[Keynote paper – originally written and presented in Bangla, by Prashanta Triprua – at a seminar organized in Dhaka on December 18, 1993 as part of the celebrations of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People]
Celebrations of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People 1993 in Dhaka included a rally held on 18-12-93. (Photo courtesy: Maung Hla Prue Pintu)
The United Nations has declared 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. Although this is mainly a symbolic gesture, it has a special significance to people(s) all over the world who can identify themselves as ‘indigenous’, as this move signals an effort to draw the attention of the international community to the history of centuries of dispossession and oppression that they have faced, and to the neglected space that they occupy in the contemporary world order. However, this move by the UN has not necessarily been welcome equally by all member states. While some countries have officially recognized the notion of indigenous people(s) and their special rights, no similar measures exist in many other countries. Instead, there is an attempt to sidestep, through rhetorical ploys, the main objective of the UN declaration. In this regard, Bangladesh is no exception. Here the government has taken no initiative to observe the UN Year of the Indigenous People, on the ground that there are no indigenous people in this country. But to a Garo, Santal or Mro, this government explanation is tantamount to denying his or her very existence. Up until now s/he has been labeled, derogatorily, as ‘adibashi’. Now just as she wants to assert herself on the international stage by wearing this label proudly, her government is telling her that she cannot claim to be ‘indigenous’. Naturally, the questions that arise foremost in this context are: What does the word ‘indigenous’ mean? Can those people of Bangladesh who are known as ‘adibashi’ or ‘tribal’ be termed ‘indigenous’?
Literally, the term ‘indigenous’ means ‘of local origin’. In this sense, any person who is a citizen of a given country by birth can claim to be an ‘indigenous’ person of that country. However, if we go far back in the past in search of origins, we will find that in many parts of the world, there are people whose ancestors came there from different directions at different points in time. Given this, identifying a group of people as ‘indigenous’ in relation to a given territory is to acknowledge that they are the descendants of the oldest known inhabitants of that place. Clearly, such identification is a relative matter. It depends on how we set the boundaries of time and space. If we go back far into the prehistoric past, the word ‘indigenous’ loses its meaning. In that case we can at best say that all humans are indigenous to this planet, i.e. that we are not the descendents of anyone from the heavens or alien planets, rather we all have a common origin. The ancient religious belief that all humans are the descendants of Adam and Eve is in a way supported by science too. But the place where Adam/Eve might have lived as postulated by scientists was not any heavenly paradise, but most likely somewhere in Africa, from where the early humans branched out to various parts of the world. However, the history of humanity is not just that of being divided into various branches or sub-branches. These branches or sub-branches have also reunited in new ways at different points in time. However, in many cases such reunions did not take place in a fraternal manner, but instead took place through the conquest of one group by another. It is through such unequal relations among various groups of people, a system known as the ‘state’ emerged in the history of the world. Although the word ‘civilization’ is often used to refer to the earliest state-organized societies, the history of civilization is really a history of barbarism in the sense just indicated. Since the advent of the state, state-organized societies have expanded their empires by subjugating other groups of people, or by killing or driving them off and taking control of their lands. It is in the light of such ruthless historical processes that the concept of indigenous people is meaningful. It is particularly applied in the context of the worldwide European colonial expansion of the past five centuries.
The history of how European colonial expansion led to the decimation, displacement, or cultural destruction of the original inhabitants of continents such as the Americas and Australia, and of other parts of the world, are relatively well known to all. The term ‘indigenous’ is most applicable to those descendants of the original inhabitants of these lands who have survived the colonial impact and have retained their distinct cultural identities. In the past, Europeans referred to these conquered peoples by different names such as savage, primitive, tribal, Red Indian, Aboriginal etc. Usage of the term ‘indigenous’ began as a way of avoiding the derogatory and racist connotations of such words. But that does not mean that the term ‘indigenous’ is only applicable in places like the Americas and Australia. On the contrary, it is equally applicable in many countries of Africa and Asia as well. This proposition may seem apparently illogical, as it is local people who are now in power in various countries of Africa and Asia. [But let us examine the matter more closely.]
While there was European colonial rule in different countries of Asia and Africa, all local people were seen as ‘natives’, and inferior in the scale of civilization, in the eyes of the Europeans. But in these countries, the new ruling classes and members of majority dominant ethnic groups have started colonial-style rule, exploitation and oppression over different marginalized groups. The latter groups of people who are victims of internal colonialism in many parts of Africa and Asia – particularly those who can be identified separately on the basis of distinctive cultures or socioeconomic characteristics, and who are interested in holding onto these characteristics – may also be termed indigenous. It is such an expanded meaning of the term that is intended in the usage adopted by the United Nations. In this context, the question as to when the ancestors of different groups of people settled in a given country is secondary. Instead, basically all the people who are victims of so called progress or ‘spread of civilization’, and have been designated by various colonial labels like ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’ etc., can all legitimately call themselves indigenous.
From the preceding discussion, it is clear that the various groups of people that are known as ‘adibashi’ (adivasi) and ‘tribal’ in Bangladesh may all be identified as ‘indigenous’ in the sense in which the word is being used internationally. The position of the government of Bangladesh that there are no indigenous people in this country is not based on any strong logic. It is not because of the opaqueness of the word ‘indigenous’, but in order to keep the indigenous/tribal people of the country deprived of their legitimate rights that the government has taken such a position. Since there is an international move underway to promote the rights of the indigenous people around the world, recognizing the adibashi/tribal people as ‘indigenous’ would mean expressing a commitment to support this international initiative. However, in a context where all successive governments of Bangladesh have tried their best to conceal the history of the violation of the rights of the adibashi/tribal people of this country, the present government too does not have sufficient will or preparation to observe the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
Singling out the people known as adibashi and tribal as ‘indigenous’, however, does not mean taking a position that the roots of the majority people of this country, i.e. the Bengalis, do not lie in the soil of the country. The history and identity of Bengalis have evolved on this land by absorbing various invading groups of people that arrived at various points in time since very ancient times. But today it is the Bengalis who hold state power. Therefore, the context in which Bengalis may be called indigenous vis-à-vis any group of foreign rulers does not exist now. On the other hand, in case of those who are known as adibashi or tribal, the Bengali ruling classes are trying to eradicate the roots that these people have established on the soil of this land. Under the circumstances, the concept of indigenous people that has developed internationally is very relevant and meaningful to the Adibashi/tribal people of this country.
In terms of language, culture or identity, a Santal, Garo or Mro is not certainly Bengali. Some reflection will make it clear that various labels that are commonly used to denote their distinctive identities like ‘Adibashi’ and ‘tribal’ are actually more or less synonymous with the term ‘indigenous’, although the Bangla labels also carry some derogatory connotations, which make them unacceptable to many. In terms of dictionary definitions, the Bangla word ‘adibashi’ and the English ‘indigenous’ are completely synonymous. However, the word ‘adibashi’ has been in usage in Bangla language long before the word ‘indigenous’ became widely known, and in general usage the word (adibashi) has taken on a slightly different meaning in place of its original, literal meaning. In Bangla, the word ‘adibashi’ has come to be used to mean ‘primitive’ and ‘of lower standing in terms of civilization’. That is the reason that in books such as Aaranya janapade by Abdus Sattar, we find that groups such as Santal, Garo and Chakma are being referred to as ‘adibashi’ (which literally means ‘original inhabitant), but at the same time it is also asserted that ‘none of the Adibashis are the sons of the soil of this country’!
Instead of getting drawn into a meaningless debate over who are the sons of the soil of this country, and who are not, the issue that we may consider is whether the Bangla word ‘adibashi’ may be used as equivalent to the English ‘indigenous’. The word ‘indigenous’ is relatively new, and so far it hardly has any negative connotation. On the other hand, in Bangla, the word ‘adibashi’ carries derogatory meanings. Thus it does not quite convey the special meaning and purpose that is associated with ‘indigenous’ as it is being used internationally. In this sense, it would make more sense to use the English word ‘indigenous’ directly in Bangla spelling, or to coin a new word. But personally I believe that at least for the time being it should not be too problematic to use the word ‘adibashi’ as a functional equivalent of ‘indigenous’. If the people who are known as ‘adibashi’ themselves can stand up with their heads held high within the country as well as abroad, then this label will one day carry positive connotations. It is from this point of view that in the rest of this article, I will use the term ‘adibashi’ as synonymous to ‘indigenous’.
