(This is an essay from our September 2015 print quarterly, 'The Bangladesh Paradox'. See more from the issue here.)
For some years now, a bitter dispute has raged in Bangladesh over the question of whether the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are entitled to that identification. Activists and organisations representing ethnic minority groups have been seeking official recognition of this designation for over two decades, particularly since 1993 – the year declared by the UN as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. The indigenous people of Bangladesh constitute more than 45 ethnic groups according to the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, although the Bangladesh government lists 27, while other independent reports estimate as many as 75. Averaging below two percent of the national population, they have been more commonly categorised as 'tribal' and 'aboriginal' in various official documents since British colonial times. In Bangla, the term 'adibashi', which used to be understood as 'primitive' and as being equivalent to 'aboriginal', was used quite freely by educated Bengalis to refer to various non-Bengali ethnic minorities.
The semantic emphasis began to change as the term started becoming synonymous with 'indigenous people(s)', the English term being promoted internationally. In this regard, the UN's observation of 1993 as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People marked the beginning of an era when the term 'adibashi' began to take on added significance, and became the focus of much discussion, debate and action within the country. From that year onwards, activists and organisations representing ethnic minorities started demanding that they be recognised as 'indigenous peoples' as per international law and that new provisions be included in the constitution. Despite all their efforts, however, the demands have not been met.
More than disappointment, the indigenous people feel a sense of betrayal, as official pronouncements dismissing their demands has become more frequent under the very political leadership that had previously promised otherwise. For example, in 1993, when the Government of Bangladesh rejected calls to observe the UN event officially on grounds that the concept of 'indigenous people' was not applicable in Bangladesh (an official position that is quite common in many Asian and African countries), leaders of the opposition Awami League, today the main ruling party, came forward in support of the demands of the self-identifying indigenous peoples.
More recently, in 2008, the electoral manifesto of Awami League explicitly referred to the 'indigenous people', outlining the party's pledge to address their needs and concerns along with those of religious minorities. But starting January 2010 – within a year of the Awami League and its partners' ascension to power – influential quarters within the government began to signal that the term 'indigenous people' was to be banished from all official documents and statements. While this supposed 'ban' was not enforced uniformly in all branches of the government or followed by everyone in the ruling coalition, there were prominent leaders who made visible U-turns, taking a public stance against the indigenous cause.
What had happened? The answer to this question sheds light on the nature of the Bangladeshi nation state as seen from the margins. As we will see, the non-recognition of the indigenous peoples in Bangladesh was more than just a setback for ethnic minorities looking for some special safeguards under international law. More generally, from the perspective of all those who conceive of Bangladesh in more pluralistic terms – as consisting of multiple ethnicities, languages, cultures and so on – it was yet another signal that the inherent diversity of the country remained largely denied at a fundamental level. The systemic nature of such exclusionary tendencies, along with the thwarted aspirations of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, illustrates a general trend to be found in different forms in other countries of Southasia as well.
Bangladesh is generally perceived and represented as a country of considerable ethnic and cultural homogeneity, with about 98 percent of the population being categorised (and usually identifying themselves) as Bengali, of which the majority are Muslim. However, while Bengali nationalism was a powerful political force that led to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation state, the new country was not, nor meant to be, a state for all Bengalis or for Bengalis only.
The ideals of the Liberation War of 1971 was inclusive enough to unite people of all classes, religions and ethnicities in what used to be East Pakistan, where there was widespread resentment against domination by the West Pakistan-based ruling elites. Yet, when the constitution of the newly independent Bangladesh was framed in 1972, such niceties were set aside as 'Bangalee nationalism' came to be enshrined as one of the four fundamental principles of the state. At that time, all but three of the 403 members of the National Constituent Assembly tasked with preparing the constitution were members of Awami League. And of the three non-Awami League members, only one, M N Larma, who represented the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) constituency, was not an ethnic Bengali.
