Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Bengali sense of victimhood


By Rahnuma Ahmed

A cartoon had caught my eye. Published in a Bengali national daily, soon after the recurring incidents of ethnic violence in Rangamati and Khagracchari in February this year, it shows a map of the south-eastern part of the country. The land mass is coloured a sea-green. The letters forming the word `Bangladesh’ are printed in black. An irridescent grey shades off into black in parts, it presumably represents, but indistinguishably so, both Indian territory and the Bay of Bengal’s waters.
It shows the Chittagong Hill Tracts?with the districts of Khagracchori, Rangamati and Bandarban clearly marked out?being sawn off by arms clutching wooden handles, fixed to both ends of the saw. To the right side of the cartoon, extending into Bangladesh as it were, are two arms, while on the left, three. The arms on the left side of the map are clothed. The first two hands reach out of their coat-covered shirt-sleeves. Clothed. Civil. The last one juts out of what seems to be a clerical coat-sleeve. The topmost coat-sleeve has `European Union’ written on it. The second, `Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.’ And the third, `Christian missionary.’ Both arms to the right are bare. Uncovered. One has `UPDF’ (United Peoples Democratic Front) scrawled on it, while the other, `JSS’ (presumably referring to the PCJSS,? Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti). No clothes. Barbaric.

CHT being severed from mainland by `European Union',`Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.' and`Christian missionary.' on left arm and UPDF and JSS on right arm. ??Huda

A nation beseiged by enemies within and without. The cartoon thereby evokes a sense of crisis. Fear. Anxiety.
It is, I thought to myself, a perfect example of all that which bedevils the nation nearly forty years after independence. There are many signifiers. There are both presences, and absences. Those present?and named?are the enemies. These foes are both internal, and external, to the nation. They are out to destroy the nation. To sever its limb. Only those present (in the cartoon) wield power, and malevolently so.
The Bengalis are absent. It is this absence which captures very well, I think, how Bengalis increasingly prefer to portray themselves when confronted with their power as ethnically dominant, and overwhelmingly so, within this nation. The act of absencing makes Bengalis appear powerless. As a victim, one who is defined in the dictionary as,
a helpless person somebody who experiences misfortune and feels helpless to remedy it
[victimhood] fall victim to somebody or something, to be affected, harmed, or deceived by somebody or something
Bengalis are the victims of regional and international machinations. Of forces who are infinitely more powerful. Forces external to the nation, with whom bad elements within the nation, the `tribals,’ have ganged up.
I cannot help but think, how would the cartoonist have portrayed 1971? East Pakistan, being cut asunder by, who? Aided by, who? But of course, let me add, when I compare the situation in the CHT at present to the situation confronting Pakistan in 1971, I do not do so, from any ulterior motive of advocating a break-up, or secession, or any such thing. I do it because ekattur has taught me that to survive as a nation, one must not only be able to accommodate cultural differences, but to welcome them. That what the centres of power label a `conspiracy’ is most likely, a political problem, one that must be resolved politically, never, ever, through the deployment of brute force. That genuine attempts must be made to undo historical wrongs. Before it is too late.
That lives matter. That homes matter. That justice matters.
I muse to myself, why are there no Bengalis in the cartoon? Probably because however hard one tries to depict them innocently, the very labels, `government,’ `army,’ `police,’ `settlers,’ are heavily-laden with power. With Bengali power, and historically so. The nation’s history is built on ethnic domination, it is one that continues in the historical present. I muse to myself, the cartoonist must have realised that putting in Bengalis just wouldn’t do. The victim myth would have become unsustainable. That it would be better leave them out. Altogether.
But the absence has been made present through other means. Very distinctively so. The letters printed on the land mass. Bangladesh. Bangla+desh, the land of the Bengalis. A literal rendering. It homogenises differences among Bengalis, differences to do with class, gender, religion, regional, linguistic (many Sylhetis think of themselves as Sylhetis and not Bengalis), historical. And among indigenous peoples too, Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Santal, Bawm, Tanchangya, Rakhain, Garo, Lushai, and many others. The construction of a Bengali sameness becomes an ethnic norm, one to which others must aspire. Must wish to belong.
Soon after independence, we had been too heady to grasp the wisdom that lay behind Manabendra Narayan Larma’s words, ?Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bengali or a Bengali be a Chakma? As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity, which unfortunately the Awami League leaders [the then-ruling party] do not want to understand.” The change that Ziaur Rahman had effected after coming to power had to do with nationality, with national belonging?`Bangladeshis’ instead of `Bengalis,’ the latter had been held to be universally applicable for all citizens regardless of their ethnic belonging. It was a technical correction, having been accompanied by the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. By death and destruction. By rape. By the settlement of landless Bengalis on pahari land. It led to the flight of indigenous peoples in large numbers, to neighboring India where they sought refuge.
In order to portray `the’ Bengali as victim, the cartoonist must suppress the Bengali presence. That, surely is interesting?
? Shibuya Atsushi

