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Wednesday, November 10, 2010



Wasfia Nazreen & Devasish Roy Wangza make the case for constitutional amendments to allow Adibashis full membership in
the Bangladeshi citzens’ family.

Published in Opinion, the Weekend Independent, Dhaka,
29 October, 2010, pages 13-15

Bangladeshi Citizens’ Family
What we get through the membership to a family is the entitlement to ask for our rights, without any form of discrimination. It does not mean that the parents or other siblings will have to leave their positions (read: rights) to give space to the other rightful members of the family. Such is the case of Bangladesh’s current debate with our indigenous peoples. To blare it in clear terms: by giving the Adibashis their due recognition and enabling environments for the implementation of their rights does not mean they will be ruling Bangalis around within the background of our multi-ethnic Nation.

If Bangladesh is compared to a house and the national constitution as the architectural plan of such a house, until and unless the architecture allows the necessary extensions to the house – whether horizontal (to add a wing) or vertical (to add a room or wing), the Adibashis will not be accommodated in such a house. To have such provisions in the constitution will also mean that measures to redress the grievances and to accommodate the aspirations of the Adibashis will form part of the policy of the state, as opposed to the policies of successive governments, which may and do change according to the exigencies of political parties and their coalitions.

Before beginning our discussion, let us see if we can sort and clear some basic confusion first:

- Indigenous vs. Settlers
Does calling someone Adibashi automatically imply the rest of the existing non-Adibashis are ‘settlers?’ Settler is by no means an opposite word to Adibashi. At least not in Bangladesh. Bangalis are as much rooted to the soil of Bangladesh as Adibashis are. Essentially, recognizing the Adibashis as ‘Adibashi’ merely means the recognition of their full participatory rights as citizens, keeping in mind the exclusion and discrimination historically meted out to them in the process of state-formation, nation-building and development. It also means the creation of an enabling environment in which they may preserve their distinctive cultural identities, which are threatened on account of their marginal situations.

- 1972 and 2010 contexts

1972. The biggest threat following our Independence was not to re-emerge or fall back into the Pakistani elements of being drunk in West Pakistan’s brutal and oppressive religious idealism. It did not occur to the policy-makers of the time to bring in options other than a ‘monocultural’ Bangali identity sac. The thrust of the 1972 Constitution comprising of nationalism, socialism, secularism and democracy sounds all mighty cool but all these definitions need to be re-defined in the 2010 context.

2010. These 38 years, it’s been Bangalis who have been at the helms of statecraft and development. So in 2010 is it the identity of 150 million Bangalis that is threatened or that of the marginalized three or four million that have been excluded in the nation-building process from colonial rule till today? For those Bangalis who have been putting everything in a monoculture identity, they are used to doing so, not because they are devil’s children, but because they have been told so, and have become too conditioned by it over time.

There is a huge difference between State recognition and Constitutional recognition. As far as the State is concerned, Adibashis have got that recognition in laws, policies, political manifestoes and judicial pronouncements. We have our politicians confirming and reconfirming all the time - both the caretaker government, and the present and previous Prime Ministers have used the words ‘Adibashi’. The terms ‘indigenous’, ‘aboriginal’ and ‘adibashi’ are already a part of the Nation’s laws: the CHT Regulation 1900, the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950, the Finance Acts of 1995 and 2010 and in the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutes Act of 2010 (‘Khudro Nrigoshthhi Sanshkritik Protishthhan Ain, 2010). The PRSPs of 2008 and 2009 also recognize them as Indigenous people.

Why and what needs to be readdressed and in some cases redefined, as far as the Indigenous Peoples are concerned?

My state identity can be Bangladeshi, or Bangladesh, but my ethnic cultural identity can be Adibashi or Bangali. Unfortunately, the 1972 Constitution did not have the room for that. Even though Bangalis are one of the peoples of the multi-cultured, multi-ethnic, multi-religious multi-lingual Bangladesh, they are still only one of the family members, albeit the most numerous and the most powerful. This cultural identity of Bangladesh needs to be redefined, both to accommodate the Adibashis and to accurately reflect the rich multicultural heritage of this nation.

Adibashis want collective property based on customary laws. This recognition would be in tune with the spirit of socialism, particularly in today’s age of free market policies and globalised capitalism.

There is a huge difference between Democracy and Majoritarianism. Adibashis are therefore demanding fifteen seats to be reserved for them in parliament and in local government bodies without accounting for the general seats.

Adibashis are definitely happy that the constitutional provisions on secularism are to be re-inserted into the constitution. However, they seek to help re-define a Bangladesh that is neutral not only with regard to religious affiliation, but neutrality with regard to ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Within the Secular expressions of our Constitution, in order to implement the already existing constitutional provisions into working reality, some amendments have been proposed. These proposals deal with four major themes: (i) identity; (ii) participation; (iii) equality, non-discrimination and affirmative action; and (iv) safeguards against erosion of protective legal measures. The aforesaid demands are known to have widespread support among Adibashis from all parts of the country, including the Adibashi members of parliament, and several MPs from the recently formed Adibashi Parliamentary Caucus.

On Identity, the Adibashis seek to supplement the existing provisions on Bangla as the State Language by adding a provision on the “equal patronage” of the state for other languages spoken in Bangladesh. With regard to the existing provisions on National Culture Adibashis wish to add provisions on the patronization of the multicultural heritage of the indigenous peoples through the protection and promotion of their cultures, languages, heritage, laws, customs, usages, etc. Additionally, it has been suggested that the term “Adibashi” be included within the definitions section and to add a new schedule to the constitution in which the names of the different Adibashi peoples may be added.

With regard to Participation, adibashis seek reserved seats in parliament and in elected local government bodies. They also wish to be consulted before constitutional and other legal safeguard measures are repealed, amended or otherwise weakened without prior consultations with their representatives.

On Equal Rights, Non-Discrimination & Affirmative Action, Adibashis have demanded that the existing clauses be supplemented by adding the phrase “adibashi”, so that the state may take affirmative measures for Adibashis, including on special representation in the CHT district and regional councils, so that these are not regarded as otherwise falling foul of the non-discrimination clauses.

On Safeguards on Special Laws & Other Protective Measures, Adibashis have sought to include CHT-specific laws – including the CHT Regulation of 1900 and those that were passed in accordance with the CHT Accord of 1997 – in the First Schedule to the constitution, so that these may not be challenged as unconstitutional.

Wasfia Nazreen
Member: Drishtipath Writers’ Collective: Learning & Documentation, PROTIRODH CARE Bangladesh
Special Correspondent Independent World Report
National Director Students for a Free Tibet, Bangladesh [SFTBD]

Devasish Roy Wangza
Chakma Raja and Chief of the Chakma Circle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a member-designate to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFii)

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