Thus it was that as the draft constitution of 1972 was being adopted by the Assembly, Larma, a Chakma by ethnicity, was the lone voice of protest against the formulation, apparently introduced somewhat hastily, that the citizens of Bangladesh would be known as 'Bangalee'. The initial clause had only stated that citizenship would be regulated by law. But as the draft was being discussed, a member of the Constituent Assembly suggested an additional clause regarding giving a name for the citizens of Bangladesh, and his proposal was endorsed unanimously except by Larma, who walked out. Larma went on to form a CHT-based political party named Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS) that would lead an armed campaign for local autonomy of the indigenous peoples of the CHT.
The term 'indigenous people(s)' per se, however, did not feature in the political manifesto of the JSS. Instead, as a left-leaning political organisation, the JSS started talking about 11 Jumma 'nationalities' which corresponded to ethnic groups that were considered to be indigenous 'hill tribes' of the Chittagong Hill Tracts when the territory was brought under direct British administration in 1860. Since then, the colonial notion of 'tribe' became firmly established as an administrative category that persists to date in various laws and official documents. It so happens that the Bangla term commonly used as synonymous with 'tribe' is upajati, which etymologically means sub-nation or sub-nationality. Thus, for Bengali nationalists, the concept of tribe was never seen as a threat to a singular and integrationist notion of national identity.
It was, therefore, not a surprise when in 1972 – the same year of the adoption of the new Constitution – the government of Bangladesh ratified afresh the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, 1957 (No 107), which had been the first attempt within the UN system to codify international obligations of member states concerning 'indigenous and tribal populations'. At the time when the ILO Convention 107 came in place, the concept of indigenous peoples was not in currency within the UN. Instead, the term used in place of peoples was 'populations', which did reflect an integrationist or assimilationist approach in line with the dominant political ethos of the nation states coming together as the United Nations. It was in the 1980s that the concept of 'indigenous peoples' – in the plural – began to find growing acceptance in deliberations and documents of the UN. One indication of this growing acceptance was the adoption, in 1989, of the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which was an updated version of the ILO Convention 107. However, usage of the pluralised 'indigenous peoples' was not quite the norm yet throughout the UN. Thus the UN observed 1993 as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, minus the plural marker, which, however, eventually became established in subsequent formulations.
August 9 began to be observed as the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples from 1995 onwards, and in 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted. In the voting on the UNDRIP, Bangladesh was one of only 11 countries that abstained. However, while most countries in Asia voted in favor of UNDRIP, they probably did so based on an assumption that the concept of 'indigenous peoples' per se was largely inapplicable or irrelevant to their own societies, and also because the declaration was not meant to be a binding legal instrument. This interpretation becomes more plausible when we consider the status of ratification of the ILO Convention 169, which is a binding legal instrument. In all of Asia, Nepal is the only country to date to have ratified this convention.
Country of Bangalees?
While the position of the government of Bangladesh in relation to international legal instruments concerning 'indigenous peoples' is not unique, the way in which the matter has been discussed and debated within Bangladesh involves much more than mere legal concerns. Of the several factors at work, two are of particular interest: one involves a genuine confusion over terminology, and another relates to strong expressions of nationalist sentiment that tend to deny or suppress identities that do not fit within the category 'Bengali'.
Terminologically, at the heart of much of the confusion and controversy is a Bangla word, transcribed here as 'adibashi', which is widely used as synonymous with 'indigenous peoples'. This particular spelling (which is in keeping with a practice common in Bangladesh, where words tend to be transliterated based on their Bengali pronunciations) is meant to distinguish the word from its more familiar form, 'adivasi', which is based on the established standard of transliterating Sanskrit or Indic words, but has acquired a specific meaning of its own as a loan word. For example, the meanings of the term adivasi shown in British dictionaries refer to the term's older meanings and connotations that include 'aboriginal', 'primitive' and 'non-Aryan', which are not necessarily covered by the term 'indigenous people'. Actually, most Bangla dictionaries also have the meaning of 'adibashi' to be referring to primitive inhabitants. However, in more recent usage in Bangladeshi Bangla, the sense of 'primitive' has largely disappeared, and 'adibashi' is simply interpreted as meaning 'original inhabitant'.
