Defining and analysing 'indigenous governance'

Defining and analysing 'indigenous governance'
Audity Falguni Gayen

Indigenous people constitute at least 5,000 distinct peoples with a population of more than 370 million, living in 70 different countries. Article 1(1) of ILO Convention No. 169 indicates that three elements are pre-requisite for defining any people or group of people as indigenous. Those three elements include, historical continuity (that they are pre-conquest/colonization societies), territorial connection (their ancestors inhabited the country or region) and distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions (they retain some or all of their own institutions).

The World Bank uses the term "indigenous peoples" in a generic sense to refer to distinct groups with the following characteristics in varying degrees: " (a) self-identification as members of a distinct indigenous cultural group and recognition of this identity by others; collective attachment to geographically distinct habitats or ancestral territories in the project area and to the natural resources in those habitats and territories; customary cultural, economic, social or political institutions that are separate from those of the dominant society and culture; and (d) an indigenous language, often different from the official language of the country or region (Operation Policy on Indigenous Peoples, World Bank 2005)."

While pondering over the probability to define, outline and analyze the spectrum of the term "indigenous governance," one is supposed to face the lack of disaggregated data or accurate statistics on the situation of indigenous peoples. Controversy over definitions or terminology, fluidity of ethnic identity, migration, conflict and wars, lack of legal provisions/political acceptance, lack of understanding of the importance of disaggregated data, weak national capacity for data collection, analysis and desegregation, resistance from indigenous peoples if they are not themselves in control of data collection are some of the main difficulties with regards to the collection of disaggregated data on indigenous people (Including Indigenous Peoples in Poverty Reduction Strategies, ILO 2007).
Indigenous Governance in Bangladesh

With a population of 140 million, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. The indigenous population accounts for 1.08% of the national population. The indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are identified by different names such as pahari (hill people), jumma (from the tradition of jhum/jum or shifting cultivation), adivasi (original inhabitant) upajati or tribal. There are also certain laws which use indigenous hill men or indigenous tribes interchangeably. Previously, the government of Bangladesh preferred to use the term "tribe" or "tribal." However, in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP)-II, the terms "indigenous people" and "indigenous communities" were both used, reflecting the wider currency of the latter terms in the media and as generally used by Bangladesh civil society. In Bangladesh, there is no constitutional recognition of the indigenous peoples except under the blanket category of "Backward Sections of Citizens."

Now what is the condition of the so-called "backward sections of citizens'? Abuses of the criminal justice proceedings regarding indigenous peoples, limited citizens' action and media attention on specific violations, incessant land grabbing both in the plain land and the CHT region, continuing impunity for human rights violations are the major impediments in ensuring "indigenous governance" for the "indigenous people." The successive atrocities in Sajek Union of Rangamati (2008 & 2010), extra-judicial killings of human rights defenders engaged in protests in the plains against displacement due to eco-parks (Choles Richil, Piren Snal) or action to provide release or redress to others (Rang Lai Mro) in recent years, non-implementation of the CHT Accord and silence of key political actors on the prevailing situation are mostly frustrating.

Non-implementation of the CHT Accord in particular with regard to failure to fully activate the civil administration or withdraw army camps from the region, or activate mechanisms and processes mandated by the Accord for resolution of land disputes and rehabilitation of repatriated refugees as well as concerns regarding the voter registration process (Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Chapter 16, Human Rights in Bangladesh 2008, published in 2009 by Ain o Salish Kendro) question our collective conscience.

Again the condition of the indigenous people in the plain land region is even worse. According to renowned economist Professor Dr. Abul Barakat, 'Around 202,164 acres of land has so far been dispossessed among ten plain land indigenous groups of Bangladesh. These groups are Dalu, Garo, Hajong, Khasi, Mahato, Oraon, Patro, Pahan, Rakhain and Santal people. The current market price of the total dispossessed land from these 10 indigenous groups would be Tk. 62.7 billion. This amount is around two percent of the GDP of Bangladesh. The GDP of Bangladesh at constant price for 2007-08 (provisional) is Tk. 3,217.555 billion. It should be noted that the monetary value of the sufferings due to dispossession and alienation have not been considered which would might increase the loss from land dispossession many a time (Life and Land of Adibashis: Land Dispossession and Alination of Adibashis in the Plain Districts of Bangladesh, published in 2009).

If our government is really meant to be the "government of the people, for the people and by the people," as we are supposed to follow the immortal citation by Abraham Lincoln, it should be ensured that the term "people" represents all sorts of religious-linguistic-ethnic-sexually diversified groups. Even democracy is often dictated by the 3 M (majority-male-middle class) hegemony in each and every modern nation state who reigns over the entire state mechanisms and functionaries. How can then we find the voices of the 'other' or the `marginalized' groups including of women and third gender population, religious and linguistic minorities and above all the indigenous people? Basically, attainment of fundamental rights for the indigenous people is pivotal to 'indigenous governance.' But, quite unfortunately, their histories are often marked by genocide, ethnocide, discrimination and forced labour.

Today the key elements for ensuring 'indigenous governance' should include development of special measures to safeguard the persons, institutions, property, labour, cultures and environment of indigenous peoples, establishment of institutionalised mechanisms that ensure adequate consultation and participation of indigenous peoples in all stages of implementation, ensuring coherence among the various government institutions that hold responsibilities vis-a-vis indigenous peoples and establishment of adequate institutions and mechanisms with the necessary resources that enable the indigenous people to fulfil their function (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples' Rights in Practice, A Guide to ILO Convention No. 169).

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