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The Statesman 21 Oct 2005. Population transfer

The Statesman

21 Oct 2005.

Population transfer

By Suhas Chakma
The proposed population transfer of an estimated 65,000 mainstream Muslim families or about 400,000 people – each family comprising at least six people – to the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh has the potential to alter the demographic balance of the area and exacerbate the long-running tension and confrontation between indigents and settlers living there since the 1970s as official policy.
The area to be affected by this population transfer – which seeks to open up the lightly populated areas of the CHT to “mainstream” Bangladesh, the most crowded place on earth in terms of population density – is the Sajek Union ( equivalent of a sub-division) in the Rangamati district.
This has serious implications for India’s North-east since Sajek borders Mizoram which has so far been not significantly affected by illegal migration from Bangladesh.
That the Mizos claim that there is an unnatural rise in the Chakma population in the Chakma autonomous district council area of the state and blame it on in-migration from Bangladesh is a different point.
The Mizos appear to be more rattled about the presence of a large number of Chins in their state, who unlike the Buddhist Chakmas are ethnically linked by kinship, share the same faith (Christianity) and are also connected by social and family ties with the Mizos.
The Government of India, too, has woken up to the presence of the Chins, a number of whom are political refugees (Delhi is not too worried by that) but for the sake of better military and political cooperation with Myanmar, New Delhi has insisted on pushing out the Chin National Army from the remote tri-junction of Mizoram, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
But now, Mizoram is unlikely to escape the pressure of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, a phenomenon of survival and cheap labour flows which has spread across the North-east and many parts of urban India, including New Delhi.
If the present population transfer goes through, it will be the first one undertaken by the current government in Dhaka under Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party after the military regime of President HM Ershad ended the practice in 1983.
Although not many details are available, it is clear that the proposed population transfer to the Sajek Union has been planned over some time. The government first allowed the Bangladesh Army Engineer Construction Battalion to construct the Baghaihat-Sajek Road in the dense Kassalong reserve forest in violation of the Forest Act of 1927 and Bangladesh Forest (Amendment) Act of 2000. Some plain settler families began building houses beside the Baghaihat-Sajek Road but the army did not allow them on grounds of “safety” or security. The government has now increased its militarisation programme. The government placed a proposal in June to provide free rations to “new settlers” to settle 65,000 families in Sajek. Since 1978, the Bangladesh government has been providing free rations to about 28,000 Muslim settler families. They were part of the 500,000 plain settlers who were brought to the CHT through state-sponsored population transfer between 1978 and 1983.
After having approved the budget for the plain settlers in the recently concluded session of Parliament, the Bangladesh government has started military “operations”. But unlike the past, the army is not burning down tribal houses but destroying them. On 23 June, the Bangladesh Rifles evicted about 300 indigenous Jumma families after destroying their homes in Devachari, New Lonkor, Old Lonkor, Halimbari and Chizhok villages in the Sajek Union to facilitate the new settlement.
The present population transfer at Sajek is increasing the present population of the CHT by about 25 per cent. Since they are being settled in Rangamati, the political implications are clear: it is now unlikely that any Jumma (tribal) candidate can win or be given the seat of the Rangamati parliamentary constituency in the 2006 parliamentary election. The lone tribal MP, Mani Swapan Dewan, has been muted in his opposition to the settlement projects.
After the election of Wadud Bhuyan as MP from Khagrachari district in October 2001, the settlement of plain settlers in Khagrachari has expanded exponentially. The first plains person to win the elections, Mr Bhuyan has transplanted thousands of settlers to ensure that he wins the next parliamentary election. Many villages in Khagrachari have been christened “Wadud Palli” – literally meaning “Wadud villages”.
At the UN, the Bangladesh government has consistently and appropriately sponsored resolutions against the settlement of Israelis in Palestinian territories as violations of international humanitarian law, especially Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. But, back home in the CHT, it has implemented similar population transfer programmes.
The present government-sponsored settlement has thrown the CHT Accord of 1997 out of the window. The Awami League refused to implement the accord, while the BNP government never accepted it. The Jana Samhati Samiti, a major tribal political organisation, caught in a vicious cycle of fratricidal killings with the United People’s Democratic Front, has been clinging to power with government backing.
Yet, if such massive population transfers are implemented, the dimensions of the present democratic movement for implementation of the 1997 Accord may change and indigenous tribals may once again be forced to resort to violence.
The proposed population transfer also puts the idea of a Greater Muslim Bangladesh in focus. Right-wing Bangladeshi nationalists and the Jammat-i-Islami have been propagating such a concept by saying that this would embrace Muslim populations from Assam to the Arakan in Myanmar.
Although the United Liberation Front of Asom has some nuisance value in Assam and has changed its tune with regard to the foreigners in Assam, the anti-foreigner movement, as shown by the celebration over the Supreme Court’s tossing out of the discriminatory and Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act (IMDT), will remain strong in the Brahmaputra Valley.
As the CHT gradually falls to the forces of state and the policy of population transfers, the North-east becomes more vulnerable. Few parts of the world have seen such massive migration. Yet, despite the blistering edict of the Supreme Court on the security threat posed by illegal aliens, the Government of India is still groping for a strategy.

(The author is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi.)

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