Bengali writers however, are more forthcoming. Some claim, Bengalis are indigenous, have been so for centuries, or better still, since time immemorial. It is the paharis, who are settlers. The `tribal’ rulers are exploiters. Hilly people are extremists. They did not take up arms to resist Bengali oppression, to regain cultural autonomy, but because they are.. have always been.. for many centuries.. bandits and criminals. They abduct and kidnap Bengalis. Others write, some foreign NGOs have ulterior motives. They want the army to withdraw before amicable relations have been restored between paharis and Bengalis. Foreign forces, such as the European Union, some foreign members of the CHT Commission, have become active under cover of the Peace Treaty (1997). There are plans afoot to sever the CHT from Bangladesh, to re-make it on the lines of a Christian East Timor. Bengali settlers are being slaughtered. Their houses are being razed to the ground. Even military personnel are being attacked. Muslims are being prevented from entering their mosques. From praying. A large conspiracy is in the offing.
Can such paranoid ramblings, whether depicted visually through cartoons or written out in articles, counter imperial politics? Concerns over national sovereignty are real, are justified in these times when US-led imperial terror, one in which western European nations are fully complicit, has been unleashed worldwide. To save the nation, a genuine leap of imagination is needed. One which does not confuse the roles of `perpretator’ and `victim.’
Published in New Age April 5, 2010

Land and people. De-colonising the national imagination

By Rahnuma Ahmed

I see no reason not to be worried.
For we have, over the years, begun mimicking our erstwhile Pakistani rulers when it comes to explaining what went wrong in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The `tribals’ want to secede. They want to breakup the nation. The loyalty of the `tribals’ has always been suspect, in 1947, they didn’t want to join Pakistan, they had wanted to be part of India. The Shanti Bahini was aided and abetted by anti-Bangladesh forces outside. It is an Indian conspiracy to destabilise the country. Agreeing to the `tribal’ demand for autonomy diminishes the sovereignty of the Bangladesh state.
And what had our Pakistani rulers said, both before, and during, 1971?
The Bengalis want to secede. It’s an Indian conspiracy. Our mortal enemy India, wants to break up Pakistan. These Bengalis began agitating from the word go, first they wanted their own language, 1949, 1952, and then, from 60s onwards, they began demanding regional autonomy. Those in the Mukti Bahini are India’s paid agents. The Bengali Muslims are Hindus, anyway. They listen to Rabindra sangeet, the women wear saris, they put teep on their forehead. Agreeing to the Bengali demand for autonomy will be a threat to the sovereignty of the state of Pakistan.
There are other reasons to be worried, too.
There are some similarities in the responses of both sets of rulers: a militaristic response. In the case of ekattur (our liberation war), this was accompanied by Lieutenant General Tikka Khan’s declaration, `I want the land, not its people.’ Tikka was the architect of Operation Searchlight, launched on the night of 25th March 1971. We will always remember him as the Butcher of Bengal. A military commander, deluded into thinking that his efforts would save the nation.
The Awami League government had initiated and eventually signed a peace treaty with the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti) in 1997. A few weeks after the signing of the Treaty, Khaleda Zia, as leader of the opposition, had declared: it will lead to the setting up of a parallel government. Others said, it was signed to please the Indian government. Writ petitions have been filed since, challenging the validity of the Peace Treaty. During a recent court hearing, the petitioners listed some of the reasons: the former chief whip of Parliament had no authority to sign the Treaty. He was not authorised by the President. A treaty can only be signed between two governments, the CHT people are not only not a government (!), they are “controlled by an Indian intelligence agency.” They are not indigenous to the land, “they” are settlers etc., etc. (New Age, 17 March 2010).
As things stand, some may think that the Awami League, by virtue of having initiated and signed the Peace Treaty, want peace in the hills, while the BNP (and its bed-fellow, the Jamaat), doesn’t want peace in the hills. There may be some truth in it.
But there’s more truth in what Bhumitra Chakma, a Jumma academic who teaches politics at the university of Hull, says: the recent attacks, on 19 and 20 February 2010, carried out by Bengali settlers in Baghaichari, backed by the armed forces prove yet again that unless the Bangladesh state addresses the structural roots of violence, the “cycle of violence” will continue (Economic and Political Weekly, 20 March 2010).
“At the core of the problem,” writes Chakma, is the Bangladesh government?s “politically-motivated Bengali settlement policy” aimed at changing the “demographic character of the CHT, which inevitably leads to clashes over land.”
The Bengali settlement policy, in my mind, was diabolical. By selecting “landless” Bengalis, it seemed that the military government was concerned about the futures of those who are poor, it helped hide the fact that their landlessness and abject poverty made them more amenable to military direction and control; that, as far as the military leadership was concerned, they were civilian subalterns/canon fodder. The settlement policy whipped up populist sentiments in the rest of Bangladesh: `If someone from the CHT can settle in Rangpur, if he can buy land there, why can’t someone from Rangpur go and live and work in the CHT? It’s one country, after all.’
The settlement policy seeped into public discourse, it helped re-define Bengali nationalism on territorial lines?as all nationalism is, is bound to be?but the new sense of territory/ nationalism was not of the resisting kind, of the kind that grows out of an urge for self-defense (like 1971), but one which encroached.
I am persuaded that this newly developing form of nationalism was distinct to the nationalism of the Mujib era (1972-1975). When Sheikh Mujib had exhorted the indigenous peoples “to forget their ethnic identities,” to merge with “Bengali nationalism,” what lay behind his words was a heady cultural arrogance, deeply entwined with feelings of racial superiority.
Bengali nationalism as encroaching, in a territorial sense, one which could be implemented through the planned deployment of coercive power, came later. After 1975.
I am inclined to think that it was at this historical moment that we i.e., the Bengalis as a nation?began to sound like our erstwhile rulers.
The latter, according to us, were colonisers.

