Some pertinent thoughts on ethnic groups

Wadia Ayshi

There has always been differing opinions regarding the definition of race and ethnicity. According to definite articles in our constitution, we shall be considered as Bengalis as a nation and Bangladeshis as citizens. Besides, people other than Bengalis are generally known as tribes or ethnic groups. 

The issue of ethnicity is raised from time to time as some small ethnic groups claim to be indigenous. If they were aborigines according to the ILO Convention, we would have had no problem accepting their demands. Now we need to know if they are aborigines, analysing the history. 

Why are they demanding it and what will be the loss of our state if all their demands are accepted? In fact, every year ahead of the World Indigenous Day, the controversy is erupted. Official figures show that Bangladesh is home to about 3 million people belonging to various ethnic minorities, including the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras and Santals, who make up about 2% of the country’s total population. 

In Bangladesh, people of different ethnic minorities prefer to identify themselves as ‘Adivasi’. They think that in the territory of Bangladesh, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, they are ‘indigenous’. 

However, there are political differences as to whether the small ethnic groups living in the area are indigenous, as well as divisions among anthropologists. Dr. Saifur Rashid, Professor of Anthropology at Dhaka University, said, “Not all ethnic groups are indigenous. 

The government’s argument is that 

all  those living in the territory of 

Bangladesh are citizens of Bangladesh.

Some ethnic groups may be identified as indigenous.” Professor Rashid said that there were Bengalis in this part of present Bangladesh and different communities have also come here from this regions. He said there was no room for debate on who would be identified as indigenous. Professor Rashid said, “I don’t know how reasonable it is to call a person an indigenous person of Bangladesh on the basis of where they have come from.” 

There is an organization consisting of people of minority groups in Bangladesh called ‘Bangladesh Adivasi Forum’. This organization has the direct support of various leftist political parties and organizations in Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Jana Sanghati Samiti, a regional political party led by Santu Larma, is directly associated with this organization. They have been demanding for many years that minorities be recognized as indigenous in the constitution. 

Rabindranath Saran, one of the leaders of this organization, thinks that being recognized as an adivasi is a matter of survival for them. Mr. Saran himself belongs to the Santal clan. He said, “I have known since childhood that we are indigenous. The Bengali friends around us knew that they were tribals.”

He said they have their own language, culture and different social systems. The term indigenous is quite politically sensitive. Many in the government think that recognizing a part of the country as an adivasi in the constitution could create a backlash among the larger population, especially the Bengalis. 

After the Awami League government came to power in 2009, the then Foreign Minister Dipu Moni cleared Bangladesh’s stance on the issue in various international forums. At that time, it was made clear by the government that the small ethnic groups living in the hilly areas should not be identified as tribals. The government’s argument is that all those living in the territory of Bangladesh are citizens of Bangladesh. 

The state will treat everyone equally but as a backward section, the government is also giving additional benefits to the people of minority groups in terms of employment. Whatever the argument, many ethnic minorities feel that they deserve recognition as indigenous peoples. However, the state of Bangladesh is giving a definite right to all these groups, be they tribals or small ethnic groups. They get quota benefits in government universities and in government jobs. This facility is helping them to improve. 

Many people also argue how they can be called indigenous people of this land as they have entered this land hundreds of years ago? Meanwhile, there are dozens of laws to protect the rights of any backward section like the ethnic minorities and the incumbent government is adhering to all those laws. Article 28 of the Constitution of Bangladesh is sufficient to protect the rights of these ethnic groups where it is clearly stated, “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.” 

Moreover, ILO Convention 107 was signed in 1958 and the Government of Bangladesh agreed to it in 1972. The main premise of this document was to help the tribes to be equal in the mainstream and to support their social, cultural, socio-economic development by the state. With their independent views, with proper rehabilitation measures, land can be used for the overall development of the state and they will be judged in the conventional style of the country. 

These conventions have never been a threat to the country, so the then government signed the convention. Again, according to Article 23 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, the State shall take measures to preserve and develop the culture of small ethnic groups, ethnicities and tribal communities. Moreover, according to Article 26, the government will provide special benefits to the various backward communities to be on par with the mainstream. That law is fully in practice. 

To conclude, identifying these small groups within certain geographical boundaries will threaten the sovereignty of the country, the law, the constitution, the administration and the functioning of the law enforcement agencies. This whole debate surrounding the issue of tribal rights and recognizing them as indigenous is, I think, unnecessary as they are enjoying all the benefits of the state just like other citizens of the country. 

Taking advantage of the simplicity of some tribal groups, some vested interests in the hilly region are trying to fuel unrest, which must be taken care of in due manner. After all, we all are the citizens of this country with different religious beliefs and customs. 

The writer is a student of the Department Of English, University Of Dhaka.