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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The 'indigenous' question and revisiting Bengal's history

The 'indigenous' question and revisiting Bengal's history

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni recently reiterated her governments firm "resolve" that the indigenous peoples living in the country, especially those living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), should be referred to as "ethnic minorities" and not "indigenous."

The indigenous people and progressive Bangalis have protested this comment and I would like to add to their argument. The foreign minister stated: "They [the indigenous people] came here as asylum seekers and economic migrants. The original inhabitants or first nationals of Bangladesh are the ethnic Bengalis by descent that constitute nearly 99% of the country's 150 million people…The ethnic Bengalis are not colonial settlers, neither are they foreigners or non-indigenous to their own native land and never will be."

Human existence on earth is a story of migration. Some experts claim that the human race originated in Africa a few million years ago; they dispersed throughout the globe from there. If we follow that argument, no one is indigenous to any place on earth. And every inch of the earth was actually marked by the migration of human populations. They migrated for political, economic, environmental, spiritual, religious and various other reasons.

If we look at the earliest inhabitants of the Bengal delta and its South-Eastern hill tracts, even during the Mughal rule there were no Bengali inhabitants in the hill tracts. It was inhabited by different Mongoloid ethnic groups (nations), who like any other human population of their time moved from another place during different historical periods.

But there is no doubt that they were the first to inhabit that particular area. And they were not from far away lands; they were from the same region: different parts of present day Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. Some of these groups arrived later than others, but before the Bengalis.

Now if we the Bengalee Muslims, who are the majority in the Bengal delta, chime in with Dipu Moni's claim "The ethnic Bengalees are not colonial settlers, neither are they foreigners or non-indigenous to their own native land and never will be," it does not stand before historical evidence.

The most part of the Bengal delta was actually inhabited during the Mughal period. The spread of Islam also mainly took place at that time. Muslims mostly came from Central Asia, Persia and Arabia. Most of them were ethnic Turk, Persian, Afghan and Arab. Conqueror Muslims later assimilated with the local population and gave rise of this huge Bengali Muslim population. Before them the inhabitants of this land were Bengali Hindus and Buddhists. Those Bengalis were actually the cross-breeds of Indo-Aryan tribes (decedents of Central Asian Aryans) and indigenous groups. But even they were not the earliest dwellers of this land; the earliest inhabitants of this land were actually Mundas, Santals, Mandis (who are called Garo by Bengalees), Kochs, and some other ethnic groups.

Therefore, our roots are both local and foreign. The foreign root came from political, economic and religious migration over the ages. The foreign part of our ancestry comprised of settlers, economic migrants and asylum seekers; though we who are now known as Bengalis we do not fall in those categories. And surely it is not us but the Mundas, Santals, Mandis and some others who are the earliest inhabitants of this land. We are indeed the colonisers.

It is evident that even in line with the Foreign Minister's argument there are indigenous people in the country. Why do we hesitate to recognise them? If we look at her argument, it is directed to the ethnic groups of the hill districts of south-east. There is the largest concentration of ethnic groups. But the demand is not their alone; the indigenous ethnic groups from other parts of the country (such as Mundas, Santals, Mandis) also want their recognition as "Indigenous Peoples." How can the government deny their demand?

We may find an explanation from the foreign minister's focus on the hill tracts. The UN Special Rapporteur, Lars-Anders Baer, also mentioned in a report submitted to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that militarisation is used "to gain control over natural resources, including land, minerals and oil, without restitution or compensation." Giving indigenous status will not cause any harm to the Bengali population or the Republic of Bangladesh; rather it may improve relationship between different ethnic groups, promote diversity and harmony among them and enhance the image of the Bangladesh internationally as a progressive state that respects the rights of its marginalised peoples.

But the problem is also that by recognising indigenous peoples the government will be under greater pressure to ensure their rights as part of their international obligations.
The writer is an Anthropologist, Researcher and Photographer.
courtesy: The Daily Star

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