The Step-children of Bangladesh

The Step-children of Bangladesh
by Hana Shams Ahmed for

Taindong union in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh has recently come under attack by ruthless land-grabbers, the Government-cum-military sponsored settlers in this hilly region of the country. With this attack it has become clear for the nth time that the ‘Peace’ Accord in 1997 signed between the government and the Shanti Bahini (peace force) rebels has failed to bring peace for the Jumma people of the three hill districts. Before the Accord, the fight was between the Bangladesh military and the rebels who were seeking self-determination for the Jumma people of the area. After the Accord, the disarming of the Shanti Bahini, and an unfulfilled promise by all successive governments since 1997, the fight of the Jummas is now of survival, in a country where the state is essentially carrying out a slow operation of demographic engineering. In the latest attack, more than a thousand adibashis (indigenous people) is said to have crossed the border to the Indian state of Tripura, to seek refuge. They were eventually requested to come back, until, it seems, the next attack on them.

On 3 August 2013, at around 3 in the afternoon, an arson attack was carried out on the homes of indigenous people in four villages of Taindong union under Matiranga upazila of Khagrachari district of the CHT. Around 35 homes were burnt down during this time. A number of homes were looted and two Buddhist temples were vandalized, Buddha statues destroyed and prayer halls set on fire. There were also allegations that Jummas were detained and tortured by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials. The attack was instigated after a rumor spread that a Bengali settler motorcyclist had been kidnapped by the adibashis of the area. There are reportedly six BGB camps in close proximity of the affected areas. There had been trouble in this remote area in Taindong for a while before the attack and in the days leading up to the attack the Jummas of the area had been accused of beating up a Bengali man and Bengalis of the area supported by a Bengali political students’ group called the Bangali Chhatra Parishad (Bengali Students Council) had staged demonstrations against the adibashis, chanting slogans by using the loudspeakers inside the nearby mosque to incite the Bengalis of the area. It may be mentioned here that the Jummas of this area are internally displaced to begin with. In the 1960s about 100,000 indigenous people were displaced after the then government which built the Kaptai Dam in the Rangamati district where 40 percent of cultivable land of the CHT went under water.

The fire that devastated the homes of indigenous people in Taindong is not the first such an attack in the CHT since the Accord. On 22 September 2012 Bengali settlers carried out attacks on indigenous peoples in the Rangamati district town. Many adibashis were severely injured during this attack. On 17 April 2011 settlers carried out attacks on seven adibashi villages of under Khagrachari district. About 111 homes and two Buddhist temples were burnt down. On 17 February 2011 settlers attacked and burnt down adibashi peoples’ homes in the Rangamati district. 23 homes and school was burnt down. On 19 and 20 February 2010, about 500 homes belonging to adibashi people under Sajek union of the Rangamati district were set on fire and two persons shot and killed allegedly by army firing. This was followed by further arson attacks in Khagrachhari town two days later. On 20 April 2008, a group of settlers reportedly attacked several adibashi villages, injuring people and burning down more than 70 houses.

Two of the most important parts of the peace agreement that remain to be implemented are the two of the most sensitive issues for the government – that of the settling of the land disputes and dismantling of the temporary military camps. An operational land commission in the three years since the Awami League came into power in 2009 failed to deal with any land issues and the few hundred military camps in the three districts make it the only militarized area of the country. The military does not budge from the area citing ‘sovereignty’ of the area, and communal attacks. But especially since the massive attack in Sajek in 2010 it has become clear that the military and all the security forces in the area are playing a covert role in instigating these attacks. This is now quite an open secret. The pattern of all the attacks in the last few years has been chillingly the same. There is rumor that a Bengali settler of the area has been attacked by the adibashis. The Bengalis of the area get infuriated at the news of the attack on their brother, by a member of the ‘others’, and without bothering to verify this, a huge number of Bengalis come out with their weapons and attack the homes of the adibashis until at least a hefty number of homes are burnt to the ground. There are camps of the security forces nearby. They know of this attack and they watch this attack without lifting a finger to do anything about it. In most occasions the security forces act as a shield for the attackers.

At least in the 3 August attack in Taindong, the supposedly abducted Bengali settler turned up safe and sound soon after the attack and even the local administration admitted that the whole abduction and retaliation was premeditated. Who is going to be held responsible for all these attacks? How are we going to ensure justice? And how long are these attacks going to take place while the government looks the other way? From the 17 February 2011 attack case in Longadu, the possible answers to these questions seem even more chilling. Two police reports have found that no one was responsible for the attack. The na-rajis (rejections) of the case reports have been filed from the adibashis side. But if attacks are facilitated by part the state machinery itself (police), who is going to accept responsibility and face prosecution? In the meantime more adibashis are attacked in a shoe factory over the dismissal of a Bengali man from the factory saying that there is discrimination in the factory because 90 percent of the employees are adibashis. Earlier there was trouble in the factory because the adibashis were eating lunch during the month of Ramadan.

This Awami League government has failed to protect the rights of the minorities. Apart from all the unanswered questions in the attacks in the CHT, the attack on the age-old Buddhist temples in Ramu in September last year has created more questions than answers. In all of these attacks the two opposition local political parties seem to work jointly. Both BNP and Awami League leaders seem to be members of the CHT Somo Odhikar Andolon (CHT Equal Rights Movement). Why Bengalis need a movement for equal rights in an area that is overwhelmingly Bengali-led, including the business owners, military and administration is of course another question. But the rhetoric seems to be that the Bengalis are protecting the interest of the country. It seems that the Bangladesh government and the Bengali people think that the country belongs to the Bengalis. The patriotism that supposedly invoked men and women to take up arms in 1971 to fight against the oppression of the Pakistani now invokes hate for those who do not belong to the Bengali majority – the Urdu-speaking population of the country and the adibashis. In recent times, this patriotism, this love for ones country, which is not much more than ethnocentricism, provokes Bengalis to take up arms against the country’s minorities – to burn their homes, to vandalize their property and places of worship, to beat up, rape and kill women and children. The adibashis it seems, have become the step children of Bangladesh.

* The title is a reference to the stereotyped Disney portrayal of the nature of relationship between step parents and children of the Cinderella kind. The intention of the title was to make a point about the nature of relationship between the state and the adibashi people. The writer does not concur to the stereotype.

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