Refugees of Spirit

Self-help is the best help, even for refugees. The Chakmas in Tripura show how, while they wait for peace to return back home.

Hill women weaving colourful pinons (sarongs), their golden-brown skin glinting in the sun; clusters of bamboo and thatch huts; naked children prancing about; men huddled together, smoking or playing cards…

Hill women weaving colourful pinons (sarongs), their golden-brown skin glinting in the sun; clusters of bamboo and thatch huts; naked children prancing about; men huddled together, smoking or playing cards… To eyes accustomed to the dirt and filth of urban India, these images are a soothing balm. It is easy to forget that these men, women and children are among the worst-off refugees in South Asia. The accompanying pictures show Takumbari relief camp, more than 100 km from Agartala, the capital of India's northeastern state of Tripura, where more than 2000 families of Jumma tribals, primarily Buddhist Chakmas, have been languishing in wretched conditions for over a decade. Takumbari is the largest of six camps set up in Tripura for Chakmas. About 15,000 refugees have returned home since 1994 following agreements between India, Bangladesh and refugee leaders. But around 44,000 remain here.

Every night, in the camp, the clang of the temple bells is punctuated by the staccato notes of the news bulletin. The refugee guards, marching round the camp, pause every once in a while to listen to the Bengali service of the BBC. Every bit of news on the latest negotiations between tribal leaders from the hill tracts and the Bangladesh government is discussed and analysed in detail.

Elusive Peace
Peace talks are nothing new between the Bangladesh government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) – the political wing of the Shanti Bahini (Chakma guerrillas fighting the Bangladesh state). But this time, Sheikh Hasina's government in Dhaka seems keen on a political solution to the long-festering problem. Nearly 9000 people have been killed so far in the 20-year-old conflict, and an aid-dependent Bangladesh is under increasing pressure from donors to mend its human rights record in the hill tracts.

Land is at the heart of the conflict in the Chittagong hills. Traditionally, the tribals communally owned large parts of the land and used it for jhum or shifting cultivation (hence the name Jumma, used collectively for Chakma and non-Chakma tribals of CHT). During British rule, ownership of their land was protected under the 1900 Chittagong Hill Tracts Manual, which prohibited the transfer of land to people from outside the hill tracts.

That changed in 1950 when the Pakistan government violated the Manual and settled several hundred Muslim families in CHT. But that turned out to be only the beginning. The origins of the present problem are nicely encapsulated in a report by the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, an independent international body, which states: "The late 1950s saw the beginning of a process of large-scale and systematic displacement of the Jumma people. The first major shock came with the construction of the Kaptai Dam in the late 50s and early 60s, inundating 40 percent of the arable land and displacing more than 100,000 Jumma people. Subsequently, the (Bangladesh) Government Programme of population transfer to the CHT brought more than 400,000 landless Bengalis to the hill tracts between 1978 and 1985, many of whom now occupy the Jumma people's land. Finally, the various counter-insurgency resettlement programmes which were implemented since the late 1970s moved a large section of the population to 'strategic villages'."

For a lasting peace, questions of land rights for the tribals in the 5000 sq mile CHT, regional autonomy, eviction of the Bengali settlers, role of the army, and proper rehabilitation of those who have already gone back have to be sorted out. The degree of autonomy the PCJSS wants would require an amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution. The Bangladesh opposition, which at present is that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia, has been quick to latch on to this issue (see box). It has threatened to cripple the Government if troops are withdrawn from the hills or the Constitution amended.

No one knows what lies ahead. But there is a flicker of hope that the future will be brighter than these past few decades. Till then, the refugees have to cope with their camp life in India.

Indian Apathy
Among all the refugee groups in India, Chakmas are probably the worst off. Indian officials complain about the cost of looking after the Chakmas, but will not let Chakmas (or, for that matter, any other refugee group in the country other than the Afghans) avail of support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Partly, this is due to the fact that India does not have a refugee policy. Each refugee group in the country is treated differently, depending on its strategic value or political clout. But while Sri Lankan Tamils camping in southern India can count on fellow Tamils to plead their cause with New Delhi and the Tibetans have their own Dalai Lama along with Hollywood stars pitching for them, the Chakmas, holed up in a remote, neglected part of India, have nobody.

