Rabi Shankar Chakma
The incident of violent attack on the hill people in Mahalchari is not the first of its kind. There have been many such attacks on them in the past. It follows the same pattern of violence that the hill people have been witnessing for the last two and a half decades. But what is unique about the Mahalchari incident is that it is the first time that both the old and new settlers irrespective of religious affiliation teamed up together to attack the hill people.
The incident has its origin in the alleged kidnapping of Rupam Mahajon, a Hindu businessman in Mahalchari under Khagrachari on 24 August. On 26 August in an apparent retaliation, the settlers and local Bengalis attacked hill people’s villages while the military provided protection to the attackers. The attack left two hill people including an elderly person dead and scores of others injured. The attackers set 348 houses belonging to the Hill people including 4 Buddhist temples on fire. There have also been reports of widespread looting, raping of women and harassing Buddhist monks. The actual casualty in terms of property destruction is yet to be ascertained.
The incident has once again brought to the fore the role of the military and the civil police administration in the CHT. The primary responsibility of these state agencies is to provide safety and security to the citizens. They are supposed not to discriminate against any section of the citizens while performing their duties. Judging by this standard, have they been able to perform their duties? The answer is too obvious. They have miserably failed the hill peoples in this respect. They have failed to protect the hill people. True, the hill people do not look upon the military as protector of their safety and security. But when the hill people went to the nearby police and army camps for help, the on-duty officers advised them to flee. If the security personnel and law enforcing agencies do not come of help in times of need and instead become the cause of great insecurity for the hill people, then there is every reason to be concerned. If even after the CHT accord the mindset of the military has not changed, then there is every reason to believe that it will never change. Following the incident the army came up with the statement that the action of the settlers was triggered by the alleged kidnapping, as if reprisal attacks are permitted by law. In a series of reports on the Chittagong Hill Tracts the Amnesty International has condemned such reprisal attacks on the hill people. Reprisal attacks are also prohibited by international law.
Nothing can justify the Mahalchari incident. The alleged kidnapping of Rupom Mahajon cannot be an excuse for launching attack on innocent people. Two wrongs cannot make a right. If the alleged kidnapping is proved to be true, then the kidnappers must be brought to book no matter whoever they are or whichever party they belong to. In no circumstances the general public should be allowed to retaliate, let alone incite or abet them in such acts of violence.
The role of the civil administration also raises questions. There has been report in the national newspapers that the Minister for CHT affairs and many other ministers in Dhaka knew about the incident only after reading the news in the newspapers. The concerned authorities in Dhaka received reports on the incident through their own channel only after two days of the incident. One wonders what the district administration in Khagrachari was doing before, during and after the incident. If such is the state of affairs in the district administration, one can well be sure of more troubles in store for the common people. The failure of the civil administration is so glaring that the Dhaka administration has been forced to recall the DC of Khagrachari. The district administration has failed not only to prevent the incident, but also to deal with the aftermath. It has failed to grasp the gravity of the situation and to react accordingly. Relief was so negligent that it seems like a few drops of water in the ocean. Yet, considering the other aspects of the CHT situation such as the uncalled-for intervention of the army in the affairs of the administration, the DC is merely a scapegoat in the blame game.
The Mahalchari incident has once again brought to the fore some of the basic questions that need to be addressed if we are to establish permanent peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. First, the question of the security of the hill people. Who they shall look to for their security? If the state consistently fails to provide security to their life and property, who will provide it? The all pervading sense of insecurity of the hill people stem from the fact that incidents of violent attack on their life and property are not just sporadic, they have become quite systematic. Yet, the question of their security has failed to find place in both official and intellectual discourses.
Let us now turn to the land question. Land is the pivot around which all other issues revolve. Over the years the hill peoples have not only been marginalized and become minority in their homeland, they have also been alienated from their own lands. And despite the CHT accord, which provides for the formation of a Land Commission to settle land disputes, the process still continues. The accord broadly says that “the Land Commission shall settle disputes in accordance with laws, customs and procedures prevalent in the CHT”. The overall purpose of the land commission is to restore land to the rightful owners.
This brings us to the issue of the settlers – the poor landless Bengalees, who are occupying vast tracts of land belonging to the hill people. They were brought into the CHT during the late seventies and early eighties. Although they were promised land and rehabilitation, they have been living on free rations since their arrival. The CHT treaty has failed to address their issue. Not a single word has been written in the accord as to what would happen to them. Mere mention of “permanent residents” and “non-permanent residents” was not enough. It should have been mentioned explicitly that they would be resettled in phases outside of the CHT. Now the question is how long will the government provide free ration to the settlers and for what purposes? It is a stupid thing to keep up an easy-to-solve problem artificially at the cost of national exchequer.
The land and settlers issues are inextricably linked together. The land problem cannot be resolved without addressing the settlers issue. What will the government do if the settlers have to vacate land by the order of the Land Commission? In that case where will the settlers go? Is there no government responsibility to rehabilitate them? These and many other important questions must be addressed if we wish to establish genuine peace in the CHT.
Let me finish this piece by returning to where I began. The whole nation is outraged by the Mahalchari incident. This reminds us of the days of Logang and Longudu massacres. Although the incident is of serious nature calling for urgent intervention, the government seems to be still sitting on its hands. Formation of a parliamentary team without mentioning its terms of reference cannot be the answer. The government must take adequate and effective measures to rehabilitate the victims, bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent recurrence of such violence. Failing this, the government will have to pay a high price.
[The writer is Member, Convening Committee United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF)]
The article was published in Bangladesh Observer on September 14, 2003