Minority in My Own Land, Losing My Religion in My Own Temple

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Part one: The Spinning of the Propaganda Machine

The year was 2016. I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I received a proposal from a publisher acquaintance of mine to write on a topic about the indigenous people of Bangladesh. Without even pausing to think, I said yes, only to realize my mistake minutes after hearing the briefing when he said I could not use the term ‘indigenous’. He argued, “…rather stay safe – yet ‘politically correct’ by using words like ethnic minorities, minor races or tribes, or even better, use mountainous people,” (completely ignored the fact that we also have a large number of plainland ethnic groups in Bangladesh). Anyway. He went on, and I realized I would have to rationalize the ubiquitous operations of the Armed Forces in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in the name of the sovereignty of Peoples Republic of Bangladesh and have to blabber on about how the majority of Bangladeshis live an inhumane and austere life, whereas each of these tribe gets to own massive pieces of land and resources, and how these glorious mountains are literally farms of golden-egg laying geese whose immense potentiality would never be comprehended by the ‘illiterate’, ‘half-naked’, ‘Godless’ ‘tribals’, and how selfishly they are racially segregating themselves from the rest of Bangladesh and running all sorts of separatist movements, all while taking full advantage of Bangladeshi passports and quota ‘benefits’ in all sectors of the state, including education and employment.

I did not have any knowledge about the definition of indigenousness prior to this meeting, and the gentleman was very convincing.

But something in my gut told me to say no (even after the initial yes), and so I did.

Months later, I received another similar offer from a photographer friend of mine. The plan was this: he was going to take photos of the daily lives of these tribes, and I would be writing captions in fictional short essays, and we would publish a coffee-table book. The offer seemed fun and doable, and it also didn’t seem politically motivated as the previous offer had. The Queen of the Chakma Circle, Rani Yan, is an old friend, and she and her husband, Circle Chief Raja Devashish Roy, cordially invited us to their house in Chittagong. We stayed there for a month. We sun-baked ourselves through Rangamati, Khagracchari, and Bandarban, and indulged in all sorts of traditional food and home-made wine. We enjoyed lazy evenings at Lake Kaptai on King’s private yacht while taking pictures of malnourished, dark-skinned, bony-legged children with runny noses who were holding the land together in their curious gazes on the shores as they watched the placid reflection of the luscious green mountainous backdrop turn from molten gold to bronze to charcoal grey on the water. We took pictures of a skinny Tanchangyan woman cooking pale, yellow Joom (swidden) potatoes and salted fish in bamboo-shell on a clay oven in her backyard kitchen while feeding a sleepy child from an uncovered droopy breast, sweaty and unashamed of motherhood, unaware of patriarchal civic shyness. My NGO desires tugged at me as I thought, “We must help these poor people. We have to drown miles after miles of land to build this lake so that these unfortunate people have transportation in this impregnable land, and our “In War, In Peace, We are everywhere for our Nation” Armed Forces brethren need to build roads and infrastructures so that these ill-fated people can have access to the basics of food, water, healthcare, and education! My missionary Mother Teresa mind asked myself, “if we cannot help them, who will help them? Who would?”

We came back to Dhaka. I was sitting on a couch at my friend’s studio, running my eyes over the freshly printed and oddly warm high-definition photos, only to stop at that breast feeding Tanchangyan woman, and heard my friend go, “Look at her eyes – she’s not looking at the boiling pot. Her eyes are not even on her child.”

I agreed. Nodding my head, I said, “Yeah, it seems surreal, seems like she’s not even there, seems like she’s tapping into a Nietzschein void…”

“What if…” my friend leaned towards me, whispered surreptitiously, “…she’s thinking about an AK-47 hidden under that clay oven… or maybe some old rusty weapons in the shed…?” then looked right into me, “Can you write that story?”

I came back to reality, looked at him, baffled, and hesitated, “But we never saw any of those! We didn’t see any separatist movement in the Hill Tracts!”

My friend started laughing in my face, “Goodness F, Nadia! You’re so effing naïve!”


Naïve I was.

Then I started studying. Only after a week of researching, I started to realize how the convoluted propaganda was hiding the truth by throttling down the entire CHT and all of the ethnic minorities for ages.

