Indigenous communities in Bangladesh want legal recognition

Saleem Samad

Saleem Samad

Ethnic communities in Bangladesh are demanding to be recognized as indigenous population as lawmakers consider revising the country’s constitution.

Ethnic leaders said they were surprised to learn that a constitutional reform committee has recommended minority groups be dubbed as “tribals,” whereas a law enacted last year had replaced “tribal” with their preferred description as “indigenous” population.

Bangladesh’s majoritarian community is Sunni Muslim. Ethnic minorities represent less than 2 percent of the country’s population of 56 million.

What angers the groups is that law minister Shafique Ahmed recently said there were no indigenous people in Bangladesh and that the marginalized communities “are tribal.”

Ahmed early this month assured that the constitution review panel in their recommendations would include a provision for the indigenous groups that would state: “The state will preserve culture and tradition of the tribal and ethnic groups towards their development.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a press conference in April stated that there are no indigenous people.

When asked about the constitutional recognition of indigenous people, Hasina claimed, “There are no indigenous people in the country, but Saotals.”

The ruling Awami League party has been charged with playing a hide and seek game regarding the ethnic minorities issue. Awami received overwhelming political support during the last general election in 2008, with a hope that the indigenous communities would be formally recognized, ethnic leader Raja Devasish Roy lamented.

With that, we threw the word ‘tribal’ in the dustbin. But the government is now trying to retrieve that word from the dustbin.

The agitating ethnic minorities have drawn moral support from rights groups that have been advocating for their recognition.

Devasish Roy, a lawyer and social justice advocate said the indigenous people have long demanded their recognition to safeguard their existence.

Roy also criticized the special parliamentary committee on constitution amendments for not inviting any indigenous representatives to discussions.