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INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN THE  SOUTH-WEST  COASTAL REGION OF BANGLADESH



Ashraf-ul-Alam Tutu
 

INTRODUCTION :
The facial features of Bengalis give evidence of a complex admixture of many races, many strains and people with different physical features. It is only on very rare occasions that one comes across a face or figure that reminds one of a pure specimen of any race.
It is therefore extremely difficult to identify and classify people according to origin and race. But many aboriginal people still have a segregated existence in the far-flung rural areas of the country, and the South-West Coastal region is not an exception. It shall, therefore, be our endeavour, in this article, to try to identify them and ascertain their present status in Society.
Anthropology as a serious field of study has not been a very popular subject in the South Asian Sub-continent. Even the European anthropologists have concentrated their efforts to the comparatively more glamorous fields of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Even that object of much curiosity, the Mohenjo Daro culture, has not been seriously delved into.
As such, pure anthropological research materials are scarce to come by in this country. The very few books that exist are not strictly anthropological; they are, in fact, histories : histories as seen through the eyes of the writer. And we know from Ibne Khaldun's Al-Muqaddima that historians cannot be trusted. According to Ibne Khaldun, the historian may write an untruth"for greed of gold or for fear of the sword", or even for other reasons. Hence whatever data that we are able to obtain from books of history, must be taken with a grain of salt. Then, of course, there is the living evidence of face and figure, and the peoples' own meagre understanding about their ancestry.
We know from books written by European anthropologists that there are six major races on earth, of whom all the various peoples are branches or mixtures of races in various proportions.  Anthropologists are also unanimous that the people whom they identify as "Mediterranean" were the originators of civilization, helped in later stages by people of Central Asian origin known to European anthropologists as "Alpine" people. The "Han" or "Yellow" people are said to have obtained the rudiments of civilization from these sources, which they then developed in their own manner. The Aryans or "Nordic" people came on to the scene at a later stage, and contributed their own share for the advancement of civilization.
The "Australoids" who are said to have originated in India, and the "Negroid" of African origin, are considered as non-contributors; experts are unanimous that they were only "receivers" of civilization and not "creators".
We find traces of all these original races in Bangladesh. But coming across any individual of a "pure" strain is almost impossible, except in the case of the aboriginal Australoids, who are conspicuous because of their features and their dark skin colour, but to find them, one has to search in the remotest rural areas.

ANCIENT REFERENCES :
The most ancient reference to this country and its inhabitants is to be found in the Upanishads, in which the country situated in the eastern part of the sub-continent, as well as the people, are termed as "Non-Aryan".(Aitareya Aranyak, 2:1:1 as shown in Note 1, page 157 of "Jessore-Khulnar Itihaas" by Satish Chandra Mitra, vol. I). The specific verse groups the people of "Banga, Magadha and Chera" as people who do not follow the Indo_Aryan concept of "Dharma", and that they make no distinction as to what they eat, etc.
The Mahabharata is a more recent historical document, though it is more on the side of exaggeration. It is said that the Paundra king, Vasudeva, had participaterd in the battle of Kurukshetra on the Kaurava side, and was also later defeated by the Pandavas during the "Dig-Vijaya" phase of their rule. The Mahabharata also credits the country of the Poundras as an exporter of sugar and cotton cloth. Thus the Mahabharata gives us an indication of the level of civilization then enjoyed by the people of "Poundra", that is, the present north-western portion of  Bangladesh, the capital of which is supposed to have been the archaeological site known as "Mahasthangarh", not far from Bogra.
Satish Chandra Mitra in his book also states that the Poundra king Vasudeva had a step-brother named Kapil, who being of a religious type, is said to have settled at a place in the lower basin of the river Kapotakshya, and there engaged in meditation. The site later came to be known as Kapilmuni, and the town of that name,  situated within Paikgacha thana of Khulna district, is said to be the same place.
There are plentiful signs of an ancient civilization in and around the present Kapilmuni. As such, if the period of the Mahabharata can be considered as somewhere between 1000 BC and 700 BC, Kapilmuni has a history as old as that of the Mahabharata.
Some historians, such as Satish Chandra Mitra and Subash Mukhopadhya have suggested the possibility of an admixture of the Alpine race in the Bengali people. Their statements may not be far from the truth, as there is clear evidence of the intrusion of Central Asian tribes into "Aryabarta" during two distinct periods of history.
There is specific mention of a people whom Karna names as "Aratta", living in the region of the five rivers of Punjab, which he also names. He describes there people as "Dharma-Bhrashta"(outside the pale of Dharma) and "Taskar"(thieves). He also calls them by the name of "Bahleek", which gives us the clue to their origin, as Bahleek is the Sanskrit name for ancient Balkh, in central Asia.(Mahabharata, Karna Parva, Karna_Shalya Sangbad). In fact, there is also an earlier reference in the Rig-Veda, of a copper-coloured people who "must be skinned alive".
The second period in which the Central Asians came to Bengal was the Turko_Afghan period in its history, that is, during the Middle Ages. As such, it is no wonder that features similar to the Alpine people are found both among the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal. But we are not concerned with them, as they are not indigenous to the land; but their presence, however, gives an indication of the complex demography of the country in general and the region under discussion in particular.

