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All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights

June 9th, 2014 by Posted in Women's leadership

Md Abdul Quayyum, Media and Communication Coordinator

One of the fundamental cores of human rights is the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates that everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration irrespective of their status, including their racial and social origin (article 2).

But the situation of the indigenous people in the world including Bangladesh is not encouraging and still they are facing many difficulties and fighting for their land and way of life, as the intruders or settlers gradually joined them in their habitat.

Indigenous peoples constitute a least 370 million individuals representing 6% of the total population of the world, among which 260 million lives in Asia, making it the most culturally diverse region in the world. Loss of control over their land and natural resources is a common problem for the indigenous peoples in Asia; And Bangladesh is no exception.

About 2.5 million indigenous peoples belonging to 46 different ethnic groups live in the country. They are concentrated in the regions of Mymensingh, Sylhet and Rajshahi in north, and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in the south-east.. Their problems are in many ways similar. They face discrimination not only on the basis of their religion and ethnicity but also because of their indigenous identity and their socio-economic status. Their constitutional recognition still remains a far cry. In addition, lands of indigenous peoples have been encroached upon and settled by newcomers. With little legal protection, they can rarely recover the lands they traditionally occupied. All over the north of Bangladesh, indigenous people say they are concerned about what they call encroachment onto their traditional homelands by Bengali settlers. Years of discrimination have cast the indigenous people into poverty, thus further damaging their chances at empowerment and opportunities to improve their situation.

According to the Human Rights Report 2013 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh, it shows the number of human rights violations against indigenous peoples was increased in 2013 compare to 2012, due to political unrest and some other incidents. Three from CHT and seven others from plain lands were killed. Also, at the same time, at least 123 indigenous people were physically tortured and assaulted. Among them, 82 are from CHT and 41 are from plain lands. At least 2000 people of 400 families in CHT fled away to ‘no man’s land adjacent to neighboring state of India due to communal attacks. In many cases, it was seen that, the violence was carried out by the settlers.

The report also says that, the issue of land grabbing had also been increased in 2013. 3792 acres of land in CHT was grabbed by the settlers, private companies or in some cases even government. Besides, another 84,542 acres of land is under process for acquisition in the name of reserved forest.

Situation of land grabbing in plain land areas is also threatening as a report published in the Daily Star on 5 August says “Plain Land Indigenous Communities including Santal, Hajong, Khashi, Orao, Dalu, Patro and Pahan lost over 6 lakh bighas of land to the grabbers in last 30 years.”

This shows how much the livelihood and lifestyle of the indigenous people have been transgressed upon by outsiders. This is leading to forced migration for the indigenous communities from their land. Indigenous people currently make up less than half of the total population of the CHT region, whereas three decades ago, they used to be the vast majority, according to the a study conducted by Association for Land Reform and Development and Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum.

It still continues as in a recent episode of violence that took place on 30 May 2014, at least 20 Khasi people were injured by the land grabbers at Nahar Punjee, a locality of the indigenous community, in Moulvibazar’s Srimangal upazila. (Source: The Daily Star, 30 May 2014) Among the injured, 13 were female.

Mastermind behind the attack, as reported, was the manager of Nahar Tea Garden, a local enterprise, which has long been claiming some 200 acres of land where the Khasi people reside. The poor Khasi community lives on betel leaf cultivation. During the attack, the land grabbers damaged several betel leaf plants.

As a world-wide development organization, Oxfam promotes social justice and fights poverty by working with communities around the world and in Bangladesh it has been implementing ‘Diversity and Indigenous Peoples Leadership Project’ since 2007 in 12 districts, namely Dinajpur, Naogaon, Rajshahi, Chapainawabgonj, Natore, Sirajgonj, Tangail, Netrokona, Sherpur, Mymensingh, Sylhet and Moulvibazar through its partners with an aim to improve the life of indigenous peoples.

Recently Oxfam arranged a two-day Human Rights Fair on 21-22 May 2014, to promote, disseminate and popularize the understanding on the diversity and rights of the indigenous communities linked with human rights, in Sylhet.

Rally to start the Human Rights Fair 2014. Photo: ECDO

Rally to start the Human Rights Fair 2014. Photo: ECDO

With the theme ‘Promoting equality, valuing diversity and protecting human rights’ the fair provided an opportunity to link human rights issues of the indigenous communities living in Sylhet with the duty bearers and rights holders.

Attending the inauguration session of the event, William Hanna, the Head of the European Union Delegation to Bangladesh said, Bangladesh has a rich culture with diverse communities from ethnic minorities and indigenous people but they often suffer as their rights are violated.

“We can’t separate human rights and cultural diversity. To protect their rights, the whole society must stand together,” he said.

William Hanna, addressing the inaugural session. Photo: ECDO

William Hanna, addressing the inaugural session. Photo: ECDO

Human rights activist and former advisor to the caretaker government, Sultana Kamal urged all to come forward to stop violence against indigenous people and stand beside them. “Everyone born on this earth is entitled to all the basic human rights, without distinction of any kind, such as race, religion, ethnicity or other status” she said.

Sultana Kamal. Photo: ECDO

Sultana Kamal. Photo: ECDO

Realizing the importance of the role of media to protect the rights of the indigenous community, four journalists were honoured at the event for their courageous reporting on the rights of indigenous people.

Journalist receiving award. Photo: ECDO

Journalist receiving award. Photo: ECDO

Different indigenous communities in Sylhet, displayed their cultural diversity in the fair. Such event in larger scale can help to raise the awareness on human rights issue for indigenous communities.

Cultural Diversity. Photo ECDO

Cultural Diversity. Photo ECDO

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