Hana Shams Ahmed
[A shortened version of this piece was published in the Kalpana Chakma Special page on 12 June 2012, New Age]
Feminist researcher Bina D’Costa and I were recently discussing a range of obstacles faced by the Jumma women’s movement as well as all indigenous women’s movement today. D’Costa observed that one of the challenges that confront women’s political activism and rights based movements is to forge meaningful alliances and re-build linkages with indigenous human rights and women’s groups that the latter could also embrace as their own. Although in recent years a lot of mainstream Bengali women’s rights activists have spoken out about violence against indigenous women, there are still some communities, like the tea plantation workers and Saotal and Khasi women, whose issues have only been very sparsely addressed. And this is reflected in a lot of the national and international reporting on women’s rights.
The other side of this is of course how the indigenous leadership, including women leaders, has persistently failed to include women’s voices in high level forums. This year, despite the increasing number of cases of violence against women and girls in the indigenous areas in Dinajpur and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, there were no indigenous women representing at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Also, of course the debate is much larger than the Forum itself. It is just a symptom of the crisis in the women’s movement, a crisis that plagues all nationalist or even issue-based movements. It reminds me about how some men, demonstrating for their own democratic rights at Tahrir Square during the ‘Arab Spring’, had swooped on women journalists and sexually assaulted them, about how, questions about race and gender marginalization continue to be raised at present in America’s Occupy Wall Street movement.
Kalpana, a feminist activist had recognized the sexual/gendered politics within her own community much earlier, as Meghna Guhathakurta observes in her article ‘Kalpana’s lasting contribution’ (New Age, June 12, 2008). Guhathakurta writes, “…in most nationalist or ethnic movements the gender question becomes a subtext to the larger ‘national’ one.”
In a similar vein, D’Costa in her recent book Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia (Routledge, 2011) notes that “structural factors and strategic choices have shaped the outcomes of particular policies followed by women’s movements within the country.” Perhaps this is also true of the Jumma women’s movement.
Kalpana was ‘vanished’ 16 years ago on this day, a day before the national parliamentary elections. Her brother Kalicharan recognized the military officer Lieutenant Ferdous Kaiser Khan of Kojoichari Army camp who, accompanied by 7-8 others in plainclothes, came to their house at 1:30 in the morning, blindfolded her and her brothers, and took them away. Her brothers returned. Kalpana is still ‘missing’. Despite overwhelming evidence against the Army officers, numerous calls for justice from national and international human rights activists, and several layers of ‘investigations’, there has been no development.
Kalpana was the general secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, a student at the Baghaichari Kachalang College. Friends who knew her talked about her outspoken protest against army occupation in the CHT. After her death, the discovery of her diary and letters exchanged with comrades of the movement revealed her single-minded determination to fight against Bengali colonialism through militarization. Sixteen years after her disappearance Raja Devasish Roy speaks to New Age about meeting her, about her life and the investigation of the case and the effect of her struggle, in life and ‘disappearance’, on the Jumma women’s movement of today.
Raja Devasish Roy is the chief of the Chakma Administrative Circle, an official body, and the traditional raja of the Chakma community. He’s also an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) for 2011-13. Barrister Devasish Roy is an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
HSA: In her life and in her disappearance, Kalpana Chakma has become an icon of the Jumma feminist movement. Her fights were not just against military oppression, but also the discrimination within the greater Jumma movement led by men. What do you think were the strongest areas in her struggle?
RDR: Three things, among others: (a) her deep insights into internal and externally-originated gender-based and other discrimination (b) her conviction, despite the odds, to struggle against the denial of the right of self-determination and against gender-based discrimination at the same time and (c) her moral courage to speak out and act based on those beliefs and convictions.
HSA: Please tell New Age readers a little about your interactions with her.
I met her only once, and briefly, at the house of the headman of her village in New Lalyaghona, which I was visiting, along with my (now late) wife and family, some months before her disappearance. She had joined the local people in welcoming our entourage and being hospitable to the guests.
HSA: How do you think her ideology and struggles are relevant to the Jumma women’s movement today?
Her courageous stand is a source of inspiration to Jumma women today to not give up the struggle, and to stay focused on the goal of ending discrimination against women, within their own society and overall, and of struggling for self-determination against racist and discriminatory forces.
HSA: I feel that the strength of the Jumma women is not the same as it was before the 1997 CHT ‘Peace’ Accord. This is reflected in the fact that the prevalence of sexual violence against Jumma women has grown, but there seems to be little in the way of retribution. Is it because of a crisis within the Jumma women’s movement or is it something else? What are your thoughts on this?
RDR: The Bangladeshi state is yet to learn to deal in context-specific ways with the pervasive discrimination practiced against Jummas and other indigenous peoples in general, and against Jumma women in particular. In combating sexual violence against indigenous women, there is a need for context-specific measures on prevention, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation through legislative, judicial, executive and programmatic acts. Awareness-raising of communities is also essential. The aforesaid measures need to be informed by enquiry, assessment, analysis. The primary responsibility lies with the state. However, civil society as a whole shares this burden too. Jumma society as a whole has done little in this regard. Before the 1997 CHT Accord, women’s groups, such as the Hill Women’s Federation, had its own distinct identity, and relative autonomy, from regional political groups. This is no longer the case, both with regard to women’s organizations and those of students and youth. The Hill Women’s Federation – of which Kalpana was an office-bearer – in the case of both the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) and the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) are now little more than passive adjuncts to the aforesaid parties. Some of the women’s groups that are not affiliated with any political party have done admirable work. However, their work is limited to the urban centres, partly a result of insufficient support from national and regional political parties and human rights groups.
HSA: What do you think human rights activists generally and the Jumma women activists should do to put national and international pressure on the Government to solve the case of Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance? As a lawyer, what do you think are the legal loopholes and how can they be overcome?
RDR: The Bangladeshi state has not learnt to take effective measures against its errant security personnel when they have violated human rights, particularly if the matter concerns incidents in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Legally, there are no impediments to take punitive measures, as there is no limitation for such crimes, and security forces are not legally exempt from prosecution in such cases. If Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination can be pursued decades after the event, so should it be in the case of crimes against others from humbler origins and acuter situations of disadvantage. And it can be so.
However, we cannot overlook the fact that the law is prevented from taking its own course on account of the lack of political support to end this culture of impunity, where members of the security forces and others are implicated. The intervention of the Supreme Court may be sought. The jurisdiction of the international human rights mechanisms can also be invoked, combined with media and other campaigns within and outside Bangladesh. I feel that a combined approach is necessary.
In the long run, I am confident that justice will prevail. For Kalpana, for Sagori, for Sujata, Alpana, Bishakha and countless others. We cannot and should not give up.
Hana Shams Ahmed is a writer and can be reached at email@example.com
 The hill people identify themselves as ‘Jummas’ collectively, which refer to their use of shifting cultivation (Jhum cultivation).