THE ABORIGINES :
In a localised survey conducted in two thanas, one each in Khulna ancd Satkhira districts, in 1996, about 20 Ethno-Religious Minorities had been identified, out of whom only 3 are said to be purely aboriginal. They are the Bhagobenes or Bhagobanias, the Bunos or Mundas, and the Kaiputras or Keoras. Though their numbers are miniscule compared to other ethno-religious groups, we shall discuss them first before taking up the other, more numerous groups living in this part of Bangladesh.

The Bhagobenes or Bhagobanias :
The Bhagobenes, also known as the Kortabhaja Samproday, do not eat food prepared by people of other castes. Their religion conforms mainly to that of the Brahmo Samaj, in that they do not practice idolatry, and believe in one Invisible God. They are very few in number, living in scattered communities in Khulna, Satkhira and Jessore districts. They are mostly poor, with less than 10% of them owning enough agricultural land to subsist on farming alone. Most of them are farm or non-farm labourers, and the others are petty traders or rickshaw/van pullers.
 

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The Bunos or Mundas :
The Mundas, according to their tribal memory, are the descendants of people  brought to this part of Bangladesh by the zamindars who obtained allotments of Sundarban forest land from the British East India Company in the early part of the 19th century, to clear forest land for cultivation. It appears that after the land had been cleared, they were left to their own devices, and they stayed on as labourers. They are no longer engaged in their traditional occupations of hunting and fishing, but live on wage labour in both farm and non-farm sectors. They form a tiny minority in this region.

The Kaiputras or Keoras :
The Kaiputras form the third group of etrhnic minorities mentioned above. They also form a tiny minority, with less than one percent having possession of land for even subsistence agriculture. Their main occupation is pig-rearing, (about 60%), for which they are considered as outcastes and untouchables by all other communities. About 27% of them work as wage labourers in farm and non-farm sectors, and the rest earn their livelihoods as petty traders, masons and rickshaw/van pullers. Their incomes and educational levels are very low, but the females of the caste have more freedom than those of other communities around them.  They live a semi-nomadic existence, having no land of their own, and live on the fringes of villages.

The Namasudras :
The Namasudras are low caste Hindus and are sporadically spread all over the country,  and there are small concentrations of Namasudra populations in the low-lying wet-lands of the south-western coastal region. It is difficult to quantify them in terms of their population in the whole of Bangladesh, as they are not enumerated as a separate community in the official census. However, they appear to be the most numerous of the ethno-religious minority communities in this part of the country.
As suggested in the district gazetteers which serve the purpose of one of the earliest sources of ethnographical and sociological information, the Namasudras and the Paundra-Khatriyas are basically one and the same community, and that both were formerly called Chandals. Both occupy low positions in the hierarchy of Hindu castes, but are generally known to be two different communities.  The local people do not identify either of the two castes as the real Chandals, whose traditional occupation is the cremation of dead people.
Their phjysical features are mostly Dravidian, with some admixture of Aryan/Alpine and Australoid. They live in low-lying wet-land areas along with some other castes, such  as Poundra-Kshatriyas and Rajbangshis, and share a common faith, rites and rituals.  But they do not have any matrimonial relationships with these other castes. Though they generally claim to belong to the Hindu community, they do not worship all the Hindu gods and goddesses. On the other hand, they have some gods and goddersses of their own, not recognised for worship by the upper and middle caste Hindus.
They consider the Reverend Harichand Thakur of Orakandi in the district of Faridpur as their Guru and godfather, and go on pilgrimages to Orakandi for the annual Mela there.
Though traditionally agriculturists by occupation, less than 25% of the households are fully self-reliant in that occupation. The rest are poor and marginal farmers, or absolutely or functionally landless, relying on wage labour, or at best, share-cropping.  Even then, there are less than 40% who depend solely on agriculture. Nearly 30% are actually wage-labourers. Less than a quarter used to be fishermen, but they do not possess any ponds of their own, and have little access to open water-bodies in the public domain. The rest of the Namasudra population are petty traders, shrimp gher workers, rickshaw/van pullers and others.
 

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The Paundra_Kshatriyas or Podes :
Though the district gazetteers consider them the same as Namasudras, both these communities consider themselves as separate from each other. Numerically they come second to the Namasudras. According to numerous sources, the ancestors of the Paundra-Kshatriyas, or "Podes" as they are commonly known, came to this region from the north, cleared the forests and settled here centuries ago. In the remote past, they had vast tracts of lands, water-bodies and forests under their collective ownership and community control. At present many of them are functionally landless and landpoor, with very little access to other public resources as forests and open water-bodies.
However, as agriculturists, they are comparatively more affluent than most other minorities. Over 48% of them have more than one acre of land, and upto 7 or 8 acres, while about 32% are functionally or absolutely landless. The middle group, comprising about 20%, owning upto 1.00 acre of land, are poor and marginal farmers who have to resort to share-cropping to supplement their incomes. The landless among them follow many occupations such as that of boatmen(both manually operated and mechanised), petty trading in fish and groceries, shrimp farming, fishing, bamboo and cane work, carpentry, service, etc. The last item in the above list of occupations is significant, as during the early part of the 20th century, they realised the value of education, and those of whom who could afford it, obtained education and entered civil service.

