In a recent interview by Bangladesh’s ‘Your right to know’, the Assistant Editor of the Daily Star, Mohammad Ali Sattar asked Raja Devasish Roy, the Chakma Circle Chief :
“Do you think that the Hill region was properly represented at the Peace Talks and Agreement Signing with the government in 1997?”
RDR answered: “I feel that question of how ‘properly’ the CHT was represented, or not represented, as the case might be, is far less important than the question of how acceptable the Accord’s terms were, or are. The Accord does not fulfill the aspirations, or even expectations, of a large number of people in the CHT, including from within the indigenous population, but it is generally accepted as a reasonable agreement that could undo many of the past wrongs, and take the region forward towards democracy, self-determined development and protection of the identity and integrity of the region’s different peoples. However, a de-gendered approach, and a respectful attitude towards the rights and needs of all the peoples, particularly those with small numbers and extreme marginality, can only make the process more democratic and inclusive.”
However, despite RDR’s repeated requests to take prior permission regarding major editing, what Daily Star only published was: “I feel that question of how “properly” the CHT was represented, or not represented, as the case might be, is far less important than the question of how acceptable the Accord’s terms were, or are. The Accord does not fulfill the aspirations, or even expectations, of a large number of people in the CHT.”
The question of representativeness of the Accord was loaded enough. But to only print RDR’s not so positive comments on the Accord while deleting his comments on the Accord about it being a “reasonable agreement ….. generally accepted etc” was not an objective way of treating his answer. It was an interview, and not an editorial.
The Daily Star, as requested, must make corrections accordingly, otherwise the one-sided image of the accord that Daily Star has purposely held, will be subject to scrutiny by many people. And one must question why Daily Star too, in the given crucial times of the struggle, proven themselves to have joined the bandwagon of those “demonizing” the accord?Daily Star link to the interview: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=179503
The original interview submitted by RDR via email on March 22nd, 2011.
1. In context of the uniqueness of the region, please give us the present socio-economic and political situation of the Hill Tracts.
Despite the recent input of development programmes of governmental and non-governmental organizations and other institutions in the CHT, the overall socio-economic situation in the region is a serious cause for concern.
As far as access to basic education, healthcare, electrical power, road networks and transport facilities, sanitary latrines, safe drinking water and basic government extension services are concerned- the region is still among the least developed in the country. Apart from some exceptions, the indigenous peoples continue to remain among the most disadvantaged in this regard. I have seen personally on tours to remote villages how infant and mother mortality rates surrounding childbirth are clearly among the highest in the country.
Deaths from diarrhea and dysentery, on account of use of unsafe water, are extremely high, especially among the Pahari communities living in “remote” areas. Plains and lowlands suitable for irrigation-oriented multi-crop cultivation are scarcer in the CHT than any other region. The national goal of achieving 100% literacy in the country is unlikely to be reached soon, unless special measures are undertaken. Several upazillas have a literacy rate that is lower than half that of the national rate (amongst them Lakkhichari in Khagrachari, which I visited recently) is reportedly less than 15%. None of the three district headquarters’ government colleges offers more than three or four subjects each for Honours or Master’s courses. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ring like hollow words. Per capita income that accrues to the region’s population is far lower than the national average and most comparable plains districts. The overall socio-economic situation needs to be assessed not by looking at the sums of money spent recently, but by looking at the socio-economic indicators with context-appropriate tools of assessment. The socio-economic problems need to be addressed in context-specific ways, through special measures, to bring forth true equal treatment of the Bangladeshi citizens living in the CHT. This is true for healthcare, education, agriculture, power, communications, employment, training, transport, information, press and media and so forth.
On the other hand, the political situation is far from what it should be, and what it can be. The political rights that were acknowledged through the CHT Accord of 1997 remain largely ignored, on account of discriminatory attitudes and ignorance of the specificities of the CHT, or lack of political support at high levels, or a combination of all three.
