The Financial Express

Marginalisation of indigenous peoples

Subhash Kumar Sengupta and Abdullah-Al-Mamun | Published: February 23, 2017 20:46:37 | Updated: October 22, 2017 19:54:07

Marginalisation of indigenous peoples

Most recently Muktobuddhi Prokasana, a leading publishing house in the country, launched a book of outstanding merit authored by noted academician Professor Abul Barkat. The book entitled Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case Study of Bangladesh (2016) provides a sharp focus for theoretical understandings about a long debated and still-an-unresolved issue of unpeopling of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. There is a strong emphasis on realities, the provision and use of empirical evidence, and pragmatic suggestions for resolution of the problem.
The book is an effort to unveil widely observed phenomena in ethnic societies with a special focus on political economy of unpeopling of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. It emphasises many important concepts and enquiries into issues encompassing political economy of extermination, deprivation and discrimination, undevelopment, underdevelopment and injustice consciously done to the indigenous peoples and their communities. 
This book rightly asserts indigenous peoples are the best example of 'diversity and a hallmark of human civilization'. It also highlights a truth that historically these peoples are weak in political and economic power; their resources have always been grabbed by the colonists, the imperialists and the grabbing elites within the country. Unpeopling indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, according to the author, is not 'country-specific but a pervasive global phenomenon'. 
The book deals with the ground realities and all-pervading dynamics of life and livelihood of the indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. The author criticises the proclivity towards "statistical politics" about the number and population size of different indigenous communities in Bangladesh and strongly argues that this unfair practice should stop. 
The book explores different manifestations of underdevelopment and deprivation of indigenous peoples, irrespective of hill and plain. It documents the events of unpeopling through dispossession of land and alienation. The book makes an in-depth analysis into the possibilities of 'from unpeopling to peopling of indigenous peoples'. He observes that the urge for establishing rights of the indigenous peoples requires a complete shift of paradigm from "ethnic" dimension to "class" dimension.  
The author points that the terminology of "unpeople" is not widely used in social, economic, political and historical literature (p.23). He mentions: 'the term "unpeople" has its origin in the term "unperson". This was first coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel "Nineteen Eighty Four" (1949) to denote a person who has been "vaporized"; who has not only been killed by the state, but effectively erased from existence .......... Half a century after George Orwell's concept of "unperson", Noam Chomsky transformed the term "unperson" into "unpeople" or "un-people"  to denote those natives, indigenous peoples, and exploited mass people who have been eliminated, exterminated or whose land and settlements have been destroyed by imperial societies' (p.23-24). 
The book presents many appalling historical evidence and manifestations of unpeopling indigenous peoples. The argument that stands in support of this misdeed runs like this: 'Grab resources of the weak by any means' (p.24). The book cites some glaring examples how indigenous populations of so-called Anglosphere, the offshoots of England - the United States, Canada, Australia - were unpeopled. It is quite reasonable to agree with the author when he contends that  'politico-economic essence of the historical evidences is full of inconceivable and "uncomfortable truth" with all forms of atrocities, massacres and genocides done to  the indigenous  peoples all over the world by the global empire, irrespective of time and space' (p.35).   
The book attempts to construct a conceptual framework of political economy of unpeopling and underdevelopment of indigenous peoples. It poses a very pertinent question whether the indigenous peoples are 'people' in the truest sense, as enshrined in the Constitution. One of the major observations of the author is that 'the ethnic conflict in the CHT, in essence, is not a conflict between the Bangalee and the 'tribal'. In real sense, it is a conflict which stems from the interactions of two modes of production-the peripheral capitalism with the comprador bourgeoisie led by the rent-seekers dominating the superstructure and the archaic economic system of the indigenous peoples (p.41). 
In particular, the issue of unpeopling indigenous peoples in Bangladesh-both in the hill and in the plain - is indeed a serious historical catastrophe. The book mentions that during the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, the process of deprivation and inequality became speedier. This, as author aptly points out, was a major phase of unpeopling, especially, of plain-land indigenous peoples. Along with this, the study observes, 'a new and most covetous form of unpeopling became visible  in case of hill indigenous-CHT,  from the decade of mid-1970 when the process of demographic engineering was started in a planned way as an integral part of a conscious politico-economic engineering' (p. 53). 
Based on historical facts, the author observes that 'development' for indigenous peoples is still a 'birth issue' (p. 56). In the development process, their freedom was never ensured. Because, periphery in force is always kept in periphery and the free market actors are producing and reproducing 'discrimination-deprivation-inequality'. 
The author rightly perceives that decade of infighting between the indigenous-led resistance movement and government security forces has sequenced deeply ingrained social tensions. It   still persists, despite the signing of CHT Accord. In the words of the author, they are treated not only as physically "others", but also "legally" others. This implies that they are 'subjects', not 'citizens'. As the author echoes Homer, in Iliad: they are treated "like an alien man, without honour". Based on his research over 30 years and active participation in the movement for constitutional rights of indigenous peoples, the author says these peoples are missing from the "mainstream". 
The resolution of the problems of indigenous peoples, according to the author, greatly depends on the readiness of the two sides -'the supply side meaning the state, the government, the grabbers, the global empires, and the demand side meaning the affected people, their community, their organizations, and exploited people at large' - to deal with each other with mutual respect.
The author maintains that indigenous peoples in Bangladesh - regardless of hill or plain - are unpeopled. They are threatened to be vaporised, eliminated, exterminated, and alienated. 
The author holds that reversal of "political economy of injustice" into "political economy of justice" is history in and by itself.  
The book recommends successful and expeditious implementation of the CHT Accord 1997 maintaining its core spirit. However, this requires unequivocal political commitment.  
The book is a veritable delight for the common readers. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this work necessarily reflect critical views of the author. This slim volume contains amazing information. Valuable references and well-knitted index in the book leaves a lasting impression on the minds of the readers. The cover design by noted artist Sabyasachi Hazra adds another dimension to the book.

Professor Subhash Kumar Sengupta is Senior Consultant, Human Development Research Centre (HDRC). Abdullah-Al-Mamun is Assistant Professor, Japan Study Centre, University of Dhaka. 


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