The Rajbangshis or Teors :
Although a distinct ethno-religious group, they are in many respects, such as religious beliefs, culture, customs etc., almost identical with the Namasudras and Paundra-Kshatriyas. But in terms of principal occupation, they form an exclusive fishermen community. As a result, however, of complicated historically conditioned socio-economic processes over centuries, they have lost much of their age-old access to rivers and other open water-bodies, to the detriment of their own economic well-being and social status. As a result, they are either absolutely or functionally landless, as over 82% of them own less than 0.50 acre, and most of them not even a homestead. Less than 9% own more than one acre.

The  Rishis and Muchis :
There is an interesting story about the Charmakars or Chamars, who used to skin and eat the flesh of dead cows and other domestic animals, and followed the occupation of tanning hides and skins and making and repairing footwear.
It is said that an educated person of their race, named Deben Babu, came to this region from Calcutta about 50 or 60 years ago, and called a convention of all people of that caste at Navaran in Jessore district. At the convention, Deben Babu told them that they were actually the descendants of the ancient Rishis and Munis(sages) who wrote the Vedas and the Puranas, but that they had fallen in Society as a result of their lowly occupation. He called upon them to abandon their dirty occupation and adopt the surname or caste name Rishi. It is said that the "Matbars"(headmen) of the Muchis living on the west bank of the river Kapotakshya accepted his proposal and converted to Christianity along with their followers, while those living on the east bank of that river preferred to live as they had been doing  all along.
Reverend John Fagan has observed that whatever their understanding of Deben Babu's use of the word "Rishi" might have been,  he suspects it to be an erroneous one for good reasons.
As traditionally they had been living in the fringes of  Society as lowly tanners and leather workers, they have no great attachment to land, and landed people are very rare among them. Only about 10% of these people follow their traditional occupations, while more than half are wage labourers. About a quarter of them live on  bamboo  and cane work, while others follow

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various occupations such as rickshaw/van pedalling, fishing and petty trading. According to Reverend John Fagan, there are some 250,000 people of this caste in Bangladesh. According to his distribution, 40,000 are in Khulna, 70,000 in Jessore, 45,000 in Mymensingh-Tangail and about 40,000 in Dhaka(Fagan, John).

OTHER MINORITY GROUPS :
Some other minority groups  found in the region are Jeles/Malos, Parois, Patnis, Telis etc. claim to be Hindus, but they are considered low caste by upper and middle caste Hindus. The Telis are traditionally seed-oil extractors, while the Patnis  used to be traditionally boatmen. The Jeles or Malos and Parois used to be fishermen. But most members of  these miniscule groups no longer follow their traditional occupations. Only about half of the Jeles/Malos and Parois do the work of fishermen, either independently, or on commission basis. Physically they are Non-Aryan, an admixture of Australoid and Dravidian. Many of them are now wage labourers in various farm and non-farm sectors.

Muslim Minority Groups :
Apart from  the various castes and sub-castes described above, there are nine distinct groups who are identified as Muslims, but racially appear akin to the Hindus of the lower stratum of society, and may be considered as converts. They  are Bajandars(players of musical instruments), Beharas(palanquin-bearers), the Dais(seed-oil extractors, most probably the same as Telis, but converted from Hinduism), the Dhopas(washermen or launderers), Hajams(circumcisers), the Nikaris(traditionally fishermen, but now occupying various trades, and probably converted from Hindu fishermen communities), the Rasuas (traditionally repairers of household metal-ware), the Shahjees and the Shikaris.  The Shahjees are a small group living in Debhata thana of Satkhira district, and used to be traditionally engaged in coal-cleansing, but now about 20% live by agriculture and the rest are wage-labourers.  The Shikaris, though Muslim by religion, are an off-shoot of the nomadic Bede community; as such, they are low-caste ethnic minorities, converted to Islam sometime during the last few centuries. At present their main occupation is wage labour, though about 20% of them own from 0.50 to 4.99 acres of land.
These Muslim Minority Communities(MMC) used to be either low caste Hindus or other ethnic minorities, and appear to have been converted during the early Muslim period. But in spite of their being Muslims, other Muslim communities do not have matrimonial relations with them, and shun them as low caste, though there is no caste system in Islam and caste prejudices are alien to it. It may  be that this caste prejudice is a disease communicated through contact with the caste system of the Hindus.

CONCLUSION :
The age-old process of  the mingling of races has contributed much to the demographic complexity of this country. The faster pace of modern living  appears to have, in fact, speeded up this process, and as time goes on it is l ikely to become more and more difficult to distinguish ethnic and racial characteristics among the population of this region.

Various development initiatives undertaken both by government as well as non-government agencies have mostly by-passed these lowest of the lowly, but there appears some dim spark of hope that  these people too, may be provided with the initial impetus that will enable them to improve their lot. There exists, of course, the likelihood that their ethnic identities may one day be wiped out  under the wheels of progress,, but that may be a small price to pay  provided  that the loss is compensated by their being recognised as equal citizens in the greater community of equals.
 
 

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VOICE OF DALITS IN BANGLADESH                                                                                       MARCH 2001
                                                                                                                                                       2nd Volume

NETWORK OF LOCAL NGOS FOR ESTABLISHING THE RIGHTS OF DALITS

Background :
Once upon a time, the majority of the population in this tide-washed coastal delta land used to be Aborigines. They had evolved an agricultural practice and a lifestyle in keeping with the unique nature and characteristics of this land. But gradually, with the passage of time, the incursion of other settlers converted these people into a minority. At present, they are in the deepest abyss of ignorance, destitution and total lack of development. They have escaped the attention of national policy makers, who have never given any importance to their improvement. Until recently, even the voluntary development agencies, that is, NGOs did not realise the importance of planning any programs for them.

