Including the excluded

Wasfia Nazreen and Devasish Roy Wangza.

Published in the BDnews24 on 6 November 2010.

This piece asks for constitutional rights of the Adibashis of Bangladesh.

The constitution of a country is meant to serve several purposes: (i) it should articulate and elaborate the fundamental principles of the policy of the state; (ii) these principles should be organic in nature so that they provide a framework for enabling laws, policies and programmes that may be adopted and refined, from time to time; (iii) it should define the parameters of rights and obligations; and (iv) it should lay the foundations of inclusive governance so that no groups are excluded from an opportunity to participate in statecraft and development, by making the ‘rules of the game’ fair, in substance, if not in procedure. In keeping with such worthy goals, citizenship and national identity are generally so defined in national constitutions in order to ensure that real democracy is practiced so that there is no ‘tyranny of the majority’. One might say the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh does indeed cater for all the things mentioned above.

Well, yes and no.

Implementing the main tenets of the constitution
Yes, the Constitution of Bangladesh, as framed in 1972, did contain several remarkable features that sought to incorporate many of the themes mentioned above. And the 1972 constitution’s four main pillars, including the eroded themes of secularism and socialism (democracy and a mutated nationalism did survive, however), are to be revived in accordance with the judgment of the Supreme Court in the 5th Amendment case. All very good.

Our constitution does indeed have a chapter on Fundamental Principles of State Policy that screams out aspirational statements, including one on “the attainment of a just and egalitarian society, free from exploitation” (repealed article 12, Constitution of Bangladesh; to be restored). But what does the actual practice show? Did we indeed adhere to these ideals, even in the case of those that had withstood the many onslaughts that were wreaked upon it by successive regimes that treated this supreme legal document like a doodle page?

No, no and no.

There are several reasons why so many of our citizens have been deprived of their basic human rights, which are called fundamental rights in our constitution. For those who happened to come from the “wrong” class, gender, ethnicity or religious group, those rights remained in name only. Worse still, if they happened to be members of religious and ethnic minority groups that do not have Bengali as their mother tongue (read Adibashis), they were even lower down in the rungs of the rights-access ladder. This is so, both on account of gaps in the provisions of the constitution itself, and also because we have not yet evolved a political culture and a system of administrative norms in which the constitutionally recognised rights may be transformed into reality. Unless, of course, one could hire the best lawyers of the country, and the atmosphere was politically and party-wise congenial. Or, if one had friends within the “establishment”.

Road-building & tree-cutting in Sajek highlands, bordering Mizoram, India. Photo: Devasish RoyRoad-building & tree-cutting in Sajek highlands, bordering Mizoram, India. Photo: Devasish Roy 

Let us for a moment compare our situation with that in the United States of America. Even the country that boasts itself to be the epitome of ‘democracy’ took two spurts of political activism, in the 1880s by Lincoln, and in the 1960s by Kennedy and King, to give truer meaning to its constitutionally-sanctioned Equal Rights provisions in the case of the Americans of African origin otherwise known as Blacks. And that was only to prevent discrimination with regard to civil rights, i.e. voting, and equal access to railroad carriages, schoolrooms and other public places, hitherto off limits to Blacks, and not to provide affirmative action. In no way should the American experience be a justification for our case, but it should come as no surprise to anyone that our commitment to Freedom from Discrimination “on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth” (“Jati dhormo nirbeysheyshey…”) also remained hollow words, as has been the case with many other regions of the world. For even three and a half decades after 1972, people are denied access to restaurants because they come from a low jati (caste) or because they are Adibashi. And the fair-minded police inspector might tell, “Yes, I know the constitution forbids such discrimination, but I have no laws in my arsenal to forbid such acts as they have not been defined as crimes…” In such instances, even if one could hire the best lawyers — and most Adibashis, Dalits and Tea Estate workers would not be able to afford that — they still wouldn’t get a remedy. Thus, even where the rights are unequivocally stated, there are problems of commission and omission: with regard to enabling ordinary laws and sectoral policies to supplement constitutional provisions and discriminatory attitudes of the powers that be.

The recent demands of Adibashis for constitutional recognition therefore need to be understood in the context of such political, judicial (justice administration procedural bottlenecks), legal and administrative realities, further complicated due to their socio-economic marginality and ‘minoritiness’ — meaning that one does not have the numbers, in the vast majority of cases and particularly in the plain regions, to elect their own representatives to parliament or local government institutions.

Including the excluded
The majority of the populations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) were indigenous peoples, otherwise known as Jummas according to many. Well, once upon a very long time. Government sponsored migration since the 1980s — a la Palestine — has changed that reality of the indigenous Jummas drastically and the region’s demography continues to change unfavourably for the indigenous peoples. There seems to be no serious attention to the need to undo the forced demographic changes, of course without violating anyone’s rights, or to regulate unrestricted migration into the CHT.

