Let’s first unpack the notion of ‘ethnic’ in ethnic minorities. The term derives from the Greek word ethnos. The ancient Greeks generally used genos for the Greeks themselves in a restricted kinship sense. They used the term ethnos for the non-Greek ‘others.’

Greek classics record the use of ethnos for the derogatory ‘other.’ This could be for wild animals or foreign nations, or even husband-killing women. Subsequently, ethnos also appeared as a religious indicator to refer to non-Christian and non-Jewish persons.

Fast forward to today, a dictionary meaning of ‘ethnic’ is something ‘belonging to a nation, race or tribe that shares a cultural tradition.’ The ‘otherness’ in ethnic is exhibited more precisely in another dictionary meaning: ‘typical of a country or culture that is very different from modern Western culture and therefore interesting for people in Western countries.’

Ethnic can also be exotic, non-European and, hence, backward. In other words, this sense of backwardness is embedded in the notion of ethnicity, and thereby in the notion of an ethnic minority. Considering this, 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill advocated for assimilation of the lower segment of the human race with the higher part.

According to him, a greater interest of the Breton and the Basque of French Navarre or of the Welsh person and the Scottish Highlander lies in their assimilation into the so-called highly civilised and cultivated French and British nations, respectively.

The concept of ethnic ‘othering’ is not confined to European thought. In the late 1940s, during the Constituent Assembly debates in India, popular politician Sardar Patel took a stance against robust protection of marginalised ethnic tribes in the Constitution:

‘Is it the intention of people to defend the cause of the tribals to keep the tribes permanently in their present state? … I think that it should be our endeavour … not keep them as tribes, so that … the word “tribes” may be removed altogether, when they would have come up to our level. It is not befitting India’s civilization to provide for tribes.’[1]

Bangladesh’s ethnic ‘other’

Bangladesh’s long political struggle for independence, culminating in the Liberation War of 1971, redressed the ‘othering’ of ethnic Bengalis under the oppression of Pakistani rule. The freedom movement was also advanced in the Bengali nation as an epitome—a nation that promised a socialist, democratic and secular future.

Bangladesh’s freedom movement was also advanced in the Bengali nation as an epitome—a nation that promised a socialist, democratic and secular future.

Since its founding, Bangladesh has been a country with over 97% ethnic Bengalis. It also has a minority non-Bengali ethnic population in its south-eastern hilly region, collectively known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).[2] Upon independence in 1971, non-Bengali hill peoples demanded regional autonomy. They wanted a special constitutional status for the CHT. Bangladesh’s government readily rejected these demands and instead pushed for national integration. In short, Bangladesh saw the request as a threat to its nation-building efforts.

A bird’s eye view of the foothills of Chittagong Hill Tracts, southeastern Bangladesh, 21 September 2018 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Bangladesh’s Constitution is sprinkled with Bengali nationhood aspirations. For example, ‘the people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation, and citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis’ (Article 6). Likewise, the Constitution names the majority-spoken Bangla as the official language (Article 3). There are also mentions of the national identity being derived from Bengali nationalism.

Interestingly, the Constitution also directs the state to ‘take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’ (Article 23). Encouragingly, this provision does acknowledge the existence of communities other than Bengalis. However, it also isolates the cultures of non-Bengali communities from the Bengali-oriented ‘national culture.’

This process of ‘othering’ of ethnic minorities is deeply rooted in the history of imagining the national ‘self’ in exclusive terms. Here, radical rethinking is necessary to uproot the othering.

Special status

Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, where many non-Bengali communities are, has faced decades of state coercion, especially under successive military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. The CHT communities then formed an armed resistance, popularly known as Shanti Bahini. A historic peace treaty between the resistance and the government, the CHT Peace Accord, was signed in 1997. The Accord brought an end to protracted armed conflict but has not yet been fully implemented.

Various legislation allowing more autonomy to the CHT has been legally challenged as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equality and non-discrimination among all citizens.

Bangladesh’s Constitution needs to recognise the special status of the hill people. Only then can the country pave the way for the full implementation of the CHT Peace Accord. Otherwise, elements of regional autonomy cannot be implemented. Bangladesh needs to constitutionally recognise the special status of all its ethnic communities.

Bangladesh needs to constitutionally recognise the special status of all its ethnic communities.

