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Indigenous Peoples' Land Rights in Bangladesh

International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples 2017 observed

Published : Thursday, 10 August, 2017 at 12:00 AM Count : 890
Arif Ahmed

*** On Wednesday, we celebrated International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples (Adivasi Dibosh), respecting the rights of indigenous communities of Bangladesh living in Chittagong Hill Tracts and plain lands. No nation can sustainably develop with a section of its people left behind in many aspects of national life. Eviction, education policy, health issue, discrimination and legal hindrances are the main vibrant issues that need to be addressed in order to protect their rights. Only observing a day for indigenous peoples will have no impact on their lives, write Adity Rahman Shah & Arif Ahmed ***

Bangladesh is a country of ethnic and cultural diversity, with more than 54 indigenous communities speaking at least 35 languages, where 80% of the indigenous peoples live in plain land districts of the North and South-East of the country, and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) areas. Historically, indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have been at the forefront of different struggles against feudalism and colonialism, and many members of these communities also took an active part in the 1971 Liberation War of the country as well. In spite of all these great contributions, they remain one of the most deprived sections in all sectors.
The Government of Bangladesh does not recognize indigenous peoples as 'indigenous'. In 2011 the National Parliament enacted the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh denying recognition of indigenous people as full citizens of this country. Article 6(2) of our Constitution states, "The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis". Again Article 23A provides, "The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities." Article 6(2) explicitly denies the indigenous peoples as citizens of Bangladesh while Article 23A categories and alienates indigenous people from Bengalis making them second class citizens of the State. Thus the Government has categorically denied the existence of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, though the term was used earlier by the same government and also mentioned in different national legislations.
The land is the mother of indigenous peoples who think themselves as the son of land and forest as they were entirely dependent upon land and without it, they have no existence to survive at all. The major international laws governing the land rights of indigenous peoples inter alia include the UDHR (1948), ICCPR (1966), and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). The Declaration in its Article 10 provides that, "Indigenous person shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories". Furthermore, Article 26(1) of the Declaration stipulates that "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired". While in Bangladesh, the laws governing land rights of indigenous peoples in the plains is contained in the SAT Act (1950) and in the CHT is contained in the CHT Regulation (1900) and many other legislations passed in the period following the CHT Accord (1997).
However, throughout 2016 and still, present the indigenous peoples have been protesting against governments' plans to expropriate their land in Bangladesh. Thus militarization, land grabbing, development interventions, corporate greed, forestry and energy projects on their inherited lands have pushed the endurance of indigenous peoples to an alarming situation. Since passing of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, it has been observed that many attacks have been taken place on the indigenous peoples of the CHT and plain lands of Bangladesh.
The CHT Accord (1997) was a constructive agreement, which was signed by the Bangladesh Government and the PCJSS has entered its 20th year. However, even after 20 years, key issues of the CHT Accord, e.g. the Land Commission, the delegation of power to the local bodies, militarization, rehabilitation of the IDPs, etc. remain unresolved. Though the government claims that 48 out of 72 provisions of the CHT Accord have been implemented, the PCJSS and several others claim that the figure stands at only 25 so far.
In order to resolve these aforesaid problems, the government should form an independent Land Commission for indigenous peoples of the plains to settle down the land-related disputes. Articles 6(2) and 23A of the Constitution should be amended to give the Constitutional recognition to indigenous peoples. The Government should completely implement the CHT Accord (1997) as well as the Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (2001) should be amended. Finally, the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (2015), drafted by the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, should be reviewed and considered for enactment.

Arif Ahmed is a Senior Lecturer in Law, Southeast University, Dhaka and an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh



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