Getting the history ‘right’ by erasing the others

[This article was first published on December 16, 2016 in Thotkata feminist blog]

Hana Shams Ahmed

IN 2015 filmmaker Aung Rakhine unveiled the first feature film made in the Chakma language about the community from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Bangladesh Film Censor Board (BFCD) refused clearance to the film, as a result of which the film could not be shown in public halls inside the country although it was shown at various overseas film festivals and won critical acclaim. The censor board claimed that it was only authorized to give clearance to films made in Bangla, the state language according to the national constitution. Apart from the technicality cited by the censor board, the Ministry of Information of the Government of Bangladesh also made a formal objection about the film’s content saying that the film had “…visuals and dialogue which were defamatory to the security forces and the Government of Bangladesh”, and which was “part of the propaganda against the military in the CHT”.[1] The film is about a poor Chakma villager Komol and how he develops an entrepreneurial niche in his village by ferrying people to and from the local market on his bicycle after losing his job in the city. The visual in question is about 30 seconds long within the one-hour-long film. Komol’s young son is seeing playing with some plastic toys on the courtyard when he suddenly gets up and runs to his mother and they both go inside the house to hide. Komol gets up and faces the (Bangladeshi) military officers who seem to be passing by their house and salutes them. It then shows the boots of the military officers crushing the toys on the courtyard on their way out. We do not see the faces of these individuals and later when I interviewed Aung he told me that he had deliberately left it open for interpretation for the public.

Such symbolic scenes of military violence have been depicted many times in many Bangladeshi films. However, those films have been accepted and many have received national acclaim because in these films the military perpetrators are Pakistani soldiers and the victims are Bengali. These depictions fit perfectly into the acceptable national narrative and in fact reinforce it. Rakhine’s film on the other hand disturbs this narrative tremendously. In 10 seconds Rakhine managed to stir up a part of Bangladesh’s history that the state has tried long and hard to keep out of the national narrative and media focus. Bangladesh’s state-constructed history is about the struggle for independence from Pakistan, about the heroism of the Bengalis, and the brutality faced by them. Bangladesh’s history has no room for talking about heroes and victims who are not Bengali. This erasure is not limited to the indigenous peoples only. In this narrative there is also a silence around Urdu-speaking victims of 1971. While many camp-based Urdu-speakers worked as collaborators with the Pakistani army, many were not. However, in the national narrative the whole community of Urdu-speakers have been relegated to the status of “collaborators” and “traitors”. On the same vein, many Bengalis were collaborators too but with their majoritarian privilege which did not lead to any such identity-based stereotyping. This majoritarian privilege can only be maintained if the faults of the few can be conflated to demonize a whole community of minoritized people, and a political and economic benefit can be gained from it.

As for being ‘defamatory’ or a ‘propaganda against the military’, journalists, activists and scholars have documented at least 11 massacres that were carried out by the military during the two-decade-long armed conflict in the CHT, very much in the same manner as the Pakistan army, but is in the process of being erased. Deploying Bengali nationalism as the central component of state discourse has disqualified massacres, rape and other war crimes from being recognized as part of the nation’s official history. Or, when made public, they have been justified as necessary to protect the national body and territory. The case of the disappearance of Jumma activist Kalpana Chakma remains unresolved despite several investigations and despite her family members repeatedly saying that they witnessed the men from the security forces who abducted her. Even in post-Accord situation, arson attacks on Jumma people’s homes have been said to be carried out in the presence of security forces. In the light of this history, military boots crushing the toys of small Chakma child is in no way a mischaracterization. I won’t even delve into the issue of the freedom of expression.

In 2015 the military shot and killed five indigenous activists. As soon as the two largest daily newspapers, The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, reported on this killing, the military instead of providing information about the killing, sent official complaints to the newspapers stating that the dead should have been identified as ‘terrorists’ instead of ‘indigenous men’. When the newspapers did not accede to their instructions the military asked all foreign-owned corporations to stop placing advertisements in the two newspapers. According to investigative journalist David Bergman, since then, and until the publishing of his report, the newspapers lost more than a fourth of their advertising revenue (Bergman 2015).

