“YES TO TRIBAL; NO TO INDIGENOUS”
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman popularly known as ‘Bangabondhu’ had just returned victorious and Bangladesh had just won it’s independence from Pakistan under the leadership of Bangabondhu. The whole of Bangladesh was in joyous mood. Even the ‘Jummas’ (the tribes of Bangladesh) were also happy but only for a few days as their happiness was short-lived.
A few days after independence, ‘Bangabondhu’ was addressing a people’s gathering in Rangamati where he delivered that dreadful speech. He said, “Today I promote all of you in Bengalis” and asked all the indigenous people to forget their ethnic identities and merge themselves into blanket Bengali identity. This speech carried a very racial message and completely shattered the worlds of the Jummas’. MN Larma, who was a very popular parliamentarian and the founder of Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS or Chittagong Hill Tribal People’s Coordination Association) and was also asking for tribal rights wept and said, “Today Bangabondhu has wiped out our ethnic identity from the history of Mankind”
It is assumed that the tribes of Chittagong migrated from Burma in the beginning of the 15th century. Since then they remained isolated and successfully revolted against every attempt to colonize them. They enjoyed independence in their internal affairs both during the Mughal and the British period but the partition brought disasters towards them. They were forcefully put under the newly formed Pakistan though they had intentions of forming a separate tribal land in collaboration with the tribal communities of North-Eastern part of India. The situation aggravated after the independence of Bangladesh as the CHT regulation that was formulated during the British period was not implemented in the newly formed Bangladesh government.
The introduction of Forest policy of the British in 1875 which classified forests into Reserved and Unreserved also altered the traditional relations of the tribes with the forests. People were not allowed to enter the District Forest (Unreserved forests) or use the resources. This exclusion was continued by the Pakistan and the hitherto Bangladesh government which totally destroyed the traditional dependence of the tribes on the forests. Clashes with forest officials and commercial gangs who use the forest produce are often reported from the CHT area. (Iqbal M. Jamim, the fate of Chittagong Hill tracts tribes of Bangladesh, Nov, 2009 in ‘In Defence of Marxism’ Browsed from http://www.marxist.com/fate-chittagong-hill-tracts-tribes-bangladesh.htm)
Pakistan has always followed a policy of development with assistance from monetary agencies like World Bank and IMF. Thus, with WB assistance it built the Kaptai Dam which displaced thousands of the Jummas’ (tribes). And also, a massive reservoir was created which displaced millions. The Kaptai dam inundated 253 square miles, including 10 square miles of Reserved forest. Nearly 54,000 acres of plough land that was about 40% of the districts total cultivable area was submerged under the biggest human-made reservoir names Kaptai Lake. Homesteads of 18,000 families; approximately 100,000 people were displaced from their hearths and homes out of which 70% belonged to the Chakma tribes. (Bangladesh District Gazetteers, Chittagong Hill tracts, 1975 reproduced in Samad S, Dams and Environmental Refugees, in dams.org).The construction of the dam and the reservoir ended the autonomy the Jummas’ enjoyed and saw the coming of Non-tribals into their land. The newly formed Bangladesh state allowed entry of foreigners into Chittagong Hill tracts which pushed them more and more towards the Hills and Forest.
The Letter that Brought Nightmare
It has been mentioned in various reports that a letter has called all the officials in Chittagong region to address the ‘Jummas’ as ‘tribals’ in their official documents and have been fundamentally against the use of ‘Adivasi’ or ‘Indigenous’. The letter was signed in the name of Ministry of Chittagong Hill tract affairs. The letter apprehended a few fears if the Jummas’ will be addressed as Indigenous or Adivasi. It mentioned that if they are addressed as Indigenous/Adivasi then they can use it to create propaganda against the Bengali and challenge the Bengali Nationalism.
If the Jummas’ are addressed as Indigenous at official documents, it would mean that the government of Bangladesh has recognized them and will have to give the rights enshrined in the UN declarations and also the same can be used by the Jummas’ to fight for their rights which cannot be done.
And also it might pave the way for the CHT tribes to fight for Autonomy.
Of course, it does not take a lot of intellect to know that the entire ‘Politics of Nomenclature’ has been played to continue the discrimination and exploitation of the Jummas’ and their land.
The Resource and Development Politics
If the letter mentioned that the Jummas’ be addressed as tribes and not Adivasi then it just imply that the step was taken so that the rights of the tribes to their land can be denied constitutionally. The lands that Jummas reside are powerhouses of resources and are very rich in forest and eco-diversity. Thus, granting them autonomy or recognition would deny any entry of Non-Adivasi to that land and thus the government would not be able to exploit the rich resources.
History has shown us that the impacts of development projects have been disastrous on the tribes of CHT. Soon after the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, it undertook a resettlement program which allowed non-tribal Bengali people to move and settle in CHT, which pushed the Jummas more towards more vulnerability. Their culture, religion and also everything is at stake and tribes today still struggle for recognition.
The Kaptai dam alone displaced almost a 100 thousand of population who were converted into Environmental Refugees. Many of the Chakmas have also fled to India only to find a unwelcoming environment there in India who supposedly has supported the fight of the Tribes for Constitutional Recognition in Bangladesh.
The so called rhetoric of Bangladesh to bring forth Industrial development etc has failed to address the issues of the Jummas. In fact in that regard, the Jummas has always been on the loosing side because their lands and resources are being allocated to industries without even consulting with the original owners of the land.
The Jummas’ founded the Shanti Bahini (Peace corps) –an insurgent wing of PCJSS to fight for recognition. This of course, led to massive Militarisation of the entire area and saw killings of thousand of lives on both sides. To end it there was a peace deal signed with the Khaledia Zia government in 1997 but the provisions of that deal are yet to be implemented. The Jummas everyday see their world fall apart with more and more industrial projects coming in and thousands of Migrants coming in everyday in lookout for barren land to settle to deal with the population crisis of Bangladesh.
And the struggle still continues for the Jummas’ with the opponent becoming stronger day by day and the Jummas getting weakened. An proper revolutionary ideology, complemented with international pressure on the Bangladesh government only can seek to solve the miseries of the tribes of CHT.
1.) Ahmed R, “Decolonising the National Imagination” in ‘Between Ashes and Hope; Chittagong Hill tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladeshi Nationalism’, Drishtipat Writers’ Collective, 2010
2.) Chakma A, (2010)‘Who decides on Whose Identity’ in ‘Between Ashes and Hope; Chittagong Hill tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladeshi Nationalism’, Drishtipat Writers’ Collective, 2010
3.) Iqbal J, (2009) “The fate of Chittagong Hill tribes in Bangladesh” in ‘In Defence of Marxism’ accessed from http://www.marxist.com/fate-chittagong-hill-tracts-tribes-bangladesh.htm on 15th October, 2010
4.) UNHCR Document, Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Chittagong Hill Tribes in Bangladesh, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/469f3a59c.html accessed 19 October 2010
( N:B- I came across an Anthology of writings by Dristipat Writers’ Collective named “Between Ashes and Hope; Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism”. It interested me a lot that I decided to write this article and I am greatly indebted to the writers and the articles I read to come out with this piece. )