Jun 21, 2011

Chittagong Hill Tracts: “There are no indigenous people in Bangladesh”

Recent statements by the Prime and the Law ministers in Bangladesh claiming that there are no indigenous peoples in the country are now being criticized by international organizations and civil society. 

Below is an article published by bdNews24:

Law minister Shafique Ahmed has reiterated that there are no 'indigenous people' in the country. 

Shafique's remarks follow his earlier claim made on June 8 that those marginalised communities living in Bangladesh 'are tribal'. 

"Those living in a particular area before a country's independence can be called indigenous," the minister said on Saturday [18 January 2011] quoting the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention. 

"American Red Indians and Australian aborigines could be called indigenous," he told a seminar organised by Bangladesh Geography Society (BGS) at Dhaka University. 

"Indigenous people are those who have been forced out by a foreign conqueror and that happened after Christopher Columbus had discovered America. The same did Britain and Australia. Our situation is different," he said on June 8. 

Bangladesh signed the ILO Convention 107 (Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957), but did not ink its amended version, ILO Convention 169 (Indigenous and Tribal people's Convention, 1989). 

There are some 11 indigenous communities living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and several others in different parts of the country. 

The government, though has long been using the term 'indigenous' on various occasions and even in some laws, denies recognising the indigenous people. 

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina on Apr 27 at a press conference said the same thing, "no indigenous", but the Santals. 

The Awami League's election manifesto states: "Terrorism, discriminatory treatment and human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous people must come to an end permanently." 

The law minister earlier said the government would insert an article in the constitution for the wellbeing of indigenous people. "Article 23 (Ka) will be added to the constitution during the current constitution amendment process." 

He, however, did not term those people, living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other parts of the country, 'indigenous', echoing the prime minister and Bangladesh's first secretary in the United Nations, who claimed there was no indigenous population in the country. 

Chakma Raja Devasish Roy, who served two ministries during the previous caretaker government, also lamented the government position. 

"The Bangladesh government is one of the few in the world which officially denies the existence of indigenous people within its borders," Raja Devasish told a press conference in New York after attending the 10th session of UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues. 

Devasish, an expert member of the forum, led a 12-strong team of indigenous people to the meet. 

After the UN meeting, former caretaker government advisor Sultana Kamal protested the government position and asked it to clarify the terms 'minorities' and 'indigenous'. 

Speaking to bdnews24.com, she said, "Indigenous people are those who have their own customs, rituals and cultures." 

She pointed out that the word 'indigenous' or 'Adivasi' was used by the prime minister and her government top brass as well on several occasions. "But now it (the government) is refusing to recognise them [indigenous people]". 

ILO Bangladesh country director Andre´ Bogui on June 8 urged the government to "constitutionally recognise the indigenous people and made them aware of their rights". 

The terms 'indigenous' or 'Adivasi' have been used in a number of laws and programmes, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900, the Finance Act of 2010, the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutes Act of 2010 and the poverty reduction strategy paper of 2010. 

The indigenous groups in the CHT, numbering approximately 500,000 people (1991 census), differ markedly from the Bengali majority in language, culture, physical appearance, religion, dress, eating habits, architecture and farming methods. 

A small number of migrants of indigenous origin, including Santal, Ahomia and Nepali-Gurkha, have also made the region their home since the British period (1860-1947). 

In 1976, the Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of Parbatiya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), initiated a low-intensity guerrilla war against the government in response to the erosion of their autonomy, the denial of constitutional recognition and their political, economic and social marginalisation. 

In 1997, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord was signed between the government and Parbatiya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS). The Accord recognises the CHT as a tribal inhabited region, acknowledges its traditional governance system and the role of its chiefs and provides building blocks for regional autonomy.