The Politics of Indigeneity and the Jumma struggle for land and recognition | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 27, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 27, 2019

The Politics of Indigeneity and the Jumma struggle for land and recognition

The politics of recognition of the Jummas

In May 2011, Iqbal Ahmed—first secretary of the Bangladesh Mission in New York—stated at the 10th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples (thereafter the Permanent Forum) that there were no indigenous people in Bangladesh. His statement was in response to a report that was presented by a special rapporteur appointed by the Permanent Forum on the status of the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) Accord. I was present at the session of the Permanent Forum that year, coordinating the work of an advocacy group, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission. Our work was to lobby the Government of Bangladesh to implement the CHT Accord that was signed between the government and the Jumma rebels in 1997 that ended more than two decades of armed conflict in the southeastern region of Bangladesh. Three of the most contentious sections in the CHT Peace Accord—the resolution of land disputes between the Jummas and the settlers, military occupation of the area and the political autonomy of the Jummas—remained unrealised. Having faced complete apathy from the government and having exhausted most of their national advocacy efforts, a section of the Jumma activists took to the Permanent Forum and other international indigenous peoples’ organisations and donor countries to influence the government of Bangladesh to end the military occupation of the Hills, return the land of the indigenous Jumma people and give political sovereignty to the Jummas.

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The pushback on the usage of the term ‘indigenous’ in the African and Asian context had, interestingly, first come from within the Permanent Forum itself—from UN special rapporteur Miquel Alfonso Martinez, who in a report presented at the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) in 1999 stated that the term ‘indigenous peoples’ was not applicable to the postcolonial situations of Africa and Asia. Martinez questioned the claims of Indian indigenous delegates at the WGIP in Geneva and stated that neither the Asian nor African situations qualify for the usage of the term ‘indigenous peoples’. He added that in “… post-colonial Africa and Asia, autochthonous groups/minorities/ethnic groups/peoples cannot claim for themselves . . . the ‘indigenous’ status in the United Nations context”. The indigenous delegates at the WGIP protested this assertion by making a culturalist argument for the use of the term and argued that activists from across the world have used the term as a cultural and political tool to seek justice through transnational activism where the nation-state they are a part of have politically, socially and economically marginalised them as the nation’s ‘others’.

In Bangladesh the term “adibashi” has been used in government documents but when the Jummas and other ethnic groups from around the country gained leverage through the activists’ participation in the transnational activism, the government dismissed its usage and the foreign minister of the country stated that it was a “misnomer”. There have been debates over the usage of the term among some scholars too.

However, the denial by the Bangladesh government in 2011 was also driven by transnational donor-funded agenda. The report by the special rapporteur in 2011 recommended that the United Nations should monitor human rights violations by the Bangladesh military before they are allowed to participate in UN peacekeeping missions (It should be noted here that Bangladesh being the 10th most densely-populated country in the world is one of the highest troops contributing country in the world to UN peacekeeping). The first secretary in his speech objected to these recommendations and said that since there were no indigenous people in Bangladesh, the special rapporteur cannot make such recommendations to the UN.

In this article, I will present some of the debates around state recognition of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh and the differences in perspectives. But my objective is not to come to a conclusion about terminology and usage. I acknowledge that these debates are out there and ongoing, and I want to use the debates over terminology and categorisation as a point of departure to look at the political, social and economic marginalisation that the Jummas of Bangladesh face—that of living under a hegemonic nation-state where they face the same kinds of oppression brought about by European colonisers—violent takeover of land, everyday violence, intimidation, surveillance and military occupation, as well as attempts to cultural assimilation and political and economic marginalisation.

The debates over identifying categories takes the discussion away from the situational politics of state violence and majoritarian marginalisation and fails to challenge the processes that normalise violence and oppression. While the construction of essentialised identities obscure power relations and while it is certainly not a catch-all solution to the violence and marginalisation they face, the Jummas and other small ethnic communities around the country, having failed to become an equal participant in the Bengali national imagination, have chosen the “adibashi/adivasi” or “indigenous” identity to form transnational solidarity spaces with indigenous groups around the world.

