I have come across a number of Bengalis who raise the question, “How justified is it to divide the people of the same country as indigenous and non-indigenous? If only you (i.e. Chakma, Tripura, Garo, Santal etc) are indigenous, then what are we?” Such questions could be discussed and debated from various perspectives, as has indeed been or is still being done. I too have taken part in such debates and discussion through my writings or participation in meetings and seminars.* From my experience, it seems to me that we do not often deal with our subject matter deeply enough.
I am not talking about those Bengalis who are indifferent to the plight of the Adibashis, or those who are not interested in promoting their rights. Neither am I talking about those Bengalis who trace their roots in the Arabia, Persia or Turkey of their imaginations, and think of themselves as the descendants of Arabs, Mughals, Pathans or the Aryans. Rather, I am talking about those segments of Bengali society who are informed about the predicament and struggles of the Adibashis, and whose historical consciousness is imbued with an identification with the people and soil of this country.
Despite supporting and being sympathetic to the legitimate demands of the indigenous people, many such people may have genuine concerns, doubts or confusion regarding the significance of ‘indigenous’ identity. For example, those who have researched into the history of Bangla language and Bengali culture/people would have realised that there are unmistakable racial, linguistic and cultural affinities between Bengalis and those who are known as ‘adibashis’ today. Given this, one may indeed raise the question, why may Bengalis not consider themselves as indigenous? In particular, a Bengali who traces his or her roots among the peasants-fishermen-weavers-potters of rural Bengal instead of any imagined noble past, and in doing so discovers racial and cultural affinity with the Adibashis, how would he/she draw the boundaries of ‘indigenous’ identity?
Instead of going further into the question of whether or how Bengalis could bring themselves within the boundaries of Adibashi identity, however, I would like to raise another relevant question here. As a member of a people (Tripura) that is known as indigenous today, my question is: What does it mean for us to wear the label ‘indigenous’? What do we want out of it? Do we simply want to raise some political demands on the basis of this identity? Or do we also want to nurture and promote a certain consciousness through this? If so, then what is the nature of this consciousness? And to what extent does this consciousness underlie our demands and aspirations?
We may say, and usually do, that indigenous peoples have a heritage of having lived in harmony with nature for ages, in a manner in which it is rare for land to be treated as personal property. Sharing and reciprocity are powerful values among indigenous communities, thus it is unimaginable that in such a community some would be dying of hunger while others indulge in excesses of feasting and drinking. In such communities, there are also no permanent or clear differences among individuals on the basis of power, prestige or wealth. No individual or group imposes its decisions on others by brute force. The relations between men and women are based on mutual respect and interdependence. To sum up, indigenous peoples have those very qualities that the deprived and dispossessed classes of people throughout the world have fought to achieve throughout ages, for which many revolutions have taken place.
Now, in reality, to what extent does one come across the ideal version of indigenous life depicted above? There is debate as to whether there was ever any true egalitarian society anywhere in the world. However, it is more or less accepted that historically it is the so-called primitive societies with relatively simple technologies and kinship-based social organisations that most embodied the utopian ideals. The spread of so-called ‘civilization’, and in particular the colonialism of the past five centuries, has wiped out many such communities from the face of the earth, or has transformed them completely. It is in this context that the concept of indigenous peoples, and attempts to establish the rights of peoples so designated, came about in recent times. But the question is, since most of the communities designated as ‘indigenous’ have undergone, and are undergoing, various changes in the course of time, what is their current standing in relation to the ideals described above? What will be the social-cultural-economic-political basis of maintaining indigenous identity? What will be place of equality, sharing and harmony with nature in all this?
The reason why I am raising the above questions is because, I think, in adapting to or fighting against various systems imposed from outside through colonialism, we the indigenous people have not paid sufficient attention to holding onto the ideals of equality, sharing and harmony with nature. Rather, in the name of IP rights, in many cases we may be driven by narrow interests of particular groups or classes. For example, among the Paharis (Hill People) of the CHT, an educated middle-class has emerged that in many ways cannot be distinguished from Bengalis of the same class. As a representative of this class of Paharis, I ask myself, in what ways are we different from Bengalis of the same class? There may be differences in terms of externally tangible characteristics such as language, food habits, etc. but are there major differences in our class characteristics? How free are we from what we normally refer to as erosion of values in Bangladesh, such as cheating in examinations, getting jobs through bribery or special connections, settling differences of opinion through muscle power rather than reasoning? I for one do not think that we can demonstrate any uniqueness on such counts.
If we, the class of people described above, were a marginal segment of the Hill People, it would not have mattered much. But is it not we who are in leadership positions in various sectors of life among the Hill People? Does not our class interest drive the demands that we place in national and international forums? For instance, we claim that the Hill People, as indigenous people of the CHT, have customary rights over land therein, and that it is essential to retain or re-establish these rights for the sake of their survival and livelihoods. This view is correct – especially in case of those hill people whose livelihoods still depend directly on jum (shifting) cultivation or use of natural resources. But do we speak of land rights by keeping them in mind, or is it the interest of those of us who belong to or would like to be part of the class of absentee landlords, timber merchants, etc. that drive our thoughts? Do we have any objection, as a matter of principle, to obtaining individual ownership of land or being engaged in timber trade, or do we simply want to take the place of Bengali competitors by pushing them out? We may ask ourselves many such questions. Perhaps such questions have no easy answers, but it is important to raise them, and to continue to search the answers to them, if we want to establish our indigenous identity on a strong footing at the level of consciousness. To what extent are we making this effort?
The issue of consciousness is important because of the reason that regardless of whether or not there is legal recognition of ‘indigenous’ identity soon, if we cannot nurture the ideals of equality, sharing and harmony with nature, and if we cannot reflect these ideals in the way we live our lives, then we will only give importance to the superficial aspects of indigenous identity. What will be the main basis of determining indigenous identity? Legally, perhaps ‘blood ties’ or descent will have supreme role. But the ideals that were upheld by our male and female ancestors will not be transmitted to our consciousness or that of our children biologically. Therefore, in the changed context, we have to think about the ways and means of holding onto, nurturing and upholding these ideals. And in doing so, we have to take both local and global contexts into account. Today we live in such a world where it is not possible to live in isolation by holding onto any piece of land – this is more or less true for indigenous and non-indigenous people, individuals and nations alike.
It seems almost inevitable that in the present whirlwind of globalization, we will continue to be cast away farther and farther – socioeconomically, or even geographically – from our respective places. In this context it is important to add a global dimension to indigenous identity, and to work it out in a larger framework in which socially acquired and practiced values and ideals will prevail over biologically inherited identity. And if the task of upholding indigenous identity is mainly at the level of consciousness, then there is need and scope for everyone – hill people, Bengalis, nationals of different countries alike – to participate, if some common values and ideals are desirable to all. Is that not the case?
*E.g. Keynote paper (“International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and the IPs of Bangladesh”; in Bangla) presented in a seminar organized, in Dhaka, to mark the International Year of the IPs (1993); Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights in Bangladesh (co-author: Ainoon Naher), The Financial Express, May 13 and 20, 1994; “On Security of Indigenous Women” (in Bangla), paper presented in a dialogue organized by FOWSIA, in Chittagong (June 2001) and subsequently published in the proceedings of the seminar, Bangladesh Freedom Foundation, Dhaka.
Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.