The demand that the Adibashis of Bangladesh are making to be known as ‘indigenous people’ in the light of the UN declaration means that they want the rights to continue living in this country by keeping intact their distinct identities and cultures, the kinds of rights which no government has yet recognized fully. Regardless of whether the government accepts the notion of indigenous people as put forward by the UN, the government has no moral ground to dismiss the demand of the Adibashis. The BNP government does proclaim that their Bangladeshi nationalism and politics of development can lead to the socioeconomic emancipation of all people of the country including the Adibashis. Apparently the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism does provide an answer to the identity question of the Adibashis. When, after independence of Bangladesh, all the people of the country were declared to be Bengalis, it was a serious blow to the identities of the Adibashis. The way in which Bengali nationalism was imposed on the Adibashis actually undermined the democratic and non-communal (non-sectarian) spirit of the war of liberation. On the other hand, under the guise of Bangladeshi nationalism, successive governments moved even further away from the ideals of secularism and non-communalism. An identity as Bangladeshi does not by itself resolve the problems of the Adibashis. Besides, it is not the case that the idea of Bangladeshi nationalism was developed in order to cater to the Adibashis; rather, it was during the rule of the late president Ziaur Rahman, the proponent of Bangladeshi nationalism, that the magnitude of the violations of the rights of Adibashis intensified, especially in the CHT.
It is not that no government of Bangladesh has tried to bring about socioeconomic development of the indigenous people, but the concept of development that is now established in the country mainly serves the interests of the ruling classes and various multinational agencies. That is why we see that in the name of afforestation, attempt is being made to force the Garos out their homes and lands, or to turn the jum cultivators into rubber planters. If the government’s objective is really to protect forests, then there are ample reasons to uphold the traditional agricultural systems of the indigenous people. Many experts without any real knowledge of ecology tend to issue the verdict that the system of jum (shifting cultivation) is harmful to the environment. But they do not consider the fact that the kind of damage that jum cultivators could not inflict on the forests over centuries have been brought about by recent development activities of only a few decades. The jum cultivators do not cut down the trees of vast tracts of land at a time; instead they allow natural regeneration of forests in abandoned jum fields. They grow various crops that are appropriate for the local environment, and their beliefs and practices also help maintain ecological balance of forest lands. But the British colonial rulers wrote off jum as outdated in their own interest, and the history of the violation of the rights of cultural, economic and political rights of the indigenous people has gone on unchecked since then.
The cultures and economies of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have undergone significant changes over the past century. The lands on which the indigenous people used to practice jum (shifting) cultivation have now passed into the hands of the Forest Department, different government agencies and wealthy individuals. Those among the indigenous people who switched to plough agriculture by giving up jum too are losing the last possessions of livelihood against the onslaught of huge numbers of Bengalis who have arrived in search of land, and are backed up by state patronage. Poor and landless indigenous people are turning into wage laborers, and nowadays some among them have even taken up begging. On the other hand, those indigenous people who are still holding on to the age-old system of agriculture (jum), are doing so not out of ignorance, but because they do not find any viable alternatives. Government planners or economists may look at rubber plantation as an alternative to jum, but a jum cultivator knows that s/he cannot use rubber as food, and s/he also does not see any guarantee that s/he will get fair price for rubber if s/he were to produce it. What indigo plantation was to Bengali peasants during British rule, rubber plantation is to the jum cultivators today.
It is of course not the case that all indigenous people are poor and landless. But the type of land that we consider to be land in the conventional sense [i.e. plain land suitable for plough cultivation] was limited to begin with in areas inhabited by indigenous people. Besides, those indigenous people who began to gain ownership of such pieces of land too started losing their possessions to Bengali moneylenders and peasants. One may nowadays also come across some indigenous people who no longer have any direct relation with land, but are nonetheless landowners, but their numbers are not high. It may be said generally that the majority of indigenous people are finding out that they do not have much land underneath their feet to stand on, and whatever may be there, is being taken away from them. The indigenous people are not only losing their land, but many of them have also lost, or are in the process of losing, their right to protest, their right to justice, their lives, and their dignity. We know that a sizable proportion of the indigenous people of the CHT still live homeless lives as refugees in various refugee camps in India. The numbers of those indigenous people who have taken shelter elsewhere within the country after losing their homes, lands and family members are also not that small. Actually, in one sense, all indigenous people are already homeless psychologically. Those educated indigenous people who are scattered around in various urban areas of the country still have their identities and spiritual existence rooted in various remote corners of the country. Regardless of where an indigenous person may live, they cannot accept colonialist takeover of the land where he or she was born, wherein lie the memories of their ancestors, and where their brothers and sisters are still fighting for survival. It is through such resistance that their political consciousness and their attitudes towards life have evolved.
