Several blog posts have been written in the recent months since the Sajek incident in CHT (Chittagong Hill Tracts) followed by two well-publicised fact finding reports. These reports also brought the Kalpana Chakma campaign in the forefront, once again, reviving her cause in the public domain. While activists are mobilising, organising, speaking for justice, the establishment decided to strike again. This week, five more activists including Alakesh Chakma and Ani Bikash Chakma have been picked up by “plain clothes” security personnel. No charges have been filed; no right to an attorney; no one even knows where they have been taken. They simply disappeared. [Update: according to one unverified report, they have been released after three days of detention in an undisclosed location].
Going through the reports gave me a strange feeling. They reminded me of similar arson attacks, similar disappearances – that have taken place before. Nothing seem to have changed. Same opposing groups, same patterns of prejudice, same abuses, same cover ups. Everything is same except the year stamps. Twelve years ago it was Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance, this year it is Alakesh and Ani. Twelve years ago, the arson attacks took place near New Lalyaghona (Kalpana’s home village); this year, it is in Sajek. Twelve years ago, in that fateful month of madness prior to the national election, 38 people disappeared from Baghaichari including Kalpana; this year the number is rising with promises for more incidents like this in the coming months. As if a video scene is being replayed by someone. Even the official versions and the contrasting human rights narratives sound like distant echoes. They remind us of the outrage, still alive in our memory; they remind us of the sense of helplessness, still raw in our soul. After the noise and roars silence creeps, and in the still air I keep hearing the whisper: “impunity perpetuates injustice, . . . impunity . . . ”
The aim of this post, however, is not to highlight the similarities or differences between past and present times; it is not going to be a ‘then and now’ post. There will, understandably, be better times for walks in the memory lane. Today, I would rather try look at the proverbial “big picture.”
First, let me look at some of the common narratives. With a political dilemma as complex and multifaceted as the CHT, one cannot help being astonished by the surprising simple mindedness of the existing narratives. In them, the nuances are often ignored, gray areas remain unacknowledged. And with some exceptions — these narratives are almost always grounded in deep rooted prejudices, biases and insecurities – all our own. One narrative center on portrayals of Bengali settlers (Bangalees) as violent, communal and inherently criminal; the contrasting narrative portray the Paharis (the Chakma, Marma, Mog, Tripura, Bom and other minority communities in CHT) as exotic, peace-loving, violence averse people. One narrative depicts the CHT cause as a conspiracy against Bangladesh with strings pulled by a powerful neighbouring country; the other narrative adopts a rigid normative position, focusing strictly on the human rights aspects of the conflict with the Paharis portrayed as perpetual victims. One narrative needs a demonised Military establishment (stationed in the region which is constantly scheming) to justify the abuse stories; the other narrative forged by the majority Bangalees needs to show the Paharis as opportunistic, half-civilised and untrustworthy. Both narratives need heroes and villains, ironically on both sides. Undermining, dehumanising, and trivialising the other side’s version is the underlying theme of all these narratives, million miles away from any meaningful solution to the mess that is CHT. With narratives, the problem is – they are more than just words; they generate support, create converts, influence actors, and even raise armies. Slowly but surely, narratives can and have divided nations – as history is our witness in this region called the sub-Continent. These narratives are, for lack of a better expression, as divisive and polarising as the eerie experience of walking through the villages of Baghaichari and Sajek. Those who have walked those roads in these suspect times would know what I am talking about.
Ideally, this piece could have been addressed to two classes of people. One, the unapologetically offensive ones, the irredeemably racist and habitually communal ones – who have been vocal and active against the CHT-cause from the word go. The second group would comprise of the “confused ones” whose naive observations often include statements such as:
2. I hear the whole CHT insurgence is an Indian conspiracy. Our Army needs to be there to protect our sovereignty and guard our borders;
3. The alleged atrocities cannot be true. Our army is a well disciplined professional body who are simply not capable of behaving in such manners. What if the Paharis are manipulating a portion of our civil society and the media with their made-up sob stories? Things really cannot be that bad!