Colonial orientation to land, and its people

One of the greatest liberal philosophers John Locke, analysed English colonialism in America in terms of his theory of man and society. I present Locke’s arguments below, based on a discussion by Bhikhu Parekh (The Decolonization of Imagination, 1995).
Locke had argued that since the American Indians roamed freely over the land and did not enclose it, since they used it as one would use a common land, but without any property in it, it was not `their’ land. That the land was free, empty, vacant, wild. It could be taken over without their consent. The Indians of course knew which land was theirs and which was their neighbours, but this was not acceptable to Locke who only recognised the European sense of enclosure.
However, there were native Indians living by the coastline, who did enclose their land. English settlers were covetous of these lands, they wanted these lands for themselves as it would help them avoid the hard labour of clearing the land. They argued that the native Indian practice of letting the soil regenerate its fertility, to let the compost rot for three years, meant that the natives did not make “rational use” of it. Locke agreed with them. Even enclosed land, he said, if it lay without being gathered, was to be “looked on as Waste, and might be the Possession of any other.”
Some Indians, however, not only enclosed the land, they also cultivated it. But they were still considered guilty of wasting the land because they produced not even one-hundredth of what the English could produce. The trouble with Indians was, according to Locke, they had “very few desires,” they were “easily contented.” Since the English could exploit the land better, “they had a much better claim to the land.” It was the duty and the right of the English to replace the natives, and, as long as the principle of equality was adhered to, no native should starve, nor should she or he be denied their share of the earth’s proceeds, English colonisation was infinitely more preferable. It increased the inconveniences of life. It lowered prices. It created employment.
The culture of indigenous peoples the world over, as has been noted by many political theorists, is inextricable from their culture. Take away their land, and you take away their culture.
Land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts belongs to the paharis. It is their land. A refusal to understand this means opening us to the allegation of whether our nationalism is their colonisation.
Bhumitra Chakma speaks of the “cycle of violence.” It is a cycle that is embedded in larger cycles. Nationalism. Colonialism.
My Bengali sense of freedom surely cannot be paid for by the blood of others?

