The forthcoming census scheduled for mid-March will have no scope for people of more than 40 distinct small ethnic groups to categorise themselves as the people of the groups they belong to.
The census questionnaire provides distinct categories for only 27 communities, which the government calls ‘ethnic minority’ groups set out in the Cultural Institution for Small Anthropological Groups Act 2010.
It is, however, generally accepted that there are about 75 such ethnic minority groups in Bangladesh. The parliamentary caucus on indigenous affairs earlier came up with the same figure.
Examples of such groups that are not categorised in the census questionnaire are the Mahatos, Baraiks, Mahalis, Ahamias, Rajbangshis, Rais and many others. ‘Altogether this is estimated to amount to about 1 million,’ said Mangal Kumar Chakma, the publicity secretary of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti but no census has ever been conducted on such peoples and there are no official figures.
People from small ethnic groups not part of the 27 groups mentioned in the census questionnaire form will be put into a general category which will deny them their individual recognition.
‘It is quite objectionable. I do not understand why they are doing this. Do they want to exclude the rest of the communities from individual categories?’ said Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum.
He demanded that the authorities concerned should collect data on all the communities which have been left out in the previous censuses.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics director general, Shahjahan Ali Mollah, told New Age, ‘There is nothing to worry about as the major ethnic groups of the country have been recognised in the 2010 legislation.’
‘We need to follow the government gazette,’ he said. ‘We cannot include the groups that are not in the list. It is outside our jurisdiction.’
Kazi Akhter Uddin Ahmed, joint secretary of the statistics division in the planning ministry, said that the responsibility for including ethnic communities in the list lies with the cultural and the Chittagong Hill Tracts affairs ministries.
‘As the cultural ministry was responsible for the Cultural Institution for Small Anthropological Groups Act 2010, it was their task to include all the groups and the CHT affairs ministry deals with ethnic groups in that part of the country,’ he said at the Bureau of Statistics.
The statistics division secretary, Riti Ibrahim, said though the bureau could not include the remaining communities as they are not included in the 2010 act right now but it could carry out a survey on small ethnic peoples if the government requested it to do so.
‘The BBS is likely to organise National Population Register 2011 in November. We can also try to include the rest of the communities in that survey. But right now, we cannot include them by violating the government gazette,’ she said.
As for Riti’s comments, Mesbah Kamal, the spokesperson of the National Coalition on Indigenous People, said, ‘The census is carried out to help the government to gather authentic data on the population, households and other things. The BBS is supposed to be a helping hand of the government which would present how many indigenous groups are living within the territory.’
‘The government was not supposed to decide the number of communities before the census is carried out. What is the point of doing the survey if the government is already aware of the number?’ she asked.
Rights activist Dipayan Khisa said the demand for inclusion of a wider number of communities had been repeatedly taken up with the government but it lacked the willingness even to listen.
A number of small ethnic group leaders expressed their concerns about the accuracy of the forthcoming survey.
The PCJSS publicity secretary, Mangal Kumar Chakma, said, ‘Our previous experiences say that the figures on indigenous population were never authentic as most of the places in the CHT are remote and were not covered. The problems with such people living in the plains are more severe as the data collectors usually categorise such people as religious minority.’
‘If BBS authorities do not appoint data collectors from minority communities, it will be really tough to have an authentic survey.’
Riti Ibrahim, however, said data collectors and supervisors of the census will be selected from local, young educated people. ‘So, If the area is dominated by ethnic groups, the appointed people will be members of these communities,’ she added.
The government officials said that Bangladesh is a ‘secular country’ and they would try to address the ethnic issues properly in the next census which is to be held 10 years later.
The first census in this part of the world was conducted in 1872. Since then censuses were conducted almost regularly every 10 years. This year’s census is the fifth since the country’s independence.