The problem of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is a political and national problem. This political problem of the CHT has arisen as a result of the inclusion of the non-Muslim inhabited CHT in the Islamic state of Pakistan in 1947 in violation of the partition policy.
Since time immemorial, the CHT has been inhabited by 11 indigenous ethnic groups with different languages such as Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Bawm, Khiyang, Lusai, Khumi, Pangkhoa and Chak, who identify themselves as ‘Jumma’ (High landers).
At the time of partition in 1947, 98.5 percent of the people of CHT were non-Muslims, who are follower of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Naturally the non-Muslim Jumma people hoped that CHT region would be annexed to India. As a result, on August 15, 1947, the Jumma people hoisted the Indian flag at Rangamati, the heart of the CHT. But due to the conspiracies of the British government and the indifference role of the then Indian leaders, the non-Muslim inhabited CHT region was included in the Islamic state of Pakistan. Since the annexation to Pakistan, the Jumma people of CHT have been subjected to persecution and the conspiracy to turn the non-Muslim CHT into a Muslim-dominated region, as well as the process of ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people.
As a part of that conspiracy, thousands of Muslim people who had taken refuge in East Pakistan from India in the early fifties were settled in different parts of the CHT in order to make the Jumma people a minority. The most egregious act of ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people during the Pakistan period was the construction of the Kaptai Dam, a death trap for the Jumma people in the sixties. As a result of construction of dam, more than one lakh Jumma people were uprooted from their ancestral land. Due to lack of adequate cultivable land and absence of proper rehabilitation, 40,000 Chakma people were compelled to take shelter in India, who are still forced to lead a miserable life as stateless people in Arunachal state.
After the independence of Bangladesh, the process of ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people as well as turning the non-Muslim CHT into a Muslim-dominated region has been more intensified. During the formulation of the constitution of 1972, Manabendra Narayan Larma, a member of the Constituent Assembly, demanded regional autonomy with four points for CHT region. But the constitution completely ignored the historically recognized separate administrative status of the CHT. On the contrary, the multi-lingual Jumma people were termed as Bengalis in the constitution. Soon after the independence of country, thousands of Muslims were settled in the Feni valley of Khagrachari district in violation of the CHT Regulation of 1900. Later, the process of Islamization in Bangladesh became stronger, by deleting the secularism, one of the four pillars of the constitution in 1977 and by inserting “Bismillahir Rahmani Rahim” in the constitution during the regime of General Zia, and by declaring “Islam as the state religion” in 1988 during the regime of General Ershad.
In 1979, more than 400,000 Muslims were settled on Jumma people’s land under government initiative. In order to implement the ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people, the Muslim settlers with the help of the state machineries started genocides, land grabbing, eviction, religious persecution, forced conversion to Islam, violence against women and girls, etc. on the Jumma Buddhist, Hindu and Christian people. At least 15 genocides took place in the eighties and nineties.
Though the Sheikh Hasina government was forced to sign the CHT Accord in the face of the Jumma people’s movement, but could not come out of the communal policies of the previous dictators in the case of the CHT. As a result, although the government has implemented some provisions of the Accord, it has not come forward to implement most of the clauses of the Accord including the above-mentioned core issues of the Accord. According to PCJSS, one of the signatories of the Accord, only 25 clauses of the 72 of the Accord have been implemented. The remaining two-third clauses remain still unrealized, which has also revealed in the findings of studies by various independent and impartial researchers and institutions. However, the government is spreading false information at home and abroad that 65 of the 72 clauses of the Accord have been implemented.
Instead of preserving the features of the Jumma-dominated areas of the CHT, the government has been subtly settling the Muslim population from the plain districts including the Rohingyas. In place of rehabilitating the Muslim settlers outside the CHT, the settlers are being helped to occupy the Jumma people’s land by expanding the cluster villages. General administration, law and order, police, land and land management, forest and environment, development of communication system etc. have not been handed over to the Regional Councils and the three Hill District Councils. After the signing of the Accord, the elections of these councils were not held even in the last 26 years. As a result, the self-governance system of the permanent residents of CHT consisting of Regional Councils and three Hill District Councils, has not properly been established yet.
A total of 12,222 families of Jumma refugees have been repatriated from Tripura as per the 20-point package agreement between the government and Jumma refugees, but they have not yet been properly rehabilitated by returning their land back. A total of 9,000 families are yet to get their land back. 40 villages are still under the occupation of Muslim settlers. Even the internally displaced Jumma families (IDPs) were not rehabilitated yet. Around one lakh families of IDPs are still forced to live as refugees in reserve forests or on the land of relatives. Not a single land dispute expropriated by the Muslim settlers was resolved and returned to the Jumma people. Although the Land Commission has been formed, the Land Commission has not been able to start the judicial work of settling land disputes even in the last 26 years since the Rules of the Land Commission was not formulated.
