Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Debate over 'Indigenous' Issued

On August 9th, International Day of the Indigenous People was observed by the tribal people of the CHT region and around the world at a time when a controversy has been raging in our country on the identity of indigenous people.

The debate relates to whether there are any indigenous people in the country. There are two views on the issue, supported by documents.

The government view is that people in the CHT region constitute "ethnic minorities" and not "indigenous" people because they are not pre-settlers on the territory of Bangladesh as has been the case of the Aborigines in Australia or Maoris in New Zealand or Red Indians in North America.

On the other hand, the tribal people in Bangladesh consider themselves as "indigenous" or "adivasi" because the ILO Conventions and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recognise them as such. Furthermore, they refer to the AL election manifesto, which says certain actions would be taken with regard to "indigenous peoples."

On July 26, the foreign minister, briefing diplomats and UN agencies, reportedly stated that Bangladesh was concerned over attempts by some quarters at home and abroad to identify the ethnic minority groups in the CHT region as indigenous people.

Quoting the Oxford dictionary, the foreign minister said that indigenous people were those who "belong to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else."

The CHT people were late settlers in Bengal and the CHT region compared to the Bangalee natives residing here for more than 4,000 years, she pointed out.

The minister said that the tribal people most certainly did not reside or exist in the CHT before the 16th century and were not considered "indigenous people" in any historical reference books, memoirs or legal documents.

She also explained the issue to the editors and senior journalists from print and electronic media in a separate briefing on the same day.

To put it simply, the government's view is from the historical point of view, no ethnic group can claim to be "indigenous" in Bangladesh in the sense the word has been employed for the Aborigines in Australia or pre-settlers before the invaders in Latin, Central and North America.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, a non-government international organisation, has objected to the statements made by the foreign minister.

The Commission believes that her comments reflect a lack of commitment on the part of the Bangladesh government towards its national and international obligations, including those contained in the 2008 election manifesto of the Bangladesh Awami League, the major component of the current Grand Alliance government, and the provisions of the ILO Convention 107 and other international human rights standards, among others.
Paragraph 18 of the election manifesto of AL of 2008 states as follows:

"All laws and other arrangements discriminatory to minorities, indigenous people and ethnic groups will be repealed. Special privileges will be made available in educational institutions for religious minorities and indigenous peoples." (DS/ Election Special: December 16, 2008).

Therefore, it has been argued that the AL has acknowledged in its election manifesto 2008 that some segment of people in Bangladesh are "indigenous." The AL-led coalition government should make it clear which ethnic community they meant as "indigenous people."

The Chief of Chakma circle, Barrister Raja Debashish Roy, said to a leading English daily: "The government probably is under the impression that recognising indigenous people might mean extra responsibility to bear. The constitution does not say that there are no indigenous people in the country. It has not used the word indigenous but it has not used the minority either to identify anybody." (DS/ July 27, 2011)
Mr. Roy further referred to the Small Ethnic Group Cultural Institutions Act, 2010, enacted by the present government, where the law itself stated in its definition part that small ethnic group would mean indigenous people.

At a rally, Rashed Khan Menon MP, chairman of the parliamentary caucus on indigenous affairs, reportedly said: "We had a chance to give them (indigenous people) constitutional recognition after 40 years. But I think it would not be done."

After the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) said that different indigenous groups were identified as Bangalee in the Constitution and their ethnic identities and basic rights have been denied.

Let us look at a few international instruments as to how they interpret the term "indigenous."

The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 acknowledges that although there are tribal peoples who are not "indigenous" in the literal sense in the countries in which they live, yet they live in a similar situation as indigenous people. And on that basis the ILO does not differentiate between tribal and indigenous people
Furthermore, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 does not define indigenous people but only gives a broad understanding of the term, which includes tribal people as well, and ECOSOC does not make a distinction between tribal and indigenous people.

Although the 2007 UN Declaration is not a legally binding instrument under international law, according to the UN, it does "represent the dynamic development of international legal norms and it reflects the commitment of the UN's member states to move in certain directions."

The manner in which a sovereign state categorises its citizens remains within the domain of its constitution and national laws, but if it is at variance with the international instruments majority members of civil society hold the view that Bangladesh, as a responsible member of the UN, may go along with the broad understanding of the term "indigenous people" as contemplated by the ILO Conventions and ECOSOC.

