Ethnic strife returned to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in late February, for the third time since the 1997 signing of the accord that ended the two-decade-long insurgency in the area. Regardless of who holds power in Dhaka – the Awami League, which signed the accord; the anti-accord Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in power during a similar incident of violence in 2003; or army-backed technocrats, in power during the last incident, in 2008 – peace in the Hill Tracts remains elusive.
The proximate cause of the latest round of violence is a road built in 2007 by the then-army-backed technocrat regime. Paharis (as the ethnic groups of the region are collectively known) had resisted this road for the previous 20 years, as they feared the road would mean more Bengali settlement and displacement of Paharis from the area. In recent years, this exact fear seems to have been materialising. Despite Pahari protests (which resulted in arson attacks against the community in 2008), Bengali settlement had been continuing, and a conflagration had been imminent. In late February, arson attacks by the settlers resulted in the burning of an estimated 434 Pahari homes and 29 Bengali homes in Baghaichhari, and an estimated 58 Pahari homes and 29 Bengali homes in Khagrachhari. There has been no independent investigation into the incidents. While the Bengalis claim the Paharis were responsible for the arson, the latter claim the Bengalis themselves burnt the houses. Either way, two Paharis in Baghaichhari and one Bengali in Khagrachhari were also killed. Meanwhile, this violence is alleged to have all taken place with the army and police as either silent observers or active supporters.
The chattering classes of Bangladesh have a tendency to see conspiracies in most things, and the ethnic strife in the CHT is no exception. Supporters of the ruling Awami League see this as an effort by the opposition to destabilise the government. Pointing out that the attacks took place days just prior to the first anniversary of the mutiny by some paramilitary soldiers that last year killed dozens of officers, they claim that the CHT violence was instigated to create a wedge between the army and the government. Meanwhile, senior ministers have claimed that the attacks might be part of an attempt by those who are alleged to have committed war crimes in 1971 to destabilise the country as a whole, and thus to foil the anticipated war-crimes trial.
Not to be outdone, supporters of the opposition BNP – which rejected the 1997 accord and preferred a military solution – claim that violence in the Hill Tracts is part of a larger ploy by regional and global powers to undermine Bangladesh’s sovereignty. This is the same kind of conspiracy that the party campaigned against in the lead-up to the December 2008 elections, under the slogan ‘Desh bachao, manush bachao’ (Save the country, save the people). Indeed, conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political divide see the peoples of the CHT – Paharis and Bengalis alike – as pawns in a larger game, ignoring the much more mundane cause of the periodic outbreak of violence: the dispute over lands lost by Paharis over the past decades. Instead, the politicised pundits continue to propagate a number of misperceptions and myths that make peace even more difficult to achieve.
One such myth is that the recent closure of a few temporary army camps has created a state of lawlessness in the CHT. And yet, the latest violence started in an area that had an army camp, and soldiers were alleged supporters of the arsonists. Likewise, troops were present and involved during the 2003 and 2008 incidences. Still more alarming, no such violent outbreak has ever been reported in areas where no army camps are located, or where the camps have been shut down. Clearly, then, the absence of army camps has little to do with these violent episodes. Some pundits argue that army camps are needed to maintain law and order, and to prevent cross-border smuggling. But surely these should be the responsibility of the civilian law enforcement agency, and not the military. If deteriorating law and order across the country does not call for martial law, then why should the CHT be an exception?
The critics of the CHT peace process inevitably point to the insurgency waged by the militant group known as the Shanti Bahini, sometimes with Indian assistance, against Bangladesh for over two decades from the 1970s. By declaring that the citizens of Bangladesh were to be known as Bengalis, and thus denying the Pahari their ethnic identities, the Constitution of Bangladesh set the grounds for discontent in the Hill Tracts as early as 1972. Ethnic sentiments were further hurt when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, asked Paharis to “become Bengali”. The Shanti Bahini was formed soon thereafter. Following the three coups that took place in 1975, an incipient insurgency was further inflamed by Indian support for a number of militant groups opposing the post-1975 political order. However, most India-backed insurgencies (including one led by Kader Siddique, a 1971 war hero) eventually fizzled out, as they lacked popular support – with the exception of the Shanti Bahini. The Bangladesh government sought to defeat the insurgency by force, ramping up the military presence; the forced settlement of landless Bengalis began in 1979, as a counterinsurgency measure.
