Discuss and analyze Constitutional recognition of indigenous people of Bangladesh.


Almost 98% people of Bangladesh are Bengalis and they speak the Bangla language. The minorities include ChakmasKhasiSanthal and other tribes numbering more than a million (about 1.2% of total population) who mostly live in the various hilly regions. Chakmas are ethnically Tibeto-Burman, and are closely related to the Himalayan tribes. According to history, they are originally from Arakan (present Rakhine State of Burma) who hundreds of years ago wandered and settled in different parts of India and Bangladesh.

 Who are the Indigenous Peoples?

There is no official definition on Indigenous Peoples, and actually, definitions developed in the past carry flaws or create confusions.

The generally accepted descriptions on Indigenous Peoples may give the basic ideas about who they are:

  • The First People 
    Indigenous Peoples refer to the first to settle in the country, with other names such as aborigines.
  • Cultural Difference
    In Africa and Asia where processes of conquests and colonial structures took place, indigenous peoples refer to groups that clearly distinguish themselves in a socio-cultural context from the surrounding population. They are characterized by a common culture and language, common spiritual ideas, an identifiable territory and a certain economic structure.

 1972: Working Definition

A definition developed by Mr. José Martinez Cobo, Special Reporter on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, was accepted by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (Sanders 1989):

“Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.”

THE terms “indigenous people,” “indigenous ethnic minorities,” and “tribal groups” are used to describe social groups that share similar characteristics, namely a social and cultural identity that is distinct from dominant groups in society.

United Nations human rights bodies, ILO, the World Bank and international law apply four criteria to distinguish indigenous people:

  • Indigenous peoples usually live within (or maintain attachments to) geographically distinct ancestral territories.
  • They tend to maintain distinct social, economic, and political institutions within their territories.
  • They typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, geographically and institutionally, rather than assimilate fully into a national society.

They self-identify as indigenous or tribal

The situation of the indigenous people in the world is not encouraging. According to an estimate, there are about 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries. Individual groups practice their uniqueness, different from those of the dominant communities they live in. They are the descendents of those who originally took up habitation in a geographical location. Other settlers, who came through conquest, occupation, encroachment, or other means, gradually joined them.

Sources: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

 Constitutional recognition of indigenous people of Bangladesh

2.1. Adivasi and indigenous:

THE issue of constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, raised by indigenous people themselves and civil society, has attracted considerable attention and generated debate in recent times. The main thesis of this demand rests on the argument that indigenous people should be recognised in the constitution by virtue of their being indigenous. However, many argue that this demand is contentious, largely because it is incompatible with the concept of equality of rights. This small write up is an attempt to argue against such contention and defend the demand of the constitutional recognition of indigenous people.

Debate concerning recognition of indigenous people takes place within the context of the continuing oppression of indigenous minorities within the modern States. In fact, constitutional recognition is considered as a valuable tool of promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous people. The constitutional and legislative measure are frequently used as means for adopting affirmative action policies and programmes, which are particularly beneficial to the indigenous groups. The legislative and constitutional mechanism is also important for promoting international human rights norms relating to indigenous people, as these norms can only be implemented at the national level through their incorporation as laws in the constitution. Indeed, recognition of indigenous people’s rights is an essential element of democratic and plural society, not an exception.

THE demand for constitutional recognition of adivasi or indigenous identity is based upon a number of premises, justifications and contexts. Firstly, adivasi is the word that was and is used by Bengalis to refer to the indigenous peoples of northwestern Bangladesh, including Santal, Munda and Oraon, among others. Since 1993, when the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People was observed, globally, and in Bangladesh (but not by the government), the term has been increasingly used to refer to other indigenous peoples as well, including in the CHT. One rationale behind the use of this term is the historical fact that the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh settled in the territories or areas they now live in prior to the arrival of the Bengali citizens. People who now identify themselves as Bengali then lived in other parts of Bangladesh, or elsewhere, but not in the places where the adivasis had settled. There is no historical evidence of indigenous peoples having forcibly occupied any territories within Bangladesh by ejecting Bengali people (as Bengalis were not there then!). For example, the Khumi and Chak peoples claim indigenousness to Bandarban district, not to elsewhere in the country. Likewise, the Munda and Oraon claim indigenousness to Northwest Bangladesh in the Barind tract (‘Borendro Bhumi’) within Rajshahi division. In these areas the aforesaid peoples were the ‘first inhabitants’ or ‘first settlers’ (prior to the arrival of Bengali people).
Secondly, the term, ‘adivasi’, and its English equivalent, ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’, have been used in several Bangladeshi laws, policies, judicial decisions and statements of Bangladeshi heads of governments.47  

See Article Indigenous people of Bangladesh. G. M. Quader

 2.2. Identity of Indigenous Peoples
Government perspectives on the identity of indigenous peoples, however, are varied. It prefers the terms “tribe” and “tribal” (“upajati” in Bangla), and is opposed to the use of the words “indigenous” and “adivasi”. The government’s reluctance to recognize indigenous peoples is largely politically motivated and has its roots in Bengali nationalism. The legal situation, on the other hand, is quite pluralistic, and reflects, in its totality, the currency of all the terms preferred by government officials and indigenous peoples combined.

Following the 29 August 2005 High Court verdict that declared the Constitution (Fifth Amendment) Act, 1979 (Act 1 of 1979) ultra vires and illegal, the government of Bangladesh took initiative to amend the constitution. To pursue the government of Bangladesh for constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, the leaders of indigenous peoples raised their voices for recognition of their rights to existence, identities, culture, participation and consent, self-government, land and territories in the constitution.

On 20 December 2009 in a national roundtable on ‘ILO Convention 169’ and ‘Indigenous Peoples and the Bangladesh Parliament’ organized by ILO and RDC in Dhaka, a parliamentary caucus for indigenous peoples’ causes was formed.

2.3  Land Rights and Land Dispossession
The lands of the indigenous peoples are still forcibly being taken away basically for establishment of eco-park and national parks, protected and reserved forest, mining, settlement of government-sponsored non-indigenous migrants and establishment of military bases and training centres, and development projects. In Bandarban district alone, around 50,000 acres of land for lease, 118,000 acres of land for protected and reserved forest and 71,711 acres of land for military purposes were grabbed. The indigenous Jumma peoples in CHT are on the verge of total eviction from their ancestral land where they have been living and cultivating Jum from generation to generation.

In plain lands around 2,000 indigenous families in 10 districts in the border regions in the northwest (Rajshahi-Dinajpur) have so far lost their 1,748 acres of ancestral land. On the other, during the 2009-2010, 216 families of indigenous peoples in plain lands have been attacked and their houses have been looted and destroyed by the influential groups of mainstream population with the intention to grab ancestral land of adivasis. In these attacks, 4 indigenous persons have been killed. Besides, 13 indigenous families have been evicted from their ancestral land and homesteads in 2009-10.

See Article Constitutional recognition of indigenous people Dr. Abdullah Al Faruque

2.4 Gross Human Rights Issues
State machineries continue to violate the civil and political rights and collective rights of indigenous peoples with impunity and there is no effective mechanism available for redress in addressing these violations. Numerous cases of human rights violations committed by State Forces are contrary to its national laws and its international human rights obligations. Further, the government being a member of the Human Rights Council should make itself more transparent and accountable to its international human rights obligations.

2.4 Gross Human Rights Issues
State machineries continue to violate the civil and political rights and collective rights of indigenous peoples with impunity and there is no effective mechanism available for redress in addressing these violations. Numerous cases of human rights violations committed by State Forces are contrary to its national laws and its international human rights obligations. Further, the government being a member of the Human Rights Council should make itself more transparent and accountable to its international human rights obligations.

