Multiple forms of discrimination experienced by indigenous women from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) within the nationalist framework

Hana Shams Ahmed
[This paper was presented at a consultation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Ms. Rashida Manjoo. The consultation was arranged by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) in Kuala Lumpur in January, 2011.]

Introduction

To understand the discrimination faced by indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), it is very important to understand the geopolitical background of the CHT in the larger context of the Bangali Muslim majority of Bangladesh. Pahari women are among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups of people in Bangladeshi society. They live as quadruple minorities under present social and political institutions. In a patriarchal and male-dominated society, they are a gender minority. In a Muslim-dominated country they are a religious minority. In a nationalist, Bangali-dominated society they are an ethnic minority. Within their own patriarchal community they face marginalization, exploitation, and increasingly, violence. A strong political movement exists to resist these multiple marginalization, but it has not been able to create enough resonance within the wider political structure.

This paper looks at the various sources of discrimination and violence faced by the indigenous women living in the CHT and looks at how and why the indifference from the state and the majority civil society further detaches them from the mainstream women’s movement in Bangladesh. Society and the infusion of religion into societal norms already play a huge role in the discrimination and marginalization of the majority Bangali women. In a Muslim majority Bangali society, indigenous women have a further factor of violence against them. Discriminatory family laws, along with discriminatory national laws, add a new dimension and further marginalize women within their own communities. Militarization and the presence of Bangali settlers have been terrorizing Pahari women since the beginning of the insurgency. The insurgency is over but CHT still remains fully militarized and the politically motivated violence against women still continues.

The information for the paper was collected through secondary documents and a series of interviews with grass-roots level women activists in the CHT, activists involved with NGOs and Pahari political groups and Pahari men and women lawyers.

A primer on the CHT

The Chittagong Hill Tracts [CHT], covering 13,189 square kilometers of land, is in the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh. It shares borders with the Indian states of Tripura, Mizoram and with Chin of Myanmar to the south and south-east. To the west is the Bangladeshi district of Chittagong. The region comprises of three districts: Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. The Hill Tracts are covered with hills, forests, valleys and lush vegetation.

There are more than 50 different indigenous communities living all over Bangladesh today and the CHT is home to Pahari indigenous people from at least 11 different communities – Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Bawm, Mro, Tanchangya, Khumi, Lushai, Chak, Khyang and Pankho. In 1872, 98 percent of the population of the CHT was indigenous. By 1951 indigenous people were still the majority, with only nine percent [1951 census – 26,150] Bangali people living all over the CHT. By 1991 Bangalis became the majority representing 49 percent of the population of the CHT and the rest represented by the 11 different ethnic communities.[1]

Although in terms of land mass CHT is said to cover about 10 percent of Bangladesh, most of it is uncultivable hill and forests. As such Pahari people were, and still many are, mostly involved in jhum [swidden] cultivation. The Pahari people’s political struggle began with the building of the Kaptai Dam in 1960 which submerged 40 percent of, mostly cultivable, land in the CHT and displaced approximately 100,000 Paharis. Some took refuge in India and many remain internally displaced till today.

After Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the Pahari people’s struggle took a new turn. On 15 February 1972, a delegation of indigenous people led by M.N. Larma MP [a Pahari member of parliament], called upon Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and demanded that indigenous people of Bangladesh be given recognition in the Constitution. Sheikh Mujib categorically rejected this demand and instead called for indigenous people to be assimilated into the majority ‘Bangali’ nationalist construct. Larma walked out of parliament and in March 1972, formed the Parbatya Chattagram [CHT] Jana Samhati Samiti [PCJSS]. The armed struggle for regional autonomy began for the Paharis when the Shanti Bahini, the insurgent wing of the PCJSS was formed.

The nationalist movement of Bangladesh also took another different turn after the assassination of the then President and founder of the Bangali independence movement Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975.

From secular nationalism the country took a turn towards Islamic nationalism; and the military assumed the central role in the decision-making process of the state. The military bore an animosity towards India. The change had its impact on the politics of CHT as well.[2]

In the late 1970s President Ziaur Rahman began a migration program of Bangladeshi settlers into the CHT, providing land grants, cash and rations. This program was not made public at the time, and its existence was denied by government representatives. Around 400,000 Bangali landless people were settled in the CHT. This caused the single biggest shift in the character of the CHT in its history. Bangalis have since become the majority population of the CHT. It was seen as a counter-insurgency measure that not only caused a restructuring of the population ratio but also used poor, landless Bangalis as shields in the army’s war strategy. As the Paharis’ facial structures are quite distinct from the Bangalis’, they became easy targets for the army who carried out many rapes during the insurgency period. The lack of documentation at that time and the impunity that is still enjoyed by the army makes it an almost impossible task to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. The army and settler presence in the CHT has changed the lives of Paharis, particularly the women, almost irreversibly.

The PCJSS, the political platform of the Paharis signed a treaty with the government of Bangladesh on 2 December 1997 to end insurgency in the CHT. The CHT Accord recognizes the CHT as a ‘tribal inhabited area’. Under the Accord a ‘Peace Accord Implementation Committee’ is to have taken responsibilities of overseeing the strengthening of the district administration and regional authority was to have been handled by a majority Pahari-represented administration. Land disputes were to have been settled by a Land Commission and internally displaced people and refugees rehabilitated. Unfortunately, there has not been satisfactory progress in the implementation of the Accord and the army presence along with the continuing in-migration of Bangalis is alienating the Pahari indigenous people of the CHT from their land of generations.

Attacks on Paharis during insurgency by Bangladesh Army and settlers

Date of massacre Location of massacre Description of massacre in CHT
15 October 1979 Mubachari Number of dead unknown.
25 March 1980 Kaukhali-Kalampati Bangladesh Army and the Bangladeshi settlers gunned down 300 Pahari people.
26 June 1981 Banraibari-Beltali-Belchari Massacre committed by Bangladeshi settlers. Number of Paharis killed – unknown.
19 September 1981 Telafang-Ashalong-Tabalchari Bangladesh Army and settlers invaded Pahari villages in Feni valley. Number of Paharis killed – unknown.
June-August 1983 Golakpatimachara-Machyachara-Tarabanchari Three-month-long drive against Paharis by the Army and settlers. 800 Paharis killed.
31 May 1984 Bhusanchara Massacre carried out by Bangladesh Army and settlers. 110 killed. Many women were gang raped and later shot dead.
1 May 1986 Panchari Bangladesh Army killed and injured hundreds of Paharis. About 80,000 Paharis fled to India.
May 1986 Matiranga Bangladesh Army gunned down at least 70 Paharis, allegedly in reprisal to attack by Shanti Bahini.
18-19 May 1986 Comillatilla, Taindong The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) intercepted 200 Paharis while they were trying to cross the border to India to seek refuge. BDR opened fired on them.
8-10 August, 1988 Hirarchar, Sarbotali, Khagrachari, Pablakhali Attack by Bangladesh Army along with the settlers killed more than a hundred Pahari civilians and gang raped Pahari women.
4 May 1989 Langadu Attack by Bangladeshi settlers. They killed 40 Paharis but their dead bodies were never recovered.
2 February 1992 Malya Settler killed 30 Pahari people.
10 April 1992 Logang About 138 Paharis killed by the Bangladeshi army and settlers.
17 November 1993 Naniachar About 100 Pahari people were killed and their bodies hidden by settlers.
* This table has been compiled from information received from Women’s Resource Network (WRN), and essay by Bhumitra Chakma, “Structural Roots of Violence in CHT”.

Land-grabbing and militarization of the CHT

Militarization currently takes place in the CHT through ‘Operation Uttoron’ (Upliftment), details of which are not available for public scrutiny. The military in CHT has been known to involve itself in the civil administration activities. The CHT Accord calls for gradual dismantling of all military, para-military and other security camps except for six specified cantonments but currently there are still more than 300 temporary army camps in the CHT. Out of the total of 64 districts in the CHT, it is only in the three hill districts of CHT that vehicles moving in and out of the district have to be registered at an Army check-post. Also, to have an access to these three hill districts, non-Bangladeshi citizens have to give advance notice to the local authorities before entering the district. The presence of army in the CHT is only seen in a positive light by the Bangali settlers who view them as their ‘protectors’ who allow them to remain on the illegally occupied land of the Paharis. One of the biggest challenges of human rights advocates in CHT is the lack of access to justice in cases of murder, torture, rape, unlawful arrest and detention, oppressive persecution, inhuman and degrading treatment. Almost all of these cases have never been properly investigated, or prosecuted.  Nor has any kind of punishment ever been meted out.

The Pahari women of CHT are the most marginalized sections of Bangladeshi society. In terms of numbers they are very small and account for only a fraction of the population of the country. They are both religious and ethnic minorities, which means they are discriminated by the extremely patriarchal, Muslim Bangali majority society. In the past, this discrimination was only faced by women who lived in Bangali-majority communities outside of the CHT. This piece by Muktasree Sathi Chakma, a law student from Chittagong University captures the feeling faced by Pahari women:

‘Do you have bathrooms?’ ‘Do you use salt and oil in cooking?’ ‘Hey! I have heard that you eat cockroaches alive?’ ‘Don’t you face any problem socially if you choose to live with your partner?’ were among the many questions I have faced in the past five years. The experience is the same for all indigenous boys and girls on campus. .Just go through the above questions again. Do you think any of these questions are made with any respect for them? How would you feel if you were asked, ‘Do all males in your community have four wives?[3]

[Referring to the generalization that Muslim men are allowed to have four wives]

However, the overwhelming number of Bangali settlers in the CHT has resulted in harassment and violence against Pahari women within the once secure neighborhood of their homes. With no control over land dispossession and the non-functioning of the Land Commission to blame for this, and no sign of the army’s loosening its grip over the CHT, it is indeed a worrying trend. There is no documentation of the exact number of women physically assaulted or sexually harassed or raped by the army and Bangali settlers in the CHT. Before the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord was signed there were reports of mass rapes by the army, some of which were documented in CHT Commission’s report ‘Life is not ours’ and Amnesty International’s reports ‘Unlawful Killings and Torture in the CHT’. But there have been no investigations and no subsequent legal redress. And this impunity still continues even after insurgency ended 13 years ago.

The biggest concern in rape and other violence against women in the CHT now is the lack of access to justice and absolute impunity that perpetrators enjoy.

On 8 March 2009, while the world celebrated International Women’s Day, a four-year-old child was raped by a Bangali settler in Dighinala in Khagrachhari district of CHT. The settler was arrested but till the writing of this paper a chargesheet has not been submitted and women’s rights activists from the CHT have informed that the perpetrator who has been in jail for the last 20 months is now seeking bail.[4]

In rape cases, the victim ends up going through further harassment from the side of the administration and law enforcers – there have been instances where doctors at hospitals have refused to give Pahari women physical check ups or delayed the physical check ups so that the evidence disappears; the victim’s family is asked to produce a ‘witness’ by the police; there is intimidation from the security forces, in one case at least the raped girl was further molested by the physical examiner himself, one victim who did not know any Bangla and had to ‘act out’ the crime in front of the court; there have been complaints about police delaying/refusing to take the case and many have been too afraid to file a case in fear. These and many other administration-led intimidation and harassment ultimately results in the perpetrator getting away with his crime. The bias by the administration is revealed in this rape case of a young disabled girl in Khagrachhari.

On 31 July, 2009 a physically challenged 16-year-old Chakma girl was raped by a Bangali man who worked at a micro-credit bank in Dighinala, Khagrachhari. He took away her stick and grabbed her from behind and forcibly took her to her bedroom. Without her stick she did not have any strength in her body to fight back. A case was filed against the man. However, he managed to flee from the CHT and till today there have been no reports of his whereabouts. When a group of lawyers from two NGOs went to investigate the case, the bias from the administration was obvious. There was a new Investigating Officer on the case and without even speaking to the victim he claimed that the bank official was not guilty and it was a false case by the Chakma girl and it was politically motivated by a local Pahari women activists’ group.[5]

