Although the constitution of Bangladesh pledges equal rights for all, the grim reality is that it is not reflected in real life. Ethnicity has become one of the most pervasive aspects of political walks and resource allocation. From day-to day ordeals to affairs belonging to the public domain, life for the ethnic communities is rather distressing. Imagine having no safety net, while scarcity is a daily challenge and the fight for dignity is largely unaddressed. The mental strength and endurance to simply proceed with life in such cases is extraordinary and deserves a decent amount of appreciation.
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Mahmud Hossain Opu[/caption]
Not all ethnic minorities are alike
Treating ethnic minorities as a homogenous group produces the first ripple of stigma. This stereotype fails to address the diverse range of challenges that are group specific; only producing blanket policies that serve as an excuse of ‘doing something’ rather than ‘doing good’. Policies must be nuanced to meet the specificity of the problems and be particular to the economic and social needs of the collective. If you are a Bangladeshi who does not know the difference between the Santal and the Garo, you should face similar amounts of shame that is directed at people who don’t understand the difference between Victory Day and Independence Day. Only blanket terms like “Adibashi” undermine the diversity and serve no purpose in the preservation of marginalized cultures.
Ethnic groups of Bangladesh have unique lifestyles in various regions. In Bangladesh, ethnic populace comprises of roughly 897,828 people, a little more than one percent of the total. These ethnic minorities are dispersed throughout the nation. Among them 464,057 have been living in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT); the major clusters being Marma, Chakma, Tanchingy, Sak, Shendu, Tipra, Mro, Khyang, Bawn, Khomi and Lushai (Kuki). Rajshahi, Rangpur, Dinajpur and Kustia are home to Santals, Oraon, Munda, Pahari, Rajbonsi and Koch. Sylhet holds an ethnic population of 106,823 belonging to the Khasias, Meithei, (Manipuri), Pathro and Tipra. It is important to acknowledge that celebrating the differences of ethnicities is an important source of dignity for these people.
Ethnic minorities struggle to overcome political barriers
To a great degree, poor ethnic minorities have to confront inevitable political barriers to their growth. While the generally poor people of Bangladesh seldom achieve critical positions in local politics, the indigenous people are especially impacted by political minimization. Indeed, even in localities where they make up a sizeable extent of the population, they, for the most part, struggle to achieve any political position in the absence of funds, experiences and networks. Simply put, political barriers essentially translate into lack of autonomy of the indigenous people.
For instance, the amendments to the Kaptai dam resulted in colossal decimation and misfortune for the neighbouring population, inundating 400 square miles consisting of 54,000 acres of agricultural land, which is around 40 percent of the aggregate real estate of CHT. Nearly 18,000 families belonging to various indigenous groups in the region were adversely affected. In comparison to the scale of harm accrued, the restoration and compensation pay were negligible, and the circumstances wereexacerbated due to blunders at the time of implementation. Even though the Karnaphuli power venture was meant to speed up the industrialization of Bangladesh, the indigenous individuals barely enjoyed any benefits. Less than one percent of the indigenous population were employed during these developments. These actions only caused the indigenous communities to experience more resentment, and rightfully so.
Ethnic minorities face barriers to migration
The mobility of indigenous workers is constrained by various risk factors. Their commute to work comes with the probable costs that on the off chance that they leave their homestead to look for some kind of employment, their territory or estate may be taken over by others wrongfully and they may wind up as destitute. Land grabbing is a major issue that causes suffering of ethnic minorities.
Incidents of violence against ethnic minorities
Recently, there has been a rise in violence against members of indigenous communities. The sexual abuse of the two Marma sisters on January 22 caused massive outrage throughout the nation. Despite that, the situation has not been resolved. Only this week, the bodies of two Garo women were retrieved from the city’s Gulshan area. With the rise of violence against ethnic minorities, it is of paramount importance to have appropriate security measures in place.
Ending discrimination - the role of government, civil society and NGOs
The state's aloofness towards the aggression conferred against minorities is compounding the situation in Bangladesh. The media has not highlighted the seeming inaction of the incumbent ministers and members of Parliament. In addition to the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labour leaders, faith based organizations, religious leaders and other civil society representatives play a critical and diverse set of roles in societal development. The authority and influence of civil society are growing and should be harnessed to build trust and enable action across platforms to move policies across sectors, to specifically cater to the growing number of challenges faced by ethnic minorities.
The practical flaws of a heavy handed approach
When asked about the right way to go forward in regards to safeguarding minority rights particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Dr Afsan Chowdhury, journalist, researcher and activist said that treating issues related to ethnic minorities as security threats produce bad results. “The indigenous people are part of a different kind of economy and not the mainstream economy. The first step of progress is to ensure inclusion. We have not evolved enough as a nation and as such have resorted to a military approach. The military approach doesn’t work. Look at Myanmar, which is excluding the lower Mongoloid population. The conventional old fashioned approach is to intervene through the military. It has not worked in Myanmar and it has not worked in Bangladesh,” Dr Chowdhury said.
He believes that to resolve the issues, an economic approach has to be adopted. “Although high levels of investment in the CHT is not welcome, and many are reluctant to think of business as a solution, I personally think this is the best way to go forward,” said Afsan Chowdhury. He further stressed that the way out is to ensure economic emancipation and in turn ensure economic solvency. “If such avenues were created, people would have to come together for the sake of work. The government, businesses and the indigenous communities need to come together on economic terms. The issue at hand is an economic one and this is what needs to be addressed first,” he concluded.