State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: A year of broken promises

By Oliver Scanlan

'My grandfather used to tell me not to go in there,' the old man points to a wide expanse of grass where Bengali children are playing football, 'because of the tigers in the forest'. He is a member of the Garo community; one of Bangladesh's estimated 46 indigenous or Adivasi peoples. He is an activist fighting for his people's ancestral forests in Modhupur, in north-central Bangladesh. And he is losing.

When the Awami League swept to power in 2008, their election manifesto included unparalleled commitments to Adivasi communities of Bangladesh, both in the restive CHT region in the south-east and in the 'plain-lands'. The League promised to implement the 1997 Chittagong peace accord that brought the 30-year insurgency to an end, and to secure the plain-lands Adivasis access to their forests and lands. But in 2011, when Bangladesh passed amendments to the Constitution that denied Adivasis their right to identity, these promises were severely undermined.

Communities that live in the CHT and those that live in the plain-lands face distinct problems, according to recent research by Bangladeshi scholars. The CHT, still under military control, has seen enormous demographic changes over the past 60 years. Following a massive influx of Bengali settlers as part of a government-sponsored programme, today Adivasis are a minority in their own land. Over the past 30 years, collectively managed land in the CHT shrank from 76 per cent of the total to 26 per cent. Adivasis have lost their land, through forced eviction and expropriation, to Bengali settlers, the forests department and the military.

The plain-lands, while not subject to the same degree of military control, constitute a far larger area, and indigenous groups are more numerous but more diffuse. There are at least 34 plain-lands communities spread over 90 per cent of Bangladesh's territory compared with 11 groups inhabiting the 10 per cent that comprises the CHT.

In the plains, indigenous groups are nominally governed by the same laws and protections as other Bangladeshis. However, because of far lower literacy rates and discrimination, they are overwhelmingly more vulnerable to land theft, largely through the non-existent implementation of Bangladesh's principal land act, which prohibits the transfer of land from 'aboriginal' to 'non-aboriginal' tenants without the written permission of local government officers. The results have been similarly disastrous.

A recent survey of ten plain-lands groups found that all of them had suffered land deprivation to some extent in the last 30 years. The hardest hit communities include the Patro of the north-east, where 68 per cent of households reported land expropriation, Santals in Rajshahi district (65 per cent) and Rakhain of Patuakhali in southern Bangladesh (45 per cent).

As a result, certain communities are now on the brink of extinction in Bangladesh; only a few hundred Lushai remain in Bandarban district in the CHT; and fewer than 3,000 Patro in north-east Sylhet. Adivasi activists are adamant that both substantive rights regarding their identity, as well as rights to lands and forests, must be recognized and enforced by the government if their communities are to survive.

The 15th Amendment of the Constitution had the potential to address the identity issue as an essential precursor to resolving land and forest disputes. By enshrining the term 'Adivasi' in law, as opposed to the pejorative term 'upajati', the government could have signalled its acceptance of a multicultural state.

Instead, on 30 June 2011, the amendment passed with provisions that excluded the term 'Adivasi', and replaced it with 'small ethnic groups' to refer to Bangladesh's indigenous peoples. It also upheld the legal recognition of the pejorative term 'upajati'. The people of Bangladesh, according to the new law, are now to be know universally as 'Bengalis', completely denying the rights of Bangladesh's minorities to self-identification.

So the Garos of Modhupur continue to hold rallies; the national Adivasi activist organizations continue to hold roundtables in Dhaka. But the climate is gradually worsening as the high expectations that accompanied the Awami League's election to power in 2008 have dissipated. State-sanctioned violence against indigenous groups, often related to land disputes, also continues unabated.

By choosing to continue the mono-cultural nation-building project inherited from its predecessors, and eschewing efforts to address land issues and human rights abuses, 2011 was the year that the government of Bangladesh broke faith with its indigenous citizens.

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