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'Indigenous not tribal'

  • Published at 08:25 pm August 3rd, 2019
Indigenous Santal families in Gaibandha’s Gobindaganj sheltered in a local church after they were forcefully evicted from their homes and all their belongings burned in November 2016mehedi hasan
Indigenous Santal families in Gaibandha’s Gobindaganj sheltered in a local church after they were forcefully evicted from their homes and all their belongings burned in November 2016Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

'Before that, we needed to face questions of identity on very few occasions'

In the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, the government in power at the time did not acknowledge the identity of the people of the hill tracts as indigenous, and their leaders had to identify their peoples in the accord as tribal instead.

Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) President, Jyotirindra Bodhipriyo Larma, popularly known as Santu Larma, made the above observation at a Saturday, August 3 Dhaka press briefing organised by the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum ahead of the August 9 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019.

The theme for this year is Indigenous Languages, and will focus on the current state of indigenous languages around the world. 

Santu Larma, who signed the 1997 accord on behalf of the peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), in replying to a question, said they accepted a tribal identity in signing peace accord back then.  

“When the CHT accord was being negotiated we wanted our actual indigenous identity but the government back then was not ready to accept it. So, the identity given earlier by the Colonial British rulers was put on us in the accord.”

The leader said indigenous is not the name of a nation. It refers to a group of people who have some special characteristics and people of 14 ethnic groups in the CHT areas could be recognised as indigenous peoples. 

Complementing Santu Larma's statement, the moderator of the program, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum General Secretary Sanjeeb Drong, said a problem has surfaced after the 15th amendment   late in 2011, when a special clause, 23(Ka), was included.

“Before that, we needed to face questions of identity on very few occasions,” he added.

However now, reading the 15th amendment of the constitution we see there is no reference to 'ethnic minorities' in the 15th amendment.

Article 23 Ka refers to tribes (Upazati), small races/peoples (Khudro Jatishotta), small ethnic groups (Khudro Nirgoshthi) and small communities (Khudro Shomprodai).

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in their Report in their tenth session (16-27 May 2011) said it recognised the rights issues of the indigenous peoples of CHT  and recommended some quick measures for the government to initiate, including ensuring full implementation of the CHT accord.

On May 15 the foreign ministry issued a circular to call indigenous people 'tribal,' in place of 'Adivasi' or indigenous, in all official documents.

A few months later, on July 26, then foreign minister Dipu Moni, clarified the government’s official position on the Chittagong Hill Tracts to diplomats and editors.

More indigenous languages in danger

Indigenous leaders and rights activists say the government gazette published in March this year, identifies 14 indigenous languages are in danger of being lost.

Mentioning the names of the languages, Santu Larma said a survey conducted by the Institute of Mother Language found 41 indigenous languages, of which 14 are endangered.

“We believe the number is much greater than that,” he added.

Sanjeeb Drong said the reason for indigenous languages dwindling or getting lost, is the declining numbers of  indigenous peoples who speak their languages, and the lack of government patronage and more, to keep the languages alive.