The term Adivasis is not confined to any particular geographical or political boundaries but is generally used in the Indian subcontinent to denote indigenous peoples. Like India, Bangladesh has its Adivasis, though their proportion in the population is much smaller: official figures suggest around 1.8 per cent, amounting to around 1.6 million – though community representatives state that the total is considerably higher. The Adivasis of Bangladesh, again like those of India, represent a broad category encapsulating at least 27 different indigenous peoples. Despite their many differences, Bangladeshi Adivasis share major ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic distinctions from the majority Bengalis.
Adivasis inhabit the border areas of the north-west and north-east Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. Both prior to the creation of Bangladesh and afterwards, successive governments have been reluctant to take a census of the Adivasi population on the basis of language and religion. It is widely believed that the Bangladesh government has deliberately undercounted the Adivasi population to emphasize its marginality. Lower numbers mean that their legitimate demands can be more easily dismissed or ignored by governments and thus excluded from relief aid or development programmes. Undercounting also allows Adivasi land claims to be seen as more tenuous and their traditional ways of life as mere fragments of the past rather than as a living culture.
Almost all Bengalis, including many Adivasis, speak Bangla; and indigenous languages have assimilated many Bangla words as their own. Adivasis who have been formally educated through the school system, mostly males, are more likely to speak Bangla than those who are illiterate, especially women. By religion the CHT inhabitants are mainly Buddhist, while Khasi and Mandi are predominantly Christian. Other indigenous peoples have retained their original animism or have affiliated with Hinduism, especially the Hajong, while Rajbansi either are Hinduized or have become Sunni Muslims.
The most populous indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are the Santal, Chakma, Marma and Mandi. Of these the first and last are considered plains-dwelling Adivasis, with the Mandi living in north-central Bangladesh and the Santal in the north-west. They have a strong relationship with the land and there is a deep interrelationship between their religious beliefs (animism) and their social structure.
The CHT covers 10 per cent of the total area of Bangladesh and is home to twelve or thirteen different indigenous peoples of which Chakma, Marma and Tripura total approximately 90 per cent. Sometimes known collectively as Jumma, because of their traditional shifting – jum – method of cultivation, these groups belong to the Tibeto-Burmese language group. Chakma account for more than half the indigenous population of the CHT. They and the Marma are Buddhist, while Tripura are Hindus.
Whereas communal land ownership represents a vital element of their life pattern, the major problem for all Adivasis is so-called ‘landgrabbing’ by Bengalis. Although all indigenous land is theoretically considered to be communal land, it was fortunate that plains Adivasis for the most part received individual title deeds to their land under British rule. Communal land claims have proved far more difficult to sustain in law. Yet individual landholdings are also threatened in many ways. These include seizure by fraud or force and, as in the case of Hindus, illegal application of the Vested Property Act. Adivasis generally have been discriminated against and persecuted, although the position of those of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has aroused the greatest concern and gained the most international attention.
Most of the CHT peoples migrated into the area from the south between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries although the arrival of Bengali settlers forced many CHT peoples to retreat further into the hills. The British colonial period saw the promulgation of laws granting a measure of autonomy, most prominently reflected by the promulgation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulations of 1900. These measures confirmed that in internal matters the CHT was largely self-governing within the recognized structure; and they delineated categories of land, notably khas (government) land, specifically excluding non-indigenous peoples from settling in tribal areas.
At the time of the Partition of India in 1947 the award of the CHT to East Bengal, despite the fact that it contained almost no Muslim population, raised considerable opposition among the peoples of the CHT. Soon after, the Pakistan government allowed Bengali Muslims to move into the CHT, causing resentment among the indigenous peoples. The pace of Bengali settlement increased once the special status of the CHT was abolished in 1964. The years 1979-83 witnessed large-scale government-sponsored programmes of Bengali settlement in the Hill Tracts.2 Successive governments have actively pursued this policy, with the aim of forcibly assimilating the indigenous peoples of the CHT as well as depriving them of their lands.
Prior to the creation of Bangladesh, the Kaptai hydroelectric project had a devastating effect on many indigenous peoples. Built in the 1960s, the huge Kaptai dam flooded large tracts of cultivable land. More than 100,000 people – a quarter of the population of the CHT – were displaced. It is estimated that 40,000 environmental refugees fled to India, where many of them are currently living in the north-east state of Arunachal Pradesh, citizens neither of India, which has refused to grant them citizenship, nor of Bangladesh, and having no rights in either.
The civil war of the Bengali people against the West Pakistan military and politicians and its ultimate success, with the overt support of Indian forces, gave renewed hope to the hill peoples of a realization of their right to self-determination. A delegation representing Adivasis petitioned the new government for a restoration of autonomy for the CHT, but it received an unsympathetic response. The government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman considered the request to be secessionist, and the government launched raids into the CHT in 1972. As a reaction to this the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) United People’s Party, and its military wing, the Shanti Bahini (peace force), were formed to resist government forces. Numbering up to 15,000, the Shanti Bahini was staffed mainly by Chakma, but also contained Marma and Tripura, and it conducted a guerrilla war against the state, with brief interludes at the negotiating table.
During its discussions with the government between October 1987 and February 1988, the JSS put forward a number of demands, contending that this was the only way of protecting Adivasi interests. These demands included: withdrawal of Bengali settlers and the prohibition of future settlements by non-indigenous peoples; withdrawal of all Bangladesh military forces from the CHT; retention of the CHT Regulations of 1900; a specified degree of autonomy within the CHT; guarantees that these provisions could not be changed without a plebiscite within the CHT; economic development to benefit Adivasis; dismantling of the model villages and release of JSS prisoners; and the involvement of international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the implementation of such an agreement. Successive governments have failed to accept such terms, particularly where the issue of autonomy is concerned.
