Hill Voice, 23 August 2021, International Desk: As a tribute to Dr. R. S. Dewan in honor of his dedication and sacrifice to the struggle for indigenous Jumma people’s right to self-determination, a virtual Zoom meeting titled “Dedication of Dr. R S Dewan: Self-determination of Indigenous Jumma peoples in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT)” was held on Sunday, August 12, 2021with international participants including those that worked closely with Dr. R. S. Dewan advocating for the CHT campaign. This commemoratory event began at 1830 hours Bangladesh Standard Time) with the observation of silence for one minute to pay tribute to Dr. R. S. Dewan. The discussion was moderated by Chandra Kalindi Roy-Henriksen. The official transcript of the virtual meeting is included here.
Participants (in order of their speeches):
Priti Bindu Chakma, Human Rights Activist, Canada
Dr. Aditya Kumar Dewan, professor at Concordia University, Canada
Dr. Wolfgang Mey, Ethnological Museum, Hamburg, co-founder of the CHT Commission
Jenneke Arens, co-founder of the CHT Commission and author of many books on Bangladesh
Elsa Stamatopoulou, co-chair on the CHT Commission, and professor at Columbia University, NYC
Sophie Grig, Survival International, London
Jan Reynders, Senior Consultant for Gender Justice, Engaging Men, GBV prevention, SRHR and Sustainable Development, Netherlands
Sivasish Roy Bunting, CHT activist with the Jumma People’s Network based in London
Binotamoy Dhamai, PhD student in Australia and member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP)
Lemona Chanda, Women Affairs and Development activist based in London
Dr. Mesbah Kamal: Professor at Dhaka University
Goutam Kumar Chakma, Central Member of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti
Pradhir Talukder Rega, rights activist, India
The online International Virtual Tribute to Dr. Ramendu Shekhar began with observation of silence for one minute in memoirs of Dr. R S Dewan. Then program started with an introductory speech on the dedication of Dr. R S Dewan by Priti Bindu Chakma.
Introductory Speech by Priti Bindu Chakma: Dr. Ramendhu Shekhar Dewan (R S Dewan), a flawless patriot and an incomparable campaign soldier, who was living in Manchester, England, passed away on March 29, 2021. At his departure, the Jumma peoples have lost a revolutionary son while the international well-wishers and campaigners for the CHT cause have lost an ideal and selfless friend.
After completion of his MPhil and PhD, he worked for a short while and then he became the international spokesperson of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and campaigned in favour of the movement of Jumma peoples for their rights to self-determination. Since 1970s he did his campaign around the world and in Europe and the United Nations in particular. He used to send documents of the CHT situation to all concerned persons and orgs around the world.
In the seventies and eighties, while the government was carrying out fascist repression on the indigenous Jumma peoples, keeping it hidden from the international community by entirely blockading the CHT region. At that time, Dr. R S Dewan was the pioneer to bring the CHT issue to the international arena. He was able to build a strong public opinion in the international arena in favour of the self-determination movement of the Jumma peoples, with the unwavering support of the Anti-Slavery Society, Survival International, Quaker Peace Service, Amnesty International, Organizing Committee on CHT Campaign, International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), among others.
In the early days, Dr. R S Dewan reminisced about the support of Peter Davis, a human rights activist of Anti- Slavery Society and Lord Avebury, member of House of Lords in the British Parliament and also Chairman of Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, without whose help it was very difficult to start an international campaign. At that time, especially the Anti-Slavery Society, Survival International, Amnesty International, IWGIA etc. also published many reports on the ongoing brutal persecution of the Jumma peoples.
In 1986, the initiative to constitute a Commission on CHT affairs was undertaken in the International Conference of CHT Affairs held in Amsterdam as per proposal contributed by these aforesaid human rights organizations, and international friends, such as Dr. Teresa Aparicio of IWGIA from Denmark, Dr. Wolfgang Mey from Germany, Andrew Gray from UK and Jenneke Arens from Netherlands at el. and also Jumma representatives including Dr. R S Dewan. Accordingly, his contribution towards formation of International CHT Commission in 1989 has been most reckonable. In nineties, the CHT Commission’s visit to the Jumma refugee camps in India and the CHT and then its publication entitled “Life Is Not Ours” opened the eyes of the international community to the appalling human rights situation in the CHT.
As a result of the irresistible movement of the Jumma peoples, with the support of the tireless campaign of Dr. Dewan and international human rights organizations, Bangladesh government was forced to sign the historic CHT Accord with the PCJSS in 1997. But, it is unfortunate that till today, the government has not implemented the accord completely and now the government has completely stopped implementation.
Dr. Dewan’s only dream was to establish the right of self-determination of the Jumma peoples. To fulfil his dream, Jumma peoples still need to go ahead with a lot of struggles, sacrifices and determination with the kind support of international community.
Here, I would like to conclude my introductory speech by once again paying tribute to the contribution and sacrifice of the great campaigner Dr. R S Dewan. May his great struggle and contribution be a source of inspiration to the future generations of Jumma peoples as well as freedom-loving people around the globe.
Now I would like to request Rajkumar Chandra Kalindi Roy-Henriksen, former Chief of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues to moderate the commemoratory programme.
