Indigenous people in Bangladesh: Right lies only in pen and paper?
The term Adivasis is used in Bangla Language instead of Indigenous people is not confined to any particular geographical or political boundaries but is generally used in the Indian subcontinent to denote indigenous peoples. Like India, Bangladesh has its Advisis, though their proportion in the population is much smaller, perhaps 1.5 per cent. The Adivasis of Bangladesh, again like those of India, represent a broad category encapsulating at least twenty-seven different indigenous peoples. Despite their many differences, Bangladeshi Adivasis share major ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic distinctions from the majority Bengalis.
The most populous indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are the Santal (200,000), Chakma (195,000), Marma (66,000) and Mandi (60,000). Of these the first and last are considered plains-dwelling Adivasis, with the Mandi living in north-central Bangladesh and the Santal in the north-west. In comparison with Bengalis, Adivasis are generally regarded by Bengalis themselves as more open, friendly, generous and honest. They have a strong relationship with the land and there is a deep interrelationship between their religious beliefs (animism) and their social structure.
Adivasis inhabit the border areas of the north-west and north-east Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. Both prior to the creation of Bangladesh and afterwards, successive governments have been reluctant to take a census of the Adivasi population on the basis of language and religion. Government figures of 1981 put Adivasi numbers at 897,828, and the population is now thought to be about 2 million. In 1981 43.7 per cent of Adivasis were estimated to be Buddhist, 24.1 per cent Hindus, 13.2 per cent Christian and 19 per cent as following other religions. It is widely believed that the Bangladesh government has deliberately undercounted the Adivasi population to emphasize its marginality. Lower numbers mean that their legitimate demands can be more easily dismissed or ignored by governments and thus excluded from relief aid or development programmes. Undercounting also allows Adivasi land claims to be seen as more tenuous and their traditional ways of life as mere fragments of the past rather than as a living culture.
Going Back to the History:
Whereas communal land ownership represents a vital element of their life pattern, the major problem for all Adivasis is so-called ‘landgrabbing’ by Bengalis. Although all indigenous land is theoretically considered to be communal land, it was fortunate that plains Adivasis for the most part received individual title deeds to their land under British rule. Communal land claims have proved far more difficult to sustain in law. Yet individual landholdings are also threatened in many ways. These include seizure by trickery or force and, as in the case of Hindus, illegal application of the Vested Property Act. Adivasis generally have been discriminated against and persecuted, although the position of those of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has aroused the greatest concern and gained the most international attention.
Most of the CHT peoples migrated into the area from the south between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries although the arrival of Bengali settlers forced many CHT peoples to retreat further into the hills. The British colonial period was a less disturbing time for the CHT indigenous peoples and saw the promulgation of laws granting a measure of autonomy, most prominently reflected by the promulgation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulations of 1900. These measures confirmed that in internal matters the CHT was largely self-governing within the recognized structure; and they delineated categories of land, notably khas (government) land, specifically excluding non-indigenous peoples from settling in tribal areas.
At the time of the partition of India in 1947 the award of the CHT to East Bengal, despite the fact that it contained almost no Muslim population, raised considerable opposition among the peoples of the CHT. Soon after, the Pakistan government allowed Bengali Muslims to move into the CHT, causing resentment among the indigenous peoples. The pace of Bengali settlement increased once the special status of the CHT was abolished in 1964. The years 1979-83 witnessed large-scale government-sponsored programmes of Bengali settlement in the Hill Tracts.2 Successive governments have actively pursued this policy, with the aim of forcibly assimilating the indigenous peoples of the CHT as well as depriving them of their lands.
Prior to the creation of Bangladesh, the Kaptai hydroelectric project had a devastating effect on many indigenous peoples. Built in the 1960s, the huge Kaptai dam flooded large tracts of cultivable land. More than 100,000 people – a quarter of the population of the CHT – were displaced. It is estimated that 40,000 environmental refugees fled to India, where many of them are currently living in the north-east state of Arunachal Pradesh, citizens neither of India, which has refused to grant them citizenship, nor of Bangladesh, and having no rights in either.
Beginning of Jana Samhati Party
The civil war of the Bengali people against the West Pakistan military and politicians and its ultimate success, with the overt support of Indian forces, gave renewed hope to the hill peoples of a realization of their right to self-determination. A delegation representing Adivasis petitioned the new government for a restoration of autonomy for the CHT, but it received an unsympathetic response. The government of Sheikh MujiburRahman considered the request to be secessionist, and the government launched raids into the CHT in 1972. As a reaction to this the Jana SamhatiSamiti (JSS) United People’s Party, and its military wing, the Shanti Bahini (peace force), were formed to resist government forces. Numbering up to 15,000, the Shanti Bahini was staffed mainly by Chakma, but also contained Marma and Tripura, and it has since conducted a guerrilla war against the state, with brief interludes at the negotiating table.
During its discussions with the government between October 1987 and February 1988, the JSS put forward a number of demands, contending that this was the only way of protecting Adivasi interests. These demands included: withdrawal of Bengali settlers and the prohibition of future settlements by non-indigenous peoples; withdrawal of all Bangladesh military forces from the CHT; retention of the CHT Regulations of 1900; a specified degree of autonomy within the CHT; guarantees that these provisions could not be changed without a plebiscite within the CHT; economic development to benefit Adivasis; dismantling of the model villages and release of JSS prisoners; and the involvement of international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the implementation of such an agreement. Successive governments have failed to accept such terms, particularly where the issue of autonomy is concerned.
