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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Respect indigenous rights

Source: The Daily Star News

Fakhruddin Ahmed

Photo: Wahid Adnan/ Drik news
IN Bangladesh, a nation with limited land and unlimited population, land grabbing by the mighty has assumed alarming proportions. Every village has stories of the powerful enlisting the assistance of goons to grab lands from the poor and the hapless -- lands that the poor had owned for generations.

Laws in Bangladesh tend to favour the criminal and the powerful, and penalise the law-abiding and the weak. An innocent person can be cast into jail in Bangladesh only on a criminal complaint, whereas a criminal convicted on several counts of murder, but with powerful political connections, can be free on bail ad infinitum. No nation can prosper unless laws apply equally to every citizen.

Utter lawlessness has descended on the Chittagong Hill Tracts since the third week of February. By all accounts, and according to reports published in The Daily Star, violence and death have been triggered by the illegal land grab by the Bengali settlers, sometimes aided and abetted by local army personnel.

Many Jumma indigenous people have been killed, several more injured, and many of their dwellings have been set on fire by the Bengali settlers. Bengali settlers, too, have suffered deaths, injuries and arson in retaliation, although much fewer in number. The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Accords delineates certain areas as indigenous land; Bengalis have absolutely no legal right to settle on or grab those lands.

Of all the districts allotted to "East Pakistan" during the partition of India in 1947, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had the fewest number of Muslims -- less than 2 percent of the population. Buddhists constituted 85 percent of the population, followed by the Hindus (10 percent) and animists (3 percent). While the rest of the "East Pakistanis" were ethnically homogenous (Bengalis), the Jumma, or the indigenous people, were different -- they belonged to the mongoloid race.

The writer was fortunate enough to attend Faujderhat Cadet College, which had a few Jumma students. It was a revelation! The Jumma students looked different, spoke in a different tongue, ate different food, and their songs, religion and culture were totally different.

As a part of Faujderhat Cadet College's Outward Bound and Adventure Camp, the writer made his first trip to Rangamati as a seventh grader in 1959. We swam in the Karnaphuli river, were feted to a sumptuous lunch by Raja Tridiv Roy, and we all fell in love with a gorgeous Chakma girl named Jayasree, after her beautiful rendition of Lata Mangeshkar's immortal Bengali song: "Banshi Keno Gai, Amare Kadai…"

Underneath all the fun and festivities, there was an undercurrent of sadness. We were repeatedly told that the "old" Rangamati was going to be under water soon, and that our subsequent camps would be in "new" Rangamati. Being young and naïve, we were wondering: how could the natives be happy if their town was going to go under water soon?

Sure enough, catastrophe hit the natives in 1961 when the Kaptai dam was opened! Vast areas of the pristine forest and native households went under water forever. The natives lost their ancestral homes of generations. It is doubtful that they were consulted or compensated by the Pakistani government who constructed the dam.

It is now generally acknowledged that such hydroelectric dams are of marginal benefit, but are ecological disasters. After fifty years, it is now time to rethink the wisdom of keeping the Kaptai dam functioning. If the dam could be dismantled, Bangladesh would be able to recover about 1 percent of its land, and restore some of the lands to its rightful Jumma owners.

Over the years, as population pressure built all over Bangladesh, more and more Bengalis started settling in the Hill Tracts. Many of us who saw the injustice of it remained silent. With no political solution in sight the indigenous population resisted, and the Shanti Bahini led an insurgency for twenty years until the Peace accord of 1997. One thought that the matter had a happy ending there, but it did not. Many of the terms of the Accord have not been implemented, leading to frustration, which has triggered the current explosive environment.

The eleven tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts that constitute the Jummas deserve the sympathy and generosity of their fellow Bangladeshis. Land may be in short supply in Bangladesh, but that is no reason for Bengali settlers to illegally grab land that belong to the Jummas. The Awami League government had signed the CHT Accord in 1997. Now that they are back in power, it is their duty to ensure that every facet of the Accord is implemented.

Bangladeshis and the Bangladesh government must honour the agreements they sign. Because, if we do not, the likes of Amnesty International and the European Union will lecture us forever about how naughty we are! I have always been amazed at how much patta or importance we offer to personnel from Amnesty International in Bangladesh. They are treated like celebrities, featured on the front pages of the newspapers, are feted and interviewed like superstars. Yet, all they ever do is criticise us. And we grovel to, and worship them for it! How about some self-respect and backbone for a change?

Whenever the Amnesty International criticises US policies, they are dismissed with utter contempt. Amnesty International personnel are not featured in, or interviewed by The New York Times. Amnesty International is treated as a pariah in Israel, which, in case anyone has not noticed, has been stealing lands from the Palestinians for the last 62 years! If the Israelis ever allowed Amnesty International into their country, believe me they would not be treated like heroes/heroines like we treat them in Bangladesh; they would be castigated for their "bias" towards the Palestinians!

A wrong has been committed against our Jumma brothers and sisters. Let us correct it ourselves. Let us restore their lands to them, compensate them for their losses, and punish those responsible for their suffering. Let us not let foreigners tell us what we should do; let us do what is right ourselves.