not do and deny blame for their controversial and questionable words and actions without batting an eyelash at the spur of the opportunistic moment without missing a heartbeat.
Refusing a group of citizens, however minuscule the cluster is, of legitimate rights and rightful claim of status is myopic, mediaeval and appalling. Denying adivasi people the very recognition is tantamount to granting the 98.8 per cent majority homogenous Bengalis the license to claim superiority and dominance over them and discriminate against them systematically. We were once victims of such organised unfair treatment and discrimination that led to the liberation war and independence. We seem to have forgotten all that in our past.
This country attained independence through a war in protest against unfair practices, bias and abuse and to ensure democratic rights of all citizens, not merely of majority Bengalis. It is a shame that the 45 small groups, recognised by the UN, international organisations and other countries, of weak, outnumbered and powerless adivasi people face serious and systematic breach of their civil and human rights, and the very basic recognition of their status and ethnic identity.
The crucial and final question in this matter is: have the once oppressed and discriminated people now become the oppressors and discriminators through brute majority? Is the shoe now on the other foot? Once the victims, have they assumed the mantle of victimisers. Dr Zafar Iqbal, well-known scientist and author, has written piercingly, meaningfully and persuasively about this critical issue recently in a Bangla newspaper (Prothom Alo, August 9).
The Zafar Iqbal article in a gloomy rainy day gave the impression and smidgen of solace that some people genuinely care about minority rights. As I strolled home in a steady drizzle, I saw an old glum-faced lady walking unsteadily on the sidewalk with the help of a stick. Unlike the regular, professional and seasonal beggars she did not extend her hand for help and did not ask for any.
Like the envelope under the door in Somerset Maugham’s “Mr. Know-it-all”, her demeanour, expression and weary walk symbolically but significantly implied a world of unfairness, injustice and deprivation and myriad grudges and grievances against a society and state neither of which has treated her right in her old age and frail health.
I gave the old lady some money. It is often difficult to find truly deserving candidates to distribute fitra. She seemed like an exception. She kept walking without acknowledgement or change of the slow pace and any change of expression in her wrinkled face. It was both painful and infuriating to see her feeble condition.
Who gets the old age and widowhood allowances in this country? This old lady near the end of her life would surely be eligible for both and overall social safety net. It can also be said with a degree of certainty that she does not get either because she does not have the right connection, party affiliation or anybody to lobby for her. She has to carry the burden of life in her old age and distressingly earn her livelihood even on a rain soaked miserable gloomy grey afternoon.
As I approached the main gate of the residence, there was a young scrawny boy gathering things on the roadside and by sifting through trashcans. Many such boys and girls, usually referred to as tokais, collect plastic cans and bottles along with officially banned polythene bags and other stuff to sell.
This boy was doing so in inclement weather with no shirt on. He was trudging barefoot through rain and slush. His emaciated body seemed a bit shrunken and shrivelled from the rain and cold. I called him in and gave him a shirt. He did not acknowledge it. He kept walking and looking for anything of value that would enable him to earn precious money for the family. He has accepted the rigours, burdens and inherent injustices of life as fate or destiny. He is too young to know any better and too naïve and simple to raise his voice or a clenched fist in protest.
This boy similar to many like him from poor families in big cities and remote villages has to fend for himself. Countless boys and girls like him have been deprived of the joy of childhood and excitement of growing up. It is such a struggle in the insipid and beleaguered life and the living that the mere existence and survival saps all the energy and efforts. Who is responsible for providing bare necessities, mere care and concern and social safety net for these ill-fated children? The short answer is families, society and the state, not in any particular order.
The families are unable do so because of poverty; society shrugs off the responsibility because of apathy and a keen sense of class distinction and the government, representing the state, constantly fails because of ineptitude, indifference and uncaring attitude.
In the final analysis, it is the solemn duty of the government to provide free education, food, shelter and clothing to these underprivileged children. It has failed miserably despite repeated pledges and hefty budget provisions. Most government largesse goes to well-connected, well to do people and party functionaries. The poor, deprived and the really needy hardly get any scrap or leftover.
At the peril of sounding repetitive, the vital question remains, who will provide the old lady and the shivering malnourished boy with care and comfort and a respite from depressing life and difficult living? Who should be responsible for ensuring the bare necessities, such as food, clothing, habitat and medical care guaranteed in the constitution?
Let’s face it. Our nouveau riche business tycoons are good at amassing money but not very generous with it. The impoverished families cannot. It is ultimately the solemn duty and responsibility of the government to ensure the minimum standard and comfort of living especially for the old and the infirm, infants, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, like in the case of adivasi people, most of the needy and underprivileged are dejected and denied any government care or assistance.
courtesy: New Age