Lawyers in CHT lament about how difficult it is to ‘prove’ rape in a court of law. An essential requirement to adjudicate a case as rape is a medical test of the victim to find semen from the rapists’ body. From the moment a rape takes place a girl is placed under immense social pressure from the stigma surrounding it. Although this stigma may be the same or more in the Bangali culture, in the hills another kind of pressure is put on the victim and her family – pressure from the administration. Women’s rights activists have reported that the attackers are usually Bangali settlers and the administration, both civil and military, support in establishing impunity. Lawyers from BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust) have reported that many girls avoid making complaints or do so too late, by which time the evidence of rape from her body will have disappeared. Many times people from the administration threaten the girl and her family even if they do complain or try to mediate the matter by offering the poor victim’s family financial benefits.

Medical tests, which provide the essential evidence for rape cases are not so straightforward to collect either. This is true for rape all over the country, but especially so in the CHT. Many women, unaware of the consequences wash themselves off before going to a police station. When going to a medical examiner, there is always some form of red tape involved in all rape cases but because of the militarized situation and the Paharis lack of bargaining power this is worse in the CHT according to lawyers who work in the CHT.

The bias in rape cases is also clear when an eye-witness account is asked to be produced in a rape case. In the hill tracts, homes in remote villages are not located very far from each other and it is impossible to hear what is happening in one home from the next. This bizarre problem was recently faced by the mother of a 10-year-old raped girl.

After the mother made the complaint the police station kept pressuring the mother of the child to produce a ‘witness’ to the crime. The mother was unable to produce anyone as a witness as no one had actually seen the crime taking place. Some locals who had seen the girl lying on the ground in a pool of blood said that they had not seen how this had happened and refused to give evidence. In the latest update to this case, the government lawyers have filed a case against the girl’s mother for filing a ‘false case’.[6] The mother is being accused of filing a false case because she could not produce an eye-witness.

Perpetrators of violence against women often manage to evade being identified, located, arrested and tried, let alone be punished. Many crimes against women take place over land disputes in the CHT. In the absence of prosecution and punishment there is less deterrence against any future offences.

On the night between 3-4 September 2009, a 50-year-old indigenous woman, Ponemala Tripura was killed in Sindukchari of Khagrachari district. Her dead body was recovered from their Jhum field by the villagers in the morning on 4 September. She was staying alone as in a small jhum cottage to protect her crop from wild animals as she usually did in turn with her husband. She inherited the land from her father but in the 1980s four Bangali men had been given settlement on that land by the government-sponsored trans-migration program of counter-insurgency. The dispute was never settled and the locals suspected that this was an act carried out by these four men to revenge her non-cooperation to hand over her land to them.[7]

In the 1950s, 98 percent of the population of the CHT was Pahari. With the building of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam, 100,000 families were displaced. Some went to India as refugees and others remain internally displaced. With the arrival of the settlers in 1970s/80s during insurgency the population ratio changed and the Paharis became minorities in their own land. These Bangalis brought with them their culture and social norms. With the backing of the military they grabbed land of the Pahari people and with the nature of customary ownership, this was easily achieved. Rape, sexual harassment, intimidation by Bangali men still continue today along with land grabbing. The extensive building of madrasahs (Muslim religious schools) and mosques, and to a lesser extent Christian missionaries, has changed the unique socio-cultural face of the CHT. Clothing of Pahari women had to become more conservative to ward off unwanted attention from fundamentalist Army and settlers. It is also quite common for Army/settlers to use derogatory names to call Pahari women which intimidates and restricts the freedom of movement of women. A pahari women’s rights activist narrates here the everyday harassment that women in remote parts of CHT have to face on an everyday basis. This report is from Jurachari, but relevant to all remote areas of CHT.

The freedom of movement that existed before is not there anymore. Earlier, a lot of women used to be involved with selling vegetables and other necessities in the bazaar, the number of women doing that kind of work has come down. In our culture we don’t wear blouses and when we go out not fully covered up the army and the settlers look at us in an odd way and make us feel uncomfortable. Not only that the army and settlers regularly harass us by deliberately pushing and touching the women’s bodies in the bazaar. The women can no longer independently roam about in these places. Also when the army travel through the roads and come across women going to pick up firewood or taking their domestic animals to be fed they harass them by calling them names or winking at them. Sometimes they even touch their breasts, but the girls are too scared to report these incidents.

Year                                                                             Mosques                      Madrasahs

1961                                                                                  40                                 2

1974                                                                                200                               20

1981                                                                                592                               35

Source: Amena Mohsin, The Politics of Nationalism, second edition 2002.

The Bangladesh Army before the Accord was signed carried out numerous massacres in the CHT [please refer to the table on page 5]. Many of the massacres included mass rapes. Along with rape, proselytism of Pahari men and through marriage, many women has added a new dimension of assimilation. Based in Rangamti, a Saudi and Kuwait funded NGO has carried out many conversion of Paharis. Another NGO, the Tribal Muslim Welfare Association also works to convert Pahari people by giving them food and land incentives. A Tripura man talks about his experience of becoming Muslim.

We have become Muslims, because this is a Muslim majority country.  My parents were not Muslims.  Nor were my wife’s family. But I left my community and became a Muslim.  Many tribal women marry Bengalis and become Muslim.  But a year or two after marriage, they are often divorced.  Many of them commit suicide. Every year 12 or so such divorce cases occur.  But under Muslim law, they should be getting compensation when divorced.  I advise these women not to get married unless they agree to terms of the Muslim marriage contract.[8]

Lack of government policies and legislations

The Awami League-led government has expressed its desire to go back to the secular spirit of the Constitution; there is a renewed movement from the indigenous and progressive Bangali civil society to get recognition for people from different ethnic origins. Currently article 28(4) of the Constitution says: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favor of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.” Section 10 [participation of women in national life] of the Constitution says: “Steps shall be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of national life”. Articles 27-43 allows citizens to enjoy equal opportunities with regard to public employment or education, to life, liberty, personal security, and freedom of movement, assembly and association, expression, religion, profession and occupation and property, and to the protection of home and correspondence.

Out of the 345 seats in the national parliament, 45 are reserved for women to increase representation of women in the political process. None are reserved for any special women’s group in Bangladesh. After the signing of the CHT Accord in 1997, no Pahari woman has been nominated as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the reserved seats for women. Prior to the Accord, there had been two Pahari women MPs.

Both the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1995 Beijing Declaration recognize women’s equal participation in political activities. Bangladesh also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984. It still has reservations on Article 2 and 16.1(C). The withdrawal of reservation on Article 2[9] would be particularly favorable to frame special laws and policies to end discrimination against indigenous women by the state. Article 16.1(c)[10] would also help give Pahari women equal rights in their customary laws.

The Government of Bangladesh has also endorsed many more international treaties like the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They all talk about ensuring equal rights to men and women to enjoy civil and political rights and prevent discrimination.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has provisions for security and protection of indigenous women, to free themselves from discrimination and to empower them to assert their rights and preserve their culture. However, the Government of Bangladesh has refused to recognize indigenous people in the Constitution and the Foreign Minister in April 2010 was quoted as saying that Bangladesh did not have any indigenous people.[11] The government asserts that the Bangali ethnic communities have been living in the country for longer than the other ethnic communities and as such are the original inhabitants (i.e. the ‘adibashis’, the Bengali equivalent of ‘indigenous’) of the country.

This year the country passed the ‘Small Ethnic Communities Cultural Institute Bill 2010’ for indigenous people as a further assertion to non-recognition of indigenous people. Although the Paharis assert themselves as ‘indigenous’ (with exception from one political group UPDF – United People’s Democratic Front which uses the term ‘ethnic minorities’), the government now uses the term ‘small ethnic minorities’ for them.

Furthermore, the Government of Bangladesh’s National Policy for the Advancement of Women, 1997 does not address the unique position of the indigenous women or those indigenous women living under military-led administration in the CHT.

