There have been about forty five Indigenous communities in the country of Bangladesh living for centuries. There are about two million indigenous peoples living in Bangladesh. According to 1991 survey, the number of indigenous people was Chittagong hill tracks is about 501,144 and the number of indigenous peoples of the plain regions was estimated about 704,834. But the Indigenous peoples argue that the number of indigenous people in the country is now about three million. The biggest number of indigenous peoples is found in the southeastern border region of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Chittagong hill trackts). There is no legal acknowledgment of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh refers indigenous peoples as ‘tribal’ in official documents. Some official documents also sometimes refer to them as ‘aboriginals’ and ‘indigenous hill men’. The Constitution of Bangladesh does not directly state the indigenous peoples, but it is understood that the indigenous peoples is the part of the disadvantaged community, which the constitution terms as ‘backward section of citizens’. But the reference to “backward segments of the population” is without identifying as to who are these “backward segments of the population”. The Constitution of Bangladesh ensures impartiality before the law for all its citizens. It unconditionally states that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth” (Articles 27 & 28). But, the government has been unsuccessful to make any improvement for political, social and economic development of indigenous peoples. This failure to provide specific constitutional safeguards has made indigenous peoples really helpless. There is no rule of law. The law enforcement personnel are prejudiced. In Bangladesh, indigenous peoples do not represent in the Parliament, Upazila Parishad and in the Union Parishad (local representative body). The government regardless of the political party is grabbing their land. This policy of land acquiring for any public or private purpose is threatening the identity and continued existence of indigenous peoples.
2. Human rights of indigenous peoples under constitution
Internationally, the Bangladesh has been strongly criticized for its human rights violations, mainly in the indigenous areas. The government of Bangladesh has no official and comprehensive policy with regard to the indigenous peoples of the country. The most severe problems faced by indigenous people in Bangladesh include the limited access to education and other social services, biasness by the non-indigenous people. The in general human rights condition of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh is far from good. Compared to indigenous people in the plains regions, indigenous people in the Chittagong hill tracks are in a comparatively better position because of the existence of the semi autonomous administrative system Hill District Councils and Regional Council. Of course, unlike Chittagong hill tracks, militarization and massive trans-migration of Bengalis are not affecting the indigenous peoples of the plains.
2.1. Implementation of international treaties
Bangladesh has complied most of the international human rights treaties including the ILO Convention 107. This ensures indigenous peoples certain rights such as the right to land, self governance and development. In addition, it has authorized the Economic and Social Council Resolution 2000/22. This establishes the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues with the authorization to advise and suggest to the Economic and Social Council on six subjects: (1) Economic and Social Development, (2) Human Rights, (3) Culture, (4) Education, (5) Health and (6) Environment. So, Bangladesh is legally liable to comply with these international human rights treaties. But it does not comply with them so far. The UN Monitoring Committee on studied the Bangladesh country report in 2004 and The Committee called upon Bangladesh to include without delay the provisions of the Convention into its domestic law and requested Bangladesh to make sure that the provisions of the Convention be fully imitated in the Constitution and all legislations. Many of the provisions of Bangladeshi law match to the standards of Convention No. 107 but several fail of these standards. Human rights activists stated that the situation of implementation of the provisions of the abovementioned treaties is far from good. In particular, various vital provisions of the ILO Convention No. 107 is of particular concern since it is the only human rights treaty with significance to indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. Another international treaty approved by Bangladesh and related to its indigenous peoples is the Convention on Biological Diversity. This contains provisions on the protection of the traditional knowledge systems and genetic resources of indigenous communities and actions for their fair utilization. Unfortunately, most of the abovementioned provisions remain unimplemented, especially in the plains regions. There are several factors behind the weak execution of the aforesaid treaty provisions in Bangladesh. First, under Bangladeshi law, international rights are not directly enforceable in the courts of law. Secondly, the treaty supervising system is complex, and provides no direct access to indigenous peoples.
2.2. Special legislation for indigenous peoples
The Constitution of Bangladesh affirms that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion and place of birth. The Constitution states that nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favor of women or children or for the progression of any backward section of citizens. Though the Constitution of Bangladesh does not directly mention the indigenous peoples, it is understood that the indigenous peoples form part of the underprivileged part of the citizens, which the constitution expressed ‘backward section of citizens’. It is widely well-known that indigenous peoples do not enjoy equal treatment before the law and administration. The Constitution affirms that nothing in this article shall prevent the State from: (a) making special provision in favor of any backward section of citizens for the purpose of securing their adequate representation in the service of the Republic; (b) giving effect to any law which makes provision for reserving appointments relating to any religious or denominational institution to persons of that religion or denomination; (c) reserving for members of one sex any class of employment or office on the ground that it is considered by its nature to be unsuited to members of the opposite sex. This provision provides the scope for positive action for indigenous peoples in the name of the ‘backward section of citizens’. Under these provisions of the constitution, the government undertakes some affirmative action in favor of indigenous peoples. Notable among these are:
- Setting up of a Special Affairs Division under the Prime Minister’s Office particularly for plains land indigenous people.