I would not say it is futile but tonight I have neither the patience nor the inclination to preach to the first group; perhaps, some other time. I address today’s post only to the second category of people comprising of Bangalee individuals who had always been in two minds on this divisive “not so simple” issue.
Their first and second questions involve matters of “nationality” debates and historical records. A huge amount of writings on them are already available so i better not go in that direction. I do not have anything to add to that. The third question is a matter of investigated and recorded facts. In the last two decades, dozens of independent human rights fact finding missions have been carried out in the region. The reports have been published, quoted in both national and international media as well as archived in the repositories. Anyone with genuine interest in human rights issues related to CHT can avail them to make up their own minds.
To be honest, similar scepticisms are not so uncommon among the modern day Pakistanis who find it hard to believe the atrocities perpetrated by their patriotic army during the 1971 Liberation War. So, my response to the CHT sceptics would be: “please believe me when I say the atrocities are real, they are not made up.” There was a time when I used to be one of those sceptics myself, one of those confused ones, in those naive years of my youth. But after that I had the opportunity to be closely associated with a number of human rights fact finding missions in CHT. I had the opportunity to talk to the people on the ground and walk those eerie walks. In the process, many many years ago, something fundamentally changed in my quintessential Bangalee soul. I learned to separate the truths from the lies. I learned that things are really much much worse on the ground than what is reported and fed in the mainstream media.
A sustainable, democratic and peaceful solution to the CHT problem must be found before it is too late.
CHT is a genocide waiting to happen
Few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by someone whose area of academic expertise was genocide prevention. Discussing Rwanda’s Hutu-Tutsi scenario, he argued: “genocides just don’t happen out of the blue; slowly but steadily they reach their catastrophic peak.” I remember him saying that the early signs of genocide can easily be detected and be prevented with minimal intervention from the civil society. And these signs do not always come in the forms of axes and machettis, gang rapes and pogrom. Often they are subtle, sometimes too understated to be noticed. The signs can be anything between a hate speech here, a communal gathering there, a threat here, a murder there etc. Reading the recent Sajek reports, I had an ominous feeling. I could not help feeling that CHT might as well be a genocide waiting to happen. Let me quote some parts from the Sajek report:
A Karbari from one village said “If they see 2/3 of us talking to each other, they inform the Army Camp.” Another Pahari inhabitant of Gongaram Mukh, unwilling to state his name, said “We were told to put up our houses about 2/3 km away from the road. The Settlers’ houses would be next to the road. Ali and his cronies said that they would slaughter us like sacrificial cows if we said anything about it.”
. . .
A Chakma inhabitant of Gongaram Mukh said that Ali and some others had come to his shop on 19th April and threatened him that if he remained there till after dusk, then they would burn him and the shop down and kill his whole family. In fear, he sent his wife and children to another house that very evening. On the next night, 20th April, his house was burnt down.
. . .
The main reason for this tension was that the Bangalees had been erecting houses near or adjacent to the Pahari houses. The same sight could be seen all along the four kilometers of the main road between Baghaihat and Gongaram. Next to the Pahari house or across it is a house of a Bangalee settler, in which no-one appears to stay or to sleep at night. After talking to the Settler there, we learned that these huts had been put up over the last two months or so. From the beginning the Paharis could not accept Bangalee settlements on their traditional lands. There had already been several conflicts and confrontations over this issue. But the hut construction did not end in the face of these protests and the tension increased. [see here, at p.2]
Any day from now, the CHT situation may blow out of proportion and turn into a situation close to an ethnic cleansing. The worse thing is – that may happen with the help of our own army and our own government which would probably make it even more dangerous. Do we really want that to happen in our names? Do we really want to wait, take chances, and see if that happens? I do not. If that makes me any less patriotic than the next person, then let it be. I repeat, early signs of genocide are there. It is quite possible that I am wrong and reading too much into the situation. But what if I am not?
