One cannot really be sure as to what would have happened if the demand for political autonomy in Bangladesh´s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) had been taken up in the 1960s, at the time of the Bengalis´ struggle for “autonomy” within the state of Pakistan. What is certain, however, is that the construction of independent Bangladesh saw the almost simultaneous birth of the Hill people´s “nationalist aspirations” in the state of Bangladesh. Therein lies the paradox. But that was in the past. The demand for “political autonomy” in the CHT is now too little, too limited, too late. This is said neither to win the heart of a chauvinistic member of the so-called “sub-national” minority community, nor (as the case may be) to evoke the wrath of an equally chauvinistic representatives of the majority community. Rather, it springs from a conviction that the time has come to bury old struggles and begin new ones, rethought and reorganised to face the challenges posed by our ever-changing times.
The demand for political autonomy is inadequate as it cultivates a demand that is primarily “political” in the narrowest sense of the term. A close reading of the Five-Point Demand of the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattogram Jono Sanghati Samity, the main political party of the Hill people) will show that the demand for political autonomy in the CHT is not only territorial in nature but is also informed by a precise governmentality.
While the demand for autonomy is justified and hardly needs to be deliberated upon, what is less easy to understand is the implied suggestion that such an autonomy will by itself end Bengali domination and weed out the grievances of the Hill people. The current subjugation of the Hill people did not come about just from the flooding of the CHT by the Bengalis. The domination, although “Bengali” in its composition, is also secular and comprehensive—political as well as social, cultural and intellectual. Merely limiting Bengalis territorially will not guarantee an end to domination (Bengali, or any other) in the CHT.
By targeting the government, the demand reflects a mentality that considers the “government” to be the deliverer of all things. This is what is meant by ´governmentality´, and in a way it asks the government to give what is really not in its possession. That “modern state” is not simply a political society, it represents a complex combination of both political and civil societies. The demand for political autonomy is restricted to political society and fails to consider the fact that much of the delivering power, particularly for sustaining the core objectives of the autonomy, lies with the civil society.
If the intention is to disempower the (Bengali) state and secure political autonomy, it is critical that the (Bengali) civil society be disempowered as well. Anything less than that will not only polarise the situation and make the conflict more violent but will also make the demand for political autonomy more difficult to achieve.
To take the argument to its logical conclusion, there is no reason why the struggle for “political autonomy” should be restricted to the CHT only and not extended to other regions of Bangladesh. Of course, it can be argued that the CHT question has a “national” dimension. But is it not true that it is domination that gave birth to the Hill people´s “nationalist aspirations” and not the other way round? And domination, although different in form and content, cannot be said to be limited to the CHT alone. In fact, the majority of the people living outside Dhaka suffers from a Dhaka-centred domination. Would it, therefore, not be more sensible and tactical as well to take these people into confidence and make the demand for autonomy a demand of the majority of Bangladeshis?
There are several reasons why this change of focus is important, but let us take up only two. The first one is related to the question of representation. There is a feeling that if some (presumably the present three) parliamentary seats from the region are reserved for the Hill people, they will be empowered. The Five-Point Demand makes this point. The question that immediately comes to mind is what these three Hill members will do amidst 327 Bengali members in the Sangsad. Even if they are regularly elected (which they have been), the Hill members are bound to be out-voted.
There is a need to look at the issue from a qualitatively different standpoint, for which the question of representation is crucial. Consider the present situation. Representation of the kind where one member of parliament represents 150,000-200,000citizens makes a mockery of democracy. Because the MP can hardly truly “represent” his/her constituents, both end up becoming dependent upon “intermediaries” (ranging from corrupt officials to hired mastans/ goons).
In order to empower the people (including people of penpheral regions), Parliament needs to be decentralised. One way to do this is to have several parliaments, at least one at each divisional level. There may be a common structure (i.e., a federal parliament) joining all these regional parliaments, but its powers would be severely curtailed compared to the latter. Such legislative bodies, apart from making MPs more transparent and thereby more accountable, would mellow the cause of regional, local and ethnic dissenters. The second reason why the autonomy demand should be broadened to include others is implicit in the above argument. Insofar as the demand for political autonomy is limited to the CHT, it reproduces and reinforces a dichotomous relationship between the Hill people and the Bengalis, which increases the power of the chauvinistic (often, self-seeking) forces on both sides. In fact, the nationalist (conservative) forces among Bengalis find it easy to rationalise the domination of the CHT, including the violent use of the military, by harping on the dichotomy.
