The Quest for Indigenous Identity in Bangladesh, 1993-2013

“Historically, the so called ‘tribal’, non-Bengali ethnic groups – i.e. those who wish to be known as indigenous peoples (IPs) – of Bangladesh have been at the forefront of various struggles against feudal and colonial forms of subjugation, oppression and exploitation.  However, the emergence of the post-colonial nation-states – first Pakistan, and then Bangladesh – did not necessarily lead to the emancipation of the IPs.”

The Quest for Indigenous Identity in Bangladesh, 1993-2013
by Prashanta Tripura for AlalODulal.org

Background

The International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 1993, as declared by the United Nations, was celebrated with great expectations in Bangladesh by members of ethnic groups that were more commonly known as ‘tribal’ or ‘Adivasi’. The celebrations included a rally followed by a seminar organized in Dhaka on December 18, 1993, when a souvenir was also published.  As we mark the 20th anniversary of the historic event, this article looks back on the main achievements and setbacks that have been experienced in the quest for indigenous identity in Bangladesh over the past twenty years.[1]

Historically, the so called ‘tribal’, non-Bengali ethnic groups – i.e. those who wish to be known as indigenous peoples (IPs) – of Bangladesh have been at the forefront of various struggles against feudal and colonial forms of subjugation, oppression and exploitation.  However, the emergence of the post-colonial nation-states – first Pakistan, and then Bangladesh – did not necessarily lead to the emancipation of the IPs.  On the contrary, they were alienated further in terms of how the new nation-states were defined.  At the same time, they also began to lose control over their ancestral lands.  The struggles of the IPs against such developments took different forms in different parts of the country.  For example, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, there was an armed movement for regional autonomy that began at a period when the whole country was undergoing violent upheavals that in the end meant actual or de facto military rule from 1975-1990.  During this period, there was little democratic space within which the IPs could raise their collective voice against the injustices that they were facing.   This situation, however, began to change after the country’s formal return to democracy in 1991.  In that context, the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples provided an opportunity for the IPs of Bangladesh to come together to work for a common cause, which was articulated in terms of a demand for official recognition of their distinct identities and rights as indigenous people, as the term was being used internationally.

However, in 1993, the then government of Bangladesh declined to support official observance of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (IYWIP) by arguing that there were no indigenous people in the country.  The opposition party of that time, Awami League (AL), in contrast, extended its support to the IP cause. Thus two indigenous MPs belonging to this party took the lead in organizing special events to observe the IYWIP in 1993.  Sheikh Hasina, the opposition leader in the parliament of that time and the present Prime Minister, sent a message of solidarity with the IPs of Bangladesh for a souvenir published in the context of the observance of the IYWIP.  It so happens that those two MPs have both been state ministers in the recent/present Hasina-led government.   The election manifesto of the Awami League also included explicit pledges regarding the promotion and protection of the rights of Adivasis.  However, to the dismay of most IP rights activists, the present government has done little to fulfil these pledges.  On the contrary, representatives of the government surprised and shocked many by announcing to domestic as well as international audiences that there are ‘no indigenous people’ in the country!  Did such developments represent typical flip-flops that are characteristic of politicians?  Or are there deeper forces at play behind the scene?  Has there been any fundamental shift in the position of the government or the parties in power with regard to the IPs? This article is an attempt to seek some answers to such questions.

It may be mentioned that I bring in the perspective of someone who has had a loose association with the IP movement in Bangladesh. For example, in 1993, I was tasked with writing the Keynote Paper for the above-mentioned seminar that was held to observe the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.  Later, I had intermittent involvement in different activities and initiatives undertaken in connection to the quest for indigenous identity in Bangladesh.[2]  However, whenever I wrote or spoke on topics related to IPs, I usually did so in my individual capacity, often in response to ‘mainstream’ views that I felt needed to be challenged. At the same time, I also found myself directing some questions to us IP activists as well.[3] Insofar as my article draws on my own observations and experiences, it has a subjective edge, which I have tried to balance by cross-checking with relevant information and views from other sources.

Key trends in the quest for IP identity in Bangladesh since 1993

The celebrations of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993 did not lead to any immediate and concrete outcomes for the IPs of Bangladesh.   However, they had the opportunity to strengthen and utilize the platform and network that were developed in the process of organizing the IP year celebrations.  Furthermore, there was convergence of a few other factors that contributed to the increased momentum and spread of the indigenous discourse.  For example, the adoption by Bangladesh of its Forestry Master Plan in 1993 and the National Forest Policy in 1994 provided an impetus for indigenous leaders and some NGOs to collaborate.  Such collaboration eventually led to different organizations to work together to organize a national roundtable conference, in December 1997, called the “Adivasi Question of Bangladesh”, which resulted in the formation of a National Adivasi Co-ordination Committee (NACC). It may be mentioned that the historic CHT ‘Peace’ Accord had been signed just two weeks before the National Adivasi Roundtable Conference was held.