Moderator: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Ju, Ju, Ju, everybody. First of all, it’s very good to see all of you. Unfortunately, it’s for a sad event that took place, and I wish that we had thought of doing this earlier, when we actually had Dr. Dewan with us to celebrate his life. However, better late than never. It’s a great honor to be asked to help out and to moderate this event. I know that you’ve been asked to speak for about two to ten minutes, but maybe if you can limit to five to seven, that would also give others an opportunity to speak.
We are going to start with the elders first. As you remember, it’s our custom always that we go with the elders; we have great respect for the elders, and since I am now part of that group, it’s quite invigorating to be there. We’re going to start off first with our Azu, Dr. Aditya Kumar Dewan, and we could ask him to say a few words to start off the event. Azu, it’s your turn now.
Dr. Aditya Kumar Dewan: Thank you, Chandra. Thank you, also, Pradhir and Priti, for organizing this event. Also, we already had one with our Chakma Jumma people. This is basically the second event to celebrate the works and life of Dr. R. S. Dewan, and we have lost a great soul for the Jumma people. I don’t want to just go over all those, but simply I want to highlight some of the things that—he was actually early leader that took initiative for the resistance movement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. If you are a scholar, if you are writing something, I think we should start the origin of the resistance movement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts with the works of Dr. R. S. Dewan.
And I should mention here, those of you who are early—made attempt to involve with the Chittagong Hill Tracts issues, are basically here – Jenneke, Jan, Wolfgang – and I met them in Hamburg International Chittagong Hill Tracts conference in 1991, or 1990, I forgot exactly the date. And I met Jenneke, and Jan, and also Dr.R S Dewan.
Dr. Dewan was basically a very modest person, and he doesn’t want to bother anyone else. That’s why, when we have been having discussions in the first event that took place, some people were asking, “Why we don’t know about passing away of Dr. Dewan for a long time?”. And actually, people tried to keep in touch with him, but he had disconnected his phone and everything because he doesn’t want to bother anyone. This is one thing. And also, because he was living in England, they have been able to find out how he passed away. And it was very difficult to get into his building because of the security reasons and other reasons. So, we would be just blaming each other for not taking care of Dr. Dewan. But he was actually—he wanted to stay away from other people, not to bother them. So, I will not go into this.
Basically, I will talk about his mission and vision. As I said before, his mission was for the Chittagong Hill Tracts campaign: self-determination of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. And vision was self-determination, mission was doing campaign there. I am comparing his mission and vision, although he did not say— and Dr. Martin Luther King, when he was involved in civil rights movement in the United States, he said, “I have a dream”. Same thing, Dr. Dewan had a dream of self-determination of the indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. That’s what I want to say.
And this is the early stage where Dr. Wolfgang Mey, Jenneke, and Jan were involved in the campaign. Chandra was there also. There was another one, Jayati. I don’t see her. Also, in the second movement areas that I can see, there are people who are dedicated here is Elsa. We meet every year at the UN conference. Elsa was instrumental in organizing the Chittagong Hill Tracts case at the United Nations and also CHT commission. And everywhere, whenever anything happens, we see Elsa was giving statement on behalf of the CHT commission. And Binotamoy also, who was there. He is right now, I hope, in Australia.
So, I will not take too much time. There are many people who want to talk here, so thank you very much, everyone. I can see the old friends. We met here, all of us, friends of the Jumma people. Basically, the international friends who are helping us or already helped us. So, thank you very much for appearing at this event. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much to Dr. Aditya Dewan for putting it all so nicely on to the international stage. That is actually how Dr. R S Dewan helped most, I think, in the Hill Tracts. I myself was just starting out, and it was the first time I went to the UN in Geneva, and that’s where I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Dewan, and starting off with the UN and international work. We are going to pass on now, and we’re going to go to Professor, Dr. Wolfgang Mey. Wolfgang, Dr. Mey, you have the—I won’t say the floor, but the microphone, so please go ahead.
Dr. Wolfgang Mey: Thank you. Well, first of all, I would like to thank the organizers to have arranged this meeting, which is very important. I think, remembering Ramendu in a proper way, we can do it only now, and great that you have made it possible. My communication will be a rather personal one. And yeah, apart from that, I’m glad to see so many of you I have met a long time ago. Especially Chandra, a long, long time ago. We were so young in those days. And all the others, colleagues and friends from Holland, and from India and Canada. Some faces are new to me, so I am glad to meet you too.
I must admit that I have dreaded such a day, namely, to realize that I have lost someone who has meant a lot and means a lot to me. I met Ramendu first in the—must have been mid-1970s in London. In all those years, I knew him to be an extremely humble man who always put the cause first and himself last. But it was only when I was in Manchester that I learned about his circumstances. He was very quiet and he never explained about the circumstances he lived. Only that I learned there. He lived in a two-room flat in a council estate to save money. He lived without hot water and heating, even in winter time. It was really cold when I was there. He prepared his modest food in a slow cooker. It was a big box with a thirty-five-wattbulb in that. There he kept the rice for, say, twelve hours, and then it was all prepared.