To put it differently, once the demand for political autonomy encompasses other regions (or divisions) of Bangladesh, it will become difficult for the nationalist (conservative) forces to amass support among the general (Bengali) population against the Hill people. It will also lead to a situation where more and more Bengalis would begin to see the merit of the Hill people´s demand and join in the common cause of freeing people from all forms of domination.
As a critic of ´nation´, ´nationalism´ and ´nationhood´, whether “Bengali” or of any other type, I find “Jumma nationalism” of the CHT very uncreative. It merely, and sadly, reproduces the politics of old times. In fact, like Bengali nationalism, it is bound to reproduce a new kind of hegemony, of the numerically more over the numerically few.
The proposed “Regional Council” is a good indicator of this. With the majority of the seats (practically 38 out of 48) shared by the Chakma, Marma and Tripura, such a Council is structured to reproduce the domination of these over the smaller communities of the Murung, Bom, Lusai, Pangkho, Khumi, Khiang, and Chak. What is the point of replicating something against which one is waging a war? There is no creativity in merely replacing one ´nationalism´ with another.
More critical, however, is the PCJSS´ demand to put a ban on the purchase of land in the CHT by outsiders, presumably Bengalis. The reasons behind the demand are understandable, but what good will it do? As has been pointed before, “domination” is more than the physical presence of individuals, and in an era of global capitalism buying and selling of land are dictated not by Councils or Parliaments but by the sheer power of capital.
Not surprisingly, Bangladesh´s land, including real estate property, is increasingly owned by the “Americans”, “Canadians” and “Australians”. Of course, we call them “Bangladeshi-Americans”, “Bangladeshi-Canadians” and “Bangladeshi-Australians”, but they are the Bangladeshis whose living consists of transferring their land-based profits from Bangladesh and investing them in Montreal, New York, Sydney, Dallas, places where they believe they and their children have a better future. Economically, it makes more sense to move one´s assets out of Bangladesh and the only way to turn this transfer around is by radically restructuring the country´s political economy and ensuring development worthy of attracting all kinds of pennies. Until that is done, the “foreignisation” of Bangladeshi land and capital will continue. The “land question” in the CHT must, therefore, also be reinvented, lest it be made to slip back into the doldrums of history.
The final point to be made has to do with the strategy of some of the activists to introduce the role of a third party, that is, India, into the CHT issue. It goes without saying that successive Bangladeshi regimes have only themselves to blame for creating enough grounds for India to be involved in. But, if strategic thought has any validity, a third party will always have its own agenda, often very different from either of the contending forces.
This is very true with respect to the role of India, which was well demonstrated in the 1993 round of negotiations on the return of the refugees between Bangladesh, India and the representatives of the Hill people. As is now known, the Hill people were “forced” into negotiation, prompted as it was by the decline of political support inside host state of Tripura, where the interests of “Bangalee Hindus” and “local Tripuras” succeeded in limiting Chakma influence even among the Tnpuran Communists. As a result, the condition of the Hill refugees turned overnight from bad to worse, as one report indicated: “The Indian government gave verbal assurance that the refugees would not be repatriated by force or against their will. But the government did exert ´non-violent pressure´…”
In the light of this experience or, for that matter, Velupillai Prabhakaran´s experience with Rajiv Gandhi and the Indian government, one can never say when this third party will withdraw its support and join hands with the Bangladesh government in enforcing a solution preferable to the latter. As a rising modernist power, with strong foundations in nationalist and centralised doctrines, the Indian state can ill-afford to advocate the Hill people´s demand for political autonomy for long. Odd as it may sound, only a quick distancing from India can save the autonomy campaign from having an ominous outcome.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
The agenda is clear. The emancipation of the Hill people, like the emancipation of the majority of Bangladeshis, can only come about by transforming the whole state of Bangladesh; the two are intrinsically related. Modern statehood must give way to a post-nationalist mode of living. Anything less than that is sheer illusion, readily consumed by those who shamelessly prefer old wine in new bottles.