In order to understand the overall situation of these neglected people, Bhumija undertook a survey of 570 villages in Debhata and Tala Upazilas of Satkhira district and Dumuria upazila of Khulna district. The survey revealed that in 317 villages within the survey area, there are 20 distinct groups of Religio-Ethnic Minorities. They are the Bajondars(musical instrument players), Beharas (palanquin bearers), Bhogobene, Buno, Dai (Midwife), Dhopa (Washerman), Hajam, Jele, Patni, Kaiputra, Namasudra, Paundra Khatriya, Rajbangshi(Teor), Rosua, Teli, Nikeri and Paroi.  These people form 28.95% of the total population of the surveyed area. According to the survey, 11.96% are totally land-less, without even any homestead land. 39.43% possess 0.49 acre of land or less, also technically land-less. Only 18.64% possess from 0.50 to 1.00 acre of land and 29.97% are owners of one acre or more.
34.21% of these people engage themselves as agricultural wage labourers, 28.03% practise agriculture including sharecropping, 17.85% are fishermen, 6.37% are engaged in petty trade, 3.79 are engaged in cottage industries, 0.37% keep swine and the remaining 7.37% perform other work for earning their livelihoods.

Only a very small percentage of them can be considered as earning a decent livelihood. The majority of them, 51.56% of the households earn less than Taka 1,000.00 per month, 27.25% earn between Taka 1,000.00 and 2,000.00, 14.45 earn between Taka 2,001 and 3,000, 4.94% earn between Taka 3000 to 4000, 1.20% earn between Taka 4001 and 5000 while only a mere 0.60% earn more than Taka 5000 per month.

While the national average for literacy stands at 62%, only 19.28% of the  Indigenous peoples are literate. Literate among males are 26.65% while only 11.85% of the females are literate.

The Origin of Bhumija.
Although a large number of NGOs  are working in this region for development of the poorest of the poor including women, by providing them with awareness training, literacy, health care and means of self-empowerment, no organization had taken any steps to plan or implement a program for the development of the Indigenous people. While forming development groups among the targeted under-privileged people, a few individuals or households might have been included in such groups. But this was far below the actual need.

Bhumija was born out of the initiative of Mr. Shahidul Islam, who has been working as a development activist in  this region since 1976 and the motivation of Rev, Fr. Luigi Paggi. From its very inception Bhumija has taken initiative and taken up programs for the development of these neglected peoples.  The main objective of the survey was to identify the groups of indigenous people inhabiting the Khulna-Satkhira-Jessore region, to know the extent of their numbers, analysing their socio-economic situation and identify issues in respect of their rights and livelihoods.

While trying to identify the issues confronting the Indigenous people in this region and making plans to prepare development projects for them, Bhumija realised that it would  be too great a task for Bhumija to perform single-handed. Only an integrated and well coordinated joint effort of several NGOs could undertake such a stupendous task.  Accordingly, a coalition including Bhumija, Sushilan and Rishilpi was formed and a development project was planned under the title “Integrated Development Intervention”. The background of this coalition and their experience are detailed below.

Background of the Coalition :
Bhumija, Sushilan and Rishilpi are three NGOs  working in the district of Satkhira situated  in the Southwest Coastal Region of Bangladesh.  The three NGOs by means of experience sharing, discussions and mutual reviews of work being performed by them for the development of the indigenous people, gave them the motivation to form a coalition. Thus began the Coalition of the three NGOs in April, 1994.  It may be noted here that though Bhumija is an organization formed solely for the establishment of the rights and development of the Indigenous people, the other two organizations will be working among the indigenous people only as part of their overall programs.

Institutional Structure of the Coalition :
Bhumija shall be the lead organization in the Coalition. The chief executives of the three NGOs have formed the Coalition Management Committee. The Chief Executive of Bhumija will be  the Coordinator. The Coalition Management Committee will take all decisions jointly, and the Chief Executive of Bhumija will monitor and coordinate the activities performed in accordance with the decisions. The office of Bhumija will act as the Secretariat of the coalition. It is understood that each of the three partners in the coalition implement their respective programs independently, but the programs of the Coalition are implemented jointly.

Bylaws of the Coalition :
1) Bhumija will act as the lead organization in the Coalition.
2) The independence of the partner NGOs will on no account be compromised.
3) The partners will cooperate with one another in exchanging information and experience.
4) In the event of any member committing any act that goes against the policies of the Coalition, the membership of that organization shall remain suspended, the funding receivable by it will be withheld and the donor organization will be intimated about the suspension.
5) A Secretariat has been established. Its functions will be :
5.1 Collection of Information
5.2 Conservation and Recording of Information
5.3 Dissemination of Information as required and
5.4 Making arrangement for training for Capacity Building.
6) Generally, the Coalition Management Committee will meet once in every two months.
7) Member organizations shall submit Financial Reports to Bhumija once in every two months.
8) All accounts of financial transactions shall be maintained properly.
9) Funds will be allocated in accordance with the opinion of the majority of the Coalition members.
10) Internal Audit as well as Audit by recognised Audit firm will be conducted every year.
11) External evaluation will be conducted jointly by thew Donor Agency and the Coalition.
12) The Coalition members shall provide all Information sought by the Donor Agency.
13) In the event of any coalition member failing to furnish the reports and/or information, necessary steps will be taken against it.
14) In the event of this Coalition achieving success, other local NGOs may be co-opted as members of the Coalition to expand the area of its activity.
 

