Hana Shams Ahmed
[Himal, June 2010]
At Partition, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with an overwhelmingly non-Muslim indigenous population, were included within Muslim-majority East Pakistan. Yet the Paharis (indigenous hill peoples) were never really integrated into the Bengali nationalist movement for independence, which culminated in 1971. Discriminatory attitudes of the majority Bengali and ‘spoiler’ tactics by the central government prevented the Paharis from playing a substantive role in the movement. Following the formation of Bangladesh, the Paharis asked for constitutional recognition and regional autonomy, but were turned down. Marginalised throughout the period of British and Pakistani rule, the Paharis finally took up arms, and Manabendra Narayan Larma, their leader, a young lawyer and legislator, formed the Parbatta Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the political wing of the insurgent Shanti Bahini guerrillas, to fight for the political rights of the Pahari people.
In 1997, the Bangladesh government signed a ‘peace’ accord with the PCJSS. But the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), a breakaway group of the PCJSS, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), then (and now) the opposition in Parliament, fiercely opposed the accord. The BNP protested that it allowed the Paharis a separate administrative system and discriminated against the Bengalis, while the UPDF opposed it on grounds that the agreement failed to address PCJSS’s most important demand – full autonomy. Others criticised the accord for not addressing the hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers who were moved into the Hill Tracts from 1979 through the 1980s as a counter-insurgency measure. Nor did the document give constitutional recognition to the indigenous peoples.
For most Paharis, the 1997 agreement did give them relief from conflicts between their own political groups, and with the Bengali settlers over land and political office. Yet 13 years after its signing, much of the accord remains unimplemented. In February, Bengali settlers, allegedly with support from the army, set fire to more than 400 Pahari homes in 11 villages across Baghaihat of Rangamati district (see Himal April 2010, ‘Manush Bachao’). As yet, there has been no independent investigation into these incidents. In April, the CHT Regional Council, chaired by Jyotirindro Bodhipriyo Larma, the leader of the mainstream PCJSS, was declared unconstitutional by a High Court (though the judgement has since been stayed). If the Regional Council ceases to exist, Paharis will essentially lose all significant influence over the CHT administration.
Raja Devasish Roy is the chief of the Chakma Administrative Circle, an official body, and the traditional raja of the ethnic Chakma community, which lives mostly in the CHT as well as India and Burma. He is also an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and was one of the lawyers fighting the case for the Regional Council. He recently spoke to Hana Shams Ahmed about the concerns and problems that continue to face the Adivasis of the CHT.
Insurgencies by indigenous minorities in Mizoram, the Naga Hills and Manipur have been partly helped by the fact that India is a federal state with a fairly ‘minority-friendly’ Constitution. How is the Pahari people’s movement in the CHT similar or different?
The Pahari movement for autonomy started in the early 1970s, when the Bangladeshi state had just been born. Therefore, although the Bangladeshi Constitution is unitary, the Pahari leaders at the time had hoped that their aspirations for Pahari rights would somehow be accommodated in the nascent state. The Pahari movement for autonomy was also inspired by the Bangladesh independence movement.
You have said that many feel that the success of the 1997 accord in bringing about lasting peace and socio-economic progress in the hill region is dependent on how land-related problems are addressed. But 13 years after the accord, there have been no concrete steps in this direction. How feasible would this be for the government, especially for Bengalis who were born on land allotted to their parents by the government?
The appointment of the chair of the Land Commission, which was set up to expeditiously settle land disputes, is a positive development. However, foot-dragging with regard to proposed amendments to the Land Commission Law – to make decision-making truly democratic and to clarify its jurisdiction, among others – is a disturbing trend. It is also unfortunate that land-dispute resolution is being linked virtually unilaterally, by the commission’s chairman, to the holding of a land survey. As mentioned in the accord, a survey could help in the formulation of long-term development plans for the region, but not before that. But it can hardly be expected to help clarify land claims based on customary law, which is the commission’s main mandate.
Voluntary rehabilitation of the government-sponsored Bengali migrants in the plains districts outside the CHT would be among the best and most humanitarian ways to do four things: one, help resolve the land disputes; two, offer viable livelihood support to the migrants in a land-pressed and un-industrialised CHT economy; three, rehabilitate Paharis on their own land; and four, remove the biggest cause of ethnic tension in the region. In 1979 and the early 1980s, the Bengali migrants were given titles to lands that are claimed by Paharis. Therefore, the most humanitarian and practical way to help the migrants would be to provide them with cash grants, vocational training and loans, to help rehabilitate them outside the CHT with proper livelihood security.
There have been allegations from Paharis that the government’s ‘transmigration programmes’ are still ongoing in the guise of road-building, tobacco-plantation work, etc. If true, what is the rationale behind the migration process today, and why do Bengalis agree to settle in such lands?
There is a difference between the directly government-sponsored resettlement programme of 1979-81 and current migration trends. The former was under formal governmental auspices. While recent migration may well be sponsored by government officials, as far as I know it is not backed by any formal policy. Of course, the end result, for the receiving population, may well be the same. In some cases, roadside settlements are known to have been backed by monetary and other inducements from certain quarters. In the case of tobacco, the issue is more one of unsustainable land use and environmental harm, rather than of the permanent settlement of plainspeople.
Why has there not been an independent investigation into the attacks in late February, or into the previous arson attacks and massacres that have taken place in the Hill Tracts?
I don’t know why there has not been an independent investigation into the recent events – perhaps it is just to avoid embarrassing truths. But of course it should happen. Regarding non-publication of former enquiry reports, I certainly do not agree with such a policy. Unfortunately, government officials in Bangladesh are yet to learn to accept disclosure of human-rights excesses by government officials, and remedial actions, as part of the normal functions of a democratic government in the 21st century. In addition to its leader, the current cabinet has several members who are respected widely across ethnic, ideological and party lines, and we would hope that their influence upon state policy on Adivasi issues comes to be felt more clearly.
Adivasis make up less than one percent of Bangladesh’s population, even though the CHT makes up 10 percent of the country’s land mass. Many fear that if the army is pulled out from this area, the country’s sovereignty would be at stake.
The CHT Accord calls for the dismantling of all temporary army and other security forces’ camps from the CHT, except for six specified cantonments. If this provision is implemented, six cantonments would remain in the three districts of the CHT, compared to about 15 in the remaining 61 districts. If the occasion arose, the army personnel in the six cantonments could easily be mobilised for border defence or other genuine national-defence matters – and, if necessary, supplemented by reinforcements from the rest of the country. What is being demanded, and has been expressly provided in the accord, is to dismantle the temporary military and other camps that are spread across nearly all 25 sub-districts of the three districts of the CHT.
If some parts of the border areas require more attention from our border-security forces, or even the army, that can be done – and, most importantly, with the support of the local population, including their leaders. There are actual instances of cooperation between local Pahari border communities and Bangladeshi border-security forces in dealing with crossborder security and law-and-order matters. The same can be repeated with the Bangladesh Army, as well. But what we should not do is to confuse the presence of the hundreds of temporary camps all over the CHT with border problems or other matters of national security and sovereignty. Since the ceasefire of the early 1990s until today, we have not heard of any organised armed attacks by Pahari groups against government security forces or civilian targets, only some intra-Pahari clashes of opposing political groups. Places from which camps have already been pulled out show no major law-and-order problems or ethnic tensions. The major acts of violence in the region involve intra-Pahari clashes, which cannot be resolved by military presence. These are at best police matters, which should be addressed by a professional, multi-ethnic police responsible to local authorities.
The Bangladeshi Constitution makes no room for any other ethnic group besides the Bengalis, and the state religion is declared to be Islam. Why have we not really seen a sustained movement for political and legal reform around these issues?
Recently, the Supreme Court declared the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution illegal, paving the way for the re-secularisation of the Constitution. Pahari and other Adivasi peoples have never felt comfortable with the relatively secular but mono-ethnic official ‘Bangalee’ identity, and even less with the Muslim-oriented ‘Bangladeshi’ identity. We would prefer a religion-neutral and ethno-linguistically and culturally pluralistic Bangladeshi identity. This could become a reality if progressive political and social leaders supported such a move, leading Parliament to amend the Constitution – after all, it is believed that the current progressive members of Parliament can muster the requisite majority.
The reason why necessary legal and political reforms have not taken place is due, among other reasons, to the absence of an Adivasi policy, either of the successive governments or of the major political parties. The Pahari and other Adivasi peoples’ political marginality is another major cause. Although progressive Bengali civil society has been increasingly supportive of Adivasi causes, and Adivasis are more united at the national level, their voice in Dhaka is still very faint, largely on account of financial and organisational challenges. Unfortunately, this has been the bane of almost all indigenous peoples worldwide: an absence of any substantive role in framing national constitutions, and consequent national laws and policies. Hopefully, the Adivasi Janajati peoples of Nepal will break this trend, when the future Constitution of Nepal is adopted, and become a role model for others.
The High Court has declared the Regional Council Act and several provisions of the Hill District Council Acts to be ‘illegal’ and ‘unconstitutional’. Is this a big blow for the security of the accord itself?
I am hopeful that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court will disagree with the ruling of the High Court on the regional council and district council laws. But whichever way the Appellate Division rules, this raises the question of sustainable, direct constitutional recognition of the history, rights, dignity and identity of the Pahari and other Adivasi peoples of Bangladesh.
Hana Shams Ahmed is a freelance journalist and activist in Dhaka.