A question of identity
Times of solidarity with the indigenous people for Dr Dipu Moni.
Around 370 million people across the globe celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with a pledge of maintaining their own culture and heritage by reflecting this year’s theme – “Indigenous designs: celebrating stories and cultures, crafting our own future”. But, the identity of indigenous people living in Bangladesh is questionable now, since the state machinery clings on to a fantastical version of history that refuses to grant them recognition as indigenous people.
A string of ministers in the present administration have openly stated that the “tribal” populations of Bangladesh are not indigenous. They are ethnic minority groups of the country. Recently, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni at a press briefing flatly rejected the claim that there are “indigenous” peoples living in Bangladesh.
Dr Moni said that any linkage between the term “indigenous peoples” and the identities of the ethnic minorities living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where a 1997 peace accord still remains to be fulfilled, are misplaced. She noted with concern that the “tribal” people or ethnic minorities in the CHT region have been termed as “indigenous people” of Bangladesh in two paragraphs of the 2011 Report of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues-(PFII), in the context of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.
“There is no internationally accepted definition of ‘indigenous peoples’, and there is no definition of indigenous at all in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the PFII in 2006,” said the foreign minister.
She rather preferred the definition of the Oxford dictionary, where the word ‘indigenous’ is used to denote people “belonging to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else”.
The term ‘indigenous’ or sometimes ‘native’ is therefore used in the context of first or original nations or aboriginals on the soil of a country who have been physically displaced and eventually dispossessed of their lands by colonial or external settlers from a foreign nation, the foreign minister said.
Reacting instantly to the comments of the foreign minister, the representatives of indigenous people in Bangladesh pointed out how she had joined the rallies and other functions of the indigenous people marking the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in previous years.
Who is indigenous?
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following: self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member; historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources; distinct social, economic or political systems, distinct language, culture and beliefs, form non-dominant groups of society; and resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in a number of human rights documents.
The term “indigenous” has prevailed as a generic term for many years. In some countries, there may be preference for other terms including tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi, janajati. Occupational and geographical terms like hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, hill people, etc., also exist and for all practical purposes can be used interchangeably with “indigenous people”.
There are 46 minority groups in Bangladesh, particularly in the hilly areas of the country. Apart from hilly people, a number of indigenous peoples live in plain land in the country. All are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources.
They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples. They have also their own diverse concepts of development, based on their traditional values, visions, needs and priorities.
Indigenous issue and civil society
About the ongoing debate on indigenous issue, the civil society members express mixed reactions. A section is saying that our hilly (indigenous) people are holding unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. So, they can be recognised as indigenous people.
On the other hand, another section strongly denies them recognition saying that there is no existence of ‘adivasi’ (indigenous) in the Indian subcontinent, including Bangladesh, and no people had ever invaded the Chittagong Hill Tracts before 1400 AD.
On August 9, the experts, including former military officials, lawyers, teachers and freedom fighters at a seminar said a vested quarter along with some foreign NGOs have been conspiring to create divisions in the hilly region raising the demand for recognition of adivasi among the ethnic minorities and converting them into Christianity.
Eminent sociologist Dr Anupam Sen said some ethic groups, not all groups, are indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But, Bengalis are indigenous in the mainland in the country. The ethnic groups of CHT had come in earlier.
He also suggested bringing an end to the long debated issue by recognising them as an “ethic group”, rather than an “ethic minority group”.
Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Dr Mizanur Rahman on August 8 stressed immediate implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord to establish the rights of indigenous people.
“We’ve failed to acknowledge the people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Now it’s time to implement the peace accord,” he said.
Mizanur Rahman said, “We had trusted the government’s charter of change, but the indigenous people are still passing their days in anxieties. This is not acceptable.”
About the identity of the people living in hills, he said, “It has been trying to push away the indigenous people calling them the ethnic minority groups by distorting international law. This is not acceptable in a democratic country.”
The NHRC chairman alleged that a vested quarter is trying to create panic among the indigenous people, but this panic has to be removed. “There should be no reason for the rights of the indigenous people to not be protected.”
The quest for an identity
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leaders of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum raised a 10-point demand that includes giving constitutional recognition as “Adivasi” instead of tribal or small ethnic group. On August 10, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum President Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, popularly known as Shantu Larma, said the government is working to turn the Chittagong Hill Tracks into a “Muslim-dominated region”.
“The present government is pampering ultra-nationalism and communalism, instead of harbouring good culture,” he said.
Addressing a seminar, the man credited as a force behind the 1997 CHT Peace Accord said a problem has been created recently over the word ‘Adivasi’, which has been dropped from the Constitution. “Dropping the word, now the Constitution says all citizens of Bangladesh will be recognised as Bangalees.”
“If Sheikh Hasina is called Chakma, will she accept the identity? There are indigenous groups in the country and they must be recognised in the Constitution,” said Larma.
Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, said around 30 lakh people of 46 indigenous groups have been living in the country since time immemorial, along with the greater Bengali nation, with their own distinct language, culture and identity.
Sanjeeb Drong said the indigenous people have a right to express their self-identify, and the state could not enforce its own definition on them. Indigenous people are usually marginalised and have historically been deprived of all civic amenities and isolated from mainstream society.
Today, the term ‘indigenous’ is becoming a paradox, because the Bangladesh government has systemically constructed a noun phrase “some ethnic groups” while the colonial term “tribal” is strongly enforced in official documents.
Human rights activist and co-chairman of CHT Commission Sultana Kamal expressed her solidarity with the demand of the aboriginal people that they be recognised as indigenous people of Bangladesh in the Constitution. She appealed to the government to grant them constitutional recognition with a view to ensuring their rights.
Recently, the government identified the indigenous people as ethnic minority groups in the Constitution, where it is also stated that as citizens, all the people of the country are Bangladeshis, while as a nation they all are ‘Bangalee’, which put them in a critical condition, depriving them officially of their identity, although each one of these ethnic groups embody a very distinct language, culture and identity.
So forty years after independence with the slogan of “Bengali Nationalism”, some burning questions remain unanswered– do the indigenous people of Bangladesh belong to the group proclaiming a Bangalee identity? Are they Bangalees, or Bangladeshis? And can you not be one without the other?
courtesy: Dhaka courier