Kalpana Chakma addressing a public rally at Baghaichari, November 19, 1994.
Kalpana Chakma’s unresolved
abduction, 14 years on...
The legacy of a disappearance
Kalpana Chakma had a rightful place in the politics of this country ... By demanding accountability and raising the plight of the Jumma people, she had joined the ranks of leaders, Bengali and non-Bengali before her, who had wanted Bangladesh to be one that was accepting of differences. Her disappearance signifies how far we have yet to go before we can truly call ourselves a democratic nation, writes Tazreena Sajjad
HER name was Kalpana Chakma. She was twenty years’ old. She was from Lallyaghona village, a Jumma rights activist and a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
On June 12, 1996 she disappeared.
Fourteen years since her forced disappearance, what do we know about what had happened?
Some facts have been known for over a decade: Lieutenant Ferdous with 11 soldiers from the Kojoichari army barrack allegedly raided Kalpana Chakma’s home; at 1:00am, 6 hours before the general elections, Kalpana was forcibly abducted along with her two brothers; while they managed to escape, she never made it back home; on July 14, 1996 several women’s organisations jointly submitted a memo to the home minister of Bangladesh who advised the team to meet the prime minister since ‘the home ministry is not concerned with law and order in the CHT’, the CHT, being an operational zone, is the affair of the general officer in command of the Chittagong Division of the Bangladesh Army; in an ironic twist, the Bangladesh Army circulated leaflets from a helicopter on July 18, 1996 declaring Tk 50,000 for the whereabouts of Kalpana Chakma; the government formed an inquiry committee but its report is yet to be published; human rights activists have continued to demand answers for over one decade and a half; and, her family is still waiting to know where she is.
On the 14th anniversary of Kalpana’s disappearance, there is much reason for humbling reflection and even more inspiration for action.
What has the government of Bangladesh achieved in terms of effectively addressing the tensions in the CHT since the signing of the peace accord? Have the lives of the Jumma people improved despite official proclamations of military drawdown? And have we come far enough in making this country a home for the minorities that live within our borders?
The answer is a resounding ‘no’. The relations between the settler population, the military and the adivasi communities continue to falter, because of the grotesque culture of impunity that allows gross human rights violations to prevail creating a constant cycle of distrust. It allows for Sajek to burn, for the destruction of religious institutions, for dispossession, for rape, torture, and for voices of protests to be silenced.
Bangladesh’s democracy still does not allow for voices of opposition, except for those of the old guard, it has still not acknowledged the challenges of a multiethnic nation, which comes with the responsibility to protect and participate in pluralistic politics. Kalpana Chakma had a rightful place in the politics of this country – a right to demand for culpability of violations committed against a minority group, a right to voice her dissent, and a right to be involved to political mobilisation. By demanding accountability and raising the plight of the Jumma people, she had joined the ranks of leaders, Bengali and non-Bengali before her, who had wanted Bangladesh to be one that was accepting of differences. Her disappearance signifies how far we have yet to go before we can truly call ourselves a democratic nation.
And so, the best laid plans of those who silenced her on June 12, 1996 really have come to naught. Hers is the legacy of a 20-year old, whose courage to challenge the military is no less than the courage of those who fought for the Bengali language in 1952, those who fought for independence in 1971, and those who have battled to reclaim democracy in Bangladesh over and over again.
No, we have not forgotten. She was a Jumma activist, a women’s rights activist. Someone’s daughter and a sister. Her name was Kalpana Chakma. She was only twenty years’ old.
Tazreena Sajjad is a member of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective and can be contacted at email@example.com.
We owe it to Kalpana Chakma, so
does the foreign minister
by Khushi Kabir
JUNE 12, 1996. This was the day of the much-awaited national elections to form the new parliament. Under a caretaker government, formed in response to a movement after the questionable February elections, expectations were high. It was on this day, as the people went to cast their votes, that we were shaken with the news of the abduction of Kalpana Chakma.
Kalpana Chakma, general secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, was abducted from her home by the military. In Bangladesh and internationally, the struggle of the CHT people and the role of the army in repressing them have been raised many times. Kalpana was an activist, someone who could not and would not be shut up by threats alone. She was an independent, strong-willed, politically-aware young woman who had protested against atrocities taking place in the hill districts. Just a few days before her abduction, she had an altercation with a Lieutenant Ferdous, stationed in her area. It was this same Ferdous who allegedly abducted her.
Women’s groups, citizens’ groups protested. Activists immediately visited her home, met her family, people in the area. We held protests, formed human chains, sent petitions to relevant authorities, met with the three elected representatives from the CHT, all hill people themselves. Despite the fact that by now we had a democratically elected government, it seemed demanding accountability from the army was not yet on the cards. We wait to see the day when such accountability can be ensured. The lieutenant probably remains in service and may have been given promotions. The military wheels turn secretly and silently to ensure protection to its own and distancing from civilians. The citizens of this country, Bangladesh, that won its independence through its people taking up arms to liberate themselves, do not need to be informed or taken into confidence, when it comes to the armed forces.