A genuine leap of the national imagination

George Manuel, Secwepemc chief from the interior of British Columbia (Canada), indigenous activist and political visionary whose work on behalf of indigenous peoples spans the globe, writes:
When we come to a new fork in an old road we continue to follow the route with which we are familiar, even though wholly different, even better avenues might open up before us. The failure to heed (the) plea for a new approach to ..[Bengali-pahari] relations is a failure of imagination. The greatest barrier to recognition of aboriginal rights does not lie with the courts, the law, or even the present administration. Such recognition necessitates the re-evaluation of assumptions, both about [Bangladesh] and its history and about [Jumma] people and our culture-?Real recognition of our presence and humanity would require a genuine reconsideration of so many people?s role in [Bangladeshi] society that it would amount to a genuine leap of imagination. (Cited by Paulette Regan, Canada, 20 January 2005, by making the replacements in square brackets I have taken a liberty for which I hope I’ll be forgiven).
Are Bengalis capable of making a genuine leap of imagination? However hard, however difficult, we must. For the sake of the nation. For the sake of ekattur.
First published in New Age 26th March 2010

Ethnically Singular Nationalist Narratives

`Warring factions’ in the CHT

By Rahnuma Ahmed

In homage to Kalpana Chakma, who is marginal to the Bengali-dominated women’s movement in Bangladesh, which, regardless of its internal differences, is seamlessly united in its collective refusal to critically engage with the issues of ethnic domination and Bengali nationalism.

Also, to critically engage with the issue of imperial politics.

Kalpana was a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation. She was abducted, allegedly by a military officer, who was accompanied by other Bengalis, on the night of 11 June 1996. She was then a college student, aged 20-21.
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led government (1996-2001) was forced to set up a committee to investigate her disappearance. It submitted a report which has never been made public. Sources close to the military, and this includes a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, insisted that she had eloped, with the very officer whom she had publicly accused of watching over and harassing her, a few days earlier. This story blended into another which was made to do the rounds: Kalpana had been seen in Tripura (India).
Thirteen years later, Kalpana still remains missing. She still remains marginal?as do all jumma women as jummas?to the women’s movement in Bangladesh which remains closely wedded to the dominant Bengali paradigm that unites the ruling and opposition parties, that is enshrined not only in the Constitution, but also in the hearts and minds of the state’s functionaries be they bureaucrats, petty officials, members of the law-enforcing agencies, or the military. `We won the nation, it is ours’ just about sums up the Bengali perspective on liberation, one that is historically inaccurate given the sacrifices of hill peoples and other ethnic peoples during 1971. An inaccuracy that does not detract the nation’s intellectuals, its poets and novelists, teachers and writers, playwrights and journalists from excluding `those’ ethnic others from the stories of courage which they weave and re-weave every December, every February and March, to connect us, to our collective past.
Some Bengali women however, working in small groups and clusters, or, as individuals, also belonging to the women’s movement, have attempted, over the years, to re-imagine a nation-state that is inclusionary. In other words, to conceptually dismantle the dominant Bengali/ nationalist paradigm. To include Bangladesh’s ethnic `others,’ especially, the jummas of CHT, whose lives and cultures have been disrupted most violently, a disruption that feeds off the dominant Bengali/nationalist paradigm, that employs a clever line of reasoning (`If someone from Noakhali can settle in Rangpur, why can’t he go and live and work in the CHT? It’s one country, after all’) to cover-up for a concerted military campaign of occupation (killing paharis, settling Bengali civilians, land-grabbing etc) for over two and a half decades. These women attempted to connect the lives of Bengali women to pahari women by drawing on the shared experiences of both groups of women: living under military occupation (1971 for Bengali women, post-1975 for jumma women), being subjected to sexual harassment, and to rape. It was a time when Bengali feminist history-writing of ekattur was just beginning. When Bengali women were seeking to explore the meanings of shadhinota for the women of this land, when they sought to go beyond the Bengali masculinist inability to engage with women’s experiences of rape, and its trauma (beyond uttering platitudes. Which, they still do). Besides feminism, these women also drew on the ideas which symbolised the political spirit of that time?the movement for democracy against Ershad, the military dictator. These ideas, and the spirit in which it was embodied, had a long history. They had been nurtured when the people of East Pakistan had taken to the streets to protest against Ayub’s rule. Against Yahya’s government. Against all military regimes, everywhere.
But the world has changed since.