- Signing of the Chittagong hill tracks Peace Accord with the PCJSS as a solution of the Chittagong hill track problem through political and peaceful means.
- Enactment of the Chittagong hill tracks Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act of 2001.
- Amendment of Chittagong hill tracks Regulation in 2003 for establishment of a separate district judge court in Chittagong hill tracks.
- Insertion of the term ‘adivasi’ and indigenous peoples’ issues in the Poverty Reduction
Strategy Paper (PRSP);
- Continuing of quota reservation in the government jobs and educational institutions for ‘tribal’ people, etc.
The Chittagong hill tracks have a far larger body of laws that refers directly to indigenous people. Some of these laws recognize indigenous peoples’ customs regarding the ownership and use of lands and other natural resources.
2.3. National policies for indigenous peoples
Government policy may also be implicit from the national sectional policies and programs of the government. With regard to other national policies, e.g., healthcare, education, employment, land administration there are no special aim to address the problems faced by indigenous communities, especially those living in remote areas. These problems cannot be determined through the usual programs that were intended with the populated regions in mind. Therefore, in order to provide equal right to use to indigenous peoples to healthcare, education, training, employment, etc. as promised in the national constitution the national policies needs to provide special actions. Without these there will be no equal state services for these disadvantaged people. With regard to employment, there are reserved seats for certain jobs and seats in educational institutions for indigenous people. The indigenous rights activists expressed their grief that the Act has been arbitrarily used against different minority ethnic group including indigenous peoples in the north-western region and in north-central region of the country.
3. Status of indigenous women and children
Indigenous women and children in Bangladesh are particularly facing serious violations including killing and rape by the mainstream peoples. Rape is being used as a weapon to threaten and disgrace the indigenous peoples. Many women and minor girls have been killed after rape. In case of healthcare and education programs, tens of thousands of indigenous people continue to be deprived of healthcare and education facilities. In the case of education policy, there is no provision for indigenous children to be commenced to mother tongue education at the primary level.
4. 15th Amendment of the Constitution and changes in the status of Indigenous people
On June 30, 2011, parliament passed the Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Bill, 2011, and included a few provisions that are directly relevant for indigenous people. Parliament and the cabinet and the Ministry of Law accepted the draft presented by the special committee on constitutional reforms. On June 30, 2011 after the acceptance of the bill, it was rejected by several groups of citizens. Eleven left-leaning parties and the Chittagong hill tracks-based party, JSS held a protest demonstration in Dhaka city. The 15th amendment to the constitution makes every citizen of Bangladesh a ‘ Bangali ‘. Among others, in a new article on the protection of the culture and heritage of indigenous people referred the indigenous people as ‘upa-jati’ (similar to tribe), ‘khudro nrigoshthi’ (small ethnic group), ‘khudro-jatishotta’ (small nation/people) and ‘khudro-shomprodai’ (small community). The indigenous people find these terms reproachful, disrespectful and unacceptable. Several indigenous people from the Chittagong hill tracks and other parts of Bangladesh stated that the opportunity to bring forth adequate recognition is being lost for now, and for several decades to come.
5. Reaction of the indigenous people to 15th Amendments of the constitution
Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) rejected the Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill, 2011 and stated that through the means of the bill different indigenous groups are identified as Bangali in the constitution. So their tribal identities and basic rights have been denied. So the government should be responsible for any horrible situation due to the undemocratic and oppressive steps towards the indigenous people. Leaders of anti-peace accord United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) brought out a procession criticizing the government for terming the indigenous people as Bangali. They said an indigenous man or woman cannot be a Bangali. Bangali is also applicable for a Bangla speaking person. Chief of Chakma circle barrister Raja Debashish Roy at the conference said “The same mistake was made in 1972 and the indigenous people will never accept it.”. On 17 August 2011 in two separate demonstrations held in Rajshahi and Gazipur, leaders of indigenous peoples and rights activists of mainstream population demanded the government evaluation the 15th amendment to the constitution, which did not identify them as ‘indigenous peoples’. The ruling party Awami League in its election manifesto had promised to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples to land, water bodies and forests revoking all discriminatory laws. But this has completely changed in 2011. Now the government says that there are no indigenous people in the country.
The indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are underprivileged as a result of the lack of respect for their culture, customs and traditions. They do not have the right and access to self-determination, control over their own land and territories and now even their own identities. They lack full and effective participation in their development and involvement in the decision-making. Their century old systems are at the edge of extinction. So the government should repeal the 15th amendment of the constitution and provide the adequate rights and identities to the indigenous people.
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