CHT Regulation-1900: Civil society submits memo to PM on unethical attitudes of Attorney General

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Hill Voice, 29 August 2023, Dhaka: The civil society on behalf of 11 indigenous ethnic groups living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regarding unethical attitude of the learned Attorney General in the review cases in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on the statuary and customary laws of the CHT.

It is stated in the memorandum that the CHT Regulation 1900 (Act I of 1900) enacted in 1900 has been in force since 1900 till date as the main law for the administration of CHT. After the signing of the CHT Accord in 1997, only two amendments were made to the 1900 Regulation. First, in 2003, the power of the civil and criminal courts of the region was transferred from the officials of the administrative department to the judiciary division (judges) subordinate to the Supreme Court by Act No. 38 of 2003 (which was actually implemented in 2008). Secondly, in 2013, the power to control jum cultivation in the hill districts was transferred from the Deputy Commissioner to the Chairman of the Hill District Councils. In no other cases has any change been made in the legal system of the hill areas, therefore, the administrative and legal provisions there, consistent with the Regulations of 1900 and the rules made thereunder continue to apply.

But, in the case of Rangamati Food Products Ltd. vs Commissioner of Customs and others in 2003, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh declared the CHT Regulation 1900 as a “dead law”. When the state party appealed against the decision of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court, the then Attorney General of the Awami League-led government was in favour of the approved provisions of CHT Regulation 1900, the CHT Accord of 1997 and CHT Regional Council Act 1998, and therefore, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of the 1900 Regulation and declared it Regulation as fully “active and valid law”.

The said case was published as Government of Bangladesh vs Rangamati Food Products & Others, 69 DLR (AD) (2017). Recognizing the status of the CHT Regulation 1900, the judgement in the above-mentioned Rangamati Food case was also discussed in another case of the Appealed Division. The said case is Waggachara Tea Estate Ltd. v. Muhammad Abu Taher and Others, 16 BLD (AD), 36 |

But, one Abdul Aziz Akhand, a resident of Khagrachari hill district filed a review case, based on Civil Petition No. 54/2018, against the verdict in the Rangamati Food case. Similarly, Abdul Maleku, a resident of Khagrachari district, filed a review case against the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Wagachara case based on Civil Petition No. 192/2018. Finally, in 2021, two review cases became the regular daily agenda of the Supreme Court and still on.

In keeping with the judgement given above-mentioned cases of Rangamati Food 3 Waggachara, the Attorney General was supposed to have acted as per the government stand in the supreme court. But instead, he appealed to the court to exclude some ‘words’ and ‘phrases’ including ‘King’ and more than 10 paragraphs with elaborate interpretation of customary law in oral and written form being appeared to him those as imprecise.

The term ‘King’ is defined in the CHT Accord and other legal provisions. Among others, the subject, customary laws are recognized in the constitution of Bangladesh, the CHT Accord 1997, the CHT Regulation 1900 Act (Act no. 1 of 1900) and the CHT Land Disputes Settlement Commission Act 2001. Since, the customary laws are largely on verbal, no institution but the Supreme court can make directions to the executive department including the Ministry of CHT Affairs and to do so is a regular jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

It is to be noted that after having been informed the matter on November 2021,in a bilateral meeting, the Convenor of CHT Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee Abul Hasnat Abdullah MP requested the CHT Affairs Minister Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing MP, former minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, MPs from three hill districts (Dipankar Talukdar MP, Kujendra Lal Tripura MP and Basanti Chakma MP) and the Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Anisul Haque to provide necessary instructions to the Attorney General so that he can act positively in line with the CHT Accord of 1997. But despite the directives of the Law Minister, the Attorney General continues to play his anti-CHT Accord role.

Once the Attorney General submission, particularly, the detailed interpretation of customary law, is adopted by the Hon’ble Court, would undermine the multi-cultural fabric of CHT and the secular character of the region. As a result, there will be irreparable harm to the fundamental intention enshrined in Articles 2A, 12 and 23A of the Constitution of Bangladesh as a whole – where non-communalism and cultural pluralism are defined.

In addition, with the adoption of the submission, it will directly affect at the provisions of the Preamble to the CHT Accord of 1997, including “characteristics of backward tribal inhabited region”, the ‘Parbatya Zilla Parishads Act, 1989 (Act No. 19, 20 and 21) and the CHT Regional Councils Act 1998. It will deeply hurt the emotion of the indigenous ethnic peoples living in CHT paving the way for discontent, unrest, instability in the region and seriously disrupt the ongoing peace process got started in December 1997.