Can the Jummas of Bangladesh speak?

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published on February 17, 2015 at the Dhaka Tribune]

Although Bangladesh shares a 4,096km border with India, only the 1,036km-long border with India and Myanmar raise questions of sovereignty

Decisions taken by the government about the Chittagong Hill Tracts can at best be described as doublespeak. While the actual sentiments of the government indicates an urgency for increased securitisation, surveillance, discrimination and suspicion of the Jummas, the background and context provided for taking the decisions speak of maintaining “the law and order situation” and upholding “peace.”

The latest decisions taken by the Home Ministry is just a continuation of this sentiment of the government. At a meeting chaired by State Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on January 7, contents of which were only recently made public, it was said that although the government has continued to take positive steps towards implementation of the “Peace” Accord, a number of organisations in the CHT have been functioning in a manner that goes against the accord.

It referred to acts of extortion, abduction and various destructive programs. The directive also indicated that the necessity for this meeting was felt as a result of a report submitted by BGB about the post-Accord situation in addition to concerns relating to the law and order and sovereignty of the country.

A short summary of the decisions include: Monitoring of UNDP’s development work, carrying out a drive against armed groups, requesting the CHT Commission to rename themselves, putting into operation a new rule about foreigners’ applying for a permission a month in advance to the Home Ministry before traveling to the CHT, non-CHT persons requiring the presence of an administrative official/security officer in order to talk to tribals, a collaboration of army and other law-enforcers in order to protect the law and order situation, the need for the Armed Forces Division to give logistics support to the BGB, beefing up of BGB personnel in areas where Bangladesh shares borders with India and Myanmar, continuing the land acquisition by BGB through keeping “friendly relations” with the tribals, making the check-posts more active, and finally, carrying out a phased relocation of former Shanti Bahini members in police and Ansar to areas outside the CHT.

Anybody who has the slightest idea about the accord knows that the implications of most of these decisions by the ministry go against the essence of the accord. The accord, among other things, had explicitly called for reducing the presence of the military in the CHT.

The fact that former Shanti Bahini members are to be relocated outside the CHT also indicates the wish of the government to lessen the involvement of Jummas in administrative positions. The overall feeling that is emanated from these and previous decisions of the government is that the Jummas are not to be trusted.

Theoretically, the constitution may give equal rights to all citizens of the country but the ethnicity of 1% of the population sets them apart before the rest of the people and in practice they fail to enjoy equal rights as citizens.

Through such documents, the state constructs a national suspicion for the Jummas and the moral authority of Bengalis as the authentic citizens of the country is established. Even Bengalis who go to the CHT and speak to Jummas are not trusted.

Foreigners who work and visit various parts of Bangladesh as tourists are suddenly in need of a clean chit from the military intelligence before visiting the CHT. The subtext is that Bengalis and foreigners who talk to Jummas are collaborating with them in devising something sinister that will go against the sovereignty of the country.

The word sovereignty is of great significance in government publications about the CHT. Although Bangladesh shares a 4,096km border with India, only the 1,036km-long border with India along Khagrachari and Rangamati and the Myanmar border across Bandarban seem to raise questions of sovereignty to the extent of imposing such discriminatory decisions on Bangladeshi nationals.

And the fact that many of these BGB establishments are actually quite far from the borders themselves makes one think whether the attack on sovereignty is being imagined from the outside or the inside.

The nationalist Bengali response to the sovereignty narrative is immediate and unforgiving. A sense of entitlement comes into operation very quickly. The beneficiaries of the construction of this suspicion and othering are the powerful land grabbers in the CHT including private individuals with powerful political connections, private corporations, the political elite and last but not least, the security forces especially the military and the BGB.

The timing of this latest decision is also something worth noting. With the political unrest all over the country in the backdrop, some enthusiasts of this spin may have considered this to be an opportune moment to expedite the implementation of this process.

However, the media seems to have given this news some decent coverage. In fact, the latest Home Ministry list of decisions was published in all the major dailies on their front page. Opinions were also published in the voice of condemnation. However, the show goes on with little resistance from the larger public.

These new set of decisions may or may not be put into operation, but the process of constructing suspicion and othering of the Jummas is already in place. Jummas cannot be called “adibashis,” Jummas cannot be recognised in the constitution, Jummas have to be called “khudro nri-goshthi,” Jummas cannot talk to anyone without a chaperone, government officials will prevent celebration of indigenous peoples’ day – the list goes on.

It seems that all these decisions related to the lives and identities of the Jummas are taken by the government without any consultation with the people who are actually involved here. The backdrop of Bengali supremacy and cultural assimilation which triggered the insurgency in 1972 has not been erased through a “Peace” Accord. We are still saying to the Jummas in not so many words: Tora Bangali hoye ja (you become Bangalis too).

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