During the period of 2009-2010, at least 7 Jummas including 5 women have been killed by Bengali settlers and security forces in CHT while 7 Jummas have been arrested. Al least 4 massive communal attacks on indigenous villages have been committed by Bengali settlers with the direct support of security forces and administration in CHT in which at least 511 houses of indigenous Jumma peoples have completely been burnt to ashes and 97 Jummas have been injured.

On the other hand, in plain lands of the country, several attacks on indigenous villages have been made by the miscreants and land grabbers of mainstream population with the intention to occupy indigenous people’s land. In these attacks, 8 indigenous persons including 4 women have been killed while 74 houses have been destroyed and looted. Besides, 3 indigenous villagers were arrested in connection with fabricated cases filed by land grabbers.

While the Government publicly supported freedom of religion, attacks on religious and ethnic minorities continued to be a problem during the reporting period. There were reports of discrimination based on religious belief or practice during the period of 2009-2010. State Minister for Home Shamsul Haq Tuku has given a broad hint of deploying special unit of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in the CHT in view of deteriorating law and order situation.

See Bangladesh: Human Rights Report 2009-2010 on Indigenous Peoples

2.5 Women and Children Rights
In the third Upazila Parishad election held on 22 January 2010, no indigenous women was elected in the post of the chair. However, in 25 Upazila Parishads under the three hill districts of CHT 15 indigenous women have been elected as the vice-chairs. Among them 10 are Chakma, two Marma, two Tripura and one from Tanchangya community. On the contrary, only one indigenous woman candidate in Madhupur upazila under Gazipur district named Ms. Jostina Noknek won the election for the post of Woman vice-chair.

Indigenous women in the country are victims not only of repression and negligence for centuries, but also of violence like rape, kidnap and murder by the mainstream Bengali people. The main reasons that female victims do not receive effective justice are the general barriers to

Accessing the justice system, police corruption, mismanagement of evidence, ignorance of the law and a lack of proper medical report (which is also a result of corruption).
During the period of 2009-2010, at least 5 Jumma women have been killed by the security forces and Bengali settlers while 14 indigenous Jumma women have been raped or molested. Besides, two Jumma

Women have been kidnapped by Bengalis. On the other, 4 indigenous women in plain lands have been killed after brutally raped while more 5 indigenous women raped or molested. Besides, 1 indigenous woman was kidnapped.

On the other hand, Indigenous children are still deprived of education through mother tongue. 16 indigenous children were rescued from a hotel and arrested a man on charges of child trafficking from Bandarban town.

2.6. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Annual Development Programme (ADP) projects can not be categorized as Adivasi Focused as Government has no explicit allocation for indigenous peoples. Even there is no allocation directly for education in mother tongue and empowerment of indigenous women

See Bangladesh: Human Rights Report 2009-2010 on Indigenous Peoples

Although indigenous peoples are 1.13% of total population of the country, only 0.32% Annual Development Programme (ADP) has been allocated for them in fiscal year 2009-2010. In fiscal year 2009-2010, per capita ADP allocation for overall Bangladesh has been taka 1,996.98; whereas indigenous peoples of CHT received per capita ADP of taka 1652.67 and for indigenous peoples of plain land the amount was taka 83.64 only. In average, per capita ADP allocation for overall Bangladesh has been nearly 3 times higher than the allocation for indigenous peoples. Allocation for plain land’s indigenous peoples increased a little in 2008-09, but decreased for CHT.

With regard to the admission quota for indigenous students, there is no coherent policy and the entire issue is often embroiled with bureaucratic interventions. In some cases, it is totally dependent on the discretion of the authority of the concerned educational institutions. Newly formulated Education Policy has included a few recommendations on indigenous peoples. It mentioned in the aims and objectives of the education of chapter-I that one of the objectives of education is to develop cultures and languages of all small ethnic groups including indigenous peoples of the country.

Eighteen indigenous communities of the country are going to be left out from the next population census. The finalised questionnaire, now being printed for the census, which will be

Held on 15-19 March 2011, mentions only 27 indigenous communities.

