Aug 28, 2009

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Time For An Inclusive Bangladesh?

Sample ImageRestoring the 1972 Constitution in order to include indigenous rights may be a solution to the ongoing tension in the region.

Below is an article published by The Daily Star:

Santu Larma [chairman of Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council] has a point. And those of us who believe that values have a place in life cannot but agree with him. And we agree because we too think that the time is here and now for Bangladesh to take the shape and substance of an inclusive society, one that will treat all its citizens in equal measure, through guaranteeing them the rights the constitution says they ere entitled to enjoy.

Ah, but here we stumble on a problem. For all our faith in the 1972 constitution, that sacred document we must return to as soon as we can, we recall with a certain sense of sadness, with a dash of contrition, that when the Jatiyo Sangsad adopted the constitution a year into national freedom, it curiously said nothing about the rights of Bangladesh's indigenous people -- or adivasis.

It is surely our pride, indeed our supreme achievement, that we are today part of a Bengali republic, the only one on the face of the earth. But that should not have been a reason for us to push certain other ethnic and demographic realities, back in 1972, to the political fringe. That the Chakmas, Garos, Khasias, Santals and other tribal cultures were not and had never been part of the Bengali nationalistic canvas should have been acknowledged in the constitution.

More to the point, the nation's lawmakers, euphoric as they were at the time and with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the symbol of the republic, ought to have looked into the future; and having looked, ought to have gone for an adoption of articles and clauses in the constitution geared toward a preservation of indigenous lifestyles and heritage as distinct from the bigger and wider Bengali ambience.

That failure signalled something of the worrying kind. And it was disillusionment on the part of the indigenous people. You cannot, simply because your kind happen to constitute the majority of the country's population, expect everyone not part of your cultural tradition to repudiate his cultural tradition, fall in line behind you and then inform you he is now what you have always been.

But that is the way things have gone on, to our grave discomfiture. Of course, we have the 1997 deal on the Chittagong Hill Tracts before us, a well-intentioned document if ever there was one. But do you notice how a clutch of people -- and among them are men who have wielded political authority over the state across a number of years -- are now up in arms, figuratively of course, against that document? Or against anything that hints at a restoration of normal conditions in the hill tracts?

A leading figure in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (and he was once in the army) made it known to the country a few days ago [August 2009] that the people of Bangladesh would never permit the Chittagong Hill Tracts to secede from the rest of the country. That strident tone is rather disturbing, for it reminds us of all the things that have gone wrong in the south-east because of the policies of governments unable to see beyond their noses. Now, what makes that gentleman think the CHT will move out of this country and go its own way? There is a simple, decent thing happening out there: a brigade of the Bangladesh army is being taken out of the hill tracts, the better to convince the Chakmas that the state is today ready and willing to acknowledge where it has gone wrong and where it can now go right.

No, sir! Just because Bangladesh's indigenous people are beginning to come together and asking for the kind of rights that we as Bengalis demanded of the Pakistanis in the 1960s, you cannot tell us the nation's sovereignty is at stake. If you insist, though, that it is, all we can say is that we have heard it all before.

Remember Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan and the oleaginous men around them? Think of the damage they did to us and to their country. And then move on. Think of the 25,000 indigenous people in the fast depleting Madhupur forests and the havoc all of us have collectively wreaked in their lives. Does it not bother you that the Garo and the Mandi and the Koch have been pushed to the fringes, to near extinction, all because of the Bengali emphasis on development that is but a euphemism for a commandeering of indigenous land?

There is the searing tragedy of Alfred Soren, the brave young man murdered because he stood up for his tribe. And till today no one has seriously plumbed the mystery of Kalpana Chakma's abduction years ago.

These are points of reality enlightened men and women will remember. But remembering is not enough. It is not good enough unless the powers that be are persuaded into believing that a reinvention of the state and a reconfiguration of politics are called for. That is where the 1972 constitution comes in. There may not ever again be a time as propitious as the present for the Jatiyo Sangsad to take the steps needed to restore the secular character of the republic. Which is why speed, accompanied by purposeful reflections on contemporary truths, is of the essence. Have the 1972 constitution restored. And through it reassure our indigenous people that the rights they will enjoy will be what the rest of us have enjoyed since liberation.