“I ain’t indigenous” – reflection of a Bengali

Wasfia Nazreen

Published in BDnews24 on 28 July 2011.

This piece challenges Bangladesh government’s position on the constitutional recognition for the indigenous peoples.

Once upon a time, the British called us ‘blacks’, and then later the Pakistani Army called us ‘inferior race.’ Time passes, it is 2011. As International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples approaches again this year, Bangladesh is stuck in a quicksand ditch trying to figure out ‘who’ the Adibashis or indigenous of our land really are in the first place! This goes back to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party era, when ministers were first heard saying “Bangladesh has no indigenous people”, but somehow that ideology has leaked into a few heads in the Awami League as well (we hope they are the minority within the party).

The past year saw an intense amount of debate on this issue, with its finale being delivered at the 10th session of the UNPFII (United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues), when the First Secretary of the Government of Bangladesh, Iqbal Ahmed, declared in his speech, surely vetted and pre-approved by the home and foreign ministry in Dhaka: “There are no indigenous people in Bangladesh.”

And as the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the parent body of UNPFII, gathers in Geneva as I type, certain government officials are again raising this issue. On 26th of July, our honourable foreign minister Dr Dipu Moni, held back-to-back meetings with senior diplomats and media editors to “deal with ‘misperceptions’ both at home and abroad about the ethnic minorities.”

“The ethnic minorities in the CHT region have been clearly termed as ‘Tribal’ in the 1997 peace accord, but there are attempts by some vested quarters to establish them as ‘Indigenous’ in some international and UN forums. This is solely aimed at securing a privileged status for an established and legally-accepted entity, at the expense of national identity, image and territorial integrity of Bangladesh.” She said.

Promises and reality

Here is a question for our honourable foreign minister. If this is truly what she believes, why did she accept an invitation as the ‘Special Guest’ to World Indigenous Day, both in 2008 and 2009 (see picture)? Let us extend the question wider than our foreign minister, and ask the same question to our honourable prime minister as well.

Madam prime minister, did you forget the promise, in the 20-points Awami League election manifesto of 2008 (1), based on which the indigenous people and their Bengali supporters put their trust on you on the election day?

That manifesto included the following declaration: (Under “Our Promise, Work Programme and Declaration,” number 18.): “Terrorism, discriminatory treatment and human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous people must come to an end permanently.” The manifesto further stated: “Their entitlement to equal opportunity in all spheres of state and social life will be ensured. Special measures will be taken to secure their original ownership on land, water bodies, and their age-old rights on forest areas.”

The 2008 Awami League manifesto further stated: “All laws and other arrangements discriminatory to minorities, indigenous people and ethnic groups will be repealed. Special privileges will be made available in educational institutions for religious minorities and indigenous people. Such special privileges will also apply for their employment.”

And reading further in the same manifesto, we see: “The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tract Peace Accord will be fully implemented.”

“Thakur ghorey key rey? Ami kola khaini!”

It is, of course, no secret that Bangladesh government’s requests have been ongoing since the UNPFII in May, to remove some portions of the report published by the UNPFII, which called on the government, among others, to undertake a ‘phased withdrawal’ of temporary army camps from the CHT, declare a timeframe for implementation of the peace accord, and establish an independent commission to inquire into ‘human rights violations perpetrated against indigenous peoples’ as per the 1997 CHT Accord that this government signed. We would understand all these steps if it was a BNP government in power, but why are these actions coming from the same party that signed the Accord?

Furthermore, the UNPFII recommended that the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) review the military personnel and units who are being sent on UN missions (a source of great pride to all of us as Bangladeshis) to make sure no personnel or units are taken from any that are accused by indigenous Jumma people of violating human rights in the CHT (2).

According to an email I received from one official contacted by GoB, we hear that our government, after having challenged and questioned the locus standi or legal standing of the UNPFII to deal with issues related to the CHT Accord of 1997 on the ground that the peoples of the CHT are “not indigenous”, is reportedly going to request the UN ECOSOC  (i) to “delete paragraphs 102(a) and 103 of the report of the tenth session of the UNPFII”; (ii) to “drop mentioning of the term ‘indigenous peoples’ from Para 102(c) and (d) as they are not indigenous peoples’”; (iii)  to “scrutinize the procedural aspects of (asking for such a study) the Report by PFII as well as the contents of the report; and (iv) to refrain from “adopting” and/or “endorsing” the report of the UNPFII. And thus we understand the timing of our foreign minister’s session with journalists and foreign missions.