Bangladesh has ratified the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (Convention No. 107) in 1972 which gives protection to indigenous women but there has not been implementation of this convention. The progressive Convention No. 169 is yet to be ratified by the government. This Convention recognizes the aspirations of indigenous peoples to exercise control over their own institutions noting that in many parts of the world they are unable to enjoy their fundamental human rights given that indigenous people have their own social, cultural and economic conditions. Article 3.1 of the Convention (on Fundamental Rights) says, “Indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination. The provisions of the Convention shall be applied without discrimination to male and female members of these peoples”. Article 20 also talks about equal remuneration, equal opportunities, and equal treatment for men and women and protection from sexual harassment. Part five of the Convention discusses social security and health of indigenous men and women.

Bangladesh has an obligation to respect international laws and standards according to Article 25 of the Constitution which states “The State shall base its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter…”.

Physical violence and marginalization within Pahari communities

The CHT ‘Peace’ Accord failed to safeguard the women of CHT. Although women took part in the armed struggle during the insurgency in various ways, they were not allowed to participate in the peace talks that resulted in the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord in 1997. As such the Accord has kept no provisions for giving compensation in the form of rehabilitation or counseling to the raped and physically abused and tortured women [or men].

Although Pahari societies are much more liberal than the majority Muslim-Bangali society, their customary laws and family roles are just as patriarchal and discriminatory. Women are still expected to take all responsibilities of household work and child rearing. Domestic violence against Pahari women, according to women’s rights activists, is increasing.

In terms of customary law, the most discriminatory is that most Pahari women are not entitled to inherit land from their parents. Women from the Marma community are an exception and are entitled as women to inherit land, but only from their mothers. If parents want they can choose to leave land for their daughters. Many Pahari men resist change to this law by saying that Bangali men would then marry Pahari women to dispossess them of their land. Others say that the overall marginalization of Pahari people must be dealt with first by implementation of the CHT Accord, before the case for women can be taken up. Pahari women strongly protest these justifications by the men. The Pahari women activists who gave their analysis for this paper, have said that both these reasons are a way to further marginalize women.

The traditional structure of the Pahari community is also very male-dominated and patriarchal. Men are by default the circle chiefs (or king) of the three circles (Chakma, Mong and Bomong). Only in the absence of any men, can a woman become a circle chief or queen. The headman or mouza chief [a mouza is a group of villages] is next in line in the traditional hierarchy and karbari [a village chief] thereafter. Currently there are less than 10 women headmen an karbaris out a total of 300 headmen and more than a thousand karbaris in the CHT. Recently, a woman who had been made a ‘karbari’ because her brothers were not adult yet is set to lose her post because her brothers have come of age and are claiming this post.

The number of men and women as Headmen and Karbaris in the CHT:

Circle No. of Headmen Women Men No of Karbaris Women Men
Chakma 178 6 172 1200 3 1197
Mong 88 3 85 687 0 687
Bomang 109 2 107 893 1 892
Table Source: Women’s Resource Network

Resistance politics and the women’s movement in the CHT

The women of the CHT have been actively involved with the movement for emancipation from since the 1970s insurgency. The CHT Mohila Samity, the first political organization of the hill women, was formed on 21 January 1975 by PCJSS. Talking about what gave rise to this group, a researcher writes, “the society of the hill communities is based mainly on the feudal and patriarchal ideology and system. So the struggle of the hill women of the CHT is a double struggle – on the one hand, against the feudal, imperial and extremely communal rule, exploitation and oppression; and against the patriarchal exploitation in their own society on the other”.[12] They started training in armed conflict during the insurgency. Women, during that time played their dual role of being involved in the insurgency and taking care of their homes in absence of the male members of the family.

Apart from the Mohila Samity, there are now the Hill Women’s Federation of both the UPDF [the breakaway group from JSS that opposed the signing of the CHT Accord] and JSS. They are very actively involved in field level protests and with the arrival of the Internet and other technology acts of violence against women are quickly disseminated to a network of human rights activists. Not very many mainstream women’s rights organizations are involved directly with indigenous women’s rights. There are some like the Bangladesh Nari Pragati Sangha (BNPS), Nari Paksho, Durbar Nari Network and Nijera Kori which are worth-mentioning[13]. Ain O Salish Kendra and BLAST offer legal aid. Even with those that have received a lot of media attention, there has been little result. A case in point is the Kalpana Chakma case.

