OP-ED: How indigenous communities have been pushed to the margins

It is time to move away from the misrepresentation, misinterpretation, and oversimplification of our ethnic minority groups

Since 1994, on August 9, the world has celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Different national and international NGOs, aid/development organizations, and state agencies in Bangladesh and abroad observe the day every year with a pledge to develop the indigenous peoples/adivasis of the world. However, critical analyses of the national and international discourses centring adivasis reveal more of pretence than substance.

Globally, a repeated displaying of the adivasi/indigenous people as backward/underdeveloped exemplifies the narrow scope of the “Adivasi Day.” In a way, this becomes a celebration of the dominant/subordinate relationship and structure — diminishing the possibility of shifting the political pendulum in favour of the adivasis. Thus, there is an urgent need to deconstruct the persistent hegemony and take steps to bring the issue of equality/equity for adivasis to the forefront across the world.

Without their land

There are at least 45 different adivasi groups (recognized by the government as ethnic minority groups only) in Bangladesh. They differ significantly from the majority Bangali population in terms of language, social and political organization, religion, marriage customs, birth and death rites, food, and agriculture techniques.

The adivasi groups of the hilly and forested terrain of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), having customary land rights, can still practise their indigenous form of subsistence cultivation called jhum to some extent. While the CHT attracts more attention in the developmental discourse, with efforts to ensure sustainable preservation of their livelihood, the plain land adivasis of the country as minority and marginalized groups are now very dependent on their Bangali landowners for their livelihood. Therefore, adivasis living in the plains with no special rights to land are worse off than those who are living in the CHT.

Overall, the adivasis live in a subservient position in economic relations with the Bangali people. Mostly they live in a politically disadvantageous position when majoritarian politics combine with a hierarchical social structure. Over the years, the adivasi people have experienced a powerful sense of social, political, and economic exclusion, lack of recognition, fear and insecurity, and social oppression.

The development discourse and beyond

Adivasi/indigenous people have gained much attention in the development discourse following the United Nations proclamation of an International Year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1994. However, the image of the adivasi in development discourse continued to be that of a “primitive,” “backward,” and “uncivilized” people in need of development.

The categorization of adivasi was rooted in colonial construction. British colonial administration treated them as “primitive,” and “savage” in which the emphasis had been on assimilating the adivasi and ensuring that they become more developed. This representation of the adivasi, once formed in the colonial regime, continued to be the major thrust in late 20th century developmental discourse.

The stereotypes, globally adopted by many scholars, policy-makers, and development organizers, also reflected in the adivasi development policies of Bangladesh. The policies emphasize their upliftment through economic integration with the market and educational programs that try to narrow the distance between adivasi and the Bangali.

Recently, an advertisement of a maid service provider revealed how the developmental/public discourses treat the adivasi/ethnic minority people. The advertisement was about providing “Garo tribal housemaid.” The agency advertised that they would deliver a “Garo housemaid” within 24 hours of an order. A picture of Garo woman also went with the call.

One may claim that the agency is giving employment opportunities to the Garos. However, many people and scholars expressed disdain claiming that it has reproduced an inferior status of the ethnic minority/adivasi people in Bangladesh. Nonetheless, the advertisement and the public outcry against it also reveal limits of our perspectives that relate negative connotations with adivasi people.

Thus, global development discourse, in one way or another, continues to reproduce an inferior status of the ethnic minority/indigenous peoples.

NGO activities and the blind spots

One of the aims to celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is to preserve the distinct customs, identity, and cultural heritage of indigenous/adivasi people. On this occasion, the organizers highlight their success in social mobilization, uphold the rights of adivasis, and encourage a feeling of “brotherhood” among the adivasis.

These events, by arranging adivasi cultural performances (eg dance and songs) attempt to revive adivasi uniqueness and distinctiveness. Observing “Adivasi Day” in this manner only illustrates how adivasi cultures are different from the majority people, for instance the Bangalis.

On “Adivasi Day,” NGOs arrange processions. During these events, the slogans and the demands that are chanted reflect that the NGOs supply a discursive framework to the adivasis for asserting their rights as adivasi. Mostly slogans such as “we, adivasis, are oppressed,” “land taken away from us by the land grabbers,” etc get prominence.

The slogans reflect that a “special” relationship of adivasi people to the land is a recurrent theme on the agenda of NGOs. The violence associated with attempts to dispose of adivasi land, the social and economic deprivations that result from dispossession, and the problems of securing or regaining rights to land, etc have been recognized in the NGOs’ agenda as the main barriers of the adivasi development.

However, less prioritized areas are their right of cultural determination and ethnic identity. There is no state policy for the protection or promotion of other languages within the state although 45 ethnic groups in Bangladesh form linguistic minorities in the country, speaking more than 30 different languages. However, this issue does not attract much NGO intervention.

Denial of the state

The governments in Bangladesh over the years, even though recognized adivasi people as cultural minorities, did not ever approve their indigenous/adivasi status. In response to Bangladesh’s constitution of 1972 having no appreciation for the status of other minority ethnic groups, Manabendra Narayan Larma established the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) political party.

