Secularism, Bangali Hegemony and Our Constitution

September 14, 2010

Photo: Naeem Mohaiemen

Hana Shams Ahmed

[The Forum, The Daily Star, September 2010]

The Constitution of Bangladesh has been brought under the microscope for the 15th time since 1972. With the annulment of the fifth amendment of the Constitution through a judgment by the Supreme Court this year, the Constitution is to revert to some of the core values behind the formation of the original 1972 version, whose four main pillars were democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism.

The latest judgment by the Supreme Court gives us a chance to look closely at the Constitution, which was adopted soon after the liberation war ended in 1971, in the aftermath of the emotions and ideology that led the nation in the struggle for identity and existence. While the 1972 document had an equal vie towards citizens of all religions, ethnic, cultural and linguistic pluralism were patently absent from the document. Thus, while the 1972 constitution was even-handed to all religions, it did not recognise the fifty or more indigenous peoples and their distinct identities, who still remain as second class citizens of Bangladesh.

When the draft of the Constitution of Bangladesh was presented to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, Manabendra Narayan Larma (founder general secretary of PCJSS) refused to endorse a Constitution that did not recognise the existence of people of other ethnic origins than Bangali . He had protested: “Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bangali or a Bangali be a Chakma… As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity…”

Thirty-eight years after MN Larma’s protest, the time has finally come to correct a basic flaw in our national constitutional framework. The formation of the current special parliamentary committee to review and recommend constitutional amendments is a welcome move by the government. Its recommendations must include remedies to a Constitution that is still ethnically communal in nature, putting people from non-Bangali groups outside our definition of nation.

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Interview of Raja Devasish Roy

June 27, 2010

Photo: Abeer Hoque

Hana Shams Ahmed

[Himal, June 2010]

At Partition, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with an overwhelmingly non-Muslim indigenous population, were included within Muslim-majority East Pakistan. Yet the Paharis (indigenous hill peoples) were never really integrated into the Bengali nationalist movement for independence, which culminated in 1971. Discriminatory attitudes of the majority Bengali and ‘spoiler’ tactics by the central government prevented the Paharis from playing a substantive role in the movement. Following the formation of Bangladesh, the Paharis asked for constitutional recognition and regional autonomy, but were turned down. Marginalised throughout the period of British and Pakistani rule, the Paharis finally took up arms, and Manabendra Narayan Larma, their leader, a young lawyer and legislator, formed the Parbatta Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the political wing of the insurgent Shanti Bahini guerrillas, to fight for the political rights of the Pahari people.

In 1997, the Bangladesh government signed a ‘peace’ accord with the PCJSS. But the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), a breakaway group of the PCJSS, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), then (and now) the opposition in Parliament, fiercely opposed the accord. The BNP protested that it allowed the Paharis a separate administrative system and discriminated against the Bengalis, while the UPDF opposed it on grounds that the agreement failed to address PCJSS’s most important demand – full autonomy. Others criticised the accord for not addressing the hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers who were moved into the Hill Tracts from 1979 through the 1980s as a counter-insurgency measure. Nor did the document give constitutional recognition to the indigenous peoples.

For most Paharis, the 1997 agreement did give them relief from conflicts between their own political groups, and with the Bengali settlers over land and political office. Yet 13 years after its signing, much of the accord remains unimplemented. In February, Bengali settlers, allegedly with support from the army, set fire to more than 400 Pahari homes in 11 villages across Baghaihat of Rangamati district (see Himal April 2010, ‘Manush Bachao’). As yet, there has been no independent investigation into these incidents. In April, the CHT Regional Council, chaired by Jyotirindro Bodhipriyo Larma, the leader of the mainstream PCJSS, was declared unconstitutional by a High Court (though the judgement has since been stayed). If the Regional Council ceases to exist, Paharis will essentially lose all significant influence over the CHT administration.

