By citizenship, by nationality

Mesbah Kamal, secretary-general of the National Coalition for Indigenous People and a professor of history at the University of Dhaka, tells Saad Hammadi how state policy in Bangladesh refuses to recognise the country's longstanding plurality. Newly proposed constitutional amendments, he warns, leave no grey area for the Adivasis of Bangladesh.

What does history say about the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh?

Present-day Bangladesh is part of what was once undivided Bengal. We have found traces of human tools that date back to 17,000 years ago, in this part of the world. On the contrary, the charyapada, [a manuscript of Bengali poetry and literature] a symbol of Bengali identity, is only about a thousand years old; the Bangla language is about a thousand years old. So, who lived in these areas before that? This is clearly a country with multiple identities and nationalities. Some years ago I was involved in a survey of undivided Bengal, by which I mean including West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Assam and the rest of the Indian Northeast. We found that there are 166 nationalities other than Bengalis in these places, and at least 75 of those exist in present-day Bangladesh.

The Special Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Amendments claimed to protect the language and culture of ethnic minorities and acknowledge their contribution in the 1971 War of Liberation in the latest amendment passed on June 30. Why has the government decided that these groups will be referred to only as 'small ethnic groups', rather than 'indigenous'?

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh says that people of this country will be 'Bangladeshi' by citizenship and 'Bengali' by nationality. Who has the audacity to change the nationality of, for instance, Santu Larma, the chairman of the Chittagong Hills Tracts [CHT] Regional Council; or Sanjib Drong, the general-secretary of the Adivasi Forum; or Dipankar Talukdar, the state minister for CHT affairs? This decision reflects the committee members' utter incompetence, and it is unfortunate that these politicians have not learned much from the bloodshed that this country has undergone.

The National Coalition for Indigenous People had face-to-face talks with the Constitution-Drafting Committee. The committee members said that they agreed on the rights of Adivasis but they said they wanted to find 'suitable' terminology. If tomorrow President Barack Obama comes and says 'From today you will be called "the big ethnic group" and you cannot call yourselves Bengalis,' that would clearly not be acceptable. Just as Obama cannot make such impositions on Bengalis, Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia cannot do so to the Adivasis. They want to be identified in their own nomenclature, and they want to have a collective identity that they can call their own. Under the United Nations, the international community has already proposed such terminology: indigenous people.

Bangladesh is a country of many nationalities, where communities such as the Garo, Chakma and Marma have blossomed – all of these are citizens of Bangladesh. I simply do not understand why if Jyoti Basu could have been a Bengali by nationality and an Indian citizen, what is the problem in Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia recognising Santu Larma to be a Chakma, even as he remains a citizen of Bangladesh?

How would you explain this attitude?

Some have said that the defence quarters have warned that accepting Adivasi communities in this way could create long-term secessionist problems. But in fact, the controversy is in the non-recognition of plurality as a matter of state policy. Our state still has a hangover from the British colonial period, and from the colonial mentality of the Pakistan era when communal policies coloured the administrative culture. The same approach continues today. Those of us who fought communalism on the issue of language are turning communal ourselves – against minority – language groups. The drafting committee has utterly failed to take these matters into account.

This is worrisome for multiple reasons. The minorities have trusted the Awami League since the time of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but the Awami League has betrayed them and is moving towards the policies of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). This rightward shift is a dangerous signal in the politics of Bangladesh, and could lead to a significant increase in migration and a refugee crisis.

How would you evaluate the political will of the parties in enforcing the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord?

Unfortunately, the political parties have failed to take up the issue of the CHT Accord, only coming back to it due to public pressure. The CHT issue is complicated, given that it is closely linked to the state's material interests – to land resources, in which all political parties have a stake. In this area, Bengali nationalism intertwines with Islamist fundamentalism. As a result, the progressive Bengali nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s is now being abandoned for aggressive Bengali ultra-nationalism. This is dangerous. One of the limitations of the Peace Accord is that there was no inbuilt system for its implementation. The entire Accord should be made a part of the Constitution, which would guarantee that it would not be affected with changes in government. This recommendation was forwarded to the constitutional amendment committee, however, without a result.

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Himal Southasian