I remember that once his welfare had been cut off because he was asked to put his labor on the market, which he refused. And then he told me that he had lived on the grass and roots he’d dug out and picked up, as vegetables, in the large open space of the housing block. He used to walk around in his flat with a number of jumpers, well-wrapped-up and sometimes even in a thick winter coat. It was, as I felt, a life on the edge of supply. And he put literally every cent he had into his campaign work, writing on a typewriter dating back to the early 1970s, until it broke down only recently, and since then, he wrote his block letters by hand.
He had an enormous knowledge of people and NGOs and government and situations, and he was in contact with ministries and governments all over the world. And he knew always who to contact, with what concerns. He always put the fate of the people of the Hill Tracts in the foreground, but understood politics in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, on a level of both micropolitical and macropolitical developments. And this gave him a view of the cross-regional political processes.
The goal of his campaign was the self-determination of the Jumma people in the Hill Tracts. Given the geopolitical situations in the hills and the neighborhood to the surrounding countries, this was more of a vision than a concrete prospect. His ecological footprint was extremely small; his footprint as an activist and a human being was very large indeed. I am deeply impressed by the fact that his small housing, this small two flats, was the center of almost worldwide campaigns for human rights for more than fifty years, and that with minimal budget which he used really, most effectively.
Ramendu, you had, and you have my full admiration. To sum up, he was an Upasaka, a devotee in the true sense of the word, and this brings me to another aspect of his life. His Buddhist orientation enabled him to accompany the upheavals of his life and the experiences of people’s fate in the Hill Tracts with Metta, that this was loving-kindness, but that did not stop him from clearly identifying perpetrators and profiteers of human rights violations, both national and international. His regular meditation sessions were guidelines of his spiritual life, and helped him to lead a life, both as a hermit and an activist. I’m happy to have known him as an activist and a friend—it’s not possible to replace him, it’s only possible to preserve and live his principles as an example. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Professor Mey. I remember Wolfgang when he first came to the Hill Tracts— I think he was staying with us at a house, and we were quite young then, and it’s wonderful to see you now and that your commitment to helping the Hill Tracts people continues, and is as strong as ever. Thank you very much for your touching tribute to Dr. Dewan. As you say, he was a wonderful, humble, very warm-hearted, kind, and generous person. And I was just talking the other day, how the first time I met him at the UN, the first thing he said to me was, “First eat and be strong enough so you can continue with the work”, and that is how his motto was, how do we continue with the work. Dr. Mey was one of the co-founders of the CHT Commission, and we move now to the other co-founder of the CHT Commission. We ask now for Jenneke, Jenneke Arens, who has been a lifelong campaigner for the CHT, and I do want to mention, also lives in very simple, modest manner so that she can do what she can to help others. Jenneke, you have the mic now.
Jenneke Arens: Thank you very much, Chandra. I feel very honored that I can be here to honor Ramendu Dewan, who has been very near to all of us and who’s—you all already mentioned; such an extremely humble and beautiful person actually. I want to say also that, unfortunately, Willem van Schendel could not attend to this meeting, and so both Jan and me are here to represent the organizing committee of the CHT campaign. So, thank you very much that we got contacted, and I am very happy to see some of you whom I am have not seen in a long, long time, to see here.
We first met Ramendu Dewan in person in 1986 when we held the first international Chittagong Hill Tracts conference in Amsterdam, organized by the Organizing Committee CHT campaign, which we had set up specifically to organize this conference. And both Ramendu and also, IWGIA, I must say, were very instrumental during this conference to bring out the initiative to set up this Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission of investigation.
Ramendu has been extremely instrumental also, in setting up the commission and facilitating the whole investigation of the commission in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. When we were in London to prepare for the CHT Commission— for the trip, we were all totally surprised when Ramendu came up with some extremely detailed maps of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which we could use to prepare our trip and to know exactly the situation, and that was so wonderful. Of course, he had been in close contact with JSS to prepare for this whole meeting, but without him, we could never have prepared the trip so well, which we could.
And so that was really wonderful, when he could give us such detailed information, because of course, we had never been directly in contact with other persons from the JSS, so that has been very, very important and instrumental. And also, not only the maps he prepared, but also on the ground, in the CHT, he had prepared that we were coming so JSS could mobilize a lot of people to meet us. And I remember Pradhir extremely well from our trip. I was actually very impressed also by Pradhir. He was such a brave person to meet us, and to tell us so many things. A lot of the Jumma people were extremely brave, and it was really wonderful.
And thanks to Ramendu, the JSS could have such information about our trip and about our investigation. And so, he has been extremely wonderful, and his whole person—he has sacrificed his total life so much, and I was really shocked to hear that he had gone and all alone he had passed away, and that was really big shock actually, and I was really feeling— this man, he—I don’t know anyone who has really sacrificed his life so much for the cause of his people, so I’m really, extremely thankful for his life and for what all he has done, and so that’s what I would like to say.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Jenneke, and thank you for all the support you always give to the CHT people, and on a personal note, just to say thank you for all the support I received when I was actually based in Holland, and also of course, to Jan and Willem, to the Organizing Committee. Thank you very much, and of course, we are very much counting on your continuing support as we go forward with the movement for the rights of indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
We move now to Professor Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou. She is the co-chair of the CHT Commission, and as Dr. Aditya Dewan mentioned, very active, very passionate. She is now professor at Columbia University. She was actually my predecessor at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN headquarters in New York, and I try to follow her huge footsteps. Elsa, please, you have the floor. Please go ahead.
Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou: Thank you so much, Chandra, and to everybody for inviting me to this. It’s really an honor, and I’m very moved to be here. And I realize that, although I didn’t have these personal meetings, these personal experiences with Dr. R S Dewan, he has laid the foundation of so much of the international work that we have been doing. Respected elders, dear sisters and brothers, dear friends, today we are paying tribute to Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan, a selfless and tireless human rights advocate who devoted his life to the dignity and rights of the indigenous Jumma peoples in Bangladesh. Diaspora and self-exile are often major tools in the struggle of peoples, especially in long-term social struggles, especially difficult ones, as is the struggle of the indigenous peoples of the CHT.
Dr. R S Dewan was an inspirational example of dedication, courage, and vision for his people. A person of high integrity and ethos, his role in the international campaign to save his people, and to support their dream for peace, human rights, and self-determination, was hugely appreciated around the globe. And for this and all that he has devoted his life to, Dr. Dewan will be forever remembered and honored. May he rest in peace, and may we all continue his effort from whatever corner of the world.
Dear friends, standing in front of the Jumma people today is humbling, because it is you that have resisted, persisted, and led the vision of peace and light with such inspiration and courage. You want to be architects of your life, and we recognize your plight, the plight of your communities, your children and grandchildren. I would like to pay tribute to the indigenous peoples of the CHT, victims and survivors of the absence of peace and human rights that you have been experiencing. So, I would like to express solidarity for the indigenous human rights defenders who are persecuted and even killed for defending the rights of their peoples.
The CHT crisis has lasted too long. People are longing for peace and human rights, for equality, for diversity, for intergenerational justice as well. The CHT Peace Accord requires a serious commitment on behalf of the government that has yet to be demonstrated. Human rights violations continue in the CHT, not least by violation of indigenous women’s bodies. The international community, including the International Commission on the CHT that I have the honor to co-chair, cannot let go of the issue of the CHT. So abhorrent is the issue that it weighs heavy on the conscience of humanity.
Your struggles are embraced by international law. The UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples is a major normative framework for preventing and solving conflicts. It contains a number of significant articles in this area, and it says that military activities shall not take place in the territory of indigenous peoples, unless they have given their pre-prior and informed consent.
Dear friends, we know that conflicts affecting indigenous peoples are often underreported. Fortunately, thanks to indigenous people’s advocacy, we have three UN indigenous-related bodies that promote and defend indigenous peoples’ rights and shed light on these otherwise underreported struggles, including, of course, that in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, both in 2016 and this year actually, focused on peace and conflicts and indigenous people. And in both cases, it said that, of course peace has to go together with justice, and this year in particular, it focused on the importance of indigenous peoples’ own institutions in building peace.
And it also said how important this is, among other things, in creating these intergenerational links to peace, and also in averting fundamentalism and extremism among youth, so it is very important that we look at these lessons. And we have learned many lessons actually, from the struggles of the indigenous peoples of the CHT. We learned, among other things, that when things seem quite impossible at home, it is that international solidarity that we go to. It is the other indigenous peoples, the non-indigenous peoples, it is the human solidarity that plays a role, and that will help us see opportunities and network and find ways, facilitating ways, and creative ways to look at possibilities that might appear.
Dr. Dewan’s legacy tells us, actually, that advocacy at international level is an extension of our citizenship, from the national to the international level. Peoples’ international advocacy activates this solidarity and support networks, finds opportunities where things may appear impossible at national level. It connects us all under our common humanity. This is why we are here today. We know that you will continue to be engaged, to participate, to exercise your power as community leaders in the CHT, to share solidarity, optimism, and creativity to resolve problems.
And let me conclude with these words inspired by the life of Dr. Dewan. “Through peace building processes, the indigenous peoples of the CHT are writing their own history, and expressing their self-determination. These words, the four words that come to mind, are resistance, persistence, resilience, and vision for life. These are the words of the Jumma people”. Thank you for letting me share these words with you, and I am very moved to be here today, with you. Thank you, Chandra.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Elsa. As always, a very evocative and compelling statement that brings it all together so well, leaving us with these words of wisdom at the end. Thank you very much. We move now to Sophie, Sophie Grig. Sophie, thank you for being with us. I know that you have other priorities as well, so thank you for staying online.
Sophie Grig: Thank you very much, and I apologize because I am in the middle of a park on a day out with my daughter, and I’m hoping that there aren’t too many loud picknickers or people about to come and interrupt. But I wanted to thank you for organizing this and obviously, like everyone, I was so shocked to hear about Dr. R. S. Dewan’s death and the manner of it, and was so sorry that he came to the UK and that we weren’t able to be there for him at the end. I think, like everyone, that’s something that’s been very upsetting and sad for us all after such a long and distinguished life.
One of my first memories of being at Survival when I started, which is twenty-six years ago now, which is not long compared to how long many of you have been actively involved campaigning for the CHT. But one of my first memories was coming across Ramendu’s, as we called him, reports. Even then, they stood out as unusual because they were typed on a handwritten typewriter, as of course, they carried on being for a very long time. And he was already, by then, extremely well-known at Survival, and people told me about him and how these reports had been coming already by then for more than a decade, and enabled Survival and so many others to work. As I’m sure you all remember his reports – so incredibly detailed and meticulous – and really enabling us and the three hundred or so other people and organizations who received them, to really expose what was happening in the CHT, and to ensure that the world knew what was going on, and that would have been impossible without the work of Ramendu. I think Survival would never have been able to work for so long without him and without the information he was able to produce and share with so many. And I am convinced that without the work that he did, the atrocities would have been even worse than they were.
I am really sorry that I never met him in person. I feel like I did, because we used to talk regularly on the phone when he had a landline, and we used to share cards and letters, and have done for many years. And I always planned to visit him if I found myself in Manchester, and I never ended up going, which of course I now bitterly regret.
Few people have ever been as dedicated to the cause as he was, preferring to spend his money and energy on his campaigning work and of course, not on himself. And I would hear stories from friends who visited him after coming to or from London, and hearing how he refused to spend money even on electricity or warmth for himself, eating only cold food, and not even heating his flat in the coldest English winters.
Despite not allowing himself any comforts or warmth, he was incredibly kind and warm himself. And he always remembered my family, my children, their names, their ages, always asked after them, remembered what stages they were in life – “Oh, Dylan must be eighteen now, congratulations!” – so thoughtful and kind and warm. He was so—it’s just that sort of feeling that emanated from him. I remember going and visiting in the CHT and meeting some of his family members who were so proud of him, and it was really a wonderful moment to go and spend time with them, and for them to sort of hear from me about the importance of his work in enabling us to do what we did. And they were so desperate for him to return to the CHT which, obviously, he never did. But it was just a wonderful experience to meet his family, and to sort of feel their pride.
He was also incredibly generous. My colleague Fiona, whom I remember her telling me, when she went to the UN and went out with a big group of indigenous people on an excursion, and they ended up at a café, and Ramendu absolutely insisted on buying coffees for the whole group. And he must have spent more in that one round of drinks than he spent on himself in an entire year, probably a decade, yet he was still so determined and generous and warm. And everyone at Survival knows Ramendu’s name, and deservedly so. He’s really famous for his warmth, his generosity, and his dedication, and I think he’s been an inspiration to so many of us and to so many people further afield as well. Because of all the sacrifices he made, because of his warmth and kindness, I think all of us will dearly miss him. We are so sorry that he is gone.
Moderator: Thank you, Sophie, and thank you also from all of us from the CHT for all the support that we have received from Survival International, and of course, we’re counting on you as we go forward, to continue with the support. Speaking of Dr. Dewan, I remember that my father used to support him regularly and he refused to take any support, and the only way we could get him to accept it was to say that this was for all the postage that he had to spend, sending all the materials out and to buy paper, and if you put it into that context, only then would he accept a small contribution.
We move now to Jan, Jan Reynders. Great, wonderful to see you after so many years, and also a very strong, staunch supporter of the CHT campaign. Jan, you have the microphone, please go ahead.
Jan Reynders: Thank you very much. Good day everyone. I shall be brief. Most of the important issues have been mentioned already. Dr. R S Dewan— forus, Ramendu, always Ramendu, and he never actually—of course we knew that he was Dr. Dewan, but then he always said, “No, Ramendu, pleased to meet you”. Met him many times, in different occasions, different situations. Exactly what Sophie was saying, even though he was so modest about his own spending, but when we would meet as a group, he would spend on us. He would want to treat us, always. And we knew that would be difficult for him, but yet he insisted, so in that sense, he was totally committed, also to, “I’m doing this work, but I want you to join in that work, so let me keep you happy”.
If I look back in all those years that we have been receiving information from him, I think it was because of his insistence to continue to have the list of atrocities being documented properly. Actually, evidence was being built, a list of evidence was being built. Some people said, “Oh, it’s too much, it’s over-petitioned”, this that and the other. In the end, if you don’t have the numbers, if you don’t have the details, if you want to make a case, if you bring it to the publicities in terms of details of what happens, and what happens in a new situation, it doesn’t work. So, he was doing that continuously, and he’s spending money always on postage, and paper, and printing, and copying. But he also came to—we had a demonstration in London, we had a picket in London. He came there as well. Bit careful, but he was there.
I remember him as somebody who was totally committed to the rights and self-determination of indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and his entire life has been spent on that. I remember him as a great friend, a great person to work with, for his commitment, for his inspiration to show that it can be done, we must do it, and we shall continue to do it, even if he has not seen the final result of a liberated, self-determined people yet. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much Jan, and thank you for such a clear, precise dedication to Dr. Dewan. We move now to some of our other speakers. I’m going to now call on the— now, there’s quite a few of our CHT activists and Jumma participants who have joined the event. So, the first one I’m going to call on is Kumar Sivasish Roy. If you can say a few words because you’re based in England and with the Jumma People’s Network in the UK that has always been in close contact with Dr. Dewan. Please go ahead.
