Are there any Indigenous People in Bangladesh?

Are there any Indigenous People in Bangladesh?

A heated controversy has been raging in the country on the identity of indigenous people in Bangladesh. Meanwhile on 9th August the tribal people of CHT region observed the World Indigenous Day in Dhaka and in CHT with their distinct style of, songs and dance, making the debate to a higher profile.

The tribal people in Bangladesh consider themselves as “indigenous” or “adivasi” while the government call them “ethnic minorities” and does not accept them as “indigenous” because they are not pre-settlers on the land territory of Bangladesh as has been the case of the Aborigines in Australia or Maoris in New Zealand or Red Indians in North America.

Original inhabitants of Bangladesh:

According to historians, the original or indigenous peoples in Bangladesh belong to the proto-Austroloids and tribal Dravidians of India, Sri-Lanka, the Andaman/Nicobar Islands, and ultimately all members of the African continent and its far-reaching diasporas on the western hemisphere of the Earth.

Physically, the indigenous people in Bangladesh were longheaded, dark skinned, broad-nosed, and short in stature. Sometimes labeled as “Negritos” and “Negroids”, their physical features are unchanged today among some of the segment of population of Bangladesh.

To put simply, Bengali people are a mixture of non-Aryans, Aryans, Mongoloid, Semetic and negroid descent according to historians. Therefore from historical point of view, no one ethnic group can claim to be “indigenous” in Bangladesh in the sense it has been employed to the Aborigines in Australia or pre-settlers before the invaders in Latin, Central and North America.

History tells us that the tribal people in Bangladesh have been in the country for about 465 years or so. Therefore one may easily argue that they are not “indigenous” in Bangladesh in the literal sense as the Aborigines in Australia.

The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly said : “As citizen, our identity is Bangladeshi and as nationality, our identity is Bangalee” after the adoption of the 15th amendment of the constitution.

Bangladesh Government’s Position:

The abstention of Bangladesh to the UN Declaration of 2007 was decided by the Caretaker government and it seems that the current government followed the same policy on the meaning of the term “indigenous”.

In August, Bangladesh raised concerns at the ECOSOC over two paragraphs of the 2011 report of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) wherein term ‘indigenous’ had been used for the inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) with reference to the CHT Peace Accord of 1997.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Dipu Moni, stated that it was a ‘misperception’ and ‘misrepresentation’ to refer to the ethnic groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) as ‘indigenous’.

On July 26, the Foreign Minister, briefing diplomats and UN agencies, reportedly stated that Bangladesh was concerned over attempts by some quarters at home and abroad to identify the ethnic minority groups as indigenous people in the CHT region.

She told the diplomats that the tribal people most certainly did not reside or exist in the CHT before the 16th century and were not considered “indigenous people” in any historical reference books, memoirs or legal documents.

The Foreign Minister also explained the issue to the editors and senior journalists from print and electronic media in a separate briefing on the same day.

Chief of Chakma circle, Barrister Raja Debashish Roy said to a leading English daily that : “ The government probably is under the impression that recognizing indigenous people might mean extra responsibility to bear. The constitution does not say that there are no indigenous people in the country. It has not used the word indigenous but it has not used the minority either to identify anybody”.

Mr. Roy further referred to the small ethnic group Cultural Institutions Act, made in 2010 by the present government where the law itself stated in its definition part that small ethnic group would mean indigenous people.

With regard to the 15th Constitution Amendment Bill, he said: “The same mistake was made in 1972 and the indigenous people will never accept it.” He said a team of representatives called on the law minister and discussed their constitutional recognition in the light of convention-107 and 169 of International Labour Organization.

Addressing the press conference, Mesbah Kamal, a teacher of history department of Dhaka University, said the recognition of 75 ethnic groups will be denied once the 15th Amendment of the Constitution bill is passed.

