It is beyond doubt that education is the instrument of development. In Bangladesh, there is a shortage of higher education institutions, and places in them, relative to the demand.
As a result, there is a fierce competition for admission to these institutions. There are very few indigenous students who can survive the competition.
These students are disadvantaged in terms of socio-economic circumstances relative to the mainstream population.
If the current trend continues, then the indigenous students will fall further behind in terms of higher education. This is why there are quotas for indigenous students in higher education.
About 60 per cent of the farmland of the Paharis was lost during the construction of the Kaptai dam.
As agriculture was the foundation of the Pahari economy, this turned the indigenous people into destitutes.
They turned to education as the only means of survival. Despite the severe lack of transport or communication infrastructure in the Hills, conscious indigenous people sought out education.
As a result, particularly the Chakmas are now relatively better educated.
The idea of the quotas is to assist the marginalized sections of the community so that they can be in equal standing with the advance populace.
Quotas are prevalent not only in the third world but also in developed countries.
The quota system is an effective step for equitable development. However, the number of places reserved for the Paharis in higher education is not sufficient.
Altogether, 325 places are reserved for the indigenous peoples. And some of these reserved places are for Bengalis of the Hill region.
There is usually no indigenous representation in the bodies that decide on the quotas.
In the past, when the Hill Tracts region was unstable, the army completely controlled quotas, selecting students who were to receive admission.
Loyalty to the army, rather than merit, often decided selection. This had an adverse impact on the indigenous lives.
The small number of indigenous people who has received higher education has been contributing to their own community, and indeed to the whole nation.
Those families who are relatively advanced economically have been benefiting from the quota.
The result is that families of those who have achieved relatively high posts in government or non-government sectors have been strengthening their position in the society.
In recent times, students in higher education have been mostly coming from affluent families. This is because of the increased cost of education.
There are many meritorious indigenous students whose parents cannot bear the cost of education in Dhaka or Chittagong.
If the government is sincere about advancing higher education amongst the indigenous peoples, then two types of policies are needed.
Firstly, the quotas should be means-tested for only the poor indigenous students.
Secondly, a university should be established in the Hill region.
After coming to power in 1996, with the backdrop of the Peace Accord, the Awami League government initiated the process for a science and technology university in Rangamati.
Various steps including the appropriation of land were completed.
However, the subsequent BNP government cancelled the project. Allegedly, some Pahari leaders didn’t support the establishment of the university in the region.
And yet, even educators sympathetic to the BNP-led alliance couldn’t support the cancellation of Rangamati University of Science and Technology.
While the number of places reserved for the indigenous students in the higher institutions should increase, it is also important to establish a university in the Hill region.
This will allow poorer students to gain higher education. It doesn’t appear that there will be a shortage of funding for such a university.
Surely the donors will assist, particularly if at least half the places in this university are reserved for indigenous students. It appears that the impediment here is sincerity on the government’s side.
Section 19(1) of the Constitution asks the Republic to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens. Section 28(3) prohibits discrimination in higher education on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender or birth.
But all the constitutional guarantees mean nothing if they are not followed.
Rights are enforced for those who struggle for them. And the struggle is dependent on awareness, which relies on education.
For the indigenous people, there is no alternative to education. It is the moral responsibility of the mainstream populace of a country that its marginalized minorities are given an equal footing.
That’s why it’s important to ensure, if necessary through special assistance, that indigenous peoples have access to higher education.
Translated by Jyoti Rahman; abbreviated from Bengali original published in Mukto Prokash, Massline Media Centre.
Writer : Jagaran Chakma
To read this article “Brief History and Struggle of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts” Click Here