Even as the situation in the Hill Tracts worsened, Bangladeshi nationalism as articulated by President Ziaur Rahman could have ameliorated the original grievance of the non-Bengali peoples. While initiating the policy of forced settlements, Zia might even have appreciated (at least in the later years of his administration) the essentially political nature of the problem, which could not be solved militarily. Following a closed-door meeting with Pahari leaders in July 1980, he stated, “We are doing some wrong there. We are being unfair to the tribes. It is a political problem that is being dealt with by police and army action, yet it can be settled politically very easily. We have no basis for taking over these lands and pushing these people into a corner. We should at least call a meeting of these tribal leaders and ask them their demands.”
Whether that meeting could have marked a genuine turnaround in policy will never be known, however, because Zia was assassinated within a year. Thereafter, his successors further escalated the conflict. The insurgency eventually ended with the 1997 CHT Accord, which calls for removal of the temporary military camps in CHT except for six cantonments (in Dighinala, Ruma, Alikadam and one each in the district headquarters of Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban, see map) – clearly not pushing for a total absence of Bangladesh Army presence in the area. Indeed, with six cantonments in three districts, even if the accord is implemented, the CHT will have a heavier military presence than any other area of the country. The agreement further allows for the deployment of the army, under civilian control, in case of a deterioration of law and order or natural disaster. That is, again, far from eroding Bangladesh’s sovereignty over the region – when the troops finally return to their barracks, the region will simply become like the rest of Bangladesh. Since the signing of the accord, the Shanti Bahini has surrendered its arms. Instead of secession, the Shanti Bahini’s political heirs – the United People’s Democratic Front and Jana Sanghati Samity – now demand the full implementation of the accord within the territorial integrity of Bangladesh.
Migration versus settlement
A different set of distortions concerns the migration of Bengalis into the CHT. Many critics claim that if the accord is implemented, Bengalis will not be able to live in the region. But in fact, there is nothing in the agreement to support this contention. Migration by peasants and farmers into the forests and uncultivated areas has been part of the history of the eastern Subcontinent for centuries. According to notable scholars, Bengali-speaking Muslim peoples settled in much of what is today Bangladesh over the past millennia. This process, though not always peaceful or without tragedy, is the setting of Padma Nadeer Majhi (The Boatman of the River Padma), the classic Bangla novel by Manik Bandopadhyaya.
The Hill Tracts region also witnessed a mass migration of Bengali farming communities. In 1872, Bengalis made up less than a fiftieth of the region’s population. By the time of Partition, this proportion had risen to about a tenth. Whereas the faster rise in the Bengali population during those decades followed a centuries-old migration pattern, something dramatically different happened after 1979 when, as noted earlier, hundreds of thousands of landless Bengalis were forcibly settled into the Hill Tracts. Within just a few years, Paharis became minorities in their own land. According to the 1991 census (which is alleged to underestimate the Bengali presence), Bengalis made up 52 percent of the population in Bandarban District, 51 percent in Khagrachhari and 44 percent in Rangamati. In this way, landless Bengalis had unwittingly become collaborators in running a de facto colonial administration.
It is this forced settlement, and the consequent loss of land by Paharis, that is at the root of the region’s troubles today. Bengalis were given title deeds to land that had been owned by Paharis through traditional law for generations. Now, the Paharis and Bengalis have ownership claims over the same pieces of land, one through illegal settlement and the other through customary land-ownership law, which the CHT Accord recognises. The 1997 accord envisages the resolution such land disputes through several mediums, including a specific commission, rehabilitation, a post-rehabilitation land survey, and transfer of authority over land management and administration to the Hill District Councils.
As the critically important Land Commission has yet to begin work, these land disputes have not been settled. However, this has not stopped the government to announce, on 15 March, a land survey in the area. While the nature and scope of this survey is not yet clear, the idea that such a survey will lead to peace seems to be the latest misperception among the authorities. On the contrary, it is clear that the prerequisites of the survey as per the accord – a functioning Land Commission, resolution of disputes, and rehabilitation – are yet to be met. As such, it is of critical importance that the proposed land survey does not seek to record land ownership until these disputes are first settled first.
~ Jyoti Rahman is a blogger and a member of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective