Indigenous World 2019: Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a country of cultural and ethnic diversity, with over 54 indigenous peoples speaking at least 35 languages, along with the majority Bengali population. According to the 2011 census, the country’s indigenous population numbers approximately 1,586,141,1 which represents 1.8% of the total population of the country.
Indigenous peoples in the country, however, claim that their population stands at some 5 million.2 The majority of the indigenous population live in the plains districts of the country,3 and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Government of Bangladesh does not recognise indigenous peoples as “indigenous”. Nevertheless, since the 15th amendment of the constitution, adopted in 2011, people with distinct ethnic identities beyond the Bengali population are now mentioned.4 Yet only cultural aspects are mentioned, whereas major issues related to indigenous peoples’ economic and political rights, not least their land rights, remain ignored. The CHT Accord of 1997 was a constructive agreement between indigenous peoples and the Government of Bangladesh intended to resolve key issues and points of contention. It set up a special administrative system in the region. Twenty-two years on, the major issues of the Accord, including making the CHT Land Commission functional, orchestrating a devolution of power and function to the CHT’s institutions, preserving tribal area characteristics of the CHT region, demilitarisation, and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, remain unsettled.
Quotas in public services abolished
Through a gazette notification, on 4 October 2018, the government abolished its reservation for indigenous peoples along with other quota categories for first and second class government services. The decision came in response to a series of countrywide protests. These protests, by the “Quota Reform Movement” (QRM), demanded reforms in policies concerning recruitment practices in the government services. The mandate of the QRM was to bring reform to the existing public service recruitment system, which reserved 56% of job entry positions for the children and grandchildren of “freedom fighters”, women, certain districts based on population, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. These quotas left 44% of placements based on merit. Instead of reforming the existing system, however, the government completely abolished the quota in first and second class government jobs. This decision has resulted in the direct deprivation of the most underprivileged groups, including indigenous peoples.
The indigenous or “tribal” quota of 5% has not ensured indigenous participation properly since it was introduced in 1985. In two ILO studies5 conducted by Ferdous and Islam, only 271 (0.66%) of 2,051 positions were filled with indigenous candidates between the 24th and 33rd (2005-2014) Bangladesh Civil Service recruitment examinations.6 Although it is apparent that the stipulated percentage has never been allocated in any given year, at least some indigenous candidates were able to serve in the public sector because of the quota. The complete removal of the quota puts indigenous job-seekers in direct competition with all others, which is unbalanced and unequal. Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are disadvantaged in every socio-economic and political way. As a result, they cannot compete with their “mainstream” counterparts. The absence of the quota will further reduce the representation of indigenous peoples in the state bureaucracy.
Government to recognise 50 ethnic groups
A committee within the Ministry of Cultural Affairs7 has decided to include those indigenous peoples who were left off the list of “ethnic groups” during the framing of the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institution Act of 2010. This issue has been a longstanding demand of indigenous groups. After a series of expert meetings, the committee, headed by the Cultural Affairs Minister, Asaduzzaman Noor MP, decided to include a total of 50 indigenous groups on the list. This is a major improvement, doubling the number of indigenous groups recognised from 24 to 50.8 This recognition also provides pathways for indigenous peoples who were previously discriminated against when accessing government services.
Civil and political rights and human rights defenders
The situation of the CHT throughout the year was characterised by very limited freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association. Representatives of different local indigenous political and rights platforms reported numerous incidents of interference by the local administration and state forces when indigenous peoples attempted to hold public meetings. Public rallies and demonstrations were particularly restricted, including socio-cultural festivals and observations. Interference by the authorities can be epitomised in the following three incidents: on 20 May 2018, the Rangamati district administration did not allow the CHT Hill Students’ Council (PCP) to organise an outdoor public meeting in Rangamati. This meeting would have marked the founding anniversary of the organisation. On 31 July 2018, in Khagrachari and Bandarban districts, authorities prevented peaceful rallies to protest the rape and killing of Kirtika Tripura, a ten-year-old girl, by a Bengali settler. Furthermore, in October 2018, local authorities prevented a dialogue on the SDGs with government officials and civil society members, jointly initiated by ILO and Kapaeeng Foundation in Rangamati.
