The word ‘hill tracts’ in Bangladesh is inseparably associated with the cultural diversity of the indigenous communities. However, 14 small ethnic groups living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) areas are on the verge of losing their cultural identities.
From food habit to fashion, festivities to rituals of birth, death and marriage, everything has changed with time. Due to the scarcity of wood and bamboo, the traditional housing architecture of hill dwellers are changing as well. The indigenous writers and cultural activists think that indigenous cultures do not get proper representation in the national festivities. The small amount of representation that does get featured usually focuses on generic portrayals rather than mainstream cultural elements of the hill tracts. They called for state patronage to avert this cultural crisis.
While the world celebrated the International Mountain Day on December 11 with the slogan “Mountain Cultures: Celebrating Diversity and Strengthening Identity", the indigenous communities in CHT are struggling to keep their cultural identities alive. The CHT includes Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban districts. Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Mro, Tenchanga, Kheyang, Chak, Khumi, Pankho, Lusai, Bom, Santal, Ahamia, and Gurkha communities live in this area. All of these communities have their own distinctive customs, rituals, traditions and cultures.
According to the cultural activists and researchers, the government is bound to take initiatives to protect and develop these cultures as per the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. The clause D11 of the accord says, “The government and elected representative shall make efforts to maintain separate cultures and traditions of the tribals. The government, in order to develop the tribal cultural activities at the national level, shall provide necessary patronization and assistance.” Long before this peace treaty in 1978, the then government established three indigenous cultural institutes in the three CHT districts to preserve and develop the indigenous cultures and assimilate them with mainstream culture without ruining their uniqueness. The institutions are currently known as small ethnic group cultural institutes.
On May 1, 1993, the then government handed over the institutions to the three CHT district parishads. However, the institutes are not being able to play any significant role to develop, promote or preserve the cultural elements of the indigenous communities, said local cultural activists. The activities of these institutes are largely restricted to maintaining their museum, and publishing a few research papers and books about the languages, literature, and cultural practices of the communities. The institutes also organize the main social festivities of the indigenous communities such as Sangraing, Baisuk, Bishu, Bihur, etc.
Women’s attire is a major marker of communal identity in the CHT areas. Every small ethnic group has its distinctive clothing and accessories for their women. The ornaments for head, neck, waist and ankles also bear distinctive designs. However, the hand woven traditional clothing are being replaced by readymade clothing. Cultural activist Uchinga Rakhain said, “Readymade clothing of latest,mainstream fashion are available in the markets. As a result, hand woven traditional attires are being replaced for the sake of convenience. The effect of satellite culture have reached the hill tracts as well. The infl uence of the Bangali settlers is also altering the dress pattern of indigenous people.” The houses of indigenous people used to bear their cultural identities. The traditional machang houses require a generous supply of wood and bamboo. However, destruction of forest and bamboo bushes have caused the locals to look for alternative building materials. As a result, the use of Machang is decreasing, said writer Siyong Khumi.
Bangladesh government signed ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal community convention 107 in 1972. However, none of the governments have worked to implement the contents of that convention, which includes the right to collectively or individually own lands, right to use mother tongue as the medium of education, employment and vocational training, healthcare, decision making, etc. Not only that, on June 30, 2011, with the 15th amendment to Bangladesh Constitution, the indigenous communities were constitutionally recognized as small ethnic groups, making the word ‘indigenous’ inapplicable to describe them offi - cially.
Ananda Jyoti Chakma, general secretary of the CHT indigenous writers’ forum, said, “This amendment is a clear disregard of the demand of indigenous people. There is a considerable lack of initiatives from the government regarding the patronage of indigenous cultures.” Eminent indigenous singer and researcher Monoj Bahadur Gurkha said, “I sought fi nancial assistance from the Rangamati Hill Tract Zila Parishad to make an album of indigenous songs. They gave me only BDT2,000. This is the example of the government’s development initiatives to promote our culture.” Tribal activist Shishir Chakma said, “It is true that we are not receiving enough government patronage. However, we cannot wait forever for the government’s help; we have to take our own initiatives to preserve and develop our own cultural identity. The small ethnic group cultural institutions in the three CHT districts are virtually inactive due to the lack of budget and manpower. Steps have to be taken to revive them.”