The JSS had the core demands of regional autonomy, and constitutional recognition of pahari identities as adivasi. The JSS’s armed wing “Shanti Bahini” (peace force) became militarily active in the mid-1970s. With the widespread violence in the CHT, between 1980 and the early 1990s, thousands of adivasi/pahari people sought refuge in India. Many thousands more were displaced within the CHT.

From a majoritarian perspective, government offcials place emphasis on everybody having equal rights as citizens of Bangladesh. Since the independence of Bangladesh, even though the government has undertaken a number of development projects for ethnic minority groups, the governmental development projects have been benefitting the Bangalis (sometimes other larger ethnic groups compared to minority groups) and the consolidated hegemony of the state and majority ethnic groups over the adivasi (ethnic minority) groups.

Between 1980 and 1985, the then-government facilitated a transmigration program in the CHT. Shapan Adnan in 2004 noted that the whole process of Bangali settlement in CHT was to accelerate the settlement of a sizable Bangali population in the CHT that would be loyal to the Bangladesh state. Many Bangalis settled in “cluster villages,” they became human shields, and potential recruits for paramilitary operations against the “Shanti Bahini” and the wider pahari population.

The Bangali settlers were mostly landless families from the plain districts, some of whom were homeless due to river erosion. The government assured them that they would get land, food rations, cash allowances, and the protection of the security forces as incentives if they settled in the CHT. The land allotted to them included lands vacated by the adivasi/pahari people during earlier armed conflicts.

Absence of armed conflicts called for lesser attention towards adivasis of the plains. However, the state’s development agenda and representation of them as backward/inferior in the social spectrum resulted in denials of their existence and needs.

Scholars such as Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks have repeatedly claimed that the colonial rule in the sub-continent created divisions in the society and posed them against each other. In post-independence Bangladesh, the ways the Bangali and other ethnic groups are being posed against each other reflects the continuation of the colonialist policy.

The colonial legacy

The colonial legacy of representation did not cease to exist with the end of the colonial era. The post-colonial era is carrying the colonialist agenda towards the adivasi people. The adivasi people are often imagined as static, where adivasi voices are being dismissed or silenced. These contribute to the discursive construction of a social category — the adivasi — that reflects the limited perspective of NGOs but ignores the social realities of the adivasi peoples, as discussed above.

Broadly, developmental discourse ignores that adivasi people have the capacity to aspire and are willing to work towards bettering their lives. Thereby, they are represented as desperately in need of economic opportunities or education to escape the oppression and exploitation by the majority community. This ignorance justifies NGO interventions on behalf of the adivasi people. NGOs continue to carry these discourses because their very existence depends on such categorizations.

Governments in Bangladesh, historically, have sought aid/help from international development agencies to modernize the areas with the adivasis/ethnic minorities. However, in the formulation of the development boards and development strategies, no consultative body of the local people was formed, instead opinion was sought from international development agencies. The agencies are guided by concepts of progress and development plagued by colonial hegemony, and are often insensitive to local customs and values — that are deemed responsible for indigenous/native people’s perceived backwardness.

Many of the desired changes, what the government and development agencies wanted in terms of assimilation of the adivasis into wider society, have been achieved. However, the development of the adivasi/ethnic minority groups is at a long distance. While some of the adivasi people at the individual level have become economically and politically powerful and also achieved higher status in the society, as a group they are now more marginalized, economically vulnerable, and the social dynamics of the group have been altered.

Reality is more complex than any binary

The adivasis in Bangladesh are treated as minority people. Throughout history, terminologies such as tribe/upajati have been used to indicate a sub-category. These terms commonly refer to any other ethnic group except the Bangali people. However, these ethnic groups claim to be the adivasi/indigenous people — having their own cultural histories.

The identification of these different groups by common terms like tribal/upajati/pahari involves a variety of pejorative conditions and they are seen as different from, and inferior to the majority Bangali population in respect of race, language, religion, social organizations, etc.

However, the reality is much more complex than this binary demarcation. For instance: To ensure development of ethnic minority groups, the establishment of Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council (Act of 1998) by the government has created a systemic bias against smaller groups. The council has to have 12 tribal members elected but the formation is proposed in a way that enables bigger groups such as the Chakma, Marma, or Tripura to have more than one member while one can be elected from the Lushai, Bawm, Pangkhua, Khumi, Chak, and Khyang communities. As we see, the smaller groups are forced into a disadvantageous position to voice their rights and opinions about “development.”

Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the favouritism towards the ethnic majority groups has marginalized the adivasi/ethnic minorities of the country. Moreover, the development initiatives were marginalizing for the smaller adivasi communities. It is high time to move beyond considering the adivasi people as “objects” needing “development” and to protect the adivasi people from misrepresentation, misinterpretation, and simplification. To resolve these crises, we must become familiar with the dynamics of these communities.

To meet this end, adivasi scholars should come forward and non-adivasi academicians might engage in collaborative research involving the adivasis. Hence, the image of the adivasi could be decolonized and our epistemological stance would be responsive towards adivasi knowledge. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan, SM Arif Mahmud, and Shaila Sharmeen are anthropologists and teach at the University of Dhaka.



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