“Native peoples will continue to exist and flourish whether or not we are recognized legally, and you can bet on the fact that terms and definitions will continue to evolve” – Chelsea Vowel (âpihtawikosisân), Métis writer and lawyer from Alberta, Canada in her book Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada
In August of this year, just before the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9, the Bangladesh Government once again launched its very predictable campaign of acting out its insecurity and paranoia around the term “Adibashi” or “Indigenous”. This year it came in the form of a directive from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to all electronic media to forbid university professors, experts, newspaper editors, and other members of civil society from using the term in any TV talk shows arranged on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In earlier years, these directives from the government have gone out to government officials, especially in the three hill districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to NGOs. To support this, the government has even argued that since August 15 is former president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death anniversary and the official mourning day for the country, such ‘extravagances’ should not be taking place during what should be month-long mourning. While these bigoted directives are regularly condemned by civil liberty activists, the government continues to religiously issue them every year before the month of August. Without going into the argument of the appropriateness, fluidity, or complexities of terminology, the government’s hardline position of forbidding the use of a collective term for recognition indicates the government’s racist and colonial approach to dealing with the Indigenous population of the country. This constant back and forth between the government and the Indigenous activists also clearly demonstrates how the politics of recognition is a power struggle against a policy of settler colonialism and why many Indigenous activists around the world have started arguing that self-determination movements of Indigenous Peoples that are cast in the language of recognition are highly problematic as they fail to challenge the structure of state domination and simply reproduce colonial power relations (Coulthard, 2007).
One of the big arguments made about the usage of the term “Adibashi” or “Indigenous” in the context of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is that the term is not used in the 1997 CHT Accord. The term used in the Accord is “upajati” (sub-national) in Bangla and “tribal” in English. So why are there now objections to the term “upajati”? A related question is that since there were never such demands for the term “Adibashi” before, why are activists rallying for it now? This is somewhat of a red herring. Terminology used for group identity reflects the political reality of the present in the context of the past. Terms gather meaning with their usage, and certain terms can develop negative connotations when public understanding of their meaning changes. It is not unusual that a term that was accepted by Indigenous activists during the signing of the Accord (under duress!) is no longer acceptable today. There are many examples of that in social movements in other parts of the world. One example is the term “Indian” used in Canada’s Indian Act of 1876. Notwithstanding all the genocidal and assimilationist processes through which colonization took place in the region and the original foundation of the Act, it was important for the Aboriginal Peoples living in Canada to be legally recognized as status “Indian” under the Indian Act (Vowel, 2016). Land rights, living in a reserve, being exempt from tax and receiving other benefits were related to having status as an Indian. However, the term “Indian” has a history of being used pejoratively and is not used in conversation and writing except in reference to the Indian Act.
Bangladeshi Indigenous activists have already made their own arguments about why they prefer the term “Adibashi” or “Indigenous”. Raja Devasish Roy, the chief of the Chakma circle, has spoken and written about the argument for the identity in various places. The main thrust of his argument comes from the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition of “Indigenous” as those communities who are “(i) descendants of pre-colonial or pre-conquest societies; and (ii) by adhering to pre-colonial or pre-conquest political, social, and cultural institutions’ norms and customs, among others.” It should not be a surprise that given the structural discrimination faced by the Adibashis of Bangladesh, they had no other choice but to seek for special safeguards provided through the transnational solidarity network under the UN system, despite all its limitations and flaws. Another related argument is about how such a term has the tendency to homogenize. Are Indigenous Populations all over the world the same? Every community has a different culture and different struggles; transnational solidarity through a shared identity only brings them together on a common platform to learn from each other and work with each other. Homogenization has never been on the agenda.
But beyond the institutional definition are the social and the cultural. This is what anthropologist Prashanta Tripura has tried to explain through several of his writings. He argues that if Bangladesh wants to position itself as a pluralistic society, then multiple ethnicities, languages, and cultures cannot be denied (Tripura, 2022). In his poignant Letter to Bangladesh from a ‘Non-Existent’ Bangladeshi, he explains the marginalization faced by Indigenous Peoples such as himself:
I am not even sure that you know or acknowledge that I exist. I am saying this as a member of one of the many ‘small’ ethnic groups that have been consigned to the margins and darkest corners of your geography and history. People who speak and write on your behalf have rarely made any serious effort to change this order of things. On the contrary, many of them have been busy pushing these marginalized groups out of tracts that have nourished them for generations. As if that were not enough, the same powers have lately sought to erase them from various government documents and public discourse as well.
In order to fully comprehend the weight and meaning of a term, it is important to understand the political history of the community vis-à-vis the nation-state, what meaning has been constructed about the term through this political history, and how that identity is articulated by the people who claim it. It is equally important to ask questions about what prompts the state and the dominant civil society to reject that assertion. What is lost through this recognition? What is the threat? In my own research and writing, which largely focuses on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, I tend to use the term “Jumma” or “Adibashi” and, to the best of my ability, try to explain the choice of the term, the social and political history of self-determination within which the term and the demand for recognition using that term is situated in addition to explaining the tensions, complications as well as the political connotations of the term.
But the Bangladesh Government has settled on using the term “Khudro Nri goshthi” in all its official documents, which basically means “small ethnic groups”. The government is carrying all-out efforts towards this erasure. The main push for this argument of “no Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh” gained thrust in 2011 when a UN Special Rapporteur recommended that Bangladeshi peacekeepers recruited for UN peacekeeping missions should have a clean human rights record in their own countries. The de facto military administrators of the hill tracts did not take this lightly. Thus, they defend themselves by saying that since there are no Indigenous Peoples (in the constitution), matters relating to “small ethnic groups” of Bangladesh should not be discussed at UN platforms for Indigenous Peoples. In 2018, a review petition was filed challenging the constitutionality of the CHT Regulation 1900 that recognizes the customary land ownership rights of the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT, and it seems one of the main objections to this is the usage of the term “Adibashi”. While the government and military take this hardline approach over this term, the media are also confused about what term to use. The New Age newspaper has long refused to use the term “Indigenous” and use “national minority” instead. It is a particularly peculiar juxtaposition when they report on a news which displays a banner with the term “Adibashi” or “Indigenous”, and their own news report uses the term “minority”. Of course, given New Age’s general courageous stand against government intimidation, it can be safely concluded that their reluctance to use the term “Indigenous” does not come from government pressure but rather their own editorial stand on the matter. However, both the government’s use of the term “small” and the New Age newspaper’s use of the term “minority” has disparaging effects. Whether intended or not, these terms demonstrate majoritarian chauvinism, that Bengalis are the “bigger” group and the “majority” group. In an article, Mahmudul Sumon had argued against using the term “minority” to talk about the Hindus of Bangladesh. He argues that the categorization of “majority” and “minority” is not simply a matter of numbers but rather technologies of power and governance in postcolonial states such as ours and was commenced through the process of colonial censuses that highlighted differences between populations as a technology of rule (Sumon, 2016). Describing a community as “minority” or “small” is not simply a discussion about numbers and statistics but also a power move and a reminder of the existing power structure within which the community is expected to function.
This article was not written to engage with the debates around the term “Indigenous” Or “Adibashi” in the context of Bangladesh but rather an attempt to dissect the power that works behind the denial of this group identity. The repeated refusal of the Government to recognize Indigenous Peoples and the severity and harshness of the methods used in trying to enforce other terms, combined with the extreme reactions from the Bengali general public on public platforms such as social media, is an attempt of erasure and domination of the Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh. Using the term “Adibashi” or “Indigenous” will not change the existing power structures. Still, all the harsh measures to erase the term and forbid its use is a reminder that the field where the politics of recognition, indigeneity and majority-minority takes place is overtly hierarchical and power-laden.
Coulthard, G. S. (2007). Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the ‘Politics of Recognition’ in Canada. Contemporary Political Theory, 6(4), 437–460. doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300307
Mamdani, M. (2020). Neither settler nor native: The making and unmaking of permanent minorities. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sumon, M. H. (2016). Why refer to the Hindus in Bangladesh as a minority. Politeja, 40, 341–348.
Tripura, P. (2022, August 8). Debates over Indigeneity in Bangladesh: A personal retrospective. Neolithic Musings. ptripura2.wordpress.com/2022/08/08/indigeneity-in-bangladesh/
Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, & Inuit Issues in Canada. Portage & Main Press.
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