Sivasish Roy: Thank you, Didi. I am Sivasish, younger brother of Rajkumari Chandra Kalindi and Raja Devasish. I have another younger brother and another sister, so we are five in total. What can I say— I feel overwhelmed to have you all on my screen all at one go, and at one time. I know you all by name; some of you I’ve seen images, some black and white, some colored. Some of you I’ve never seen in images but I knew the name. And also, I’ve heard through Chandra, my elder sister, mentioning all of you and all the wonderful work that you all do, have been doing, and I hope that you continue to do, because the torch we have to carry on now.
Dr. R S Dewan has, like a marathon run— he’s done eight hundred meters, or maybe a thousand meters marathon. He’s a runner. He’s been running for the last forty, fifty years, and he’s been running five thousand miles. Now, the torch. We have to carry on the torch, obviously. Especially the people of the CHT, because we can’t expect others to help us even more. They have done a lot for us, and hopefully they will do. And we count on their blessings and on the well-wishers, on the metta, on the compassion towards us. But then it’s down to us, the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts who were born there, who were raised there, who have some sort of loyalty towards the people and towards the land. We have to carry on the torch, and we must not vacillate. We must not give up.
A lot has been done. We have achieved a lot through dedicated individuals like Dr. R S Dewan and many of you, many other Jumma people who are not present with us. But without the international support, we would not have arrived at this stage. And may I just mention that, because of the international help, because of the international exposure that our atrocities, our news has received through the hard work of all of you compassionate, kind, generous people, a lot of lives have been saved, I must say. A lot of atrocities have been stopped, or they have changed the plans to carry out other actions that could have been very detrimental to the lives of the people. It’s all about saving lives here. It’s lives that matter.
Now, for example, somebody else was mentioning about the number of people who have perished, the number of atrocities or number of affected people. As far as I’ve read, for the moment the figure is between 8,500 to 10,000 persons who’ve lost their lives, according to different sources, but we don’t know the real number. It’s not only the figure, but it’s behind each and every figure, we must remember there’s a human being. And behind each human being lost or who has suffered, who has been victimized, there are other people – his family, brothers and sisters, parents, children – have also been affected through that one person.
So, I don’t think I should go on any longer with this. I was completely shocked, and I still feel very saddened, and am grieving in a way. And in a way I do feel a bit of guilt, as Sophie has mentioned, being here in the UK, maybe we could have done something more for him. Although I know that he was a bit of a hermit, liked to keep to himself; he didn’t go out socializing. Maybe he considered it a waste of time. One thing I’d like to mention is, in a way it’s good that he didn’t have a family. He didn’t get married and he didn’t have children. In a way it’s good. Obviously, it’s his personal decision he has made, but as far as the people are concerned, if he did have a family, if he did have children and a wife, I think he wouldn’t have been able to dedicate all those hours, all the effort, all the money towards the campaign.
So, in a way— I’m talking selfishly maybe, but in a way, I think he knew that deep down, that if he did lead a normal life as any other— all of us are normal humans leading normal lives, having family, children, looking after them. But then I think he went the extra mile. His people became his family. We were his family. The people of Chittagong Hill Tracts were his family. His blood relatives were far away and he lost a few of his relatives in the conflict as well, as far as I know, and I think he did mention to me once or twice.
He was extremely pious. He was a pure individual, generous, simple. Humble, extremely humble, and egoless. I’ve never met a person like him who’s— absolutely no ego, no pride. His focus was on others, so when his focus was on others, he forgot about himself. That’s why things like being in the cold or being hungry really didn’t matter, because his focus was not on himself, but on others, on the CHT, on the Jumma people. He was very determined, he was dogged, and we need people like him, because all those years of persistence, cold determination, grit— absolutely amazing, absolutely amazing.
I’ve met him on several occasions, especially after coming to the UK. I came in the year 2000, and then we met in London, and I remember him when he found out thatI was going to speak up at SOAS, I think, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was very pleased to hear the talk. There were other Jumma friends as well. We all went and participated there. He was very happy that more and more Jummas were coming to the UK. He was very generous. If I can mention a small thing that— my daughter, he used to send five pounds for Christmas. He was a man who needed every penny. He was living on a very meagre income, and he used to even send five pounds to my daughter on Christmas for several years, and I understand that he used to do that with Ujjaini’s daughter as well. So, a man who was selfless, generous, thoughtful— I really miss him, to be honest, and I fear that nobody else will be able to do his work, unfortunately. I don’t see anybody else in our community who’s willing to go the extra mile for him. I think I’ll just finish with these words. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much for providing a very powerful picture of Ramendu as a person, bringing out his warmth and his generosity and his kindness. Thank you very much. This is just to say that Sivasish is our secret weapon, we only bring him out occasionally. Otherwise, he’s been doing his work, and we’re hoping that, of course, in the UK this will continue. He’s also member with the Jumma People’s Network in the UK, and they are the ones who have been in the forefront of the work that is ongoing in the UK, and of course, elsewhere as well. Thank you very much. We move now, down under, to Australia, and I have the honor to call on Mr. Binota Dhamai. He is a member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he’s doing his PhD there in Australia. Binota, would you like to say a few words?