The first major propaganda said that the 2 million population of Chakma, Garo, Khashia, Mandi, Marma, Monipuri, Rakhain, Tanchangya and other small racial groups in Bangladesh — less than 1.5% of the total population [1] — are not indigenous people at all. They are ethnic minorities for sure, tribal for sure, but they are definitely not ‘indigenous’.

Okay, then what is the definition of ‘indigenous’?

According to the United Nations (UN), “Indigenous peoples have in common a historical continuity with a given region prior to colonization and a strong link to their lands. They maintain, at least in part, distinct social, economic and political systems. They have distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems.” [2]

In the ‘Chakma Jaatir Itibrityo (History of the Chakma Nation)’ [page 8] written by Viraj Mohan Dewan, in the ‘Chottogramer Itihash (History of Chittagong)’ [page 31] and the ‘Chakma Jaatir Itihash (History of the Chakma Nation)’ [page 47], both by Mahbubul Alam, we see, “The original homeland of the Chakmas was Champaknagar. But we hear about the (ambiguous) location of 3 to 4 Champaknagars. Among them were Northern Brahma (Shan), ancient Magadha (modern Bihar), Kalabagha (modern Srihattan), ancient Malacca (modern Malaya), Champa in Cochin China and another region along the banks of the ancient Sangpu River (modern Brahmaputra) in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are various theories are now present from ‘Which’ Champaknagar their ancestor Vijayagiri reached Brahmadesh. Many in the Chakma community believe that the Champa Chakma prince Vijaygiri from the Champaran kingdom found in ancient Magadha or near the present-day Bhagalpur in North Bihar reached Brahmadesh with a war campaign and occupied the Arakanese state of Oxadesh or Rowang and never returned to his fatherland.”

Brushing off these words, the nefarious propagandist of politicians argued that since Vijaygiri came to this land from North India, it is not possible to define them as ‘indigenous’. It is important to note here that, according to the UN definition of ‘indigenous’, there is no rule that the ‘first’ people in a particular area will get the title of ‘indigenous’. For example, the semi-nomadic Muslim people of the Tuareg tribe of the Sahel or Sahara region lived mostly from Libya to Algeria, Niger, and Mali. It does not change their ‘indigenousness’. Although there is historical evidence that the Chakmas came to Chittagong in the 14th century during Pegu Emperor Alangchisur’s rapacious and tyrannical reign when the ethnic struggle between two irreconcilable Burmese and Mon populations was at its highest, the account of their association with various historical events in Brahmadesh is clear even five centuries before. Even if one does not want to bring that account into the argument, the written document of the Mughal rights being permanently established over the people living in Chittagong for less than two and a half hundred years can easily be used as clear evidence that the origin of the first Chakma nation dates back to three hundred years, making them the very first people of this region. There is no historical evidence that any people (and certainly not Bengalis) lived in this region at that time. Arab and Turkish merchants started coming to Chittagong in the middle of the 9th century, and Bengalis started coming to Chittagong during the British Raj. In this case, I think it is important to mention one point, that is, the migration of Chakmas in CHT was not a matter of one event. After the fall of Mojambru, the third capital of Brahmo, Chakmas were repeatedly attacked by the ever-powerful Brahmo kingdom, and due to the gradual decrease of their dominance, they gave up their land, escaped, and finally settled on the banks of river Tainchari in Chittagong.

Other indigenous communities, including the Munda, Mahali, Malo, Oraon and Santal who live mostly in Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Barishal, Khulna and Jessore districts of Austric speaking Proto-Australoid race, are also the first people of the land. They are the original habitants of Bengal, Odisha and Kalinga of the Indian sub-continent, and lived in this area even before the Aryans (eastern branch of Proto-Indo-Europeans) arrived. [3]

And it is because of their long contact with Bengalis that the Bengali imprints are seen in their language and culture through intergenerational systems. Examples of cultural assimilation, historic interaction, and cultural overlap in its wide ethnographic sense are often used as excuses for dismissing their indigenousness. However, according to ILO Convention 169, indigenous peoples are peoples who have preserved their ethnic and cultural identity living in pre-invasion and pre-colonial areas, anthropologists and historians argue that since the perseverance of culture in modern heterogenous societies by means of both material and nonmaterial aspects can be a complex, circuitous mechanism, it cannot be used as a tool to define the indigenousness of a certain ethnic community. However, despite having such scholarly account of the definition, as mentioned earlier, the notion of cultural assimilation has been used as a tool to dismiss the proposition of recognising ethnic minorities as indigenous communities for ages.

