PARVEDGE HAIDERIn the recent years, tribal leaders of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have come up with a new demand of becoming Indigenous. They never talked about their newly demanded status during various events in the history of CHT, even the peace accord acknowledged these communities as ethnic tribes (Upojati). In the meantime, some special rights have been granted to the indigenous people by UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) during the General Assembly on 13 September 2007. The Government of Bangladesh (GOB) previously ratified ILO convention-107 in 1972 but did not ratify ILO convention-169 in 1989, as the term ‘indigenous’ has been expressed in this convention in such a way that might create confusion in a multicultural nation country like Bangladesh. Not only Bangladesh, except only 22 countries, others also did not ratify this debatable convention. As Bangladesh was not agreed with ILO convention-169, she did not vote for the UNDRIP proposed special rights of indigenous people in 2007.
As per the definition, indigenous people are native to the land where they live and their ancestors have always lived in the specific location where they continue to live. In other words, the indigenous people are the ‘son of the soil’ who originated and lived or took birth naturally in an area or environment. They are recognized by language, customs, food habit, attire etc. Ethnic groups can be different in their physical appearances including the color of skin. They might have racial, lingual and sometimes religious ties also. In most of the countries, there is one dominant majority ethnic group. In Bangladesh, the Bangalees are the majority ethnic group due to their unique cultural heritage, language, customs, food habit, attire etc.
‘Tribes’ are the community of people with small groups. But the ‘ethnic’ groups are wide ranges people, like Bangalees, Arabs etc. Normally the ‘tribes’ preserves common ancestry. There might be differences in religion within an ethnicity. Among the Bangalee ethnicity, there are Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists representations. Ethnic groups share the same cultural background but religious groups share the same religion but may not share the same cultural backgrounds.
There are more than 70 ethnic groups in Bangladesh. Out of those ethnic groups at least 43 of them have their own languages. Bengalees are the majority ethnic group in terms of population in Bangladesh. Besides Bengalees, there are the presence of minorities and the minority ethnic groups in various places of Bangladesh. But in CHT, beside the Bengalees, there is a large presence of different tribes and ethnicities. The ethnic tribes living in CHT migrated in various times of history from different places. These migrated ethnic tribes’ occupied areas were divided into three different circles by the British so that it eases up the collection of taxes, Chakma Circle, Bomang Circle and Mong Circle. The circle’s chiefs were responsible to collect taxes from the general inhabitants and hand over lion percentage of those to the British Government.
The ethnic Chakma tribe left Arakan in the sixteenth century and started staying in CHT and other parts of northeast India. In a similar way, the ethnic tribes of Bomang circle migrated from Myanmar. In a television interview, Bomang circle chief Mr. Aung Shu Pru also acknowledged that they have migrated from Burma. The ethnic tribes of Mong circle also migrated from Myanmar and some parts of north-eastern states of India. Both Bomang circle and Mong Circle chiefs never claimed themselves to be indigenous people (Adivashi). However, in the recent years, some judiciary decision is pending about the circle chief of Mong circle. There are two different claimants. One claimant (ancestor of Mr. Paihala Prue Chowdhury) does not consider the tribes of Mong circle to be indigenous. The other claimant(Mr. Saching Prue Chowdhury), the young present chief of Mong circle do not have strong demand on this issue but he seems to be more concern about his ongoing case, he just joins the meeting with other circle chiefs.
Then, who all are interested of becoming indigenous suddenly and who all are instigating the general tribal youth to raise their voice on an unsubstantiated issue? ILO convention-169 was declared in 1989, none of the tribal leaders wanted the recognition of Indigenous status (Adivashi) at that time, but when UNDRIP declared some special rights for the indigenous people in 2007, suddenly the claim of Indigenous status popped up. But general ethnic tribal people’s opinions were never taken whether they want to be recognized as indigenous or not? At the same time, all the circle’s chiefs of CHT do not have a similar opinion on ‘Indigenous’ status recognition. Is it only some of the interested ethnic tribal leaders’ personal interest? Surprisingly these leaders are being assisted and supported by some of the interested bangalee intellectuals. This interested corner might have a different agenda to support an unacceptable cause like ‘indigenous issue’ in the context of Bangladesh. They are cleverly doing it projecting the banners of assisting the ‘backward’, ‘minorities’, ‘race’ and ‘ethnic’ people. But as a matter of fact, GOB is very serious and prompt to ensure all those issues.
Distinctive care is being ensured for all minorities and ethnic tribes. There are special quotas for the people of ethnic tribes for getting admission in the universities, employment in the government jobs etc. The medical college and technical universities have been established in CHT to ensure the higher education of all ethnic tribal people. But surprisingly some of the tribal leaders took strong side against the establishment of those higher educational institutions, the way Chakma Circle Chief Mr. Debashish Roy’s father, Mr. Tridiv Roy (who took the side of Pakistan in 1971 and seriously worked against the independence of Bangladesh) opined against the establishment of Rangamati college in 1966 while performing as Chakma Circle Chief. But the family members of the then and present Chakma Circle Chief studied abroad. They never considered the development of their own community. Even present Chakma Circle Chief Mr. Debashish Roy is very much reluctant to follow the ethnic rules of his own tribe.
On 09 August ‘International Indigenous Day’ is going to be celebrated. Though not being indigenous, many ethnic people and some interested bangalee intellectuals of Bangladesh are going to celebrate this day in many folds. Some ethnic minority people along with some interested bangalees might go abroad to attend seminars, meetings and talk against the interest of our country on an unjustified claim. There will be many emotional speeches and articles in the national dailies, weeklies, and online portals. Some interested media will have massive coverage on this issue, showing thumb to the government’s instructions. Probably they will just do it without understanding the long run greater consequences. Now the question is, why some of the interested tribal leaders and their bangalee intellectual friends are so serious on this indigenous issue. Despite government’s special package of extra advantages to these ethnic communities considering them to be backward, why do they cry to become indigenous, which they are not? Because if the GOB ratify the ILO convention-169 and accept their unjustified demand of indigenous status, some new demand of right will come up which will be directly contradictory to the sovereignty of our country.
They will start demanding full ownership of CHT claiming them to be the ‘son of the soil’. GOB will lose direct control of CHT, one-tenth of Bangladesh. If the government would like to take any mega development project, it will depend on the desire of the indigenous people’s leaders. They will become the owner of all mineral and natural resources. Already some interested tribal corner has brought out a new idea of ‘Independent Jummaland’. There are good numbers of Facebook pages in the name of ‘Jummaland’. Some over-enthusiastic tribal people have started circulating the idea of ‘Jummaland’ flag and ‘Jummaland’ currency in the social media. The new illegitimate demand of becoming ‘Indigenous’ is going to be one step forward to fulfill the ultimate desire of ‘Independent Jummaland’. The Government of Bangladesh is always considerate and remains concern about the people of minor ethnicity and tribal.
Though it goes against the interest of Bangladesh, GOB would comply with the demand of these people, if there would be some historical base on it. A country of multi-ethnicities like Bangladesh, where bangalees are the ancient ethnic nation who carries forward a unique culture, language, and traditions, if any ethnic group needs to be given the status of ‘Indigenous’, then it is the Bangalees. The cultural tradition varies within all the ethnic tribes including the bangalees in their religious ethnicity. The total aspect is so clear and simple that there is no chance of creating any ambiguity. The interesting corners that are creating this new discussion, definitely they are retaining some evil desires which are likely to affect directly to the interest of our country. The well-researched, justified for all ethnic communities and the appropriate decision of the GOB on this issue needs to be implemented in every sector.