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Rhetoric and reality

  • Published at 08:16 pm February 21st, 2019
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Indegenous children going to the school Dhaka Tribune

The current state of indigenous languages in Bangladesh

There are more than 50 indigenous groups living in Bangladesh (some research organizations opine the number may be more than 70), but the rich tapestry of Indigenous Peoples makes up approximately two percent of the population. Officially,  Bangladesh is a monolingual country and the constitution recognizes Bangla as the only national and official language. However, the reality is that apart from the Bangla speaking mainstream communities, there are more than 45 speech communities that comprise about three million people in Bangladesh. 

And a considerable number of these indigenous languages are endangered, especially Dalu, Rai, Koch, Sen, Borman, Kurukh and Mushohor, among others. Language expert Dr. Sourav Sikder has opined that at least 14 languages, including Pangkho, Khumi, Sura, Chak and Malto, were on the verge of extinction. Recently, a team of experts also identified Lahra — a language that is only spoken by 215 people in Joypurhat and Rajshahi — as the most endangered language in Bangladesh. Koda is another language that is at huge risk — as of 2005, there were only 1300 speakers left in Rajshahi.

What have we done to preserve indigenous languages?

The constitution of Bangladesh, for the first time, recognised the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country and the importance of preservation and promotion of the language and culture of indigenous peoples in its fifteenth amendment, passed on 30 June 2011. There are also a number regulations and development plans that recognise the need for indigenous children to be educated in their mother tongue in the primary level, and a special initiative under the second Primary Education Development Plan has been formed to address this. 

This plan includes recruitment of community based teachers, teachers’ training, the introduction of education in mother tongue, a review of existing curriculum and textbooks, improved school infrastructures, provision of stipends and other incentives, introduction of a flexible school calendar, supplementary reading materials in local languages and encouraging the use of local materials as teaching aids. The Ethnic People’s Cultural Institute Act has also been formed by the government in 2010 to preserve and promote the language and culture of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh.

The implementation of these commendable commitments finally began in 2012 — when the Chakma, Marma, Garo, Santal, Tripura and Sadri languages were selected by the Directorate of Primary Education (DPE) and the National Curriculum and Textbooks Board (NCTB), under the guidance of the Ministry of Primary Education, as the first batch of languages to be introduced into primary schools. These languages were selected according to the number of speakers, and an important decision was taken with regard to script — for Chakma and Marma, their own scripts were used, the Roman script was used for Garo and Tripura (Kokborok), and Bangla was used for Sadri. The creation of Santali textbooks are currently postponed because of a debate on script issues within the community. 

According to the plan, Mro, Manipuri (Bishnupriya), Manupuri (Meitei), Tanchangya, Khasi and Bawm languages will be covered in the second batch, the third batch will include Koch, Kurukh, Hajong, Rakhaing, Khumi and Khyang, and through this process all other indigenous languages of the country will be brought under the coverage of government education system. 

What more needs to be done?

Political commitment to translate this strategy and programs into action is essential to ensure the right to education, including the provision of education in their mother tongue, for indigenous children. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there must be affirmative action by the state to bring all indigenous children into schools. There is no alternative to inclusive development. To achieve the government’s commitment to ‘make primary education compulsory and available free to all’, the government must ensure that all indigenous children receive education in their own mother tongue and within their own cultural environment. 

But what other measures should be taken to ensure the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages in the country? So far, the focus has been on the main indigenous languages, but it is crucial that we also develop and implement special programs to preserve and revitalize the endangered languages and introduce them into the education system. We could also establish a specialised institute like an ‘Indigenous Language Academy’ at the national level to conduct research, lead language standardisation, and publish literature in indigenous languages, as well as introduce context specific subjects like Indigenous Studies in public universities. 

None of this will mean anything if we are not able to ensure meaningful and effective participation of indigenous peoples in all stages of the policy making process. There has to be effective participation of indigenous peoples and their organizations and free, prior and informed consent during the formulation of any laws, policies and programs that affect indigenous peoples and their areas, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. 

There should also be consideration of transferring full authority and resources for education delivery to local government bodies like the Hill District Councils. At the end of the day, we must strengthen local capacity for culturally relevant, livelihood-specific and participatory education which values the cultures and languages of indigenous peoples.


The author is a writer, researcher and Executive Director of Zabarang Kalyan Samity.

He can be reached at [email protected]