Historically, the indigenous groups of Bangladesh have been given little opportunity to meaningfully participate in its electoral politics. The upcoming national elections are unlikely to break the trend.
When Bangladesh holds its twelfth national election in early January 2024, the adult population of the country will come together to vote on the issues that affect 170 million people of the country.
The rising authoritarianism of the Bangladesh Awami League, the political party in power, however, ensures that this will be anything but a democratic practice. Amid an opposition boycott, countrywide violence, and a political culture of election fraud, international election observers seem to have expressed a reluctance to participate. There is little doubt that the Awami League is set to be at the helm of the government for yet another term.
For one important group, however, the question of the elections is more than just about who will lead the government at the national level. The one million Jumma Indigenous community members made up of eleven different ethnic groups have failed to ever meaningfully participate in this democratic process or elect a representative in the three hill districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This has to change!
As the former coordinator of the human rights advocacy body the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission and having closely worked with the Jumma activist community there in various capacities for the last 15 years, I know firsthand that the military occupation, surveillance, and discrimination by the authorities make it impossible for the communities to elect leaders who would represent their community and the concerns of their community. The government has failed to address the concerns repeatedly raised by civil society from this region.
Ever since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, Jumma Indigenous Peoples from eleven different ethnic communities have been struggling to gain recognition in the constitution and for their customary land rights. They have been repeatedly displaced from their land through various state-sponsored military operations, infrastructure development, and land occupation. However, the Jummas have never been able to elect public officials who would represent them and their land rights concerns at the district level. At the national level, there are no reserved seats for the Indigenous representatives of Bangladesh. Now, ahead of another national election, as the government gets criticized for human rights violations across the country, the Jumma Indigenous communities of Bangladesh feel that they won’t even be able to freely participate in the country’s election.
One of the biggest obstacles for the communities is that the region is under de facto military control. Despite the Sheikh Hasina government’s signing of a ‘Peace’ Accord in 1997, which promised to bring an end to the military occupation, the military has essentially refocused from the much more confrontational Operation Dabanol (Fire) to a developmental approach of Operation Uttoron (Upliftment). While the latter does not involve direct armed military action, surveillance and intimidation of Indigenous civil rights activists is an everyday reality.
Apart from the chilling political atmosphere of the Hill Tracts, Indigenous political parties in the region are being strategically prohibited from taking part in the elections in a direct way. One of the mandatory requirements for registration of political parties by the Election Commission is that political parties must have a central committee with a central office and effective district offices in at least one-third of administrative districts, and offices in 100 sub-districts. The political parties from the Hill Tracts are only present in the three hill districts of the country and do not have any interest, nor any public support in the rest of the 61 districts of the country and thus are unable to register to represent their own people.
The strength of the two Indigenous political parties in the Hill Tracts is that they represent the political interests of the eleven different Indigenous communities of the region. Both these parties advocate for the land rights of the communities, who are the original inhabitants of this region for long before the East India Company decided to annex the region and which became part of Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh, following the Partition.
The constitution of Bangladesh supports the setting up of special rules for marginalized communities and thus should get rid of this discriminatory law that disqualifies the two political parties in this region from participating in the national elections for it to be a truly fair and democratic process.
The Awami League government has failed to ensure that the most important democratic process of a country, the national election, will be able to take place in the country in a free and fair manner. If the last two elections are anything to go by, the intimidation of opposition party leaders, journalists, and human rights activists along with allegations of voter fraud were widespread.
Along with these fundamental challenges to a fair election process nationally, the Indigenous civil society groups will be watching very closely to see what the government intends to do to ensure the meaningful participation of this community in the upcoming national election.