PsyOps: Climate of mistrust and suspicion
In the Mess Hall of the Baghaichari Zone Army Headquarter, there used to be a graffiti-type wall writing which was part of the Hall’s decoration. (This information is few years old so I am not sure if the wall writing is still there). There is a reason I am mentioning this. The content of the writing in question was indicative of the climate of mistrust that had always prevailed in Rangamati for more than two decades. I believe the readers would also agree with me if they read the following summary of the wall writing which was something along this line:
“Be careful when you meet a Pahari. They will smile at you and pretend to be your friend. But remember, in the back of their minds they are plotting against you, always. Do not trust them. Bangalees and Paharis can never be friends.”
A chill runs down my spine everytime I recall those sinister lines. Later, an army Major (presumably working in the Intelligence) explained to me that this is all part of their “Psy-Ops” (psychological operations) strategies – which basically involve actively spreading divisions and mistrusts among the inhabitants and occasionally supporting one side (eg, the Bangalees) against the other (the Paharis). According to him, the army machine cannot function in the absence of this climate of fear and mistrust. I am no military strategist so I would not understand what war games those Officers and Jawans were playing at. Also, I do not know why that particular Intelligence Officer felt inclined to share this extraordinary state secret with me. Frankly, I do not care. As far as I am concerned, there was a writing on the wall, and surely it meant something to them and that worried me most; and it still does.
I met one USAID high official who was recently transferred to Dhaka. From him, I found out that they too receive similar briefings when they join “outposts” in the third world countries. In no uncertain terms, this particular USAID officer was actually advised by his department to treat the “natives” with “suspicion and caution.” The similarities are uncanny.
Racial behaviour and condescending attitudes
Sometimes I do have problem coming to terms with the state of our own civility. I do not think anyone would deny that as a society we still haven’t reached that tolerant or civilised stage when disparaging the Paharis or belittling the CHT cause generally may be considered as politically incorrect. Many Bangalee people I know, even some of the most educated and refined ones, are quite comfortable making off-the-cuff remarks or offensive jokes or suggestions about the Paharis — without even being aware (let alone ashamed) of the racist connotations of their statements. Worse, rarely have I seen anyone protesting against such bad behaviour in a Bangalee gathering. At least in this respect, I dare say, there seem to exist a general socio-cultural acceptance of bad behaviour among our fellow Bangalees. Sometimes I do wonder – is there really any difference between the mindset of the person who is comfortable making such offensive remarks and the person who is actually setting fire to Pahari houses or raping their women? That is something to think about.
Racially superior attitudes, both loud and muted, prevail among most of our fellow Bangalees towards the Paharis. Their degree of severity may vary but they do exist, ranging from rabid racism to faint hints of racially condescending behaviour. I am sad to note that even among some of the ‘most refined and the most sensitised’ I have detected these subtle notes, albeit unintentional. I have no doubt that they too struggle hard inwardly in their minds to battle these prejudices and stereotypes; but these attitudes exist. On several occasions, I have seen refined “Dada-Didis from the big cities” visiting CHT on special events (eg, Biju festival) – treating the locals with conscious and practiced political correctness. I guess their efforts should be praised. But in them, I could not help but detect the subtle notes of complacency or notes of inequality. In my eyes, often those encounters failed to appear as interactions between equals based on respect. Some are even worse – where these dada-didis tend to treat the locals as something “exotic.” In the long run, these attitudes of perceived allies do not help. I sincerely hope I am mistaken.
The Paharis do not need charity, they do not need anyone’s “favour” or “good will.” They do not need anyone’s pity or generosity. Their’s is a just cause, not a missionary one. They are proud, upright, dignified, and generous people. As a society/community they probably represent the most progressive and civilised of Bangladeshis one would ever encounter. Where in Bangladesh women can work and move freely and safely at any hour of the day or night without being attacked except in CHT? Where else in Bangladesh one can find a community without domestic violence or dowry deaths except in CHT? Where in Bangladesh women are truly empowered with equal (and sometimes more) say in family and community matters?
I believe, the mainland Bangladeshis have a thing or two to learn from the Paharis.
