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Protect the people, not just profits

  • Published at 06:01 pm August 19th, 2019
Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Have rubber plantations become the new agents of land dispossession in the CHT?

In the late 1970s, when the Bengali settlers set foot on the hills of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, they thought they were conquistadors, conquering both the land and the people who lived there for the newly formed nation. In many respects, they didn’t even discriminate between empty land and home. 

Everything was up for grabs.

The Constitution of Bangladesh declares in Article 23A: “The state shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects, and communities.”

But looking into the constitution wasn’t really a helpful option. So, instead, the land was simply proclaimed terra nullius -- apropos of the British doctrine.

However, everyone knew that the land was not empty. Everyone knew its inhabitants and their unique way of life. But safeguarding it wasn’t seen as a necessity. 

The land for the majority Bengali settlers, profitable plantations was the only important factor and without their dominion, the existing landscape would only be a wilderness, they believed.

The remarkable Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord has done much, at least on paper, to educate our society about how wrong they were with the first article of the accord that recognized CHT as an indigenous populated region and specified the necessity for the protection of its character.

However, in practice, not much has changed.

The wave of settlers may have stymied, but the plantations are still at-large.

The Natun Para village of the Lama upazila, Bandarban serves as the latest instance where a consortium of rubber companies was recently at the frontline attempting to replicate the old battle between the Bengali people and nature.

It is the same old script: On the one side stands the majority of Bengalis, rubber plantations, and the administration; and on the other stands the wilderness and a cluster of 20 Mru families who have previously been displaced from the Dhekichara Para village of the same district as a consequence of another episode of Man vs Wild.

In a petition, the law-abiding Mru community urged the district commissioner for the safety of their lives and livelihoods as the village has been attacked by armed men on July 30 and 31.

In any functional democracy -- where basic human rights such as right to life and liberty are more than just lip service -- such a heinous attack on a helpless indigenous group by corporations would generate both media and political uproar.

Solidarity and drastic action would follow. Given that the ruling class of the country these days often aggressively propagates an ambiguous picture that, under their watch, Bangladesh has transformed into an ideal and just democratic heaven, it is also reasonable for us to expect no less. 

However, when it comes to the CHT, the picture is so blurry that even this severe incident seemed like a mere dot in a monumental Guernica of sufferings.

It escaped the mainstream media radar and could never inspire political solidarity. 

Luckily, because of a desperate push for justice by a network of bloggers through social media, the officers of the local army camp came to aid, and the rubber plantations have been told to stay away from the Mru village for now.

The army personnel deserves applause for this timely action. But this is not a permanent solution.

Incidents like this keep happening across the country and we need to put an immediate end to it.

Otherwise the picture of the Kingdom of Heaven that the politicians propagate will never realize.  

The human rights hero of modern India, Justice Rajinder Sachar, puts it precisely in his groundbreaking Sachar Report: “In any country, the faith and confidence of the minorities in the functioning of the state in an impartial manner is an acid test of it being a just state.”

Maybe we cannot give back the life that the indigenous people once had. But we have learned enough from our past mistakes that it is possible to understand and minimize -- and thus resolve -- the suffering of people who are our own.

We can surely prevent the rubber plantations from spreading. 

When human cost is so high, we do not have to accept the anarchy of the rubber plantations who have already caused such severe damage in such brief time. 

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger.

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