I met a female university student in Dhaka who told me how an entire department forced her to perform a dance during an orientation programme. She told me with an air of disbelief in her voice: “I have never danced before. I never learned to and that was the first dance I ever had to perform. I was a newcomer and didn’t want to upset my friends and teachers.”
You might be thinking to yourself: “Why was she forced to dance?”
It is because she was an indigenous girl. And an entire department of a university in the capital thought that every single indigenous girl knows how to dance. After all, dancing and singing randomly, well, that’s what indigenous people do all the time, isn’t it?
Another indigenous girl from the Santal community in Bangladesh lost her role in a drama. The girl, despite there being no issue with her acting skills, was told that she could not play the role of the indigenous female character in the drama.
The drama was being made for a well-known private television channel in Bangladesh. She was indigenous but she was not “indigenous enough” in the eyes of the drama director.
Why is that? Because the director had the assumption that an “indigenous person” must have pale skin, a flat nose, small eyes, and straight hair.
The Santal people, who live in the plain lands of Bangladesh, do not have the features the director wanted.
Due to my work, I often travel. People often ask me and other indigenous people to put on our indigenous dresses while we participate in training sessions, workshops, or other meetings.
Every time I hear this suggestion, I can’t help but wonder: “Why, and for whom, do I need to dress up?” “Who decides when I wear my indigenous attire or when I do not?” “Is it us, the indigenous people, or is it others?”
A very good friend of mine once invited me to his wedding and requested me to perform a dance for his gaye holud. I happily agreed and rehearsed the dance.
After my performance at the wedding, he thanked me but subtly implied that my performance was not “indigenous enough” because my costume didn’t have many feathers, coins, shells, and seeds as he had expected.
People often ask me and other indigenous people to put on our indigenous dresses while we participate in training sessions, workshops, or other meetings. Every time I hear this suggestion, I can’t help but wonder: ‘Why, and for whom, do I need to dress up?’
The aforementioned incidents indicate how non-indigenous people think of “indigenousness,” and how, based on their assumptions, they decide who is indigenous/tribal/Pahari/Jumma. Do the non-indigenous people have the right to decide this for us, the indigenous peoples?
Who is indigenous anyway? What do the national and international laws say?
National laws on indigenous peoples
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Indigenous people are just like any other people /SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN[/caption]
The Bangladesh Constitution has significant provisions that are applicable to indigenous peoples, particularly Article 23(a) which refers to indigenous peoples as “small ethnic groups,” and adds that: “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects, and communities.”
Now, one could say that the term is “small ethnic groups,” not “indigenous groups.” So, let’s have a look at the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institution Act of 2010, which explains who belong to “small ethnic groups.” Section 2 of the act says that the indigenous peoples living within the country will be included under the category of small ethnic groups. Voila!
Furthermore, there are also several other acts relevant to indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, namely the Forest Act of 1927, National Human Rights Commission Act of 2009, Narcotics Control Act of 1990, Social Forestry Rules of 2004, Education Policy of 2010, Child Policy of 2010, and Women Policy of 2011.
There are also regional laws for indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts or those on the plain lands. Past laws of relevance are the Frontier Police Regulation of 1881, Regulation of 1900, Regulation Act of 2003, Headman Manual of 1936, Bazar Fund Manual of 1937, Land Acquisition Regulation of 1958, Development Board Ordinance of 1976, Reserved Forest Fire Protection Rules of 1958, District Ordinance of 1984, Hill District Council Act of 1989, Regional Council Act of 1998, Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act of 2001, Land Khatian Ordinance of 1984, and the Peace Accord of 1997.
Relevant existing laws, on the other hand, include the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950, Vested and Non-resident Property Administration Act of 1974, and Special Affairs Division.
Sadly, state institutions, including both administrative and law enforcement agencies, have a tendency to not enforce these laws; instead, giving preference to national laws, resulting in consistent failures to recognise and address the situation of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh.
International laws on indigenous peoples
Depending on the country and context, indigenous peoples are referred to with various terms, including tribal, natives, national minorities, or aboriginals. According to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention Number 107 (C107), these groups were referred to as “temporary societies,” in reference to the belief that these groups were under threat of extinction due to modernisation.
C107 was ratified by 27 countries, including Bangladesh. So, can we say the country is trying to “modernise” us, thinking that they can eliminate us and make us Bengali? Should a country like Bangladesh, which is being praised for many achievements worldwide, have this sort of notion towards its indigenous peoples?
If not, then shouldn’t Bangladesh ratify the ILO convention 169? ILO Convention Number 169 referred to ITPs (indigenous and tribal peoples) as permanent societies with distinct cultures different from the majority populations in their countries.
On a related note, Bangladesh needs to respect those many indigenous peoples who fought side by side with fellow Bangladeshis in 1971 and are still contributing to the country’s development. Bangladesh needs to respect and acknowledge that our communities are not “temporary.”
They either exist, with respect and empathy from the government’s policies and actions, or they become extinct while the government does not respect diversity or value the contribution of the small but wise populations.
There are numerous international laws and directives which help to understand who is indigenous. An especially important one is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
In 2014, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, in the Wagachara Tea Estate Ltd Vs Muhammad Abu Taher and Others case, upheld the status of the indigenous peoples of Chittagong Hill Tracts region through quoting UNDRIP.
To identify who is indigenous (or tribal, native, etc) or who is not, there are some criteria which are looked at.
These criteria were set considering the diversity of ITPs around the world as they often share similarities, and suffer similar oppression. They are:
• Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member
• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
• Distinct social, economic, or political systems
• Distinct language, culture, and beliefs
• From non-dominant groups of society
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities
So, these are the characteristics that can help one to understand who is indigenous. But please note, the more characteristics one meets, the better. But, this is not to say that people have to meet every single requirement mentioned above.
This encompasses the laws, the international standards. But what actually is indigenousness to us on the ground?
Indigenousness to us is holding onto our identities which most of the world don’t know much about, but tend to have a lot of opinions on.
Indigenousness to us is the freedom to call the lake, the earth, the sun, and all other natural elements, our mother — and take care of and love these natural elements.
Indigenousness to us is to hold and practice the belief that: “The land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land,” and that we have the sacred duty to take care of mother Earth when she is being abused in the name of development or in the name of collecting natural resources.
Indigenousness to us is that constant ongoing battle with the majority of our own country who want to decide our names without even asking our permission. Indigenousness to us is demanding the rights that belonged to us, but were taken away.
We, the people of Bangladesh who belong to minority groups, do not want that which is not ours, we do not dance to please you, we do not dress up for you, we do not cook for you.
We do it as a part of our everyday lives and livelihoods, sometimes welcoming you with respect and love.
Nobody has any right to impose any decision upon us without our consent. We are polite people, but kindly don’t consider our politeness as our weakness.
Our history, our culture, and our resistance are for our people and mother Earth. This is the indigenousness that you should try to find and understand in our cuisine, dress, dances, and other traditions.
We are not and will never be that indigenous person that some want us to be. We are indigenous the way we want to be.
Muktasree Chakma Sathi is an activist, feminist, and researcher presently working with Minority Rights Group International and SANGAT, a South Asian Feminist Network. You can follow her on Twitter @SathiChakma.