Raja Devasish Roy is the chief of the Chakma Administrative Circle, an official body, and the traditional raja of the ethnic Chakma community, which lives mostly in the CHT as well as India and Burma. He is also an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and was one of the lawyers fighting the case for the Regional Council. He recently spoke to Hana Shams Ahmed about the concerns and problems that continue to face the Adivasis of the CHT. Read the rest of this entry »

We will not let them forget you

June 14, 2009
Artwork by Arif Haq

Artwork by Arif Haq

Hana Shams Ahmed

[THE DAILY STAR, 12 June  2009]

SHE was only 22 years old, a very vocal woman activist. An activist from a community that is treated by the Bangladesh state as second-class citizens. Someone who did not fear the most venerated institution in our country. A combination of all these elements made her a chillingly vulnerable person, a target for “The Vanishing” (i.e. those who are made to disappear without a trace).

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Who Will Speak for the BDR?

April 15, 2009


Hana Shams Ahmed highlights legitimate issues that disappeared in the massacre’s aftermath

[FORUM magazine, THE DAILY STAR, April 2009]

“The subaltern uprising story has paled away as threats to the nation’s territorial sovereignty have become clearer”. — Rahnuma Ahmed, New Internationalist (UK), March 17

Six weeks into the bloody carnage at Pilkhana, black banners are still hanging outside the BDR grounds. This is the site where the bodies of 74 people, including 57 military officers, were recovered from mass graves– a political and emotional shock from which the nation is yet to recover.

Two of the most noted army officer victims were director general of BDR Maj Gen Shakil Ahmed and Col Gulzar Uddin Ahmed, the founding director of the intelligence wing of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) who led the operation to arrest JMB militant leader Shaikh Abdur Rahman.

Public perception first focused on the initial reports on day one about a rebellion centred over pay, rations, corruption, and lack of opportunities. But by day two, public outcry broke out as reports about savage killings started coming out. The “Proletariat Revolution” theory had initially been facilitated by interviews with rebels in orange and red masks, expressing their pent-up resentment over low salaries and alleged corruption in the BDR upper-tier.

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Freeing Bangladesh from Extremism

December 26, 2008

Terrorism has crossed transatlantic boundaries. The aggressive religious bigots now hold hostage international politics. Whoever may be pulling the strings, fanaticism has already perforated our borders and done much damage in the last few years. Whoever comes to power through this election, must tackle all extremist powers working within the country. To achieve that, the party in power itself must remove all communal elements from political activities.

Hana Shams Ahmed

[STAR magazine, 26 December, 2008]


A Google search on The Daily Star’s website for ‘Sector Commander’s Forum’ (SCF) gives 87 results. Ever since its formation late last year, this group has been making media appearances (very well covered by the news reports, features and op-eds in DS) with two major demands — a trial of the 1971 war criminals and the barring of the known war criminals from taking part in the upcoming national elections. Very reasonable demands. After all isn’t it contradictory for a person who opposed the formation of the nation to sit in the parliament of that same nation?

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What will happen after Sajek?

May 16, 2008

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, May 16, 2008]

A burnt down home of a Pahari victim in Sajek union

On April 20 an act of extreme violence took place across seven villages in Chittagong Hill Tracts — Nursery Para, Baibachara, Purba Para, Nangal Mura, Retkaba, Simana para and Gangaram Mukh — of Sajek union under Baghaichari upazila (sub-district) in Rangamati district. Houses of villagers were burnt to the ground in the darkness of the night. The houses belonged to both Paharis and Bangali settlers, although Pahari victims say the majority were Pahari houses. Bangali settlers say the opposite.

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A Place to Call Home

February 29, 2008

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, February 29, 2008]

A young girl writes a poem where she asks a simple question — one which no one can answer. She asks, “Who am I?” Her forefathers were born in India, they immigrated to Pakistan, she was born in Bangladesh. India has given up on them a long time back, Bangladesh will not accept them as the children of the land and Pakistan will not take them back. She says that she has many names ‘Bihari’, ‘Maura’, ‘Muhajir’, ‘Non-Bangalee’, ‘Marwari’, ‘Urdu-speaker’, ‘Refugee’, and ‘Stranded Pakistani’. But she only wants one: human. This is the state of being of the 1.6 lakh camp-based Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh. Read the rest of this entry »