Many would say that neither side has made it clear to the public at large what the implications -- social, economic and legal -- would be if the Bangladesh government does or does not recognise "tribal" people as "indigenous." That seems to be the essence of the matter.

The Economist And The Orwellian

Journalism which is patronising is as dangerous as reportage draped in absurdity. In these past few weeks, The Economist news magazine has patently been indulging in both. First it leaves its readers, especially in Bangladesh, stunned with its "discovery" that the Awami League won the last general elections through an infusion of Indian money. Just how its reporter, or those who fed him such unsubstantiated information from inside Bangladesh, came by this conclusion is something that is not made clear.

And then comes another bit of wisdom on Bangladesh, this one obviously intended to cancel out the earlier one. The elections of 2008, it has now happily discovered, was a "watershed" for Bangladesh, the "fairest poll in the country's four-decade history." Fair enough. If The Economist has acknowledged the error of its earlier ways, who are we to complain?

But, yes, our complaint is and for long will be one: why did The Economist have to humiliate the people of Bangladesh in the first place by initially suggesting that it was not their votes but Indian money which lifted the Awami League to power? No one argues about the failures of this government, about the systematic ineptitude it has demonstrated in these nearly three years in office. But this administration is there because the people, back in December 2008, wanted it to be there.

The Economist has now corrected its original assessment. Even so, we ask, why must a journal resting on such strong global credibility suffer from bouts of amnesia? It now remembers reality, which is good, for it and for everyone else. But must journalism lapse into forgetfulness, ever?

There are some other points The Economist raises and which must be responded to. Note that a rebuttal of the arguments made by the news magazine is not and cannot be a defence of the Bangladesh government. But a rebuttal must be made because there seems to be an effort underway, consciously or unconsciously within and outside Bangladesh today, at playing truant with our history.

The Economist is riled that Sheikh Hasina's government is busy trying to build a personality cult around her father. There are two points to be made in response to that argument. In the first place, it is the considered belief among very large numbers of Bengalis that not every place and every institution must be named after the Father of the Nation. That only does posthumous damage to his reputation. In the second, and this is for The Economist to hear, we in Bangladesh have always held Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in deep reverence. We do not build a cult of personality around him. His place is in our lives, in our collective memory, is already there because he shaped history for us. Which is why we keep him on heights far above those claimed or attained by other political figures in this country.

The Economist makes another faux pas when it seeks to pit our very distinguished Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus against Bangabandhu. The absurdity is stunning. Its belief that Sheikh Hasina's ire against Professor Yunus is rooted in her conviction that the international profile of the founder of Grameen threatens to eclipse Bangabandhu's "sacred memory" leaves you wondering who it is trying to embarrass more -- the Nobel laureate, the soul of the Father of the Nation or Sheikh Hasina.

You are tempted to ask The Economist if Amartya Sen's Nobel credentials have eclipsed Mahatma Gandhi's reputation as the father of the Indian nation or if Professor Abdus Salam's coming by the Nobel has rubbed Pakistan's Mohammad Ali Jinnah's historical significance in the dust. Sheikh Hasina, notes the news magazine, wants her father to be revered. The facts escape its reporters or its editorial board: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has always been a revered figure in Bangladesh. And Muhammad Yunus is one individual who has done us proud in our times.

The Economist injects something of the sarcastic into its observation of Sheikh Hasina's hopes for this country. Journalism is not literature. And political commentary dwindles into the laughable when it seeks to ridicule a politician, any politician, who may have perfectly good reasons for articulating her vision the way she would like it to. The journal writes: "She (Hasina) hopes to emulate not Indonesia or India today, but the country imagined by her father before his murder in 1975."

Bangabandhu was not given to the wishful. His creative political imagination was what mattered. He simply envisioned a happy, democratic, exploitation-free, prosperous society in the country he had led to freedom in 1971 before he was cut down in 1975. So where is the problem here, for The Economist? Why does it see Don Quixote and his windmills here?

Yes, our politics is in disarray, even "poisonous" as The Economist would have it. We do have problems with our dysfunctional democracy, with our efforts to hold the war criminals of 1971 to account, indeed with life as a whole. But we still write freely, we read books, we argue vociferously amongst ourselves, we believe in ourselves, we understand the world beyond our frontiers, we hold fast to our history. And, yes, we keep hope burning bright in our little hamlets and villages.

Does that look Orwellian to The Economist? If it does, it has a huge problem on its hands.