There is solidarity among indigenous people of all classes and all regions on the question of securing their cultural and political rights. This solidarity may not have yet taken the shape of any unified and organized movement, but there are efforts underway to make this happen. Because of their geographically scattered settlements, there have not yet been sufficient linkages developed among indigenous peoples living in various parts of the country, but all of them understand one another’s problems, because essentially they are all faced with the same fundamental problems. In this country, none of these groups have their existence recognized constitutionally; their traditional land rights have been ignored in the laws of the state; there is no guarantee that they can develop by keeping intact their own languages, cultures and identities; their human rights and basic civil rights have been grossly violated many times over in different ways. Based on these common problems and shared experiences, the indigenous people can organize a unified movement. Alongside, the indigenous people of this country will need to link up more closely with the international effort that is underway to promote the rights of indigenous people around the world. To say this, however, does not mean that the indigenous people will try to establish their rights by moving away from the national mainstream. The indigenous people themselves have never tried to keep themselves apart from the national context; rather, it is the ethnocentrism/chauvinism of the educated middle class Bengalis that has kept them at a distance. The indigenous people have at various times tried to present a picture of their problems at the national level, but their appeals have never left much of an imprint at the national psyche.
The history of Bangladesh is not only a history of Bengalis. Alongside the Bengali peasantry, the indigenous people of this country have also stood up to resist colonial rule and feudal exploitation in the past. The Santal rebellion of Nachole, the Hajong rebellion etc. are proofs of this. Many indigenous people took active part in the war of liberation of 1971 as well. Indigenous elements are pervasive in the Bangla language, in Bengali culture, and even in the make-up of the Bengali population. But no textbooks have proper mention of the roles of the indigenous peoples in making the history and culture of this country. They have been banished from history, from the national psyche, and now efforts are underway to wipe them off from the map the country as well. The existential crisis in which the indigenous people of Bangladesh find themselves in is no isolated incident in the global context. Indigenous peoples the world over are facing similar crises. But the problems that the indigenous peoples around the world face are not theirs alone; the question of their existence is tied to that of the future of the entire human race. The indigenous people are victims of progress in the sense in which the concept has been propagated globally by the West. But the limit and dangers of this type of progress has become clear today. Just as the indigenous people of the Amazon basin are facing economic and cultural extinction with the disappearance of the rain forests there, the ecological balance of the entire world too is in peril. It is from such realization that the international community has taken the initiative to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people. In observing the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, it is in such light that we have to view the whole matter.
The present English version, being published for the first time to mark the 20th anniversary of the historical celebration of the International IP Year in Bangladesh, is the author’s own direct translation of the original article. No attempt has been made to change any of the facts or arguments as presented in the Bangla version in 1993. It may be mentioned that the seminar held on December 18, 1993 was part of a series of activities – including a rally, cultural program and publication of a souvenir on the same day – that were organized under the supervision of a IP Year celebration committee that was co-convened by two opposition MPs of that time, Mr. Dipankar Talukdar and Mr. Promode Mankin (both of whom happen to be State Ministers at present).
In 1993, it was still a common practice in the UN for the term indigenous people to be used in the singular (i.e. without the plural suffix). Thus, the name of the year as declared by the UN was International Year of the World’s Indigenous People (not Peoples, which is used in latter day contexts, e.g. when we speak of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.) In the present (translated) version of my 1993 article, the previous practice has been followed in referring to the international year under considdration and its related contexts.
 ‘Adibashi’ is a Bangla word (আদিবাসী) of Sanskrit origin – it literally means ‘orginal inhabitant’ – that is quite synonymous with ‘indigenous’, but has acquired the connotation of ‘primitive’. The word is more commonly transliterated as ‘Adivasi’, particularly in India. It should be noted that in Bangladesh as well as India, many authors who use the word in Bangla (or other South Asian languages) and in English (in the transliterated form ‘Adivasi’) without any problem often object to the Adivasis being recognized as ‘indigenous people’ in the sense the term is used internationally!
 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was the party that was in power in 1993.