Bangladesh: Indigenous peoples' fight for human rights | Land Portal

By: Shihab Sarkar
Date: August 11th 2016
Source: The Financial Express

Except the purely European countries, almost all parts of the world have their own population of indigenous communities. This being the truth, there has also been a process of slow disappearance of these native peoples over the last half century. But they still noticeably comprise populations of many countries. Unlike in their past, the indigenous peoples are generally found in disadvantageous positions compared to a country's mainstream population. Perhaps as a normal rule, they are deprived socially and financially, denied their rights to land ownership, education, and many other activities that the general people are engaged in.

The worldwide pageants, discussions and debates marking the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples 2016 have brought to the fore the current plight of these people in different parts of the globe once again. The day was observed on August 09. It is being observed as a UN declared day since 1994.

Home to around 27 ethnic groups, Bangladesh, too, saw the day's observance amid both festivities and in-depth analysis. In the capital and elsewhere in the country, indigenous peoples and human rights activists organised rallies and meetings marking the occasion. These events focused on the government's foot-dragging in solving the acute problems plaguing the country's different ethnic groups. Indigenous communities have been having uneasy relations with the mainstream population since the British colonial era. Prior to this period, it is said, the ethnic peoples of the land used to enjoy all types of freedom. During the Mughal times, their self-governing territories covered an area many times larger than the later ones. With the British rulers interfering with their traditional way of life, psychological and other conflicts ensued. During the Pakistan period, the problem took an alarming turn in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) with the construction of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam on the Karnaphuli River, the work on which began in 1957 and completed in 1962. Vast tracts of land belonging to the indigenous peoples went under the water of a man-made lake. Today's Kaptai Lake holds under its water an area of 655 square kilometres. It includes 220 square kilometres of cultivable land. The lake displaced 18,000 families and 100,000 tribal people, 70 per cent of them being from the Chakma community. In the following years, the artificial lake brought untold miseries for the CHT indigenous communities.   Thanks to the maltreatment of the tribal groups in the area, their ties with the administrations in independent Bangladesh kept just deteriorating. With the space of their self-rule continuing to be squeezed, varied forms of deprivations cropped up in their day-to-day life. The CHT ethnic groups eventually took up arms. However, the 19-year armed conflict between tribal insurgents and the Bangladesh security forces came to an end in 1997 as part of both sides' signing a peace treaty.

The war has long been over in the Chittagong hills; but the calm that now prevails there fails at times to hide the festering discontent and disenchantment of the area's ethnic groups. As the indigenous peoples' leaders and tribal rights activists view it, the government has yet to meet fully the major demands of the hill peoples. The most critical issue centring the CHT crisis has been the indigenous peoples' right to land. In fact, the seeds of final unrest were sown in the area after the attempts to resettle mainlanders in the tribal areas. Later, the eviction of indigenous peoples by influential quarters from their ancestral lands had kept aggravating the situation in the area.

In a clear sign of the indigenous peoples' disillusionment with the various promises of the successive governments, the Bangladesh theme of the Indigenous Peoples' Day added a new word to it befitting the realities. The Day's original theme was Indigenous Peoples' Right to Education. The Bangladesh version reads 'Indigenous Peoples' Rights to Education, Land and Life'. The ethnic peoples in the CHT have been vehemently opposing the bringing of Bengalees to the region since the 1980s. But the process continued unabated, prompting the local natives to turn inflexible on their demand for taking back the mainlanders. Eventually, the character of the indigenous demands has kept being shaped by their prime demand over land rights. The landmark peace accord with the tribal insurgents in 1997 thus goes on hitting snags thanks to the stagnancy on the issue of land rights. Even in 2016, the indigenous peoples' leaders and activists are found to be unanimously vocal on the demand of 'rehabilitation of Bengalee settlers outside the region'. With discontent simmering, the indigenous peoples' demand boils down to the one for amending all laws that contradict the 1997 peace accord.

The state of the other indigenous peoples' enclaves in the country is no different. The tribal areas in the northwestern, north-central and northeastern regions have been beset by similar problems --- the major one being land encroachment. The list is longer in the plain land tribal areas, with poverty, social discrimination, illiteracy and physical assaults being normal modes of oppression.

The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is an apt occasion for an appraisal of the state of these people around the world.   Thanks to centuries of veritable wiping out, innumerable kinds of torture and wide-scale social exclusion, the indigenous peoples have been dwindling fast since the beginning of the 20th century. The situation has come to such a pass that many hitherto indifferent lands have lately come forward to rescue their native peoples from their century-old traps of poverty and deprivations. The President of Taiwan has recently apologised to the land's indigenous populations for the sufferings caused to them by the mainstream people for a long period of time. He assured them of helping preserve their languages and cultures and giving them back the right to lands. The gesture comes in sharp contrast to the continued oppression of the ethnic minorities by administrations in most of the countries. 

The onset of the modern age appears to have prompted the so-called civilised world to start the process of exterminating the native peoples. Given the barbarity related to expeditions, the cross-continent adventures now appear to be a euphemism for mass killings. One might feel tempted to refer to the quasi-military grandeur of the European empires in the 15th and 16th centuries. The atrocities the well-armed Spanish and British seafarers and colonial people had committed on the American-Indian natives and Australian aboriginals centuries ago make many shudder these days. Ironically, acts of oppression are commonplace in many parts of the globe these days. The difference is they have taken newer forms coupled with the states' ritualistic protective measures.

Of late, sections of society have come forward to uphold the indigenous interests. Earlier, it was only the United Nations that had expressed concern over the plight of the ethnic groups. In the last few decades, scores of activist platforms have been formed worldwide. These organisations instill hope in the fast-disappearing indigenous groups. The rights-related campaign portends better times for the oppressed ethnic groups. But in the face of the ruthless march of development, how long they can hold out is something worth pondering.


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