THIS debate which I call the naming debate of the adivasi, seems to be an unending one. On the one hand we have a good number of activists and scholars who think that the term adivasi and the demand for constitutional recognition is an all important one. To another group, which also includes some scholars, this is all wrong. For this latter group, the term adivasi is not applicable for a country like Bangladesh. In such a situation, what is the role of a scholar?
Personally, I have worked on this issue for many years as a researcher. I have followed this debate from an earlier period. I have seen the early days of indigenous rights discourse in Bangladesh. There was a time when within NGOs and the rights discourse, debate ensued as to who would be called indigenous or adivasi in the country? Is it the Austroasiatic linguistic groups such as the Santals, the Oraons and others who currently live in small pockets of geographical terrains in the north-western parts of the country or the Tibeto-Burmese groups living in the South eastern parts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh? Historically, the former were categorized as aboriginal and the latter groups have generally been categorized as tribes in colonial discourses. But then both are imposed by the colonials. The term adivasi (as a translation of the term aboriginal came into prominence in the activism of some educated and Christianized groups in the 1930s for their development in Jharkhand).
The contemporary use of the term adivasi as a translation of the term indigenous by a cohort of civil society members in Bangladesh is definitely driven by a UN definition. This definition is not only applicable to Bangladesh but many other countries of the world as a safeguard tool for the minority population and their rights. Most notably these include some Latin American countries. The policy had been operationalized in Bangladesh from the early 1990s. However, after the initial years of some kind of acceptability of the idea, the issue got a big blow in 2011 when the 15th amendment of the Constitution was passed and the demand for constitutional recognition diffused.
The point I would like to make is that the applicability of the indigenous rights discourse has been contested because of its legacy with settler colonial states. Especially this has been the case with Asia, because here the context is different from settler colonies such as Australia or the USA. Commenting specifically on the recent discourse of indigenous rights at the UN, Bowen, a legal scholar noted that such declarations rested on the notion of a chronological gap between an initial people and a subsequent conquest, which does not apply for Asia and Africa. As “populations moved around and some absorbed others” Bowen agrees with a number of Asian and African scholars and state delegates to international forums who argued that the category “indigenous peoples” should be limited to the Americas and Australia. Thus, he opposed the development of such universal categories. Andre Beteille, an anthropologist from India, seems to share the opinion of the legal scholars. He noted that “tribe and civilization have co-existed for centuries if not millennia, and were closely implicated in each other from ancient to modern times” (1986: 299; my emphasis). On the Indian subcontinent, according to Beteille, the distinction between “tribal” and “non-tribal”, no matter how it is framed, fails to correspond in any significant way with that between indigenous and settler populations. From this perspective, too the new term “indigenous” which came into currency in India in 1990s is a problematic construct for this distinguished anthropologist.
Yes, this is all true! But my question to the government is, is it because of this logic that the government is shying away from the indigenous rights discourse and activists' plea for constitutional recognition? Is this merely a technical issue? In this connection we must also bring this into our discussion that a number of Asian countries, even when they have had reservation initially, have recently adopted the discourse as it has captured the imagination of a class of people who are indigenous rights organizers in these countries. Nepal is a good example and indigenous rights movement has flourished there since then. India also seems to have softened on this issue although at the beginning, the state's policy makers were unsure. Will this information lead the government of Bangladesh to rethink its position with regard to adivasi rights discourse? I don't think so. It seems from various activities of the government's various activities that there is no clear understanding and policy recommendation on the part of the government. Its position is only expressed through various edicts and instructions.
Such ambiguity on the part of the government is only fuelling resentment among the various quarters of the adivasi rights organization. One must not ignore that amidst all this policy indecision, the term adivasi, which came into use through various NGO driven initiatives, is becoming popular amongst a small middle class populace of the Chakmas, the Marmas and the Tripuras and many other groups in the country. What is important to note at this stage is that the term adivasi is taken as part of an identity politics and in the initial years there may have been some confusion but now the term is gaining currency. And statist denial is one of the reasons for this ground making! As in all identity politics, a source of antagonism is a key for identity formation and politics. By denying Bengali the status of state language, the erstwhile Pakistani regime once sowed the seed of antagonism that led to the rise of Bengali nationalism and eventually formation of Bangladesh. In an ironical sleight of history, we are seeing a similar unfolding of events in front of us and this time the cause of antagonism is the state itself. We know who advised the Pakistani rulers but do we know on whose advice the government of Bangladesh is working?
The bottom line is by repeated fiat (the latest being government orders not to use the term adivasi) the state is steadfastly helping to popularize the demand. Thus, as a scholar, it is not enough to look at whether the term adivasi is right or wrong, or technically correct or not. This would amount to a blatant realism which will not solve the problem. Although it is alarming that some of our scholars are doing exactly that. Instead, one needs to look at the issue from a constructivist angle. This calls for an ethical consideration never matched by realism.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.