Our constitution is a product of the historic War of Liberation in 1971. Alongside Bangalees, indigenous people living in the plains and hills had actively participated in the war.
Unfortunately, their contribution was not recognised in the constitution framed in 1972. The constitution had glorified the unity and solidarity of only the Bangalee nation in the nine-month long bloody war in order to promote Bangalee nationalism. It had no mention of indigenous people.
About Bangalee nationalism, Article 9 of the 1972 constitution said: "The unity and solidarity of the Bangalee nation, which, deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bangalee nationalism."
The provision on Bangalee nationalism was, however, deleted from the constitution when the country's first military ruler Ziaur Rahman replaced it with Bangladeshi nationalism in 1978 following the violent change of government in August 1975.
The Awami League-led government restored the original provision on nationalism in the constitution through the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011. This time round, matters have worsened further for Bangladesh's indigenous communities.
In the process of bringing about massive changes in the country's supreme charter, indigenous people's leaders were invited by the parliamentary body for constitutional amendments. At the meeting, they had demanded constitutional recognition as indigenous people and protection from long persecution.
The parliamentary body, however, did not pay heed to their demands and recommended describing them as "tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities". And thus a new provision was introduced in the constitution accordingly.
Under the heading, "The culture of tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities", the newly introduced Article 23A of the constitution now only says, "The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities."
Interestingly, none of the five AL MPs belonging to indigenous communities who were in the last parliament raised any objection to the passage of the constitutional amendment bill. They accepted the ruling AL's decision and voted for the amendments in line with Article 70 of the constitution.
More surprise was waiting for indigenous people on the eve of International Indigenous People's Day. While the world prepared to observe the day to promote and protect their rights, the government on Thursday came up with a handout advising all to dispense with the word “Adivasi” (in English the word 'Adivasi' is often referred as 'indigenous').
In its defence, the government cited the 15th amendment to the constitution and curiously claimed that according to the constitution, indigenous (Adivasi) people "do not exist" in this country.
The government's claim suffers from contradiction. The constitutional provision does in no way impose any restriction on the use of the word "Adivasi". Rather, many government laws and documents still exist where the word "Adivasi" is used.
Take some examples.
The Ethnic Communities Cultural Institution Act of 2010, enacted by the previous AL-led government, also uses the word "Adivasi" to describe people belonging to different ethnic sects and communities.
The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP-II) for FY 2009-11 approved by parliament during the past AL-led government in 2009 contained a special provision on indigenous communities. The PRSP noted, "Bangladesh has around forty-five different small ethnic communities i.e. indigenous communities-- and two million indigenous people. Some of the 'hardcore poor' in Bangladesh are found among the indigenous communities."
"For the indigenous people, the vision is to ensure their social, political and economic rights; ensure security and fundamental human rights; and preserve their social and cultural identity," announced the PRSP.
The second PRSP was prepared in light of the AL's manifesto for the 2008 parliamentary election.
In the electoral pledges, the AL used the phrase "indigenous people" and promised that terrorism, discriminatory treatment and human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous people must come to an end permanently.
The East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950 uses the phrase "aboriginal castes or tribes" to refer to several groups which identify themselves as indigenous or Adivasi. This law has separate provisions to protect the rights of Adivasis to land.
The AL-led government suddenly backtracked from its original stance in the process of passage of the 15th amendment to the constitution. Now it denies the existence of Adivasi people in the country through issuing the ridiculous handout. By issuing the last moment handout the government has only worsened the plight of Bangladesh's indigenous people.