Govt unilaterally reconstitutes task force committee in violation of CHT Accord

Jumma refugees in Tripura of India, Photo: Jenneke Arens, IWGIA (1990).

4 July 2021, Hill Voice, Dhaka: It has been alleged that the Task Force Committee on Repatriation and Rehabilitation of India-returnee Tribal Refugees and Identification and Rehabilitation of Internal Displaced Persons has one-sidedly been reconstituted by the government of Bangladesh in violation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord.

In a gazette notification dated 22nd of June 2021 signed by Ashish Kumar Saha, Deputy Secretary of Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs Ministry, the Task Force Committee on Repatriation and Rehabilitation of India-returnee Tribal Refugees and Identification and Rehabilitation of Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) has been reconstituted.

The Deputy Commissioners of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban Hill Tracts have also been included as members of the said reconstituted committee. Besides, Advocate Mohiuddin Kabir has been appointed as a member of the task force committee in place of SM Shafi.

Many concerned have said that the government / Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs has taken these decisions unilaterally without any discussion or consent with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), CHT Jumma Refugee Welfare Association and CHT Regional Council. Which is not consistent with the aspirations and spirit of the CHT Accord.

Earlier, on 10 December 2017, the Task Force on Repatriation and Rehabilitation of India-returnee Tribal Refugees and Identification and Rehabilitation of IDPs was reconstituted through appointing Kujendra Lal Tripura, MP of Khagrachhari constituency, as the chairman of the committee.

Sajib Chakma, Assistant Secretary for Information and Publicity of the PCJSS, which signed the CHT Accord in 1997, told the Hill Voice that there was no provision or procedure for including Deputy Commissioners (DCs) as members of the task force. Accordingly, the Deputy Commissioners have not been included in any of the previously reconstituted taskforce committees. But this time the DCs were unilaterally included in the reconstituted taskforce committee by the government without any discussion and consent with the PCJSS, which is the latest example of the current government’s violation of the CHT Accord, he said.

An office bearer of the CHT Jumma Refugee Welfare Association, who did not want to be named, said the Hill Voice that the government has been proposing the inclusion of DCs as members of the task force committee at various meetings of the task force for a long time. However, representatives of PCJSS and Jumma Refugee Welfare Association have been opposing the government’s proposal as it is not in line with the CHT Accord. In order to increase the number of government officials and trample on the CHT Accord and 20-point package agreements, the government has appointed DCs of three hill districts as members of the Taskforce Committee, ignoring the opinion of the PCJSS and returnee Jumma refugees, he expressed.

Sajib Chakma of PCJSS further said that the Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong Division has been appointed as a member-secretary in the previous task force committees. Due to the busy schedule of the Divisional Commissioners in various government affairs, there were various complications in convening the meetings of the task force regularly and on time. Therefore, in order to bring dynamism to the work of the task force, the PCJSS has proposed to appoint the Chief Executive Officer (Deputy Secretary) of the Task Force as Member-Secretary instead of the Divisional Commissioner. But the government did not pay attention to the proposal and rather, appointed DCs of three hill districts as members in violation of the CHT Accord.

He also added that violating the Accord, the government has unilaterally been taking and implementing anti-Accord and contradictory decisions, which was further complicating the implementation process of the Accord and the situation in CHT.

It is worth mentioning that during the period of the Awami League Government (1996-2001), the government has initiated a process of rehabilitation of the Bengali settlers brought into the CHT under the state-sponsored population transfer programme for Islamisation of the CHT by identifying them as “internally displaced persons”, though the Clause 1 and 2 of Part D of the CHT Accord allow such rehabilitation only for the internally displaced Jumma (tribal) people. In protest to the continued attempts of the Task Force to identify the Bengali settlers as “internally displaced persons” for rehabilitation in the CHT, the delegations of the PCJSS and the Returnee Jumma Refugee Welfare Association staged a walk-out from the 9th round of the meeting of the Task Force held on 22 September 1999. They boldly declared to the Task Force authorities that they would not join the meeting until and unless the process of rehabilitation of the Bengali settlers in the CHT was stopped, and issued a joint press release to this effect. Later, at a unilateral meeting held on 15 May 2000, the authorities identified 90,208 Jumma (tribal) families and 38,156 Bengali settler families as “internally displaced families” and recommended a package programme for them. As a result, the works of the then task force came to a standstill in the face of strong protests from the hill people.

On 24 July 2010, a memorandum was sent to the Prime Minister on behalf of the PCJSS to withdraw the letter dated 19 July 1998 submitted to the Task Force for resettlement in the CHT considering the Bengali settlers as internal refugees from the Special Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Office. But to date no action has been taken in this regard.

Although a task force has been formed since the signing of the CHT Accord and 90,000 Jumma families have been identified as IDPs, the India-returnee Jumma refugees and IDPs have not yet been rehabilitated returning back their land and homesteads. Despite the decision of the task force meetings, the distribution of rations to the internal Jumma displaced families has not started yet. As a result, the Jumma IDPs have been forced to live an uncertain life for the past 23 years. On the other hand, out of 12,222 refugee families returned from India, the lands of 9,000 families have not been returned yet and 40 villages of the returnee Jumma refugees are still in the possession of the settlers.