Rights of the Adibashis »
Home »Publications & Resources »Human Rights Reports »Rights of the Adibashis

Rights of the Adibashis

ASK Research Unit

This chapter explores the many facets of insecurity experienced by Adibashi s in terms of their economic situation, social marginalization, political non-recognition and ever growing fear of the loss of their collective identity. The last year has seen a continuum of abuses against A dibashis, with violations of their fundamental rights both in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the plains. In the CHT, there was a further dimension - a legacy of the conflict in the region. The chapter first examines the situation in the CHT, then in the plains, focusing mainly on land rights, civil rights as well as socio-economic rights in each case.

Bangladesh is signatory to several major international legal instruments, [1] with the significant exception of ILO Convention 169. Historically, ‘Bangali nationalism’ was recognized as the ethos of the state. This constitutional denial of other cultures and languages has been a major issue for the Adibashis, [2] in particular, and also for the country as a whole, as it is perceived as a barrier to a pluralistic Bangladesh that actively promotes diversity.

Bangladesh is home to as many as 49 distinct ethnic Adibashi groups, which constitute two per cent of the total population, according to the Bangladesh A dibashi Forum. [3] Although their numbers are insignificant in proportion to the total population of Bangladesh, A di-bashis , are staggered across the country. Their largest concentration is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where thirteen different Adibashi groups [4] constitute a razor-thin majority over the ethnic Bangali population. In the plains, they are mostly concentrated in the greater Rajshahi, Mymensingh and Sylhet regions. There are significant A dibashi populations in the Ghazipur district of Dhaka and in the coastal regions of southern Bangladesh.

Chittagong Hill Tracts

The CHT Peace Accord signed in December 1997 between the Government of Bangladesh and the PCJSS ( Parbattya Chottagram Jano Samhati Samity ) raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the two decade old conflict. The implementation of the Accord was seen as critical for sustainable peace in the region. It was also a unique document being the first since the foundation of Bangladesh to recognize the rights of the Adibashis (‘tribal’ in the original text).

There has, however, been a troublesome legacy of sporadic strife between the Adibashis and the Bangali ‘settlers’, which may have been exacerbated by the military presence. According to the Peace Accord, the deployment of army personnel was supposed to be limited to half a dozen large garrisons and the remaining camps were to be closed. There is, however, little or no official information in this regard, but eyewitness reports from the region would testify that the task has not yet been completed.

Status of the Peace Accord

Implementation of the Peace Accord has not been significant. A three member Committee for the Implementation of the Peace Accord formed by the Awami League Government [5] became totally dysfunctional during the tenure of the BNP-led Government. The CHT Affairs Minister also did not meet with the Advisory Council members to the Ministry. As a result there has been no progress in activating key conflict resolution mechanisms envisaged in the Accord, such as the Parbotya Chottogram Bhumi Birodh Nishpotti Commission (CHT Land Disputes Settlement Commission) and Refugee Rehabilitation Task Force. They were expected to bring about an acceptable and permanent solution to the land disputes and settlement of peoples from the plains, on lands claimed by the Adibashi s, “in accordance with registered title and/or customary law.”

According to the Pahari members the major obstacle to the Commission’s work is that the Act itself deviates from the structure and functions as laid down in the Accord. The discrepancies include the (i) jurisdictional area of the Commission and the (ii) vesting of near-absolute veto-like powers upon the chairperson in case of absence of consensus among the members.

Since its establishment the Land Disputes Settlement Commission has remained non-functional, a major reason, according to the Adibashi members being that the Act itself deviates from the structure and functions as laid down in the Accord. The discrepancies include jurisdictional area of the Accord and the vesting of near-absolute veto-like powers upon the Chairperson in case of absence of consensus amongst the members. The fate of the Refugee Task Force is similar to that of the Land Commission. After much delay, the Government reconstituted it with new members in 2004. But this Task Force too has remained non-functional.

Land Grabbing and Control over Natural Resources

Throughout the year, allegations of land disputes or of forcible occupation of lands claimed by the A dibashis were reported. Most incidents of forced occupation were allegedly perpetrated by the rehabilitated Bangalis, commonly known as ‘settlers’, reportedly with assistance and protection provided by military personnel.

