“There should be an Adibashi commission that will work for the development of IPs, indigenous women issues, health, education, environment, and land.”( Sanjeeb Drong)
SANJEEB DRONG is the Secretary General of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, also called Bangladesh Adivasi Forum. He is a member of the Garo tribe of north central Bangladesh.
Below is an interview with Sanjeeb which composes part of the policy reference, Discourses on Policy Perspectives on Land Rights of the Adivasis of Northwest Bangladesh, published by Voluntary Service Overseas-Bangladesh.
Q>What does Bangladesh Adivasi Forum want to realize.
A>Bangladesh Adivasi Forum has been fighting for Adibashi rights since its establishment in 2001 the same way that Indigenous Peoples organizations have been fighting for IP rights to land, political and cultural rights for years. We have IPs in the CHT, in North Bengal, in Mymensingh, in the northeast. BAF had been protesting against the government for having set up the Eco Park at Modhupur to the disadvantage of Garos of their land. We set up our 12 point demand on civil political rights in 2001 among of which is constitutional recognition for Adivasis.
Q>Do you see any significant development since 2001?
A>I can say that building of relationships between Adivasis in the CHT and Plain lands had been significant since 2001. Before BAF, there was very little contact between Adibashis of the plain lands and the Hill Tracts. Now, Adibashis are in a meeting point. Chakma, Adibashi of north Bengal, Garo of Mymesingh, speak together for their rights. These are new achievements among the Adibashis.
Democratically and peacefully, we are doing our work through holding of seminars, dialogues, consultations with government in our own individual and collective ways. The CHT people were successful to make government forge an accord with them. We, Adibashis all over the country can also arrive at a consensus for the Plain lands.
In 1993, government denied in the national Parliament the existence of IPs in Bangladesh. In the last seven years however, there is significant development. Government is not saying that anymore. The government recognized Adibashis in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). There are some laws recognizing Adivasis recognizing ethnic minorities. Although, when government officials speak, they play a double role.
The ILO in Dhaka never organized an activity for Adivasis but last year for the first time, ILO organized a consultation meeting with Adivasis. This is significant.
Q> You mean government cannot reconcile its position on whether or not Adivasis exist in Bangladesh?
A>Le me say, in primary education development programs, government recognize IPs. Government recognizes Adibashis also in the PRSP. There are some government officials who recognize Adibashis. Yet, they speak for themselves only. The government should make clear why they are not totally recognizing IPs.
I am hopeful that we have very good friends among the Bengali intellectuals- professors, intellectuals, media, and lawyers. At least they are trying to address our issues. At least, they recognize and are supportive of our issues. The Adivasis cannot fight for their rights alone. We need support of majority peoples.
Q>What can BAF do in the light of government playing a double role on whether or not there are Adivasis in the country.
A>BAF is free to speak. BAF is completely an independent organization. We have the liberty unlike NGOs who cannot because they have to satisfy the government and its regulations. NGOS in Bangladesh normally are not so effective to advocate for IP rights to some extent as they do their work with restriction from the government. NGOS cannot go against the government. So NGOS most often times cannot fully address the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Q>So what do you want to tell government now.
A>We are trying to tell the government that land is important for us. We ask government to recognize our traditional and customary land rights. IPs don’t have documents because it is the culture of IPS not to have deeds in order to own land. But if we don’t have documents it doesn’t mean that we have no land. Government should give the deeds on lands where IPs have been occupying for years.
So we are asking government to make a separate land commission for plain land Adibashis. We want a separate land commission and there will be members of the government, civil society and Adibashis. They will work on how IP rights will be included in the national law.
We have land laws that support IPs like the Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act but it doesn’t help indigenous peoples protect their land. Many people know that existing land laws cannot protect IP rights so we want a separate land commission.
Q>What specifically will the commission demand.
A>This will be formulated by the commission. First we have to make a commission.
We can formulate provisions and give the government the idea. Some indigenous lawyers can do that. We are also working on how government can include IP rights in the Constitution. We can get examples from your country. We can learn from the Philippines.
Q>Are you going to forward these demands to the Parliament.
A>We’re still not yet able to do that. There should be one committee to work on this and study where and how the demand will be forwarded. We’re in the right step.
Q>What policy recommendations would you propose.
A>Aside from a land commission, we need an education commission. There is still no education policy in Bangladesh since its independence in 1972. And indigenous peoples issues should be there and also a health policy. So there should be an IP development commission in Bangladesh. At least in Bangladesh, there should be an Adibashi commission that will work for the development of IPs, indigenous women issues, health, education, environment, and land.
Q>Is this a new concept you are telling now?
A>In the BAF 12 point demand, this new idea is not there. This new plan for commission for a separate commission for Indigenous People’s development is not incorporated. Government needs parliamentary adaptation in order to adopt constitutional recognition for IPs. This government can form a national commission without necessarily prior constitutional provision.
Q>What would you tell government now.
A>Promotion of Indigenous Peoples rights depend on good governance. If there is good governance, democracy and rule of law, and no corruption in the administration, many problems of indigenous peoples will be solved automatically. Government should see the rights of indigenous peoples in different ways. Not homogenously. There are many IPs- Garos, Khasis, and Santals. Government should promote cultural diversity. Bangladesh is emerging.
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