Since today is the 19th anniversary of the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, a brief review of the recent history of the indigenous people is in order.
Mir Qasim Ali Khan, the British East India Company-installed governor of Bengal after the ouster of Mir Jafar Ali Khan, gifted the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to the Company in the 1760s. In 1860, the British designated CHT a district of Bengal.
The Company demanded that the indigenous people pay taxes in the form of karpas or raw cotton, which were collected by Bengali agents, beginning the Bengali migration to the predominantly Pahari CHT. The Bengali migrants were government agents, traders, and money-lenders.
The Company switched to cash taxation in 1789, forcing the monetisation of the centuries-old subsistence-oriented, Pahari Jhum economy. Jhum cultivation involved clearing the thicket of the hillside through fire, which yielded fresh soil, with the cinders acting as fertiliser. Seeds of different crops were mixed and sown in this soil. Rice and vegetables were harvested within months; cotton, turmeric, etc several months later; and wood years later. After the land lost its fertility, it was left fallow for 15-20 years, and the process is repeated on different slopes.
The British opposed Jhum cultivation because it yielded low revenue, and it was harder to impose political control over a people continually shifting their cultivation lands. They introduced plough cultivation in the 1850s, which created a demand for Bengali cultivators from the plains who possessed the requisite knowhow. The Chakma elite employed Bengali share-croppers to plough their paddy lands in the flat valleys of the CHT. The introduction of wet-rice cultivation resulted in the influx of Bengali craftsmen, artisans, and traders.
The valley-dwelling and plough-cultivating Chakma, Marma, and Tripura became relatively prosperous and politically dominant. They were less resistant to cultural intrusion from the plains than the ridge-top, Jhum-cultivating Mru, Bawm, Pankhua, and Khumi.
Disregarding the indigenous people’s historical rights to the lands, in 1875, the British created two categories of land: The Reserve Forests (RF), and the District Forests, now known as Unclassed State Forests (USF). By 1882-83, nearly a quarter of the total area of the CHT was “enclosed” as Reserve Forests, transforming the lands of the CHT into different categories of property.
In 1881, the government of Bengal restructured authority among the Hill peoples, based on three “chiefs” among their society. Most of the CHT was divided into three “circles,” each placed under a chief: The Mong Circle under its chief in Manikchhari, the Chakma Circle under its chief in Rangamati, and the Bohmong Circle under its chief in Bandarban.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900 provided the legal framework for civil, revenue, and judicial administration in CHT. The regulation vested the deputy commissioner (DC) with all executive, judicial, and financial powers, with absolute power over land rights and settlements. It reaffirmed the traditional structure based on the three circles, while redefining the relationship between the chiefs and the district administration under the DC.
Pakistan kept the CHT Regulation of 1900, and Pakistan’s 1956 constitution preserved CHT’s status as an “excluded area.” The Pakistani government was primarily interested in exploiting the rich natural resources of the CHT. Karnaphuli Paper Mill in Chandraghona (1953), which utilised bamboo and softwood from local forests, was the first developmental intervention. The Karnaphuli Multipurpose Project (“Kaptai Project” of 1957-63), that generated hydro-electricity by damming Karnaphuli river at Kaptai, was the second.
The Kaptai Lake inundated the valleys of Karnaphuli River and its tributaries, including the Chengi, Kassalong, and Maini valleys. About 400 square miles were submerged, including “Old” Rangamati town, the main urban centre of CHT. Catastrophically, 54,000 acres of the highly-prized plough lands were submerged, amounting to 40% of plough lands. Many Paharis were uprooted, and became internally displaced. The Kaptai project saw further influx of Bengali and non-Bengali Pakistanis who monopolised trade, commerce, and government jobs, fueling Pahari resentment.
In the conflict between Bengali-Pakistani nationalisms in 1971, most indigenous people remained noncommittal. While the Chakma and Bohmong chiefs gave support to Pakistan, the Mong chief, and some Chakma and Marma leaders attempted to join Mukti Bahnini, only to be rebuffed.
To date, only a few provisions of the Peace Accord have been implemented
Limited collaboration with the Pakistani Army by some of them resulted in the erroneous notion that all indigenous peoples opposed Bangladesh’s liberation, which they did not, and for which they suffered deadly retribution.
Leading an indigenous delegation, Manabendra Narayan Larma met then Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with a four-point demand on February 15, 1972: (1) Autonomy for CHT along with the establishment of a special legislative body for the region. (2) Retention and endorsement of the CHT Regulation of 1900 in the new constitution of Bangladesh. (3) Continuation of the offices of the tribal chiefs. (4) Constitutional provisions restricting further amendment of the CHT Regulation, and imposing a ban on further Bengali settlement in the CHT.
Bangladesh’s Constitution (November 4, 1972) ignored their aspirations. Abandoned by their own government, they formed the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS) to protect their interests. In response to the government’s gradual militarisation of CHT (1972-75), the PCJSS’s military wing, “Shanti Bahini,” (SB) was born.
Believing that foreign powers were fomenting unrest, and had designs for the natural resource-rich CHT, General Ziaur Rahman’s regime banned PCJSS, sending the movement underground to India, and triggering SB insurgency in 1976. A component of the counter-insurgency strategy was to evict and relocate them from their land, and settle Bengalis there.
While the SB primarily targeted Bengali settlers, the security forces burned villages, tortured, and killed men, and raped women in retaliation, they allege.
Unable to quell the insurgency, in October 1983, General Ershad’s regime announced its willingness to suspend further migration of Bengalis to CHT, start dialogue with the PCJSS leadership, and grant amnesty to rebels.
It also initiated a generally successful policy of government largesse to “pacify” the indigenous population. The CHT Peace Accord was signed on December 2, 1997 by the AL government.
In exchange for general amnesty, repatriation, and rehabilitation, the PCJSS/SB members surrendered and disarmed. The government agreed to mechanisms for recognising and recording of indigenous land rights, cancellation of illegal leases and settlements, setting up of a Land Commission, a Ministry of CHT Affairs to be headed by an indigenous minister, and a regional council (RC) with jurisdiction over the entire CHT. To date, only a few provisions of the Peace Accord have been implemented.
Current estimates put CHT’s generally Theravada Buddhism-practicing Pahari population at over 50%. From less than 2% during the British period, the Bengali, mostly Muslim, population has skyrocketed to 49%. Although the demographic dynamics of two-and-a-half centuries cannot be reversed overnight, indigenous grievances can be partially assuaged if the ecological disaster, Kaptai Dam, is dismantled.
That would resurface 4,000 square miles of land, which should be restored to the indigenous Bangladeshis of CHT for their exclusive use.
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar.