Friday, June 24, 2011

Bangladesh ethnic communities protest Islamization of constitution

SALEEM SAMAD

THE BANGLADESH government’s dramatic turn around from secularism to Islamism has enraged the indigenous population, who are demanding to be recognized in a proposed re-draft of the country's constitution.

The nation is poised to amend the constitution, which is likely to be tabled in the parliament on Thursday. The move has been vehemently protested by independence war veterans, the pro-secularist lobby and social justice activists. Dissent is also being heard from within the ruling party and its pro-left alliance partners.

The superior court, in a landmark judgment last July, asked the government to restore secularism in the spirit of the bloody war of independence of 1971. Secular activists charge the government has deliberately adopted dilly-dally tactics while the charter changes are considered.
Former guerrilla leader Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma a.k.a. Shantu Larma, chairman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, on Thursday rejected the proposed Islamization of the constitution and demanded constitutional recognition of the indigenous or Adivasi community, who have resided in the country for centuries.

The guerrilla leader, who fought a bush war for two decades, demanded the government drop a proposal to keep a Koranic verse in the preamble of the constitution -- "Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful)" and Islam as the state religion.

"A state can't have a religion," said Larma, who signed the historic peace accord between guerillas and the government 13 years ago. The treaty recognizes the inhabitants of hill forest as indigenous communities, acknowledges its traditional governance system and established regional autonomy. However, the constitution does not acknowledge them as Adivasis.
The matter of recognition of the indigenous people came to the fore recently following denial by a Bangladesh diplomat in the United Nations that there were no indigenous people in the country.

The statement has been construed as another step by the government to further erode the already limited rights of indigenous people.

Since Bangladesh gained independence four decades ago, the 35 ethnic groups that represent nearly 2 percent of the total 158 million majoritarian Sunni Muslims have demanded to be recognized as indigenous communities.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com