Like many countries in the developing world, Bangladesh too faces mounting pressure on its natural resources, including its lands and forests against the backdrop of a booming population. This pressure affects all Bangladeshis, but its implications are especially acute for the Adivasi communities around the country. From the Rakhain of the coastal belt, the Santals and Oraon in North Bengal, the Munda communities that dot the landscape from Dinajpur to the Sunderbans, the Garos, Hajongs, Khasis and Patros of Mymensingh and Sylhet, to the 13 communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the 24 other Adivasi groups across the country, this pressure is acute.
Adivasi communities are uniquely vulnerable to land grabbing. There are innumerable documented cases of this grim fact. The expulsion of 56 Santal and Oraon families from Porsha, Naogaon in June 2009 and the mass land theft in Baghaihat and Rangipara in the CHT in last two years are but three of the more prominent examples. The pattern is reportedly similar; houses burned to the ground, violence and bloodshed, and the apparent impunity of the perpetrators, according to the victims.
Indeed, the scale of the problem is impossible to overestimate and it is driving the smaller Adivasi communities to the point of extinction; there are fewer than 3,000 Patro remaining in Bangladesh while the Lusai number only a few hundred.
Interestingly, the laws of Bangladesh have long recognised the need to protect these diverse Adivasi communities. The Bangladesh constitution includes provisions for affirmative action for such groups. The 1900 CHT regulation and, since 1997, the CHT Peace Accord, both of which emphasise on the need to defend the distinctive land rights of Adivasi communities, are both integral parts of the Bangladesh legal framework. The 1950 East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act in theory provides strong protections for Adivasi land in the plains. But all of these measures suffer enormous problems of implementation and the protection of these people are not necessarily robust in this modern and globalised era.
On the 6th and 7th August, 2011 Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, together with Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, will be holding a land conference as part of their on-going efforts to highlight this critical issue. Based on local consultations, and original research carried out by Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST), it will make recommendations regarding both necessary substantive legal reforms and gaps in implementation in the current legal system. This vital effort is carried out in the spirit of Bangladesh’s most noble traditions; the aspiration for tolerance of and protections for diversity and difference that was the cornerstone of the 1952 Language Movement.
The Adivasi are citizens of Bangladesh. What they want is what all Bangladeshi citizens want — to subsist in their ancestral lands without harassment, to reap the fruits of their labour without fear, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, and to worship according to their own beliefs. In short, they seek peaceful co-existence alongside people from other beliefs and culture.
Keeping this aspiration of multicultural Bangladesh in mind, the upcoming Adivasi land conference is aiming to deliver clear policy guidelines to policymakers which could be instrumental in underpinning a historical direction for a more tolerant and democratic Bangladesh.
Sanjeeb Drong is the general secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum.