Identity crisis of ethnic minority in Bangladesh

The population of Bangladesh is largely homogeneous – about 99 percent speak Bengali, the country’s state language, and almost 90 percent are Muslims (Caf Dowlah, 2013). As a result, more than 45 ethnic minorities represent less than 2 percent of the total population. The constitution of Bangladesh has the principle of homogeneity ( Article 9) and Banglali nationalism. Ethnic minorities living in Bangladesh have been struggling to have their identity recognized by the state even since independence in 1971. Ethnic minorities can be categorized into two groups: plains land ethnic minorities and those in the Chittagong Hill Tracts regarded as Hilly land ethnic minorities (Dhamai, 2014). They are located mainly in the border regions in the northwest (Rajshahi-Dinajpur), central north (Mymensingh – Tangail), northeast (Greater Sylhet), south and southeast (Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Greater Barisal).

There are about Thirteen ethnic minority communities live in the CHT and the people are of Sino-Tibetan descent belonging to the Mongoloid group and similar to the people of north east India, Myanmar, and Thailand rather than the people of the other parts of Bangladesh. Those communities are known as different names like Chakma, Marma, Pankho, Khumi, Lusai, Murong, Bonojog, Tanchanya, Khyang, Chak, Tripura, Mro, and Ryang. People call them Jummo or Pahari (The hill Men).

In Bangladesh there is a disagreement between government statistics and indigenous leaders about the number and size of the ethnic minority population. Officially the Bangladesh Government recognizes 27 ethnic minorities in the Small Ethnic Minority Cultural Institute Act of 2010. However different rights based organizations claim that more than 45 ethnic minorities lived in Bangladesh before Independence in 1971 (Barman and Neo, 2014). There are also disagreements over the size of the ethnic population. The population survey in 2011 shows that ethnic minorities represent 1.10 percent of the population in Bangladesh, in other words a total of 1,586,141 citizens. However, ethnic minorities claim that the exact number is closer to 2 million (Barman and Neo, 2014). Not only are there differences in statistical estimations but the censuses actually exclude questions about ethnic minorities. Without basic demographic information, it is far easier to ignore the presence and concerns of ethnic minorities.

The debate of indigenous and non-indigenous came into further focus following the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples by the United Nations on 13 September 2007. It has made a major breakthrough in terms of indigenous peoples’ rights, and highlighted (i) the right to self-determination; (ii) the right to be recognized as distinct peoples; (iii) the right to free, prior and informed consent; and (iv) the right to be free of discrimination.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Parborth Chattogram Janashahati Samity (PCJSS) introduced the termed “Jumma” as a collective name for the twelve different ethnic groups referring to the traditional jhum (swidden) cultivation practiced in the hills (Arens and Chakma, 2002). Ethnic minority groups in the CHT are also popularly known as “Pahari” (meaning hill people) (Roy, 2009). On the other hand, plain land indigenous groups particularly those in the north-western greater Rajshahi region used to be known as “Adivasi,” meaning aboriginal or indigenous. The term “adivasi” or “indigenous” received little attention from other parts of Bangladesh until 1990 (Roy, 2009). However, after the declaration of the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations in 1992, most of the indigenous peoples from CHT and plain referring themselves as Indigenous in English and as Adivasi in Bengali meaning (Roy, 2009).

The Bangladesh Government ratified the ILO convention (1957) in 1972 just after independence regarding the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. This convention is the only international law on the rights indigenous and tribal populations, and covers a wide range of issues, including land, recruitment and conditions of employment, vocational training, handicrafts and rural industries, social security and health, administration, education and means of communication.

Government has declared that there are no indigenous peoples (The Daily Star, 2011) in the country and has preferred to use terms such as “tribe” and “tribal” instead of “indigenous” (Roy, 2009). Ethnic minorities have been referred in different names in different legislations. For example, a finance law in 1995 uses the term “indigenous hillmen”; the East Bengal State Acquisition & Tenancy Act of 1950 uses the term “aboriginal castes or tribes”; the National Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper adopted by the Government of Bangladesh in 2005 (“PRSP-I”) uses “adivasis/ethnic minorities”; and the 2008, The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP-II) uses the name “indigenous communities” and “indigenous people” (Roy, 2009).

The Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institution Act 2010 also mentions the phrase “khudro nrigoshthhi” (small ethnic groups) to refer to indigenous peoples. Finally, the government also refers to the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh as “tribes”, “minor races” and “ethnic sects and communities” in the 15th amendment of the constitution in 2011(Dhamai, 2014). The nation ship of Bangladesh original was Bangali. The constitution was amended by Military Ruler in 1977 to Bangladeshi. Again, the Supreme Court declares that “the people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalee as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis” and finally ratified with the Article 6.2 of the amended Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Act of 2011. This infers that the government can impose upon ethnic minorities the use of a Bengali identity rather than their own identity.

Regarding the Indigenous issue in Bangladesh, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of the United Nations published several reports discussed indigenous issues in Bangladesh in 2011 (UNPFII, 2011). In response, the Bangladesh Government declared that it would not use the term “indigenous” in the country, claiming that there are no indigenous people (The Daily Star, 2011). Finally, the government also refers to the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh as “tribes”, “minor races” and “ethnic sects and communities” in the 15th amendment of the constitution in 2011(Dhamai, 2014).

As many ethnic minorities are not officially recognized as such, they face multiple discriminations. The CHT history has meant that it is now governed by a specific Ministry and a number of laws and political directives. This is not the case for plain land ethnic minorities who find themselves more surrounded by Bengalis and more easily slip off the policy radar.

The government has taken little political initiative to be provided specific support for the development and improvement of their livelihoods. According to Hossain Zillur Rahman, Executive Chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC).

“The indigenous people of the plains are marginalized both in situation and in discussions. The government and donors have a lack of knowledge about them. Indigenous people of the hills are given a priority over them. Unlike the CHT, there is no substantive law for plain land ethnic communities that seek to protect their distinct culture, language or tradition.

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2 Comments on Identity crisis of ethnic minority in Bangladesh

Thank you for bringing this issue to our notice. I grew up in Assam, the Indian state bordering Bangladesh, and am well aware of the identity politics that have led to illegal crossings over our borders.

I understand that currently, Bangladesh has the added burden of having to take care of the huge Rohingya population of 906,572 individuals (UNHCR Population Factsheet, as of December 2018), most of who live in Cox’s Bazar. The number of refugees have exceeded the local population, leaving the latter feeling like minorities in their own homes.

While we see Bangladesh protecting minorities from Myanmar, it is ironical to see the government perpetrating the same treatment to members of its own population. Claiming that there are no indigenous people is toeing a dangerous line between nationalism and fascism. Instead of celebrating diversity, there is a tendency among right wing governments to homogenize populations, whereas we must recognize the strength that diversity of thought, race, culture and ethnicity has to offer.

In fact, not acknowledging your own populations has implications for bilateral relations between countries. Because of the policies of the Bangladesh government which does not protect the rights and livelihoods of its indigenous people, most of these groups migrate through illegal routes into India, crossing the porous border in Assam, as well as in West Bengal. Given the similar language and physical features, they quickly blend in with the local population and it is hard to ascertain the number of migrants in these states. This has fuelled tensions and created a schism in Assamese society, affecting electoral politics and giving the Hindutva right wing an agenda to create division by clamouring to send back illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As Bangladesh denies these illegal migrants as their own citizens, this creates an uncomfortable relation between the Indian and Bangaldeshi government, and also has considerable impact on Assam’s local politics. The BJP has been arousing the nationalist sentiments of the khilonjia or “ethnic Assamese” on the issue of illegal immigration, by vociferously articulating the demands and aspirations of khilonjia to protect their identity, land, and property in their own motherland from the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for your re-action.
    I personally dislike to mix up of creative work with politics and religion. The geo-politics of South Asia is very dirty. It has been worsen due to mix-up with religion and installation of a elected fundamentalist government in India.

    Recently, Indian Parliament passed a bill to give citizenship to Hindu, Christian and Buddhist (except Muslim) going from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The law has no option for Hindus going from other neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bhutan.

    India is giving shelter to non-Muslim Rhingya but pushing the Muslim Rohingya to Bangladesh who has taken shelter from Myanmar .

    I have carefully avoided to mention that the arms and other support for insurgency in Chattogram Hill Tracts are routed from India.

    The use of religion and undue dominance of India in all affairs of South Asia has very bad impact on peace and suitability of the region.

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