The Failure of Bengali Intellectuals

`Like the Shahid Minar, the Bangla Academy too, is one of the symbols of the language movement.’ I agree. Absolutely, I said.
I was one of the discussants on Manzur-e-Mowla’s paper, `Bangla Academy: Bhobisshote Jemon Dekhte Chai’ (Bangla Academy: As one wishes to see it in future), at a programme which was part of Bangla Academy’s month long? celebrations commemorating the language movement. It was the 26th of February this year.
What I had forgotten to add was that, at the other symbol of the language movement this year, i.e., at the Shahid Minar, at exactly the same time, no language movement celebrations were taking place. Instead, protestors?both Bengalis and Jummas, but also, other Bangladeshis too?had gathered to condemn the recurring incidents of ethnic violence in Baghaicchari, (Rangamati), and in Mohajonpara, Milanpur, Madhupur, Shatbaiyapara (Khagracchari) in February this year. I did not forget to add however, this year’s Ekushey February was reddened with pahari blood. It shames me.
The founders of Bangla Academy, Manzur-e-Mowla pointed out in his paper, had envisioned it as a research institute. This was one of the other sentences that I picked out, saying that I wanted to tease out its implications for me. By research I understand the production of new knowledge, but also, new ways of seeing that which one assumes to be already known. Both kinds of knowledge is generated by the efforts of researchers and writers, by the activities of intellectuals. The chiefly two-party political system which Bangladesh has come to enjoy since the overthrow of president Ershad, extends to the production of knowledge too. This is most unfortunate. The country may be independent but its intellectuals aren’t, the intellectuals either belong to the BNP, or to the AL, they frame what they think, what they say according to the dictates of the party that they belong to. In his presentation Manzur-e-Mowla had mentioned that the Fellows of Bangla Academy should not be those who had been opposed to the independence of Bangladesh. I fully agree, I would only like to push his observation a bit further. The Fellows of Bangla Academy should be truly independent, they should not be durbar intellectuals who bow and scrape before politicians, whose thinking follows the party political line.
I had said, I think that when we speak of these matters we should also take the help of theoretical discussions, such as, let’s say? the ideas of Edward Said who had said, there is an urgent need to keep two things separate, on the one hand, the practice and function of the intellectual, and on the other, politics. Combining intellectual practice and functions with political ambitions is dangerous. It is deadly. I added, and I think we can also benefit from Noam Chomsky’s theoretical ideas, to do with manufacturing consent. I think we should keep these in our head when we speak of the kind of Bangla Academy that we would like to see in future, so that we can examine and analyse the role of intellectuals here, also, to be able to ask intellectuals how they see their own roles, whether they see their own function as manufacturing consent for the rulers. What if this leads to betraying the dreams and aspirations of the common people? Surely, it is up to the intellectuals to caution people, and vested quarters against pocketing the independence struggle for corporate gains? Against turning the language movement into a purely Bengali event? Yes, we had fought for our mother tongue, and yes, it has achieved international recognition, but that is because people the world over are attached to their own mother tongue, and it is these attachment, these feelings that have led them to sympathise with us. That is why 21 February has won international recognition. But we must ask ourselves whether we have learnt to respect the spirit of the language movement, or whether the language movement, Bangla bhasha, and Bangali nationhood, which were once rallying cries against oppression, have become tools of oppression themselves. When the Shaotals of Bangladesh sing ora amar mukher bhasha kaira nite chaey (they want to snatch away our mother tongue), they mean `us’ Bengalis. Surely that is a matter of shame?
When Manzur-e-Mowla says, `Bangla Academy Bangladesher shob manusher protishthan,’ I wish I could agree with him. But it’s not true. It belongs only to the Bengalis, not to all. Not to Bangladeshis.
Later I caught myself thinking, but the Shahid Minar is. After all, that is where people had gathered to protest at the injustices against those who were left out of the national dream.
The challenges that lie ahead of Bangla Academy are greater. It remains to be seen whether Bengali intellectuals will rise up to meet the challenge.

`Warring factions,’ and imperial politics

I had written above, But the world has changed since.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts is often spoken of as a zone of ethnic conflict, with different warring factions:
– the Bangladesh government (led by whichever party happens to be in power)
– the Bangladesh military
– PCJSS (Parbotto Chottogram Jana Shanghati Samiti)
– UPDF (United Peoples Democratic Front)
– the Bengali settlers
conflicts which prevent the furthering of development agendas which will benefit all, especially its older inhabitants, the jummas. Which will assist in securing human rights for all. Will promote harmony, peace and justice. On the face of it, there is nothing with which any one in their right minds would disagree.
But what I find disconcerting is the inability to raise equally searching questions about those who represent CHT and its politics in such a manner. I was reading the European Union’s press statement regarding the recent incidents in the CHT and trying to remember whether I had seen them issue any statement about Guantanamo. Or Abu Ghuraib. Did they? Had they? Instead, if I remember correctly, most of these European nations had joined the US in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, had opposed the will of their own people through doing so, hadn’t they?
But then, all the more reason, I cannot help but think, to put our own house in order. A Bangla Academy for all, a nation for all. And, this being the month of March, Bengali intellectuals could begin by re-writing their nationalist narratives. Making them inclusionary.
Published in New Age 8 March 2010