THERE are, if the government is to be believed, no adivasis or indigenous people in Bangladesh. Instructions went out last week from the administration, even as preparations were underway for the observance of International Indigenous Peoples' Day, that everyone should avoid using the term 'indigenous' and instead focus on the terms the government thought was proper to refer to people who, unlike so many of us, are not Bengalis. The people you and I know to have been, for centuries, adivasis are, in the definition formulated by the government, 'small ethnic groups or tribes.' That formulation is certainly an ingenious way of informing the world that our Chakmas, Mros, Santals and so many other indigenous groups are actually people who do not matter. Santu Larma's pain is thus understandable. Bangladesh's indigenous people, he has enlightened us, are being treated in the manner of exotic creatures in the zoo. He was not too far wrong.
It does not pay, in the long run, to deny history. When you remember this cardinal lesson coming down through generations of political evolution, it becomes easy for you to ignore the claims, spurious of course, made by some of those who have settled over the years in indigenous territory. There are, these self-righteous deniers of history will have you know, no indigenous people in Bangladesh. For good measure, they will take you back to America and Australia where, in their view, 'Red Indians' used to be. Do we have people like the 'Red Indians' in our midst? Before you go for a response, there is the ignorance of these people that hits you hard. In the first place, they do not know that the politically accepted term for 'Red Indians' is 'Native Americans'. In the second, there is no evidence that 'Red Indians' lived in Australia as well. The original inhabitants of Australia, indeed its indigenous people, were the Aborigines. And not long ago, the Australian authorities made it a point to apologise, officially, to their indigenous community for the sufferings inflicted on them down the centuries.
History suffers when it is denied or pushed aside. In the end, it is an entire society which gets battered when it refuses to acknowledge truths that are as bright as daylight. When there are Bengalis ready to inform you in a moment of 'discovery' that the real indigenous population of the country are themselves and not those who have been here since centuries before they appeared on the scene, you know what dangers you are being pulled into. There is then the argument thrown at you --- that Bangladesh being a land for all citizens, it is only proper that its citizens settle in any part of the country they wish to. That is no argument. It is sophistry at its weakest. The rights of citizens to their country apart, there are certain realities that you simply cannot wish away. Majoritarianism is never good policy when it comes to dealing with realities that have been the bedrock of particular phases in history. Indigenous communities in India, in Africa, in Latin America are today a globally recognized presence. Why must we in Bangladesh move in the opposite direction, knowing full well that our position on the issue is at best untenable and at worst motivated?
Bangladesh's adivasis have been paying a price for being part of this stretch of geography since the late 1940s. Nothing can be more painful than for a community or a people to be rudely informed that its wishes, its dreams, indeed its rootedness do not matter. The Chakmas have suffered from day one, when in August 1947 they honestly and happily believed they were to be part of the Indian Union at partition. That belief was destroyed when Cyril Radcliffe ended up leaving them within the territories comprising Pakistan. In Bangladesh, once it ceased to be East Pakistan, these and other indigenous people have not ceased to suffer --- politically, economically and socially. Modern politics is about providing leadership to citizens across cultural frontiers. It is about respecting tradition and upholding heritage. And therein does it veer away from tribalism, for a tribe is always about itself, is full of itself and considers the rest of the world unworthy of being part of the good it thinks it embodies. The official Bengali attitude to Bangladesh's indigenous people has been a patent demonstration of the tribalism that has today graduated into something that can only be ominous for the future: that this country has no adivasis but only small ethnic groups. The subtle hint: small ethnic groups do not matter.
And here is an inconvenient truth: the seeds of adivasi discontent were sown in 1972 as the new state of Bangladesh prepared to adopt a constitution for itself. Bengali nationalism was --- and is --- the bedrock of our place in history. But to have ignored the existence of non-Bengali communities in Bangladesh, indeed to have lumped them all into an all-embracing concept of Bengali nationhood, was an unwitting opening of the door to unease in the future. That future is today our present. And we need to deal with it through a clear display of foresight, an open acceptance of cultural realities and a bold, liberal demonstration of political leadership.
Briefly, we will need to revisit the constitution, to make space in it for those citizens of Bangladesh who are not and will never be Bengalis but who are, in the regions they call home, are the original inhabitants of the land. They are our adivasis. And they do not belong in the zoo or in museums.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.