Chittagong Hill Tracts: 69 Years Without Freedom
Photo Courtesy of Youth Ki Awaaz
The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have a long history of oppression and marginalisation. After enjoying a relative level of protection for their way of life under British rule, their situation deteriorated post-1947 Partition. Policies protecting their land and distinctive identity were repealed by Pakistan in the 1960s, paving the way for demographic shifts and exploitation of the CHT territory. Their situation did not improve with the establishment of the state of Bangladesh, where they were again viewed as traitors, and mass migration and land confiscation accelerated. Today, CHT are still not recognised by Bangladesh as an indigenous people, and their peaceful struggle for survival continues.
Below is an article published by Youth Ki Awaaz:
There has been no easing
of the full weight of night.
Parched eyes, aching hearts are yet
to find their moment of deliverance.
the destiny we seek has still not yet arrived.”
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz
It was the time when like air, water, and food, ‘nationality’ had also become quintessential for existence. A ‘nationality’ was required and when they thought they could choose one, they had another thrust upon them, one they did not wish for. From then on, the ‘whirlwind of hatred’ (an expression used by Tagore in his poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’) brought about by nationalism struck them like wild thunder storms day after day, year after year.
The indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in modern-day Bangladesh have only tales of suffering to narrate. They have been killed, tortured, raped and massacred. Their ancestral lands were confiscated following which they were forcefully evicted. Some of them became refugees in India, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, where they are treated as unwanted elements and considered a threat to the native population. Still, the injustices have not been over and done with. They continue to be treated as ‘fallen’ people whose only fault was being less in number, a minority; and they couldn’t ‘imagine’ the ‘nation’ like the majority did. The majority Bengalis called them ‘traitors’ when they demanded to become a part of India.
In his book, ‘Stateless in South Asia‘, the author Deepak K. Singh described the concept of freedom as “a condition of being in which the members of a given political community enjoy a genuine autonomy in terms of organising and reorganising their lives to help them pursue their determined aims and goal”. This idea of freedom has been denied to them for the past six-seven decades. Their aspiration of belonging to a community which would respect and treat them like humans was curtailed brutally.
According to Benedict Anderson, a nation is an imagined political community. A nation exists when people of the nation identify themselves as part of one particular community. The indigenous people of CHT imagined themselves to be a part of the Indian nation when the National Movement was at its peak and the Partition was imminent. But the politics of partition claimed them, and they were made to co-exist with a community with which they had nothing in common. Hatred and persecution followed, by the majority community and the State itself, who were determined to exterminate these people from their nation.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts lie at the border of southeastern Bangladesh. The region borders India to the north and north-east and Myanmar to the South. The region is home to more than ten indigenous tribes. Before the advent of the British, they collectively owned land in the hilly region and practiced Jhumming cultivation (In this, land is temporarily cultivated and then abandoned allowing natural vegetation to grow back). In 1860, the region was annexed by the British and they brought in many administrative changes.
The British decided to rule the region indirectly by retaining the three rajas who were the original rulers; also, large tracts of land were placed under the control of the forest department. The British cleared forests and converted them into a mono-plantation of teak to help them generate revenue. The British passed the CHT Regulation Act of 1900 which was a landmark legislation in the region, as stated in the report of Chittagong Hill Tract commission, ‘Life is Not Ours‘, published in 1991.
This law gave the rights over the land to the British state, regulated and administrated now by the Deputy Commissioner (DC). The rajas were sub-ordinate to the DC and the lands were locally administrated by concerned officials and bureaucrats. And also, the law had a provision which prevented outsiders from migrating to the hills. Despite all this, the law indirectly recognised the customary rights of indigenous people over their land and allowed them to continue with their Jhumming cultivation, as cited the said report.
The woes of indigenous ‘Pahari’ people of Chittagong started with the Partition of the sub-continent. After the misfortune of the political divide, these people became a minority in the newly emerged East Pakistan. At the time of Partition, there were only three to five percent Muslims in the CHT region and it was only reasonable to place CHT with India. The Chairman of the Boundary Commission, Cyril Radcliffe, did not give any explanation for the rationale behind this move. The people in the region were looking forward to joining India, described as a ‘secular’ country in the Constitution of the newly freed nation.
“The three tribal chiefs in the region demanded recognition as a ‘native state’ from the British, the Congress and the Muslim league. Failing to obtain this they proposed a confederation with Tripura, Kuchbihar, and Khasia states that would be administered under central authority,” according to the paper, ‘Problems of National Integration in Bangladesh: The Chittagong Hill Tracts‘. Another section suggested a constitutional monarchy like that of the British, as described in the Ph.D. thesis ‘The Tragedy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh‘, by Md. Ashrafuzzman. More radical sections suggested joining the region with Burma, as Ashrafuzzman writes. But there was an overriding belief that joining India would fulfil their demands. However, they failed and CHT became a part of Pakistan against the will of the local people.
