Courtesy: The Daily Star, Dhaka, Monday, August 9, 2010
Beyond "Bengali people"
The colonial term "tribal" or "upajati" is still strongly enforced in all our official documents. In some rare cases adivasi/indigenous words are also used, but not legally recognised. "Pahari," the Bengali translation of 'Hillman' is also a commonly accepted term. The leftists sometimes use the terms "ethnic minority" and "microscopic nationality." The term tribal is considered degrading and needs to be eliminated.
The birth of the Permanent Forum of Indigenous People (IP) at the highest level of UN, yearly celebration of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, and different activities under the 1st and 2nd decades of indigenous peoples has made the term "Indigenous Peoples" popular among the IPs. The civil society and media have also been advocating "adivasi" and "Indigenous People." Some international agencies have also adopted IP policies. But our government and some Bangali intellectuals seem opposed the indigenous term.
M.N. Larma, the founder of PCJSS and a popular parliamentarian in Bangladesh (1972-75), had proposed the term "Bangladeshi" rather than "Bangali," on the question of citizenship of Bangladesh citizenry. But his appeal for non-Bangali peoples could not move treasury benchers in October 1972, during the Constitution framing debates. He wept in private, and did not open the door of his room at the MP hostel. When he finally opened it, he could not speak, but I saw the tear drops on his cheeks.
In the beginning of eighties, an interesting feature in CHT had been the consolidation of ten indigenous hill peoples into one distinctive political and territorial identity -- the "Jumma" people, to oppose the extreme Bangali chauvinism of settlers. The term "Jumma" derives from the word "Jum," a slash and burns method of cultivation, or a plot of this Jum field, and is also meant for mountains.
The Chittagonians, Bangali dwellers of neighbouring Chittagong district use "Jummah" to mean the Chakmas, and this term used to be considered derogatory. However, they also used the word 'Jum' to mean CHT or land of highlanders. Among Chittagonians, if someone asks a person's whereabouts, a common reply can be "Jumot geye" (He has gone to Jum.), i.e. he has gone to the mountains/hills, meaning CHT.
Dr. Tone Bleie of Norway notes in his book Tribal Peoples, Nationalism and the Human Rights Challenge, The Adivasis of Bangladesh: "In Bangladesh the original inhabitants (known internationally as the Jummas) of Chittagong Hill Tracts." This achievement i.e., the establishment of the "Jumma" concept has been possible through internal advocacy and campaigning.
We can find the identification of communities and their listings began at an early period of our history, with Manu. Listings in British colonial period in the sub-continent began on an extensive scale through the census of 1881, while it was first started in CHT in 1871 (Hutchinson, "An Account of the Chittagong Hill Tracts", 1906). But CHT needs a formal move to record actual names with appropriate spellings in Bengali and English with the official recognition of the terms Jumma and indigenous identities.
In this process the Chakmas will have the scope to decide on their identity -- Chakma, Changma or Tsangma. Similarly, the Lushais may also decide to be known as Lusei or Lushei, the way Murungs have started writing Mro in their own term. This can also be seen with the Garos in greater Mymensingh -- a name given by outsiders against their own term of Mandi.
India has ratified ILO Convention 169 and the prime minister of Australia begged pardon in parliament from his indigenous people for injustices levied against them by his forefathers. The new millennium is for tolerance, mutual respect and engagement to make mother earth livable for all. Time has come to change old dogmatic ideas and mindsets.
The demand has been growing every year for the Bangladesh constitution to expand beyond its current definition of "Bengali people" as the only inhabitants of the country. There is no logical reason for the demand of constitutional recognition to indigenous people of Bangladesh to be denied any longer. It is only possible, today, if we have a democratic leadership that has vision and respect for all its peoples.
Rupayan Dewan is Member of CHT Regional Council and one of the members of the Jumma delegation to Bangladesh Government in October 1972. This essay is adapted from a forthcoming Drishtipat anthology of essays on Chittagong Hill Tracts.