It then needs to meet its treaty obligations, such as ratification of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169.[3] These steps will bring the small ethnic communities under robust protection. Such recognition of special status of ethnic groups will help with the agenda of constitutional reform agenda of non-discrimination.

Such a bold move will go deep. It will eventually help the state itself to reimagine its own post-colonial identity. The longstanding minority problem in many postcolonial states is a reminder of the deeper crises of dominant nation-building projects that these countries embody.

To be honest, Bangladesh has made its share of mistakes. The 15th amendment to its Constitution offered the government an opportunity to push for strong recognition of indigenous ethnic communities. But unfortunately, the decision-makers saw it as a compromise to the Bengali national identity. To make matters worse, the government took an official position that there were no ‘indigenous people’ in Bangladesh.

Walking better paths

Not all minority groups have the capacity to mount armed resistance against a well-equipped state. It is also not in the best interest of the state to follow the path of violence, especially when a peace deal has a chance. Ethnic federalism, regional autonomy, power-sharing models and affirmative action policies can pre-emptively reduce the risk of ethnic conflicts. These arrangements can channel tensions into constructive and amicable outcomes, without the loss of lives.

Taking political economy seriously

In today’s neoliberal era, the situation of ethnic minorities has worsened. Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable. The grand development processes scar indigenous lands and thereby the ways of life of their people. Development-induced persecutions of ethnic minorities is a global phenomenon.

Market liberalisation, land privatisation, increased connectivity and the promotion of foreign investments often compromise human rights agendas and ways of life. The demand for lands and natural resources to feed the gluttonous neoliberal economic hunger has led to development-led forced displacement of ethnic minorities in myriad countries, including Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh’s south-eastern hills, there has been relative peace since the Peace Accord in 1997. In this period, however, the tourism industry has boomed at the cost of the local environment. In the forest-rich CHT, exploitation of forestry has always been rampant. Meanwhile, the military regimes that ruled Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s initiated a devastating policy of settling Bengalis from the rest of the country into the CHT region. The Peace Accord has not addressed this issue as yet. This was done largely to change the demographic composition of the region and subvert separatist activities. It was conducted under the rhetoric of ‘development.’

It is absolutely essential that ethnic minorities are consulted on all development policy-making relating to their interests. The main two international commitments, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Minorities and ILO Convention 169, provide for such consultation clauses.

Irresponsible exploitation of natural resources is also disastrous for the climate. Here again, ethnic minorities are also the primary victims of environmental catastrophe. Minority protection strategies should build on the global momentum for climate justice. A compelling narrative of climate justice has to be intertwined with justice for ethnic minorities.

It is absolutely essential that ethnic minorities are consulted on all development policy-making relating to their interests.

Re-imagining identity

The discourse on minority rights revolves largely around the integration of ethnic minorities within the state in which they live. At the same time, the majoritarian suspicion about the minority’s allegiance to the state remains unaltered. It is true that minorities can challenge the legitimacy of the territorial, political and economic structures of the state.

In this regard, re-historicising the state itself, from minority perspectives, will demystify many of these suspicions. Questions need to be raised. What is the minorities’ position within the state system? What political economic concessions are palatable to broader society? A key part of this historical project should be to clearly demonstrate how the process of nation-building has left ethnic minorities behind. Here Bangladesh is no different.

A re-historicising project surely sounds very abstract. But a re-imagination of the national ‘self’ is crucial to fix the governance structure and ensure societal balance within the country.


[1] Extracted from India’s Constituent Assembly Debates delivered by Sardar Patel on 30 April 1947.

[2] Bangladesh also has non-Bengali ethnic groups across its plainlands, meaning the rest of the country.

[3] States parties to ILO Convention 169 of 1989 are obliged to safeguard the persons, institutions, property, labour, culture and environment of indigenous peoples.


Cover: Ruposhree, a young artist from indigenous Hajong tribe, preparing for a traditional ‘bicha mara’ dance, Birishiri, Netrokona, northern Bangladesh, 10 May 2021 | Photo by Emdadul Hoque Topu.

Mohammad Shahabuddin
Mohammad Shahabuddin is Professor and Associate Head at University of Birmingham Law School. He is a lawyer. He is also an editorial board member of the Asian Journal of International Law. He was a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow and a Japan Foundation Fellow. He was an expert panelist at the 14th and 15th sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Forum on Minority Issues. He pursued his doctoral studies in international law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.