Mangal Kumar Chakma                                    

         The main national political parties and the alliances have come up with their own election manifesto keeping the 11th Parliamentary Elections ahead. In context of political culture of Bangladesh though an election manifesto is mostly considered of mere a paper document, yet there leaves no space to undermine it like anything else. It is needless to speak out that after the election the ruling party or the parties in opposition do not show interest in their manifestos to the expected level. Despite being so, in line with the people of all walks of life, the indigenous peoples take interest in the manifestos. Since, the indigenous peoples constitute to be the most poverty-ridden and neglected population in political participation among ranks of the backward and marginal sections of citizens in the country. The indigenous peoples examine the plans and commitments of the parties published in their manifestos with keen interest. The highly valued column of Shohel Hajong, a young indigenous right activist, appeared in the Daily Sangbad on 17 December 2018 has been of no exception to the longing usually cherish by the peoples of indigenous origin.

The ruling party Awami League’s election manifesto titled: “Bangladesh on March towards Prosperity” is one of the published party’s manifestos. The manifesto contains a background depicting problems in 109 words titling: ‘3.29 small races, ethnic groups, religious minorities and underdeveloped communities’ followed by 158 worded 6 ‘Successes and Achievements’ during the previous tenures and lastly, the ‘Future Aims and Plans’ that contains 5 commitments in 110 words.

Of the commitments under part ‘Aims and Plans,’ the newness is: formation of National Minority Commission and formulation of Special Minority Protection Act. However, though the indigenous peoples living in plains were mentioned as ‘Adivasi’ (indigenous peoples) in its election manifesto 2008 but later period the ruling party has taken a U-turn by terming them as ‘small ethnic groups’ and as it had commitments in its manifestos respectively appeared 2008 and 2014 national elections, this year also the party has reiterated the same commitments – it may safely be said. The ruling party manifesto reads: ‘rights to land, water reservoir and forest of indigenous peoples of plain land will be ascertained; a land commission for them will be formed; all discriminating laws and injustice system will be put to an end; and their culture and uniqueness will be preserved, etc.’

Under part ‘Successes and Achievement’, it has been mentioned to the affect that ‘the Land Commission program including special preservative measures for rights of the small ethnic groups living in plains to lands, water bodies and forest areas has been kept active’ and ‘for the national and religious minorities, their rights to lands, homesteads, forests, water bodies, and other properties have been made protected.’ But what does the real situation reveal? During the last 10 years, not a speck of sign of taking effort for forming up such Land Commission came to notice, let alone already formed of Land Commission for recovering the dispossessed lands of the indigenous peoples living in the plains! Instead, the indigenous peoples of plains have fallen merciless prey in the face of continued and forcible illegal land occupation, and eviction from their lands over the years together. In this regard, it is significantly notable that the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad has been all the time claiming that the individual seated in the state power and the leaders and workers of the main political parties are involved in robbing the lands of the indigenous peoples including the religious and national minorities. It is fact that the gravity of robbing lands of the minority peoples has gradually enhanced due to immunity that has been being provided by the government to the persons involved in illegal occupation of lands over the two terms in the power.

The biggest concern is that the election manifesto of the ruling party, under part ‘Aims & Plans’ does not contain any word about implementation of the CHT Accord.  Absence of CHT Accord implementation issue in election manifesto of the signatory party of the Accord, is though unbelievable but it is the reality. It may be said that the conjecture of Mr. Santu Larma that goes: ‘This government will never implement the Accord’ is all about to get translated into reality with this stance of the government. On the other hand, under part: ‘Successes & Achievement’, it has been mentioned that ‘in order to implement the Accord, as per various provisions of the Accord, the subjects concerned have already been devolved to the CHT Regional Council and Hill District Councils,’ and ‘measures already been taken to keep the process of devolvement of power under going.’ Whereas, it is as bright as the day that many subjects and functions including the local administration, law & order, police (local), land & land management, forest & environment, etc. have not yet been transferred to these Councils. What is most regrettable matter is that even after 21 years of signing of the Accord, no initiative has been undertaken to hold the elections in these Councils. The government has left the tasks of formulation of Election Rules and Electoral Rules including preparation of voter lists only with the permanent residents hanging during the last 10 years, as before.

