Re-membering Kalpana ChakmaRe-membering our solidarity for gender equality, justice and peace
by Kabita Chakma
At the time of her kidnapping, Kalpana was the organising secretary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Hill Women’s Federation (shortly known as the HWF), a BA student at Baghaichari Kachalong College, and she was young, in her early 20s. She was kidnapped, allegedly by a group of civil clothed military and Village Defence Party men led by Lt Ferdous Khan from her home in New Lallyaghona, a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the early hours of June 12, 1996, on a day of national elections in Bangladesh. She has not been heard from since. No one responsible for the abduction has been yet brought to justice. This year, June 12 was the 15th anniversary of Kalpana Chakma Abduction Day.
After long 14 years, in September 2010, the abduction of Kalpana is ordered for re-investigation by the chief judicial magistrate of the Rangamati district court as her brother Kalindi Kumar Chakma rejected the final police report filed with the court at the end of August 2010. The lawyer conducting the case on behalf on the plaintiff explained to the Suprobhat Bangladesh, a Bengali daily published from Chittagong, that, because the final report on the abduction of Kalpana Chakma was inaccurate and the investigation was not carried out in an appropriate manner, they made an appeal for a re-investigation. In September 1996, three months after Kalpana's abduction, and under national and international pressure, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up a three-member enquiry commission, including Justice Abdul Jalil (chairperson), Shakhawat Hossain, deputy commissioner of Chittagong and Professor Anupam Sen of Chittagong University.
This essay, ‘Re-membering Kalpana’ is not simply to remember Kalpana, but to ‘re-member’, to ‘put together’, the journey of Kalpana and her fellow travellers, the indigenous and Bengali citizens of Bangladesh, particularly indigenous and non-indigenous women, to fight injustice, gender violence in the CHT. The CHT alarmingly remains a site of gross human rights violations as Lars-Anders Baer, the UN special rapporteur, highlights in his April 2011 report that there are ‘arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings, harassment of rights activists and sexual harassment.’
Kalpana can be re-membered on her own right, as a brave and vocal activist, and through today’s many major issues which confront us, our consciousness, our humanity, our sense of justice, and inspire us to extend ourselves beyond Bangladesh, to make us active globally for equality and justice, for the greater good of all human beings. This essay, however, will deal with only two out of many issues through which Kalpana can be re-membered today: the coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous human rights activists; and the demand for women’s rights as equal rights in Bangladesh.
The CHT still remains a militarised, colonised land within de-colonised Bangladesh. The CHT is not a war zone. The CHT Accord was signed in 1997 ending over two decades of war, demobilising the Shanti Bahini, the guerrilla wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, and stipulating de-militarisation of the CHT. But, the United Nations’ April 2011 report, mentioned earlier, states that one-third of the military of Bangladesh is stationed in the CHT, which is only 10 per cent of the land of the country. The government’s justification of six cantonments or barracks in the three districts of the CHT, however, is excessive in comparison to 14 cantonments in the rest of the 61 districts of Bangladesh. Or, to put it in another way, having six cantonments in the CHT, which comprises only 10 per cent of the land of Bangladesh, in comparison to 14 cantonments for the rest 90 per cent of the land is highly disproportional.
Kalpana's struggle for establishing peace and justice in the CHT was put to an end before the signing of the CHT Accord. She was kidnapped a year and half before the accord, during the heavy military insurgency in the CHT. It should first be pointed out that very few were working publicly in political and human rights field at that period, because of the grave difficulties of the situation. The situation was partly portrayed by the CHT Commission, which made a conservative estimate in 1991 that there was one security force for every 10 people in the CHT. In the early 1990s, effective and seasoned women human rights activists were rare in Bangladesh and even rarer in the highly militarised context of the CHT. Under these circumstance, Kalpana’s activism in the public sphere for peace and justice—with little or no support, and knowing what the consequences may be—in itself does her great credit. It is unusual to find that someone so young can be such an active, effective and mature leader.
