‘Adivasi’ in Bangladesh: Reconstruction of an Identity
(Barrister Shafique Rahman 2011) Former Law Minister of Bangladesh
If the claim of the former law minister of Bangladesh was true, I do not exist!
We, the three million indigenous peoples or adivasis of Bangladesh, are extinct!
The ethno-cultural-linguistic diversity of more than 54 adivasis, which prevailed since time immemorial, has completely disappeared!
The reality is, however, that adivasis do not only exist, but they are rising. They are vehemently struggling for their rights and identity.
The perennial clash between these two extreme views is continuously reconstructing and repositioning ‘adivasi’ identity in Bangladesh.
The Bengali (or Bangalee) ruling elites of this country have time and again expressed their strong disagreement with ‘adivasi’ identity.
In many ways. On occasion, they have completely denied the existence of adivasis within the boundary of the country by issuing statements such as the one above.
On other occasions, they have used different terminologies other than ‘adivasi’.
Nowadays, they are entertained by the use of terminologies such as ‘khudro nrigosthi’ and ‘khudro nritattik gosthi’ (ethnic minorities) , which have derogatory and subservient connotations in Bengali, unless if there is a slip of tongue and they would utter the term ‘adivasi’.
Constitutional recognition of their identity has been a long-standing demand of adivasis.
After numerous debates, discussions and dialogues, the 15th amendment of the constitution in 2011 brought about an opportunity to put their demands forward.
Finally, the amendment came up with mention of adivasis as ‘upajati’, ‘khudro jatisotta’, ‘nri-gosthi’ and ‘somproday’ [Article 23(A)] .
These terms created confusion, disappointment and disagreement, as there has been no interpretation about which group in the country would be recognized as what.
Government representatives mention it as a ‘promotion’ with the claim that hitherto there was no recognition of ‘adivasis’ whatsoever in the constitution. I prefer to call it a mockery and a game of confusion.
In this game of confusion, there has been an inclination by the ruling elites to impose ‘Bengali’ identity.
Soon after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman advised adivasis,
“forget your ethnic identity, be Bengali” .
The first constitution of the country (1972) also mentioned all citizens of the country as Bengalis. The constitution underwent a series of amendments in the following decades.
However, after the 15th amendment of the constitution in 2011, it still stated
“the people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation” [Article 6(B)].
This continuing trend of imposing Bengali identity disregards the distinct identities of adivasis, while suppressing their long-standing demand for constitutional recognition.
The cultures, beliefs, customs, traditions, languages and ways of life of adivasis are different from Bengalis. Adivasis are not homogenous and have a wide diversity within subgroups.
However, with all their differences, what binds them together is a shared history of oppression, struggle and triumph.
Adivasis were largely left out in the modern state-building process, especially in sharing the political and economic power of the state.
These shared lived experiences for centuries have gifted them with a common ground to fight for their rights, including the right to self-identity as ‘adivasi’.
The process of conceptualizing present day ‘adivasi’ identity was pioneered by adivasi leader and philosopher Manabendra Narayan (MN) Larma, a former member of parliament.
While Bengali ‘identity’ was being imposed on adivasis by the Bengali ruling elites of newborn Bangladesh, he vehemently protested – both within and outside of the parliament.
He stated in the parliament,
“I am a Chakma… A Chakma can never be a Bengali. I am a citizen of Bangladesh-Bangladeshi. You are also Bangladeshi but your national identity is Bengali… they (adivasis) can never be Bengalis…” .
MN Larma did not use ‘adivasi’ per se, but his philosophy sowed seeds of present day construct of ‘adivasi’ identity in Bangladesh.
The identity of a particular group of people is subject to undergo a ceaseless process of evolution, construction, and reconstruction, while interacting with different actors.
In this sense, the present day ‘adivasi’ identity in Bangladesh is not same as it used to be a few decades ago.
Following MN Larma’s contributions, ‘adivasi’ identity in Bangladesh today is necessarily connected to the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1993) and International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1994) by the UN.
These developments gradually led to wide acceptance and popularity of the term ‘adivasi’ in the country for the first time.
The notion of ‘adivasi’ identity was also influenced by signing of the historic Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord in 1997.
The CHT Accord was signed between Bangladesh Government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), then only political party of adivasis in the CHT region that had led an armed struggle against the State authorities for more than two decades, to establish sustaining peace in the CHT through, among others, creation of a regional autonomous governance system led by the CHT adivasis.
As soon as former combatants of PCJSS came out in regular political life following the CHT Accord, they went forward to build solidarity and unity with their fellow adivasi sisters and brothers in other parts of the country.
This development opened up a window of opportunity to bring all adivasis from the CHT as well as from other parts of the country plains together through the formation of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum in 2001.
This continues to be the central platform for adivasis to claim their rights, including the right to constitutional recognition.
Meanwhile, two developments at the international level – the formation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in 2000 and adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 – refuelled this momentum within the country.
Adivasis the country welcomed and brought these institutions into their ongoing struggle.
UNPFII created spaces for raising their issues and concerns at the UN level, while comprehensive articulation of the rights of adivasis in the UNDRIP provided them with a new weapon for their movement.
These developments connected ‘adivasi’ identity at the local level more closely with the same debates in the international level.
Despite the tenacious stance of the ruling elites, the developments that took place at the national and international levels gradually entrenched ‘adivasi’ identity, rather strongly, amongst adivasis as well as others.
Different media organisations, rights activists and scholars use the term ‘adivasi’, defying the government’s disagreement and prohibition.
The biggest change that developed, however, is among ourselves – the adivasis. The identity ‘adivasi’ became an inseparable part of our existence.
This identity is now a source of unity and strength among adivasis.
Hence, no matter what attempts the ruling elites might undertake, we recognize ourselves as ‘adivasi’.
In our everyday life, from Facebook posts to scholarly debates.
Therefore, ‘adivasi’ identity is not going to be wiped out so easily. As long as adivasis survive, so will adivasi identity.
And ‘adivasi’ identity will continue to thrive over the foreseeable future, unless and until another identity reconstruction takes place.
Bablu Chakma (Bob Larma)
A life-long student of indigenous life struggle
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