Sometimes, I really wonder how the super-fertile heads of the policy makers of thugs in Bangladesh actually work!

Anyway. So, what are the possible benefits if the 2 million people of Bangladesh cannot be identified as indigenous?

Please allow me to provide the answer.

If they are not identified as indigenous, their land can be taken at the will of the state and can be used in multiple manners. So, if one can politically strip them of their identity, their land, which is rich in oil, gas, uranium, and other mineral resources, is not protected by any means. If the rest of the Bangladeshis (or Bengalis) are indoctrinated into the stories, like that the tribes own hundreds of acres of land per capita whereas the rest of the people of Bangladesh do not have a place to live, naturally they will be fuming with rage. But if one dares to ask question like, “will the Bengali, who has several hundreds of acres of land, or someone who builds a lavish bungalow or a ten-story building in Gulshan, and sips on first flush silver Imperial Darjeeling tea from an oh-so-beautiful bluish-white Qing-Dynasty porcelain cup on their balcony on a romantic monsoon day, share his property with you? Will anyone leave any floor of their mansion for the refugees?’’- the double standard will become blatantly transparent. If you do not want to share your property with anyone, if you do not want to give away any floor of your inherited 777 floor flat for free, then why would you be jealous of the property of the indigenous people? The land they own, the land that belongs to them, is not coparcenary property; they did not forcibly evict anyone from their ancestral land, nor did they seize the land from Hindus or anyone in the area from the ‘oh-so-cromulent’ ‘Enemy/ Vested Property Act’ of Bangladesh, did they?

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Article 10, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” [4] Despite signing the ILO Convention 107, no government in Bangladesh (till date) took any measures to protect indigenous people’s traditional land rights. This convention basically says that whether or not indigenous people have the ownership certificate of the land they traditionally own and the land they use ‘belongs’ to them. If the government, or other parties forcibly, removes them from the land, it will be a violation of human rights and international law. But we have been witnessing the game of robbing and looting off indigenous land and resources since the birth of Bangladesh, it is nothing new. Besides CHT, we have witnessed government officials manipulate plainland ethnic groups, including Shantals in Rajshahi and Dinajpur, Khashis and Manipuris in Sylhet, Garos in Mymensingh, out of their land. Many ethnic communities paid land taxes but did not have a tradition of keeping records. Later, when the government put ethnic peoples’ lands up for auction, they had no way to claim their rights. And even before the birth of Bangladesh as a state, 1.84 acres of indigenous land was illegally acquired in the name of sugarcane cultivation in East Pakistan. As far as I am aware, no sugarcane was ever cultivated in that land. And, pardon my French, I can tell you what exactly was produced in the aforementioned land. I believe the land was used to produce a massive amount of bizarre bullcrap propaganda.

The second biggest propaganda about the indigenous people, especially about the minorities in CHT, is that they are all fundamentally separatists. And as these desultory, yet organized, separatists are shouting for freedom in their native languages, it is an ‘absolute necessity’ to establish and operate at least SIX cantonments in a tiny of a town to maintain the sovereignty of Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. Please note: even though it has been 25 years since the CHT Peace Accord has passed when the infamous Shanti-Bahini (the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts)) launched a violent insurgency against the state to preserve their land and autonomy in 1977, and even though no trace of their existence can be found anywhere today except in the Armed Forces’ vividly wild imagination, no temporary camp has been withdrawn from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, including the ‘Operation Uttaran’. The military rule is still under full-fledged play. In addition, they erected 19 new camps between 2019 and January 2021. If I may again reiterate and kindly remind you that in the last 25 years, we have not seen any Shanti-Bahini related news in the media, not a single person was abducted by them, not a single Bengali died in the hands of these separatists. I travelled intensively around the CHT without the permission of the Army along with my friends (illegally of course). We have not heard about any Shanti-Bahini stories from anyone except the Army or encountered any such activity whatsoever. Even the officers of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) admit that the trouble in the region is due to Arakan Army (AA) or Rohingyas coming in through Cox’s Bazar or Teknaf, and definitely is not caused by the Shanti-Bahini, primarily because they DO NOT exist. The rational position, of course, is to discard the claim about Shanti-Bahini until evidence is provided. However, if they did, in fact, exist in the present day, then one or more the above coverage (news, criminal activity etc.) would be present somewhere in the area. If all of them were present, then there would be indisputable proof of their existence. But there is no such information. So, it goes without saying that stories about the non-existence entities of ghosts, demons, leprechauns, fairies, jujus (and Shanti-Bahini) can only be found in stories told on a dark night with a waxing horned moon in the sky by our wrinkly, old, toothless grandmothers (and of course by the beloved Armed Forces of Bangladesh).

