At this year’s Dhaka Literary Festival, there was a greater emphasis on conducting panels on the Bangla language and in Bangla, instead of solely in English. However, the DLF went a step further and also organised a panel on indigenous language and cultures in Bangladesh on the third day of the festival. This panel, titled “Aadikotha O nari: jaatigoshtir itibritto”, featured poets Akbar Ahmed, Zafir Setu and Mithun Raksham, and was chaired by rights activist and journalist Muktasree Chakma.
The discussion began with an interesting account by Mithun Raksham of the matriarchal structure of the Garo community in Bangladesh and the gender neutral and/or progressive laws that have resulted from this, as well as a brief overview of the oral nature of the majority of literature in the Garo community. Raksham lamented the absence of more written Garo literature, as well as the influence of Christianity on Garo traditions, saying “once upon a time, my grandfather was publicly flogged and humiliated by the padre for bringing his daama (traditional Garo instrument) into the church, which discouraged such ‘un-Christian’ practices. As a result, our traditions have been replaced by Christian ones, but more and more young indigenous people are attempting to bring our traditions back into their accepted religion as well.”
Akbar, a writer from the Tripura kingdom in India, also spoke of the 19 ethnic groups that not only coexist in Tripura but are also able to read, write and get educated up to grade ten in their respective languages, saying, “the 1945 struggle in Tripura and the demand for general education put into a place a left-wing government that held up the rights of the indigenous communities, and it is these state-sponsored initiatives that have focused on preserving our distinctive literature and cultures.”
Setu shifted the conversation slightly to discuss the threats facing indigenous communities across the world, saying “there are around 8609 languages worldwide, and every 16 days we are losing one language, and it is always the language of an indigenous minority - and with that, their literature, history, culture and philosophy of life are being lost too.”
He added that indigenous land and heritage is being threatened all over the world by the tides of modernisation, and that the fact that we in Bangladesh do not yet know how many indigenous minority groups exist, let alone have a separate institute that fosters indigenous languages, is proof that we are not making serious efforts to understand and preserve indigenous cultures.
The lively debate was conducted mainly in Bangla, but was peppered with anecdotes of folktales from the represented communities, as well as insights into their diverse cultural practices. Muktasree Chakma did an excellent job in moderating the debate, and ended the conversation by thanking the DLF for hosting this panel and requesting others to not include indigenous populations in mainstream conversations simply as a form of tokenism, but to truly engage with their struggles and become their ally in the fight for their rights.