During one decade long tenure of the state power, the government has though accomplished some of the tasks, such as, devolution of some subjects and functions to the Hill District Councils, withdrawal of 35 temporary camps, construction of CHT Complex in Dhaka, amendment of contradictory provisions of CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act in 2016, but no effective initiative has so far been taken on government side to address the unimplemented core issues of the Accord, such as, withdrawal of rest more than 400 temporary camps including de facto military rule ‘Operation Uttoron’, restitution and return of the dispossessed lands to the indigenous peoples through Land Commission, cancellation of land leases, proper rehabilitation of India returnee and internally displaced refugees in their disposed lands after having recovered and returned to the actual owners, legal and administrative measures for preservation of the tribal-predominant feature of CHT region, amendment to the national and special laws applicable to the CHT so as to make them in consonance with the CHT Accord, rehabilitation of the Bengali settlers outside CHT region, etc.

Under part: ‘Successes & Achievements’, the election manifesto upholds to the affect that a good number of projects including tourism industries has already been undertaken and decision has already been taken, to pay by three times of the market price for compensation of the lands taken in acquisition as it is applicable in plains. But the notable fact is that wherein the issues laid in the Accord have not been implemented, the CHT Regional Council and three Hill District Councils introduced as a part of special administrative system in the CHT have been left dysfunctional, eviction of the indigenous peoples from their ancestral homesteads and lands continues unabated and where the human rights of the indigenous peoples are under gross violations all the time, right therein, letting the CHT region get floated in the tide of development is, however meant nothing else but to follow the earlier wrong policy of seeking a solution to the CHT political crisis by development means and thus as a result, the CHT crisis is being pushed into more complexity.

The election manifesto of BNP, the party that stayed 12 years away of the state power, upholds two objectives under title: ‘Small ethnic groups and minorities.’ It reads: “Life, property, dignity and status of the small ethnic groups living in the hills and plains will be safe guarded. Job and education opportunities to the backward small ethnic groups living in the hills and plains and development program of the CHT will be strengthened” and “To all the races irrespective of group, opinion, community, religion and caste, security of social, political, economic and religious rights as mentioned in the constitution will be ensured to the fullest and to this end, Religious Minority Affairs Ministry will be established.”

As it had been earlier, the BNP has carefully avoided the issues of implementation of CHT Accord and the principal issues of the land rights of the indigenous peoples living in plains. From this stance, it may be undoubtedly concluded that the BNP is not at all interested in the principal aspects of the crisis with the indigenous peoples, such as, regional autonomy for CHT region and cultural autonomy to the indigenous peoples in plains and above all, solving out the land disputes of the indigenous peoples. It may be recalled that the then BNP-led alliance opposed the CHT Accord during the time of signing of the Accord in 1997. At that time, BNP-led alliance had though declared that it would cancel the CHT Accord if it had the opportunity to be in the state power, yet the alliance did not go for cancellation of the Accord when it came to power in 2001. The BNP-led government did devolve the Youth Development Department at District and Upazila levels to the Rangamati and Bandarban Hill District Councils, but it undertook no effective measure to proceed the implementation of core issues of the Accord. The four-party alliance government rather undermined the terms of the Accord by various forms and means. Especially, the then government stepped up various programs to cripple Jumma-dominated feature of CHT region and its special administrative system. On observation of the BNP’s election manifesto, it may be concluded without any hesitation that in questions of political solution to the CHT crisis and problems of indigenous peoples living in the country, the BNP has not yet been able to come out from the communal and fundamentalist wrapping as it has been two decades back. Whereas, right now, the BNP-nominated candidates in the CHT is uttering commitment to the affect that BNP will implement the CHT Accord if it is voted to power in the coming national elections.

The election manifesto of Jatiyo Oikya Front (National United Front) under para-27 headlined “Religious and small ethnic groups,” states: “A Ministry of Minority Affairs will be established as to ensure human dignity, rights, security and opportunities of the minorities. Even a slight lacking in security matters of the minority peoples will be dealt with utmost importance. Any attack upon the minority communities will be judged in the Special Tribunal. Affective measures will be undertaken to preserve culture of the small ethnic groups living in the hills and plains. It is through enhancement of economic activities in the small ethnic areas, their socio-economic situation will be developed.”