The most egregious incident took place in Maheschari, resulting in the loss of properties and homesteads of several hundred indigenous inhabitants, and reported rape of some Adibashi women. The incident was triggered by forcible occupation of lands by the Bangali ‘settlers’ in Maheschari union in Mahalchari thana of Khagrachari district. [6] The ‘settlers’ occupied a Buddhist temple and its land, torched the huts around it and constructed new houses. On 21 May 2006, the Managing Committee of the temple called on the UNO of Maheschari to resolve the dispute. A meeting convened by the UNO was ignored by the ‘settlers’ who again constructed 35 more houses. The police demolished the houses on 25 May. A few days later, on 14 June, the ‘settlers’ again set fire to the temple and constructed 40 more houses. The Adibashi villagers submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister demanding that their land seized by the ‘settlers’ be returned to them. But no action seemed to have been taken. [7]

There have been other attempts at forcible seizure of land belonging to Adibashi s with direct support or at least connivance of the State. An important case involved the threat of eviction of more than 400 predominantly Khyang families in the Rajasthali upazilla , of Rangamati district, ostensibly for use of the area for industrial purposes. Their land was reportedly requisitioned by the Forest Department for afforestation with pulpwood trees in the late 1980s. But after protests by the Adibashis , the action was postponed. For reasons still not clarified by the concerned authority, the initiative was again revived in 2006, putting at serious jeopardy jhum cultivation which is a source of livelihood for all the families. [8] CHT residents, both Adibashis and Bangalis are threatened by a proposal of the Ministry of Environment and F to create new ‘reserved forests’ on more than 200,000 acres of land in all three districts.

In a similar incident, 50 families from the Chak community in the Naikhyangchari upazilla of Bandarban district were, reportedly, threatened with eviction from their jhum land. The district administration without any consultation with the Chaks, in mid 1990s, leased about 200 acres of land to several individuals, including the British American Tobacco Company (BATC). [9] It started planting Acacia trees on the leased land on 25 June 2006 in the presence of the Upazilla Land Officer. They stopped their activities only after vehement protests by the Chaks. Although further tree planting was not resumed in the following months, the threat of dispossession of land continues to loom for the Chaks. [10]

Sexual Assaults on Women

Cases of rape and sexual assault were reported both in the media [11] and by some human rights organizations. During the violence between the ‘settler’ Bangalis and the Adibashis, on 3 April 2006, following the land grabbing incident in Maheschari, several women were, reportedly, sexually assaulted and even raped. No official inquiry into any of these allegations has so far been conducted and the perpetrators have not been identified.

Freedom of Association

Freedom of association and expression remains restricted in the region, another legacy of the insurgency years. Nevertheless, consequent to the signing of the Peace Accord, the Adibashis have formed or activated socio-economic and development associations and organizations. The Hill Tracts’ NGO Forum (HTNF) formed to coordinate their activities , however, was instructed by the Department of Social Welfare, Rangamati in a letter to suspend its activities since it was not a registered body, and the NGO Bureau wrote to the HTNF not to represent NGOs or use the name since the process of its registration with the Bureau had not concluded. HTNF had been denied registration since it was composed of organizations rather than of ‘persons’.

Ignorance and Misperception

Prejudice against the Adibashis is aggravated by the absence of information in text books or training programmes for Government officials serving in these areas. The episode regarding publication of a book by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Khagrachari, ostensibly produced for promoting the tourism potential of the district, is one such example. In the book, the DC, made disparaging comments about the Chakma people , and described them as ‘outside intruders’ and the ethnic Bangalis, including the ‘settlers’ as ‘true indigenous peoples of the region’.

Institutional Developments

The Advisory Committee of the Ministry of CHT Affairs set up after the Peace Accord as an oversight body for public and administrative institutions in the CHT did not meet in 2006. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on CHT Affairs met regularly in 2006, but some of its deliberations seemed antithetical to the spirit of the Peace Accord. [12] The nature or non-functioning of these institutions appeared to reflect a general disregard for the concerns of the Adibashis.

The other major set back relates to the CHT Development Board (CHTDB), set up in the mid-1970s to implement development programmes in the region. In clear violation of the Peace Accord stipulation, that ‘tribals’ be given preference in appointment of Chairman of the CHTDB, the Four Party Alliance Government appointed the sitting MP of Khagrachari. [13] Furthermore, the CHTDB continued to receive the bulk of development funds, reportedly twice the amount allocated to the CHT Regional Council and the three Hill District Councils together. It was alleged that the overwhelming portion of this amount was spent for the ‘settler’ population and that too, only in the Chairperson’s own constituency in Khagrachari.

Plains Lands

The media reported on c ases of land grabbing and control of natural resources in the plains which led to violence and fatal casualties. Violence against women was also reported. In sharp contrast to the CHT, there were no specifically designated Government/public institutions, excepting the Special Affairs Division (SAD), under the Prime Minister’s Office, to promote development or to provide services.

Land Grabbing and Control over Natural Resources

L and grabbing and loss of control over natural resources was the single most important issue for the Adibashis in the plains. The events surrounding the Phulbari Coal Mine Project in Dinajpur were most significant in this regard. Coal was first discovered in Phulbari in mid-1990s by BHP, an Australian company. The licensing and investment agreements that BHP subsequently entered into with the Government of Bangladesh were acquired by Asia Energy PLC in 1998.