In the much movement-oriented historical canvas of Bangladeshis, the Adibashis or ‘original inhabitants’ of this land never displaced Bangalis from their land. The question of displacing Bangalis did not even arise, because the Adibashis were already the earliest inhabitants of many parts of the country, particularly the forested and hilly portions that the plainspeople found ‘inhospitable’ and abhorred. The latter liked to huddle around the deltaic plains, which were easier to cultivate wet-rice paddy. Not the forested tracts of the CHT, Sylhet, Madhupur and the Barind (Borendro) lands (one might remember where the god Rama went to Bonobash or forest exile, in modern times city dwellers go for Bonobhojon or forest picnics!).

Of course, all that has changed. The Santals and Oraons tamed the Barind tracts with their superb innovative earth-cutting skills, only to continue to lose these reclaimed paddy fields to land-grabbers. The Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras, Tanchangyas, Garos, Hajongs and other Adibashis, after sustainably doing jum cultivation on the slopes and hillocks of Chittagong, Comilla, Sylhet and Madhupur, had to yield to the more powerful plains brethren who extended the wet rice culture into the hitherto ‘inhospitable’ terrain, the home of ‘denizens’ living in harmony with nature. Cotton no longer grew in these former swidden commons, now converted into paddy lands and brick-baking kilns. But the indigenous peoples continued, until recently, to supply cotton to the plains from their now pressed hinterlands. But all that is subaltern history now, which survives only in oral traditions of ballads, poetry, songs and dance (read “folklore”). The second-longest Chakma ballad, the epic called Sadigang Sara, sung by minstrels called Gengkhuli, narrates the story of the exodus from Chittagong (‘Sadigang’), which is never sung within the boundaries of a village lest it bring forth another such exodus! Ironically, song or no song, it did; in 1960, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s!

More so, some of the indigenous peoples, notably Chakmas, Manipuris, Santals, Lushais and several others, resisted British colonisation by fighting the colonisers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course Bangalis did too. But our textbooks, conveniently, exclude the Adibashis.

Adibashis too, fought like heroes, alongside Bangalis in our War of Liberation. How many of our children get to learn that from our state’s schools? How many of the Adibashis got medals for their contribution towards Independence? Can our mainstream media and the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs name just a handful of these unsung heroines and heroes?

Alas, those who cannot exercise freedom in their ancestral lands in the present moment, are not even worthy to get recognition for freeing their country, or defending freedom, way back in some distant past.

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Let us consider the Adibashis’ contributions to Bangladesh’s economy? Have we so easily, and brutally, forgotten about the vast lands that had to be sacrificed for giving electricity to the nation, when the Karnafuli was dammed, and perhaps damned? Do we have the time to ask how those people are who had to permanently leave their homelands and migrate, within Bangladesh and elsewhere — where they are often threatened with eviction as “encroachers” on “reserved forests”, or as “foreigners,” such as in Arunachal Pradesh, India? How many of these relocated, immigrated, emigrated and REMOVED Adibashis got their stories heard? Do we give a damn that the heartland of the displaced population, Rangamati, shares a disproportionate share of load shedding in places where there are power lines, and uses solar power instead (for those who can afford it)? And even as we write, people displaced by the Dam in 1960, by the Parjatan Corporation and the BDR in the 1970s, in Bileisoripara, on the southern fringes of Rangamati town are again threatened with eviction: this time for a noble cause: a university! But why, they ask, should such an ostensibly laudable venture be carried out on their lands? And what about the ‘Small Ethnic Communities Cultural Institutions Act’ that does not recognise a score of indigenous peoples of the plain lands, subjecting them to the risk of exclusion from enumeration for the forthcoming 5th national census next year (if ethnic disaggregation is done)? The law is welcome for having rightfully cast that disparaging term “upajati” (tribal, sic!) to the rubbish bin. But why does it timidly hide the appropriate, but malnourished term, “Adibashi”, in a corner of the Act while renaming the law and the institutes concerned with that confusing and equivocal term, “khudro nrigoshthi” (small ethnic groups)? This term focuses upon the ‘smallness’ of the peoples concerned instead of highlighting their identity as Adibashi (indigenous) in accordance with globally accepted human rights standards and norms.

In defence of all these occurrences of dominance impermeable, we might hear something like, “If Adibashis are the first inhabitants, then are we all Settlers?” But does calling someone Adibashi automatically imply that the rest of the existing non-Adibashis are ‘settlers?’ If someone is not Adibashi that does not mean that she or he is a “settler” by any means. That may be so in the Americas, but definitely not so in Bangladesh. Bangalis are as much rooted to the soil of Bangladesh as Adibashis are.

Essentially, recognising the Adibashis as ‘Adibashi’ merely means the recognition of their full participatory rights as citizens, keeping in mind the exclusion and discrimination historically meted out to them in the process of state-formation, nation building and development. It also means the creation of an enabling environment, in which they may preserve their distinctive cultural identities, which are threatened on account of their marginal situations.

