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Polarized debates: an Indigenous case in Bangladesh

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5 Dariya News ( Rakibul Hasan )

Bangladesh , 29 Apr 2014

An overwhelming number (98%) of Bengalis reside over Bangladesh speaking their distinct tongue and writing down their own scripts, Bangla (Bengali). Since time immemorial, this ethnicity achieved a 'natural contract' like occupation of the plain topography of sedimentary depositions. Around 147,570 SKM of land also constitutes a certain portions of hilly features, especially in the Southeast and Northeast regions. Geographically, this hill and lifted territories are supposed to be formed so long ago, even at the time when Bengal delta just started deposing beside the edges of Himalayan rolled-down rivers. On the other hand, Scientists predict that hill zones formed supposedly in the tertiary era and many centuries later,  the plane  lands were gradually stored to embody into livable fertile landmass . Now the question arises if there any any ethnic people lived on THE hilly areas. Small ethnic identities (Apasis) are found repeatedly saying that they availed first these distinct lands, forestry and resources on the hills as nobody's possessions. They inhibited these fallen regions as they first cleared and shaped it into the livable dwellings. Archival histories identify Chakmas-a Tibeto-Burman ethnicity and other Himalayan tribes settling in erstwhile Rakhine state of Burma around centuries years ago in specific parts of India and Bangladesh, (Rezwan, 2011).Debates on Indigenous status tend to intensify as special parliamentary committee pursued to amend the present constitution returning to 1972's constitution (Rezwan, 2011).  Unfortunately, the 72's constitution did not even recognize tribal peoples rather mentioning that only Bengalese belong to Bangladesh.Noted parliamentarian and constitutional expert in Bangladesh Suranjit Sengupta on March 15 2011 iterated that the committee recommended those tribal people as 'small ethnic groups'  asking a question “Would Bangalees [Bengalis] be termed ‘intruders’ or ‘invaders’ if the ethnic groups are called apasi?”  (The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, 2011). 

Responding to the comment, Sanjeeb Drong, Secretary General of Bangladesh Indigenous People's Forum viewed that they want to live a life based on equal rights maintaining their distinct cultures and traditions and they don't expect to be looked upon as 'inferior ethnic people', (The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, 2011). Who deserves to be indigenous people? Which recognizing criteria require to be employed in these pursuits. The concerned organizations home and abroad still do not set a legal definition of indigenous peoples, acceptable on universal basis. This inability to recognize them produces hindrances to accelerate effective measures implementing the indigenous rights in Bangladesh.However, UN Special Rapporteur Jose Martinez Cobo has developed a widely known and working definition of indigenous peoples at International level stating that indigenous peoples are “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patters, social institutions and legal systems", (Faruque, 2011).

In Bangladesh, around 40 ethnic identities (or indigenous groups) live alongside the majority Bengalis. Notable of them constitutes Chakma, Marma, Santhal, Garo, Tripura, Manipuri, Khasia etc residing over both vast plain and hill lands. They sustain their every tradition, normative culture and other distinctive customs through generational transcending of knowledge.  Some of them lack written scripts but every tribe holds their own mother tongue. As a result, Cobo's definition is likely to fall Bangladeshi ethnic identities under his category of indigenous peoples. Because those indigenous peoples prove historical continuation in living and sustaining their distinctions. They are still well tended and capable to continue further their traditional lives as they did the same in protecting their own life-style at the time when the colonial British Empire captured the South Asia. Some Apasi-a Bengali terminology for indigenous peoples established some organizations with a view to researching indigenous literature and written fonts and symbols under the endorsement of government initiatives and international cooperation. So they forecast effective maneuverable probabilities to transmit their ancestral knowledge and identity to their next and present generation amidst the challenges of nationalization and globalization. Finally, Apasis are at 'present non-dominant sectors' counting as much as 1.2 % of the total population.

Historical contexts find them originally belonging to Austroloids, tribal Dravidians of Indian Sub-continent and Andaman-Nicobar islands, African Continent and westerns hemisphere (Rashid, 2011).These indigenous peoples are bodily looked as longheaded, broad-nosed, dark-skinned, and attributed as short compositions in size. Some are, for instance, closed to  “Negritos” and “Negroids”. The significant fact is that their physical features are still unchanged today in the country. Their symmetry to different races, according to someone, disqualifies to hold the indigenous status (Apasis) in Bangladesh. Comparing to the chronological genesis of the aborigines in Australia and Red Indians in America, Bangladeshi ‘Apasis’ cannot fall them into their ‘labeled’ categorical status.(Rashid, 2011).

 Some historians mark indigenous peoples stating that they were hardly  settled in the country about 465 years ago.   So debates weaken their (Apasis) ground to be indigenous peoples while comparing to the indigenous characteristics that ‘Red Indiana’, Inka, Aborigines and Maori peoples contains. 

In this regard, former Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni clarifies that it was 'misperception and misrepresentation' to identify ethnic groups in Southeastern hill-tracts of Bangladesh as 'indigenous peoples'. The ethnicities or tribes who settled and existed here before 16th century cannot be counted as indigenous peoples, even through the historical references, books, memories and legal documentations (Rashid 2011). A sector of the society refuses their indigenous identity in a suspicion that recognizing their indigenous status under relevant international provisions and obligations (like ILO conventions, International Human Rights Statutes) can provide a chance to international community to interfere into the national aspects. 

 In response of foreign ministry's remarks, Chakma Circle Chief Barrister Raja Debashish Roy commented saying that the government might find extra responsibilities to bear while recognizing country's tribes as indigenous peoples. Some erstwhile rebel group, Parbattay Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) termed the government initiatives of Bengalization (changing tribal nationalism into majority Bengali identity) of the ethnic groups as denial of 'basic rights'. PCJSS also described it as the conspicuous refusal of Awami League (secular and ruling party) manifesto of 2008.Whatever the debate goes, the tribal communities or Apasis have been living since so many centuries. They are a backward section of the society depriving of even basic necessities. Peoples Republic of Bangladesh constitutionally declares preferential treatment to any backward community. The declaration obviously include the ethnic communities. Bringing these communities to the mainstreaming tracts can lead the government to the national prosperity and peace because deprivation and hatred treatment take protracted natures of ethnic conflict and welcome unwanted actors to interfere into national issues.    


The Writer is a Sub-editor of 'The Bangladesh Today' and former Research Assistant of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, reachable at [email protected]


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