The company planned to extract coal through the ‘open-pit’ system, which would have led to displacement of half a million people, including 50,000 Adibashis , largely from the Santal, Oraon and Munda communities from Phulbari and adjacent upazillas of Birampur, Parbatipur and Nababganj, as claimed by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Electricity and Ports . [14] Asia Energy’s own estimates put the number of potential displaced at about 50,000 persons, including 2,500 from the Adibasi groups.

In September 2005, the Environmental Assessment Report of Asia Energy was approved by the Department of Environment of the Government of Bangladesh, following which, in October 2005, Asia Energy submitted a full proposal to the Government for approval. From May 2005 onward, through a sub-contractor, Asia Energy started some pre-exploratory work in the area. This triggered massive protests from the local population and received support in other parts of the country. In one incident, on 26 August, the police opened fire on the protestors, killing four persons on the spot and injuring dozens. To date, the results of any investigation into the police firing have not been made public, nor have those responsible been brought to account. Asia Energy has currently suspended its activities.

Asia Energy claimed that it had compensated everyone affected by its activities on the basis of the Resettlement Plan and Adibashi People’s Development Plan it had prepared, which incorporated the findings and recommendations of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, in accordance with international best practices, including the Equator Principles, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) guidelines. Asia Energy, however, never fully disclosed its resettlement package. It demanded from the Government special legislation for acquisition of land. Furthermore, any rehabilitation/ resettlement package needed to take into account the specific conditions of the Adibashis . For them, land is not only a means to produce crops for their livelihood, it is part of their collective identity. Any future resettlement initiative, however generous it may be in financial terms, would not only disrupt their livelihood security, it could also potentially result in jeopardizing their collective identity and lifestyles, particularly if the families were re-settled in scattered areas.

Other reports of land grabbing related to the Rakhaings in the districts of Patuakhali and Barisal. They perceive their lands as places of worship, yet as their population has dwindled being gradually forced to migrate elsewhere, mostly to Myanmar, they do not have the means to resist the local, influential groups of land-grabbers. [15]

Resistance to eco-parks and afforestation programmes by the Department of Forests has been strong in greater Mymensingh and Sylhet regions. When the Government undertook the construction of a boundary wall in order to demarcate and create an eco-park in 2002 in the Modhupur forests in Mymensingh, the Adibashis protested. The Government ignored their protests and continued to implement its plans. In the course of events, the armed forest guards together with police fired on a peaceful demonstration in January 2004 and killed Piren Snal, one of the protesters. Till date, no one has been held accountable for this killing. In another incident, on 22 August 2006, the forest guards fired on the Adibashi women who went into the forests to collect dry leaves and branches for firewood. A woman called Cecilia Snal received serious bullet wounds. Following the killing of Piren Snal, the Government postponed the eco-park project, but harassment and intimidation by the Forest Department officials, often in collusion with law and order forces, were reported in the media during the year. [16]

Similar encroachments on the traditional communal and individually owned lands of the Khasi community by the Forest Department continued in the greater Sylhet region. Many Khasi people faced forcible eviction from their traditional homesteads ( punjis ) where they grew betel leaves as their principal, and often only, means of livelihood. The eco-park project was merely postponed not canceled. In the meantime, harassment and intimida- tion of the community by mastans, in collusion with local police, has reportedly carried on. [17]

Institutional Representation

The absence of adequate institutional representation for the Adibashis in the plains was a continuing concern. The SAD has an annual budget for administration of specific development projects for Adibashis in the plains, which it channels through the office of the Upazilla Nirbahi Officer for areas with significant Adibashi populations. Unfortunately, the staff are generally unfamiliar with Adibashi cultures or languages, and at the same time, due to their disadvantaged and marginalized situation, the Adibashis lack access to SAD and other relevant Gov ernment departments. As a result, the SAD funds and other development benefits, are in most instances, squandered, misused or misappropriated. [18]

There is no specific training curriculae on the study of the Adibashi peoples that would familiarise the public sector field staff with their concerns. Therefore, most Government officials at Upazilla and at Union Porishod level, including the Upazila Nirbahi Officer, have, at best, only very stereotyped and superficial knowledge about their diverse cultures and life styles .


There is an urgent need to safeguard the fundamental rights of the Adibashi s, to uphold their human dignity and to promote a culture of diversity, pluralism and mutual tolerance, critical for the growth of any future democratic society.