Acknowledgment of loss
Militarisation, violation of basic civil and political rights: detentions, arrests, unlawful killings, rape, arson, religious intolerance, violation of land rights in the name of forestry, structured discrimination against the indigenous people, life and nature at risk through systemic subjugation, destruction in the hands of development… How could we backstab the ‘underground’ movement’s sincere capitulation while we ourselves commit these atrocities? Should Shantu Larma have bartered five returnee guerillas or refugees for five laws and five amendments in the Constitution, before he signed the 1997 “Peace” Accord?

When Buddha statues were broken, and looted — not just in February 2010 in Sajek, but in Patuakhali, Teknaf and elsewhere — and then Buddhist shrines are denied land titles, does that not draw the imagination of what a similar situation in Dhaka, of a different place of worship, has the potential to cause for the greater part of the ‘mainland’?

Our government must understand that with this entire time passing, there is a continual growing desire of acknowledgment of all that loss. In order to safeguard our national security — instead of continuing to look at the Hill Tracts with ‘security lenses’ when there is no insurgency but intra-Jumma conflicts and laying more army in the CHT (unless BDR is not doing their job of border protection) — our government has a historic chance to stand out, and stop the land grabbing, and militarisation and bring about the proposed amendments in the constitution that the Adibashis have long been asking for.

Yes we do have a few clauses in our constitution that seek to prevent discriminatory acts based on race, religion, sex and place of birth, but what we do not have are enabling legal, administrative and programmatic mechanisms and processes to take that forward. For example, in the UK, if an agency denies one a job because s/he is a Bangladeshi, Black or Chinese, that race discrimination incident can be taken up at an administrative tribunal. In Bangladesh, a similar incident can only be taken up to the Dhaka High court. What for, in the name of Rule of Law? Why can’t we do that in Mymensingh, Dinajpur, Bandarban or other parts of the country? Why should not our district courts or other district-level tribunals or other authorities provide recourse to common issues like race discrimination or gender discrimination? But for that our constitution is not responsible. The responsibility lies upon our political leaders for not introducing the necessary structures and processes through ordinary legislation and other action. In Bangladesh it is not an offence if someone denies an Adibashi entry into a restaurant simply because of his ethnicity. In many other countries, it is. Therefore, ‘enabling measures’ are absolutely necessary to put flesh into the skeletal structure provided by the constitution.

In some cases, however, our constitution does stand directly guilty.

Redefining the pillars

Nationalism: Our state identity can be Bangladeshi, or Bangladesh, but our ethnic or cultural identity can be Adibashi or Bangali. Unfortunately, the 1972 constitution did not have the room for that. Even though Bangalis are one of the peoples of the multi-cultured, multi-ethnic, multi-religious multi-lingual Bangladesh, they are still only one of the family members, albeit the most numerous and the most powerful. This cultural identity of Bangladesh needs to be redefined, both to accommodate the Adibashis and to accurately reflect the rich multicultural heritage of this nation.

Socialism: Adibashis want the acknowledgment of their collective property based on customary laws. This recognition would be in tune with the spirit of socialism, particularly in today’s age of free market policies and globalised capitalism.

Democracy: There is a huge difference between democracy and Majoritarianism. Adibashis are demanding 15 seats to be reserved for them in parliament and an appropriate number in local government bodies without accounting for the general seats. They would otherwise continue to be voiceless in governance and administration.

Secularism: Adibashis are definitely happy that the constitutional provisions on secularism are to be re-inserted into the constitution. However, they seek to help re-define a Bangladesh that is neutral not only with regard to religious affiliation, but neutral with regard to ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Whether it was our poets, philosophers or rulers, the torch of secularism has been carried forth from the Buddhist Pala civilisation to the Hindu Sena Rajas to the Muslim Sultans and Nawabs to the Adibashi Rajas and Chiefs — from Lalon Fakir to Hasan Raja, from Nazrul Islam to Shamsur Rahman.

With the pillars readdressed within the rich secular expressions of our constitution, some amendments have been proposed in order to implement the already existing constitutional provisions into a working reality. These proposals deal with four major themes: (i) Identity; (ii) Participation; (iii) Equality, non-discrimination and affirmative action; and (iv) Safeguards against erosion of protective legal measures. The aforesaid demands are known to have widespread support among Adibashis from all parts of the country, including the Adibashi MPs, and several Bangali MPs from the recently formed Adibashi Parliamentary Caucus.

We are living in a continuously evolving world where nothing can be predicted, and nothing stands still for too long. At a time when peace awards are given to jailed revolutionaries while liberation to some means invasion or freedom means forced occupation — Bangladesh could really set a true positive example in the world podium by correcting our collective historic wrong and giving the rightful recognition to the oldest natives of our land.

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The tables with references of international instruments, national constitutions and policies of development agencies were prepared by Raja Devasish Roy, Mangal Kumar Chakma, Advocate Bidhayak Chakma, Prabangshu Barman, Ilira Dewan and Muktasri Chakma Shathi. In order to download the PROPOSALS FOR AMENDMENTS TO THE CONSTITUTION OF BANGLADESH please click on the following link:

for English:
http://bit.ly/cyGMOS

for Bangla:
http://bit.ly/94Rqj5

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