The newly emerged leaders in Pakistan sensed dissenting voices in the Hill Tracts and this caused trouble as the indigenous population was branded as ‘traitors’ who wanted to join India. Professor Wilhelm van Schindel, author of the book ‘A History of Bangladesh‘ is interviewed in the documentary‘Life is not still ours‘, made on the issues and concerns related to CHT, and he admits that this discourse about the hill people wanting to join India has been on since then.
The relation between the Pakistani State and people in CHT was of distrust and trouble. The government failed to appease the tribal people, leading to their alienation from the so-called mainstream. The special status of Hill Tracts was preserved in the beginning but later on, the government tried to repeal it in 1955; the people resisted and the move failed. The Constitution was amended in 1964 which repealed the special status of this region, leading to the dismay of the people as they felt it akin to losing their autonomy. When the special status of the “excluded area” was intact in the region, any non-tribal could be expelled from the area by the local government citing violation of law, but when it was relegated to ‘tribal state’ following the 1964 amendment of the Constitution, this power was also forfeited. This allowed the migration of non-tribals from the plains to settle in the hills.
The Pakistan Government was least concerned with the lives of indigenous people and the detrimental effects their policies would have on their environment. Between 1947 and 1971, the Pakistan government with the help of United States Agency for International Development built a hydro-electric dam across the river Karnafuli. This unmindful developmental activity took a huge toll on the Chakma population. Forty percent of their prime cultivable land was submerged and one lakh people lost their home and livelihood, as cited in the book, ‘Land Tenure and Human Rights Violation In the Chittagong Hill Tract, Bangladesh: An intricate Road to Peace‘, by Shaikh Mohammad Zakir Hossain.
A large population of hill people migrated to India and other places during this time. As they depended on the land for the Jhumming cultivation, their lifeline was cut off and their only chance of survival lay in migration. Many of them migrated to Arunachal Pradesh in India where they still live as stateless refugees, according to Singh’s book, cited above. This is also causing problems to the natives of Arunachal where they feel threatened by these ‘outsiders’.
The Partition of India along religious lines did not succeed as linguistic identity began to overwhelm the religious identity of people in Bangladesh. Bengali was the language of East Pakistan Muslims and Urdu was spoken by the people of West Pakistan. Despite this, the official language of both East and West was Urdu, giving rise to discontent among the people in Bangladesh. There was also a language movement in East Pakistan in 1952. Apart from language, the other causes that instigated the separatist movement included low importance given by the Lahore administration to the development of East Pakistan. After a nine month long separatist war, the state of Bangladesh came into existence.
During the time of the Liberation war in 1971, some sections of Hill people of CHT were supporting the Pakistan government despite the ‘unwanted’ attitude shown by the State towards them. After nine months of the Liberation war, they became a part of Bangladesh. Much to their woes, their nationality changed again when the new State came into being. The Bengali nationalists accused the hill people of lending their support to the Pakistan government.
“On December 5, 1971, the Bengali freedom fighters killed 16 tribal people in Pan Chari, denouncing them as collaborators of the war with the Pakistani regime,” as stated in ‘Problems of National Integration in Bangladesh’.
The people in CHT were not sure what would be the best outcome for the people in the new State. The elected representatives from CHT started making claims for their area in the new Parliament. They pushed the resolution for granting them an autonomous state. But they didn’t have much support in the Bangladeshi Parliament and were defeated. A delegation from CHT went to meet the Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman and set forth the demand for autonomy and special rights for the people. But he disappointed them by asking them to forget their demands and merge with the greater Bengali nationalism.
M. N. Larma, the leader of CHT people formed a party in 1972 by the name of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS). In the later pre-election period in 1973, Mujibur Rahman declared that the tribal people would be called Bengali and would have no separate identity. Also, during his time, more Bengali settlers from the plains were allowed to migrate to the CHT Hills by “expelling tribal people from their ancestral homeland”, according to the book ‘Problems of National Integration in Bangladesh’. The agricultural land in the possession of tribal people was also confiscated and distributed among the Bengali settlers. All this caused great agony to the hill people in CHT but more was about to come.
To this day, the Bangladesh State has not recognised the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts as indigenous and, therefore, their rights to be protected under International Instruments on Protection of Indigenous People’s Rights. Even a peace treaty signed by the State and the people in CHT in 1997 is yet to implemented or we can say the state has deliberately not implemented it. Today, their land, trade and all other affairs are dominated by the Bengali settlers and all positions in local power are also controlled by Bengali settlers. The political parties are vying for power by trying to tap in the vote base of Bengali settlers. No one is interested in indigenous people anymore. But they continue their struggle and assert their demands while the State is keen on suppressing their dissent.
The indigenous people of CHT have come a long way. The destiny they are seeking has still not arrived. They are waiting for their moment of ‘deliverance’. Right from the time of Partition, they have been fighting for the freedom to uphold their distinctiveness. It is clear from the example of Chittagong that one clear mistake or a deliberate act during the Partition of India, one ugly political mistake, has claimed and crippled the lives of generations of people living in these hills. They are forbidden to imagine becoming part of a community which would respect their rights and treat them as equals. The future appears bleak now; with fingers crossed, let’s hope the people in CHT one day find the destiny they seek.