How can the use of a simple term lead to such catastrophic consequences especially when the two newspapers are not exactly known to be radical in nature, has corporate ownership and is certainly a part of the country’s elite power structure? This has a lot to do with the political economy of the military institution of the state. The term ‘indigenous’ has become a contentious term in recent years. While there are academic debates related to the UN’s promotion of the term and its consequences for identity politics but the issue for the state is land and its exploitation and to sovereignty narrative is used here to manufacture public sentiment and support for the justification of othering and violence against the Jummas – so a Jumma captured and killed by the military needs to be dehumanized by the use of the term ‘terrorist’ to symbolically assert ‘national unity’ and legitimize extra-judicial killing. In the case of the CHT for decades, it has helped in manufacturing consent to enable the state’s militarization in the area and has kept most of the human rights violations as a marginal topic.

As part of the counter-insurgency program the military also brought in about 400,000 poor, landless Bengali people into the CHT as human shields for the military. For over two decades and before the signing of the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord hundreds of Bengalis also lost their lives in the shooting between military and indigenous activists. There is no state recognition of either the targeted killings of the Jummas or the killings of the Bengalis in cross-fire who were strategically placed to serve as human shields for the military. There is very little documentation of these crimes too. Only overseas human rights bodies like Amnesty International, Survival International and Anti-Slavery International have reported about these cases. Apart from playing a big role in national politics the Bangladeshi military is known to have a significant corporate interest. The military’s finance is also supported from its involvement in peacekeeping, being the world’s largest donor of troops to the U.N. forces. Hence, keeping its international image intact by downplaying the issues in the CHT is that much more important for the country.

The national security discourse was brought back and in 2015 the Ministry of Home Affairs enforced restrictions on the movement and on communication between the Jummas and Bengalis, as well as foreigners. The new imposed rules were completely new in Bangladesh’s history: they prohibited indigenous people of the CHT from speaking to anyone outside the CHT without a government official present during the conversation.

In this post-conflict, militarized situation where land ownership issues lead to violence between Bengalis and the Jummas on a regular basis, Jumma women face obstacles to access justice from several sources. Obstacles include both bureaucratic and corruption-based hurdles that are endemic throughout Bangladesh, social obstacles specific to the post-conflict, militarized situation as well as cultural barriers specific to the ethnic groups.

There is a process of silencing indigenous people’s history, especially the history of the state-perpetrated violence against them through various mechanisms thereby forging a homogeneous Bengali national discourse that has no room for those who refuse to assimilate into the ‘nation’. Rendering indigenous people invisible has roots in post-colonial nation-state formations in which identity politics was infused in the public imaginary in order to construct and maintain a majoritarian nation-state. Nationalism has been used as a political strategy to create a homogenous nation-state where minoritized groups were expected to assimilate even though the nation-state of Bangladesh was born out of a movement against similar assimilation attempts. The Jumma people’s movement for self-determination have been portrayed in media and public discourse as a secessionist, anti-state movement and this led to their dehumanizing in the public eye. As a result no genuine attempt has been made to create intra-ethnic solidarity. The government’s and the corporate elite’s economic interest in the CHT have further marginalized the Jummas as citizens and changes in the constitution and different policies of the government have institutionalized this marginal position. All this has led to a nationalized narrative of Bangladesh’s history where the history of the struggle by the Bengalis is constantly remembered in public discourse while the history of oppression by the same Bengalis are slowly erased and delegitimized.

1. Translated from scanned copy of the letter from the Ministry of Information of the Government of Bangladesh, collected from filmmaker Aung Rakhine. Dated June 29, 2015.

2. Bergman, David. Bangladeshi spies accused of blocking media adverts. Al-Jazeera report. URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/10/bangladeshi-spies-accused-blocking-media-adverts-151005083755483.html

Hana Shams Ahmed is a writer and activist and currently doing an MA in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Western Ontario.

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