In the verdant countryside of Bangladesh’s southeastern Chittagong Division, bordering India and Myanmar, lie the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). They are home to the Jumma people, the collective name for the numerous small indigenous communities of religious and racial minorities. Despite being culturally, ethnically and economically distinct from the rest of the country, the CHT has been part of Bangladesh since the country’s creation in 1971.
Often marginalised and oppressed, the region’s inhabitants are still yet to be officially recognised as an indigenous population in Bangladesh.
As such, those living in the CHT do not readily identify as loyal subjects of the Bangladeshi state, and the region has sought independence and autonomy from the very beginning – frequently through violent means.
Up until the signing of a peace accord in 1997, an armed conflict raged between the Bangladeshi government and the Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram party. The organisation itself has faced repeated accusations concerning the role of India in ‘sheltering and training’ its soldiers.
As the situation has deteriorated, there have been descriptions of the conflict as a ‘genocide’, along with allegations of mass murder and rape by paramilitary forces. Indeed, it has been estimated that between 1971 and 1994, 2,500 Jumma women had been raped.
Although conditions have improved significantly since the peace treaty was signed, the region remains heavily militarised by Bangladeshi forces, with limited exercise of basic freedoms. As recently as June 2017, villages were burned by paramilitary forces, allegedly in an attempt to seize land.
The public discourse on the issue comes down to a sovereign nation’s right to retain areas under its dominion, and an indigenous group’s right to demand independence if they feel their rights are being institutionally violated.
Complex historical trajectory
To understand the political context of the CHT, one must look no further than the complex state of geopolitical affairs in the CHT prior to the construction of the Kaptai Dam – often cited as the initial trigger of the dispute.
Despite a distinct lack of documentary evidence, it can be inferred that the inhabitants of the region were nomadic before the advent of British rule in 1760. The population consisted of multiple tribal groups, the most influential of whom were the Chakmas, who had arrived from Myanmar at least as early as the 16th century.
Even though the British collected taxes from the residents of the region, they recognised the special status of the CHT, declaring it a ‘Totally Excluded Area’, meaning that the area and its natives would receive special legal provisions – including a ban on the settlement of outsiders in the area. The traditional institutions of the natives were acknowledged, giving the region a level of sovereignty that was not extended to other lands under British rule.
Following the partition of India in 1947, the CHT came to be included in greater Pakistan, ignoring the wishes of groups who wanted to belong to either India or Burma. Given that one of the motives for the creation of Pakistan was to found a separate state for Muslims to inhabit, the inclusion of the CHT, which was only 3% Muslim, could only be explained by the region’s proximity to Chittagong.
Despite Pakistan’s acknowledgement of the special status of the CHT in a dramatic ruling in 1964, all privileges granted to the region were revoked, giving rise to pervasive discontent amongst the indigenous populations.
The Kaptai Dam
The construction of the Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam began in 1956, against a backdrop of rising political tension between the ethnic groups, pushed the situation to breaking point and led to the foundation of the Shanti Bahini armed group.
The power generated by the dam, which was finished in 1962 and is 50km from the port city of Chittagong, has facilitated the growth of many industries and in a remarkable saving of foreign exchange that was previously lost in importing manufactured goods. The electricity produced has also helped pump water for irrigation and drainage.
The reservoir also protects Chittagong from flood damage, produces over 7,000 tons of freshwater fish annually and is an easily-navigated route to remote parts of the CHT.
Building the Kaptai Dam remains one of the most notable development projects in Bangladesh. However, the venture has been criticised by development practitioners for having distributed its costs and benefits inequitably. Many have gone further and accused the state of Pakistan of building the dam at its precise location in order to remove the economic foundations of the natives.
Some estimates state that the Kaptai Dam submerged almost 54% of the best arable land of a predominantly agricultural economy, and displaced 100,000 people from their ancestral homes. About 40,000 people were forced to migrate to neighboring India and another 20,000 to Burma. Those who fled to India are yet to be granted citizenship. Those displaced by the dam project were denied any kind of monetary compensation, unlike the victims of other forced relocations.
The dam’s construction eroded the social and economic structure of the Jumma population, while it led to employment and business opportunities for Bengali Muslims. This discrepancy between the fates of the two ethnic groups – caused primarily by state policies – further divided the two groups; and the situation was exacerbated by the arrest of Manabendra Narayan Larma, a student leader who demanded compensation for the evictees.
There is a deep, uncomfortable irony in the fact that the very population who paid such a high price to supply the nation with electricity are yet to be provided with this service.
Attempts at compensation
The small fraction of the population of the CHT were compensated with land, however its value was not worth nearly as much as what had been taken from them. Often the land was useless to them, as it wasn’t suitable for the style of agriculture they were skilled in. No initiative was formulated by the government to retrain them in more relevant trades. In the 1980s, President Zia-ur-Rahman allowed Bengalis to legally settle in the CHT to dilute the strength of the already weakened indigenous population.
Since the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997 was signed, the government of Bangladesh has taken a few small steps to redress the balance in favour of the Jumma. One such move was re-establishing the ban on Bengalis settling or buying land in the hill tracts. These measures, whilst deemed barely to be satisfactory by the indigenous communities themselves, have also been heavily condemned by Bengalis who feel they are being persecuted.
Since the formation of Bangladesh, all ruling parties have been accused of intentionally holding back progress of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to retain the votes of the Bengali majority. As the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accord approaches in December of this year, disgruntlement runs high.
The current government claims to have implemented 48 of the 72 sections of the accord; however indigenous leaders have cited the number to be as low as 25. They have also accused the government of working against the clauses of the treaty. As confidence in the government’s willingness to implement the peace deal falls, the threat of further conflict also rises.