Indigenous World 2020: 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 1,586,1411 which represents 1.8% of the total population. 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 state 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-three 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.
NGO Affairs Bureau bans use of “adivasi”
Directive [Ref. No. 03.07.2666.660.66.49219.888] issued by the NGO Affairs Bureau, regulatory body of Bangladeshi NGOs, on 18 December 2019 asked all the registered organisations with the words “adivasi/Indigenous” in their titles to rename that portion of the name within one month. The directive from the NGO Affairs Bureau, signed by Shilu Ray, assistant director, claims that “no group in the country has been identified according to the Article 23A of the Constitution as ‘Adivasi’”. The letter also mentions that a “vested local/foreign corner” is attempting to establish the rights and privileges enshrined in the ILO Convention No. 169 as part of the global politics, which is not only a threat to the “non-communal Bangladesh”, but the term “Adivasi” is a threat to “national security” in the context of the CHT. It is noteworthy that the government has been denying the demands of Indigenous Peoples for constitutional recognition of their identities as “Indigenous Peoples” or “adivasi” in the constitution for past several decades.
The directive of the NGO authority has resulted in agitation among Indigenous leaders and noted historians, politicians and rights advocates of the country.5 Human Rights Forum Bangladesh, an alliance of 20 rights organisations, expressed their concern over the matter through a press release.6 Defying the directive, lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua mentioned that the directive is a “total violation of constitutional provisions.”7 An Indigenous organisation that received this letter identified the move as an insult to Indigenous Peoples.8 Notably, this move is not new of its kind. State authorities have remained active against the use of the term Indigenous Peoples since the 15th amendment of the Constitution in 2011.
CHT Accord implementation: yet another year of despair
Indigenous Peoples in the CHT completed yet another year with no considerable headway towards the implementation of the CHT Accord. Even after 22 years since its signing on 2 December 1997, the major provisions of the accord remain unimplemented. In recent years, in particular, CHT Accord implementation remained limited to the reconstitution of some concerned bodies9 and their meetings.10 The stagnation in implementation of the Accord remained a source of despair and resentment among Indigenous Peoples. Santu Larma, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS) leader, mentioned in a press conference in Dhaka marking the 22nd anniversary of the CHT Accord that the existing situation in the hills compelling Jumma people to think about strengthening the movement.11 On the other hand, Bengali settlers have remained active in opposing the CHT Accord and its implementation process. Among different anti-accord moves, on 23 December 2019, they formed a barricade along Rangamati-Chittagong road while the chairman and the members of the CHT Land Commission were on their way to a pre-scheduled meeting.
Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders in fear and violence
The year 2019 was a year marred by fear and violence for Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders (IPHRDs), especially those affiliated with Indigenous political parties of the CHT. IPHRDs from this region were subjected to numerous trumped-up charges throughout the year. Literally, hundreds of activists were forced to remain on the run due to the fear of being arrested and killed at gunpoint. Local state authorities continued with various propaganda of blaming rights activists as “extortionists” and “armed terrorists”. The visit of Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Home Minister, on 16-17 October 2019 in the CHT, and his meeting entitled “Special Meeting Relating to Law and Order in Three Hill Districts”, further augmented the fear of state persecution among IPHRDs. United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) claimed in a statement that, in 2019, 74 people were arrested, 14 persons were arbitrarily killed and 42 people abducted, including its members.12 PCJSS made similar claims concerning vilification of Indigenous activists and ordinary Indigenous people by the state as “armed terrorist groups”.13 Meanwhile, a permanent Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special force that once was identified as a “death squad” by Human Rights Watch for being responsible for hundreds of arbitrary killings, has been deployed in the region.14
Appointment of new NHRC
On 22 September the government has appointed the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and its five members following the expiration of the previous commission. Former senior secretary Nasima Begum is the new chairman, the first female to occupy the position. Two other members of the Commission are also retired secretaries. An Indigenous person, vice president of Rangamati district Awami League (ruling political party), has also been declared new member of the Commission.
Different rights bodies, including Human Rights Forum Bangladesh (HRFB), expressed deep concern and frustration over the appointment of the new commission without any discussion with other stakeholders.15 Moreover, the members have no record of working in the human rights field. On the other hand, one of the members is actively involved with one leading political party.
The role and neutrality of the NHRC remains questionable for various reasons, and civil society fears that transforming the institution into a workplace for retired government officials will raise further questions about its effectiveness. Therefore, HRFB, through a press statement, called on the electoral committee to pursue an open and participatory process in line with the Paris Policy on National Human Rights Institutions before the appointment process begins.
Illegal brick kiln and stone extraction in the CHT
The illegal brick kiln and unabated cutting of reserve forest and hills has rendered the homelands of local Indigenous Peoples at Lama and Thanchi upazilas, in Bandarban District of Chittagong Hill Tracts, uninhabitable. Their life has turned into hell from the moment the construction of the brick kiln started. The cutting of hills to set up the illegal brick kiln started in November 2019 defying the request of the Indigenous Peoples not to do this. If the kiln continues it will detrimentally affect the environment in nearby Prata Bawm Para and Baklai Para areas in Lama Upazila. There are around 60 families living in these two areas. The brick kiln owner threatened the Indigenous Peoples to evict them whenever they protest against it. The brick kiln is also polluting natural water bodies by dumping its chemicals into the water. Local people are facing a severe water crisis as the kiln owners have destroyed the water streams.
Local Indigenous people, students and civil society organisations planned a protest rally, a human chain and submitted a memorandum through which they demanded removal of all brick kilns established on the arable land owned by Indigenous Peoples. But the authority did not take it seriously. As a result, the kiln business is running freely. A huge amount of firewood is being collected by cutting down trees for making the bricks. The burning of firewood is very unhealthy and is a threat to human health and the environment. The most affected Indigenous villages are Shivatoli Puraton Para, Shivatoli Naya Para, Mong Ba Ching Para, U Mra Mong Headman Para and Meaung Para of the remote Faitong area under Lama Upazila in Bandarban.
Similarly, illegal stone extraction from hilly streams in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, mainly in the Bandarban region, are also destroying the environment and biodiversity. Moreover, as a consequence of illegal stone lifting from the water bodies in Bandarban, hilly streams are drying up. Most of these streams are the only water source for at least four Indigenous communities – Marma, Khumi, Mro and Tanchangya. Therefore, these communities suffer from a shortage of drinking water in the summer. Indigenous communities are fighting against this illegal action. Last year, the affected communities and some mainstream rights organisations filed a writ petition to the High Court against this stone extraction. Finally, in February 2019, the High Court directed the concerned authorities to stop stone extraction from the Sangu and Matamuhuri Rivers and their adjacent reserved forest areas in Bandarban district.16 However, even after the High Court ban, stone extraction continues in some places in the Bandarban region, and the administration is not taking strong action against this syndicate following the directives of the High Court.
Cases of violence against Indigenous women and girls
Violence against Indigenous women has been a burning issue not only in the hills but also in the plain lands of the country. According to the Human Rights Report17 of Kapaeeng Foundation, at least 26 cases of violence against Indigenous women were reported in 2019. Out of these cases, 14 were reported in the plains and the rest (12) in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. At least 33 Indigenous women were sexually or physically assaulted in the aforementioned 26 incidents. Out of the 33 victims, 12 were identified from CHT and the other 21 were from the plains. Among the reported incidents, at least seven women and girls were raped, five were killed or killed after rape, and seven women suffered attempted rape. Among other incidents recorded in 2019 in connection with violence against women and girls, three were gang raped, 61 were physically attacked and nine were sexually assaulted.
Bangladesh reviewed under Convention against Torture (CAT)
Bangladesh has been a state party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) since 1998. The CAT’s monitoring body, the Committee against Torture, had reviewed Bangladesh for the first time in July 2019. Accordingly, on 9 August, the special Committee made 77 recommendations to the Government of Bangladesh in the Concluding Observations. Bangladesh submitted its report before CAT on 23 July for the first time since its ratification of the UN Convention against Torture in 1998.
The Law Minister Anisul Huq led a 28-member Bangladesh delegation.
Regarding the rights of minorities, he said the government was diligent in curbing any violence or torture targeting minorities in order to maintain a secular and inclusive society. He further mentioned, it also maintained a strict policy to address any form of violence against religious minorities under any pretext.18
During the review process, committee experts welcomed the constitutional prohibition of torture and the enactment of the Anti-Torture Act. However, the Committee against Torture expressed concern at consistent reports alleging widespread and routine torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials for the purpose of obtaining confessions or to solicit the payment of bribes, the lack of publicly available information on these cases, and failure to ensure accountability for law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The committee is seriously concerned at numerous, consistent reports of arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention and enforced disappearances, as well as reports of excessive use of force, including in the context of recent elections and public demonstrations.