Meanwhile, at a rally, Rashed Khan Menon MP, also chairman of the parliamentary caucus on indigenous affairs, said “We had a chance to give them (indigenous people) constitutional recognition after 40 years. But I think it would not be done”.

Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) rejected the Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill, 2011 and said the government should be responsible for any unpleasant situation due to the undemocratic, communal and oppressive steps towards the indigenous people.

In a press release, PCJSS said that through the passage of the bill different indigenous groups are identified as Bangalee in the constitution. Besides, their ethnic identities and basic rights have been denied.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, a non-government international organization, (its website: has objected to statement made by the Foreign Minister.

The Commission believes that the Foreign Minister’s comments reflect a lack of commitment on the part of the Bangladesh Government towards its national and international obligations, including those contained in the 2008 Election Manifesto of the Bangladesh Awami League, the major component of the current Grand Alliance government, and the provisions of the ILO Convention 107 and other international human rights standards, among others.

It is noted that the paragraph 18 of the Election Manifesto of AL of 2008 states as follows:

” All laws and other arrangements discriminatory to minorities, indigenous people and ethnic groups will be repealed. Special privileges will be made available in educational institutions for religious minorities and indigenous peoples.”

Therefore it has been argued that the AL has acknowledged in the Election Manifesto 2008 that some segment of people in Bangladesh as “indigenous” and let the AL-led grand coalition government make it clear to which ethnic community they meant as “indigenous people”.

The 1989 ILO Convention:

It is argued the confusion of the term “indigenous” has arisen because the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) does not make distinction between “indigenous” and “tribal” people.

Earlier it adopted Convention 107 in 1957 on the same subject which was ratified by Bangladesh in 1972.

Article 1 of ILO Convention No. 169 contains a statement of coverage rather than a definition, indicating that the Convention applies to:

“a) tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;

“b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.”

The ILO Convention acknowledges that although there are tribal peoples who are not “indigenous” in the literal sense in the countries in which they live, yet tribal people live in a similar situation as those of indigenous people. Here lies the crux of the matter.

Bangladesh has yet to ratify the ILO Convention 169 of 1989.

The 2007 UN Declaration:

Let us now look at the UN. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 62nd session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007. The Declaration was over 25 years in the making.

The Declaration was adopted at the UN General Assembly. The vote was 143 countries in favour, four against, and 11 abstaining.

The four member states that voted against were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, all of which have their origins as colonies of the United Kingdom and have large non-indigenous immigrant majorities and small remnant indigenous populations. Since then, all four countries have moved to endorse the declaration.

The abstaining countries were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine; another 34 member states were absent from the vote Colombia and Samoa have since endorsed the document.

While as a General Assembly Declaration it is not a legally binding instrument under international law, according to a UN press release, it does “represent the dynamic development of international legal norms and it reflects the commitment of the UN’s member states to move in certain directions”.

The UN describes it as setting “an important standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples that will undoubtedly be a significant tool towards eliminating human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous people and assisting them in combating discrimination and marginalisation.”

The UN has no definition of indigenous peoples. It has a broad understanding of the term “indigenous”. The UN attempts to identify through some characteristics of people. There are three criteria which are as follows:

• A person should identify himself/herself as an indigenous person and must be accepted as such by that community.
• The indigenous person should belong to pre-settler society which had lived before any other community entered in the territory
• A person must have distinct language, culture and beliefs and be part of non-dominant group of the society. This means a person does not belong to the mainstream community.


Although the government position appears to be correct from historical point of view, yet it will be seen as weak in the comity of nations because the ILO Conventions do not distinguish between the “tribal” and “indigenous” people.

Furthermore the 2007 UN Declaration does not also define indigenous people but only has a broad understanding of the term which includes tribal people as well and the UN main organ ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) does not differentiate between tribal and indigenous people.

The issue before the public at large is: What are the implications—social, economic, and legal-if the government recognies or does not recognise “tribal” people as “indigenous” and it is desirable that both sides may make it clear on the issue.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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