Let me remind our readers that out of the 16 independent experts at the UNPFII, eight are government-nominated and eight are indigenous-nominated. The members nominated by governments are elected by ECOSOC based on the five regional groupings of states normally used at the United Nations (Africa; Asia; Eastern Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; and Western Europe and other states) (3). When one is questioning the Permanent Forum’s work, it is also questioning direct Government Representative’s work, as expert members! The country representatives, or Permanent Forum members that are government-nominated for this term, represent the following countries: Estonia, Iran, Australia, Russia, Congo, Guatemala, Guyana and Finland. So the GoB has challenged the above-mentioned governments of the countries involved, in addition to the expert mechanism of UNPFII!

What does the UN term as “indigenous?”

The UN system has developed a modern understanding of the term indigenous (4), the first clause of which says: “Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.” Aside from this, ‘Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies,’ ‘Distinct social, economic or political systems,’ ‘Distinct language, culture and beliefs,’ ‘Form non-dominant groups of society,’ are just some highlights — all of which apply to the inhabitants of CHT as well as the Adibashis of the plain lands of Bangladesh.

According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples and hence there is no set definition of indigenous peoples in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Similarly, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to Ethnic, Linguistic or Religious Minorities contains no definition of “minorities” groups. This is the usual custom and practice of the UN when dealing with such population groups. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in a number of human rights documents.

The aforesaid UN declaration is also based on the premise that “the term “indigenous” has prevailed as a generic term for many years. In some countries, there may be preference for other terms including tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, Adivasi, janajati. Occupational and geographical terms like hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, hill people, etc. also exist and for all practical purposes can be used interchangeably with “indigenous peoples.”” Tribal and indigenous are often used interchangeably, although in current discourses the term ‘indigenous’ is clearly favoured on account of disparaging connotations of ‘tribal’ in many cultures and contexts, Bangladesh included.

Our foreign minister was quoted as saying “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 cannot be in the national interest of Bangladesh.” We, the Bengalis, the so-called intellectual, ‘superior race’, the MAJORITY and overwhelming politically, socially and economically dominant elite, are afraid of giving the just title to 1 percent of the population?

So what the foreign minister is saying is that by addressing the ‘historic wrong’ of NOT including the excluded, by recognising indigenous status, would ‘elevate’ their status? Actually, such an exercise would not ‘elevate’ their status, but merely draw attention to their historic and current exclusion and marginalisation. The international understanding of the term, ‘Indigenous peoples’, does not provide any status to indigenous peoples, that is superior to that of other peoples. Such a status merely outlines the context of providing citizens of indigenous descent with true equality and non-discrimination in context-specific ways.

We find it derogatory that an honourable minister of a country can say about indigenous people: “They came here as asylum seekers and economic migrants. The original inhabitants or first nationals of Bangladesh are the ethnic Bengalees by descent that constitute nearly 99 percent of the country’s 150 million people.” The above stand of the GoB is discriminatory.

Irrespective of the terminology used in the laws of Bangladesh to refer to the indigenous peoples of the CHT, it is established beyond doubt that the peoples of the CHT are indigenous in accordance with the provisions of the ILO Convention No. 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, which was ratified by Bangladesh in June, 1972, the ILO Convention No 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As a Bangladeshi, a Bengali, I protest against such statements. As a Bangladeshi working for this country, I protest on behalf of all my Adibashi sisters and brothers, and other friends and colleagues, who continue to work for and with Adibashis towards the development of our Motherland.

On reflection, the government’s attempts to belittle the term “indigenous,” is helping the Adibashi cause in the bigger picture. At the end of the day, the UN (and all its relevant bodies) will still uphold its progressive understanding of indigenous peoples, but now every Jodhu, Modhu, Ram & Shaam is getting to know about the cause – of discrimination and exclusion of Adibashis and acute human rights violation perpetrated against them – that received very scant attention in the last 40 years or so in the international arena!

Now the average citizen of Bangladesh is getting to know about the cause. When the average citizen looks deeply into this issue, I am confident they will reach a conclusion that is very different from that of our foreign minister and our government.

* The author is indebted to research & e-debates amongst IP and progressive Bengali circles.


(1) Election Manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League-2008

(2) http://jummacommunity.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/unpfii-10th-session-recommendations-on-bangladesh/

(3) Members of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/members.html

(4) Who are the Indigenous? www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1.pdf


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