by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, November 9, 2007]
After more than two decades of bloodshed the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord, was in many ways a breakthrough for all the people of Bangladesh. The 25 years of armed conflict between the Bangladesh Army and the Shanti Bahini that wreaked havoc on the lives and livelihoods of the serene hill people came to a stop. Most of those who had migrated to neighbouring countries in fear of their lives came back and reunited with their friends and families. Seven hundred and thirty nine members of the Jana Sanghhati Samity (JSS), of which Shanti Bahini had been the military wing, headed by their leader Jotirindriyo Bodhipriyo Larma (alias Shantu Larma) ceremonially surrendered their arms to the government of Bangladesh. Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban– three of the most beautiful districts of the country finally slept in peace.
But there has always been trouble brewing in these beautiful hill districts. The Shanti Bahini, which initially had demanded for self-rule of the area, after the peace accord, accepted semi-autonomy. Many Bangalis even felt threatened by that, accusing the AL government of letting the Shanti Bahini take over our country. They failed to realise that the hills people did not want autonomy so that they could be separated from Bangladesh. On the contrary the simple, peace-loving original settlers of the land whose culture held together the natural environment of a beautiful land wanted recognition in the constitution to be part of Bangladesh, but the only way they could preserve their customs and tradition was by having special administrational setups for the hill tracts.
The special societal and political structure enjoyed by the indigenous people has preserved the beauty of the land. Straying away from the peace treaty will throw it into chaos
Thankfully the Peace Accord provided that. After the signing of the accord, a Regional Council was formed in the CHT, along with three District Councils for Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. Those eligible to vote in the Regional Council and in the three District Councils, under existing CHT laws, are those who are permanent residents of the Hill Tracts. According to Parbatya Zilla Parishad Ain, 1989 (section 17), a person will be eligible to vote if (i) he is a citizen of Bangladesh (ii) his age is not less than 18 years (iii) he is mentally sound, and (iv) he is a permanent resident of the Hill District. A non-tribal person can be considered to be a permanent resident, only if he or she has been a house-owner in CHT for at least 15 years, and in addition does not own a house outside CHT. Or, a non-tribal person can be a permanent resident if he or she has a house, coupled with agricultural land which has been settled on the person by the Deputy Commissioner of CHT, and has no house or agricultural land anywhere else, that is, in any district outside the Hill Tracts.
On 27 August 2007 the High Court issued a ruling to the government to explain why the CHT peace treaty should not be considered ‘unconstitutional’ after a writ petition was filed by Tajul Islam. Previously a similar case was filed against the government in 1999 against the government of Bangladesh, opposing the signing and implementation of the Peace Accord. In another case filed in 2000, the government was asked to explain as to why the Regional Council 1998 and Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban Hill District Council Act should not be considered anti-constitutional. There have been no hearings yet in either of the cases. Although there has not been a hearing in the 2007 case, the two-judge bench has already directed the authorities to allow the illegal plain settlers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to register themselves in the voters’ list.
The Jumma people of the CHT have lived in this land for hundreds of years but never possessed any documents for the land they owned. Articles 11-13 of the ILO Convention 107 states, “The right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands which these populations traditionally occupy shall be recognised” and it states quite precisely that the indigenous people cannot be removed from their habitual territories unless there are “reasons for national security or interest of national economic development or of the health of the population there”. Even then the people will have to be provided with lands “of quality at least equal to that of the lands previously occupied by them, suitable to provide for their present needs and future development.” Bangladesh signed the ILO Convention in 1972. But despite this and despite the peace treaty, Bangalis have been regularly migrating to the CHT area and taking over land of the Jumma people, at times violently. The peace treaty attempted to put a stop to this migration. But the migration did not stop.
BNP and Jamaat have vehemently opposed the Peace Accord from the very beginning- rendering it almost obsolete during their term
Shambhu Rahmat in an op-ed published in The Daily Star on July 10, 2007 compared the illegal settling in the CHT to Palestine’s West Bank. Successive governments have encouraged migration of Bangalis to the CHT, luring the poorest of poor Bangalis from all over the country with promise of land for cultivation and even allegedly monetary rewards. Unfortunately many of the poor people did not have any clue how to cultivate the land in the hilly areas and found themselves in a quagmire. So essentially a group of very poor people have been exploited by successive governments against another group of very poor people to achieve a kind of homogeneous ethnic make-up.
