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Bangladesh: The Plight of the Indigenous People

This post is part of our special coverage on Indigenous Rights.

In Bangladesh there are more than 45 indigenous tribes (adibashis) [bn] of which 11 reside in the Chittagong hill tracts. The rest are scattered in other parts of the country. Many of them are not faring well. Every day some of them are being subjected to discrimination, oppression and abuse.

A report by Kapeng Foundation and Oxfam [bn] entitled “Human Rights Situation of the Adibashis – 2011″, reveals that last year violent racial clashes related to land disputes resulted in the burning down of 111 indigenous homes. Seven tribal people were killed and 12 houses were ransacked. Eleven tribal women were raped in different incidents and five of them were killed.

Tribal indigenous people of Bangladesh. Image by Anwar Hussain, copyright Demotix (9 August, 2010).

Tribal indigenous people of Bangladesh. Image by Anwar Hussain, copyright Demotix (9 August, 2010).

Mithushilak Murmu [bn] commented on the motivation of these attacks:

It seems that our neighbors, the bigger communities are being mobilized by racial thoughts. The father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's secular thinking and non-racial and inclusive perspectives are being blacked out by his successors. The indigenous people are afraid most of the times, they are living in fear.

Malobika Tudo [bn] said:

The tribal children learn their first words in Bangla, which is not their mother tongue. And it seems there is nobody in this country to speak for them.

Ajal Dewan came to Dhaka from Chittagong Hill Tracts for higher studies. He wrote [bn] in the Adibashi Bangla (Indigenous Bengali) blog how he faced problem with his tribal features:

Most of my experiences in this short lived life are bitter. But the most bitter ones include being bullied for my distinctive face and language. The waiter at the restaurant frowns at me and if I sing a song in my own language in the street I face the same consequence. If I sing or recite in Bangla, there is no problem. [It seems] it's a crime to speak in my language.

There is no respite even in university. My classmates think that we savor snakes and frogs as we live on the hills. I have to answer questions all the time on whether we eat cockroaches or sleep in treehouses. [...]

Antoni Rema [bn] has similar experiences:

We are bullied [by men] when we walk down the streets. Especially the fair skinned tribal [women] like us are facing this trouble the most. On the streets, we are being frowned upon with nonsense words (like chang, chung), we are being teased, taunted and distracted. Do they know how much it hurts us?

We can get a feeling about the type of repression the tribal people are subjected to from the posts of Ajal Dewan and Antini Rema. This is not only true for the indigenous people of the hills – all tribes of the country have similar stories to tell.

The oppression on them is motivated by mainly the urge to grab and occupy their lands and livelihoods. Journalist Biplob Rahman wrote in an article [bn] after visiting a tribe in the north of Bangladesh:

In recent times the minority Santal tribes of Birganj, Chirir Bandar, Fulbari and Nababganj of Dinajpur Zila have continued to lost their lands to occupiers. Almost 500000 indigenous Santals have virtually no assets after losing everything over the years.

On the other hand Mithushilak Murmu [bn] writes about the plights of the indigenous labors who work in the tea gardens of Sylhet after visiting them:

They get a wage of Taka 30 (35 US Cents) after a day's hard work. In the early morning they start to pluck tea leaves and fill the bamboo buckets and continue till the evening takes them to the factory. [...] The price of tea has increased day by day, but their benefits and wages haven't.

The plights of the discriminated, abused and oppressed tribes were deepened by a remark [bn] by the country's foreign minister. Several months ago in a discussion with the delegates of development organizations and diplomats she mentioned “there is no indigenous people in the country“.

In her opinion, because in the past centuries several tribes have come from neighboring countries to settle in the hills of Bangladesh, they should not be termed as indigenous, but tribal minorities. The indigenous tribes reacted strongly to this statement; they took the streets to protest and claim constitutional recognition.

Indigenous people of Bangladesh are demanding constitutional recognition in Dhaka. Image by Abu Ala, copyright Demotix (29/4/2011).

Indigenous people of Bangladesh are demanding constitutional recognition in Dhaka. Image by Abu Ala, copyright Demotix (29/4/2011).

Odong Chakma in a post in Mukto Mona blog depicts how a poster on indigenous people in the Dhaka (Hajrat Shahjalal) International Airport has been altered. A white band has been placed on the caption “smiling indigenous women of Chittagong Hill-Tract” under the picture and it reads now “.. women of Chittagong Hill-Tract”.

The blogger says:

Can you wipe out the indigenous population by wiping the name?

It may be mentioned that although the tribal and Bengali people have lived together for centuries, after the partition of India (in 1947), Muslim settlers came pouring in from India and started to settle in the Chittagong Hill tracts. The confrontations started from there, which became acute when in 1979 the government undertook a program to settle almost half a million people in the indigenous lands.

Ramdaschand Hasda [bn] says in this context:

After living hundreds of years together, the Bengalis and the indigenous people could not be friends.

This post is part of our special coverage on Indigenous Rights.

  • monshir

    for some reason the term tribal and native (adibashi) are used interchangeably. the chakma people are not “natives”. they are migrants who came to the land of bengal (outside of chittagong) between the 16th and 18th century.

    the “native” or adibashi people of Bangladesh happen to be Bengalis, who came somewhere around 4000 years ago. the term bengalis probably came from a dravidian tribe somewhere around 3000 years ago.

    now if you are speaking specifically about the Chittagong hill tracts, mind you, the hill tracts alone (bengalis had already settled in outer chittagong) i suppose there can be some dispute about whether they are the “natives” of that specific area since they were conquered (After they themselves conquered that particular area). either way, they are of a tibeto-burmese origin, meaning that they are not “natives” of Bangladesh.

    you are trying to say that the equivalent of the Native Americans of the United States in Bangladesh are chakmas. they are not.

    the equivalent of the Native Americans in the U.S in Bangladesh are the Bengalis. The chakmas in most of Bangladesh (outside of, maybe, and this is a big maybe, the Hill Tracts) are indisputably migrants who settled in the land.

    the chakmas have also not done themselves any favors by siding with pakistan and its atrocities during the liberation war in 1971. nor by engaging in acts of terrorism through the shanti bahini and attempting once more to destroy the territorial integrity of the country.

    regardless, i agree that there are problems (including racism) that ought to be addressed, and i am happy to say that progress has been made since the troubling situation in the 1990′s (mostly due to the army reaction to the shanti bahini). is there more work to be done? obviously. but maybe one should start by stopping this nonsense about creating a equivalency between the term native people ( who happen to be Bengalis) and the term tribal people (chakmas).

    i don’t mean to be offensive, but calling chakmas “natives” is a troubling and persistent myth . If we are to have a serious discourse, then we must start from a point of clear historical background, which is that the natives of Bangladesh are Bengalis. hope this was a constructive criticism.

  • S. Islam

    While I feel and sympathize for the indigenous people’s plight, described above, I cannot help but narrate my experience, when I had visited Ramgarh (in the Chittagong hill tracts) last year.

    Whenever I wanted to converse with some tribal people in tea shops or on the market, they gave me (a Bengali) a scornful look as if I was some kind of an Alien. But then I took it as a stray incident, and would not judge the entire community based on this.

    The problem of discrimination lies with the govt/administration (and not the general people at large) where not only the indigenous but also the Bengalis are bullied, discriminated, and and tortured at the drop of a hat by police and political goons…..and the newspapers are a testimony to it.

    We all are Bangladeshi citizens (Indigenous + Bengalis) and should think as one, and I am very optimistic that times are changing, particularly with more and more tribals moving to Dhaka and other cities….and we would take each others as fellow brethren!

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