The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Indigenous communities in Bangladesh have long struggled with access to education, healthcare, and jobs.

As the dust settles on Bangladesh’s recent general election, Sheikh Hasina’s triumph to a fifth term as prime minister stands juxtaposed against the backdrop of opposition outcry and civil unrest. While jubilations echo within the corridors of the Awami League, detractors decry what they deem an election marred by unfairness. The preemptive protests and the Bangladesh National Party’s outright rejection of the electoral process, coupled with the ensuing governmental crackdown, cast a long shadow over the democratic exercise.

Yet, beneath the clamor of political machinations, a more subdued yet critical concern endures— the systemic marginalization of the nation’s Indigenous groups.

Home to the Garos, Khasis, Santhals, and Chakmas, among others, Bangladesh hosts a mosaic of Indigenous cultures whose existence is beleaguered by less-than-ideal conditions. The country’s non-endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is emblematic of a larger issue. Scrutiny from entities like the International Republican Institute lays bare a grim reality where Plainland Indigenous groups are politically sidelined, subjected to prejudicial discrimination, and struggle against land dispossession and arduous living conditions.

Poverty, a principal concern for these communities, is profound. Reports from the United Nations Development Programme, corroborated by Bangladeshi government findings, spotlight acute poverty levels among Indigenous populations, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Here, the Chakmas and others grapple with the repercussions of inadequate infrastructure and development—a significant factor in their financial hardship.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has underscored the scarcity of educational and economic opportunities available to the Adivasi community. This scarcity has had dire consequences, including the perpetuation of child marriages, which only exacerbates the cycle of poverty and compounds the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples.

It is incumbent upon the Bangladeshi government to take decisive action to uplift and empower these communities. Addressing the glaring need for robust infrastructure in indigenous areas is essential. Enhancements in road connectivity and the provision of educational, medical, and government services are imperative. Moreover, the appointment of Indigenous individuals to significant positions within these services could curtail the discrimination they currently face.

The issue of land dispossession is also acute. The influx and settlement of non-Indigenous peoples into Indigenous territories have further disenfranchised the original inhabitants. Bangladesh might look to a land reservation system akin to that of the Native American reservations or India’s constitutional provisions, which protect Indigenous land rights and restrict land purchases by non-tribal peoples, thereby preserving Indigenous territories and preventing displacement.

Additionally, the government must undertake substantial reforms in education and employment, beginning with affirmative action policies. The success of such policies in India and the United States in assisting their respective Indigenous and marginalized communities is instructive. Indigenous organizations within Bangladesh have rightly called for the re-establishment of quotas and reservations in government employment—measures that are essential to alleviate poverty and enhance employment access for Indigenous peoples.

While some argue that such policies compromise meritocracy by favoring certain groups, it is imperative to recognize that affirmative action is designed to counteract long-standing inequities, enabling marginalized communities to compete on more equal footing.

However, surpassing even the importance of reservations is the need to grant Indigenous peoples a more potent voice within the government. The dearth of Indigenous representation in the Jatiyo Sangsad, Bangladesh’s national parliament, is telling; without a significant presence in decision-making bodies, Indigenous concerns will likely remain unheeded. The country has seen the positive impact of legislative reservations for women, with increased female representation in parliament and women ascending to roles as high as the prime minister.

Indigenous communities deserve no less. Implementing similar reservations would ensure that their issues are not sidelined and that their needs and perspectives are effectively integrated into the national discourse, laying the groundwork for meaningful development.

Bangladesh’s strength is in its diversity, and to truly reflect and respect this diversity, governance must evolve to embody inclusivity and equality. By adopting these reforms, Bangladesh can chart a course toward a more equitable and inclusive future, one where the distinct challenges of its Indigenous populations are not only recognized but actively and effectively addressed.

Swapnarka Arnan is a freelance writer based in India who writes about political, economic, global, and Indigenous issues. He is currently an expert and guest author at Learn Liberty, a U.S.-based political media organization. His articles have been published, re-published and featured by more than a dozen outlets including: The Madras Courier, The Meghalayan, East Mojo, The Foundation for Economic Education, Learn Liberty, Washington Gazette, Business 360 Nepal, and more.