Interview with Chakma King

An Interview with Chakma King Devasish Roy
King's House, Rangamati, Chittagoing Hill Tracts

January 4, 1998

NM: Naeem Mohaiemen, DR: Devasish Roy, UP: Unidentified Person (Chakma Government Officer) 

NM: Let's speak first about alleged Chakma collaboration with Pakistan army in 1971. I think that was relevant before the peace treaty, cited as a reason for why the peace treaty wasn't going through.

DR: But I think it's a lot less relevant now. Or at least it's evoked in the sense that.. 

NM: It's evoked as a reason for why the treaty shouldn't be agreed to at all. 

DR: Right. To tell the truth though, a lot of people remain neutral. Many people joined the Muktibahini in various ways, a lot of people were even officials on the other side. My father-in-law was a police officer in Agartola. .... In any case, there were tribals on both sides (of the independence struggle), tribals working in the Pakistani Army. Certain elements that are continually misinterpreted or neglected are the circumstances in which we were compelled to collaborate – Rangamati is far enough from the border for one. Then again, very simply, in the 6 point manifesto, it might have been groomed to include everyone – we now have Dr. Kamal Hossain talking about Section 27.1 and "All people are equal" as being all-encompassing – but it was never dealt out. There was never a conscious effort, either in that 6 point manifesto or even the students' 11-point manifesto, that addressed the rights of the tribal people as a post-independence priority. Also, while freedom fighters were being trained here in Rangamati, a lot of tribal candidates were rejected. Somehow they were not completely trusted, and that set off a reaction. They were set apart, and for these reasons, a lot of would-be tribal volunteers for the Muktibahini never got a chance. What other options did we have? For example, Mr. Larma (Manabendra's brother and pioneer of the Chakma autonomy movement) was pro-left and as far as I know, he more or less remained neutral. He didn't collaborate with the Pakistan government, nor did he play such an active role in the movement. A lot of people remained similarly neutral and this would apply to a lot of the Bangladeshi left in general. This is however an issue that people refuse to understand.

We happen to be a small tribal race. Given that, can we afford to invoke the wrath of the Pakistani army? It's one thing for an entire nation to take on the Army, but from the perspective of a small ethnicity like ours, could we take on the challenge? How wise it would be.... Rightly or wrongly, these were the feelings circulating in the minds of tribal leaders. There were no telephones or communication infrastructure for the chiefs to convene and discuss the matter. Members of the legislature – my father in the National Assembly and Manobendro and Larma Babu in the Provincial Assembly in the North, and Ongshuweppu Chaudhry in the south, who may possibly be the ....... king. Even among these three, there wasn't enough opportunity to keep in touch. All this resulted in freedom fighting for some, neutrality for some and collaboration for others. "Collaboration" in this sense however does not imply collaboration in human rights violation or pillage, as far as I've heard. At one seminar a few years ago, Dr. SM Chakma brought this up – he just wanted to clarify why Chakmas had been forced into collaboration.

There are a few other factors, actually. The central government was a remote central government and their oppression wasn't that obvious to locals. Oppression by West Pakistanis wasn't such a pressing matter in comparison to the fact that most people encroaching on tribal land were Bengalis. Politicians in that day were apprehensive about the potential clout of the East Pakistan government, which explained the importance of the Excluded Areas. Because they were excluded, they prevented the then Bengal government from gaining a majority in the Legislative Assembly. However, the Governor or Bengal – or East Pakistan, rather – had power to legislate in those areas since 1954. In those days we felt that a central government would be a better option – we could better protect our land and limit migration. Therefore from the 50s, there was an absence of enough effort from both parties to come to an understanding, for politicians in both Dhaka and Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The latter felt their land threatened by the former, and were inclined towards keeping the excluded areas secure, so they pressed for land restrictions. On the other hand, no one ever felt vibes from the Dhaka camp to the end of better integrating the CHT, no one ever sent a message out saying "We are not here to take away your land". Naturally, these two camps couldn't see eye to eye. There were plenty of us in the '71 campaign, those of us that were younger entered the struggle body and soul, including me at 12 years old. I always felt for the struggle. After that, it wasn’t till the 80s, in '89 to be precise, a tribal student group joined the national movement to oust the then dictator Ershad. This was the first time since independence that tribals were involved in a struggle of national proportions. Whatever the politics of today may be, back then there were several leaders of the Chhatro Dal (the student wing of the BNP) who were supportive of their tribal counterparts. So I think that if political leaders come forward responsibly to our aid, I don't see why the wounds would not be healed. And with a few exceptions, most people are of this opinion nowadays. The exceptions include a few radical – for want of a better word – tribals. Coexisting with Bengalis has become a fact of life for most people. It now remains to us to explain certain cultural and socioeconomic factors which make it necessary for the regional Chairman to be tribal, why there has to be a special percentage reserved, why policies have to be prUPressive towards tribals in terms of resource rights and land rights. After the blackout, it's easy for people to be clueless about these factors. Someone in Rajshahi (in the northwest of Bangladesh) could say "What's all this fuss about a local government in CHT? I hear Bengalis are being dispossessed there."

NM: Well a lot of people bring up the fact that the whole incident with the Kaptai Dam, where many tribals were left displaced to make way for a new hydro-electric dam, occurred under the Pakistani government, which could be reason enough to mark the then regime as an enemy for the Jumma people.

DR: Most educated people realized at the time that the dam was a project undertaken by the government in the name of development, whereas the actual underground eradication prUPram was carried out by the provincial government, which was a focal point for corruption.