This redefinition, coupled with a nationalist interpretation of Bangladesh being 'the country of Bangalees', leads to extraordinary statements of the following kind. In 2011, Dipu Moni, then the Foreign Minister, argued that Bengalis are the true adibashis of Bangladesh, not the tribals who, she said, were actually immigrants to this country from a few centuries ago. Such statements often ignore the simple historical fact that the nation state of Bangladesh has existed only since 1971, and that various ethnic minorities who self-identify as indigenous peoples are not necessarily laying claims to the entire country, but to specific areas inhabited and utilised by their ancestors long before the arrival of Bengali peasants.
During the period of British colonial rule, some protective, albeit paternalistic, legal measures were adopted for the purported benefit of various 'tribal' communities. Some of these measures, along with the category 'tribal', are still recognised by the Bangladeshi state today. But those in power are neither prepared for nor interested in going beyond condescending views towards tribal 'sub-nationalities', or not willing to regard them as people with certain rights recognisable under an evolving framework of international law.
It so happens that as far as international legal instruments such as ILO Conventions 107 and 169 are concerned, both 'tribal' and 'indigenous peoples' are used side by side, without implying any differences in intended rights of self-identification. Therefore, since government officials in Bangladesh are comfortable with the category 'tribal', it is not clear why they have been rather hostile to the notion of 'indigenous peoples'.
This hostility may reflect a more common unease – shared widely by many governments around the world – at the use of the term 'peoples', which goes with the established notion that every people has the right to self-determination. In the absence of clear definition of 'indigenous peoples' in recent UN documents, various concerned parties in Bangladesh started offering their own interpretations. In that process, a new generation of Bangladeshi interlocutors stopped using the term 'adibashi' in the older sense of 'primitive', and started using it as being fully equivalent to 'indigenous peoples', whose interpretation was largely driven by prevailing nationalist sentiments.
There were further twists. A confidential government memo from January 2010 that later came to light indicated that the term 'adibashi' was being seen as a threat to national sovereignty, as being part of a 'separatist' conspiracy. On this ground, district-level officials were instructed to not refer to the 'tribal communities' of the country as 'adibashi' under any circumstance. Then in May 2011, when a report commissioned by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, on the status of the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, raised concerns over human-rights violations of the indigenous peoples of the CHT, serious alarm bells started to ring. One of the recommendations of the report was that the track record of Bangladesh military personnel be checked before they were allowed to take part in UN peacekeeping missions abroad.
In the wake of the report, Dipu Moni announced to representatives of the international community in Bangladesh that the ethnic minorities of the country should not be referred to as indigenous peoples and that Bengalis are indeed the true indigenous people of the country. For a political leader who was present at public ceremonies hosted by the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples' Forum on the occasion of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples in the previous years – both before and immediately after her party came to power – this was extraordinary.
The foreign minister's public statements would soon be followed by the insertion of a new article in the Constitution, undertaken as part of the 15th Amendment, whereby the ethnic minorities of the country were mentioned for the first time, but not as 'indigenous people'. The specific terms used in Article 23A are 'tribes, minor races and ethnic sects and communities'. Aside from the problematic terms involved, the real issue is not so much the absence of the term 'indigenous people', nor the use of outmoded terms such as 'tribe' and 'minor races'; it is rather that any sense of recognition of ethnic diversity that may have been intended through Article 23A is negated by problematic formulations elsewhere in the Constitution.
For example, Article 6 states that "the people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation", whereas Article 9 refers to 'nationalism', reintroduced as a fundamental principle of state policy, as being solely based on singular notions of the 'Bangalee' nation and its identity, language and culture. There is no indication anywhere in the constitution that languages other than Bangla exist in Bangladesh. In fact, while there is a non-discrimination clause in the Constitution, language does not feature in the list of factors on the basis of which no discrimination shall be permitted.
