Constructing the Jummas as ‘criminals’

by Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was first published on June 12, 2015 in a special issue commemorating the 19th year of disappearance of Kalpana Chakma in the New Age]

The colonial world is a Manichaean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation, the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil.
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

December 1997 began with great hope for a large section of Jummas in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. More than two decades of bloody, armed struggle with the state of Bangladesh for their recognition was finally coming to an end. During armed insurgency and counter-insurgency, allegations have it, the Bangladesh military carried out massacres against the Jumma people, villages were burnt down, women were raped and the area went under near-total media blackout. Of course not all Jummas were happy about the ‘Peace’ Accord. To begin with, the Accord did not acknowledge or offer reparation for state-led oppression on its own citizens. Nor did it explicitly say how its demographic engineering program to displace Jummas with Bengalis from the plainlands would be stopped.

When the 1997 CHT ‘Peace’ Accord was signed it was assumed (by many) that things would return back to ‘normal’ — the military would withdraw from the hills, a certain level of regional autonomy would be maintained within the district administration to preserve its geographical distinctness, Jummas would be treated like equal citizens before the law and the ethnic diversity of Bangladesh would be recognised. But things took a completely different direction in the CHT. Fast-forward to 2015 and the CHT remains the most militarised area of Bangladesh, the Jummas continue to lose their land, the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) set up outposts in places that are nowhere near the borders and the Home Ministry has just issued two sets of decisions which essentially deny Jummas equal citizenship status, imposing discriminatory security measures instead, much like the British colonisers did with the (now defunct) Criminal Tribes Act.

The Criminal Tribes Act was passed in 1871 by the British Government and enforced upon the northern part of India and later extended to Bengal and other areas in 1876.1 Through this act mostly low caste Hindu nomadic tribes were branded as “hereditary criminals,” kept under constant police surveillance and with strict restrictions on their movement. After independence from the British, the Indian Government scrapped the Criminal Tribes Act. Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have called this a “monstrous provision,” one that was “out of consonance with all civilized principles.” 2

Although the Criminal Tribes Act was never imposed upon the Jumma communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) or other non-Bengali ethnic communities in the rest of the country, since independence of Bangladesh the security, surveillance and suspicion remained the over-arching discourse in relation to different Government decisions about the Jummas over time. The latest in these are the decisions taken by the Home Ministry to heighten security and surveillance in the CHT.

In January 2015 the State Minister for Home Affairs presided over a meeting with the various law-enforcement authorities in the CHT to take decisions to enforce restrictions on the movement and communication of Jummas with Bengalis and foreigners – essentially discriminatory decisions that that treat one group of citizens differently from another. These single out Jummas of the CHT as inherently suspicious and enforce control, supervision and documentation of their meetings, conversations and movements with Bengalis and foreign nationals by a whole platoon of security and administrative forces including the military, Ministry of CHT Affairs, Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Directorate General Forces Intelligence (DGFI), National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Special Branch (SB). Like the “hereditary criminals” of the Criminal Tribes Act of colonial times this circular is saying that Jummas are different from other citizens of the country (Bengalis), are fundamentally criminal and need to be policed when speaking with non-Jummas.

In face of protests by Jummas and civil society organisation the Home Minister met for the second time in March 2015 with the said law-enforcement authority and took a new set of decisions. It is not clear whether the Ministry has officially rescinded the earlier decisions. This new set of decisions is no less discriminatory, it assumes Jummas are inherently criminal and is a denial of equal citizenship status for them. Among other things it mentions that permission will be given to foreigners after verifying the security situation of the area and on the other hand the permission will be given based on the ‘jouktikota’ (rationality) of the meeting. My friend Sathi Chakma who is married to an Australian national is now in a dilemma. What validity will she show to the authorities every time her husband Peter comes to visit his in-laws? And how and why will Peter give a detailed plan of his visit to the in-laws anyway? Bengali spouses of Jummas have the same question in mind.

But this latest set of decisions by the Home Ministry is just a continuation of such policies about the Jummas. In the past there have been official instructions from the Government not to allow celebration of World Indigenous People’s Day (Ministry of Home Affairs circular, August 2011); discriminatory policies have been taken about the functioning of NGOs in the CHT by making it mandatory to employ equal number of Jumma and Bengali staff and beneficiaries (Circular from the Rangamati Deputy Commissioner’s office, November 2011); the 15th amendment of the Constitution denying adibashi identity; restrictions have been placed on the CHT Commission’s visits (Prime Minister’s Office, September 2010); political groups in the CHT have been labeled ‘terrorists,’ strict rules have been placed on foreigners staying at hotels asking them not to speak to ‘natives,’ a secret Strategic Management Forum was set up to intensify security in the area to control the activities of the Jummas (Armed Forces Division, Prime Minister’s Office, June 2010) and many other subtle and not-so-subtle but highly discriminatory restrictions. On the one hand, Jumma houses have been burnt down time and again over any pretext in presence of law-enforcement officers. Advocate Samari Chakma and other lawyers fight on trying to get at least one conviction for a rape case in the CHT (uncountable rapes and zero number of convictions since Independence), the Bengali government continues to strengthen its military presence, land and timber continue to disappear through the hands of the powerful elite and on the other hand, the onus of criminality is brought upon the Jummas by the Government.

The British may have left the Indian sub-continent in 1947, but for the Jummas of 2015 the effects of totalitarian colonial exploitation are far from over. The state of Bangladesh still treats them as the native ‘other’ who need to be controlled, policed, subjugated and denominated as second-class citizens.

1 Goldy M. George, “The Legacy Of Criminal Tribes Act In The Present Context,” Countercurrents, December 8, 2009.
2 Sarah Gandee, From Criminal Tribes to Habitual Offenders: Enduring Notions of Collective Criminality Over the Transition to Independence in India, c. 1940-1960, M.Phil Dissertation, Newnham College, University of Cambridge, June 13, 2014.


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