Discuss and analyze the recent changes of provisions of the indigenous people in the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Discuss and analyze the recent changes of provisions of the indigenous people in the Constitution of Bangladesh.


The recent debate on ‘ingenuousness’ in the context of Bangladesh has thrown up many questions on the appropriateness of the ‘indigenous’ identity of the peoples of Bangladesh, particularly the Pahari (hill) peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The government line is that the Paharis are not indigenous to Bangladesh, while Bengalis are. The Constitution of Bangladesh does not directly mention the indigenous peoples or tribal, but it is understood that the indigenous peoples form part of the disadvantaged part of the citizenry, which the constitution terms as ‘backward section of citizens’.

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. 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. And, of course, we must not ignore history. Let us therefore explore the history of settlements in Bangladesh, and the implications of the recent amendments of the constitution.

This essay will be discussed in two separate parts in the context of the status of Indigenous people. On the one hand, Discuss and analyze the status of Indigenous people in the light of constitution. On the other hand, the recent change of provisions of the indigenous people in the Constitution of Bangladesh.


As often noticed, Indigenous peoples are the most disadvantaged, neglected and vulnerable people in a certain country. Bangladesh is no exception. No formal policy for the development of indigenous populations is available in the government of the country. Over the years the indigenous peoples experienced a strong sense of social, political and economic exclusion, lack of recognition, fear and insecurity, loss of cultural identity, and social oppression. While other parts of the country got developed gradually, there was no effort to understand their concerns and problems. Decisions taken on the government level which vitally affects them are often taken without any discussions with their representatives. Thus they are subjected to stark socio-economic deprivation. Mass relocation of non-indigenous people in the traditional adivashi ethnic minority areas has also caused land-grabbing, leading to livelihood displacement among the indigenous peoples. As such, the recognition achieved by them in light of the constitution is a feeble one.

A) Demographic Status:

The number of ethnic communities living in the country is more than 45 with a population of nearly three million. Their existence can be traced back to centuries. However, indigenous peoples claim that the population of the indigenous peoples all over the country is about 3 million.

Indigenous peoples in other parts of ‘plains’ Bangladesh are located mainly in the border regions in the northwest (Rajshahi-Dinajpur), central north (Mymensingh-Tangail), northeast (Greater Sylhet), south and southeast (Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Greater Barisal). Among them, the Santal are the most numerous, constituting almost 30 per cent of the indigenous population of the plains, followed by the Garo, Hajong, Koch, Manipuri, Khasi, Rakhain etc.

In the division of Chittagong, eleven indigenous ethnic groups – such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Lushai, Khumi, Chak, Khyang, Bawm and Pankhua who collectively identify themselves as the Jumma people (Highlanders) – have been living in the city`s highlands for centuries. In addition, a very small number of descendants of Assames and Gorkhas also live there. When India and Pakistan was liberated, the total population of Chittagong was only 247,053. Out of this number, only 2.5 per cent were Bengali (including 1.5 percent of who were Bengali Muslims). However the 2001 census does not provide disaggregated data according to ethnicity. In the present time, Chittagong is the only area which has a majority of indigenous population.

B) Political Status

The first Constitution of Bangladesh, adopted in 1972, did not recognize the presence of indigenous peoples in the country at all. The Constitution also did not recognize the separate administrative arrangement. Moreover, there was seat preserved for the indigenous people in the parliament and the case is still the same.

I. Plains land

For the plains indigenous peoples in Greater Mymensingh district, the British government declared five thanas such as Sribardi, Nalitabari, Haluaghat, Durgapur and Kolmakanada as Partially Excluded Areas in 1935. The changed constitutional status of Mymensingh resulted, among others, in a huge influx of settlers into the region, starting from the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s. The government system that these people follow, the self government system, is still not recognized by the governments. In fact, at present there are no special political arrangements for plains indigenous s peoples in Bangladesh.

II. Chittagong Hill Tracts

The region of Chittagong is the only region of the country which has a unique legal and administrative system. This system differs from the rest of the country. The overall institutional setup for developmental interventions prevailing in the country does exist in the region, but alongside it prevails a number of other institutions. These institutions came up due to the unique cultural and historical background of the region.

