Successive governments in Bangladesh have pushed many indigenous people out of their homelands and into the radical margins, driving them into an unstable and uncertain future
An unprovoked attack by a mob of Bengali Muslim settlers on four indigenous localities of the mountainous Chittagong Hill Tracts took place in Bangladesh in June this year. Some say it had the tacit support of the army and police.
Scant media attention on events in the Langadu area of the CHT region is problematic. There was little or no news of this violence in the international mainstream media, and only some truncated news about it and the massive subsequent arson from media inside the country. Indeed, this ethnic violence has gone on for many decades.
Despite this and the impact of cyclone Mora in Rangamati township and one of the country’s deadliest landslides that killed 156 people, the contrast with the wide attention given to events across the border affecting minority Rohingya Muslims is striking.
In Bangladesh, the indigenous people of the CHT prefer to be called Jumma or Jumma Adivasi, meaning the ‘earliest inhabitants’. They have a distinct and diverse culture and their livelihoods rely mostly on shifting cultivation or jhum.
Claims communal attack involved arson, looting and rape
The government is yet to recognize these people as indigenous so the media call them Khudra-Nrigosthi, meaning a small ethnic minority, or ‘upojati’ meaning sub-nation. The government introduced the term in the national constitution, without consultation or the consent of the indigenous people themselves.
The targeted communal attack in Langadu in June claimed more than 250 houses, including shops, belonging to indigenous inhabitants. At least one elderly Chakma woman was killed in the arson.
Accounts were given of looting, rape and beatings as the authorities turned a blind eye.
This is not new. In 1991, Amnesty International reported arbitrary arrests, torture and unlawful killings of indigenous people by security forces during 1989-1990. Thousands of Jumma were killed, hundreds of women and girls raped, and Buddhist temples smashed and looted. Tens of thousands of Jumma refugees fled across the border into India.
In 2013 AI noted that there had been little change. The persecution of indigenous peoples in the CHT, intimidated by the heavy presence of the army and by tactical support for Bengali settler encroachment on indigenous peoples’ land and resources, continued.
Human rights abuse is long-standing in Bangladesh.
Indigenous people of the CHT well remember the forced abduction and disappearance by the military in 1996 of the much-admired female rights activist Kalpana Chakma.
Memories for the people are hard to erase, and as Paul Ricouer noted in 1999, memory has a certain ethical responsibility to disclose all traces of events remembered, even the losses, in memories of suffering and oppression.
The attack in June 2017 took place after the death of a local motorbike taxi driver, later claimed to be a member of the Juba League, a youth wing of the ruling Awami League. As the belligerent funeral procession of Bengali settlers reached Langadu sub-district headquarters, the mob began looting and setting fire to shops and houses with the participation of military, police and some politico-religious settler interests.
The Parbatya Chattagram Jana-Samhati Samiti, a political organisation of the indigenous Jumma of the CHT claims this violent attack indicates the intention to destroy local cultures and drive them out of their ancestral lands.
The land issue is central to the resolution of ongoing conflicts.
The violence also obstructs implementation of the CHT Peace Accord. Signed in 1997, the accord is, according to non-Muslim indigenous ethnic groups, a scheme to achieve the state’s objective of turning the CHT into a Muslim-dominated region.
Lailufar Yasmin has shown how the construction of an official national ideology in Bangladesh has been achieved through majoritarianism. It is founded on majority dominance and the othering of non-Muslim minorities.
Mark Levine suggests an underlying problem in the control of land and resources; a state initiative to exploit the resource-rich frontier, simultaneously linked to a broader scenario of identity geopolitics and underpinned by international finance.
The victims of this violence are the 1-2 per cent whose languages and distinct cultural practices create an ideological dilemma for the state of Bangladesh.
As states tend to persuade minorities to become a part of the cultural and political-economic centre (or cultural core), the term ‘minorities’ relative to ‘majorities’ is clearly problematic. It also relies on a number of assumptions about otherness or difference.
The Government of Bangladesh does not recognise the concept of an indigenous people within its borders. The term indigenous people has been and remains contentious in the context of first claims and rights to ancestral territory and resources.
Strategic colonisation by majority Bengali Muslims began soon after independence
An estimated 14 distinct ethnic minority language groups or Jumma indigenous groups claim the area as their ancestral homelands in the CHT. These include the Chakma who are by far the largest in number, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Lushai, Pankhoa, Bawm, Mro, Khyang, Khumi, Chak, Gurkha, Santal and Ohomia Peoples.
Two types of Bengali Muslims live in the CHT. Those who migrated during the British period, and a more recent incursion of settlers after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
The strategic colonisation policy by majority Bengali Muslims began soon after independence.
The country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also sought to persuade minorities to become part of the cultural and political-economic centre. According to Chowdhury, he sought to ensure that the ethnic groups of the CHT assume the Bengali identity, and seemed to forcibly coerce Muslim Bengalis to settle in this region to reduce indigenous Buddhist and Hindu peoples into a national minority.
Agreements not fulfilled by the state
Religion plays a large part of cultural identity in Bangladesh. Most of the ethnic minorities are Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, and Christian.
Ethnic minorities is the preferred term in many nation states, even where these people resemble characteristics of indigenous peoples. According to ILO Convention 169, they maintain a historical continuity with pre-invasion societies (in the case of colonialism) that developed on their territories and consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in these territories, or parts of them
They constitute non-dominant sectors of society and wish to preserve their own unique cultural identities and social, legal institutions and transmit to future generations ancestral lands as a basis of their continued existence as peoples within nation-states.
Indigeneity in the CHT of Bangladesh is then a politically loaded term of reference. As earlier agreements were not fulfilled by the state, a lasting peace in this hills region of Bangladesh can only come about through mutual respect and a new compact between the state and the indigenous Jumma peoples, and by constraint and control of Bengali land grabbing.
Along with the failed promises of successive governments, these factors have pushed many indigenous people out of their homelands and into the radical margins, and drive them into an increasingly unstable and uncertain future.
All acts of violence against a vulnerable minority or indigenous peoples, regardless of ethnicity, should be condemned.
Featured image: Chakma family in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh Photo: survivalinternational.org Source: Wikimedia Commons
About James Taylor
Dr James Taylor is Adjunct Associate Professor in Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Adelaide.
About Chandra Tripura
Chandra Tripura, an ethnic Tripura activist, is a Bangladesh social scientist and gender specialist, and general secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Cultural Forum.