In Bangladesh we have used the word “adivasi”- the Sanskrit/ Bangla word for indigenous population – without hesitation until the past two years. It was in the election manifesto of political parties, agreements, policies and legislations, not to mention in the discourse of the academia and advocacy of activists. We are referring to the communities / ethnic minorities of the hill areas and of plain land. By some account there are 45 communities in the hill areas and land of indigenous communities, some as small as a community of 2000 people only. However, the government sources claim there are only 27 communities.

The main essence of the freedom fight and liberation of Bangladesh was built on identity – the right to speak in one’s own language and uphold its culture – along with demand for economic parity and democracy.  We celebrate our independence with such pride and are always reminding each other of the values of liberation war and freedom fight, and hold our head so high because of this legacy. So what happened 40 years down the road? Why has the word “adivasi” become an unutterable word and unacceptable definition? Has it become a 4-letter word in Bangladesh? We cannot use this in official documents? Bangladesh does not celebrate indigenous day anymore at state level, why?

We have seen civil unrest turned into armed conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for decades which was finally meant to be brought to rest after the 1997 Peace Accord/ Treaty. We felt a new era would be in the making and there would be the nation building in Bangladesh which is inclusive and recognises and respects diversity. What we instead received was Constitutional amendment where by all people living in Bangladesh are Bangladeshis and they are Bangalees.  Oops! So what happened to the adivasis of the hill areas and plain land? I am sure I don’t need to elaborate as rest is history.

Sadly, our political player and stakeholders opted for division and went for denial regarding Bangladesh and its demographic composition – it is populated by diverse communities and there is indigenous population in Bangladesh.

Why is this word so sensitive? We the citizens are trying to find an explanation, which is rational, logical and acceptable across the country and the globe. We wait.

The Bangladesh Constitution focused on a distinctive Bangalee identity, language and culture. Article 9 provided:

The unity and solidarity of the Bangalee nation, which deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bangalee nationalism.

Is this where we failed to understand, to acknowledge, to foresee?! And added in Article 6 (2) is

The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation…

It is critical to have an understanding and acceptance of the aspirations of diverse communities within a nation state and respect it so that all citizens may live with dignity and rights. The rule of the majority over minorities is not a new phenomenon – however, a nation state is recognised as a modern and progressive state based on its ability to accept diversity and to respect and protect all its minorities.

Non-political solution cannot solve any difference that may be existing – instead it could sharpen the divide; what is required is a resurgence of energy behind inclusion and protection of the rights of all citizens at all level of society and the government.

All citizens are equal before law…

(Article 27 of Bangladesh Constitution)

Is it about a word or the rights of the communities who are being labelled one way or the other?? Will Bangladesh become an inclusive, modern and progressive state to be able to meet the challenges of the century?

We wait…