A Review of the Coalition’s Activities :
As the initial review has shown that the activities of the Coalition have given positive results, it is seen that the possibility of co-opting other local NGOs to work among the Indigenous people has become bright.

The Network working in this region under the leadership of Bhumija has now become known as the Southwest Regional NGO Network. As such, it has already gained some experience of networking. This experience has to be kept in mind in the management of the proposed Coalition. hence it has become imperative that we review the activities of the coalition formed under the leadership of Bhumija.

Though in general terms, the positive aspect of the coalition is most apparent, some limitations have also been noted as a result of the review, such as :
a) Exchange of information and experience among the member organizations is not satisfactory.
b) Appropriate relationships have not been established between the NGO personnel and the target populations.
c) Opinion sharing has been much less than the ideal. Discussions on development issues have been less than desired.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under which this Coalition has been formed gives the lead organization only the responsibility to receive progress and financial Reports from the member organizations. Actually, the programs were such that the lead organization Bhumija could not interfere.  For instance, Rishilpi changed the program entirely. A larger than planned number of groups were formed in a hurry, which resulted in the lowering of standards. No guidelines had been formulated for defining the relationships between the personnel and the target people. As the secretariat had no staff of its own, appropriate inspection and review could not be undertaken and close inter-relationships among the personnel of the three organizations could not develop properly.

Problems of Perspective :
In working with these outcaste people, the first essential is to develop an appropriate perspective, and to bring about coordination among the members. Bhumija has been created solely for the purpose of working among the Indigenous people. The other members of the coalition need to develop the appropriate perspective in the light of experience. Their target populations include also people outside the Indigenous groups. Their cooperation with Bhumija is limited to the indigenous peoples. As such, involving the other members of the coalition and coordinate their work among the indigenous people should be considered as a project of Bhumija, which will be the next phase of the joint project “Integrated Development Intervention”.

Members of the Bhumija Coalition :
1) Bhumija :  Tala, Satkhira
2) Sushilan :  Kaliganj, Satkhira
3) Rishilpi :   Benerpota, Satkhira
4) Aalok  :  Mirzapur, Tala, Satkhira
5) Mukti Parishad  :   Tala, Satkhira
6) Provati  :  Betagram, Dumuria, Khulna
7) Adarsha Dishari
    Sangstha   :  Bharat Bhaina, Keshabpur, Jessore
8) Protibha  :  Kalagachi, Keshabpur, Jessore
9) Panjia Jubo Samaj
     Kalyan Samity   :  Panjia, Keshabpur, Jessore
10) BFBC  :   Keshabpur, Jessore.
 

Objectives :
      The objectives of this wider Coalition are :
1) To establish the Human Rights of the  outcaste people,
2) To combat social discrimination against and maltreatment of the outcaste people,
3) To arrange job opportunities for women of the outcaste communities, and
4) To create opportunities for their education, so that they may live as ordinary citizens of Bangladesh without being discriminated against.
Organizational Management of the Coalition :
1) Bhumija is playing the role of lead organization in this coalition. This coalition is principally a project of Bhumija.
2)   Forwarding of project proposals to donor agencies,
        receiving grants from them,   sending reports and
      monitoring projects shall be the responsibility of
.      Bhumija.
3)  The Project Management Committee has been          formed with the Chief Executives of  the member organizations.
4) The Project Management Committee will meet at least once in every three months.
5) Each member organizations shall remain Independent, but in respect of projects awarded by the coalition, they will remain answerable to Bhumija.
6) The member organizations shall exchange information and experiences among themselves
7) The member organizations have concluded bilateral agreements with Bhumija. Necessary training will be provided in order to enhance the capability of the member organizations.
 

Other Activities of the Coalition :
Since  Bhumija started its journey, it has been observing the Universal Human Rights Day on December 10 every year. The programmes include discussions, highlighting of Human Rights issues affecting our target people, rallies and cultural events highlighting Human Rights(short plays, songs etc.)
Recent Developments :
After a long period of total neglect, it is now witnessing some activity in respect of studies and discussions in respected to the Aborigines/Indigenous people. Academics have begun to take an interest in the plight of indigenous people inhabiting this region. Earlier this year, a Seminar was held at the Calcutta University in India on the subject “Indigenous People of Eastern India and Bangladesh : Perspective - Development”. Held jointly by the Universities of Calcutta and Dhaka, the second session of the seminar was held at Dhaka University in Bangladesh. Academics and other activists from both countries, as well as representatives of Indigenous People attended both the seminars.
Following the seminars, two get-togethers of indigenous people and activists and organizations working on their behalf were held at Jhinaidah.

In this connection, it may be noted that though the indigenous people in other parts of Bangladesh had been well organised, with institutions of their own, the indigenous people inhabiting this region of Bangladesh had not been organised at all. It is only recently that two organizations have made their appearance, one at Jhinaidah for the indigenous people inhabiting the northern part of Khulna Division, and the other for those in the Khulna region. Although these institutions are at present in the embryonic stage, the very establishment of such institutions is a healthy sign and augurs well for their future development and integration into the mainstream life of the nation.

