Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ethnic communities demand recognition of “indigenous” in Bangladesh constitution


Photo: Hari Kishore Chakma - Indigenous activists join protest rally in Rangamati on Saturday
 SALEEM SAMAD

HUNDREDS AND thousands of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh formed human chain on Saturday (March 19) demanding constitutional recognition of their existence as “indigenous” population.

A senior parliamentarian remarked that ethnic minorities are not “indigenous” after holding series consultation with elected representatives who represents ethnic communities.

Last week a special parliamentary committee on constitutional amendment recommends the community will be known as “ethnic minorities”, short of recognizing them as “indigenous” (Adivasi in local language).

The refusal angered the ethnic leaders, social justice activists and right groups. The ethnic communities are less than one percent of the national population of 158.6 million. The struggle for constitutional recognition goes back 40 years ago, soon after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971. The political regime, civil and military bureaucracy are dominated by majoritarian Bangla-speaking Sunni Muslims known as Bangalees.

The 1991 census of the government identified 29 small ethnic groups, but the leaders claim that 46 small ethnic groups live in Bangladesh, mainly in south-east Chittagong Hill Tracts region.

The protest rally organized by Bangladesh Adivasi Forum was simultaneously held in the capital Dhaka, Rangamati, Khagrachari, Patuakhali, Sylhet and other places where the ethnic communities are visible population.

Several international rights groups’ blame landless Bangalees who have encroached into their hill forests and have outnumbered them from their traditional abode for centuries. The government has not done enough to stop encroachments. The illegal settlements have been blamed for reckless deforestation.

The communities ethnicity are mostly Mongoloid descendents and hence should not be forced to merge with the majoritarian, said Dr Amena Mohsin, who teaches ethnicity in Dhaka University. The academic said she is aghast why the government, despite political commitment has kept the issue of constitutional recognition hanging for decades.

In the hill forest terrain the ethnic minorities waged armed civil strife for two decades demanding greater political autonomy of their communities, expulsion of the illegal settlers, and quota in higher education, government civil service and other service industries.

Soon after the peace treaty was signed by rebel leader Shantu Larma and the government, the guerrillas surrendered their weapons.

After 13 years of the treaty was passed in the parliament, the government adopted delay strategy in implementing wider political power to ethnic communities. This has led to communal tensions, distrust and suspicion of the government’s pledge.

The parliamentary body also recognizes their contribution to the war of independence and would constitutionally protect their languages, culture and heritage, said parliamentarian Suranjit Sengupta, also spokesperson of the committee. The first constitution adopted in 1972 has disregarded the reality of thousands of ethnic population, who supported the bloody pro-independence armed revolution in 1971, which severed Bangladesh from Pakistan.

“We will identify them as small ethnic groups, not as adivasis (indigenous people),” Sengupta confidentally told the Daily Sun last week. It is likely the parliament would amend Article 9 of the constitution and rewrite as “small ethnic groups” in next May.

Justifying the committee’s position, the veteran parliamentarian argued, “Unlike the massacre of indigenous people in US or Australia, Bangladeshis neither killed any member of any indigenous group nor occupied their land.” [END]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a leading investigative journalist in Bangladesh. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com