Advocate Michael Soren, now in his late 50s, is one of few Adivasis in northwest Bangladesh who was able to go to school and earn a degree. A legal practioner at Rajshahi Court for quite sometime, Advocate Michael Soren joins five Adivasi- lawyers from northwest. With their few number, there is need for more educated Adivasis to articulate their concerns and relevantly situate their culture in legally related issues which confront them, one of which is land. Below is an interview with Advocate Michael Soren.
Q> Constitutional recognition is one of the major demands of Adivasis in claiming for their rights.
A>The Adibashi need to be concerned about the law especially land law. It is the law which will prevent them from obstacles and rescue them from unfair situations. That is why by constitutional recognition, Adibashis are made aware about the law and it can be useful for them to safeguard and redeem their land properties. But at present state, it is not working that way, so Adibashis have to be more careful about the law. Separate policies will be prepared for them for their development and upliftment. If it will be written in the law that such and such people are regarded as Adibashi people and for their growth and progress, a separate commission or policies and funding will be drawn out. Out of that budget, it will be easy for the government to impose this law and carry out the mandates of what the law provides.
Q> Is there any special distinction for Adibashis to be specially recognized in the Constitution? They are also citizens of Bangladesh and to be treated just like any other Bangladeshi.
A>I do agree with you that they are citizens of the country. But still they have to be specially treated as they are treated as minority group, a minority of the minorities. By minorities, these people are deprived of many scopes of the government that is presently running the way that it is dealing. The thing is that when this section of people is recognized, that makes them aware of their own standing and at the same time also the reasons of their deprivation. Because these people depend mostly on their cultural life, they don’t care about the running laws. They don’t care about what the government is doing. By recognition, we try to implicate especially this section of people on what benefits they can have from the government.
Q>You were talking about a separate commission.
A>A separate commission can be made by the government to look after these people for their good. So the commission can look after these. That means the commission as soon as it is formed, about 5 to 10 members will produce the policies and guidelines for the good of these people, along with requirements. And this body to be approved by the National Assembly and ministries concerned about the Adivashi peoples.
Q>Do you have special recommendations who the members will be?
A>It has to be composed of Adibashi peoples. Special constitution maybe kept for the non- Adibashis who are concerned about the Adibashi peoples and can be taken into the commission by the Adibashi peoples, otherwise, it will purely be for Adibashi peoples.
Q>Land is one major issues among Adibashis…
A>This commission as soon as it is formed will look at the land issues most especially, health, education. On the basis of these issues, they will make guidelines of what they will want to do and this has to be approved by the National Assembly.
Q> I would like to be more specific. A special law on Section 97 of the EBSAT Act of 1950 protects Adibashis’ alienation from their land. How far has the law been exercised?
A>Many problems are there in the present existing law. For example, its interpretation among the Santals. How to recognize these Santals is not stated in the law. How to identify these people is not clear in Section 97. What law they will follow, is it the Hindu law or their traditional law. It is not clear in this section. .
Q>You are saying that Section 97 has to incorporate issues about who an Adibashi is.
A>There is not much criteria about who an Adibashi is in Section 97. Once, we went to a Divisional Commissioner to prove that a Santal is a Santal. We cannot prove that a Santal is a Santal belonging to the Adibashi tribe as there are no written criteria on who is a Santal so we lost the case. There is need for criteria and these criteria have to be mentioned in the EBSAT Act. Our argument was that Santals hold the 12 titles ( Santals have consistent 12 titles). Hembrom is one of them so he belongs to the Santal community. Section 97 should then be applied regarding his land rights but the judge said, “no, the way you are saying is not enough, so I cannot give any decision.”
Q> There are 45 tribes of Bangladesh so each tribe has a separate way of looking at land management and ownership.
A>Section 97 is only one page or two. Section 97 needs more than the pages than it holds now.
Q> Bangladesh has a national land policy. How could these recommended laws and policies applied apart from national land law.
A>It may be parallel to national land policies and may run in the same way as national land policies are running. It can run the same way as the national land policy is running but at the same time it will be a separate thing.
Q> Adibashis have distinct practices which may be contrary to national policies. Could there be some areas where such may be contrary to national law.
A>I don’t think this will contradict national land policies because as any obstacle comes this will be obstacle to the national land policies also. Ways and means have to be found out to overcome those obstacles.
Q>Adibashis have yet to recover their lands. Is there a law which is favorable to recovery of their lands?
A>There is no law yet to get back the properties of the Adibashis as of now. I think it is necessary to get back the property but system has to be formed. Suppose the person who went to India was victimized leaving his property, these circumstances he has to prove up to the time he lost his documents and since the time he has been in possession of his land.
Source: Discourses on Policy Perspectives on Land Rights of the Adivasis of Northwest Bangladesh, by Gina Dizon, Published by Voluntary Service Overseas Bangladesh-Indigenous Community Rights Programme, April 2008