Binotamoy Dhamai: Thank you, Didi, Chandra Di, and thank you to the organizers for giving me this opportunity to share a few words on Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan. I actually am here today to hear from the elders, those who were closely working with Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan, because I have heard so much about him. I never had the opportunity to meet him, and to get some lessons about international advocacy or doing the work for the Jumma peoples. But I am here today to hear from the elders, like his colleagues, from Wolfgang Mey, and also Jenneke Arens, from whom I heard a lot about. I read the documents on the Chittagong Hill Tracts from their research work, and also to hear the experiences from Dr. Aditya Kumar Dewan, Elsa Stamatoupoulou and others, on Ramendu Shekhar Dewan.
What I can share from my point of view is that he was the person for the voiceless peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the voiceless peoples of the Jumma people, whose voices need to be heard at the international level. He played a crucial role to bridge this communication and to reach out to the international communities, and build networks and friends and communities, and he successfully did it. I recalled Chandra Di often shared with me when we met, and even when she became the chief of the secretary of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and whenever, most of the times when I was there for the Permanent Forum sessions, the words she just mentioned a while ago, “Hene homor doro-moro goro”. She often referred to it as meaning, “to get stronger by eating something, because you need strength”.
And that’s the inspiration, the philosophy a person transferred from generation to generation. What he thought, how should an activist be, determining these advocacy activities. And that’s what he transferred, the knowledge and the words. It’s simple, but very meaningful and powerful. This is what Chandra Di often mentioned to me at the Permanent Forum whenever we met there in the session. Also, the experience of sharing once— after the Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory meeting in the Philippines in Baguio City, myself, Chandra Di, and Lola; we were travelling from Baguio City to Manila to take the flight to Bangkok, where Lola would be leaving for Copenhagen. And all the journey, we were talking about our situation, the indigenous people’s movement, Jumma peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the role Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan has been playing for the campaign and advocacy at the international level. Chandra Di’s experience, her first meeting, how she was influenced by Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan in Geneva during the Working Group of Indigenous Populations session. It was really a great experience sharing, and it was also very defining thought that was passed to me, about how an activist should be carrying out the activities at the international level.
So, as the elders have already mentioned Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan’s movement, how he contributed sharing the issues of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the core issue that is the right to self-determination of the Jumma peoples, that they have been struggling for determining their political, social, economic, and cultural development. I’ll also say that his campaign will only be able to be fulfilled when, actually, the current Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord gets implemented properly. To some extent, I would say that, his soul will be at peace if at least the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord gets properly implemented at this moment. Because, why I’m saying this; while I was going through the Accord, to some extent it has provided regional autonomy that gives you some extent of self-determination of the Jumma peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. It has also given, to some extent, the power-sharing mechanisms within the sovereign state where indigenous peoples can survive as indigenous peoples in the CHT region.
So, this is important also because many of you in your research work and your sacrifices and dedication towards the Jumma people issues will also get some extent of fulfilment, when it really gets implemented properly. I see this way about the self-determination at this moment for the Chittagong Hill Tracts context. So, I’ll not take time. I would like just to suggest one thing here today, the elders and friends who worked with Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan, if you can initiate to publish something, like a souvenir, or some sort of publication from your memory working with him or your experience, it will be a great help also for the young generation to understand about him. That’s my proposal at this moment, and I will conclude by paying my respect for the dedication and sacrifices of Dr. Dewan, and praying for his peace. Thank you so much, again, for this opportunity. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Binota. And of course, as Binota says, Dr. Dewan will always be an inspiration to all of us, and I’m sure that he will also continue to inspire others and other activists who continue the work. We’re going to turn now to Lemona Chanda who works in Women Affairs and Development. Lemona, you have the microphone. Please go ahead. Maybe if you just introduce yourself a little bit so we know who you are. This is one of our young ones coming up.
Lemona Chanda: Thank you, Chandra Di. Ju, Ju, everybody. Good evening everyone. My name is Lemona Chanda. I’m a barrister by training, and I’m also a gender equity and development activist. Many of you will not know me. My work in Chittagong Hill Tracts is in sustainable development and my focus is on women’s rights and education in general. I started by mentoring a group of girls in a local school called Moanoghar. Today I am here to pay tribute to my Aju, Dr. R. S. Dewan, who sadly left us this year. Despite living in the UK and being only 163 miles away, I could not ever meet him in person, so I’ll share a bit on what I know about him or what I have come to know about him.
In terms of my background, my curiosity for Chittagong Hill Tracts started at a very early age when I heard horrific stories of injustices towards the indigenous girls, and these were told by my father who served as a police officer in that region in the early 1980s, and that led me to where I am today as an activist. I first came to know about Dr. R S Dewan and about his work through my mother-in-law, Shukla Dewan, who happens to be his niece. She’s the daughter of his elder brother. Through her I got a sneak peek of his life, and how he was as a person.