C) Economic Status

Indigenous peoples also lack access to information and technology. This blocks them from participating in, and benefiting from, technological and other changes in the society, particularly economic reforms and developments. This increases the gap that prevails among them and the others. Their economy is focused on agriculture. This includes Jum cultivation, fruit orchard, horticulture and wet rice cultivation in the CHT, while in the plains it is mainly wet rice cutivation. They follow a unique method for their agriculture and in CHT it is known as Jum or Swidden cultivation (swiddening).

i. Employment and Urban Migration

Indigenous peoples are also unfortunate to face discrimination in the field of employment and occupation. Only because they are different racially and culturally, they rarely get a chance to participate in the most lucrative and prosperous occupations.

ii. Land dispossession and poverty

Land dispossession is the main problem that the indigenous peoples in Bangladesh face. Land dispossession is particularly glaring in Bangladesh, where not only have indigenous peoples continued to suffer from violent land-grabbing and other forms of land alienation, but many have been evicted, or threatened with eviction, from their traditional homelands by other people.

D) Socio/Cultural Status

Indigenous peoples are also prone to crises of cultural and social identity. They are losing their own heritage, which threaten their sustainability. They are slowly but surely losing their language, culture, customs and music. As was mentioned earlier, these people can rarely influence the decisions that affect them the most. Shockingly enough, indigenous names of places in indigenous-inhabited areas have been changed to Bengali names.

E) Educational Status

Most of the indigenous children usually attend NGO-run or private schools. Among the Garos and Khasi, the indigenous children mainly attend Christian Missionary Schools. The primary enrolment rate is 12.5 per cent. The 2001 census does not provide information regarding the indigenous population because there were no columns in the survey format for including information on indigenous issues, as surprising as that might sound.


The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) expresses its serious concern about the contents of the 15th amendment to the National Constitution of Bangladesh, which was passed by the Parliament on 30th June 2011. The CHT Commission had been hopeful that the four founding values (democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism) upon which the original 1972 Constitution was founded would be upheld in full.

Set out below is a summary of the key changes which concern us and the background to these:

  • The insertion of the phrase “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim” before the preamble to the constitution was added in the fifth amendment to the Constitution in 1979 by military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman along with the phrase inserting ‘trust and faith in almighty Allah’ in place of ‘secularism’ (Art. 8). This has now been reinserted by the 15th Amendment.
  • The eighth amendment to the Constitution, adopted under the military ruler, General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, in 1988, purported to make Islam as the state religion (Article 2A). This has been retained by the 15th Amendment, although a constitutional challenge to this provision is pending in the Supreme Court.
  • Both these provisions resulted in the Constitution moving away from one of its founding pillars of ‘secularism’ and becoming manifestly more discriminatory and communal in nature. It is a direct rejection of the full citizenship rights of the hundreds of thousands of people from diverse religions and beliefs who are Bangladeshis.
  • Article 6(2) of the Constitution now says: “The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bengalis as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis”.
  • Article’23A’ now says: “The culture of tribes, small ethnic groups, ethnic sects and communities- The state shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes [upajati], minor races, ethnic sects and communities”. These provisions have been inserted by the 15th Amendment despite sustained criticisms by thousands of citizens.
  • the estimated 50-60 indigenous peoples living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and in the plain lands all over the country should be rightfully recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’ in line with the United Nation’s modern understanding of the term based on self-identification, historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies, strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources, distinct social, economic or political systems, distinct language, culture and beliefs, and their non-dominance in society.

It was found out that several Members of Parliament did not approve of some or all the above-mentioned amendments to the constitution, but had to keep quiet amidst surrounding pressures. Same was the case for the civil society and the media. They also opposed to these amendments and the process through which these amendments took place. The CHT Commission strongly believes that a national consensus of some sort is essential before bringing any major amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh. This consensus had been absent from the very commencement of the amendment process.


The indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are marginalized as a result of the lack of respect for their culture, customs and traditions. They do not have the right to self-determination, control over their own land and territories, and full and effective participation in their development. They cannot even have their say in the major decisions that affect them the most. Their century old system, heritage, culture and customs are on the verge of extinction.

The spirit of the CHT Regulation and customary laws are embedded in the customs of Bangladesh, which cannot be uprooted merely by a change in terms. In an important case before the Supreme Court on the succession of the chieftain-ship, the court stated that neither the Government nor the Court had the right to interfere with customary laws. Thus the Customary laws of the Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh are now part of the customs of the Republic and cannot arbitrarily be revoked through mere legislation, particularly where that contravenes the constitutional tenets of non-discrimination. One thing can however be said surely that prolonged deprivation and injustice broods prolonged discontent and that turns out to be the seed for revolt. To keep this country unified, we must address the injustice being done to these people because surely no man of free spirit can continue for long in these situations.