Islamist Mujahid training camps
It is not news any more that there used to be several Mujahid camps even in the heart of Chittagong City. I know of at least one Kaomi Madrassah in the hills (within the city area) where Mujahids were trained to be sent to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. I have seen the camp myself. That was before all the illegal hill cutting activities started. Now, it may surprise some but both the training camp and the Madrassah were within half a mile radius of Chittagong police barrack. It is rather implausible that the law enforcement authorities did not know about their existence. Strangely, there never has been any intervention from the law.
Because of massive hill-cutting (thanks to successive Mayors of Chittagong with the connivance of illegal property developers), long gone are those magnificent hills, and long lost are those Mujahid outfits. I will leave the environmental story for another post. The point is, the training camps moved. One theory is they moved to the deeper regions of CHT as I have been told by several people including one eye witness. As far as this theory is concerned it is still “hearsay” to me, and therefore, is something that needs to be verified with more concrete evidence. However, as a matter of logic, it is not implausible since the hill tracts would be a much better place to hide clandestine training camps. If that really is the case, I would be curious to know if the military administration in CHT have any role in the matter.
Problems of a military solution
Sovereignty-insecured anti-India attitude is one of the reasons why our military strategists think the CHT solution needs to be a military one. Their solution is to populate the land with as many mainland Bangalees as possible so that the Paharis become minority in their own land. All these to counter possible retaliatory and unfavourable referendums if the occasion ever arises. In the process, what the militaristic solution is actually achieving is that it is categorically alienating the Paharis in the CHT. Our military strategists are forgetting that the Paharis are also cititzens of this country, with full rights. Citizens, who must not be viewed and treated with “suspicion and caution.” Treat someone as a stranger and stranger they would become one day. As a policy this is unwise. This is also unrealistic and unsustainable because military solutions cost a lot. Our government needs to find a solution, preferably a political one, that would not involve stationing large battalions on the remote hills, or funding clandestine counter insurgency initiatives. This is not how we treat the people of Sylhet or of Dinajpur or of Barisal. So, how it is justifiable to treat the Paharis of CHT this way?
Political Leadership: Indigestion of Nationalist doctrine
The armed forces could call the shots in CHT because political leadership failed everyone in this respect towards a political solution of the problem. Also, most of the mainstream political parties and the successive political governments have adopted the policy of appeasement, never wanting to antagonise the military establishment. In the process all our leaders failed the Paharis, dating back to 1972. On one hand, BNP as one of the major political parties was itself born inside the military cantonment which in the later years tag-teamed with the most communal of the political forces such as Jamati Islami. On the other hand, to the Awami League (which claims to be a secular non-communal party), the Paharis have been nothing more than vote banks. However, AL seem to be the only party to have taken “some” steps in the right direction, eg, in the form of a Peace Treaty, although there can be a lot of criticisms about the form, content or implementation of that Treaty. Above all, post-independence Bangladesh’s history has been a continuing saga of flirtation with “nationalist” doctrines and their resulting indigestions in our body politic, and CHT seemed to have borne the brunt of it.
It is not that I am trying to side with a community merely for the sake of it being disadvantaged. Sustainable political solution in CHT is a must not only because justice demands it, strategic wisdom and lasting peace demands that too. The problem need to be solved, politically, once and for all. It is the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Today, the majority of the Bangalee population is opposing “a” CHT solution in favour of the Paharis (anecdotal and from experience, for want of researched data). But if we give currency to their versions of politico-military wisdom merely because they happen to be the majority, then there will be a time when looking back–we would regret not doing enough or not speaking up. Consider the regret many Pakistanis feel until today whose silence made continued discrimination of East Pakistan possible and eventually resulted in its separation. Can we not learn from history? We have to realise that communal and racially motivated Bangalees are part of the problem, not the solution. Therefore, if we keep paying too much heed to their twisted narratives, we will deviate from our course. Perhaps it is time we think of new narratives to approach the CHT issue with a whole new set of vocabularies. Frankly, at this moment, I have no idea what that narrative would be like but surely we need to think of something before it is too late. Because, after 37 years of creation of Bangladesh, it is now clear that the existing narratives are not helpful, for either side. Things are getting worse in CHT and the problem is not going to go away anytime soon.