Santals: The Oppressed Indigenous

By Sohana Khandoker

At this juncture of modernisation, we tend to forget that from the food on our table to the drugs that save our lives, are contribution of the forlorn Indigenous people. They even have a great influence on our culture and our language.

Indigenous people first cultivated many of the world's staple foods such as potatoes, peas, sugarcane, garlic and tomatoes. An estimated 75 per cent of the world's plant based pharmaceuticals, including aspirin and quinine have been derived from medicinal plants found in tribal areas. Indeed, the contribution of indigenous people to modern civilization is pervasive.

Bangladesh is quite rich in ethnic culture. There are about thirty-five ethnic communities living in different parts of the country. The major ethnic communities are Chakma, Murma, Garo, Santal, Hajong, Tipra, Khasi, Murang, Shendhu, Panko etc. They struggle to maintain their life style, culture and protect distinct religious beliefs from the influence of the dominant culture and religions. In the North and Northwestern belt of Bangladesh a number of ethnic communities live who still have to struggle hard to sustain their original culture and traditional heritage. The adivasis in this region comprises of several groups Santal, Oraon, Munda, Mahali, Mahato, Malpahara etc.

Among the ethnic people in the north and northwestern belt of Bangladesh Santals are largest in number. But there is no accurate and reliable statistics regarding their actual population. There is also a great difference between the official and unofficial figures and estimates.

According to the government census of 1991, the adivasi population was estimated 3,14,337 in 16 administrative district of the Rajshahi division. But as claimed by an indigenous community leader, Badla Oraon of Dinajpur Adivasi Academy, the number of indigenous people in Rajshai division was 3,222,000 way back in 1984. A survey report reveals that the total population of Santal is 143932 in Dinajpur, Rajshahi, Bogra, Pabna and some other areas of Bangladesh. According to the other sources, the total number of Santals are much higher than estimated. Most of the scholars also questioned the authenticity of the numerical data. In their opinion, the census takes language as the basis for identifying any person as Bengali or indigenous. They have also alleged that the existing policy is to show the number lower than the actual number.

This article is initiated to project light on the vulnerability, insecurity and existing struggle of Santals in Bangladesh.


The state that promises to be the protector of its people often acts dictatorial. Providing safety and security to the people is the precondition of democracy. Unfortunately, we see a different picture here. In certain cases the ethnic minorities have to leave their own country to save their lives. On the other hand, successive regimes in Bangladesh introduced such arbitrary changes in Constitution, which pushed these hapless group towards further marginalisation.

Santals is a cause for concern for two reasons. Firstly, because of the numbers of affected are still very high, secondly and most importantly the chain of exploitation is impeding the social and economic development of the country.


Anthropologists and Sociologists think that the ethnic people or the adivasis of the east central India came to ancient Bengal in search of work, land and food. These ethnic communities included Santal, Oraon, Munda, Mahali etc. According to certain section of Academicians, 'Santal are probably the first settlers of Barind tract.' The zaminders or feudal landowners have initially brought them here, from different areas of central India including Bihar, for clearing up forests.

During the British rule, the natural habitat of each of these tribes was given the status of a scheduled area so that each tribe could preserve its separate identity without being assimilated into the community.

During the last three decades, the former policy of segregation has been replaced. Ownership of land has been introduced in these areas. On the other hand, the ecological degradation of Barind tract has caused further sufferings to the people of this area. The Padma river was the main source of fishing among the Santals. This is now seriously threatened due to lack of water in the river. Most of the Santals have adopted wage laboring and share cropping. Most of them are living their livelihood on agriculture.

Constitution and Rights:

In part two, article 23, it is stated that:


"The state shall adopt measures to converse the cultural traditions and heritage of the people, and so to foster and improve the national language, literature and the arts that all sections of the people are afforded the opportunity to contribute towards and to participate in the enrichment of the national culture."

Further Article 28(1) of the constitution states that:


"The state shall not discriminate against any citizens on grounds of only religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth."

But the Eighth amendment to the constitution abandoned the secular principle by making Islam the state religion.

Thus, we see the constitution recognizes the presence of ethnic communities and they are provided with the right to follow their culture and rituals freely.

Unfortunately, reality is far different then the provisions articulated in the constitution. Violations of human rights are a common practice.

It is also significant to note that Bangladesh did not observe 1994 as the year of the indigenous people as declared by United Nations.

Land Disputes:

A recent research in North Bengal shows that the land belonging to the 30 percent total sample population had been appropriated, 15.5 percent of the sample adivasis were engaged in land disputes.

Markhan Majhi, 50, lives in abject poverty, in a remote village called Gurail in Tanore thana under Rajshahi district. But once he was an affluent farmer. He had four acres of land. The crops produced from his agricultural land were sufficient for Markhan's family.

In 1985, Markhan was informed that, his Bengali neighbor, Mohammad Ali Mollah has grabbed one and half acre of his land including his house through a false deed. He went to the court but that did not bring any fruitful solution to the matter. 'My family has been subjected to violence for going to the court. Now we are evacuees, losing the land which had been rightfully ours for generations.'

Suklal Saren once had 4 bighas of lands in Neyamatpur thana of Naogaon district under greater Rajshahi. In December 1996, few musclemen evicted his 10 families claiming the lands as Khas lands (land which belongs to the government) and these settlers had made a dwelling house little away from Suklal's home although the family has legal papers and has been using the land, since 1970. No action has been taken against the offenders. Rather, these musclemen have started residing in the illegally occupied land.


Radhaballav Barman of Nachole thana under Chapainawabganj district received 2 acres of khas land in 1972. A Bengali, Abdul Mannan made a forged deed. A case was filed against Abdul Mannan but he successfully managed to get away from the allegation. When the case was filed again, Abdul Mannan succeeded to get away in the same manner.


These are not stories only of Markhan, Sukhlal and Radhaballav but the very common stories of most of the ethnic minorities of Rajshahi. If we go through the locally published Santal journal name ULGULAN (revolution) we see that land encroachment, rape, murder are regular incidents in Santal majority areas. The adivasis also complain about the police brutality.

A recent study shows that lands are in possession of few powerful hands. Ethnic minorities are the one who have been the victim of illegal land encroachment. The Santal hardly has any knowledge about the legal provisions and documents relating to the landed property, therefore, they easily fall under the prey of the local elite, the cunning cheaters who often take their signature on blank paper and forge their document.

Discrimination in Labour Market:

It has been observed that discrimination in the labor market is prevalent. Bengali laborers have a fixed time to work whereas adivasi laborer works 2-4 hours more than the Bengalis. Though the type and the load of the work is same. They are paid fewer wages for their labor compared with the non-adivasi laborers.

Silent Discrimination in Education and Employment:

Literacy rate among the Santals is very low. A recent study conducted by Hossain and Sadeq in Deopara village under Deopara Union reveals that literacy rate among the Santals was 3-4 percent.

It has repeatedly urged in the writing of tribal intellectuals to introduce their mother tongue at the primary levels. The tribal children face language problems in the primary schools. The text books are in Bangla where as their mother tongue is not Bangla. A study conducted by Madaripur Legal Aid association discloses that the textbooks of IX and X don't even mention about the ethnic communities, their histories and cultural lives. The majority of Bangladeshi students graduating after ten years from school do not even learn the diverse culture existing in Bangladesh.

The Madaripur Legal Aid Association, in its report for the Sasakawa project, in September 1996 stated that only 2-3 people from the ethnic minority are taken in to Bangladesh civil service every year, although there is legal reservations for 5% jobs for ethnic minorities. The report explains that there may be a lack of qualified persons caused by high drop out rates in students from ethnic minorities. But a silent discriminatory policy remains in effect and as a result many members of the ethnic community seek jobs in NGOs and missionary schools. The report points out discrimination in the selection procedures in the armed forces and in Dhaka University.

This article is not exhaustive but it was aimed to focus on few issues, which effect the ethnic minorities of our country to grow, to develop, and to restrain them to be a citizen of Bangladesh. The exploitation is deep rooted in the society. The chain of exploitation begins by a Bengali villager and ends by the State. The questions often arise, "Are they treated as Bangladeshis?" "Are they enjoying their rights?" It is apparent that the essence of democracy and the concept of development remain an illusion for the Santal of Bangladesh.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka 16 April, 2000