In fact, formation of Special Tribunal for trial of any attack upon the small ethnic groups is undoubtedly be considered as a positive gesture. But in context of the statement made in the election manifesto, it may be said that the Jatiyo Oikkya Front is also interested in judging the CHT crisis as an economic problem and it is rather not interested to hold the crisis to be a political and national issue and issue of establishing rights to the lands. Also, there is no trace of commitment over implementation of the CHT Accord, which was signed to resolve the CHT crisis by political means at national level. Whereas, the Gano Forum leadership once had been highly vocal on implementation of the CHT Accord and constitutional recognition of the indigenous peoples. It may be said that in the manifesto of the political parties claiming to be democratic and non-communal, such as, Gano Forum, JSD (Rob) and Nagorik Oikyo all of which are allies of the Jatiya Oikya Front, should have clear, specific and reality-based commitments on the CHT and indigenous peoples’ issues.

In the 18-point election manifesto of Jatiyo Party (Ershad), there is no separate commitment with headlines in the name of indigenous peoples or small-ethnic groups. But under the headline titled: “Protection of interest of the religious minority”, under point 18th, there is a commitment saying that 30 seats in the parliament will be reserved for religious minorities while there will be opportunity in employment and higher studies and Minority Affairs Ministry and Minority Commission will be formed. The Manifesto of Jatiyo Party also leaves no room specifying the CHT Accord and land dispute – the principal problem of the indigenous peoples. As usual, the issue of introducing provincial system and federal governments deserves to be an exceptional in the election manifesto. Once, though there was a provision to make CHT a separate province as envisaged in the Ershad’s provincial system but later, the provision was deleted and this has not been restored in the manifesto.

On the other, the election manifesto of Bam Gonotantric Jot (Left Democratic Alliance) under point 18 titled: “Proper recognition and establishment of rights of the various nationalities, indigenous societies and Dalits,” the statement includes: constitutional recognition of various nationalities, endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, return of the lands of indigenous peoples through Land Commission, withdrawal of army from CHT by phases and implementation of CHT Accord, formation of Land Commission for the indigenous peoples in plains and priority preference to the indigenous peoples in distributing the ‘Khas’ lands. It may be said that the election manifesto of Bam Gonotantric Alliance properly contains the issues of the indigenous peoples. But the issues like ‘peaceful co-existence of Jumma people and Bengali population in the CHT, to end up exploitation of the traditional institutions in the hills, etc. seem to be obscure and confusing.

Besides, the election manifesto of Communist Party of Bangladesh titled: “Vision: Liberation War-71” contains the commitments on indigenous peoples issue stating about constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, education through mother tongue, full implementation of the CHT Accord and to end up the unfairness and injustice. The Workers Party, JASAD (Inu) and Revolutionary Workers Party also declared their respective manifestos in the same manner.

In the manifestos of various political parties’ commitments have been made to form up Minority Affairs Ministry and formation of Minority Commission, etc. It can safely be said that it is undoubtedly a positive indication and advancement of a pace in establishing rights of the indigenous peoples and minority communities. But with exception to the manifesto of Jatiyo Party (Ershad), in ensuring political participation of minority communities and indigenous peoples, commitment for reservation of seats in the parliament and local government bodies for the indigenous and minority peoples is nowhere to be seen. It is needless to say that the national, linguistic and religious minorities have been demanding for 60 seats for reservation for them including 15 reserved seats for the indigenous peoples. It may be considered that without ensuring political participation of the indigenous and minorities, only forming up Ministry for minority communities is tantamount to pouring water on top instead of the bottom of a plant. Indeed, the issue of establishing rights of the indigenous peoples is rooted in establishing democratic, non-communal and progressive governance systems and society in a country.  But these issues in the manifestos of the main political parties have been left neglected, obscure and confusing. The manifestos of political parties were cramped with commitments of development. The issues like democracy, human rights, rule of law, political solution to the problem of nationalities, etc. have been left aside. This constitutes the great idealistic challenge in the present political culture of the country.