The intra-indigenous political – and all too often violent – conflict between JSS and UPDF exacerbates the issue, but it is not the sole political problem of the Tracts, nor necessarily its most important one, although I very much deplore the deaths and other undesirable results emanating therefrom. The more important problem is an insufficient understanding at national levels, of the political history of the CHT, as a region whose peoples’ political and civil rights (not to mention economic, social and cultural rights) have been too long neglected. The CHT was never a part of Bengal until after the British empire annexed it in 1860. However, the region’s constitutional status remains unacknowledged since 1964, when the region lost its special status as a “Tribal Area”. The CHT-specific institutions, the CHT Regional Council, the Hill District Councils and the traditional institutions of the Chiefs, Headmen and Karbaries are unable to exercise their legitimate authority in the CHT free from undue interference. High-level decision-making for the CHT is until today exercised on the basis of advice from civil and military bureaucrats, ignoring the role of the CHT institutions.
The political situation is worsened by treating the CHT as a “security issue” and employing “counter-insurgency” approaches in a region that has no “insurgency” (the major conflict is intra-indigenous and political). Unlike before the period of the ceasefire in the mid-90s – security forces, government installations and personnel are no longer attacked by any CHT armed groups. The continuance of a security paradigm is equivalent to providing quinine to someone who has the flu. The current political situation can only improve if the government’s policy-makers understand the history of the CHT as self-governing area, and accordingly devolve adequate authority to the region’s specialized institutions, under the benign oversight of the national government in Dhaka. This will call for devolution of authority to the CHT institutions within the spirit of the CHT Accord and international human rights law, including the provisions of the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (Convention No. 107), which Bangladesh ratified even before the national constitution was adopted in 1972, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose implementation has been recently supported by the Hon’ble Prime Minister.
2. Do you think that the Hill region was properly represented at the Peace Talks and Agreement Signing with the government in 1997?
I feel that question of how ‘properly’ the CHT was represented, or not represented, as the case might be, is far less important than the question of how acceptable the Accord’s terms were, or are. The Accord does not fulfill the aspirations, or even expectations, of a large number of people in the CHT, including from within the indigenous population, but it is generally accepted as a reasonable agreement that could undo many of the past wrongs, and take the region forward towards democracy, self-determined development and protection of the identity and integrity of the region’s different peoples. However, a de-gendered approach, and a respectful attitude towards the rights and needs of all the peoples, particularly those with small numbers and extreme marginality, can only make the process more democratic and inclusive.
3. What are the impediments to the implementation of the treaty?
Among the impediments towards implementation is the demonification of the provisions of the 1997 Accord whereby its provisions have been painted black. We have failed as a country to bring ownership towards the treaty, despite the fact that the government of the day is led by the Bangladesh Awami League, under whose leadership the agreement was signed, and who made pledges to implement it fully and faithfully in the last general elections.
Another impediment is a perspective that posits: “Implementation of the Accord will jeopardize the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the country.” I would argue just the opposite. It is implementation of the Accord that will truly integrate the region into the country’s path towards development, without artificially and forcefully assimilating the CHT peoples’ identity and integrity. But of course, development needs to be a ‘self-determined’ form of development, a form of development that respects cultural identities, collective social rights and the indigenous peoples’ ethos of development.
The intra-Pahari political conflict and the CHT peoples’ marginal position in national-level decision-making processes complicate the issue further. The irony for indigenous peoples in the CHT, like most parts of the world is that, they did not design the architecture of the state in which they live, and most importantly, they did not have a role in framing the country’s constitution. Unless appropriate constitutional reforms are made with their prior, informed consent, there will be no state policy to help facilitate the implementation of the Accord, but mere governmental policies that are fickle, ad hoc and subject to changes according to the political exigencies of the party/parties in power in successive governments. The constitution is the architectural plan, and the state’s political structures and processes are the house of the people. If the architecture does not allow necessary additions, vertical and horizontal, there can be no new stories in the building, let alone rooms and verandahs. The indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have been living in annexes and verandahs of the house of the Bangladeshi state for far too long. They want to be in the main building, but with their own rooms, as family members of the state, coming from different ages, sexes, disabilities and marital status. Only then can a state, including Bangladesh, be truly democratic (and not just an electoral majoritarianism system and/or a centralized bureaucracy).