Instead of a political and peaceful solution to the CHT problem through the implementation of the CHT Accord, the present government has now been following the policies of fascist-style solution through extensive militarization and repression in the hill areas as like as of the previous dictators. Although the insurgency in the CHT ended with the signing of the CHT Accord, Sheikh Hasina’s government imposed de facto military rule in the hilly areas under the name of ‘Operation Uttoron’ in 2001. Under the power of ‘Operation Uttaran’, the army continue to control the general administration, law and order, judiciary, commerce and business, development activities of CHT. Moreover, out of 545 temporary camps, only 101 temporary camps were withdrawn immediately after the signing of the Accord. Moreover, the current Sheikh Hasina government continues to establish new camps one after another.
Since 2014, the process of implementation of CHT Accord has been stopped. The government has not only stopped the process of implementing the Accordt, but has been trampling on the Accord in various ways. As a result, the situation in the CHT has become more complex and conflictual as in the pre-Accord period. The government continues to criminalize the movement for the implementation of the CHT Accord and the rights to self-determination of the Jumma people under the leadership of the PCJSS labeling as ‘terrorist’, ‘separatist’ and ‘extortionist’ activities. As a result, indiscriminate arrests, imprisonment in false cases, re-arrests at the jail gate after release on bail, extrajudicial killings in the name of crossfire, detention and torture in camps, house searches and harassment, violence against women etc. have become routine matters in the lives of Jumma people.
In place of de-escalating the communal divisions and tensions between Pahari-Bengalis that the previous dictatorial governments had planned, the communal divisive incitement has now been intensified. As a part of that, Muslim settlers are being organized by the army and the ruling party in a communal organization called Parbatya Chattagram Nagorik Parishad to engage in anti-Accord activities, land grabbing, communal attacks, etc. In the post-Accord period, there have been 20 communal attacks on Jumma people by Muslim settlers with the patronage of security forces and ruling groups. Hundreds of houses were burnt in these attacks. Many women and children are victims of rape and sexual violence.
Recently, the program of conversion of Jumma Buddhists, Hindus and Christians of CHT, to Islam has been intensified. Conversion is going on in Bandarban district especially with the lure of financial facilities, education, health care, house construction, cow and goat rearing, interest-free loans etc. In Bandarban district, settlements have been established under the names of organizations such as ‘Tribal Muslim Adarsha Sangha’, ‘Tribal Muslim Welfare Organization’ and ‘Tribal Adarsha Sangha Bangladesh’ and through these organizations the work of converting Jumma people to Islam is being carried out. Religious practices by the army continue to obstruct religious ceremonies and the construction of temples. Besides, various Islamic militant groups including Jamaatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) are active in the hills under the support of the administration and security forces. If this hilly area closed to India-Myanmar border and Chittagong port becomes a sanctuary for Islamic militants, then not only for Bangladesh, it will be caused for extreme national security threat for South Asian countries.
Given the government’s activities of anti-Accord and anti-interest of Jumma people, it can be concluded without a doubt that the Sheikh Hasina government will no longer implement the Accord. Like the previous dictators, the Sheikh Hasina government is also implementing a conspiracy to turn the non-Muslim CHT into a Muslim-dominated area through the army and to force the Jumma people to evict and migrate from their homeland through various oppressions and development engineering. The main objective in all these cases is to ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people. In this way today, Silent Genocide is going on against the Jumma people of CHT.
In accordance with the CHT Accord, to preserve the features of the CHT as Jumma-dominant region as well as to protect the non-Muslim inhabited CHT, it is very important to make Jumma people survive in the CHT. In this regard, it is considered essential to implement the CHT Accord properly and fully.
Putting political and diplomatic pressure to the Bangladesh government to implement the CHT Accord; making public opinion by highlighting the CHT issue in the Indian media and to strengthen publicity and campaign throughout the globe; and providing all-out assistance to strengthen the ongoing movement of Jumma people can be considered for urgent action.
Ushatan Talukder: Former MP and Vice President, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS)
Note: He presented the article at the international conference on “Human Rights Violations and Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts” held in Kolkata on September 23, 2023, jointly organized by Campaign Against Atrocities on Minorities in Bangladesh (CAAMB) and All India Refugee Front.