Rumours were floated stating that Kalpana was sighted in Tripura. Rumours that did not fool anyone. Till today, the case remains unresolved. A three-member committee was set up by the then Awami League government, comprising retired Justice Abdul Jalil, Professor Anupam Sen and the-then commissioner of the Chittagong division, who we were informed had submitted their report. Despite many petitions and demands, the report has never been made public. Going through past records, we see that on the occasion of the 12th year of Kalpana’s abduction, on June 12, 2008 our present foreign minister, along with others, demanded that the report be published and Kalpana’s abduction case be taken up. The Awami League government is back in power. We are awaiting their role in making the report public and ensuring that Kalpana’s case is taken up.
We owe it to the memory of Kalpana and her family, we owe it to the indigenous women and peoples of the CHT, we owe it to all marginalised peoples and their struggles, we owe it to ourselves and to our country.
Khushi Kabir is a development activist and coordinator of Nijera Kori
Living under state surveillance
for 14 years
by Saydia Gulrukh
‘Do the words of all witnesses count equally?’ asks Kalpana Chakma’s brother Kalicharan Chakma. He brings out his diary as he talks to me and says, ‘I have learned from the tragic mistake that I need to keep a record of every encounter that we have with the military, the BDR. Our words do not count.’
I was talking to him after a public gathering at Baghaichari, Rangamati, organised by the Hill Women’s Federation, on the thirteenth anniversary of her abduction, June 12, 2009.
Kalicharan Chakma flipped through his notebook and told me of the countless number of times either he had to visit the zone commander, or the latter paid him a visit at his house. He read out, June 27, 2000, Marisya Zone commander came to our house. And then, these dates, July 26, 2000. August 2, 2005. July 3, 2006. July 26, 2006. Baghaichari Thana, Ughalchari Camp, and then Baghaichari Thana.
It was a routine that continued at uneven intervals. BDR members too would stop him in the bazaar (market). Harassment was at its worst in 2008, he said, after newspaper articles on Kalpana Chakma had been published. New Age, June 12, 2008. Star Magazine, June 20, 2008. After the public meeting in Dhaka. His family had to spend many sleepless nights.
July 3, 2008. July 8, 2008. July 11, 2008. August 11, 2008. August 15, 2008, he read out more dates. Major Iqbal and Subedar Shahjahan along with some BDR jawans came to our house. They were looking for Kalicharan Chakma, they said. We have information, Kalpana is in India. We’ll give you money to bring her home. Kalpana’s brother Ajeet Chakma was reluctant to accept the Tk 3,000 but he was afraid to refuse. With pain and anger in his eyes, he asks, ‘What kind of harassment is this? It has been more than a decade, we don’t know what happened to our sister. We are the victims of a crime, we were standing in the water with her when they fired on us. I saw Lt Ferdous with my own eyes, I saw VDP members Saleh Ahmed and Nurul Huq. I see them walking around everyday in Bangali Para. Nobody ever interrogates them.’ Voice choked in anger, he paused, then went on, ‘At Baghaichari thana on August 15, 2008, the police officer accused me of defaming the Bangladesh military. They accused me of hiding Kalpana in India. I asked him, if you know so well that she is in India, why don’t you arrange for her return? But they got angry when I asked these questions, we are not supposed to raise our voices, we are merely Chakma, we are merely tribal people.’
Kalpana Chakma’s sister-in-law told me it’s not only BDR and police surveillance (nojordari). There are other things, too. After the BDR mutiny (February 25-26, 2009), rumours flew that Lt. Ferdous, the government had spun tales that she had eloped with him, now, rumour had it, that he was killed in the mutiny, Kalpana is now widowed with two children. Her sister-in-law asks me, who on earth spreads such rumours? What do they gain? I also listened to the tremendous social pressure that her family has been facing for the last two years, to perform the last rituals for Kalpana. Her brother says, they think that if they can get me to perform dharma for Kalpana, the government can use that as a reason to close the case.
Others, Kalpana’s neighbours, who had accompanied Kalicharan Chakma to the army camp, and to Baghaichari Thana, requested me to leave out their names, they had witnessed the argument that had taken place between Lt Ferdous and Kalpana in 1996, but they were afraid. After all, they have seen at close quarters what life has been like for Kalpana’s family for the last 14 years. Constant state surveillance.
In Road To Democracy, a private TV channel’s popular talk show (August 18, 2009), Dr Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, an Awami League presidium member, who also had played a central role in negotiating and signing the Peace Treaty, let the cat out of the bag. While discussing the ethnic conflict in the CHT, he publicly acknowledged that Kalpana Chakma had been abducted by a lieutenant of the Bangladesh Army.
The government can no longer look the other way. We demand that the whole truth be made public. And that the harassment and surveillance of Kalpana’s family members should cease.
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), USA.