The nature of discrimination, abuse and violation of fundamental rights of the Adibashis demands institutional interventions to prevent further erosion of rights and to hold the perpetrators to account . More important, it calls for pro-active initiatives by the Government in particular, by other relevant stakeholders and the civil society in general, to protect the rights of the Adibashis . Confidence building measures should include:


  • Implement constitutional obligations under Articles 27, 28 and 29 to eliminate discrimination and incorporate articles into national laws ratified articles of ICERD, ICCPR and ILO Convention 111 against Discrimination in Employment.
  • Evaluate the impact of development projects on the livelihood and lifestyle of Adibashis, based on their free, prior and informed consent.
  • Adopt appropriate legal and policy safeguards for protection of the livelihood and identity of Adibashis in investment projects such as the Coal Mining project in Phulbari.
  • Include Adibashi rights in the training curriculae of Government personnel, and hold orientation for senior office bearers.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts

  • Take immediate steps for implementation of the CHT Peace Accord, including activating the key conflict resolution mechanisms (e.g. Land Dispute Settlement Commission, Refugee Task Force, etc.)
  • Hold impartial judicial investigation into the Mahalchari incident and prosecute those responsible.
  • Take immediate steps to stop encroachment of land in Gamaridhala, Khagrachari, Maischari, Mahalchari, Dighinala and other parts of the CHT.
  • Recognize the right to freedom of association (e.g. HTNF).
  • Cancel lease of lands belonging to the Chaks in Naikhyangchari, ban any future leasing of land for commercial purposes.
  • Withdraw order declaring a ‘reserved forest’ in respect of land enjoyed by the Kyangs and other Adibashis in Rajasthali and in other areas as declared since 1990s in the CHT.
  • Declare a ban on demarcating any more ‘reserved forests’ in the CHT.

In the Plains

  • Set up a separate Land Settlement Commission for the Adibashis in the plains.
  • Constitute an ‘Advisory Committee’ for SAD, with representatives from the Adibashis , in line with a similar Advisory Committee for MoCHTA, and more importantly, regulate its functions at Upazilla and Union level, and take immediate steps to set up ‘Sub-committees for Adibashis ‘, with the latter comprising the majority members.
  • Cancel the eco park projects in Mymensingh and Sylhet and prosecute officials responsible for violence in these areas.
  • Enquiry into the incident of shooting on Mandis, including Piren and Cecilia Snal, at Modhupur eco park and prosecution of those responsible.


  1. Such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, International Convention on Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on Biological Diversity and the ILO Convention No. 107 on Indidenous and Tribal Populations, etc.
  2. [The Government of Bangladesh has preferred the term tribe/tribal in recent legal and policy documents but other terms have also been used, eg. Adibashi (in PRSP), Indigenous (in Finance Act, 1995, CHT Regulation, 1900) and Aboriginal Tribes or Castes (CS.97, EBSATA, 1950).
  3. The communities are Garo, Khiang, Mro, Bawm, Chakma, Chak, Pangkhua, Lushai, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Rakhaing, Khashi, Monipuri, Kuki, Ushal, Lauua, Khumi, Hajong, Banai, Koch, Dalu, Santal, Paharia, Munda, Mahato, Shing, Kharia, Khondo, Gorkha/Gurkha, Pahan, Rjuyar, Mushar, Hodi, Pall, Mikir, Rai, Bedia/Bede, Bagdi, Kol, Rajbongshi, Patro, Murer, Turi, Mahali, Malo, Khatria Barman, Gondo, Kachhari. There ae a few Riyang in the CHT although recent legislations (eg HDC ACts, 1989 and RC act, 1998) do not acknowledge these people.
  4. Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Mro, Tanchangya, Ryang, Khumi, Chak, Mro, Khyang, Bawm, Pangkhua, Lushai.
  5. Led by Minister Abul Hasnat Abdulla, the Head of the National Committee on the Chittagong Hill Tracts it included JB Larma, President of the JSS and Dipankar Talukder, member of Parliament and Chairman of the Task Force on Refugees and Displaced Persons.
  6. Shamokal , 24 August, 2006.
  7. http://www.angelfire.com/ab/jumma/settlers/land_grabbing.html
  8. Jugantor , 24 August, 2006
  9. Sangbad , 27 August, 2006
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid. , 21 June, 2006
  12. Vide meeting held on 29 May whereby a member of the Committee, among other accusations, raised a motion accusing all development activities by the NGOs and the UNDP in CHT as anti-state, and alleged that the NGOs were involved in forcible conversion to Christianity.
  13. Mr Wadud Bhuiyan, a member of the Ninth Parliament from the BNP is a militant champion of the pro-settlement policy.
  14. See Reports of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Electricity and Ports.
  15. Sangbad , 29 June, 2006.
  16. Shamokal , 24 April, Prothom alo , 23 August, 2006, 15 May and 23 August, 2006.
  17. Prothom alo , 29 September, 2006.
  18. Albert Mankin, et al ., Study on the Special Affairs Division ( SAD), Bangladesh Adibashi Peoples Forum and Centre for Adibashi Peoples Research and Development (CIPRAD) , 2005-6.