GoB resumed the project to set up a science and technology university in Rangamati district. However, local indigenous people have been opposing setting up university at their area arguing that it would uproot them once again from their ancestral land and create socio-political problem in this region.

2.7 An Audit on the Implementation of CHT Accord
Though the then government led by Sheikh Hasina signed the CHT Accord with the PCJSS to resolve the CHT problem through political and peaceful means in 1997, but only a little of the Accord was implemented during her tenure in 1996-2001. This extent was not enough at all to develop the post-Accord situation. The main issues which help introduce self-rule government system in CHT and help resolve the problem through political means were not implemented at all.

See Bangladesh: Human Rights Report 2009-2010 on Indigenous Peoples

So far there have not been any official steps by the government to preserve the characteristics of the “tribal inhabited region” by keeping their life and living undisturbed and attain the overall development thereof as embodied in the Accord.

Full execution of the CHT Regional Council Act has not been carried out as yet. Rules of Business of the CHTRC is kept pending as it still waits for government approval for almost last 12 years. In absence of this provision CHTRC is unable to exercise its authority as mandated in the CHTRC Act to supervise and coordinate the activities of all transferred subjects under the three HDCs, law and order, general administration, development programs, the activities of CHT Development Board, coordination of NGO activities, disaster management and relief operation, traditional and social justice etc and issuing license for heavy industries.

No other subjects, especially the most important land management, general administration and police, have so far been transferred to the three HDCs since the signing of the Accord. Election of the HDCs is yet to be held and a Voter list with only the permanent residents of the CHT, to be certified by the Circle Chiefs, is yet to be prepared for the election of HDCs.

Land Commission is yet to commence its function and its Act is yet to be amended in the light of the Accord. This has not only kept land disputes unresolved but also opened the floodgates of new land disputes to emerge, making things more complicated for smooth resolution. Only few temporary camps out of 543 camps were withdrawn so far. Rest of the temporary camps is yet to be dismantled. Moreover, security operation codenamed ‘Operation Uttaron’ which was

Which was resorted to in 2001 to tighten security noose, is still in operation.

9,780 families out of 12,222 families of repatriated Jumma refugees are yet to be reinstated in their lands, homesteads and orchards and 40 villages of the returnees are still under the occupation of the settlers. More than ninety thousand internally displaced families have not yet been rehabilitated. Though grand alliance government reconstituted the CHT Accord Implementation Committee, but since its inception it could not come up with anything concrete to help the implementation process of the Accord.

The implementation of the CHT Accord is crucial for unhindered development of the country. For the peace to thrive and stability to continue in a developing country like Bangladesh, it is the call of the hour to press for all the good will at the disposal of the state to materialize everything that the Accord stands for. For good governance and rule of law to prevail in the CHT, there is no option but to ensure that CHT Accord is honored and is given a fair play.

Bangladesh: Human Rights Report 2009-2010 on Indigenous Peoples

3. Conclusion

Bangladesh is a poor country. But, it may not be wrong to say that, with very few exceptions, Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples are by and large the poorest among the poor. It cannot be denied that they face discrimination in education, employment, and civil rights. Decades of violence between indigenous-led insurgencies and government security forces in the Chittagong Hill Tracts gave rise to social tensions there which still persist despite the signing of a peace accord nearly ten years ago. Allegations of serious human and civil rights abuses against members of indigenous communities surface every now and then.

The diversity of our culture due to the presence of indigenous communities is providing extra vigor to the national fabric of Bangladesh. Moreover, indigenous people are the original inhabitants of our country. So, they have the same right we have over Bangladesh, if not more.


1.         Quader,G.M.(2008) Indigenous people of Bangladesh, publication

2.       Department of Law, 1st edition University of Chittagong.

3.       Al Faruque,A (2008)Constitutional recognition of indigenous people.


4.       Bangladesh: Human Rights Report 20092010 on indigenous people.