The case of the kidnapping of Kalpana Chakma, the organizing secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation (the resistance movement by Pahari women), still remains unsolved. Just before the 1996 General Elections, Kalpana was picked up, allegedly by the army, in presence of her family members. No case was ever filed against the alleged perpetrator although there are witnesses to this crime according to several news reports.[14]

In cases where the Pahari women’s rights activists have carried out demonstrations and other activities, they have only been faced with retaliation from the army and administration.

In November 2009 it was reported that an army officer attempted to rape a woman in Ghilachari in Khagrachhari district. Women’s rights activists staged a rally to protest the alleged attack and demand punishment of the army officer and also made a demand that the army camp in the area be withdrawn. About a thousand women in the area participated in the protest. Army and police personnel including policewomen tried to intimidate the participants of the rally, but the women chased them away with sticks.

The women under the banner of “Ghilachari Committee for Guiding Movement against Women Repression” also blocked the road between Khagrachhari and Rangamati. At one point during the chase and counter-chase between the army and the Pahari women the army baton-charged the women and injured about seven women protestors.[15]

Protest by women’s rights groups regarding rape and other human rights violations have been countered with further violence by members of the joint forces. Resistance against army and settlers in Sajek in the form of Sajek Nari Samaj (Sajek Women’s Society), which was formed last year, was met with fierce attempts to repress through physical assaults on the women (who are not part of any political group) by army.

Internally displaced Pahari families have been living along the Kassalong reserve since they were evicted from their original lands during the counter-insurgency period.[16] Many Bangalis have been brought in here on the excuse of building roads there. The settlement first started with a few khupri homes of Bangali settlers being strategically located near the houses of the Paharis. This has been leading to increasing tension between Paharis and Bangalis in the area and culminated in an arson attack by settlers which gutted down 70 houses of Pahari people in the area in April 2008.

By 2009 the tension between the Bangali settlers/army and Paharis started gathering momentum. A lot of false cases were filed against the Pahari men in the area.  Relatives of Paharis outside the Bagaihat area stopped coming because of the harassment they would face from the Army. The Sajek Nari Samaj (SNS) was formed on 26 December 2009 to protest against the harassment and torture by the Army and settlers. These women consisted mainly of family members of those men who were harassed in some way by the army or settlers. On 5 January 2010, the SNS submitted a memorandum to the then Baghaicahri Upazila Nirbahi Officer Humayan Kabir with a six-point demand which included stopping army repression in Sajek.

In late January in a further raid the army picked up two Pahari men and took them away to the army camp instead of giving them rice. The mothers, wives and sisters of the two men (who were also members of the SNS) along with other women of SNS went and rescued the two men from the camps.

The army retaliated by beating up the women of Sajek indiscriminately in the market place. But the ultimate retaliation towards the Sajek women’s movement took place on 19 and 20 February 2010, when around 434 Pahari and 29 Bangali homes in 12 villages in Baghaichhari upazila of Sajek Union in Rangamati district were burnt down in what turned out to be the worst violence since signing of the Accord.

The women of Sajek say that there is no security of their lives there and the army continues to intimidate the Pahari men and women of the area.

Conclusion

Vijay Nagaraj, Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy, in an interview with Cassandra Balchin said[17], “…although bigotry and prejudice is often at the core of religious intolerance; religious fundamentalisms encapsulate very conscious political projects. While religion itself might be invoked in support of a whole host of claims that are being made, it is important to understand that fundamentalisms are about power, and not just about prejudice.”

The roots of discrimination of indigenous women of the CHT start with British colonialism when India and Pakistan were divided along religious lines. When East Pakistan realized their alienation along language and ethnic lines, their secessionist struggle began. Unfortunately the struggle for independence of Bangladesh was fought along the Bangali nationalist ideology with a ‘state-sponsored political project aiming at the cultural homogeneity of its entire population with the Bengalis.[18]’ The Bangladesh Army then used a similar roadmap to maintain ‘national sovereignty’ as was used by the Pakistan Army before Bangladesh’s independence. And the CHT is still suffering the gendered impacts of fundamentalist-nationalist militarization and conflict.