Article 23A itself makes no mention of the languages of the 'tribes, minor races and ethnic sects', nor of their customary land rights. Instead, it only talks about protecting their "culture and tradition" (note the singular nouns, as found in official English translation). This new article is actually an articulation of long-established laws and policies that offer limited state patronage to a narrowly conceived notion of 'tribal culture', confined to staged performances and museum displays that are seen as adding 'color' to national culture and heritage, and as potential tourist attractions.
While some of the formulations in the Constitution continues to be a concern for many activists who seek more pluralistic conceptions of national identity and statehood in Bangladesh, some within the Government vigorously deny the aspirations and identities of the self-identifying indigenous peoples. For example, in 2014, two days before the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, an official press handout was distributed that stated that according to the constitution of Bangladesh, there were no 'indigenous peoples' ('adibashis') in the country. Therefore, the handout directed "University teachers, experts, editors of newspapers and other members of civil society, taking part in … discussions and talk shows [held on the occasion of the Indigenous People's Day] are requested to take a precaution about refraining from using the word Adivasi in the case of Bangladesh."
On the whole, there is a growing trend of editors, authors and public commentators avoiding the term 'adibashi' in favor of constitutionally sanctioned terms which have strong emphasis on the 'smallness' or 'minor' status of the groups under consideration. This trend is the direct outcome of pressures being applied at various levels within different government agencies. For example, NGOs using the word 'adibashi' as part of their organisational names or in their project proposals began to find it increasingly difficult to get official clearance in obtaining donor funds; as a result, some NGOs have gone as far as to delete the term 'indigenous' or 'adibashi' from their very names. More generally, even though many government documents have the term 'indigenous peoples' or 'adibashi', those that were finalised or updated around or after 2011 began to have the word 'indigenous' replaced rather mechanically by 'ethnic'. All this indicates the presence within the government bureaucracy of a single-minded pursuit by some to erase 'adibashi' from all official documents.
But bureaucratic attempts to erase 'adibashi' from official documents would not have meant much if there were no parallel developments in the political-economic arena, and in dominant nationalist discourses. On the ground, indigenous peoples of Bangladesh continue to be pushed out of their ancestral lands in various ways, with their rights to livelihood, cultural autonomy and basic services severely limited and constantly eroding. At another level, nationalist representations of all kinds continue to marginalise, obliterate or demean the indigenous peoples, by casting them as the 'other', as not being or having been integral part of the history, geography and polity of what Bangladesh is as a modern nation state.
There are plenty of examples of this trend. For instance, a school textbook for fifth-grade students begins an essay with the following sentence: "We, the Bengalis of Bangladesh, are lucky to have been born in this country." The essay then tells the young readers that there are Bengalis in other parts of the world as well. To illustrate this point, it takes them to the Bangladesh-India border across Tripura, and announces that "all the people in the state of Tripura are Bengalis as well". This factual error has been corrected in the second edition, but the Bengali-centric thrust of the essay remains.
Halfway through the essay, the young reader learns that there are many 'others' – various ethnic minorities – living in Bangladesh. The point is made that it is a country that consists of people of all kinds, and that this diversity is a beautiful thing. But no one in charge of reviewing the textbook seemed to question the Bengali-centric representation of Bangladesh. Just as the Bengali-centric formulation of national identity, language, culture and history of the country in the constitution was not questioned as the 15th Amendment was passed in the same year when the foreign minister of Bangladesh announced to the world that ethnic minorities were not 'indigenous' to Bangladesh. "Giving a special and elevated identity to enfranchise only 1.2 percent of the total population of 150 million by disentitling the 98.8 percent," she said, "cannot be in the national interest of Bangladesh."
This story of the denial of diversity continues to unfold in Bangladesh, where forces that seek to turn the country into a land only for Bengalis are still active.