Indigenous minorities: The unexplored realities of CHT  
by Hasan Al Shafie and Md. Shahanoor Alam

THE dignity of humanity and the future direction of evolution must be founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind which is precipitated from the unrestricted diffusion of ideas and knowledge to develop and to increase the means of communication between peoples and to employ these means for the purpose of mutual understanding through knowing each other’s lives. The Charter of the UNESCO rests on such significant proposition that ‘the ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often lead to unwarranted consequences’ (The Constitution of UNESCO).

This line of reasoning substantiates the need for preserving the independence, integrity and prolific diversity of the cultural traditions of world over as well as of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) in particular. The conservation and protection of the indigenous cultural heritage in CHTs require advancement in mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples and of cultures through unrestricted diffusion of ideas and knowledge.

A luminous cultural mosaic characterizes the multi-ethnic conditions of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) that manifests the deep and pervasive disjunction between the ideal of equality within the members of same group and the reality of extensive and sometimes extreme inequality in the relations between groups and categories. The access to material and other resources is unequally distributed and regulated by the principle of exploitation while the ideal of equality, justice and human rights remained unattended throughout the recent history of this region. Such state of affairs suggests the need for intimate and more perfect understanding of the indigenous life-worlds. An assessment is needed to be developed regarding the possibilities, constraints, and impediments of ethno-development within such multi-ethnic situation to counteract the processes that produce impoverishment, exploitation and other deplorable development interventions in the fate of minority cultures undergoing ethnocidal processes of being extinct.

The present paper came out of my earlier research attempt to develop an understanding of how cultural traditions are distributed and produce variations in bodies of knowledge within and between communities through a comparative investigation of human interaction among neighboring groups in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Intensive research requires intimacy with reality, a reality to which people are intimate. Knowing reality entails a learning process that unfolds reality as it appears to individuals for which increasing intimacy and participation with reality fosters a greater chance of revealing their meaning and productive insights into it.

We had started with two remotely located Murucha villages of Alikodom thana under Bandarban District and ‘following loops’ we paid several short visits to different places of Chittagong Hill Tracts to which we have long and enduring attachment. In our attempt to understand the indigenous people, we followed anthropological method including seven months stay in that region. A luminous landscape of ethnic mosaic: Lives and livelihoods

A luminous mosaic of numerous ethnic groups obtain their livelihood from the Eastern range of the Himalayas that divides the South from the Southeast Asia. Nestled within Myanmar, China (Tibet and Yunnan), Bangladesh (Sylhet region and Chittagong Hill Tracts) and Northeast India (the Seven Sisters), the prefecture exhibits over 200 languages and dialects mostly belonging to Tibeto-Burmese linguistic family- a colorful cultural landscape over the hilly topography. The territory offers diversity in culture, language, art, climate and environment. The distribution of these ethnic groups over the landscape confirms the facts that the traditional cultural boundaries cannot be partitioned by ‘the leaky boundaries of the manmade states’.

The spatial distribution of such cultural traditions per se, temporal history of migration and settlement and diffusion of ideas from different directions, and the similitude in geography do not follow the logic of state sovereignty. The Murucha people are found both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar and above all being semi-nomadic in nature; people from both states have relations with each other across the border. Likewise, the Tripura people of CHTs are known as Brung in the Tripura state of India. Such state of affairs related to traditional ethnic boundaries and its maintenance deterritorializes state borders.Mountains and hills cover most of this region and the topography of the hills is generally rugged and vast areas are remote and inaccessible. Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs), geographically, is a part of hilly regions that branches off from the Eastern Himalayan ranges to the South through Assam and Hill Tripura to Arakan and Burma, currently Myanmar. There are at least 13 different indigenous groups living in Chittagong Hill Tracts and they are, to a large extent, characterized by stable, low energy and sustained-yield economic system. The local economy is non-monetized or partially monetized and largely independent of the national economic system. The hill people, besides their dwelling place, do require large land areas to be used or occupied only erratically in supra-annual cycles, once in five to seven years, to recuperate before replanting for shifting cultivation, which is locally known as jhum chash and have been practicing in the Tracts since earliest known time. The hillmen are the descendents of the Sino-Tibetans and have a distinctive Burmese appearance with short stature. In physique, in religion, in life style and in language the indigenous people are identical and resemble congruity with their neighbors in India and Myanmar.