The political struggle, the state discrimination and army/settler harassment meant that women had to become strong for their own survival. However, survival is still an uphill battle for Pahari women in more ways than one. They are the least educated and farthest away from access to justice. The first Mro woman is said to have just enrolled into university. Militarization has also opened doors to national and international fundamentalist forces to achieve its target of nationalist, cultural and religious assimilation of the Pahari indigenous people. There has been little or no discourse within the media to resist these fundamentalist forces.

The Bangladeshi state first needs to get over its nationalist insecurities and communal outlook and accept indigenous people as inhabitants of this land and then take special measures for indigenous women if it truly believes in human rights, democracy and rule of law as manifested in the UN and other international ideologies. Unless the state recognizes and welcomes indigenous people, its people will still look at people of other ethnic origins as ‘other’. The Awami League led government needs to fulfill its 2008 election pledge to completely implement the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord, and through dismantling of all temporary army camps and land dispute settlement assure the rest of the world that it is committed to giving the highest priority to human rights.

Kabita Chakma, an ex-member of the HWF wrote this poem about women’s struggle in the CHT…

Why shall I not resist!

Can they do as they please –

Turn settlements into barren land

Dense forests to deserts

Mornings into evening

Fruition to barrenness.

Why shall I not resist

Can they do as they please –

Estrange us from the land of our birth

Enslave our women

Blind our vision

Put an end to creation.

Neglect and humiliation causes anger

the blood surges through my veins

breaking barriers at every stroke,

the fury of youth pierces the sea of consciousness.

___ I become my own whole self

Why shall I not resist!

(Chakma, 1992.7)

[Translated by Meghna Guhathakurta]


[1] Population census information taken from “Background Study on the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Situation” by Raja Devasish Roy [Prepared for CARE-Bangladesh, 5 August, 2002]

[2] Amena Mohsin, “The Politics of Nationalism – The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Bangladesh”, UPL, second edition 2002, pg 166.

[3] Muktasree Chakma Sathi, ‘An Urge or just a reminder’, published in Facebook, 2010.

[4] Source of information: Women’s Resource Network.

[5] From an investigation by two local NGOs, ALRD and Ain O Salish Kendra.

[6] Advocate Sowrav Dewan, BLAST.

[7] From an investigation carried out by local NGOs, ALRD and BLAST.

[9] CEDAW Article 2. “States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women…”

[10] CEDAW Article 16.1 (c), “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution.”

[11] Diplomatic correspondent, “UN keen to help conduct war crimes trial”, 12 April 2010.

[12] Mangal Kumar Chakma, ‘The Status of Adivasi Hill Women in Light of the CHT Accord’, BNPS, 2009.

[13] Mangal Kumar Chakma, ‘The Status of Adivasi Hill Women in Light of the CHT Accord,’ BNPS, 2009.

[14] Kajalie Shehreen Islam, ‘The Disappearance of Kalpana Chakma’, The Daily Star, June 20, 2008.

[15] CHT News, newsletter and a further investigation by author with a group of journalists]

[16] From the CHT Commission’s memo to the Prime Minister, 28 June 2010

[17] ‘Human rights, fundamentalism, power and prejudice’, an interview by Cassandra Balchin on OpenDemocracy, 17 November 2010

[18] Amena Mohsin, ‘The Politics of Nationalism – The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Bangladesh’, UPL, second edition 2002, page 49.

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One Response to Multiple forms of discrimination experienced by indigenous women from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) within the nationalist framework

  1. […] There are more than 50 different indigenous communities living all over Bangladesh today and the CHT is home to Pahari indigenous people from at least 11 different communities – Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Bawm, Mro, Tanchangya, Khumi, Lushai, Chak, Khyang and Pankho. In 1872, 98 percent of the population of the CHT was indigenous. By 1951 indigenous people were still the majority, with only nine percent [1951 census – 26,150] Bangali people living all over the CHT. By 1991 Bangalis became the majority representing 49 percent of the population of the CHT and the rest represented by the 11 different ethnic communities.[1] […]

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