In the 1980s, the mainstream women’s movement in Bangladesh took a robust and vibrant form adding new dimensions to the country’s many decades’ tradition of women’s rights movement, which was formally established by women’s organisations from the late 1940s, primarily focusing on women’s welfare, education, skills, income generation and childcare. In the 1980s, an exponential growth of non-governmental organisations in the country, except in the CHT where the government did not permit NGO activities, witnessed the birth of new women’s organisations with new direction to work for gender equality. These organisations aimed to protest against gender-based discrimination and continue to work to bring an end to discriminatory practices against women in economic, political and social sectors, including violence against women, dowry, acid throwing, sexual harassment, rape, trafficking of women, unequal wages, work place exploitation, access to credit and unequal political and social rights. In the CHT, the Hill Women’s Federation, a voluntary organisation, remained active since its formation on March 8, 1988 by a group of women studying at Chittagong University as a sole organisation until the late 1990s. By 1990s, a limited number of individual Jumma women writers, poets, activists and researchers were writing articles, poems, reports and research-based theses to campaign against institutionalised gender violence in the CHT, and some of them were actively participating and addressing many international fora and conferences, including the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Population, and the First Asian Indigenous Women Conference in 1993.
The 1980s mainstream women’s collective new movement in Bangladesh, however, was non-inclusive of the concern of the Hill Women’s Federation against the state’s institutionalised discrimination of the CHT indigenous women. CHT women’s movement against state repression remained alien to the mainstream women’s movement in Bangladesh for about one and half decades. In a way, Kalpana’s abduction in 1996 and the campaign against her abduction remained central to the coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous women’s movement in Bangladesh.
In the years prior to Kalpana’s kidnapping, solidarity was developing between mainstream women’s organisations, constituted largely by middle-class Bengali women, and the indigenous CHT women activists. In March 1994, the Hill Women’s Federation, with their slogan ‘Autonomy for Peace’, joined the rally of the national women’s movement to celebrate International Women’s Day. As an outcome of this cooperation, the Hill Women’s Federation joined the National Preparatory Committee Towards Beijing, a coalition of national NGOs, preparing a status report on women in Bangladesh for the 4th UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
The long absence of a collective recognition of CHT women’s struggle by the mainstream women’s new movement generated in the 1980s, however, can be traced in the outcome of the status report on women for the Beijing conference. Many long months had been put into working with the national NGO committee, and during that, the Hill Women’s Federation had emphasised that the military oppression against the CHT indigenous Jumma women must be highlighted in the status report. However, the report later failed to project the federation’s primary concern of sexual oppression of indigenous CHT women by the military, the point was entirely written out of the final set of issues that were presented at Beijing. This occurred despite the fact that the Hill Women’s Federation’s leaflet in 1995 Beijing conference had reported that ‘[o]ver 94% of the all alleged cases of rape of Jumma women between 1991 and 1993 in the CHT were by “security forces”.’ Of these rape allegations, over 40 per cent of the victims were children.
While countless abductions and other repression against indigenous women went unnoticed, Kalpana’s case, a high-profile activist’s abduction, led by a ranked military officer, came to be the irrefutable evidence of military atrocities against the indigenous women of the CHT. Fifteen years on, her abductors roam free, like all other perpetrators against gross human rights violation in the CHT, as stark evidence of the culture of impunity that prevails. Early this year, the issue was reiterated to the UN special rapporteur on violence against women that, ‘[t]he biggest concern in rape and other violence against women in the CHT now is the lack of access to justice and absolute impunity that perpetrators enjoy’ (Hana Shams Ahmed, ‘Multiple forms of discrimination experienced by indigenous women from Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) within nationalist framework’, a paper presented at APWLD, SRVAW Consultation, Kuala Lumpur, January 11-12, 2011).
The abduction of Kalpana, however, broke the amnesia of many mainstream human rights activists of Bangladesh regarding the CHT situation. There was, and has been, support and solidarity from many mainstream human rights activists and their organisations, and a rise in increasing solidarity for CHT indigenous women’s cause from the mainstream women rights organisations.