I got to know that he was passionate and a true educator. His thoughts were way ahead of his time. He believed in girls’ education and issues that we’re still fighting today. He encouraged his nieces to get educated. I know for a fact that he wanted his niece, my mother-in-law to complete her graduation and pursue higher studies abroad in the UK. When she was a little girl, he encouraged her to pursue her dreams, and used to give her gifts. So, one of the gifts that she remembers was a book called “Chhobite Prithibi”, which in Bengali means ‘The World in Pictures’. This was his way of introducing her to the world, and the great adventures that it entails. So, while he was studying in Dhaka University, he used to communicate with his nieces and nephew by writing letters, and in their responses if there were any mistakes, he would correct them. He would also spend a lot of time after lunch assigning them questions of mathematics. So, he was very aware and very dedicated, and he was educating and empowering, I believe, through his every action.
I have come to know that when my mother-in-law learned to read, he encouraged her by rewarding her so that she keeps up the indigenous skills and craftsmanship, which is declining at a threatening level today. There are many stories like that, that I have heard, where he helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He helped them financially, so that they can continue their education. We know that he never married but I know that he wanted to preserve his heritage and culture, and wanted the region of Chittagong Hill Tracts to flourish, yet the younger generation and even people like me— I am a Bengali by my ethnic background. We do not know enough about this great man and all the work that he did, who basically dedicated his entire life in research and uplifting the lives of people in his community.
He was aware of and often spoke about the hostility of the Bengalis towards the indigenous people in Bangladesh. It makes me sad to see that the attitude and the treatment of Bengalis towards the indigenous community has not changed even in the last fifty years of this country. In fact, the aftermath of Bengali settlement in the region when the indigenous people have been forced towards the hills, we have even started to call or label the community as Pahari, which is not the accurate term. It is rather derogatory towards the community. So, the indigenous community in Bangladesh has definitely not received the deserving recognition as the adivasis of the country and hence, the lack of rights, agency and entitlement.
In the past few months, there has been famine, acute water shortage, measles outbreak killing many children, and these are examples of events that greatly impact human lives, and sadly, these are also events that are absolutely avoidable. These events happened due to the sheer negligence of the authorities. Today we’re discussing self-determination of Chittagong Hill Tracts, yet the indigenous people haven’t even received the basic rights as citizens. There is open hate speech shared by Bengalis, there is adverse portrayal of them in the media, and above all, there is a noticeable lack of awareness and acceptance by the Bengalis. I’m sure that those of us who are present today are aware of the injustices towards the indigenous community, I will not elaborate any further on that. However, remembering this great soul, Dr. R S Dewan, that we had amongst us, I invite you all to come together in whatever capacity possible to pray for his departed soul and fulfil his unfinished dream, that is, to make Chittagong Hill Tracts a developed region where people are not deprived of their basic rights.
As a gender equity and development activist, I vow to work towards indigenous women’s rights, education of children, and the overall sustainable development and welfare of the region. That would be my tribute to this great soul. Chandra Di, you started today by saying that we gathered here for a sad cause. I would like to add that, maybe we gathered here for a sad cause, but this collective effort will hopefully help us in creating and taking greater positive strides. I finish by submitting my prayers for his soul. I hope that his soul rests in peace. Thank you everyone.
Thank you very much, and it’s really good to meet you through Zoom, because I’m sure that some of the others as well, we were not aware of you, and I think you can be a great contributor to the cause, and it’s very nice to know that you’re actually related to Dr. R S Dewan. Finally, we have someone who has some connection through your mother-in-law. A very warm welcome, and we look forward to hearing more about you and more work that you do for us. For not just us, for your people because you are now part of us. Thank you very much.
Dr. Mesbah Kamal: He could not able to speak due to internet troubling.
Goutam Kumar Chakma: Before I start my discussions on Dr. Ramendu Shekhar Dewan, I would like to pay my regards to him and pray for his soul to have an upgraded life in his next life. I can recall that when he got admitted in Rangamati college in 1999 he was engaged with hills students’ associations….. (He could not finish his discussion due to internet problem).
Concluding remarks by Pradhir Talukdar: Today, we not only remember Dr. R S Dewan with great pride, but also acknowledge the many individuals who have been involved with the Chittagong Hill Tracts issue since the very beginning, some of whom are here with us till to date. We have the highest regard for them, and for the organizations they are tied with, for having played a key role in bringing our issue to the forefront of international discussion, and for always providing immense support to us.
Here, I would like to express my deep sense of gratitude and love to Jenneke, Dr. Wolfgang Mey, whom I personally met during the visit of Chittagong Hill Tracts commission in those crucial days of military rule. I gratefully acknowledge Jenneke’s consistent support while she was in Dhaka. We would like to express our sincere appreciation to both individuals and organizations like Anti-Slavery Society, Amnesty International, Survival International, CHT Commission, UNPO and so on.
Over the years, they put in massive efforts to accomplish the work of garnering support for the movement from a larger audience at global level. Indeed, through their directed efforts and enormous support, the amount of work they have accomplished thus far cannot be stated enough. It is because of your work that so much attention has been drawn to the nature of the political situation in the Hill Tracts.
We thank you for showing more than a slight interest in our cause, and for giving us a platform to voice our concerns as an oppressed people. We want you to know that we have not forgotten you for your tireless advocacy. And so, we would like to take this opportunity to formally express our profound gratitude in being a compassionate supporter and friend to our cause. Finally, thank you all for participating this event. Thanks a lot.
Transcription by: Susnigdho Talukder Pingulo