State of plain-land indigenous groups  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: November 19, 2018 22:27:51


Lively smiles of merrymakers and dancers were once integral to the celebrations of the country's indigenous communities. As time wore on, these signs of joy and happiness had been on a spell of fading-out. They do participate in the dance and singing sessions and other events of frolicking. But something is noticeably missing, making the whole spectacle devoid of life. It doesn't require sharp observation of a sociologist to discover the pain, despair and helplessness hidden behind their facial make-up and the rhythmic stepping.  Their earlier sprightliness is noticeably gone. In its place, one can unfailingly detect suppressed feelings of faint melancholy and desolation. The recent newspaper photographs of 'Wangala', the biggest Garo festival of harvest, showing dancing girls are a vivid proof of it. Upon a scrutinising look at the 'festive' faces, the fact that strikes one is that the Garo youths are, in fact, engaged in a mere ritualistic exercise. In spite of the festive look, the basic mood is one of gloom and a feeling of uncertainty. Except the dominant indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet regions, the other ethnic groups in general are trapped in bad times.

A section of sociologists consider the 'Bedeys' (water gypsies of Bengal) as indigenous people. Many others differ. According to them, their arrival in Bangladesh occurred after the settlement of the Santals in the land. Nonetheless, they have been living in the country for a few centuries. Their arrival predates that of many other tribes in the hill ranges. Moreover, their uniquely nomadic lifestyle, confined to boats and rivers, and moving from place to place, makes them highly distinctive. Thanks to the fading of the general people's interest in them and the decline in their snake-based profession and entertainment, they have fallen on hard times. All this has resulted in their abandonment of ancestral professions and crushing poverty. Many have shifted to land-based livelihoods.

 Almost all the major plain-land indigenous ethnic groups in the country organise their festivals at least once a year. Most of these fast dwindling communities celebrate the seasons of harvest to the best of their capabilities. Nowadays with few croplands owned by them, the Santals celebrate their festivities marking Poojas. As their plots continue to be encroached on by the powerful mainlanders, their festivals have turned out to be ritual-based. The same fact applies to the other tribes not living in the hills.     

 The plain-land indigenous communities are considered one of the most oppressed in the country. Although once settled down in every part of this land, they have eventually been cornered into the northern and southwestern regions. Apart from being made nearly social pariahs, these indigenous communities have increasingly become targets of oppression by their influential neighbours. Their ancestral croplands and the other landed properties continue to be grabbed and their family and household enclosures are encroached on. The most troubling part of the grim episode comes up in a barbaric form. One of these savageries appears in the form of laying siege to their free movement. In many protest-related confrontational cases, the tribal male youths are made to become fugitives. In the absence of the breadwinners, the families find themselves careening towards abysmal voids. With few by their side, the indigenous children, women and the elderly have been seen starving. The education of children is not spared the recurring ordeals' impact.

Notwithstanding scores of well-meaning efforts to alleviate the woes of their indigenous populations, many developed nations are also found short on delivering on their pledges. Except the North American countries like the USA and Canada, few are seen being serious about extending unalloyed social recognition to their native communities. The US government has set up autonomous settlements or pueblos for the American-Indians in New Mexico in which the natives have their traditional laws and social norms in force. Although the American-Indians do not enjoy any significant role in the US mainstream social life, they are not marginalised like those in the less-developed countries including Bangladesh. Bangladesh can, however, follow suit by marking certain areas as reserved cluster-villages for the backward ethnic communities. This can at least save the tribes from disappearing completely from the land. Few can turn a blind eye to the land's distant past. Prior to the complete evolution of the ethnic Bengalees, the land was inhabited by scores of ethnic groups. Many have vanished, and on being mixed with other racial stocks, emerged with a different identity. Of the early ethnic groups of Bengal, only the Santals, the Oraons, the Mundas and a few other groups survive till the present day. The influence of the Santali terms and counting system on Bangla is a favourite subject for researchers. In the reserved zones for indigenous communities, the Santali language can be given a new lease of life, with lower-grade schools imparting lessons to children in that language. A similar step can be taken to patronise the Garo language. Still a living language, both in spoken and written forms, Garo is used as a medium of instruction in Meghalaya, a neighbouring Indian state bordering Netrokona and Jamalpur districts. Along with providing permanent settlements to the indigenous people in their reserved regions, they should also be welcomed to the mainstream society and integrated with it. It's because, in a sovereign and democratic country no community can claim a special status for them permanently.

In spite of being a homogenous nation, the indigenous communities add greatly to the ethnic variety of Bangladesh. This variety is imperative for a nation that wants to join the multiracial clubs. With different ethnicities living at home in harmony, the preliminary lessons in assimilation in the wider world become a lot easier. The issue at the moment is bringing the faded smiles and buoyancy back to the indigenous festivities. With most of the country's indigenous communities virtually on the verge of disappearance, their ceremonial presence carries a symbolic value. Despite their presence in the country amid adversities, festivals at least offer a semblance of their existence. The vanishing of the earlier flush from the faces of festive youths, however, represents a harsh reality. It is universal. In Bangladesh its manifestation smacks of crudity and cruelty.

shihabskr@ymail.com 

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