Sunday, September 7, 2008

Are Chakmas indigenous/ tribals?


I have come across this question many a times in various forums (particularly on the internet) as to whether the Chakmas of Bangladesh and India are indigenous or tribals in their own countries. Being a Chakma, I want to answer to the question in my own ways.

The Chakmas of India enjoy the affirmative action programmmes of the government on the basis of their recognition as “Scheduled Tribes” in five states namely, Mizoram, Tripura, West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya. Out of the five states, Chakmas are presently residing the highest numbers in Mizoram (71,283 according to Census 2001), followed by Tripura (64,293). In the other three states, their population is very negligible. Though Chakmas are residing in considerable numbers in Arunachal Pradesh they have not been accorded the “tribal” status as yet.

Unfortunately, in Bangladesh the indigenous Jummas (collective name for 11 ethnic communities) do not have any Constitutional or legal recognition as “indigenous peoples” although they have been living there for centuries.

Some Chakmas, in particular the youths who form the majority of the social forums on the internet, who pose this question (Are Chakmas indigenous/ tribals?), are in particular, opposed to the “tribal” status. They feel that they are not to be considered tribals. Their often quoted arguments are Chakmas have “more civilized” culture and way of life than the typical tribals. For example, the Chakmas do not paint their faces, hung feathers on their heads or dance with “hunting tools” like the primitive peoples. And, Chakmas have their own scripts called “Arog” unlike most tribes who have borrowed Devanagiri or Roman scripts to express themselves in literature.

No doubt different tribal groups do have their distinct ways of life, but these are not the only characteristics to be recognized as tribals.

Surely, there are no universally accepted definitions of the concept of “indigenous peoples” or “tribals”. There are some recognized criteria by which the indigenous peoples are recognized. Some of these as incorporated in the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 are:

- They are the descendants of those who lived in the area before colonization;

- They have maintained their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions since colonization and the establishment of new states;

- Self-identification as “indigenous peoples”

The last point points to the fact that it is equally important for a community to consider or identify themselves as “indigenous peoples” to be recognized as such.

Other features of the indigenous peoples are that they consider themselves distinct from other sections of the mainstream society and are the non-dominant section of the society. They have preserved the customs and traditions of their ancestors; and are determined to preserve their own ethnic identity in accordance with their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

The Constitution of India failed to identify who the Scheduled Tribes in India are. Article 366(25) defines Scheduled Tribes as “such tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution”. However, Article 342 does not define “Scheduled Tribes” but only lays down the procedure for scheduling and de-scheduling of the tribes.

Under Article 342(1), “the President may with respect to any State or Union territory, and where it is a State, after consultation with the Governor thereof, by public notification, specify the tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes in relation to that State or Union territory, as the case may be”. Under Article 342(2) “Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Tribes specified in a notification issued under clause (1) any tribe or tribal community or part of or group within any tribe or tribal community, but save as aforesaid a notification issued under the said clause shall not be varied by any subsequent notification.”

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs in its 2005-2006 Annual Report states, “The criteria followed for specification of a community as a Scheduled Tribe are (a) indications of primitive traits, (b) distinctive culture (c) geographical isolation, (d) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (e) backwardness”. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs further stated, “These criteria are not spelt out in the Constitution but have become well established and accepted. They take into account the definitions in the 1931 Census, the reports of the first Backward Classes Commission (Kalelkar) 1955, the Advisory Committee on Revision of SC/ ST lists (Lokur Committee) 1965 and the Joint Committee of Parliament on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Bill, 1967 (Chanda Committee) 1969.”

The Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission appointed by the President of India on 28 April 1960 pursuant to Article 339 of the Constitution of India in its report of 14 October 1961 stated that “As these groups are presumed to form the oldest ethnological sector of the population, the term “Adivasi” (“Adi”= original and “Vasi”= inhabitant) has become current among certain people. The International Labour Organization has classified such people as “indigenous”.

It is important to note that the state governments sometimes determine the tribal status of a particular community on the basis of political considerations too.

