The rights of indigenous peoples should be enshrined in the constitution
by Sumon Corraya

Thousands of people mark International Day for Indigenous Peoples with dances, music and candlelit processions. For writer and educator Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, diversity is beauty. The government has however forgotten minority rights.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Thousands of Bangladeshis from ethnic minorities yesterday marked International Day for Indigenous Peoples, demanding that their rights be recognised and included in the country's constitution. This year’s celebration was centred on ‘10th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’.

In Bangladesh, there are approximately 50 minority groups for a total of 3 million people. Most of them have their own language, culture, dress, food, and traditions. A good number of them are Christians. And they are often victims of the Bengali and Muslim majority: land grabs, unfair treatment, murders, enslavement, etc.

To support the rights of minorities, several activities were held at the Central Shaheed Minar, with tribal and music dances, and the participation of thousands of people.

Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, president of the Adivasi (Indigenous) Forum, slammed the government for trying "to eliminate ethnic minorities from the country. If the rights of these populations are not recognised, they will have to fight for survival." For Larma, young people especially must involve themselves in getting recognition.

Famous writer and educator Muhammad Zafar Iqbal is behind the event. Speaking at the gathering, he said that "In my life I realised that diversity is beauty. In this country, we have many ethnic groups. They are part of its beauty. It is important for the government to take care of them. It is sad to see how the number of indigenous groups is decreasing; we are losing the element of diversity."

The main guest of the event was Rasheed Khan Menon, Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism. He expressed his solidarity with ethnic groups. "Bangladesh,” he noted, “has many ethnic groups and this is a matter of pride vis-à-vis foreigners, but such groups are not recognised as indigenous peoples in the constitution. Our duty is to respond to the demands of indigenous peoples."

The Garo Student Union, a Christian movement among ethnic Garo, also organised a march; about a thousand people participated, holding lit candles.

"We lit these candles as a token to eliminate persecution, oppression, exploitation, abuse, denied right,” said Rajib Sangma, a Garo Catholic student. “We are often persecuted only because we are a minority. We want to live in accordance with our culture."

"We indigenous people have lived in this country for many years,” said Sanjeeb Drong, another Catholic Garo who is also the secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum. “In the past, the government observed International Day of Indigenous Peoples, but now it does not even recognise us as indigenous peoples. This is a failure for the government. We want to be recognised."

Nine issues came out of the event for the government’s attention. They include ownership rights of indigenous peoples over traditional land, justice for all persecuted groups, establishing a commission to distribute land to ethnic groups, the recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution, and full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, signed in 1997 between the central government and local tribal groups after years of war.