Bhumija: An organization for Dalits in Bangladesh
These outcastecommunities were previously known as Bhumiputra (sons of the soil) and they were the majority among the population living in the land influenced of saline ocean tides. The agricultural system, culture, knowledge and know-how of those communities were harmonious with the ecology and environment But in course of time, other people came and settled in the land and these communities became minorities, became neglected, enjoying least rights. They are left unnoticed by the policy makers, even NGOs were seen least concerned about them during the recent past. They could not conceive the need to formulate special programs specifically for these untouchable communities. There are so many NGOs working in this region to address needs of poor people in general but they did not take up any specific programs for these outcastes. During the course of implementation of project works in their target groups, some members of families from outcaste communities might have come within the process. By this way a few of them are organized. But this is not upto the level of requirement to address the needs of the out castes.

Bhumija has been endeavoring for the advancement of the outcaste communities in the Southwest Coastal region of Bangladesh. It has been working in 40 villages in Debhata and Dumuria thana of Satkhira and Khulna district respectively since 1993. Bhumija has been registered vide No.. 925 dated 22-03-95 under the Social Welfare Department.

From its very inception Bhumija took up the following activioties, namely,
1. Socio-economic survey.
2. Specific action programme for the communities.
3. Coalition bulid-up with other NGOs.

b) Action Program:
The Following activities has been taken up by Bhumija in the outcaste communities for their human resource development for 2,500 families within 45 villages of 10 unions in 4 Thanas.

i)  Group Formation.
ii)  Income generation;
iii)  Afforestation: Social Forestry.
iv)  Functional Literacy.;
v)  Safe Water & Sanitation;
vi)  Training, seminar, workshop & Cultural activities.
c)  Networking/Coalition:
 

Existing Literature About The Religio-Ethnic Minority Communities In Bangladesh

It was the British Government officials who for the first time made a series of studies on the Religio-Ethnic Minority (REM) groups or communities in Bangladesh and other parts of the Indian sub-continent during the period between the middle of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, purely for their colonial administrative purposes. The few books written by them are considered the earliest ethnographic accounts and so far remain the main sources of information on the religio-ethnic minority groups or communities in our country.
Except for the religio-ethnic minority communities inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts, all other books relate mainly to the REM communities living in the north-eastern parts of India, adjacent to the frontiers of Bangladesh. Fractions of the same REM communities also live in Bangladesh. They have more or less the same socio-cultural characteristics as their northeast Indian counterparts. Thus the books on the REM communities inhabiting the northeastern parts of India relate only to a certain extent to their fractions inhabiting the present day Bangladesh territory. The REM communities inhabiting Bangladesh have some differences in their socio-cultural characteristics that are not observed in the books in question. There has been very little, if at all, of anthropological, ethnographic or ethnological studies conducted on the REM communities during the Pakistan period (1947-71) and the subsequent 30 years of post-independence Bangladesh.

Census reports and district gazetteers published by the British colonial government contain a wealth of information about the REM communities despite having critical shortcomings and limitations. But the district gazetteers updated during the subsequent periods could at best be considered as mere reproductions of their original versions with very little new information incorporated in them.

Besides, there are a number of works published, which give findings of a few foreign anthropologists who have done field work or at least had visited the areas inhabited by the REM communities during the mid-20th century.

But most of the mid-20th century and recent studies deal with the REM communities inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a very few with those of the northern region and almost none with those of the southwest region of Bangladesh.

In order to identify and understand the REM groups inhabiting the southwest region of Bangladesh, we are left with no other alternative than to venture undertaking a sort of baseline survey among them, to be followed by a series o f in-depth first hand studies. It is believed that only such a study could enable us to address them and their development needs and concerns in both social and economic sectors.

Rationale For A Social Survey of R.E.M Communities In the South-West Region Of Bangladesh

As our general observations suggest, there are a number of special groups or communities existing in the southwest region of Bangladesh...They have their own specific religio-ethnic and socio-cultural characteristics that make them stand out distinct from the others. They are the Mundas or Bunos, the Bhagobenes, the Kaiputras or Keoras, the Paundra kshatriyas, the Santals and Rishis.  Many academics consider these to be the real aborigines while the rest are likely to be merely the marginal sections of the majority communities.

INDIGENOUS  PEOPLE SOUTH-WEST COASTAL REGION OF BANGLADESH
Introduction :
It is clearly evident from ancient records as well as from physical remains that there existed an ancient civilization in the South West Coastal Region of Bangladesh. Later migrations also brought indigenous people to this region from other parts of the Indian Sub-continent. But  political and economic policies of various governments, the partition of the Indian Sub-continent, and the socio-economic situation that has been prevalent, have  pushed them to the extremes of poverty and misery. The policies and development initiatives of various governments have also contributed to their marginalization.

The partition of the sub-continent divided them and separated many of them from their original homelands, and the events of the last half century have prevented them from re-establishing those contacts. As such, they are faced with a severe identity crisis. The difficulty lies in the fact that all the low caste Hindus, Muslims and other indigenous groups as well as aboriginal people have become so amalgamated that it is difficult to distinguish  and separate different ethnic groups.
The development efforts of the British and successor governments have sidelined them, as they were not strong enough, both numerically as well as economically and organizationally, to claim their right portion of development. As a result their socio-economic progress has been severely retarded and this has had a similar effect upon their socio-political status.

