Church seeks rights for indigenous Bangladeshis

A Catholic official and activists have called for equal rights and justice for indigenous people in Bangladesh as millions of ethnic minorities marked UN-designated International Day for World’s Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9. They urged the government to ensure the basic constitutional rights of ethnic communities including recognition as Adivasi (indigenous peoples) and equal rights to food, employment, education in their mother language, healthcare and justice for abuse including torture, killing and sexual harassment. The Covid-19 pandemic forced indigenous groups to curtail celebrations for the day or to resort to virtual programs as demands for rights and justice have grown louder and stronger. “This year we seek from the government our constitutional recognition, formation of a separate land commission and a ministry of indigenous peoples,” Rabindranath Soren, president of the National Adivasi Council, told UCA News. He alleged that Bangladesh’s indigenous people suffer from various types of violence including torture, killing and sexual harassment and a culture of impunity against such crimes exists.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, indigenous people have been deprived of government food aid and starved, while 80 percent of indigenous students who returned to villages are vulnerable to dropping out, he said, adding that about 25,000 indigenous people have lost their jobs. “The government should take immediate necessary steps to protect indigenous peoples,” Soren said. The rights and development of indigenous people have been always a priority for the Church but they are denied due rights from the state, said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission. “The Church and development groups are working for indigenous communities, but their rights can be effectively met if the government wants. The authorities need to realize ethnic minorities are not a threat but a valuable resource,” Father Gomes told UCA News. “They do not want big things, just their basic rights as citizens. Our political parties make big promises to them before the election but forget when they are in power. We cannot establish a state of harmony if this continues.”  Indigenous peoples migrated to today’s Bangladesh centuries ago, but due to discrimination they are denied equal rights and justice in the Bengali-majority country, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, president of the Bangladesh chapter of Berlin-based Transparency International, noted during an online discussion on the day. “They are innocent, strong, punctual, cultural-minded and they love Mother Nature very much. Yet they face torture, exploitation and eviction from their ancestral land. Their basic rights as a human being have yet to be recognized,” he said. “Denial of equal rights to indigenous people goes against the spirit of Bangladesh’s War of Independence from Pakistan 1971.” Indigenous people account for about three million of the Muslim-majority country’s 160 million inhabitants. The government recognizes some 50 ethnic minority groups, while indigenous groups and independent researchers believe there are more than 100 ethnic communities. Indigenous groups are mostly Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. There are an estimated 600,000 Christians, the majority of them Catholics, in Bangladesh and about half of the Christians hail from ethnic minority communities. Five out of eight Catholic dioceses in the country are predominantly indigenous.  

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