Amid this dreadful human rights situation, those who have suffered the most are the indigenous human rights defenders (IHRDs), especially those affiliated with local political platforms, as well as many ordinary indigenous villagers. The alarming state of IHRDs was evidenced in many reported incidents of criminalisation and subjection to arbitrary search operations, arrests, detentions and false charges across the CHT. The Kapaeeng Foundation documented a total of 117 people facing false charges, 75 of whom were arrested in 2018. Additionally, some 90 houses were searched by security forces in the middle of the night without any prior warrant or complaint in 2018.
Rights of women and girls
This human rights situation becomes the most glaring, disturbing and chronic in terms of violations when it comes to indigenous women and girls. Indigenous women have been targets of violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination for years. Indigenous women and girls routinely faced sexual, physical and mental violence throughout the year, on the part of members of the state authorities, Bengali settlers, influential land grabbers, and sometimes even men from within their own communities. The Kapaeeng Foundation documented that at least 53 indigenous women and girls, in 47 incidents, were reportedly killed, raped, assaulted or violated in 2018.9
More often than not, the violence that indigenous women and girls face is political, connected to power relations, although sometimes it is due to the lust of the perpetrators. As violence, especially sexual violence against women, is connected to stigma, humiliation and fear, vested interests use it as a weapon time and again. This politicisation of violence is particularly evident in the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, especially when “he” or “they” are connected to the state. The absolute impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the rape and sexual harassment of the Marma sisters from Farua of Rangamati (22 January 2018) and the Tripura sisters from Lama sub-district of Bandarban (22 August 2018) stand as evidence. In both cases, the survivors identified the perpetrators – members of the state authorities. Whenever a case involves a state agency or influential person, it is therefore the survivor and her family, and not the perpetrator, who have to live in fear, anxiety and trauma. In many cases, the depravations to which the survivors are subjected are manifold, totally lacking in any psycho-physical care, legal justice or rehabilitation. None of the measures taken by the state in the form of laws, policies and institutional mechanisms, nor the recommendations made by international bodies such as CEDAW10 to address violence against indigenous women and girls, have served to protect the survivors.
11th general elections and manifestos of major political parties
On 30 December 2018, Bangladesh held its 11th general elections. The outcome was that the ruling political party – the Awami League-led Grand Alliance – was successful in forming the government again for the 2019-2023 period. They won by a landslide victory of 288 seats out of the 299 constituencies in the country. There has, nonetheless, been much debate over the victory in terms of the fairness of the elections among different watchdogs. International agencies, including the BBC and Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), published reports and evidence of election rigging.11
There were allegations of voter fraud made against the ruling party candidates and their supporters in the elections held in the three constituencies of the CHT. The allegations included ruling party supporters occupying polling stations, driving out or expelling the election agents of competing candidates, stuffing ballot boxes with forged votes, and preventing actual voters from casting their votes.12 Use of force and violence was not uncommon throughout the three districts. There were allegations that, in many places, the Election Commission, local administration and the law enforcement agencies either actively supported or ignored the blatant irregularities and vote rigging. There were also allegations that many supporters of the opposition were intimidated, detained and falsely charged by the authorities for months prior to the general elections. Amid all these allegations, three indigenous candidates affiliated to the ruling political party officially bagged their tickets to parliament.
Interestingly, in its election manifesto, the Awami League the victor in the 11th general elections pledged to form a National Minority Commission to ensure the safety of minority communities. It also promised that laws which discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities would be amended and the communities’ property rights ensured within a fixed timeframe. Moreover, steps would be taken to implement the sections of the CHT Accord that had not yet been implemented. However, these pledges are simply a repetition of the commitments it made during the 9th and 10th parliamentary elections. Left-leaning political parties and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Jatiya Oikyofront (National Front for Unity), which lost their coalition bid to lead parliament, have also included some pledges related to minority and indigenous peoples in their election manifestos.13 14
CHT Accord Implementation Monitoring Committee reformed
The implementation of the CHT Accord remained stagnant in 2018 with the sole exception of the reform of the CHT Accord Implementation Monitoring Committee. This committee oversees the implementation process of the deal. Abul Hasnat Abdullah, Awami League lawmaker and one of the signatories of the historic CHT Accord, has been appointed as the chair of the committee, replacing Sayeda Sajeda Chowdhury, former Deputy Leader of the House. At the same time, another ruling party parliamentarian from the CHT, Kujendra Lal Tripura, has also been appointed as a committee member. Jyotirindra Bodhipriya (Santu) Larma, the chair of the CHT Regional Council, by default, remains the third member of the three-member committee. According to the provisions of the CHT Accord, this committee is responsible for monitoring progress in implementation and advising the government accordingly.