A recent study has identified at least 6 ethno-religious minority communities, such as  Rishis. Bhogobeney, Buno(Munda), Kaiputra or Keoras(pig-rearers), Paundro-Kshatriya, and Rajbangshis or Teors, of whom only the Mundas are supposed to be distinctly aboriginal.
In order to bring them up to the level of the other communities living among them, there is need for a very specific and integrated  development approach, which will enable them to develop their human potential while at the same time enable them to preserve their culture and tradition. But no sufficient initiative has, as yet, been taken to improve their lot, and it is high time that an effort is made for their appropriate development.
Characteristics Of The Region :
Nomenclature :  Banga
Thje region lying between the Bhagirati-Hooghly and the Ganges - Padma has been known by the name Banga  for the last three thousand years. The Southwest Coastal Region of Bangladesh consists of the districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat, together with the southern portion of Jessore district. The region is distinctive in that it is influenced by the ocean tides from the Bay of Bengal that enter the region through the numerous estuaries  and creeks that pass through the Sundarbans. This region comprises the land cleared for human settlement out of the Sundarban mangrove forest.The major portion of the land is low-lying and subject to inundation by the diurnal tides. The inhabitants used to cultivate rice in those low lying lands during the rainy season by building temporary dykes to prevent tidal incursion and similar temporary sluices to let out surplus rain water. After the harvest, the dykes and sluices were dismantled and the tiddes given free play again.

Satish Chandra Mitra in his book “History of Jessore-Khulna” states that the Poundra king Vasudeva, who had participated in the battle of Kurukshetra on the side of the Kauravas, had a step-brother named Kapil, who being of a religious type, is said to have settled at a place in the lower basin of the river Kapotakshya, and there engaged in meditation. The site later came to be known as Kapilmuni, and the town of that name,  situated within Paikgacha thana of Khulna district, is said to be the same place.
There are plentiful signs of an ancient civilization in and around the present Kapilmuni. As such, if the period of the Mahabharata can be considered as somewhere between 1000 BC and 700 BC, this region has a history at least as old as that of the Mahabharata.
Some historians, such as Satish Chandra Mitra and Subash Mukhopadhya have suggested the possibility of an admixture of the Alpine race in the Bengali people. Their statements may not be far from the truth, as there is clear evidence of the intrusion of Central Asian tribes into the sub-continent during two distinct periods of history.

History of Human Settlements in the South West Coastal Region :
Dr. Nihar Ranjan Roy  in his book “Banglar Itihash” has stated, “Among  the low caste fishermen communities in the Sundarbans, among the lowest classes of people in scattered locations in lower Bengal, and among the Banshfor people of Jessore district, there can be found short-statured, dark complexioned, people with curly hair, thick, upturned lips and flat noses, which characteristics seem to be the result of negroid admixture......the next level is that of the early Australoid. Among the lower castes of Bengalees and among the Aboriginals, they are the most predominant”.

The unique nature of the population of this region is that human settlement occurred at various times in history, and for different reasons. There were those who had been living here originally, from pre-historic times. Later, at various times, different communities emigrated from their original homelands to escape either from conflict or famine or any other calamity, and sought refuge in the fastnesses of the Sundarbans or in the maze of rivers and creeks of this low-lying flat land. Then there are those people from over-populated regions who were attracted to this region by its high productivity. And finally, during the nineteenth century, the Zamindars who got allotments of forest land from the British East India Company imported aboriginals and other low caste people from the Chota Nagpur region of India to clear the forest. All these various peoples who came and settled here in different eras have so inter-mingled that it is extremely difficult to clearly distinguish different ethnic groups.

The Religio-Ethnic Minorities (REM) :
However, in spite of the difficulty in identifying different ethnic groups living in this region, development imperatives have prompted serious thinking among activists, and it was out of that perspective that Bhumija, a local NGO, conducted a limited survey in Dumuria thana of Khulna district and Tala and Debhata thanas of Satkhira district in 1996.
As a result of that survey, about 20 Religio-Ethnic Minorities(REM) had been identified, out of whom only 6 are supposed  to be aboriginal. They are the Bhagobenes or Bhagobanias, the Bunos or Mundas,  the Kaiputras or Keoras, the Rishis or Muchis, the Paundra-Kshatriyas or Podes, and the Rajbangshis. Even then, there is difference of opinion among people, as many consider only the Bunos(Mundas) as truly indigenous, though their numbers are miniscule compared to other ethno-religious groups.

The Bunos or Mundas :
The Mundas form the one ethnic group that has, in spite of many obstacles, preserved their ethnic identity. According to their tribal memory, they are the descendants of people  brought to this part of Bangladesh by the zamindars who obtained allotments of Sundarban forest land from the British East India Company in the early part of the 19th century, to clear forest land for cultivation. It appears that after the land had been cleared, they were left to their own devices, and they stayed on as labourers.
The Mundas conform to the general description of Australoid people, being dark complexioned, short with wavy hair. In their original homelands in India, they used to be hunters and gatherers, but those occupations were closed to them when the then British administration declared the Sundarbans as a Reserved Forest. As such, they have to survive on wage labour. Many do not possess even their homesteads, and live on other people’s lands. They are also in the process of losing their linguistic heritage. Most of them cannot speak their language Mundali fluently.

