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Monday, October 19, 2009

[ALOCHONA] NGO activism for the indigenous

NGO activism for the indigenous

A section of the NGO network and academia are cashing in on the plight of the ethnic minorities, using them to churn out a multi-million taka seminar-oriented industry

by Altaf Parvez

There are innumerable small ethic groups scattered all around remote areas of Bangladesh. Wherever there is any upheaval in these areas, like incidence of rape, murder or arson, teachers disappear from about 10 to 20% of the classes in Dhaka University. Upon reading the news of these incidents in the morning paper, they rush of to the site. Classes are suspended not just for the day, but for a few consecutive days. After all, the teachers have to visit the area and then take part in press conferences at the local or district press club. They have to participate in human chain programmes. Then they have to draw up "proposals" and meet with the programme officers of donor organisations. Funds will be allocated for research and advocacy regarding the events and the teachers may even travel abroad to speak on the "continuing violation of the rights of the indigenous people in Bangladesh". Then there are the TV talks shows, interviews with various newspapers. It is essential to write columns of the newspapers too while the incident is still fresh. Often the research assistants do this work. Professors and NGOs are so expert at this fast-paced activism that the leaders of the ethnic groups hardly have a chance to speak for themselves. The professors and NGOs sometimes take pity and give the indigenous leaders a chance to sit with them at the workshops. They hardly get the chance, though, to attend conferences at Geneva or Amsterdam.

Indigenous groups are now the hit product in Dhaka's NGO world. These areas populated by ethnic groups are now saturated with NGOs. In Modhupur alone there are 36 NGOs at work. Research work is being churned out like products in a mass production line. These research papers and reports, written in English, first reach the desks of Christian Aid, Action Aid, Oxfam, SIDA, etc, before they reach the local readership. Activism for the indigenous groups is so strong at present that the donors allocate a significantly large portion of their funds for this specific sector. These funds run up to hundreds of crores of taka. In this country where a deputy commissioner has to face so many questions to spend just 100 taka of public money, who is to account for these hundreds of crores of taka being taken in the name of the people, in the name of ethnic minorities? Do the likes of Prof. Muzaffar Ahmed not see these expenditures? Chairmen and members at a grassroots level are torn apart in the media for filching a few bundles of tin meant for relief or for a few kg of VGF rice, but no one is asking about how and why these crores of taka are being spent on 'advocacy projects'.

Till recently the Jumma rebellion had been the

focus of this country's activism for indigenous people. Now the Dalit issue has been added. So now no one is free from the long hand of the NGOs and professors – whether they are the Chakmas of Panchhari-Dighinala, the Marmas or the sweepers of Dhaka's Gonoktuli. They don't even let the river people alone.

Paying no heed to the political and economic aspects of the struggle of the indigenous people and the Dalits, these NGOs restrict their activism to seminars, workshops and human chain programmes. They do not really organize these groups to form any movement that can make a tangible difference. They focus their 'activism' on stray incidents like a skirmish over a plot of land, an incident where an indigenous woman has been harassed, where some trees in the hill tracts have been unlawfully felled and so on. They do not question why the tea garden workers comprising a few lakh members of an ethnic minority group, are paid only 25 to 30 taka a day. Their glossy annual reports produced from their plush offices in the capital city have no mention of these exploited tea garden workers. There are some professors, though, who have done consultancy worth crores of taka to determine whether these tea garden workers took part in the liberation war or not! They are not very interested in the poor state of these ethnic minorities and what can be done to retrieve them from this nadir of subsistence.

The most 'glamorous' advocacy at the moment where indigenous activism is concerned is to educate the ethnic groups in their own languages. They are pressurizing the government to ensure that these groups can study in their own languages. This may seem all very nice, but in actuality such a scheme will only marginalize them further. As it is they are small in numbers, not politically organized and are already lagging behind in the job market due to lack of English and Bengali skills. Now if they are educated in their own languages with no Bengali or English, will they ever get government or any other jobs? It would be hard anyway for the government to meet such demands. For example, in Sylhet, children of two or three ethnic groups come to study alongside the Bengali children. How will the government appoint separate teachers for them? After all, these ethnic children aren't all bunched up in one class. Of will a separate section be opened for them? The ground reality must be taken into account. But our learned professors just babble on about UN conventions being violated, blah, blah, blah…

As in the rest of South Asia, in Bangladesh too the ethnic minority groups like the Chakma, Marma, Hrishi, Buno, Santal, Patra, Telegu and Kanpuri are not in any good state. But then, crores of Bengalis are also in a poor state. This is a class issue. This is not a Bengali versus indigenous people issue. This is a conflict between the wealthy and the politically weak poverty stricken people. These NGOs and their professor activists have been wrongly characterizing the problems of the ethnic groups. As a result, the problems are not being solved.

It has long been said that the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are victims of Islamic aggression. It is being pictured that way because the people from the plains going there are mostly Muslim. But in neighbouring Tripura where there are no Muslims, why are the Tipuras and the Barmans suffering? Is there Hindu aggression there? That is not the case.

The fact is that the areas populated by the indigenous people face the negligence of a colonial-type administration. In Rajshahi, about 90% of the Santals are landless. At the same time, in the same place, at least 60% of the Bengalis are also landless. It does not really pinpoint the problem simply saying that the Santals are losing their land to the Bengalis. The country's socio-economic state has created a class of land-grabbers which will eventually lead to 90% of the population being landless and the state machinery will encourage this. This deep-rooted problem will not be solved by shedding crocodile tears for the indigenous people. It will not be solved by sitting in air-conditioned conference rooms and speaking for the rights of the ethnic minorities for cheap kudos as lofty seminars.

It is in a very skilled and deliberate manner that the indigenous people and the Dalits are being misguided. After all, rather than allowing these suppressed people to burst out in an effective struggle as in other South Asian countries, the NGO-network is entrapping them in sterile seminar rooms. In this manner, the 'civil society' is running a business worth crores of taka, year after year. They cash in on the dances and the handloom of the indigenous people, focus on their religious conversion, on their areas being used for tourism. But they have no time for a united struggle of the indigenous and Bengali people against exploitation and discrimination. n

The writer can be contacted at


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