Hill Women’s Federation
KALPANA Chakma was a victim of state repression to which Jumma women are more vulnerable than any other sections of women in Bangladesh. The heavy presence of army personnel and illegal settlers continue to pose a serious threat to the safety of Jumma women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Innumerable cases of rape and murder of Jumma women, committed since the signing of the so-called peace accord in 1997, testify to this. What is more worrying is that not a single person has ever been punished for committing these heinous crimes. Such blanket impunity cannot but contribute to the culture of sexual violence against Jumma women in the CHT.
We have waited for 14 years to know where Kalpana Chakma is, whether she is dead or alive, but each and every government has let us down. Our patience has run out, we do not want to wait another day. We demand that the government publish the inquiry report.
Biplobi Nari Sanghati (Revolutionary Women’s Solidarity)
KALPANA Chakma’s abduction day is a day to get organised for the struggle she had been part of in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, since the causes that she fought for, have not yet been fulfilled in the CHT. Kalpana fought for women’s emancipation and the political autonomy of Jumma people. She fought against military rule in her land.
We take pride in our language movement of 1952. We take pride in 1971, our struggle for freedom in Bangladesh. But unfortunately, we remain inactive and silent about violence against paharis (hill people) in the CHT, including the abduction of Kalpana Chakma. This silence casts shame on our nationalist pride. We, at Biplobi Nari Sanghati, demand that those who abducted Kalpana be brought to justice, and that a system which allows such violence to occur be brought to an end.
Ganosanghati Andolon (People’s Solidarity Movement)
KALPANA Chakma was a comrade in our struggle against ethnic domination, a women’s rights activist, and most importantly, she was a politically aware citizen. Her abduction raises three important questions about our national politics. First, Bangladesh is a country of many nations/ethnicities. There are other ethnic communities along with Bengalis. How do the state and its constitution treat these other ethnicities? It is impossible to establish a democratic state without resolving this question. Second, the fate of Kalpana not only tells us about the marginality of ethnic minority women, but also indicates women’s reality in the larger context of Bangladesh. Thirdly, how does our current nation state treat the majority of its citizens?
Fourteen years later, we still don’t know what happened to Kalpana. The government insists that Bangladesh is a democratic state. Kalpana’s struggle reminds us that in the name of democracy, we live in a state of fascism.
Department of Anthropology
KALPANA’S abduction signifies the battle between the dominant patriarchal nation-state and the dominated community. Kalpana was abducted in 1996, and she remains missing, as she had raised her voice against the injustices committed against her people/nation.
The government of Bangladesh has never provided a satisfactory answer to her disappearance. The name of the army officer who picked her up from her home is well-known, as is well-known that it was the army as an institution that was directly involved, not a single errant officer. But 14 years on, we still do not have any clue about what happened to Kalpana, whether she is dead or alive. What does this mean? That the state knows what happened to Kalpana and is fine with that fact? Or does it mean that the state doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know? Why? Should we take this to mean that allegations against the state’s policy, i.e. it supports Bengali settlers, are true? That the violence conducted by the army in the CHT has the sanction of the state? That the abduction of ethnic-minority women, that incidents of rape and killing are a part of the state’s strategy in disciplining those ‘others’ who live there?
Kalpana’s letter to Rupok Chakma
MY GREETINGS. The letter you wrote to me while I was taking my exams has reached me. I wrote to you before my exams began, did you get it?
Last 13th, on the occasion of education week, we presented a memorandum after holding a huge students’ rally, where we also protested against the abuse of women by infamous army personnel.
You wanted to know how my exams went, well, if I have to tell you about my exams, there’s not much to be said. Maybe, by now, you know the situation in Kachalong College. It is still uncertain whether the results will be announced at all, just like last year. Panel members [exam invigilators along with the thana nirbahi officer] plus the principal’s report, a very hostile atmosphere. In the end, they reported on the students [this expresses her anxiety that if 1 or 2 students were caught cheating, the results of the examination centre would be cancelled]. The students had no idea about all this. But this is grapevine news. I don’t know how much truth there is to it. My English 2nd paper exam was very bad. Hence, I don’t have hopes that I will pass. I’m uncertain about what to do having failed to be victorious in the exam of life. I had thought I won’t take part in [political] struggles until I pass my exams but it’s impossible to not protest when sheer injustices take place right before one’s eyes. It forces me to protest.
At present, there are risky goings-on in Baghaichari because of the collaborators [lejur]. On the 13th, after the rally ended, a collaborator hurled abuses at the PCP, calling it a dacoit and mastaan [thug], leading to his being thrashed. The members can give you more details. Nothing else to write, do write and give me news from your end.
PS: I’ve written this letter in a rush, if there are any mistakes please correct them.
Rupok Chakma, dedicated activist, president, Pahari Chhatra Parishad, 1999-2000; election coordinator, UPDF, 2001. [Killed, September 21, 2001].
Source: Kalpana Chakmar Diary, Dhaka: Hill Women’s Federation, 2001, pp 55-56.
Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed.