The Indigenous World 2022: 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, which represents 1.8% of the total population. Indigenous Peoples in the country, however, claim that their population stands at some 5 million. The majority of the Indigenous population live in the plains districts of the country, 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. 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-four 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.
Indigenous women in Bangladesh
Indigenous women and girls continue to remain in a subordinate position in the socio-economic-political spaces of Bangladesh when compared to Indigenous males as well as their other national counterparts. Their disadvantaged position is characterised by multiple forms of violence, discrimination and marginalisation attributed to the multiple burdens of their gender, ethnicity, and poor socio-economic conditions. While patriarchal norms prevalent in society limit their everyday spaces for freedom, they face systematic discrimination within the national legal framework. Indigenous women and girls have thus been pushed into a suffocating atmosphere in which discrimination and violence are routine and systemic. Over recent decades, Indigenous women have proved their strong resilience through their vehement struggle to break the barriers imposed by society and the state. A growing number of Indigenous women have taken up leadership roles in different activist and civil society platforms (both Indigenous and non-indigenous), including Indigenous customary institutions, and they have been increasingly active as politicians and bureaucrats. Although these developments are far from enough to change the overall situation facing them, these shifts have been critical in creating greater awareness about the harsh lived experiences of the country’s Indigenous women and girls.
Violence against Indigenous women and girls
Violence against Indigenous women and girls has remained a sustained issue of concern in the plains as well as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Despite laws and policies such as the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act (2000) (commonly known as Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain), Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, and National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children (2013-2025), which have been in place for years, 42 cases of violence against Indigenous women and girls were documented by Kapaeeng Foundation, a human rights organisation based in Bangladesh, in 2021. While the actual number of cases may be even higher, 46 Indigenous women and girls were sexually or physically assaulted in the aforementioned cases. Of these reported cases, 4 of the victims were killed or killed after rape, 22 were raped, 12 survived attempted rape, and 8 were abducted or experienced physical/sexual harassment. What is especially alarming is that around half of those facing such violence were minors and physically and mentally challenged. While all the alleged perpetrators were men from different backgrounds, the response from the state authorities towards these cases was mixed. Some 60% of the alleged perpetrators were never arrested, while the rest were prosecuted through the justice system. The role of the state authorities in providing justice to Indigenous women and girl survivors of abuse was thus far from satisfactory.
Leave to Appeal against CHT Regulation 1900
A few individuals of unknown background have filed two Civil Review Petitions in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, with ulterior motives and in a conspiratorial manner referring to two cases – Wagachara Tea Estate Ltd. v. Abu Taher & Others, 36 BLD (AD) (2016), 36, and Government of Bangladesh v. Rangamati Food Products Ltd. & Others, CLR (AD) (2017), 197 – and they have sought a review of the decisions of the Appellate Division.
Like other special regulations enacted by the colonial British government that apply to Indigenous and tribal areas in Pakistan, India and Burma (Myanmar), such as the Chin Hills Regulation – 1896 and the Inner Line Regulation – 1897, the CHT Regulation – 1900 provides, among other things, for limited self-rule through traditional Indigenous institutions and a form of legal pluralism in which customary laws, conventions, usages and practices enjoy a special and high status. On 7 January 1900, the then British government enacted this regulation for the CHT region. Once Bangladesh became independent in 1971, like numerous other pre-independence laws, the validity of the CHT Regulation 1900 continued to be upheld by the government and by the superior courts of law, until 2003.
In 2003, during the regime of the right-of-centre Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and in response to the supplications of the then Attorney General for Bangladesh, the High Court Division declared the CHT Regulation 1900 a “dead law” in the case of Rangamati Food Products Ltd. v. Commissioner of Customs and Others, BLC (2005), 525. However, in 2016, when the centrist Awami League-led government was in power, the then Attorney General appealed against the “dead law” decision to the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court accordingly declared the CHT Regulation 1900 valid and effective. Further, the special legal system of the CHT, along with the region’s Indigenous Peoples’ customary laws, was strongly upheld by the Appellate Division.
On 24 November 2021, 27 civil society leaders of Bangladesh made a strong call to the government to defend the CHT Regulation 1900 in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh through a public statement. In the statement, they said that to have the CHT Regulation 1900 declared a “dead law”, or to have it repealed, was fundamentally inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the CHT Accord of 1997. They also referred to ILO Convention No. 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, ratified by Bangladesh in 1972, in support of their contention.
If the country’s apex court rules against the validity of the CHT Regulation 1900, in whole or in a substantive manner, this will further marginalise the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT and bring instability to this region. It will also weaken the secular, non-communal and multicultural character of the national ethos.
Directive of the Armed Forces Division to stop turmeric/ginger cultivation in the hills
The Armed Forces Division of the Prime Minister’s Office has directed immediate steps to be taken to increase strict surveillance and discourage the cultivation of turmeric and ginger in the hilly areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).
The directive was issued on 29 August 2021, on behalf of the Principal Staff Officer of the Armed Forces Division and entitled “the issue of destruction of biodiversity and natural balance in the hill areas through arson for commercial cultivation of Jum (turmeric / ginger)”. The Secretaries of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change were told to take such action.
The directive says that:
People of the hill communities living in the hills traditionally prepare land by setting fire to the hills for ‘Jum’ cultivation in the dry season every year for their traditional way of life, which is a casual matter. But with the introduction of large-scale Jum farming on a commercial basis, there is an extreme and far-reaching adverse effect on biodiversity and nature in the hilly areas.
Four descriptions of the subject and four opinions / recommendations were included in the directive.
The directive was highly criticised by the Indigenous leaders and civil society organisations. The community leaders think the directive is against the public interest, racist and hateful to the Jumma people of the CHT. The hill people have been blamed for the extreme and far-reaching adverse effects on biodiversity and nature in the hilly areas, ignoring all other root causes. The directive is a threat to Indigenous Peoples practising their traditional occupation – Jhum cultivation – in the hills where they grow turmeric and ginger, among other crops. The government agency that issued the directive should have opened a constructive dialogue with the Indigenous leaders and institutions representing Indigenous and local people before issuing the controversial directive. They should also have consulted with experts and academics to ascertain whether there is any scientific evidences in favour of their claim. None of this took place.
The implementation of this directive will affect Indigenous women seriously as much of the labour required for farming such crops is generally supplied by them. The role of Indigenous women in agricultural reproduction in the CHT is critical because, aside from tending their own farms, many Indigenous women work for neighbouring (richer) farmers as wage labourers to augment their family income. Moreover, Indigenous women are active in the sale of agricultural crops in local bazaars (marketplaces) on weekly or bi-weekly bazaar days. Implementation of this directive will therefore represent a threat to the role of Indigenous women as key economic actors, a common feature of the CHT’s Indigenous economies.
Protest against digging of artificial lake by occupying the land of Indigenous Peoples in Madhupur
The Forest Department plans to establish a tourist attraction by creating a lake on the Garo people’s land in Madhupur forest under Tangail district. The Indigenous people living in Madhupur found out through reliable sources that the Forest Department had decided to dig an artificial lake on the three areas of cropland of the Indigenous Peoples, at the place called Amtali of Pirgacha Mouza of No. 11 Sholakuri Union near Chunia, Pegamari, Pirgacha, Sainamari, Bhutia and Thanarbaid villages inhabited by the Indigenous Garo, Koch and Barman, for the purpose of entertaining tourists. A Minister and Member of Parliament from the local area subsequently declared as much at a public gathering.
Local Indigenous Peoples’ organisations have protested at the plan to dig the artificial lake by occupying the croplands of the Indigenous Peoples in Madhupur of Tangail. They said that they do not want the so-called development in the name of tourism as it will destroy the life and livelihood of Indigenous Peoples and the natural environment. They believe that, if the project is implemented, it will have negative impacts on the natural forest and environment and adverse effects on the social and economic life of the Indigenous Peoples living alongside the planned lake area.
UN Working Group concerned at the situation of enforced disappearances
Through a report (A/HRC/WGEID/125/1) updated on 6 December 2021, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the UN Human Rights Council expressed its concern at the situation of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. This report was prepared following the 125th session of the Working Group held from 20-29 September 2021. At its session, the Working Group reviewed and adopted two general allegations against Bangladesh and Honduras. In the allegation against Bangladesh, the Working Group alleges that law enforcement agencies and security and intelligence forces make frequent and ongoing use of enforced disappearances as a tool for targeting political opponents and other dissidents of the government. The Working Group had received information concerning alleged violations and obstacles concerning implementation of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in Bangladesh, including the enforced disappearance of nearly 600 people by the security forces since 2009. The report claims that different surveillance tools are used by the state to commit these enforced disappearances, while the relatives of the forcibly disappeared persons are threatened not to pursue investigations and police officers allegedly refuse to register complaints concerning such cases.
It is notable that enforced disappearances have remained a matter of concern in Bangladesh for the past few years. Although there is no disaggregated data or specific mention of Indigenous Peoples, this report of the Working Group is of particular relevance for Indigenous Peoples’ rights activists in the CHT of Bangladesh. Hundreds of activists and supporters of PCJSS and UPDF have reportedly been on the run due to the fear of enforced disappearances, arbitrary killings, and detention, particularly since 2017. While there have been allegations several cases of enforced disappearances of PCJSS and UPDF activists during this period, the case of Michael Chakma, a UPDF leader, is notable in this regard. He was reportedly forcibly disappeared on 9 April 2019 by state forces and his whereabouts are currently unknown. A PCJSS spokesperson claimed that 50 Indigenous persons, including activists, were arbitrarily arrested while 49 were detained for a short duration by the state forces in 2020. The PCJSS spokesperson also claims that 503 Indigenous people were victims of human rights violations committed by the state forces in 2021. Among them, 55 of the victims were arbitrarily arrested, while false charges were filed against another 60 people. UPDF’s documentation offers a slightly different number, claiming that 148 Indigenous persons were arbitrarily arrested. Thirty-four of the victims were PCJSS and UPDF activists/supporters.
Five-star hotel on the land of the Mro: update
Villagers from eight Mro villages of Chimbuk Range in Bandarban district passed the year amid fear, despair, and uncertainty, as their ancestral land remained fenced-off. The land of the Mro people, amounting to 20 acres, was announced as the site for construction of a luxury five-star Marriot resort in September 2020, violating existing laws and without obtaining any free, prior and informed consent from these Indigenous villagers. This land, which is inextricably linked to the livelihood and identity of the Mro villagers, has become off-limits since then as the declared area has been cordoned-off due to routine army patrols in the area. The affected villagers fear that the resort project would particularly affect Mro women in carrying out their day-to-day livelihood activities and household chores. They fear that the risk of sexual violence from outsiders would increase as a result of the planned resort: “Lots of people will come from outside and they will not respect our women, they will sometimes do bad things. We do not have the authorities to help us with this. I mean, they do not do anything... So they [the women] decide to remain silent.” The announcement of this planned luxury resort project by the officials of the Army Welfare Trust and corporate giant Sikder Group’s R&R Holdings Ltd. sparked protests nationally and internationally. However, this “issue” soon became nearly oblivious amid other burning matters. A recent report from IWGIA notes that the Mro villagers currently have neither access to this land nor any information about what is happening inside its boundary. This report also mentions that the Mro people are dismayed and despairing amid such uncertainty, while there is serious censorship of the media concerning this project. Young Mro activists feel a dire need to draw further attention of this land grab to the different stakeholders.
This article is part of the 36th edition of 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 2022 in full here
Notes and references
 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population & Housing Census 2011.” Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2011: 3. http://www.bbs.gov.bd/site/page/47856ad0-7e1c-4aab-bd78-892733bc06eb/Population-and-Housing-Census
 Barkat, Abul. “Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case of Bangladesh.” Paper presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, Dhaka, January 8-10, 2015. https://bea-bd.org/site/images/pdf/027.pdf
 Halim, Sadeka. “Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis.” In “Songhati”, edited by Sanjeeb Drong, 72. Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, 2015.
 Laws of Bangladesh. “The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (ACT NO. OF 1972).” Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/part-details-199.html 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 communities.”
 Ahmed, Hana Shams. “Multiple Forms of Discrimination Experienced by Indigenous Women from Chittagong Hill Tracts in the within Nationalist Framework.” [This paper was presented at a consultation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Ms. Rashida Manjoo. The consultation was arranged by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) in Kuala Lumpur in January, 2011.]
 Kapaeeng Foundation.Human Rights Report 2021 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh. Dhaka, Kapaeeng Foundation, 2022.
 Chakma, Parban. “The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation and its constitutional status.” The Daily Star, February 28, 2022. https://www.thedailystar.net/law-our-rights/news/the-chittagong-hill-tracts-regulation-and-its-constitutional-status-2003809
 Prothom Alo. “'Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulations 1900 should be kept in force.” Prothom Alo, November 24, 2021. https://www.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF-%E0%A6%9A%E0%A6%9F%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%9F%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%AE-%E0%A6%B6%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A7%E0%A6%BF-%E0%A7%A7%E0%A7%AF%E0%A7%A6%E0%A7%A6-%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%B0-%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%96%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%87-%E0%A6%B9%E0%A6%AC%E0%A7%87
 Hill Voice. “Directive of the Armed Forces Division to stop turmeric-ginger cultivation in the hills.” Hill Voice, November 20, 2021. https://hillvoice.net/directive-of-the-armed-forces.../
 Information shared by Mr. Eugin Nakrek, President of Joyenshahi Adivasi Unnoyon Porishod, a local community-based organisation in Modhupur.
 Hill Voice. “Protest against digging of artificial lake by occupying land of indigenous peoples in Madhupur.” Hill Voice, November 11, 2021. https://hillvoice.net/protest-against-digging-of.../
 OHCHR. “A/HRC/WGEID/125/1. Human Rights Council. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Communications transmitted, cases examined, observations made and other activities conducted by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.* 125th session** (20–29 September 2021)”.
 Amnesty International. “Bangladesh: Fears of activist’s enforced disappearance: Michael Chakma.” Amnesty International Urgent Action, May 8, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa13/0318/2019/en/
 IWGIA. ““If I lose my land, I am no one. I have nothing”: A voice from the Indigenous Mro facing eviction from their land.” IWGIA, April 27, 2021 https://iwgia.org/en/bangladesh/4352-“if-i-lose-my-land,-i-am-no-one-i-have-nothing”-a-desperate-plea-of-the-indigenous-mro-facing-eviction-from-their-land.html
 IWGIA. “What is happening to the land of the Mro people?.” IWGIA, December 15, 2021. https://iwgia.org/en/news/4584-what-is-happening-to-the-land-of-the-mro-people.html