The constitution of Bangladesh still does not recognize the fundamental rights of ethnic, political, economic, and land rights of the indigenous peoples. At the core, they are not recognized as indigenous, so talking about indigenous rights is pointless, I understand. It is therefore not surprising to see that the Jummo people are denied land rights as part of the CHT Laws, and Jummobhoomi and Maujabhoomi are being forcibly occupied since access requires evidence of ‘productive’ use by the occupant themselves. But meanwhile any return to alternative labour activities on the land is ignored while tourist resorts are built, the transmigration of Bengali settlers is arranged (as organized by the military and civil administration(s) to systematically outnumber the local indigenous population), and the land is declared as a reserve forest only to then be granted in leases to businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians who do not understand the history and culture of these thousands of acres of land for horticulture and rubber cultivation. Even after the signing of the CHT Agreement, indigenous Jummos in the Bandarban district are being forced to evict from their 30 villages and move elsewhere. Sixty-five families of two Tripura villages and thirty-one families of Boga Lake in Bandarban faced eviction due to the tourism centre made with ugly, blue-coloured, shiny, and corrugated tins in Sajek Valley by Bangladeshi Army. Despite the extreme opposition from the people of the area, Rangamati Medical College’s construction of the Rampal Power Station in the World Heritage Site of Sundarbans and the Phulbari coal mine in Dinajpur has been started under police and army protection in the name of ‘development’, displacing thousands of local indigenous people and endangering various species of flora and fauna in the process. And anyone who is stupidly brave enough to openly talk about these issues of human rights violations or protest against the government and Armed Forces’ joint tyranny is disappeared within a few weeks, or found rotten and brutally mutilated upside down on riverbanks.

Part two: First Kill the Language, Then the Culture 

During the election rally of 1973, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave one of his most inspirational speeches when he addressed the indigenous people of Bangladesh with his spontaneous, dramatic charisma, “You all become Bengalis!” as if one can easily change their racial identity like summer clothes and wipe their make-up off with a cotton ball soaked in micellar water to become someone else! Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is considered the father of the Bangladesh nation, and lovingly called “Bangabandhu (the friend of Bengal)”, and so the majority of Bangladeshis try to justify the infamous statement by proving it right somehow, but “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it,” as Tolstoy once put it.

As mentioned previously, the constitution of Bangladesh still does not recognize the fundamental rights of the indigenous peoples. Article 3 of the first constitution of independent Bangladesh written in October 1972 states, “Citizenship of Bangladesh shall be determined and regulated by law. Citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bengalis.” And I believe this is where the cultural genocide of the indigenous people of Bangladesh was born — moments after the birth of its twin, the oh-so-precious Bengali nationalism.

Even though Bangladesh is known as a land with diverse language, religion, and ethnicity, the existence of the diverse cultural (and of course religious) practices have remained unrecognized and sometimes even dominated both by the state and mainstream Bengali population due to their ultra-sensitive right-wing, oh-so-precious Bengali nationalistic chauvinism.

In the ‘Humanistic Values of Indigenous Languages in Bangladesh’, published in RUNAS Journal of Education & Culture, 2020, author Md. Monirul Islam showed how the state educational policies have ignored language issues related to the ethno-linguistic minorities by designing the primary and secondary level education to focus on fully Bengali and partially in English, contributing towards 60-70% more drop-outs in indigenous communities than average non-indigenous groups. [5] Even though the National Education Policy 2009 proposed a first-language-based education plan for the indigenous minorities in the country, it is far from reality when it comes to implementation of the policy.

Languages are at the centre of nationalistic discourses in this part of the world. The birth of Bangladesh was, in fact, primarily based on the language-centric-nationalism. And even though there are disputes whether languages are parts or mirrors of a culture or if they coexist simultaneously, there is no denying the fact that without language, culture would not be possible. In ‘Principles of Language Learning and Teaching’, author H. Douglas Brown described the two as follows, “A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture.” [6] It is therefore understandable how language can play a significantly powerful role by providing the functionality of power politics which resides for systematic force in the contribution that makes to the cultural hegemony in order to gain an ethnically homogenous society. Imposing Bengali on the non-Bengali speaking indigenous communities in the same manner Urdu was imposed on the non-Urdu speaking Bengali community with the creation of Pakistan can easily be characterized as a systematic process of linguistic imperialism to kill off more than 30+ native languages of the region. the cultural artifacts produced by people are connected to these languages and thoughts and eventually the people in the process, and as most of the indigenous languages and dialects lack social and economic recognition and have lost written scripts that are being threatened and could gradually disappear by the dominant lingua francas, it is already getting harder to understand our cultural legacy through the prism of a few standard tongues with the state language Bengali borrowings throughout.

In his book ‘English as a Global Language’, David Crystal suggests, “Language is the repository of the history of a people. It is their identity. Oral testimony, in the forms of sagas, folktales, songs, rituals, proverbs, and many other practices, provide us with a unique canon of literature. It is their legacy to the rest of humanity. Once lost, it can never be recaptured.” [7]

Despite having extensive literature on the issue and despite understanding the consequences of systematically wiping off native languages and culture, we are literally doing nothing to prevent the gradual death of the identity of our own people. And the saddest part is, the murder of the languages of our own land by our own rulers is consistently ignored by our mainstream media and our activists who are vocal against the government’s abhorrent mistreatment of the indigenous communities.  They protest the ‘real’ murders of thousands of indigenous civilians, ‘real’ destruction and desecration of their temples and shrines, ‘real’ looted and burnt down innumerable houses, ‘real’ imprisonment without trial, ‘real’ forceful conversion into Islam, ‘real’ raped and mutilated women by Bangladesh Armed Forces, in close cooperation with Bengali settlers — because these incidences are far too visible, are far too in-your-face-punching-in-the-stomach issues.

There is a genocide going on in Bangladesh today.

A literal and metaphorical genocide.

There is systematic discrimination and de-humanization of the indigenous people of Bangladesh eloquently orchestrated beneath the deceptive harmonics of sweet coexistence among people of the land. There is a systematic crusade wrapped in propagandas and lies, which is drowning indigenous people, their language, their culture, and their land in an ocean of Bengali Muslim Nationalism. There is a systematic genocide taking place that disregards indigenous peoples’ ownership of their own home, that infringes upon their dignity and the sanctity of beliefs and customs, and that makes them forget their own history and traditions. Being made to drink from Lēthē of egalitarianism, they fade into a generational oblivion, becoming minorities in their own land, and losing their religion in their own temples.

So let me end this ranting here, because words cannot heal.

Yet, they can, so allow me to finish with a poem.

By Miguel León-Portilla.

It is called, ‘When a Language Dies’; originally written in Nahuatl.

“When a language dies,

all that there is in this world,

oceans and rivers,

animals and plants,

do not think of them,

do not pronounce their names,

they do not exist now.”




[1]: www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/bangladesh-plainland-1_2.pdf

[2]: www.un.org/en/fight-racism/vulnerable-groups/indigenous-peoples#:~:text=Indigenous%20peoples%20have%20in%20common,cultures%2C%20beliefs%20and%20knowledge%20systems.

[3]: www.academia.edu/37029382/An_Overview_of_Indigenous_Peoples_in_Bangladesh?auto=download

[4]: humanrights.gov.au/our-work/un-declaration-rights-indigenous-peoples-1

[5]: www.academia.edu/44609093/Humanistic_Values_of_Indigenous_Languages_in_Bangladesh_Valores_human%C3%ADsticos_de_las_lenguas_ind%C3%ADgenas_en_Bangladesh?auto=citations&from=cover_page

[6]: angol.uni-miskolc.hu/wp-content/media/2016/10/Principles_of_language_learning.pdf

[7]: culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/pdf/research/books/nation_branding/English_As_A_Global_Language_-_David_Crystal.pdf


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