It was their day. They gathered, joined hands and spoke up to draw the government's attention to their demands for their rights and constitutional recognition as “indigenous” people.
Wearing colourful traditional dresses, several hundred, who are considered ethnic minorities in the constitution, lined up at the Central Shaheed Minar in the capital to mark International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples yesterday.
In their hands were placards, banners and leaflets, which read “We demand land rights now”, “our forest is our life”, “We demand equal rights to education” etc.
“Despite being citizens of the country, we are deprived of equal rights and dignity. We want such discrimination to end,” said Symon Ritchil, an indigenous youth and student of Dhaka University.
Indigenous people are frequently being evicted from their ancestral land by influential quarters showing different excuses, and even by government bodies.
“We demand our rights to land,” Ananta Dhamai, an indigenous youth, told The Daily Star.
At the rally organised by Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, the demonstrators stood even when it started raining and chanted slogans.
Addressing the function, the forum's President Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma urged indigenous youths to come forward spontaneously to strengthen the ongoing movement for protecting rights of their communities.
“Indigenous people will have to survive through struggle in the country. They have no alternative to it,” said Larma, popularly known as Santu Larma.
The government is not sympathetic towards indigenous people. “We can see reflection of such attitude,” said Larma, also the president of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) that signed Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in 1997 with the then Awami League-led government.
“We have been struggling since independence of Bangladesh to protect existence as well as social, political, economic and land rights.... Our struggle will continue.
“We want to see Bangladesh as a non-communal country where indigenous people can live enjoying all fundamental rights,” Larma said.
At the rally, eminent rights activist Sultana Kamal said indigenous children should not be subjected to any kind of discrimination in education for the betterment of the communities.
Former National Human Rights Commission chairman Mizanur Rahman said no state can develop by snatching away rights of people.
The state should protect rights of all communities for its progress, he added.
Speaking as the chief guest, Civil Aviation Minister Rashed Khan Menon said Banglees and indigenous people should work together to address militancy and terrorism in the country.
Bangladesh Adivasi Forum placed an 11-point demand that includes announcement of a roadmap by the government to full implementation of CHT Peace Accord.
It also demanded that International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples be observed nationally and a separate land commission be formed for resolving land disputes in the CHT.
Rights Activist Khushi Kabir, cultural personality Mamunur Rashid, veteran left politician Pankaj Bhattachariya and several academicians also spoke there.
This year, the day was observed globally with the theme “Indigenous peoples' right to education”.
However, indigenous people in Bangladesh observed the day with the theme “Indigenous peoples' rights to education, land and life”.
A voluntary organisation Progressive Seba Kendra held a rally and a discussion marking the day in Sarishabari of Jamalpur, according to a press release.