4. Tell us something about the present status of the land commission. How is it functioning? Your suggestions to improve it further.
The CHT Land Commission has not – as far as I know – provided a single decision on land-related conflicts in the CHT, in the nature of a civil court, as it is empowered by law. And it should not do without an agreement about its process of work, i.e., subsidiary rules to supplement the 2001 Act have not been framed. It is not functioning properly. There are two basic problems. One is the current chairperson’s dictatorial ways. The chairperson has decided the format of hearings, petitions, notices etc. without consulting with the commission’s members, including the chairpersons of the regional and hill district councils and the circle chiefs or Rajas. Moreover, at the behest of the chairperson, and perhaps based on the advice of certain government officials – who are not members of the commission (only one official, the Commissioner or Additional Commissioner of Chittagong is a member) – the commission purported to start a land survey prior to dispute resolution. That would have been tantamount to a trial by survey officials (amin, kanungoes, surveyors and chainmen, etc) rather than a trial by the commission’s members. It is because the commission’s members have knowledge of the “laws, customs and practices” of the CHT (as the commission’s law says) that the commission was so constructed. The idea was not to repeat the injustices caused by survey officials who have no understanding of customary law. Thus, inclusive decision-making while accounting for oral customary law principles, often without formal documentation, is the raison d’etre behind having such a commission.
In any case, land survey is within the purview of the hill district councils- which is the institution charged by law with land settlements, leases, transfers, compulsory acquisition and other forms of land use, not that of the commission. The commission may conduct, through the cooperation of the executive local agencies, local surveys only, not a cadastral survey – which would be based upon plains land ownership and use concepts, largely inapplicable to the CHT, if and when a dispute before the commission so demands. The commission’s job is not to rehabilitate people displaced on account of its decisions. That political and humanitarian decision belongs to the Government of Bangladesh, to be designed and implemented through the Task Force on Rehabilitation of the India-returned Jumma Refugees and Internally Displaced Hill people in a transparent and democratic manner.
The second major problem with the commission is the concerned law’s (Land Commission Act, 2001) conflict with the letter and spirit of the 1997 Accord. There are problems with regard to the jurisdiction of the commission, the undemocratic quorum of its members for major decision-making, the arbitrary powers vested upon its chairperson, and problems in the process of delegation of minor authority, among others. I am glad that the Ministry of Land agreed, in principle, to make the necessary amendments to the law, based upon the advice of the CHT Regional Council, which the government is obliged to do in terms of the 1997 Accord and the CHT Regional Council Act of 1998. I am also happy to note that the chairperson of the CHT Accord Implementation Committee has advised the commission’s chairperson to act within the spirit of the Accord. I earnestly hope that the proposed amendments will be passed at parliament’s next session instead of remaining as yet another unrealized promise.
5. Regarding the settlers issue, what are the outstanding problems that need to be resolved first?
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the government-sponsored Bengali migrants’ existence in the CHT is economically unviable. The conditions of a large portion of the Bengali residents, whose ancestors came to the CHT during the British period, and that of a significant section of more recent Bengali migrants, including the government-sponsored Bengali “settlers”, who came in the 1980s, is also a cause for concern. The continued provision of food grain rations to the officially-listed migrants by the Ministry of CHT Affairs proves that. The humanitarian need is to provide the migrants with livelihood security, and not necessarily land grants. I have heard that many of the migrants are willing to be rehabilitated in the plains regions outside the CHT if they are guaranteed livelihood security. I can well believe that. Why would opt to live in an ecological environment that they are not used to, unlike the hill peoples, who are adapted and conditioned to live in forest and hill terrain through long tradition and practice. Such rehabilitation can easily be done for a few hundred thousand people, if necessary, with international support, as was offered previously by the European Parliament, but refused.
Secondly, the migrants were cheated with a false promise of abundant arable land in the CHT, which they soon found was a myth. There was cultivable insufficient land in the 1960s to rehabilitate the evacuees of the Kaptai Dam in the 1960s, whereupon thousands (particularly Chakmas who were formerly lowland wet-rice cultivators) permanently migrated to India in1964. Where would the extra land have come from in the 1980s? Obviously by displacing indigenous people from their homes and lands, including those that they rotationally and collectively use for jum, forest, watersheds of rivers and streams, grasslands, grazing lands, etc. Therefore, it should be realized that those false promises cannot be kept by any government. The migrants are not to be equated with soldiers retreating from enemy-occupied territory. Even if they left, the CHT remains Bangladesh’s, along with its indigenous and Bengali residents (those who came voluntarily to the CHT, and who have adapted to CHT ways over the years).
If the Bengali government-sponsored migrants, or a large percentage of them, agree to be rehabilitated ex-CHT, voluntarily, the “settler problem” would be more “manageable”. Political compromises would then be easier for all concerned. And since so many of the migrants are so poor, I am confident that many would agree to such a process of rehabilitation outside the CHT. It can be phased in. The alternative is: to keep alive a conflict over land that has nothing to do with ethnicity, but a sheer struggle to survive. It is the “settler” issue that has artificially given birth to land-related conflicts, which have been ‘ethnicized’ and in turn given birth to ethnic tensions that are becoming intractable, and which may be too difficult for any government to handle in the future.
6. Regarding the ecology, do you think the region needs more care and protection from encroachers? What has been the extent of damage to the natural forests and hills in the last 25 years?
Absolutely. But that can only happen if the indigenous peoples’ community-driven and collectivist traditions of resource management and sustainable use are allowed to continue. Such protection will be unviable merely with regulatory regimes (like criminal prosecution by the Department of Forests or the Department of Environment). The forest areas in the region have probably shrunk to one quarter of their size in the last quarter century. The water sources are drying up, to the extent that the greatest ecological disaster in the CHT in the coming years will be shortage of water, and not just drinking water. Most CHT agricultural lands cannot produce more than one crop a year, unlike in the rest of the country. The biodiversity in the region is dwindling, except in the small community managed forests (“village common forests”) under the jurisdiction of the mauza headmen, outside of the Forest Department-controlled reserved forests, which cover a quarter of the region’s area. Even today, leopard, bear, wild dog, sambhur, wild boar, deer and other animals live in these village forest commons. Very few perhaps know that the CHT is one of the mega-diversity regions of the world. Or perhaps was until recently?
7. The government has taken up plans to promote tourism, Is there any local initiatives here to develop the region to attract more tourists. Do you have plans that might help the government to enrich the tourism industry?
Tourism, in order for it to be respectful of ecology and the CHT peoples’ culture, spirituality and social norms, must be people-owned, people-led and people-oriented. The CHT people would never support a tourism industry that converted the CHT people into menial employees of mega hotel and tour projects where the indigenous peoples are paraded with their traditional costumes bereft of their dignity, culture and integrity, in artificial “tribal villages”. Tourism may also bring in sex trade, sexually transmitted diseases and social problems.
The only type of tourism that may be acceptable to the local people is one which is low capital-oriented, locally owned and managed, or at last co-owned and co-managed by local people, respectful of the local ecology, architectural traditions and with proper waste management. A form of tourism that brings in thousands of visitors that add pressure to local sewerage and water supply systems, pollute the air, water and soil with plastic bags, and sonically pollute the area (like loud city visitors do in Lowacharra Park in Sylhet, to the woe of the silent denizens of that forest) is the last thing that the
 I strongly request that if I refer to the phrases “indigenous peoples”, “adibashi” or “Pahari” the same should be retained as I use them. Jumma is acceptable too. I clearly dislike the phrases “upajati”, “tribal”, “small ethnic groups” and “ethnic minorities”. I also request that the latter terms may kindly not be used at all in the interview in the context of the indigenous/adibashi/pahari peoples of the CHT.