Although an apparent cease-fire was in operation and the government began negotiations with the JSS in November 1992, massive human rights abuses continued to take place in the CHT. Various non-governmental organizations, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, Survival International and Anti-Slavery International, gathered first-hand accounts of ill-treatment and torture, threats and killings, along with army destruction of houses and temples. The attitude of Bengalis towards Adivasis in general is based on culturally inherited stereotypes of Adivasis as primitive or ‘jungly’ and uncivilized. Many instances of overt discrimination against Adivasis, both by the public as well as by governmental officials, have been recorded, and the most serious threat to the peoples of the CHT remains the policy of depriving them of their lands. A major breakthrough in the enduring conflict came through the signing of the Peace Accord on 2 December 1997 between the Government of Bangladesh and Jana SangatiSamiti. The accord provides a number of rights to indigenous peoples including limited autonomy. A Land Disputes Commission was to be established to deal with land-related issues, with the Commission also expected to provide quick inexpensive and easy remedies for cases of land dispossession taking into account local customs and usage with regard to land right and land claims.
Notwithstanding the provisions of the Peace Accord, the Indigenous peoples of CHT continue to suffer from violence, discrimination and exclusion. In November 2005, a British High Commission mission to Bangladesh visited the region and concluded that the Land Disputes Resolution Commission, that was set up to facilitate the effective implementation of the Peace Accorded was failing in its operations. The military retains a huge presence which has strained the fragile peace and led to violations of Accord. On 12 July 2006, the army tortured and brutalised a shopkeeper in Mahalchari. Similarly there are reports of assaults and rape of indigenous women by the settlers or by the army men. A women from Marma tribe was gang-raped on 30 June 2006. The issues relating to land rights of the CHT peoples remain unresolved and indigenous people continue to face further land-grabbing by the settler-population.
From the point of view of conflict prevention, the key concern is to undertake measures so that conflict is not resumed. Now that the Peace Accord of 1997 is an established fact, the key recommendation will be to continue implementation of the accord without setbacks. Key issues creating the major stumbling block between the government and the PCJSS are settlement of land disputes, rehabilitation of the remaining refugees, and the voter list. The government must show deep commitment and take bold steps in resolving these problems. One recommendation is for the government to show political commitment to the implementation process. For this, the National Implementation Committee should meet and there should not be any lack of visible interest on the part of the government to implement the accord. Further, the government must initiate the appropriate relocation of the Bengali settlers who had been rehabilitated there by the government as counterinsurgency measures in the late 1970s and 1980s. Unless, the issue of the settlers can be definitively settled, the seeds for further discontent, and thus violence, will always remain potent among the indigenous people of the region. The reported news of assurance from several donor agencies for funding initiatives for relocation of Bengali settlers elsewhere should be seen as a great facilitating process.
Recent changes in constitution:
But 15th amendment of our constitution which is not only criticised by world media also having issue inside the country, the major amendment for indigenous people is about their own identity. As 15th amendment, article 6(2) saysThe People of Bangladesh shall be known as Bengali as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis. Indigenous peoples of Bangladesh do not want to be known as Bengali. 50-60 indigenous people need to recognize as indigenous people as the regulation of international indigenous people law recognize by United Nation. But the amendment, in this way Indigenous peoples own national identity will get lost. Another major problem is the change of freedom of association, which give the possibility of terminating any activity of indigenous people. Jana SanghatiSamiti (PCJSS) protested against terming indigenous peoples as ‘Bengali’ and non-recognition of indigenous peoples and Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord of 1997 in the Constitution. PCJSS rejected the Fifteen Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2011 and asked the government for its revision. PCJSS leaders expressed their agitation in a large public meeting held on 8 July 2011 in Rangamati district headquarters in the CHT reiterating their demands for full implementation of the CHT Accord.
Another major amendment which is criticised by all conscious people around Bangladesh and all over the worlds bangali which is retaining the 8th amendment of the of constitution which is adopted under military ruler, Hossain Mohammad Ershad in 1988, purported to make Islam as the state religion.Islam alone cannot be the state religion as there are people who practice and follow other religions such as Hindu, Christian, Bouddha and Indigenous Practices. It would turn people of other religions to second-class citizens.
Retaining of another big issue, make the 15th amendment a joke to general people. Insertion of the phrase ‘Bismillah-er-rahman-er-rahim’ before our constitution in 5th amendment not only oppose the 1972’s basic constitution also oppose the very basic of our liberation war’s believe. In 1971, we not only fight for our freedom, we show all worlds that, we have a different culture and attitude, only religion is can’t make us ally of another country. Indigenous people also protest against the retaining of the phrase.
So at the end, 15th amendment of the constitution is not friendly for indigenous people at all. And it is also oppose to CHT accord 1997 as well. And government should take some step according to CHT commission recommendation.
Constitution of Bangladesh.
Arens, J. and Chakma, K. (2002) Bangladesh: Indigenous Struggle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Harvard Human Rights Journal: Rights and Status of Indigenous Peoples:
A Global Comparative and International Legal Analysis
Minority rights group international (2008) World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Bangladesh :Adivasis
 World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Bangladesh : Adivasis