According to official figures, about 98 per cent of the 110 million people of Bangladesh are Bengalis — part of the larger Bengali population in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and elsewhere. Most Bangladesh Bengalis are Sunni Muslims (whereas in West Bengal the majority are Hindus). According to the 1981 census, Muslims comprise 86.6 per cent of the population, Hindus 12.1 per cent, and others 1.2 per cent. Many experts contest these figures, maintaining that the proportion of non-Muslims could be as high as 25 per cent. The “other” religious minorities comprise of Christians, Buddhists or animists; many are also ethnic tribal minorities.
Though Bangladesh began in 1971 as a secular state, Islam was made the state religion by constitutional amendment in 1988. Other religions are, however, recognised by provisions in the constitution. Despite the Constitution´s acceptance of the principle of non-discrimination, many activists allege indirect discrimination as well as direct persecution of those outside the “Bangladeshi mainstream”. The late 1980s saw increased fundamentalist agitation directed against Hindus and other religious minorities. Using the recent Babri-Masjid and Ram Mandir controversy in India, the communal repression and violence in Bangladesh has assumed a deadly new dimension. Feelings of anxiety and insecurity have increased.
The Hindus are the largest religious minority. They used to make up a considerably larger proportion of the population, but many left during Partition in 1947, arid still more after Independence in 1971. Most Hindus are Bengalis by ethnic origin and language, although some tribal groups also follow beliefs and customs which have 50^; affinity of Hinduism.
During Partition, there was a mass migration between India and Pakistan. Of the 1.3 million who moved from India into what was then East Pakistan, about one million were the Muslims from Bihar. These came to be known collectively as “Biharis” — Urdu speakers who are also Sunni Muslims like the Bengali population. Because they were seen to be favoured by the West Pakistani authorities in professional and administrative work, Biharis became increasingly unpopular among Bengalis and came to be seen as symbols of West Pakistani domination.
In such a climate of hostility, the disturbances preceding and following independence in 1971 saw waves of retaliatory killings against Biharis. Thousands were arrested as alleged collaborators. Most lost homes, shops and property. While Pakistani army and civilians were evacuated, the 839,000 Biharis were left behind, most in enclaves protected by the Indian Army. The majority of Biharis expressed the wish to be repatriated to Pakistan, and 163,000 had been transferred by 198.1. Political developments in Pakistan have made further mass repatriations unlikely.
The Dast allegiance of Biharis has not been forgotten. Most are afraid of trying to integrate into the Bengali community, even though cultural and economic ties are closer here than in Pakistan. Without determination from the Biharis and goodwill on the part of the Bengalis, it will be a long time before Biharis join Bangladesh´s mainstream.
While in India, seven per cent of the population (51 million), are classified as members of “Scheduled Tribes´´, in Bangladesh the proportion of the adivasi (“original inhabitants”) is much smaller, perhaps-one per cent. In this respect they are similar to the indigenous tribal peoples of North America and Australia.
The government deliberately has not attempted to take a census of the tribal people on the basis of language and religion—it is said, in order to emphasise their marginality. The adivasi were officially estimated 623,216 in 1981, although today they certainly number over a million. Of these, about 44 per cent are estimated to be Buddhist, 24percent Hindu and 13 per cent Christian, and 19 percent other”. The largest tribes in Bangladesh are the Santhal (200,000), Chakma (194,949), Marma (65,889) and Mandi (60,000).
The plains adivasi of Bangladesh have their origins in the Himalayan foothills. Some migrated centuries ago from Meghalaya at a time when the plains were lightly populated. These adivasi are now settled agriculturists, having long since abandoned slash-and-burn Scuttivation. They have long been &cut off from their extensions in Q India, and divisions imposed by 2 the great river systems of g Bangladeshi further divide the Bangladeshi plains adivasi communities from each other. The Mandi, also known as the Garo, live in the north-central Bangladesh, east of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Other tribes, such as the Santhal, live in the north-west.
All tribals have in common their readily apparent differences from the majority Bengalis — ethnic, cultural, religions, linguistic. The communal spirit remains strong, and the tribal people live close to land and nature, and to the spirits they believe in. While the tribes of the south-east hills and the Mandi tend to be well-educated, literacy among the plains tribal people is very low.
The main problem of the adivasi all over the country is land-grabbing by the Bengalis, and nowhere is this more true than in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where an insurgency has been in progress for decades. These hill tracts, which cover fully lO percent of Bangladesh´s total land area, are the home to 13 different peoples, with the Chakma, Marma and Tripura (Tippera) making up the majority.
Most of the CHT peoples migrated into the area from what is today Myanmar between the 16th and 19th centuries. They retreated to the hills starting in the 17th century when the Bengalis arrived to settle the coastal areas. However, the tribal hinterland remained largely undisturbed under British rule. After Partition, the Pakistani Government allowed Bengali Muslims to move into the CHT, causing resentment among the hill people, many of whom sought refuge in India.
The huge Kaptai Dam, built in the 1960s, submerged 40 per cent of the cultivable land in the CHT and displaced one-sixth of the population. Perhaps 40,000 environmental refugees fled to Amnachal Pradesh, where they continue to live in limbo.
A delegation of hill people petitioned the new Government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for restoration of autonomy for the CHT (which had existed from 1958 to 1964). The Government considered this secessionist and launched raids . into the CHT. The tribals resisted through the United Peoples´ Party and its military wing, the Shanti Bahini. The Shanti Bahini has conducted a guerrilla war against the Bengali settlers and Government troops throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s. Dhaka´s counter-insurgency campaigns created fresh waves of refugees.
The Government continues to look on the CHT as an “empty” land on which to resettle landless Bengali peasants. Between 1977 and 1987 about 300,000cthnieBengalis were moved into the area and today they constitute at least one-third if not half of the CHT population.
The CHT as well as the north-east of India are remote strategic areas which are normally closed to foreigners. Independ eat information on the continuing war within the CHT is therefore hard to obtain. Even Bangladeshi investigators have difficulty in penetrating the military net which engulfs the area. Nevertheless, over the past decade there have been well-attested accounts of human rights violations against the adivasi by both military and government personnel, as well as Bengali settlers, The most complete accounts come from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, an international non-governmental body established to investigate human rights abuses. The Commission has collected many first-hand accounts of ill-treatment and torture, threats and killings, along with destruction of houses and temples.
Since 1988, many aSivas have been moved into so-called “cluster-villages” (similar to those used by the US in Vietnam and the Marcos regime in the Philippines), to isolate them from contacts with the Shanti Bahini. In education, there have been attempts to impose the Bengali language on the adivasi, in order, it is said, to bring them into “national mainstream”. Ironically, the tribal people of the CHT are more advanced in formal education than the Bengalis of the plains 60 per cent literacy compared to 23 per cent for the rest of Bangladesh.