Getting the history ‘right’ by erasing the others

March 18, 2017

[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.

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Constructing the Jummas as ‘criminals’

July 30, 2015

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.

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Joli No Udhim Kittei! (Why Shall I not Resist!)*

July 30, 2015

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Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was first published on May 26, 2015 at Thotkata.net]

Kalpana Chakma was only two years older than me. We had a couple of things in common. We were born in the same country and we both kept personal diaries about our individual struggles in life. But that’s where the similarities in our lives ended. In the year 1996 as I was preparing for my A-level exams and arguing with my mother about my right to go out alone and wear the clothes of my choice, Kalpana was struggling against militarization, against a national suspicion of the ethnic ‘other’, against Government hypocrisy, against the militant-nationalism of the state of Bangladesh. In 12 June 1996 army officers abducted Kalpana Chakma in front of her two brothers, a sister-in-law and mother late at night from her home in Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). 18 years on and many protests, meetings, roundtables, CID investigations and court appearances later, Kalpana Chakma still remains missing.

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Kalpana and the Jumma women’s movement today

June 16, 2012

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[1] 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. Read the rest of this entry »


The ‘Indigenous’ Experiment

February 16, 2012

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published in the February 2012 issue of the Forum magazine, The Daily Star]

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Photo: Mahmudul Hasan

 

The nation as understood by the nationalist, is a substitute god, nationalism of this sort might be called ethnolatry.” – Hugh Seton-Watson (Nations and States, An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism)

Ever since I started working with indigenous peoples’ rights activists, I have come to expect a broad range of reactions when I talk about my work — from a very blank look to one of complete contempt and a list of reasons why the activists are doing barabari (overindulging) about issues that go against the state.

Why advocating for the rights of people who are citizens of the same country equates to ‘anti-state’ activities is anyone’s guess. But anyone who thought that Bengalis, after having struggled for the right to self-determination based on their ethnic and linguistic identities from the start of Partition until the birth of Bangladesh, have learned to treat the minorities of the new country with special care and understanding, has been completely wrong. And the very government that has always promised to bring harmony in ethnic relations and respect, and to ensure the rights of minorities with swanky peace accords, election manifestos, UNESCO awards, and cravings for Nobel prizes, has in fact been doing the exact opposite. Read the rest of this entry »


Disregarding the Jumma

June 17, 2011
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Andrea Carmen, Director, International Indian Treaty Council speaking at a rally for the implementation of the 1997 CHT Accord outside the United Nations during the 10th session of the UN Permanent Forum. Photo by: Ben Powless

The Bangladesh government’s continued failure to protect its indigenous peoples has forced them to seek international help. 

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published in the Web Exclusive of Himal Southasian on 15 June, 2011 and shorter version for Himal magazine was published in its July, 2011 issue]

This year, Bangladesh was a subject of heated discussion at the tenth session, held between 16-27 May, of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The starting point was a report commissioned by the Permanent Forum.  Written by former member of the Permanent Forum Lars-Anders Baer, who went to Bangladesh last year as a Special Rapporteur, the report entitled ‘Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997’ received statements of solidarity from the delegates.

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

April 4, 2011

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.

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