Brief History of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, situated in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, is a home to a number of ethnic minorities such as Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Chak, Bawm, Murang, Panku etc. They are collectively known as Jumma people. For the last three decades or so they have been waging a fierce struggle for their right to self-determination.

For those who are not so familiar with the Chittagong Hill Tracts and its ongoing resistance, a brief historical background of the region would not be out of place.

a. During British Colonial Period
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, prior to the advent of British rule, was an independent state free from outside control. In the precolonial period, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had not been part of any state, although they had long been influenced by waxing and waning of power centres in Tripura (to the north), Arakan (to the south) and Bengal (to the west).1 The powerful Mugal rulers tried unsuccessfully to bring the CHT into its full suzerainty, but they had to be content with a kind of trade relation, which was beneficial for both the CHT and the Mugal rulers. According to an agreement reached between them, the CHT Rajas (chiefs) used to pay some sort of a trade tax in kind (Karpas or cotton) to the Mugals in exchange for trade facilities along the border areas of Chittagong, a part of greater Bengal. Because of this trade tax in cotton the Chittagong Hill Tracts came to be known as the Karpas Mahal or Land of Cotton during Mugal era.

The British annexed the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1860, more than a century after the battle of Palashy (in 1757) in which the Nawab of Bengal Siraj Uddollah was defeated in the hands of the British forces. During the early periods of its rule, the British refrained from interfering with the internal affairs of the CHT and though administered from Calcutta, the CHT was not a regular part of Bengal. Its administrative system, land rights, and closure to outside settlers all set it apart from the rest of Bengal. This status was reconfirmed in the 1930s when the region was declared an excluded area under the Government of India Act2. Later the British enacted a legal instrument the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900, also known as CHT Manual, for the general administration of the area. Through this Regulation the British allowed the Jumma people to enjoy a limited measure of autonomy and banned permanent settlement of the outsiders.

b. Pakistan Period
In 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was de-colonized the Chittagong Hill Tracts was awarded to Pakistan. The Pakistani government viewed the Jumma people with suspicion and took measures to do away with the legal safeguards granted by the British. Outsiders were encouraged to settle in the CHT. In 1960s a dam was built over Karnaphuli river at a place called Kapati without any kind of prior consultation with the Jumma people. The dam, which had far-reaching socio-economic and political consequences for the CHT, submerged 54 thousand acres of first class arable land and evicted 100,000 Jumma people from their homestead.

c. Bangladesh Period
In 1971 after nine months of bloody war against the Pakistani occupation forces Bangladesh came into being. The Chittagong Hill Tracts being a part of the then East Pakistan now became a part of the new state. The first blow to the Jumma people came from the new state when it tried to impose ultra-Bengali nationalism on them. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first Prime Minister, ordered the Jumma people to forget their own national identities and become Bengalees. After his assassination in a coup de tat the military dictators embarked on a massive militarization programme, did away with protective provisions of the CHT Regulation and encouraged and sponsored settlement of outsiders in the CHT. Human rights violations in the form of political repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape, arson, eviction, land grabbing continued unabated.

The Jumma people reacted sharply to these undemocratic and repressive measures of the successive governments of Bangladesh and resistant movement developed in the form of an armed struggle.

The JSS and its armed struggle
At the beginning, the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts organised themselves under a political party – the Jana Samhati Samiti or JSS, which was founded in 1972. A year later its armed wing Shanti Bahini was formed. The party went underground in 1975 following the killing of Sheikh Muzibur Rahman, the then President of Bangladesh, in a bloody military coup that ousted the Awami League from power. The JSS started armed struggle in 1976 and established a semblance of parallel civil administration throughout the CHT. The party faced a major setback in 1983 when it split into two factions – Lamba (long) and Badi (short) – over the party’s strategic and tactical questions. The Lamba faction led by the Larma brothers sought to achieve the right to self-determination through a protracted guerilla war. On the other hand, the Badi faction led by Priti Kumar Chakma and Bhabatosh Dewan opposed this line and advocated that the party should sever the CHT from Bangladesh with the support of the Indian government. The conflict between the two opposing factions led to a bloody civil war that claimed many lives in their primes including party’s founding president M.N. Larma. The civil war ended in 1985 with the surrender of Badi faction to the government of Bangladesh. This helped the Lamba faction to become the sole guerilla group with control over the whole of the CHT. But in spite of that the civil war greatly weakened the JSS as a party, which was much evident by the fact that the party failed to achieve any tangible success during the post-civil war period.

Formation of overground Jumma organisations
Another failure of the JSS was its inability to realise the importance of the overground political activities in the context of the CHT politics. This resulted in the winding up of all activities of their student body – the Pahari Chattra Samiti (Hill Students Organisation). Later, almost all its members were inducted into the Shanti Bahini, the armed guerrilla wing of the JSS. Thus JSS’ initiation of armed struggle created a vacuum in the overground political stage, which was largely filled up by reactionary elements with the support of the government and the army. This is the primary reason why it took long two decades to organise the Jumma students in a new platform called Hill Student’s Council. This student body and two other overground Jumma organisations namely Hill Women’s Federation and Hill People’s Council were founded in the late 1980s.

The formation of the Hill Student’s Council (Pahari Chattra Parishad, PCP, in Bangla) marked the beginning of a new era in the struggle of the Jumma people. Born out of student protests against the Longudu massacre in 1989, the PCP soon became the symbol of democratic resistance to the oppressive rule of the government in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The CHT Accord of 1997
Following a protracted negotiation the Jana Samhati Samiti struck a deal with the Awami League government on 2 December 1997. Pursuant to the said deal, which came to be known as the CHT Accord, the Jana Samhati Samiti and its armed members gave up arms and surrendered to the Bangladesh Army in phases beginning from 10 February 1998. The accord is nothing but an instrument of surrender on the part of the JSS and has failed to fulfill any of the major demands of the CHT people. The above mentioned three overground democratic organisations of the CHT people expressed strong reservations about the accord and vowed to carry on the struggle of the CHT masses. As a mark of protest, they burned down copies of the accord in Dhaka, hoisted black flags and showed banners reading “No Full Autonomy, No Rest” during surrendering ceremony at Khagrachari Stadium.

Founding of a new political party
In December 1998 the three organisations – Pahari Chattra Parishad, Pahari Gano Parishad and Hill Women’s Federation - met in a joint conference in Dhaka and founded a new political party “United Peoples Democratic Front or UPDF” on 26 December. A central convening committee headed by Prasit Bikash Khisah was formed to organise the progressive forces of the CHT people. The three organisaitons now became front organisations of the new party.

Present political situation in the CHT
Within one year of the signing of the Accord the euphoria, generated by electronic and print media of the country, subsided and the grim reality came to the light. The more time passed the more people disillusioned with the accord. Until now the accord remains largely unimplemented and there is no sign that the government of the BNP-led four party alliance would implement it. [While in opposition, they opposed the accord and demanded its annulment.] Meanwhile, JSS president Santu Larma, one of the signatories to the accord, let out his deep frustration over the non-implementation of the accord and said he has committed a grave mistake by signing the accord. Nonetheless, he and his lieutenants continue to occupy the Regional Council and enjoy the perks and privileges provided by the government.

As the accord failed to bring even a semblance of peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, growing number of people began to look up to, and rally behind, UPDF as the new leader of the struggle. The fight for the right to self-determination goes on.

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  1. Banglapedia, National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Volume 2. p. 406
  2. ibid

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