Indigenous People in the CHT

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are home to the country’s largest concentration of indigenous peoples namely the Bawm, Sak, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Marma, Mru, Lushai, Uchay (also called Mrung, Brong, Hill Tripura), Pankho, Tanchangya and Tripura (Tipra). Gurkha and Santal also live in the CHT and there is a growing demand from these groups to be recognised as indigenous. Although the influences of national development have not had a uniform impact on the different peoples, they are bound together by a shared history, years of peaceful cohabitation, and a common future. There are approximately 600,000 indigenous people in the CHT although the figures given by the 1991 census are slightly less, indicating a negative population growth among the indigenous people.

The indigenous peoples differ from the majority Bengali population of Bangladesh in their physical features, culture and religion. The indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are mostly of Mongolian stock, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family extraction, and are closer in appearance and culture to their neighbours in north-eastern India, Burma and Thailand than to the majority Bengali population. The dominant religion of the indigenous peoples is Buddhism (Chakmas, Marmas, Tanchangya,and partially the Mru). Some of them belong to the Hindu (Tripuras) and Christian faiths (Lushais, Pankho and Bawm and some Mru), while others have retained their traditional religion. However, nearly all the indigenous peoples also include traditional indigenous elements in their formal religious beliefs and practices.

The indigenous peoples have their own languages, both in written and oral forms, although many of the scripts, including that of the Chakmas, are in danger of being lost entirely due to disuse. Although the languages of the Chakma and the Tangchangya have close links with Bengali and Assamese, these languages have developed their own distinctive identity over the centuries. The languages spoken by most of the other indigenous peoples belong to what is known as the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. However, the Chakma script is closer to the Khmer script than to the Burmese. The medium of instruction in Bangladesh is the Bengali language, and there is no information available indicating any plans to include indigenous language instruction at educational institutions.

The traditional indigenous houses are made from bamboo and sun grass and are raised on stilts with a notched wooden ladder as a stairway. This began mainly as a safety precaution in earlier times when there were many wild animals wandering freely in the area including tigers, wild boars and elephants as well as poisonous snakes. The clothes of the indigenous peoples are hand-woven, and are distinctive because of their vibrant colours. They are still worn on a daily basis by many of the indigenous peoples, especially on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, feasts and religious events.

The economy of the indigenous people is land-based. Traditionally, nearly all the indigenous peoples were engaged in subsistence swidden cultivation known locally as jum (also referred to as “slash and burn” or “shifting cultivation”). Today, only some of them, in particular the Pankho and Khumi, remain predominantly dependent on subsistence jum agriculture.

Indigenous Administrative Structure

The indigenous administrative system is three tiered:

1. Village level: The basic administrative unit is a village. Each village has a Karbari as its leader (head), appointed from among the villagers, by the Raja directly or on the recommendation of the mauza headman. The Karbari is responsible for all matters relating to that village;

2. Mauza level: A number of villages are grouped together to form a territorial unit of jurisdiction called a mauza, of which there are more than 350 in the entire CHT. Each mauza has a headman/woman, who is responsible for collection of revenue, preservation of peace, allocation of agricultural lands including the jums, conservation of the natural resources of the mauza, administration of customary law etc.;

3. Territorial level: At the highest level it is the Raja who has authority over his/her territory.

The internal matters of each village community are decided by its members, including a council of elders under the leadership of the Karbaris. Most matters are resolved by consensus; if there are any disputes, the Karbari has the decisive voice. Any matters which cannot be resolved satisfactorily, or involve members of other villages, are placed before the relevant mauza headman for decision. If required, matters are taken to the Raja, and can be filed as a court case if necessary.

The British introduced the present system of dyarchy in the Hill Tracts. Parallel to the three chiefs there is a state-operated administrative structure with the Deputy Commissioner as the chief executive. The gradually expanding role of the state apparatus has been at the expense of the indigenous system. The power and authority of the Rajas and their headmen and Karbaris gradually diminished with each successive administration. And, at present, although they retain certain judicial and revenue powers (including land administration), and in matters relating to personal law, their authority has been increasingly undermined by the concentration of more and more power in the hands of government officials.

(This section is a summary of Chapter 1 in “Land Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh” by Rajkumari Chandra Roy. IWGIA Document No. 99, 2000. Click here to read more about the book.)

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