There is almost 163 million people in Bangladesh, among them the Chakmas, Khasi, Santhal and other tribes make up more than a million. These people mostly live in the hilly regions of Chittagong and some live in the North. In recent months, a debate has sparked which has compelled many indigenous people of our country to take to the streets forming chains, rallying and holding meetings.
The reason for this debate is the comments made by a parliamentary committee which wishes to amend the existing constitution and return to the constitution of 1972. The problem is the constitution of 1972 does not acknowledge any tribal or indigenous people in Bangladesh and refers it to be a nation of Bangalees (Bengalis). The main issue of the parliamentary committee in accepting these minority groups as adhivasis is that they fear it would make Bengalis to be termed as ‘intruders’ or invaders’.
The Chief of Chakma Circle, Raja Devashish Roy, in CHT who is also a Barrister claims the indigenous people have been denied their identity in the constitution of Bangladesh. And all the continuous amendments that the constitution has undergone over the years have only worked to increase their plight.
The Raja says the thought that if Adhivasis or Indigenous people were given constitutional rights, the solidity of the state will be weakened.
“Rather, the recognition will shield against the secessionist tendency”
2. The status of Indigenous people
The constitution of Bangladesh only has protective provisions for indigenous people in Article 28 (4):
“ Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.”
and Article 29 (3):
“Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from –
- making special provision in favour of any backward section of citizens for the purpose of securing their adequate representation in the service of the Republic;”
The term ‘backward section of citizens’ is ambiguous to say the least.2 It does not state clearly who these backward section of citizens are, nor does it mention how the diverse the culture and ethnicity of these groups are compared to Bangladeshis.
2.1 The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997
In 1976, a low intensity guerilla war began between the armed division of the indigenous political party (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samiti, PCJSS) and the Government of Bangladesh. This war was the result of the destruction of their independence, refusal of recognizing them constitutionally and marginalization of their political, economic and social status. In 1997 The Government of Bangladesh signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord with the PCJSS.
The main features of the agreement are:
- i. the tribal refugees who fled to India following the insurgency war must be reestablished in Bangladesh.
- ii. to change the architecture of the local government agencies so that indigenous people are represented equally
- iii. the responsibility of development in the area be handed over to a Regional council consisting the circle chiefs as its members.
- iv. the restructuring of the three Hill Tract District Councils so that an equal representation of tribal and women can expand its authority over local police, cover land and its management, tribal law. and social justice.
- v. addition of the revenue base of the three Hill Tract District Councils and an increment in the developments funds
- vi. tackle the reason for the civil unrest, the resolving of the disputed land titles by forming a Land Commission
- vii. establishment of a Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tract Affairs.
2.2 The Implementation of the CHT Accord
It has been fourteen years since the signing of the Accord and yet many essential clauses have only been partially addressed or completely unimplemented.  The clauses that empowered the councils of the circle chiefs so that they could settle land disputes and give the indigenous people the land they rightfully own.5
The indigenous people did see a ray of hope when the current government came into power with a manifesto pledging to implement the Accord before its tenure ends in 2013. Despite the renewed pledge, no substantial action is being taken to fulfill the promise.5
The reason for this is primarily the military presence and there have been allegations that the military is interfering in the civil affairs. An alleged counterinsurgency programme called ‘Operation Uttoron’ has given military officials a substantial amount of power.5
3. The plight of the indigenous people
The first point to be noted is the way how the constitutional system has affected the human rights of the indigenous people in our country. The Vested Property Act which was implemented by the then government of East Pakistan, the governments that succeeded them has continued with this law. This act deprives the minorities of their right to property.
The second point to be made is that the state of Bangladesh is officially encouraging ethnic cleansing and forced conversions to Islam. The new Muslims are paid cash bonuses in the name of rehabilitation which allocates budgets for these. Members of the indigenous community have sometimes been barred from casting their vote in local and national elections. Most of the sectors of the state remain unrepresentative of the indigenous people, with no representation in the judiciary and only 4% in the police and 1% in the military. The constitution isolates the indigenous community implicitly by not allowing any member of that community to become the Head of the State. 8
The third point, the most disheartening of all, is the crimes against humanity that is taking place. The indigenous people of Bangladesh have had to face large scale violence, discrimination and cultural genocide at the hands of all the governments that have come into power. 8
A study found that 50 percent of people are not getting a fair price for their agricultural products while 49.39 percent don’t get treatment from public hospitals. 30.12 percent of them are deprived of educational facilities and 22.89 percent have to deal with threats and violence.
The indigenous community has lost thirty million of their people, 2.5 million acres of their land, hundreds in unaccounted homicides. They have had to cope with vandalism on more than 2500 units of their property, organized gang rapes and violence sometimes sponsored by the state of Bangladesh. There are other types of human rights violations too, some of which include random arrests, extrajudicial killings, harassing human rights activists and torture.
4. The recent changes to the constitution
On the 30th of June 2011, the parliament passed the Fifteenth Amendment (Constittution Bill) and this included some provisions which directly affect the indigenous people.
‘Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and the cabinet , acknowledged the draft constitutional reforms that the special committee on co-chaired by Suranjit Sengupta, MP and chaired by Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, MP, deputy leader of the House presented to them.’ The MPs from the opposition, Rashed Khan Menon and Hasanul Haque Inu proposed amendments that affected state religion, Bengali nationalism, rights of various peoples and communities were outvoted.