Since 1986, when the first batch of refugees from the Chittagong Hill Tracts arrived on Indian soil, the cash dole has been an incredible 20 paisa per person per day. That adds up to six rupees a month – the lowest amount given to any refugee group in the country. This is much too little to survive on, so the Tripura relief commissioner turns a blind eye to Chakma refugees working quietly on the side as labourers in nearby paddy fields or at construction sites. No doubt, local Chakmas of Tripura resent the refugees for undercutting them in the job market, but as the landlords are happy, not much fuss is created.

The Indian government also provides rice and salt to the refugees along with some extra money to buy other food. But even this disbursement has not been without problems. Between 1992 and 1996, the Chakma refugees of Tri-pura received rice and salt only. It was not until the New Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre reported the matter in 1994 that the Indian National Human Rights Commission took notice and the outstanding arrears finally paid in March this year.

The problem is that in a poor and overcrowded country like India, refugees have to jostle for scarce land and resources with other disadvantaged groups. Any mention of non-functioning tubewells in the refugee camps to officials in Agartala elicits a predictable riposte: "How many Indians have access to potable water?"

Down but Not Out
The harshness of exile has not killed the spirit of the people of Takumbari camp. When the first lot of Chakma refugees arrived in Tripura in 1986, 20 to 25 families were herded together in barrack-like bamboo constructions without partitions. Slowly, the refugees started building their own huts. Now, some have their own kitchen gardens as well.

"The first few months, the camp used to be filthy," says Gyanpriya Chakma, one of the first refugees to have enrolled as a health worker with Voluntary Health Association of Tripura (VHAT). "Disease was spreading, so we started a health centre here. As health workers, we started an awareness drive to make the camp clean. Refugee volunteers would demonstrate how each family should keep its environs clean. We went from house to house, singing songs about diarrhoea in the Chakma language. We held corner meetings… you can see the results with your own eyes."

There is even an eight-bed mini-hospital in the camp that was constructed by the refugees out of their own limited resources a year ago. At the entrance to the hospital, the names of each refugee donor is written in bold letters. This facility has saved them a considerable amount of money since the trip to the nearest hospital alone costs more than 25 rupees. The government doctor who comes every day marvels at the enterprise of the refugees and the growing health awareness in the camp. A mark of success, today even locals visit the refugee hospital.

The hospital has a stock of drugs, a stethoscope, forceps, scissors for minor surgeries, tapes, gauze, blood pressure instrument, and its own delivery ward. "More than 20 refugee women have given birth here," says Chittaranjan Chakma, hospital in-charge. But life-saving drugs are in short supply. The Refugee Welfare Association collects money for the treatment of those who are in real need. "When we really need money, we ask each refugee to contribute a fistful of rice. We take out a collection and then we sell it in the market inside the camp," say Upendra Nath Chakma, president of the Refugee Welfare Association.

The hospital is not the only example of the indomitable spirit of the Chakmas refugees. They have been running their own schools in the camps, against all odds. (Till last year, refugee children were not permitted to appear in the Tripura state high school examinations.) The schools are a refreshing sight: teachers actually teaching, even if the classrooms are make-shift bamboo sheds and the blackboards cracked. There are no chairs and tables in the primary schools. Each child brings a piece of sack cloth to spread on the mud floor.

Most refugee children cannot afford to buy text books. Twenty-one-year-old Gitali Chakma had to give up her studies because there was not enough money. Her father was no more, and she had to take up a job as a refugee health worker with VHAT. Gitali says she is determined to continue her education when she goes back to her native village in the hill tracts.

A similar determination can be felt in the women's committees of which there is one in each camp. With talk of repatriation in the air, the committees are busy preparing their members. "Women don't have equal property rights in our community. So, when we talk about land rights, we have to mobilise women to demand an equal share of that," says Sakyabala Diwan, a committee member.

Driven out of Bangladesh, neglected by India, ignored by the world, the condition of the Chakmas in their refugee camps shows that refugees can rarely be happy in exile. But they can do a lot to make the present more bearable. And going by the collective will they have shown, they can even be an asset to the host community.

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Himal Southasian