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History of Chittagong Hill Tracts in brief

There is very little documentation available on the early history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. However, there is evidence of the mention of a place known as Chacomas in central Chittagong Hill Tracts, probably referring to the land inhabited by the Chakmas, in the 1550s where a Burmese king claims himself to be the “highest and most powerful king of Arakan, Tippera, of Chacomas and of Bengala”, moreover, one of the earliest maps of Bengal drawn by Jao de Barros & Gastadi indicate the presence of a Chakma kingdom in the region.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts existed as an independent territory and did not come within the authority of outside colonization until the 18th century. Right up to the time of British entry into the Hill Tracts, the different peoples of the Hill Tracts functioned as independent people.

During the rule of the Mughal Emperors over India, the region remained outside their direct control, despite attempts made to bring it under their sphere of influence.
In 1760, the British East India Company annexed neighbouring Bengal and then turned its attentions towards the Hill Tracts as it was rich in natural resources. They began a military campaign in 1776 and met strong resistance from Sher Daulat Khan, the Chakma Raja. The fighting continued for a decade and the British imposed an economic blockade cutting off essential supplies. Finally, in 1787, Raja Jan Bux Khan, was forced to reach a treaty with Lord Cornwallis, the governor-general agreeing to pay 20 maunds of cotton to the British for the right to trade and putting an end to the conflict. This cotton tribute was also extended to the Marmas and eventually the area came to be known as Kapas Mahal (Cotton Area).

In 1860, the British declared the Hill Tracts a district within Bengal and appointed a superintendent. Even with the introduction of British power, the region remained under the rule of the three chiefs or rajas in their respective circles, i.e. the Chakma, Bohmong and Mong, while continuing with the payment of the tribute in cotton. The Mong circle – located in the north – which was under the jurisdiction of the Chakma Rani, was created by the British even though the predominant people in that area at that time were Tripuras – 18,559; the Chakma population was 6,980 while the Marmas accounted for 6,704 persons only. The appointed chief was related to the Bohmong chief.

In 1900, the British enacted the CHT Regulations for administrative purposes. The most relevant in these regulations was to preserve the area as an indigenous region separated from the plains of Bengal. The regulations placed restriction on outsiders to enter and reside in the region and the creation of the Frontier Police composed of hill people.

In 1935, the government of British India declared the CHT to be an “Excluded Area” i.e. an exclusive homeland for indigenous people with restrictions to settlement on non-indigenous persons. In 1947, when the subcontinent was divided into two sovereign states – India and Pakistan, the CHT, despite having a 97% non-Muslim population was included into Pakistan. The new government respected the “excluded area” status until 1964, when the government abolished it by making an amendment to the constitution, against the wishes of the people and in contravention of stipulations in the constitution.

In 1954, the inhabitants were given voting rights to the legislative assemblies for the first time. Furthermore, despite opposition from indigenous leaders, the government created a massive lake by creating a dam for generating electricity that submerged 54,000 acres of agricultural land – 40% of the total cultivable land and displaced more than 100,000 persons in central Hill Tracts. Around 40,000 Chakmas were forced to seek shelter in India.

Inspired by the independence struggle for Bangladesh in 1971, the leaders demanded autonomy from the highest authorities of the new state but their demands were rejected  and no mention of the special status of their homeland was mentioned in the country’s first constitution.

To safeguard their identity and culture the hill people formed a political movement by the name of  Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS) under the leadership of a lawyer, Manobendra Narayan Larma . The members of their armed wing known as “Shanti Bahini”began to attack security personnel and later on settlers and the non-combatant indigenous persons got involved in the conflict leading to around 10,000 deaths.
A massive government transmigration policy was implemented in the early 1980s inducting up to 400,000 plains people into the area giving rise to conflicts over the control for land between the two communities – settler and local. This influx has drastically modified the demographic composition by increasing the settler population from 3% in 1947 to 49% as per the official census of 1991 and virtually converting the indigenous people into a minority in their own land.

At the height of the conflict in the mid-1980s, massive human rights violations were committed on the hill people by government security forces and settlers that led to a mass exodus of indigenous inhabitants to India. In response to protests by various indigenous leaders including the Chakma chief, to investigate and punish the culprits of a major massacre in Langadu in 1989, the military authorities put Raja Devasish Roy, the Chakma chief under house arrest for a number of days.

Finally in December 1997, the JSS reached a deal with the government and signed an agreement known as the “Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord”. The main provisions of the accord, i.e. declaring the area to be “a tribal-inhabited region”, demilitarization, total rehabilitation of the returnee refugees including internally displaced families and the full empowerment of the newly created Regional Council. Major provisions of the accord have not been implemented from the government’s side thus giving a boost to the already violent political scenario between those that support the accord and those who oppose it.

However, a Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs has been created with an indigenous member of parliament of the ruling party, Mr. Moni Swapan Dewan as deputy minister and Mr. Jyotirindra Bodhipriyo Larma, the head of the JSS has been appointed chairman of the Regional Council. Regular reports of human right abuses and the entry of new settlers still continue to be reported from the region.

Sources:
“The Politics of Nationalism” by Amena Mohsin (1997);
“Land Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT” by Rajkumari Chandra Roy (2000);
“Counting The Hills”by Mohammad Rafi & Mushtaque R.Chowdhury (2001);
“The Departed Melody”by Raja Tridiv Roy (2003);



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