The context: Unexplored realitiesEthnic insurgency as introduced in Chittagong Hill Tracts soon became known to the outside world and gradually the region has turned into a significant issue and concerns of many people as being a blunt evidence of human right violation. There has been long and tragic history of subjugation, harassment and oppression of the hill people living in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The hill people have experienced decades of harassment, mass killings and rapes largely committed by majority Bengalis. Bengalis are largely Muslims while the hill people are associated with Buddhism, some with Hinduism and many with a variety of local beliefs and rituals. The majority population largely considered the forms of life in the hills as abhorrent and something that ought to be changed preferably to Islam. Eventually, what the Government saw as ‘development’, the indigenous peoples experienced as ‘exploitation’, with the form of ethnocide.This account of CHTs is brought into the discussion of different fora. We all are concerned with such severe insult of humanity.

Before proceeding further, we would like to raise several questions. How do we know about CHTs? Is it a problem of only a particular indigenous group? Have we thought of the local cultural diversity of several indigenous groups? One or two indigenous groups cannot represent the region adequately. We have categorized all the indigenous groups in one side and placed the Bengalis on the opposite side.

We would suggest for a micro perspective, to turn over the coin, to see the underneath and to asses the interrelationships between all the indigenous groups and its relation to the Jumma nationalism. The insurgency problem is not merely the sufferings of only one group of people, there are several others- at least 12 other indigenous groups. The Bengalis are the majority in relation to the indigenous groups of CHTs, this is true, but it is also equally true that the Chakmas are the majority among all other indigenous groups. Hence, a relative understanding of majority-minority relations is, therefore, essential. Within CHTs, what is the nature of relationship between these indigenous groups? Besides the Chakma, the Marma and the Tripura people sometimes came under light, but what about others? The etcetera (!) Communities Have we ever thought of or evaluated the situation of these people who always remained excluded from all levels of consideration and stayed behind as etcetera? What do we know about them? We hardly even mention their names. Humanity cannot and should not exclude such lives and livelihoods as ‘etcetera’ or ‘so forth’ or ‘so on’. Among them, the Murucha and the Khumi – the little known communities living inside the sylvan shadows of Chittagong Hill Tracts - are somewhat isolated and rarely come into the contact with the Bengali people. These people have limited economic relations with the outsiders and retain a large degree of cultural autonomy, partly because of their remote location. Their slash and burn agriculture entails the traditional way of maintaining highly localized nature of adaptations within a semi-tropical forest ecosystem. We stayed seven months in two Murucha villages, the settlements are about hundred years old, but interestingly and unfortunately the official records of the Government do not recognize the existence of any such villages in those locations. According to the recent BBS report (1997), there are 22000 Murucha living in CHTs. Our prolonged stay in two apparently invisible villages logically raises question against the validity of such information provided by the statistical report. What about their rights, health situation, education and economic condition while we do not even know their location or distribution?

There was only one MBBS doctor in the whole Alikodom thana, during my stay. He is Bengali speaking and has the flexibility to communicate in English as well. Murucha and Khumi are bilingual and can speak Marma in addition to their mother tongue but most of them cannot adequately communicate in Bengali. Eventually, the only doctor and his patients do not have any common means of understanding each other. He said about the Murucha and other similar inhabitants of that region that, "I cannot understand their language and they do not understand what I am talking about …. How can I treat them without understanding their sufferings?"

Very recently, we wrote several articles in the daily newspapers on Lelung Khumi who is the first of their kind to be qualified for an admission into the university level. We requested the university authority to accept his application and allow him to sit for admission test even though he could not manage to obtain the required marks in his secondary and higher secondary exams. Lelung Khumi attended a school that was at more than two days walking distance to reach from his residence. Negotiating with his survival requirements of working in the cultivation field, it was very difficult for him to attend the school more than two or three days a month. ‘Minority’ among the ‘minorities’: Groups within categoriesPursuant to the line of reasoning developed above, it has already become apparent that the first ‘minority’ of this subtitle refers to the relatively smaller communities not merely in terms of their number but also of their minimal relation to the larger world.Khumi and Murucha are such minorities among all other indigenous minorities of CHTs. Their life-world significantly affected by the majority Bengali interventions and regional macro processes.

Again in terms of their ecologic relationship with other indigenous communities they are in a relatively competitive position to harvest from the same potential sources to that of the other indigenous groups. The primary condition to take part in the game is to develop wider connections, that is, connection with Bengali people for which communication skills in Bengali is a precondition.

The government officials are Bengali, service providers in all sectors are either Bengali or a few English speaking foreign delegates. We can understand their condition considering the statement of the MBBS Doctor cited above. They are abstained from participating in the game to share the harvest of their fellow indigenous groups.

The world is moving ahead to transcend all sorts of imagined boundaries through multi-level cooperation between nations, states and groups but leaving some indigenous groups behind who are gradually diverging from the mainstream of culture owing to different socio-cultural conditions.

The Murucha and the Khumi people are encapsulated in a shrinking territory that practically created a strain in the life style of the people. They do not have any access to the mainstreams of socio-cultural, economic and political sphere of the country and hence are excluded. Considering them as minority among the minorities, they are gradually stepped down from the competition of scarce resources, which imprisoned them in a world of poverty and frustration (isolation).

On responsibility and humanityThe upsurge in means of communication of our time and the advent of modern technology shaped up different conditions for existence that demands peoples’ engagement with increasingly wider social networks. This is a pervasive process influencing the lives of people everywhere through creating new opportunities and new forms of vulnerability. Globalization entails two contradictory but complimentary processes: a process of unification towards a layer of world culture- a converging process of homogenization through blurring the differences and on the other hand, a diverging process or centrifugal tendency towards fragmentation and ethnification.

Globalization as being a very broad and tricky signifier involves different meanings and positioning: it entails compression of time and space through a process of getting connected and sharing a common culture and contrarily it is also considered as being a threat to everything that is local, traditional, indigenous, as it tends to erase the differences to create a unicultural world. The indigenous people in all parts of the world are subject to similar pressures to cope with the necessities, affecting both the way they live and the culture they bear.

We are very much concerned about the "Birds in a Cage" but we do not even know that some other birds are threatened with extinction. Being unfortunate, we are encountered with reality in Bangladesh that many communities within our neighborhood are living under numerous limiting conditions and their livelihood is under cumulative threat of being evaporated.

At present, it is an essential concern for us to contribute in favor of restoring their righteous entitlements through ensuring an equitable social justice by only which we can let them live.

Our present commitment is endowed with such moral sanctions of knowing humanity for developing awareness and concerns of ‘reverence for life’ and against culturcide or ethnocide. Agreement on this philosophy will result in creating greater tolerance for each other’s ways of life.

This paper essentially validates the need to know the conditions of all the ethnic groups with equal priority for policy formulation that was hitherto remained unappealing, particularly the minorities among the minorities, to personnel belonging to all levels: local, national and international.


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka 12 & 19, March 2002 

Home Page



[Micro Credit] [Science & Technology] [Development Strategy] 
[Globalization] [Ecology] [Migrant Worker's Issues]
[Democracy] [Health Issues ]  [Culture & Heritage] 
[Human Rights & Law]  [Women's Rights and Issues]  [Education]
[Poverty]  [Land Management] [Water Management] 
[Economy]  [Personalities]  [Environment]   
[Civil Society]  [Minorities & Ethnicity] [Diplomacy]