Formation of collective political identities for action and solidarity

While the indigenous communities in the Hills developed the Jumma identity as a strategy against the state in the 1970s, following the signing of the CHT Accord under pressure from India who withdrew their support for the rebels as part of their own political strategy of maintaining good relationship with the Awami League-led government of 1997, a section of the Jummas soon adopted a wider transnational indigenous people’s movement as a strategy. The first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People from 1995 to 2004 at the UN General Assembly helped the indigenous people of the Bangladesh achieve this objective by strengthening transnational ties to indigenous people from around the world in similar struggles with the state.

Much of the critique from scholars over this terminology have come from the perspective of the critique of neoliberal governmentality. These scholars point out that, in their search for recognition, the Jummas have reached out to western governments who themselves have their own history of colonisation upon indigenous peoples and a political agenda to manage relationships with postcolonial countries in order to erase their colonial history and present settler colonisation. Sumon argues that the discourse for recognition as “indigenous people” emerged from the NGO-driven agenda that began developing in the 1990s, when many of the activists who were earlier reluctant to use the term ‘adivasi/adibashi/indigenous’ started to use the term in their project proposals. In a similar vein, John R. Bowen has argued that there is a crisis of representation in such a universal concept as ‘indigenous peoples’ as it is mostly the NGO-led activists who advocate for recognition under this category.

While a group’s self-identification as tribal or indigenous may not be “natural or inevitable,” Tania Lee disagrees that such terms are simply “invented, adopted, or imposed”. In the case of Indonesia’s dictatorship and a similar denial by the government as in Bangladesh, Li sees it as a “positioning which draws upon historically sedimented practices, landscapes, and repertoires of meaning, and emerges through particular patterns of engagement and struggle”.

Indeed, in the case of the Bangladeshi indigenous people, it has been their positioning against a state which continues to oppress them by taking away their land and inflicting various kinds of injustices against them and letting others do so through impunity provided by the state. Bengt G. Karlsson who is critical of this categorisation also argues that, in the case of the indigenous activists of India, the concept is already “out there” and it is necessary to engage with the claims of the people instead dismissing them. He adds that it is problematic for anthropologists to take it upon themselves to decide whether the people concerned should call themselves indigenous or not.

In the context of Bangladesh, Lailufar Yasmin points out that the post-1971 cultural hegemony of the Bengalis has attempted to delegitimise the place-based identity claims of the non-Bengali indigenous communities of Bangladesh and the construction of the official national Bengali identity is illustrative of the “positional power employed by the state vis-à-vis the minority indigenous peoples”.

In 1972, when the first constitution of Bangladesh was written it did not recognise anyone other than Bengalis as the citizens of the country. In the 15th amendment to the national constitution of Bangladesh passed by the parliament in June 2011 it stated that “… The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis”. The 12 different ethnic communities living in the Hills are not Bengali and through this declaration the state essentially rendered them as non-citizens of the country.

Many of the aspects present in settler colonies are also present in the Hills. The advocacy efforts for recognition as ‘indigenous’ comes from groups who are fighting against state hegemony and marginalisation and that starts from the constitution where Bengali and Muslim are the only recognised category and all others are “minorities” and not recognised as true citizens of the country. These aspects absent in the constitution left Jumma people with no other option but to fight along the lines of recognition as indigenous. Underlying all these contestations about terminology is the demand for self-determination brought about by decades of state repression in the form of mass violence, military occupation, loss of land, discriminatory policies, social marginalisation and state hegemony.

Unfortunately, movements are always in a position to be co-opted by powerful groups for their own purposes which more often than not, have nothing to do with the people of the movements. However, this should not delegitimise that movement. Many point out that there has not been an even voice for demand of this recognition. However, to expect that everyone in a movement will work together without differences is itself a form of colonial essentialisation—it is not unusual for groups to have differences in their approaches to recognition. There is a common denominator to all those in the movement—to fight against the state’s hegemonic policy over those who are considered the nation’s others. It’s the long history of internal colonisation, the resource exploitation and state-led terror which led to the positioning of the Jummas and their violent revolt against the state, against each other and against the vulnerable people within themselves. 

The Jummas have suffered from state repression for decades under the Pakistani state and the Bangladeshi state before they refused to be recognised under conditions set by the state. The Bangladeshi state’s majoritarian politics not only reduced the Jummas to becoming the nation’s others but through state-sponsored media campaigns, Jummas were framed as ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’. Seeking recognition as ‘indigenous’ itself became a form of refusal and a protest against domination and state hegemony.

