Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bangladesh government’s true colour revealed

Commentary: Issue 01: 25 April 2012

THE true intentions of the government have been revealed when Sajeda Chowdhury, deputy leader of parliament and convenor of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty Implementation Committee, at a function at Bangladesh Shishu Academy said, ‘It is the country of the Bengalis. None other than the Bengalis can live here.’ She further said, ‘The country was liberated with the Bangabandhu’s idea of Bengali nationalism. Any idea that is contradictory to this ideology is unacceptable.’ (New Age, 5 April).

Quite expectedly, her comment drew sharp criticism. The New Age, in an editorial next day, took her to severe task, terming her comment as ‘reflective of Bengali chauvinistic mindset and fascistic attitude.’

However, Sajeda’s comment was soon followed by a similar comment which was published in the same English daily on 6 April. According to a news report, the chair of Bangladesh Information Commission, Muhammad Zamir, in the course of a debate over the definition of the term ‘Bengali’, said he ‘preferred saying that all the people living in Bangladesh are Bengalis’. Sadeka Halim, a member of the Commission, took exception to his view and said the people living in Bangladesh are Bangladeshis, not Bengalis. She argued that the state has no right to impose Bengali identity on the people of other ethnicities. (New Age, 6 April)

While many will be outraged, and rightly so, at the comments of these two top government functionaries, given the anti-minority policies of the successive governments of Bangladesh, they come as no surprise. Both Sajeda and Zamir may be blunt and to some extent rude in their comments, but for all practical purposes they represent the real intentions of the ruling elite of the country. They are also quite consistent with the government’s position vis-a-vis the indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities. For, the present constitution, as modified by the fifteenth amendment, recognizes the existence of only one nation – and that is Bengali. Worst still, article 6(2) imposes Bengali national identity on the indigenous peoples of the country.

While all this is as obvious as daylight, a vested interest group among the Jumma people is now working overtime to confuse the people with a wrong interpretation of the constitution. A few days before Sajeda’s comment, state minister for Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs, Dipankar Talukder, at a school function in Dighinala had it to say: ‘The small ethnic groups have been granted constitutional recognition through the fifteenth amendment to the constitution. There was no such recognition before. We had to struggle for this. But today, after achieving this recognition, some of my friends are engaged in propaganda against the government and creating anarchy by giving a wrong interpretation.’ [Kalerkantho, 28 March] Mr. Talukder repeated this paean in other meetings elsewhere in the CHT including Rajstali. [Suprobhat Bangladesh, Daily Purbokone, 31 March]

Dipankar Talukder may be a good player in realpolitik, but his uninhibited praise for the 15th amendment doesn’t surprise any of us either. For, he was one of the three Jumma MPs who voted for it without a blink of the eye, completely ignoring the sentiment of his fellow Jummas. Secondly, he was the one who gleefully put the Bengali outsiders on the list of Internally Displaced Persons, making the IDP issue more complicated – to the point that today it seems almost insoluble.

Now, let us see who is accused of wrong interpretation of the constitution – Dipankar or his unnamed friends. A reference to the relevant articles of the constitution will help us.

Article 6(2): ‘The people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation and the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis.’

Article 23A: ‘The state shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes [upajati], minor races [khudro jatishaotta], ethnic sects and communities [nrigoshthi o shomprodai]’. (Translation by CHT Commission)

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand the meaning of these two articles. While the former asserts that the people of Bangladesh, regardless of their ethnic identity, are to be known as Bengali, article 23A relegates the ethnic nationalities to a second class citizen status. Both these articles taken together can be interpreted to mean that someone, say a Chakma or a Marma or a Tripura or whatever, may be ethnically different from an ethnic Bengali, but his nationality is Bangalee, because the constitution admits of no other national identity. The 15th amendment gives a Marma (or a member of any other ethnic minority) the right to choose any of the four statuses referred to in article 23A, but on the question of nationality he/she must identify himself or herself as Bengali. ‘You are tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities, but not jati or nation; you are part of our Bengali nation, and you are inferior to us Bengalis.’ this is the real message of the 15th amendment to the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh.

A man or woman can change his or her faith, religious belief and citizenship, but he or she cannot change his national identity, which is determined by birth and in which he or she has no hand. The ruling Awami League government has taken away just this inalienable birth-right of the Jumma people.

In this context, we should also bear in mind that the government dared to impose Bengali nationalism upon indigenous peoples through the adoption of the 15th amendment because it saw that the Jumma people have become weak after years of internal strife. Today, the government may not be forcing us to write ‘Bangalee’ in our certificates, IDs and passports. But time will come when the government will shed this ‘buy time’ tactic. If the fratricidal conflict goes further on and the Jummas are left with no effective power to resist, then the government will come and force us to become Bangalee both ‘in black and white’ and in practice. Sajeda and Zamir’s comments are indicative of that possibility.

This is the grim reality that all indigenous peoples of Bangladesh face today. Dipankar Talukder may be smart, but he is not going to take the Jumma people for a ride. An earlier attempt to make them Bangalee has not been successful. This one is also doomed to fail.  [End]

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