The CHT Accord – signed on December 2, 1997 – ended a long-standing armed movement led by the IPs of CHT demanding regional autonomy, and brought about new laws and institutions, e.g. the CHT Regional Council, the Ministry of CHT Affairs, and the Land Dispute Resolution Commission.  Although the Accord did not deploy the term ‘indigenous’, by acknowledging the region as ‘tribal’ and through special measures that enhanced CHT-specific governance arrangements, it was generally welcome by supporters of IP rights in Bangladesh and beyond. By this time, the UN had declared August 9 to be the annual International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (starting in 1995), and in addition, had also announced the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, 1995-2004. All this led to increased attention to the problems, issues and aspirations of the IPs of the country.  There was also greater general currency of the Bangla term ‘adivasi’, which came to be increasingly used as a preferred substitute for ‘tribe’ (Bangla ‘upajati’) and in common usage became established – at least in the media, development discourse, and academic circles – as equivalent to the English ‘indigenous (people)’.

Political leaders and parties too began to express greater commitment to support the indigenous cause.  In this regard, it may be mentioned that soon after the CHT Accord, Santu Larma, as the leader of the Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS) and present Chairman of the CHT Regional Council is commonly known, became the Chairman of a national IP organization called Bangladesh Advivasi (or Indigenous Peoples) Forum.  In the past, the political language of the JSS hardly subscribed to the indigenous discourse.  In fact, when the IP Year was celebrated in Dhaka in 1993, questions were raised by some JSS supporters and others about the wisdom of embracing a notion that was suspected to be of ‘imperialist’ origin.   Such questions still persist in a few circles, e.g. among some adherents of the old Bangladesh Left, but generally speaking, the language of IP rights can be found across of a wider political spectrum within the country.

In fact, despite some widely noted instances to the contrary, a general recognition of the need to pay special attention to the IPs – often stated by using the English term ‘indigenous people’ itself –  can be found even in government circles.   For example, various government documents related to national development programmes, plans or strategies make explicit reference to, and usually have special provisions for, indigenous people. Such documents include the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) of the past, the National Education Policy adopted in 2010, and the Sixth Five-Year Plan.

Of course, our observations in the context of the quest for indigenous identity in Bangladesh suggest that desired results generally lag far behind declarations of intents.  Some encouraging starts may have been made, but in many cases achievements are not commensurate with people’s expectations or politicians’ promises.  The status of the implementation of the CHT Accord is a case in point.   After some initial progress, the process stalled, without any headway with regard to some key provisions.  The deadlock persists to date despite the Awami League’s return to power following a landslide victory of the coalition that it led in the general elections held at the end of 2008. The Awami League’s electoral manifesto included promises of necessary measures to protect and promote the rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups including the ‘indigenous people/ethnic groups’, and full implementation of the CHT Accord.

As the present government completes its current term, and the country descends into political chaos over highly divisive issues and uncertainties over the upcoming transition of power, there has been much disappointment and disillusionment among IPs of the country about unfulfilled promises.  There have of course been divergent perceptions, interpretations and claims as to what was promised or expected, and what has actually been fulfilled.  For example, the government would like to present Article 23A (on ‘The Culture of tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’) of the amended constitution as a form of recognition of IPs/ethnic minorities.  However, from the point of view of IP rights activists, Article 23A falls short of their expectation, as it lacks the term ‘indigenous’.  Moreover, it is further negated by a clause that says that the people of Bangladesh shall be known as ‘Bengalee as a nation’, a formulation that many members of non-Bengali ethnic groups of Bangladesh sees as denial of their existence.

The reasons behind the trends observed

There can be endless debates as to whether matters like Article 23A of the current constitution, or the status of the implementation of the CHT Accord, represent half-empty or half-full glasses.  However, faced with developments that seem to indicate lack of progress or setbacks, it is important to view matters against larger developments.  For example, we need to keep in mind the inordinate influence wielded by certain opaque institutions or interest groups, as seen behind the coming into power of the previous military-backed caretaker government, which had received considerable support from members of civil society as well as the international community.  We have to also keep in mind that the government as a whole rarely operates like a monolith.  For example, despite reported attempts by some quarters within the state machinery to ‘ban’ the term ‘indigenous people’, many important government planning documents still retain the same. Moreover, a number of ministers and MPs never stopped using this word, and have always expressed their support for the IP cause.

In what follows, some initial thoughts are offered regarding selected factors that seem to be behind some of the setbacks or challenges:

Internal weaknesses on the IP side

  • Engagement of IP leaders and activists at the national level does not appear to be sufficient, coordinated and sustained.  This is particularly true of those active in the international IP circuits.
  • There is a disconnect between the movement(s) the IP leaders are trying to lead in different parts of the country, and other social or political movements with which common ground could be found.
  • As yet, there is no unified vision, strategy or platform for IPs across the country.  This is indicated, for example, through demands for separate ministries and land commissions for the CHT and plains region.

The inner workings of the government:

  • Government institutions (e.g. Ministry of CHT Affairs, CHT Regional Council, Hill District Councils) meant to represent, or look after the interests of, the IPs are often not able, nor willing, to play their roles properly.   These institutions need to be empowered, and equipped with proper mandates and systems.
  • Internationally, the defensive or suspicious posture of the government on the question of IP rights (or human rights and democracy more generally) is not surprising.  This is generally observed in case of many other countries as well.  Bangladesh may also be following the leads of countries like India and China, which also claim that the notion of indigenous people does not apply to their contexts.
  • In the light of the preceding observation, it should hardly come as a surprise that it is usually the foreign ministry whose officials are telling their domestic colleagues about the ‘dangers’ of the term ‘indigenous’.  There is also a certain degree of bureaucratic inertia that helps perpetuate institutionally entrenched mindsets in given agencies.

 The limits of the help that NGOs and donors can provide

  • Development agencies (ranging from local NGOs to UN bodies) tend to reduce problems that are essentially political in nature into matters to be dealt with through financial and technical assistance. Examples include prescriptions by ADB or World Bank to include safeguards for indigenous people in donor assisted development projects, strategies etc.  But sections written by consultants to pass such requirements are hardly ever internalized by government officials or line agencies that have to implement the plans.
  • NGO partners or international agencies may have their own narrow institutional interests or agenda that override the interests of the IPs.

Limited and problematic knowledge and views about the IPs among the larger society

  • In Bangladesh, as in many other countries, knowledge of IPs are still locked in the era of colonialism. The widespread use of the term ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ is an example of this trend.
  • Terminological confusion is often complicated further across linguistic boundaries.  For example, those who are happy to use the Bangla word ‘adivasi’ may object to it being equated with English ‘indigenous people’.
  • There seems to be a greater readiness – often operating as an implicit assumption – to look at the darker complexioned ethnic groups as ‘indigenous’ compared to those with so-called Mongoloid features.  Such racialist notions from the colonial era still persist at various levels.

Some thoughts on the road ahead

The quest for indigenous identity in Bangladesh over the past two decades has so far been a journey where not too many milestones have been crossed.  Moreover, those who once embarked on the same journey as a group may have ended up taking different routes, or even abandoning the journey, or being seen as creating obstacles for others.  While revisiting the souvenir from the 1993 celebration of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, I was struck to notice a number of prominent names that now belong in different political camps.  At one level, such ends may be seen as inevitable outcomes of the passage of time or history, but personally I am left wondering whether in Bangladesh a different outcome was not, or is still not, possible.   I am saying this out of a painful awareness – shared by many IP activists from the CHT – of a spiral of ‘fratricidal’ conflict that the IP movement in the CHT continues to slide deeper into.  More generally, the IPs of the country as a whole could not come up with a strong and unified platform, vision and strategy.  In my view, such ‘internal weaknesses’ need to be overcome before substantial progress can be made.

In addition to putting our house in order, we also need to choose our external friends and partners carefully, keeping in mind that there may be potential allies in even those places that we normally view with suspicion.  In particular, we need to stop viewing the government as a monolith, and leverage the support that may be extended by favourably disposed individuals and agencies.  At the same time, however, even for institutions that may not be too open or welcoming, we need to find ways of engaging with them constructively. We also need to aim for a vigorous campaign to decolonize our own minds as well as that of the members of non-IP society.  Critical examinations of school text books and curricula would be a good place to start in this regard.   From time to time, we also need to give ourselves some credit for modest achievements and openings.  For example, the proponents of IP rights could have given themselves some credit by seeing the Article 23A in the amended constitution as a result of their tireless campaigning and advocacy at various levels.  At the same time, they can still use this as an opening for further engagement for necessary refinement and augmentation of the provision made.

We should, above all, seek to be guided by a bold new vision that would outline not what the country or the world can give to the IPs, but what the IPs can hold up to the nations of the world.  This would be a vision based on some old ideals that are quite simple, but have powerful resonances in the cultures and traditions of the IPs:  equality, reciprocity, and harmony with nature.


[1] Abridged version of a paper titled ‘The Quest for Indigenous Identity in Bangladesh:  Reflections on Achievements and Setbacks since 1993 ‘, which was presented at the 2013 International Seminar-Workshop on Indigenous Studies, 26-28 June 2013, Legend Villas, Mandaluyong City, Philippines, jointly organized by the University of the Philippines Bagui City and the Tebtebba Foundation.

[2] For example, I took part in the National Adivasi Roundtable Conference held from December 18-19, 1997 in Dhaka, and was a member of the National Adviasi Coordination Council, chaired by Raja Devasish Roy, that was formed following this conference.  In 1999, I acted as the convener of the committee that organized the observation of the International IP Day (on August 9) in Bangladesh.

[3] E.g. In Search of Adibashi (Indigenous) Consciousness, in Opinion, bdnews24.com, August 11, 2012

Prashanta Tripura is an academic anthropologist (originally at Jahangirnagar University) turned development professional. He is currently engaged in independent consultancies and part-time teaching, with some writing and voluntary social work on the side. He previously wrote an ‘open letter’ to  Prof. Anisuzzaman.

Abu Ala Hasan_1

Photo credit: Abu Ala Hasan

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