The argument from the side of the government seems to be the right to self-determination attached to status of “indigenous” according to the ILO which they fear can feed ideas of secessionism and communal rights to land. However, the fear of secessionism seems to be unfounded as neither during the armed movement, nor afterwards, indigenous groups have only aspired for self-determination within the framework of the Bangladeshi Constitution.

In 1971, not only did many Jumma people join the Mukti Bahini, many were also rejected from joining on the basis of their ethnicity. This rejection continued when M.N. Larma and other Jummas went to the parliament in 1972 and sought legal recognition of the indigenous ethnic communities in the new country’s constitution. The four-point manifesto that Larma submitted to the parliament sought autonomy for the region under the country’s constitution in order to protect the land rights of the Jummas. It was this denial of constitutional recognition that triggered the armed struggle by the Jummas.

The ‘Peace’ Accord came about as a middle ground between the kind of autonomous rule that the Jummas wanted and what the government was willing to give. The setting up of the Regional Council and the Hill District Councils through the Accord was an attempt to give a semblance of autonomous rule. The establishment of the Land Commission was intended to ensure that Jummas could re-establish their communal rights over their ancestral land. However, Jummas claimed that the Land Commission Act was flawed and favoured Bengali settlers over the Jummas.

On the other hand while Bangladesh has ratified ILO Convention 107 that ensures the rights to identity and land for indigenous people, the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011 once again refused to recognise the national identity of the Jumma people. The non-functioning of the Land Commission and the lack of recognition in the country’s constitution have been central points of contention for Jumma activists over the last decade and much of the international advocacy has centred around these two issues.

The coloniser-colonised discourse in a postcolonial context

While most Bengali scholars have refrained from using the term ‘colonisation’ in the context of the Hills, Jumma scholars have referred to the situation there as “violent colonization… by Bangladesh armed forces and transmigrants”. Referring to rapes and abduction as a result of this transmigration and beyond, Kabita Chakma and Glen Hill have pointed out that indigenous women have been particularly targeted in this colonisation process of the Hills. Chakma and Hill have pointed out that the unique pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial history, the state-led transmigration programme bringing in more than 400,000 Bengalis to settle in the land of the indigenous people, the targeted massacres of indigenous people, targeted rape and abduction of indigenous women, the continued operation and surveillance of the armed forces make for a compelling case of internal colonisation in a postcolonial country.

Martínez and other scholars who claim that indigenous people cannot claim this category of recognition in postcolonial situations fail to understand that indigenous people in these countries still face situations of colonisation in postcolonial countries where the newly formed postcolonial states have long positioned themselves as colonial masters upon the departure of European colonizers. Mahmood Mamdani argues for exploring the relationship between history and politics in the context of violence in order “…to problematise the relationship between the historical legacy of colonialism and postcolonial politics”. His conceptual argument helps in explaining much of the violence against indigenous people in South Asia. He writes that perpetrators of violence construct and define the ‘enemy’ as against the self in terms of religious, national, racial, or other categories. He argues that the horror of colonialism led to “genocidal impulses” which is particularly important to understand the cycle of violence that continues in post-colonial nation-states.

At the receiving end of the violence are the indigenous people in South Asian countries. For them the face of the coloniser has changed, but their situation has in fact worsened. Luithui points out that Martínez advocates a simplistic theory of salt-water colonisation, meaning that colonisation only occurred when the colonisers came sailing across the sea from other continents, as in the case of the European conquest of the Americas or, for example, Australia. He further pointed out that Martínez’s study approves of the position taken by many Asian states, which deny the existence of indigenous people in their country or who claim that all are indigenous.

Moving on from fixed identity categories to situational politics

While the issue of recognition politics emerged in response to the new Bangladesh government’s hegemonic policies that were reflected in the first constitution of the country and continued as the state’s policy against indigenous people became more brutal, much of the debate has shifted to recognition around terminology and transnational identity politics. While I assert that there are certainly legitimate grounds around the argument that indigenous people’s claims to recognition has been part of transnational indigenous politics, the overemphasis around the terminology not only shifts the debate away from the core issues affecting the lives of indigenous people but it also strengthens the state’s continued subjugation of marginalised people.


Hana Shams Ahmed is a PhD student at York University, Canada and former coordinator of the International CHT Commission.


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