According to witnesses, police initially refused to accept complaints from the tribal people but filed complaints on behalf of the Bangali settlers against thousands of tribal inhabitants of the area.
Ten years after the signing of the Peace Treaty- the adivasis are still terrorised
Various human rights organisations such as Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) which works with human rights issues in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines have consistently reported on violence against the Jumma people by the Bangali settlers and the apparent apathy by the authorities. Since August 2007 Buddhist monks in a meditation centre in Sadhana Tila under Dighinala which comprises of 300 acres of land, have been ordered to leave in order to settle over 800 illegal plain settlers’ families. The Jumma people refused to comply but the illegal settlers have already been cutting the jungle around the Buddhist temple for constructing houses. According to ACHR an incentive of
Taka 50,000 have been announced for every settler family.
ACHR and other human rights organisations have refunded another recent case of forcible land grabbing, the illegal settlers have reportedly grabbed 59 acres of land belonging to 17 Jumma families in Kobakhali Mouza under Dighinala Police Station in Khagrachari.
Although the peace treaty was quite indulgent towards the Bangali settlers, it was supposed to find a way for Bangalis and the Jummas to co-exist while at the same time allowing the Jumma people to get their land back. But in reality the Jummas are increasingly becoming minorities in their own land.
The basis of the accusations against the Peace Accord is that it gives special privileges to the hill tracts administration that according to the words in the writ “not only denies the unitary character and existence of Bangladesh rather it grossly violates most of the Articles of its Constitution and as such the impugned peace accord is liable to be declared to have been entered without lawful authority and is of no legal effect”.
“…In the Chittagong Hill Tracts more than 50% of the people are not tribal and by declaring the area as a tribal area the existence of non-tribal people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has been denied which is detrimental to the principal concept of the constitution that “All citizens are equal before law”.
The CHT is an indivisible part of Bangladesh but it has enjoyed special status during the British rule and right through the Pakistan period. There were never any insecurities or questions raised about this special status until the independence of Bangladesh. Columnist, freelance journalist and General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, Sanjeeb Drong speaks about this special status. “In the constitution the section of fundamental rights says that for society’s regressive section, the government can make special provisions. The treaty was made based on that. Why after all these governments came and went, all of a sudden the question is being raised when there is an emergency situation going on is indeed very worrying.”
“If the treaty is adhered to, I believe it would not only help in establishing the rights of the indigenous people but would also be a huge success for the government of Bangladesh. But in reality it is not being implemented and now a debate has been raised over the validity of the treaty which is causing an uncertainty to the struggle of the people of the hill tracts and the peace treaty itself,” says Drong.
The Shanti Bahini surrendered their arms to bring back the smiles on these faces. A writ petition threatens the existence of peace in the hill tracts.
The societal structure and political institutions of the Jummas are different from the Bangalis. “Our politicians are still unwilling to accept diversity,” says Drong, “they don’t recognise the fact that there is such a big contribution through diversity. We should think of unity through diversity but people are not ready to accept it.”
Drong draws a parallel with the special rules made for women in the Union Parishad. “During the AL tenure a new rule came about saying that there would be at least three reserved seats for women in the union parishad. We are therefore creating different rules and accepting them too. Should men be complaining about why women were getting special arrangements?”
“By not recognising their rights you are saying that you want a homogenous state and if you want a homogenous state then you are not recognising the different nationalities that are there in the country,” says Drong.
The indigenous people of the hill tracts have been preserving the land and maintaining the ecological balance of the hills for hundreds of years. Their rich culture is a treasure trove worth safeguarding for a country like Bangladesh. The Bangalis must realise that diversity is not a threat, and to uphold the spirit of the liberation the indigenous people must be allowed to practice their culture and religion in the way that has worked for them for so many years. The peace accord drawn up in 1997 was a significant achievement for the whole nation. It showed respect for nationalities other than Bangalis to coexist in the same country. It accepted diversity and deterred the decay of the beautiful hill districts. The BNP and Jamaat’s propaganda made the treaty almost obsolete and encouraged renewed violence in the area. After 10 years of the signing the government must revisit the troubled area and not let it become another West Bank, or another Tibet, where the original settlers become minorities and a whole culture is destroyed
Photos: Zahedul I Khan