Books and Articles

1. Adnan, Shapan. Migration, 2004. Land Alienation and Ethnic Conflict: Causes of Poverty in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Research & Advisory Services, Dhaka.

2. CERD/C/304/Add.118. (Concluding Observations/Comments), CERD/C/304/Add.118, 27 April 2001

3. Chakma, P.B., 1998. The Economy of the Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts: Some Myths and Realities by Workshop on Development in the CHT organized by Forum for Environment and Sustainable development in the CHT,

4. Concluding comments of the Committee-CEDAW: Bangladesh. 18/08/2004. A/59/38(SUPP) paras.228- 267. (Concluding Observations/Comments).

5. Guhathakurta, Meghna, Sara Hossain and Devasish Roy, August 2006. Study on Access to Justice for Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh, submitted to UNDP Regional Centre, Bangkok,

6. Halim, Sadeka, 2007, “Situation of Indigenous Women and ILO Convention on Discrimination”, in Solidarity 2007, by Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, Dhaka

7. Halim, Sadeka, 2006, “Situation of Garo Women: Some Observation”, in Indigenous People have the Rights to Territory, Land and Resources, Solidarity 2006, by Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, Dhaka

8. Mohsin, Amena, 2002. The Politics of Nationalism: The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, University Press Limited, Dhaka 2nd Ed.

9. Qanungo, Dr. Sunity Bhushan, 1998. Chakma Resistance to British Domination

10. Rabbani, Fazle, June 2004. Atlas of the Languages and Ethnic Communities of Chittagong Hill Tracts, UNESCO, Dhaka

11. Rafi, Mohammad and A Mushtaque R. Chowdhury (ed), 2001. Counting the Hills, Assessing Development in Chittagong Hill Tracts, UPL

12. Roy, Raja Devasish and Sadeka Halim, 2007 Population Transfer & Ethnic Conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, NCCR-North-South IP 7 SUB-Project 2, Indigenous Communities and Settlers: Resource Conflicts in Frontier Regions of South and Southeast Asia, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich, (unpublished)

13. Roy, Raja Devasish. July 2006. The ILO Convention On Indigenous And Tribal Populations, 1957 and The Laws of Bangladesh: A Comparative Review

14. Roy, Raja Devasish, 2004. “Challenges for Judicial Pluralism and Customary Laws of Indigenous Peoples: the Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh”, in Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law

15. Roy, Raja Devasish, 2002. Land and Forest Right in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Talking Points 4/02, ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), Kathmandu.

16. Serajuddin, A.M., 1968, “The Rajas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and their Relations with the Mughals and the East India Company in the Eighteen Century”, in Journal of the Pakistan historical Society, Vol. XIX, Part 1, Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, pp 53-60

17. Situational Analysis for Mainstreaming Indigenous Children’s Education PEDP-II

18. Sutter, Phil, 2000. CHT Livelihood Security Assessment Report, CARE-Bangladesh,

19. ——— OCTOBER 2005. UNLOCKING THE POTENTIAL, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), People’s Republic of Government of Bangladesh, p-152. Dhaka

20. ———- 2006. ‘Beauty Parloure Mandir Meyera Kemon Achhen’ published by Garo Indigenous Women Association,

21. ———- 2006. An assessment of the United Nations First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 1995-2004, conducted by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal

22. ——— 2005. Gender Profile: The Chittagong Hill Tracts, CHTDF-UNDP

23. ———- 2005. CEACR: Individual Observation concerning Convention No. 107, Indigenous and Tribal Populations, 1957 Bangladesh (ratification: 1972)

24. ——– 15 April 2003. Preparatory Assistance Document of BGD/02/006/A/01/34 – Promotion of Development and Confidence-building in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Project of the Government and UNDP,

25. ———- November 2000. “Baseline Survey on Indigenous Peoples in North-west Bangladesh”, a study conducted by an NGO, Research and Development Collective (RDC),

26. ———- April 2006. Rural Road Maintenance Project in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, World Food Programme, SFO Update.

27. Constitution of Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh

Web Pages

1. http://www.pcjss.org

2. http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2006/119-06.htm

3. http://www.jpnuk.org.uk/hr/hr2005.htm

4.http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/A.59.38(SUPP) paras.228 267.En?Opendocument

5. http://www.jummonet.blogspot.com, http://www.jummonet.wordpress.com

6. http://www.un.org

7. http://www.updfcht.org

News Reports

1. The Daily Prothom Alo, 13 and 21 July 2007

2. E-report on CHT Situation circulated by Kapaeeng Watch in August 2007