The Chakmas were historically the rulers of Chiittagong Hill Tracts (now in Bangladesh). They had fought against the Mughals and thereafter against the East India Company in order to protect their lands and sovereignty. However, the Chakmas finally signed a peace treaty with British in 1786 and came under the rule of the British government. Under the rule of the present day Bangladesh, the indigenous peoples (of whom Chakmas form the majority) in CHTs have been facing state sponsored persecution and annihilation of their ethnic identities due to constant implantation of Bengali settlers from the plain areas which has changed the demography of CHTs and forcible capture of their lands by the illegal plain settlers and the Bangladesh military. This has raised tensions in the CHTs and the Jummas have been forced to fight guerrilla war with the Bangladesh government for protection of their rights. The 1997 CHTs Peace Accord ended the tribal insurgency but the Accord has not been implemented and the Jummas continue to suffer threats of extinction of their rights and identities in Bangladesh.

The western part of present day Mizoram has been inhabited by the Chakmas from time immemorial. As the provincial gazetteer of India Volume V at page 413 states: “The station of Demagiri [a Chakma concentrated place now under Lunglei district of Mizoram] is not situated within the present area of South Lushai Hills. It is topographically within the area of Chittagong Hill Tracts. But under Sir Charles Elliot’s order passed in 1892, it was declared that for administration purposes Demagiri should be considered a part and parcel of South Lushai Hills.” The boundaries were revised and a strip on the east including Demagiri was transferred to Lushai Hills in 1900. Hence the “foreigner” question vis-à-vis the Chakmas in Mizoram is worthless; it is only political.

As a result, the Chakma Autonomous District Council in Mizoram is the only homeland which the Chakmas can call their own, though it merely covers less than 50% of the Chakmas living in Mizoram.

Both in India and Bangladesh, the Chakmas have their own culture, traditions, ornaments, folklore and literature. The Chakma women wear their own traditional cloth around the waist which is called “Phinon” and a “Hadi” is wrapped to cover the bosom. The “Phinon” and the “Hadi” are colourfully hand weaved with various designs and this is uniquely Chakma as anywhere in the world you can recognize a Chakma woman if she is wearing the traditional attire.

The Chakmas, now a marginalized backward community, were once the rulers of themselves before the colonization. They have retained much of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions while fighting for their rights in the present day political set up. This rightly fits them into the definition of “indigenous peoples” or “tribals”.

There may be much more additions, but this is how I have simplified my answer.
(Note: Photo courtesy- Indigenous Jumma People's Network, USA)

5 comments:

Maraland said...
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Maraland said...

Brother, what differences will a tribal or an indigenous tag or name will do good, when Chakmas have no road, schools, and other basic amenities. Call yourselves with whatever name that will benefit your people the most. That is more wise. Look at Manipuris, they don't want to call themselves tribals (ST/SC) and are still counted among OBCs. And they often complain in jobs and other things. They are not different from Nagas, Mizos, Chakmas, Maras and others, after all they are also under Tibeto-Burman family. What's the use of being an indigenous people and starve. It makes no sense. I hope you Chakmas will be wise in this matter. Poverty breeds terrorism. I hope Mizoram will develop as a whole, taking everyone along the path of progress and development - including the minorities, of course.

Tigress Matei said...

Just Go back to where u belong........if u have any......wherever it is. TAKAMS/CHAKMAS will always have your problem....... EVERYWHERE....... and u make problems for all the people where u try to make your stand. So just go back to where u belong.... but then...hmmmm.. u have none... NOW THATS YOUR PROBLEM!!!! TRY TO FIX THAT.... U KNOW UR ROOTS.

ruata said...
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Ruata Royte Ruata said...

Of course chakmas have been staying in present Mizoram since colonial rule but they were paying 'foreigner tax' during colonial rule which ascertain that they are not indigenous people...They were seperated from the then Lushais (as called by the Britishers then)...Some of them have citizenship (not indigenous) in course of time by legitimate means but many of them were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh...

With regard to current technical entrance issue also chakmas just got things complicated... the first rank holder in second category is at par with as low as 93rd rank holder in first category which tells in stores that it is way hopeless when you are put in first category(better stay in reserved second category).In the pretext of claiming they being deprived of your rights what they rather seek after is being equated with 'zo ethnic'. Most of all they claim being legitimate sons of the soil...