3rd Review of Bangladesh under the UPR
May 2018 was the third time the human rights situation of Bangladesh had been reviewed by the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review. A 29-member delegation, led by the Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Anisul Huq, was present for the review, held at the 30th session of the UPR Working Group. The Bangladesh delegation condemned violence against religious and ethnic minorities and claimed that allegations of such incidents had been addressed as promptly as possible during the period under review. In a similar vein, the delegation emphasised a “zero tolerance” policy towards crimes perpetrated by members of the law enforcement agencies. This same government policy statement appeared in the second UPR review of Bangladesh in 2013. Moreover, the delegation reiterated previously made commitments concerning implementation of the 1997 CHT Accord and existing constitutional provisions on protecting the local culture and traditions of indigenous peoples. The issues covered by the delegation of Bangladesh concerning indigenous peoples were thus merely a reiteration of pronouncements made by the government during previous reviews.
Four Member States (Argentina, Madagascar, the Netherlands and Spain) noted and welcomed the measures taken to combat discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country. Austria, however, expressed concerns over attacks on religious minorities. Considering the slow and ambiguous process of implementing the CHT Accord, Australia and Denmark made recommendations on implementing the Accord, with a plan of action and a roadmap with a clear timeline, while the Maldives and New Zealand emphasised increasing efforts in the ongoing implementation process. Given the dire human rights abuses, nine Member States (Austria, Brazil, Estonia, France, Iran, Honduras, Madagascar, Peru and South Africa) emphasised that measures should be taken to ensure protection of indigenous peoples and other minorities. While most of these Member States recommended that the government take legal, constitutional and administrative action, Madagascar pointed to ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 as a way forward to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples. The government replied to the recommendations specifically mentioning “indigenous peoples” with comments that all the country’s citizens were considered indigenous to the land. A total of 105 Member States put forward 251 recommendations to Bangladesh related to the overall human rights situation of the country. The Bangladesh government, however, has not accepted 61 of these.
Notes and references
- Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2011, Population and housing census 2011, Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, Dhaka, pp. 3
- Barkat, A. 2015: Political economy of unpeopling of indigenous peoples: the case of Bangladesh. Paper presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, 8-10 January 2015, Dhaka
- Halim, S. 2015: Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis, in S Drong (ed.): Songhati, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, pp. 72
- Article 23a stipulates that “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities”.
- Robaet Ferdous, 2011, A Qualitative Study on Quota Policy for Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Government Services of Bangladesh. Report submitted to ILO Office in Bangladesh by Robaet Ferdous, Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka; Sheikh Shafiul Islam, 2013, A Qualitative Study on Quota Policy for Indigenous and Tribal People in Government Services of Bangladesh, Final Report. Prepared for the International Labour Organization, study conducted by Sheikh Shafiul Islam, MA, MSS, PhD (Fellow),
- National Committee on Preparation of the list of Small Ethnic Groups, Special Professionals, Scheduled Caste and Disadvantaged
- Although the schedule has 27 names, two groups mentioned (Mong and Pahari) do not exist and another one (Usui) is basically a clan of a larger indigenous people (Tripura).
- Kapaeeng Foundation, 2019, Human Rights Report 2018 on indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, Dhaka
- Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 2016, Concluding observations on the eight periodic report of Bangladesh, UN Document No.: CEDAW/C/BGD/CO/8, Para 19 (d)
- See The Daily Star, “Polls Anomalies In 47 of 50 Seats” at: http://bit.ly/2IBdBxd
- See The Daily Star, “Ushatan Talukder rejects JS polls result in Rangamati” at: http://bit.ly/2IBKidU
- See Dhaka Tribune, “Oikya Front unveils manifesto promising balance of power” at: http://bit.ly/2IAJeXY
- See The Daily Star, “21 special pledges in Awami League election manifesto 2018” at: http://bit.ly/2Iz8iyh
Pallab Chakma is an indigenous peoples’ rights activist and currently the Executive Director of Kapaeeng Foundation, a human rights organisation of indigenous peoples of Bangladesh. Email: pallab.juju@gmail. com