The Mundas live in the regions adjacent  to the Sundarbans. Small, scattered,  communities of Mundas can be found in Khulna, Jessore, Satkhira, Jhinaidah  and Gopalganj districts. There are very few literate among them, and they have no organization of their own. It is only recently that they have begun to organise themselves.

Atiar Parvez writes in the journal “Lokjon”(6th year, 9th issue, April, 1998) that 30 Munda families have been living in village Bagkhali on the bank of the river Betna within Nagarghata Union under Tala thana of Satkhira district since the last 50 years or so. Yet they possess no land whatsoever to call their own. He quotes 100-year-old Jiten Munda of the village as saying that their forefathers came to this region  over two centuries ago from the Ranchi region of Bihar, and they claim to belong to the Sirum clan. According to Jiten Munda, Munda chief Sachinya lost in some conflict and fled to the Sundarbans to seek refuge.

Possessing no land, they have to work as wage labourers in others’ fields. A rare few among them are share-croppers. But neither do the labourers get a fair wage nor the share-croppers a fair share of the crop.

From a distance the Munda village looks as if it is floating on water. During the rains, the village is usually flooded. But they have no other place to go.

Other Religio-Ethnic Minorities :
In addition to the Mundas, there are several other ethnic groups, who are quite different in many ways from the mainstream Bengali Society. There are also differences of opinion regarding the Mundas and other ethno-religious communities. In the government’s official census records, they are not classified as separate ethnic communities, but are considered as low caste Hindus. Brief descriptions of these groups are given below.

The Kaiputras or Keoras :
The Kaiputras also form a tiny minority, with less than one percent having possession of land for even subsistence agriculture. Their main occupation is pig-rearing, (about 60%), for which they are considered as outcastes and untouchables by all other communities. About 27% of them work as wage labourers in farm and non-farm sectors, and the rest earn their livelihoods as petty traders, masons and rickshaw/van pullers. Their incomes and educational levels are very low, but the females of the caste have more freedom than those of other communities around them.  They lead a semi-nomadic existence, having no land of their own, and live on the fringes of villages.

The Bhagobenes or Bhagobanias :
The  Bhagobenes, also known as the Kortabhaja Samprodai, do not eat food prepared by people of other castes. Their religion conforms mainly to that of the Brahmo Samaj in that they do not practice idolatry, and believe in one Invisible God. They are very few in number, living in scattered communities in Khulna, Satkhira and Jessore districts. They are mostly poor, with less than 10% owning enough agricultural land to subsist on farming alone. Most of them are farm or non-farm labourers, and the others are petty traders or rickshaw/van pullers. They are not strictly aborigines, but they are certainly a religious minority.

The Paundra-Kshatriyas or Podes :
Though the district gazetteers consider them the same as Namasudras, both these communities consider themselves as separate from each other. Numerically they come second to the Namasudras. According to numerous sources, the ancestors of the Paundra-Kshatriyas, or “Podes” as they are commonly known, came to this region from the north, cleared the forests and settled here centuries ago. In the remote past, they had vast tracts of lands, water-bodies and forests under their collective ownership and community control. At present many of them are functionally landless and landpoor, with very little access to other public resources as forests and open water-bodies.

However, as agriculturists, they are comparatively more affluent than most other minorities. Over 48% of them have more than one acre of land, and upto 7 or 8 acres, while about 32% are functionally or absolutely landless. The middle group, comprising about 20%, owning upto 1.00 acre of land, are poor and marginal farmers who have to resort to share-cropping to supplement their incomes. The landlesss among them follow many occupations such as that of boatmen(both manually operated and mechanised), petty trading in fish and groceries, shrimp farming, fishing, bamboo and cane work, carpentry, etc.

The Rajbangshis or Teors :
Although a distinct ethno-religious group, they are in religious beliefs, culture, customs etc., almost identical with the Namasudras and Paundra-Kshatriyas. But in terms of principal occupation, they form an exclusive fishermen community. As a result, however, of complicated historically conditioned socio-economic processes over centuries, they have lost much of their age-old access to rivers and other open water-bodies, to the detriment of their own economic well-being and social status. As a result, they are either absolutely or functionally landless, as over 82% of them own less than 0.50 acre, and most of them not even a homestead. Less than 9% own more than one acre. Though thery call themselves Rajbangshis, they are different from other Rajbangshis living elsewhere in Bangladesh or India.

The  Rishis and Muchis :
There is an interesting story about the Charmakars or Chamars, who used to skin and eat the flesh of dead cows and other domestic animals, and followed the occupation of tanning hides and skins and making and repairing footwear.

It is said that an educated person of their race, named Deben Babu, came to this region from Calcutta about 50 or 60 years ago, and called a convention of all people of that caste at Navaran in Jessore district. At the convention, Deben Babu told them that they were actually the descendants of the ancient Rishis and Munis(sages) who wrote the Vedas and the Puranas, but that they had fallen in Society as a result of their lowly occupation. He called upon them to abandon their dirty occupation and adopt the surname or caste name Rishi. It is said that the “Matbars”(headmen) of the Muchis living on the west bank of the river Kapotakshya accepted his proposal and converted to Christianity along with their followers, while those living on the east bank of that river preferred to live as they had been doing  all along.

Reverend John Fagan has observed that whatever their understanding of Deben Babu’s use of the word “Rishi” might have been,  he suspects it to be an erronous one for good reasons.
 
 

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