An informed discussion on the subject will not be possible unless we clarify the context of our discussion. The relevant context here is human rights and the framework necessarily has to be the one ascribed by that premier club of the world's sovereign states: the United Nations. Although our esteemed foreign minister is known to have cited dictionary meaning(s) of the term, 'indigenous', quoting them to be those who “belong to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else”, the debate cannot be settled by referring to dictionaries, but by looking at the term's meaning as understood in the relevant UN instruments and processes and other international human-rights mechanisms, while paying appropriate attention to the political and legal contexts of Bangladesh.
The most pertinent question in this respect is, were there peoples living in different parts of Bangladesh - and not necessarily spread over all parts of Bangladesh - before the arrival of the currently dominant groups (the Bengalis) in those parts of the country?
Historical records of the Portugese, Mughals and British, and oral and written accounts of the Jummas themselves clearly attest to the fact that all the 11 Jumma peoples were in existence in the CHT-Chittagong-Feni-Noakhali-Comilla region, not just in the hills but also in the plainlands, prior to conquest (in 1666, by the Mughals of a part of Chittagong, Feni-Noakhali, Comilla, etc., but excluding the present-day CHT). Suniti Bhushan Qanungo writes: “In prehistoric times Chittagong was inhabited successively by the Austro-Asiatic and the Mongoloid groups of peoples”. He writes further, “The Mughal conquest of Chittagong drove the Arakanese beyond the hill ranges, and vacated places were occupied by new settlers from within or outside the district. The Mughal government encouraged the colonization in northwestern Chittagong, which had been depopulated during the Arakanese regime. The new colonizers, mostly the inhabitants of Noakhali-Tripura-Comilla region were the latest settlers in the district”.
As in the case of the CHT, in the plains region as well, there is no record of Adibashis having displaced Bengalis and settled in their present locations. The Santal and Oraon made the Barind tract inhabitable and converted harsh terrain into paddy lands. Similar settlements were made by Rakhaing (Patuakhali-Barguna), Garo and Khasi (Mymensingh-Sylhet), but not by conquering and displacing Bengalis!
Of course, Bengalis have also lived in different parts of the plains and delta areas for centuries. Bengalis, however, have not ventured into the hill and forest areas until relatively recently. And going back to the earliest history of Bengal, prior to the arrival of the Indo-European and Dravidian-speaking peoples, the inhabitants of Bengal included several of the peoples who are claiming indigenous identity.
After the decision was taken at the ECOSOC to adopt the report of the 10th session of UNPFII, GoB was quick to put up a face-saving diplomatic response, with only China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia showing sympathy for GoB's position. Never mind the human-rights records of the above-mentioned countries!
According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than formally define indigenous peoples and hence there is no set definition of indigenous peoples in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, International laws do not define minorities either. The “working definition” of indigenous peoples by José R Martínez Cobo has attained the status of a near-formal definition in the context of UN and International human rights jurisprudence. Cobo writes: “Indigenous communities, peopless and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peopless, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.” (My emphasis added)
We should be examining first and foremost the concept in relation to the ILO Convention on Indigenous & Tribal Populations (Convention No. 107) of 1957, which Bangladesh ratified in June, 1972, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, about six months before the Constitution of Bangladesh was adopted.
As a collective entity, Bengalis live less in conformity with the “social, economic and cultural institutions” of the time of their pre-colonisation or pre-conquest period ancestors, and more in conformity with “the institutions of the nation to which they belong”, and hence they cannot be regarded as indigenous within the meaning of Convention 107.
It is clear from the wording of ILO Convention No. 107 that 'indigenous' and 'tribal' population groups are both referred to as “tribal or semi-tribal” populations. Therefore, indigenous populations are those among the tribal and semi-tribal population groups who “[are descended] from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization and which, irrespective of their legal status, live more in conformity with the social, economic and cultural institutions of that time than with the institutions of the nation to which they belong”.
The concept of tribal and semi-tribal population groups has been related in this convention with “social and economic conditions [that] are at a less advanced [read disadvantaged] stage than the stage reached by the other sections of the national community”, and a “status [that] is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations”.
From the final report on the Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations submitted on June 20, 1982 to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations by Mr. José Martínez Cobo, a Special Rapporteur, it is documented that the then Bangladesh Government clearly recognised the existence of the Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh. The report looked at a number of criteria in defining Indigenous Peoples, and reported how different governments define the Indigenous Peoples in their countries.
Anyone who is fluent in English and Bengali will find it humorous that the terms 'tribe/tribal' can even remotely be translated to the word 'Upa-jati' -- literally meaning 'sub-nation' or 'sub-ethnic groups.' Who is the sub-group here and who is the larger ethnic group? Are we calling the Adibashis the sub-groups of Bengalis?
The term 'khudro jati-shotta' may seem more respectable towards the separate cultural entity of the non-Bengali peoples, but it is nevertheless, problematic, as there is a clear distinction of hierarchical division of peoples (smaller and greater!).
“Khudro nri-goshthi” or small ethnic groups is also problematic. In the first place, the indigenous peoples and the Bengali peoples are both ethnic groups or ethnic communities, and the 'smallness' of the population of the indigenous peoples should not be the basis to distinguish between the different ethnic groups.
Our honourable FM, Dipu Moni mentioned that when the Indigenous peoples are only 1.2% of the total population, giving them a special and 'elevated' identity cannot be in the national interest of our country. By this point, one must see how the Government is clearly stuck on the word “Khudro” -- potent in power and paralysed by fear. Khudro shomprodai is also problematic on account of the reference to smallness. Without the khudro, this term is not disparaging.
2. Commission on Human Rights, Study of the problem of discrimination against Indigenous Populations, Jose R. Martinez Cobo (1982: paragraph 61).
3. Suniti Bhushan Qanungo, A History of Chittagong, Vol 1, published by Dipankar Qanungo, Chittagong, 1988, p. 20.
4. Ibid, p. 21.
5. S. N. H. Rizvi (ed), East Pakistan District Gazetteers: Chittagong, Government of East Pakistan, Services and General Administration Department, East Pakistan Government Press, Dacca, 1970, p. 75.
6. Willem van Schendel, Wolfgang Mey & Aditya Kumar Dewan, The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2000, p. 25.
7. Chakma Raja decries non-recognition, Sun, 29/05/2011 by priyodesk; News Source: The New Age
8. Article 1(1)(b), ILO Convention No. 107.
12. Article 1(1)(a), ILO Convention No. 107.
13. The URL address of the report is http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/spdaip.html
14. Page 15 of E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.6, No: 61.
15. Page 18 of E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.6, No: 86.
16. Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury v. Kyaw Sain Prue Chowdhury & Others (50 DLR AD (1998) 73)