B K Jahangir 

(translated from Bangla)

In Bangladesh, we are thinking about justice, particularly in the sphere of ethnicity or within the scope of culture. We are generally hostile about minority rights or the idea of multiculturalism, careless about ethnic diversity in Bangladesh. We, the liberals, are habituated to think about liberalism in relation to individual rights, nationalism (i.e. Bengali nationalism), and/ or minority rights (mainly Hindu rights). The partition of India, the rise and fall of Pakistan, and the rise of Bangladesh: all of these geopolitical factors have deeply influenced the idea of minority rights of the liberals of these three countries.

How would one draw a line between national minorities and ethnic groups? History has a clear role in the constitution of these groups. From these roles, the existence of an ethnic group or a national minority becomes evident. This division depends on which historical moment one draws the line of an ethnic group or a national minority. In the context of Bangladesh, the difference of the Chakma community as an ethnic group or the Hindu people as a community is born from history. Different experimentations of the liberal democracy of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have generated a varied experience of the state amongst ourselves. These experiences have created an awareness of different rights among different groups of people. The struggle for independence of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh has helped the different ethnic groups and minority groups to walk through the historical experience of colonialism. As a result of colonization, the majority ( i.e. the Muslims) and the minority ( i.e. the Hindus) have gained citizenship rights. But the ethnic groups (the hill people and the forest people) have been excluded from citizenship. Muslims and Hindus grew out of the experience of colonialism but also remained under the national culture of colonial power (i.e. the British, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh period). Justice is being thought out excluding the ethnic groups. The basis of this is liberal multiculturalism: These are practised in the laws, constitutions and parliamentary debates of the liberal democracies of India or Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Long march in Naogaon protesting unlawful eviction; organized by Jatio Adivasi Parishad in 2009. Image credit: Mahmudul Sumon

But some problems remained. In the constitution of the state, who do we refer to as the people of the state? Perhaps we are talking of the majority of the Muslim community of the state or the minority (i.e. Hindu community) of the state. Then what happens is, the ethnic groups become excluded from the people who constitute the state. This excluded group, historically, is not the national minority or the indigenous. The ethnic groups are the inhabitants of this land from the British colonial period, before the Indian independent period or the Pakistani independent period or the independence of Bangladesh. But they are not being considered as the people of the state’s formation. On the one hand, they are excluded from history; on the other hand, they are excluded from state formation. They are excluded from the historic territory, as well as political territory. They have different types of rights over land, and the forest, their social system is different. Ethnic people do not get the benefit that is enjoyed by the majority or the minority people of the state. In their case, the historically induced injustice upon them is not met out. Are they then rootless?

The historical responsibility which emanated out from colonization is not applicable to them. Their framework of indigenous rights, on the one hand, is not accepted by the country’s constitution; on the other hand, the UN promulgated Indigenous rights discourse is conflictual with the state’s existing laws. Their idea of land, ecology, and legal pluralism and its necessary relations comes through the idea of indigenous. Since the idea of indigenous is not acknowledged in the constitution, in many cases ethnic people are exploited: Dr Dipu Moni’s statement about majority vs minority vs ethnic people is, on the one hand, misleading, on the other hand, it is indicative of the universally existing class struggle within the state formation. It appears to me that the multicultural political project is being constituted against the welfare agenda of the state. On the one hand, there is no place for different ethnic groups within the multicultural political project; on the other hand, there is no place for them within the welfare state’s agenda. When the state is spread over the international border, and ethnic groups living under international borders, how long these hapless ethnic groups, devoid of rights to land, language, and autonomy, will survive within this suffocating regime of politics?

Image courtesy: Manosh Chowdhury

B. K. Jahangir (9 January 1936 – 23 March 2020) was a social scientist and writer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A widely travelled person, he has taught in various universities, including Dhaka, Jahangirnagar, Sussex, Syracuse, Konstanz and Ecole Des Hautes Etudes En Science Sociale.

Translator: Mahmudul Sumon teaches anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, and is the editor of the anthropology journal. Jahangir’s piece in Bangla was first published in the Daily Janakantha in 2011.  Sumon’s English translation first appeared in The Journal of Social Studies No. 139 (now defunct). The current version made available here is a modified version of the earlier published work.

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