The Fate Of The Chakma

The Fate Of The Chakma – displaced tribal people of Bangladesh

Jeremy Seabrook


INVASION OF THEIR traditional lands by settlers has led Bangladesh’s Chakma people into conflict with the authorities and each other, as they struggle to protect their traditional culture.

RANGMATI, EN THE Chittagong Hill Tracts in the east of Bangladesh, is a drowned town, submerged by the creation of the Kaptai Lake in 1962, which covered 54,000 acres of land belonging to the indigenous Chakma people. A new city has crept out of the water around the lake, a scattered circular settlement: what were the peaks of hills are now islands and embankments surrounded by water, reached only by leaky country boats.

In the flooded fields and felled jungles may be read the fate of the tribal peoples threatened with the embalming of their customs and traditions in folk-museums. The language has already retreated from the public spaces, spoken now only in the home.

These peaceable hills have been subject to an extraordinary violence, which in turn evoked a violent response. Between 1980 and 1997, almost 10,000 people are known to have died in the low-intensity war which ravaged the already damaged environment and culture of the Chakmas. The cause of conflict was the influx of Bengali settlers from the plains in the 1970s: this upset the demographic balance, and made the traditional jhum (slash and burn) cultivation no longer sustainable. The 5,093 square miles of the Hill Tracts (almost 10 per cent of the land mass of Bangladesh) became highly militarised; 70,000 people crossed the border to India and 60,000 more were internally displaced by massacres, burnings and evictions.

In December 1997, the Awami League government signed a Peace Accord with the Shanti Bahini, the armed force of the tribal people in the Hill Tracts, recognising their right to land, culture, language and religion.

There are 13 tribal groups in the hills, the most numerous being the Chakmas. Of SinoTibetan origin, they practice a Buddhist-animist religion. Their jhum cultivation created a distinctive culture and way of life, which has been laid waste over the past 150 years, together with the jungle environment which gave it meaning.

Dr Kisa, a Chakma and doctor in Rangamati, is a historian of the tribal people. He identifies three major acts of violence against the Chakmas, each inflicted by a form of colonialism. First, the imposition by the British of monetary tribute on a noncash economy. The Hill Tracts were then known as Kaposmahal — the kingdom of cotton. Money was unknown, although there were other forms of exchange — food, animals, pigs, jungle produce. The second blow was the creation of the Kaptai Lake for electricity by the Pakistanis. The third came with the influx of Bengali settlers — encouraged by the military government. This ignited conflict, as the population grew from its more or less stable 300,000 to about 700,000. Now half the people are settlers, mostly occupying the towns and the lower slopes. The tribal people have retreated further into the ruined hills, poor dusty settlements reached by long staircases carved into the bare flanks, replanted with, for the most part, exotic trees — eucalyptus, ipil-ipil, tea k.

Dr Kisa was born in 1933. ‘In my childhood,’ he says, ‘I never saw any shop in the marketplace that sold rice. Salt, earthenware and dried fish — these were the only marketed items. Clothing was never bought or sold. All women learned to weave, and until she could do so, no young woman would find a husband. At that time, people’s demands were very small. People had no property. Everything they owned — iron, tools, clothing — could be contained in a small bamboo basket, the traditional design of braided grass worn around the forehead, and the woven basket on the back.’

In the hills jhum involved paddy, til (sesame seed), and cotton, intercropped with vegetables. The varieties of rice suited to the steep hillsides were not displaced by the green revolution; the strains are so distinctive they can be distinguished by their fragrance as they grow on the lopes. The Buddhist culture is inflected by older beliefs, including the mediation of Bonobhante, a jungle priest who meditated in the forests, the vestiges of Sufi tradition absorbed by the culture. People still perform puja to streams and rivers, and recognise Gorma, goddess of water, and Debaraj, a sky goddess. Like many traditional cultures, some customs have a symbolic existential beauty: when someone dies, a thread is tied from the body of the deceased to all surviving relatives — sons, daughters, wife, husband and so on. Only when the priest cuts the thread can the spirit of the dead depart.

The Chakmas and the other tribal groups never established permanent settlements. Everyone knew how to build the temporary shelters which were abandoned as jhum cultivation moved on. Jhum is a slow, migratory, semi-nomadic culture. Villages were rarely registered with the government. When survey maps are consulted, the living places of the Chakmas are shown as blank spaces. It was into these ‘uninhabited’ places that settlers came; a process encouraged under military rule from 1975 until 1991, with its crusade to Bengalise or perhaps to Islamise the hill peoples.

Many assumed that the Hill Tracts would go to India after Partition, since the overwhelming majority of the population were non-Muslim; and for a few days the Indian flag flew over Rangamati. In 1972, after liberation, the tribal people asked for autono my, with a separate legislative body, and a retention of the 1900 Regulations against non-tribal settlers. This was refused by Sheikh Mujib, who led the Bangladeshi Independence movement. In the Liberation War, some tribal people had been against the creation of Bangladesh, which earned them the mistrust of Bengalis. A military presence and administration were soon established. The response by the hill people was the formation of the Shanti Bahini (peace force) in 1972. Violent army operations started in 1980 in response to an ambush of 22 soldiers.

The Peace Accord recognises the old demand for autonomy — the land rights of the Adivasis, their right to preservation of culture, language and religious observance. When the Accord was signed, the majority of the bill people laid down their arms, although some dissident groups continued sporadic attacks and kidnappings. Santu Larma is leader of the Chattagram Jana Samata Samhiti, which speaks for the majority of the tribal people. He is increasingly concerned that the most significant points of the Accord have yet to be implemented. Many Chakmas are restive, doubting the good faith of the Bangladeshi Government, and some speak of re-joining the dissident groups who never believed in the Accord.

The principal point of contention is the difficulty which any Bangladeshi Government would face in dispossessing Bengalis of land they now possess, and returning it to non-Muslims. Although part of the agreement was the rehabilitation of settlers who had usurped tribal land, there is nowhere else for them to go. Although some of the Chakmas have returned to their homes, the Land Commission which was to have been set up to ensure this was equitably carried out, has yet to come into existence. Only a fraction of the 500 or more military and paramilitary camps have closed, and the promised Hill Tracts District and Regional Councils are not operating.

Meanwhile, the people continue to lose their identity. The Chakma songs are influenced by Bengali words and melodies; schools offer instruction only in Bengali. Shame inhibits many younger people from wearing the traditional ornaments, and the artefacts made of bamboo — fish-traps, bird-traps, storage baskets for fodder, fruit, yams or leaves, flutes and pipes — can no longer be made because the bamboo has gone.

The present Chakma king is now a barrister living in Dhaka. ‘There is nowhere left for us to go’, says Sukheshwar Chakma, a teacher. ‘We have taken refuge in the dense forests of the mind. But that doesn’t provide livelihood.’

The people of the Hill Tracts, with their songs and dances perpetuated only by self-conscious cultural groups, are in danger of becoming like many indigenous peoples all over the world — ethnicity without a culture. This forfeit they are free to go and mourn in city slums, with all the consolations the modern world can offer them — alcohol, drugs and despair. Such impoverishment cannot be measured by the instruments of economic performance. It represents a loss, not only to themselves, but also to the world.

Jeremy Seabrook is a writer and journalist.

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