The committee provided its concluding observations on Bangladesh on 9 August 2019 and recommended that the government publicly acknowledge that torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, and ensure that its authorities, preferably independent bodies, carry
out prompt, impartial, effective criminal investigations into all complaints of torture, ill-treatment, unacknowledged detention, disappearances and death in custody. It recommended an independent inquiry into such allegations raised against RAB members.19
In its observation on violence against Indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups – the committee mentioned that
The Committee is concerned at reports of intimidation, harassment and physical violence, including sexual violence, committed against members of Indigenous, ethnic and religious minority communities, including by or with the cooperation of State officials. This includes the 6 November 2016 attack in Gobindaganj, Gaibandha District in which 3 members of the Santal Indigenous community were killed and more than 50 injured; in relation to which the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report on 28 July 2019 stating that no police were involved in the burning of their homes and schools and looting of other property, despite television footage showing the contrary The Committee also noted the reported
rape and sexual assault of two teenage women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by members of the Army in January 2018 and the disappearance of Chittagong Hill Tracts-based Indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma on 9 April 2019, which the delegation indicated was under investigation.20
Finally, the Government of Bangladesh received recommendations from the Committee. Among others, the recommendations that are related to the rights of Indigenous and ethnic minorities are:
- State party should ensure that independent investigations are carried out into reports of attacks and violence directed against Indigenous, ethnic, religious and other vulnerable minorities, including those detailed above;
- Protect the safety and security of persons belonging to minority Indigenous, ethnic and religious groups; ensure that they have access to an independent complaint’s mechanism;
- Provide redress, including compensation and rehabilitation, to the
Santal community and members of other minorities and vulnerable groups who suffered physical violence, damage to and looting of their property;
- Collect and publish statistical information about attacks on violence against Indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups including members of the LGBTI community;
- Prosecute and punish the perpetrators of all acts of violence committed by police and non-state actors against members of vulnerable
However, for implementation of these recommendations the government needs political will and a comprehensive plan. Civil society organisations urged the government to make a time-bound and specific plan of action for effective implementation of the committee’s recommendations and to make the public aware of the recommendations. The government has indicated it has intentions to make such a plan.
Notes and references
- Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Population and housing census 2011, Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh (2011), Dhaka, pp.
- Barkat, A., Political economy of unpeopling of Indigenous peopling of Indigenous Peoples: the case of Bangladesh. Paper Presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, 8-10 January 2015,
- Halim, S., Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis, in Sanjeeb Drong (ed.): Songhati, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum (2015), pp.
- Article 23A stipulates “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and ”.
- New Age, Government directive restricting word “Adivasi” irks personalities, December 30, 2019, available at: http://www.newagebd.net/article/95071/ government-directive-restricting-word-adivasi-irks-personalities?fbclid=IwAR 36CtaxeyngIpZAr04_HLTw3N3vKv7O3h5S-RYSdZsD3zHKLi9AE2PZ8TQ.
- The Daily Star, HRBF Concerned over NGO bureau’s directive, 1st January 2020, available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/country/news/hrfb-concerned-over- ngo-bureau-directive-1847794.
- The Daily Star, Indigenous/Adivasi: NGOs asked to drop the words from their names, 31 December 2019, available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/backpage/ news/Indigenousadivasi-ngos-asked-drop-the-words-their-names-1846111.
- For example, the CHT Accord Implementation Monitoring Committee was reformed in
- For example, the CHT Accord Implementation Monitoring Committee and CHT Land Commission had several
- Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity, Parbatya Chattagram Chuktir 22 tomo Borshopurti Upolokkhye Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samitir Songbad Sommeloner Mul Boktobyo (Key Message of PCJSS on 22nd Anniversary of the CHT Accord), Hotel Sundarban, 1st December 2019, Dhaka.
- CHT News, 2 January 2020, available at: http://chtnews.blogspot. com/2020/01/blog-post_2.html
- Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity, Home Minster’s Visit to CHT: Provocative and threatening speech with one-sided allegation of terrorism caused unnerving panic in the psyche of mass people, 26 October 2019, available at: https://www.pcjss.org/home-ministers-visit-to-cht-provocative- threatening-speech-with-one-sided-allegation-of-terrorism-caused- unnerving-panic-in-the-psyche-of-mass-people/.
- Ahmed, Hana Shams, A death squad comes to the hills, 26 December 2019, available at: https://netra.news/2019/a-death-squad-comes-to-the-hills-450.
- The Daily Star, Rights bodies concerned, 25 September 25 2019, available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/rights-bodies-concerned-1804819.
- The Daily Sun, Stop stone extraction from Sangu, Matamuhuri Rivers: High Court, 24 February 2019 available at: https://www.daily-sun.com/ post/373510/2019/02/24/Stop-stone-extraction-from-Sangu-MatamuhuriRivers:-High-Court-.
- Kapaeeng Foundation, Human Rights Report 2019 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh, 2020, Dhaka.
- United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. (CAT/C/BGD/1). Accessed 20 February 2020. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20 Documents/BGD/CAT_C_BGD_CO_1_35737_E.pdf.
This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here