In the period immediately after Kalpana’s abduction, strong cooperation developed between mainstream Bengali women particularly represented by ‘Shommilita Nari Shomaj’ (literally meaning Collective Women’s Society) and indigenous women of the CHT in their protests against the lack of action over the abduction. ‘Shommilita Nari Shomaj’ was formed in August 1995 to protest state violence against women following an incident where a 13-year-old Bengali girl, Yasmin, was raped and then killed by three policemen in the northern district of Dinajpur. It was a coalition of mainstream Bengali women’s organisations including human rights organisations, development-oriented organisations, women activists from the Left, trade unions, lawyers, academics and students. Women belonging to the Hill Women’s Federation joined in to protest on the streets of Dhaka. In the wake of the campaign, NGOs and civil society organisations from 37 countries asked the Bangladesh government to rescue Kalpana Chakma immediately and conduct an inquiry into the incident. In many ways, Kalpana brought us together: indigenous and non-indigenous women in Bangladesh, Jumma indigenous women of CHT with other women of the world, and men who are indigenous, non-indigenous, Bengali, and non-Bengali.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the women’s movement of Bangladesh shows ample possibilities to be inclusive of indigenous women's issues. The December 2010 report of the Citizens’ Initiatives on CEDAW-Bangladesh (CiC-BD) evidences such a possibility. However narrow and conservative, it is noteworthy that a coalition of NGOs in its report on an international convention has included the situation of CHT women. Regarding the Nari Nirjaton Special Tribunal (Women Repression Special Tribunal) under III.1.3.4 Institutional mechanisms established between 2004 and 2009 to protect women’s rights, the report states, ‘… Recently three tribunals have been set up in the three Councils of Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This has provided access of women in the CHT to judicial processes in cases of violence’ (p 23), while regarding Patterns and Trends under II.11.5 Situation Analysis, the report says of women and children of religious and ethnic minority groups: ‘Gang violence is used by the majority/dominant elite to intimidate women and children of religious and ethnic minority groups. … Cases of custodial violence by law enforcement and security forces have been frequently reported, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (p 50).
Many women’s rights organisations in CHT now have well-established links with Durbar Network, a network of women’s rights organisations, which operates in all districts of Bangladesh. Through the Durbar Network, instances of reported violence against women in the CHT is campaigned and protested at the same time of the day throughout the country, generating awareness and resistance against gender violence.
Recently, a coalition of left women’s organisations, trade unions and left-inclined activists got together to form an open platform named, ‘Shomo Odhikar Amader Nunotomo Daabi (SAND)’, meaning ‘Equal rights is our minimum demand.’ At their recently held rally in Dhaka, on May 24 this year, they put forth the demand for a new Women Policy. SAND’s formation is in response to the National Women Development Policy 2011 which they deem unsatisfactory as it does not include women’s equal inheritance rights, a long-standing campaign of women’s rights movement in Bangladesh.
SAND’s campaign adds a new adaptive challenge in the women’s movement of Bangladesh. An earlier rally, supporting the National Women Development Policy 2011 on April 28, organised by the Samajik Pratirodh Committee, a platform of 67 women, development, and human rights organisations, and NGOs, called upon the government to take immediate measures for the full implementation of the policy. Samajik Pratirodh Committee acknowledges that the National Women Development Policy 2011 does not include equal inheritance, but argues that it is worthy of full support as it contains programmes aimed at improving women’s socio-economic condition: measures for reducing women's poverty, for enhancing women’s economic and political empowerment—food security, health and nutrition, education and training, employment—improving the status of the girl child, resisting violence against women, in addition to undertaking special measures for indigenous women, and women who are handicapped (Rahnuma Ahmed, ‘A Postscript’, New Age, May 23, 2011).
CHT women too have demanded equal inheritance rights within their traditional patriarchal indigenous societies. Recently, a delegation of Chakma women, who have the support of their indigenous sisters of the CHT, submitted a memorandum on February 8, 2011 to the Chakma Raja claiming recognition of equal inheritance rights for Chakma women at a summit of the hill women in Rangamati. Meanwhile, women belonging to other indigenous groups, including Tripura, Tanchangya, Lushai, etc, of the CHT are also discussing the issue of formally claiming equal inheritance rights for themselves.
SAND’s demands, it is important to note, incorporates the demands of indigenous peoples, both indigenous men and women in Bangladesh. Among its inclusive list of demands is: ‘constitutional recognition of adivasis (indigenous people); the inclusion of adivasi notions of property in the Constitution. Further, an end to the militarisation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the inclusion of measures which will ensure the safety and security of jumma women.’
Re-membering Kalpana today is also imagining a better future. Re-membering Kalpana is striving for a better world which allows us all to be equal citizens irrespective of our race, colour, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, and by adopting affirmative actions towards those who have been repressed and neglected for decades by the state’s wrong and ill policies. Regarding a better world, Canadian writer, poet and environmental activist Margaret Atwood reminds us that ‘…it is by the better world we can imagine that we judge the world we have’, and she cautions us, ‘[i]f we cease to judge this world, we may find ourselves, very quickly, in one which is infinitely worse.’
In the action of ‘re-membering’, ‘putting-together’ today, our abducted friend and fellow traveller, Kalpana re-members our collective struggle for establishing our just rights. Kalpana re-members our collective resistance against injustice. Kalpana re-members our solidarity for equality, justice and peace. And, Kalpana, indeed, re-members a potential future of a conscious, all-inclusive women’s rights movement from the second decade in the 21st century Bangladesh.
courtesy: New Age