DINAJPUR, 29 December 2011 (IRIN) - Northern Bangladesh's mostly Hindu indigenous people are still coming under land-grabbing pressure from the country's predominantly Bengali Muslim population, say activists.
"There is a process through which the indigenous population is being deprived of their land rights," Mizanur Rahman, chairman of Bangladesh's government-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), told IRIN.
"There is a problem of land-grabbing of Santals [a northern indigenous group] and other people in the name of development, social forestation - to plant trees on their land for the overall benefit of society. It is later sold as `khas' land [public land]," he said.
Mesbah Kamal, secretary-general of the National Coalition for Indigenous People (NCIP), says 75 groups distinct from ethnic Bengalis are still found in Bangladesh. Collectively, they are referred to as Adivasis.
But ethnic Bengalis make up 99 percent of the country's over 140 million people, making minorities vulnerable to land-grabbing by Bengalis, say activists.
A 2009 book entitled Life and Land of Adibashis (Adivasis) by the Human Development Research Centre (HDRC), [ http://www.hdrc-bd.com/ ] a Bangladeshi NGO, found that dispossession of land among northern indigenous tribes was "extensive".
The book says 65 percent of the indigenous Santal community based in the north has experienced dispossession of land - in total, 818sqkm of land valued at nearly US$900 million has been forcibly grabbed from northern indigenous tribes.
Such loss of land has had grave repercussions for the indigenous population, most of whom are rural and derive their income from the land, activists say.
According to HDRC, 60 percent of Adivasis living in the northern plains fall below the UN's definition of absolute poverty, compared to 39.5 percent of people in rural Bangladesh.
Land-grabbing peaked between 1971 and 1980 in the immediate aftermath of the independence war fought by Bangladesh against Pakistan, experts say.
"Our land was grabbed with little pretence, with brute force," remembers Ganesh Shoren, a Santal activist. "As many Santals had fled to India during the war, many Bengalis thought `hey we can get this land for free,' and occupied it. The returning families [after the war] then had to start their lives from scratch, without land, without a source of food."
The Bangladesh Indigenous People's Forum, commonly known as the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, alleges that land-grabbing is continuing in the northern plains.
The government has also been accused by activists of using the Enemy Property Act, renamed the Vested Property Act in 1974, to seize Adivasi land. The Act allowed the government to take over private property by declaring an individual an enemy of the state, and the US Department of State, [http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/14021.htm] among others, have held it responsible for causing internal displacement not just of indigenous people but of almost 10 million ethnic Bengali Hindus as well.
And while the act was repealed in 2001, activists say property seized has yet to be returned and that the law essentially remains in force.
"As long as the Vested Property Act is not amended, Bangladesh will remain a non-secular state," said NCIP's Kamal.
Undercounting of minorities?
The government has also been accused of undercounting minority populations in order to further marginalize them.
"Indigenous groups claim there are three million Adivasis in Bangladesh, but the government officially acknowledges an indigenous population of only 1.4 million," Kamal told IRIN.
The 15th amendment of the Bangladeshi constitution in 2011 classified the Santals and other groups as "ethnic minorities" rather than "indigenous people".
According to indigenous activists, this allows the government to circumvent its obligations related to the land rights of indigenous groups, including the rights of ownership to land they traditionally occupied, and the right to the natural resources there.
"In India there are laws to protect indigenous land: They are specially regulated lands," said Santal activist Shoren.
Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni controversially remarked that Bengalis are the true indigenous people of the area, and that tribal people came to Bangladesh as asylum-seekers and economic migrants.
"Giving a special and elevated identity to enfranchise only 1.2 percent of the total population of 150 million by disentitling the 98.8 percent cannot be in the national interest of Bangladesh," she said in a 26 July meeting with senior diplomats and media editors on the constitutional amendment.
But government-appointed NHRC Chairman Rahman disagrees: "Our position was very clear from the very beginning: there is an indigenous population and they need special protection and recognition. We are also advocating that Bangladesh signs and ratifies International Labour Organization Convention 169, [ http://www.ilo.org/indigenous/Conventions/no169/lang--en/index.htm ] which deals with the land rights of indigenous populations."
This report online: http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportID=94558