However when the committees report was published several groups of citizens instead of enthusiasm showed concern and condemned it. ‘Eleven left-leaning parties and the CHT-based party, JSS (who were behind the signing of the CHT Accord of 1997), demonstrated a protest in Dhaka city’.10
So what are the amendments and why did they receive negative reactions? Among others things, the amendments include a new article which stressed on the safety of the indigenous people’s culture and their heritage. However, the amendments refer to the indigenous as ‘upa-jati’ (tribal), ‘khudro nrigoshthi’ (small ethnic group), ‘khudro-shomprodai’ (small community) and ‘khudro-jatishotta’ (small nation/people). This is where the problem arises as the indigenous people find these terms to be disrespectful, disapproving and that’s why they are not willing to accept it. Several indigenous people claim that this had been an opportunity for them to get the recognition they deserve but now that opportunity has long gone and won’t arise in several decades. On the other hand a member of parliament claims that this was a milestone in terms of returning rights to the indigenous people of Bangladesh.
Before we conclude this discussion let us take a look at what exactly the indigenous people are demanding and are their demands so unreasonable that they cannot be fulfilled.
“We want constitutional recognition as indigenous peoples, but not small ethnic group”
Apart from including the term “adivasi” (indigenous) in the constitution, the indigenous peoples want rights to culture, equal opportunities, self-government, participation and representation, decision-making power and rights to land and other natural resources that will be recognized constitutionally. .
- Unknown, 24th March, 2011. ‘Chittagong Hill Tracts: Indigenous Leaders: “Term us Adivasi in Constitution’. Retrieved from: http://www.unpo.org/article/12429
- Dastidar, R. & Adnan, S., 2011. ‘Alienation of the Lands of Indigenous Peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh’. Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission. Dhaka
- Earth Touch,1988. Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). Dhaka
- 4. Press Release, Jul 8, 2003. Global Human Rights Defense.
- Rezwan , July 29th, 2011. Bangladesh: Indigenous or Not Indigenous, That Is The Question. Retrieved from: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/07/29/bangladesh-indigenous-or-not-indigenous-that-is-the-question/.
- Samad, S., August, 1998. State of Minorities in Bangladesh: From Secular to Islamic Hegemony. Retrieved from: http://www.mukto-mona.com/Articles/saleem/secular_to_islamic.htm.
- The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commision, 10-18th August, 2009.
- The constitution of Bangladesh, Part III Fundamental Rights. Retrieved from : http://www.pmo.gov.bd/pmolib/constitution/part3.htm
- Staff Correspondent, 11th June 2008. ‘Form nat’l commission to ensure indigenous people’s rights’. The Daily Star.
- Tripura S. 29th April, 2011. Public Gathering for Demanding Constitutional Recognition as`Adivasi’ organized by Bangladesh Adivasi Forum. Retrieved From : http://jummacommunity.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/public-gathering-for-demanding-constitutional-recognition-asadivasi-organized-by-bangladesh-adivasi-forum/
- United Nations Economic and Social Council, May 27th, 2011. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Tenth session. Item 7 on the provision agenda. New York.
- Victoria Tauli Corpuz et al. (eds.), 2000. “Implementation Status of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997”, in The Chittagong Hill Tracts: The Road to a Lasting Peace; Tebtebba Foundation.
- Wangza, D. ‘Constituitional reform and adhivasis’. New Age online edition. Retrieved from : http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/magazine/contents.php?nm=constitutional_reform
 Rezwan (2011). Bangladesh: Indigenous or Not Indigenous, That Is The Question
 Samad, S. (1998). State of Minorities in Bangladesh:From Secular to Islamic Hegemony
 Earth Touch (1998) pp. 41
 The constitution of Bangladesh, Part III Fundamental Rights.
 United Nations Economic and Social Council (2011). Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Tenth session
 The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (2009)
 Roy (2000). The Chittagong Hill Tracts: The Road to a Lasting Peace.
 Ranajit Dastidar writes Bengali settlers have supposedly taken over the sacred lands of religious temples, monasteries and orphanages of the Indigenous People in the Chittagong Hill Tract by forging false land documents and forcibly occupying the area. For example, in Baghaihat-Gangarammukh, they built shacks inside the boundaries of the local Buddhist temple (the Banani Maitri Banavihara) during 2008-10, and during the arson attacks of February 2010 they burnt down the temple itself.
 Global Human Rights Defence (2003)
 The Daily Star (2008)
 Wangza, D. ‘Constituitional reform and adhivasis’. New Age online edition.
 “Adivasi is the correct Bangla term for indigenous people” says the commission in an application written to Syeda Sazeda Chowdhury, the chairperson of the National Committee for Implementation of the CHT Peace Accord and the deputy leader of the House.
Mentioning the recognition of indigenous people as a progressive outlook, the application said India and Nepal have termed the indigenous people “Janajtiya” and “Adivasi Janajati” respectively, which in real sense are synonyms of “Adivasi” in Bangla.
In the application, they also expressed concerns that Suranjit Sengupta MP, the co-chair of the special committee on constitutional amendment, told the media that the term “indigenous peoples” will be replaced by “small and ethnic groups”.
 Tripura S. (2011). Public Gathering for Demanding Constitutional Recognition as`Adivasi’ organized by Bangladesh Adivasi Forum