Although an apparent cease-fire was in operation and the government began negotiations with the JSS in November 1992, massive human rights abuses continued to take place in the CHT including torture, threats and killings, along with army destruction of houses and temples. Many instances of overt discrimination against Adivasis, both by the public as well as by governmental officials, have been recorded, and the most serious threat to the peoples of the CHT remained the policy of depriving them of their lands.
A major breakthrough in the enduring conflict came through the signing of the Peace Accord on 2 December 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and the JSS. The accord provides a number of rights to indigenous peoples including limited autonomy. A Land Disputes Commission was to be established to deal with land-related issues, with the promise that it would provide quick and inexpensive remedies in cases of land dispossession taking into account local customs and usage. A majority of the members of the Commission were intended to be from indigenous communities with the added advantage of their local knowledge and experience of land issues.
However, while the Peace Accord called for the demilitarization of the CHT, the area has remained highly militarized. State security forces have been accused of conducting attacks against Jumma communities, not intervening in incidents of communal violence and facilitating the influx of Muslim settlers. Despite implementing legislation such as the Land Commission Act of 2001, no cases of land disputes have yet been solved by the commission and land encroachment continues. Follow-up legislation was drafted under the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (Amendment) and passed in 2016 in corrected form.
At the same time, the CHT has seen regular outbreaks of violence against indigenous communities, despite the heavy policy presence. In June 2014 for example, over 250 Chakma and Tripuri people reportedly abandoned their homes and fled to the Indian border at Tripura after clashes with Bengali settlers. In December 2014, around 50 indigenous people in Rangamati district had their homes razed by Bengali settlers in apparent retribution for the destruction of the latter’s pineapple and teak saplings.
The Peace Accord was further eroded when bills passed on 23 November 2014 changed the composition of district councils in three indigenous areas – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban – from five to eleven members, with three non-indigenous unelected members. The Accord stipulates that the council members must be elected, but the government has instead handpicked the council members. Indigenous civil society groups demonstrated in Dhaka against the bills, calling for their immediate withdrawal.
Indigenous communities continue to be targeted regularly across Bangladesh, typically over land disputes, by Bengali settlers, security forces and other groups. In November 2016, for instance, an indigenous Christian Santal community was attacked in Gaibandha District, north western Bangladesh, after a land rights dispute with an adjacent sugar mill factory. The Santals claim that the disputed 1,840-acre land is part of their ancestral territory and that they had attempted to take back the land, leading to a clash with factory workers. Preliminary investigations by the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum concluded that local ruling party MPs colluded with police to burn down their houses. Amateur video footage showed what appeared to be police burning houses. Three Santal men were killed by indiscriminate firing by police. In December, the Bangladesh High Court ordered Gaibandha’s chief judicial magistrate to investigate police involvement in setting the fires. Around 2,500 families were forced to flee the area.
Land disputes have also afflicted the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the ancestral territories of the indigenous peoples collectively known as Jumma, and were a key issue in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord. The Peace Accord put an end to decades of fighting between the government and Jumma resistance, but many of its provisions remain unimplemented. On 31 July 2016, however, the Cabinet approved the amendment of the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act, which empowers a commission to settle disputes over illegally settled and occupied lands. It is hoped that such changes will help to restore the rights of CHT indigenous people to their lands and solve the roots of conflict between communities in the area. The resulting Land Disputes Commission finally met in early 2018. Although it discussed ways forward, including the opening of two district offices, the chair noted that approximately 22,000 land-related complaints had been filed so far – with none as yet resolved.
Nevertheless, to date the government of Bangladesh has systematically eroded the right of its indigenous peoples to self-determination, particularly control over their ancestral lands, closely related to the realization of their collective cultural rights. The Constitution of Bangladesh, through an amendment in 2011, asserts that ‘The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation’, effectively creating an even more restrictive national identity that excludes the indigenous non-Bengali population. While the amendment also stated the importance of protecting the ‘unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’, it disregarded calls to use the term ‘indigenous peoples’ or ‘Adivasis’. Indeed, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its October 2015 Concluding Observations, noted its general concern about ‘the lack of recognition by the State party of indigenous identity of the Adivasi indigenous peoples’. This is reflected, for instance, in official educational policies. Although the 2010 National Education Policy asserts that children have the right to be instructed in their mother tongue language, in practice education is largely in Bengali, with little emphasis on indigenous history or culture, leaving many students struggling with language barriers. Despite some limited government efforts in recent years to support indigenous learning, the survival of many languages remains in the balance.
Tourism too poses an increasing threat to the rights of indigenous peoples. According to the CHT Peace Accord, local indigenous communities must be consulted in development that affects them, yet Jumma activists continue to report cases of land grabbing to accommodate tourism developments. So too in south-central Bangladesh, coastal tourism development has been destroying the way of life of the indigenous Rakhine community in Kuakata. Land donated by the then prime minister in 1999 for community improvement purposes has been illegally confiscated to build a shopping complex in this resort town. Rakhine have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their distinct culture as their sacred waterways, cremation grounds and temple lands are reportedly under threat, damaged or occupied by new migrants to the area. Their Buddhist religious sites have also been destroyed and in some cases, ransacked: in 1906, there were 19 Buddhist temples in the area, but today there is only one left.
Updated July 2018
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