In addition, the East Pakistan government was blamed for the displacement because the dam would be of more direct benefit to provincial East Pakistan than to central West Pakistan. The then East Pakistan government was keen to have it. There were strong protests at the time from a small tribal student group led by Larma and Manobendro. And back then I doubt there was much support from Dhaka for the cause. People were least bothered by the plight of a population in a remote jungle when balanced against electricity for the entire country. The dam began construction in '56 and wasn't completed till '60, with water levels reaching their highest in '63. Back then, there were no colleges in the area, so the protests were carried out by school students around '58 or so.

Coming back to independence, there was this ironic story about my grandfather’s brother, who was the Awami League candidate running against Manobendro Larma. He went over to the other side during the independence war, and was imprisoned simply because they felt his relationship to the king created an allegiance within him. Of course he was nothing of the sort. he didn’t believe in that (tribal autonomy?) and so he joined Awami League, but he was imprisoned for a few days anyway.

UP: Even on the other side, a lot of tribals went over to the training camps, to be turned away. Only active Chhatra League (CL, student wing of the AL) members and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR, a paramilitary unit) members were recruited.

DR: Many of the social aspects of the rest of the country were reproduced in that camp as well. There were AL allegiances within that camp as well among those (who volunteered for the Pakistani Army)

UP: Many of the tribal students were barred from joining because of their lack of CL connections. ...

DR: The Bengali population in the area back in ‘71 was hardly 20 to 25%, that again concentrated in labour.

UP: About 10,000 labourers were brought into the area for agriculture. This was very unnerving, that they brought in labour from outside as opposed to hiring local labour.

NM: Skilled or unskilled?

UP: Unskilled. So there was this whole Bengali colony there, a very transient population at that, with a lot of them living there only in the harvest season when there was actual work to be done.

DR: They didn’t settle, in fact.

UP: But the agricultural work was being done on our land, with imported labour. Of course that created animosity. And ironically, a lot of this labour was being invited in by the Chakma king, along with the succeeding wave of merchants. Whereas had we been Bengalis instead of tribals, we could have done our own agricultural work on our land , we could have created our own merchant class, there wouldn’t be a question of importing labour. Our objections lay in the fact that our limited land resources were being taken up not only for agriculture by imported labour, but also to accommodate that imported labour. Especially in light of the limitless land that makes up the rest of Bangladesh.

The ensuing violence was almost inevitable.

The word "terrorism" has been used to describe the violence of the ShantiBahinis on the Bengali settlers, and to an extent, it may be rationalized. The ShantiBahinis had a definite political agenda, sparked off by Bengali encroachment on tribal resources, and to realize this agenda meant engaging in terrorist attacks on the settlers. That in no way justifies the attacks of the Bangladesh Army on harmless tribals, when such an attack constitutes an act of violence against one’s fellow citizens. And of course there were ShantiBahini retaliations to these attacks, but all the violence was lumped under the label of "terrorism".

In 1960, about 64,000 acres of Bengali land, about 40%, was reclaimed by the oceans, creating a landless population of 100,000. That begs the question of how and where land suddenly materialized from in CHT in 1979 to accommodate 250,000 rehabilitated Bengalis. They were accommodated on our land, and typically we fought against that. You can’t chase me away from my home to make room for the landless. Put them up where you have space available for it, that’s fine.

Interestingly enough, this sort of encroachment extended to within the settler community, where people who had gained enough clout to proclaim themselves community leaders claimed a lion’s share of the land as well as the thousands of metric tons of food relief, at the expense of less advantaged settlers. Once they were thus disenfranchised, common people among the settlers would have no choice but to go along with their leaders to hold on to the few of their allocated resources that they still had possession of. This automatically forced the economically disadvantaged commoners to encroach on even more tribal land, moving up into the mountains. I have heard many of the Bengalis saying that if they were to get back the original land that they had been allocated by the government, they would have no objections to returning their current land in the mountains back to the ShantiBahini, this land that they were forced to expand out to. Most of these people are plains dwellers, not used to living or farming in the mountains, and they would gladly return this land if settling in the plains were to become an option. 

UP1: In 1993, there was a council divided into 3 teams. I was working with the team leaders. Their function was to go out and amass public opinions, and they came out with a few interesting takes. Most of the Bengali settlers were of the opinion, "What were we to do? The government just pointed us to this land, offered it as our only option. We’d never lived in the mountains, we weren’t used to farming here. A lot of this land had been farmed on already (by tribals) in ways we weren’t used to. In that case, if the Shantibahini were to reclaim this land, and we got our original (flood swept) plain lands back, we would have no objections to leaving the mountains. We’d be happy. The fact is, the government hasn’t given us our due share. We haven’t even been rehabilitated properly. 

NM: Do they have alternative land to settle on? 

DR: It’s very complicated because there are all these categories. Even if these Bengalis were to let go off their land in the mountains, the land in the plains that is their due is still occupied, in many cases "double-settled". The bottom line is that, by 1963, never mind 1979, when many Chakmas crossed the border, they left because there was insufficient valley lands that could be irrigated or farmed.

Therefore, where would they find land in ‘79? By ‘79, there was no available land in the plains that could be given to anybody, no matter what race.

Therefore, if the government suddenly asks a Bengali to settle in the mountains, which even the Chakmas had been negotiating with difficulty for 200 years, for a farmer from Barisal or Jessore to survive and make a living there would be quite a chore. I’d call this a "legal fiction" because no matter how the land is categorized, "mountainous-plains" or whatever, these lands were really not available. 

OI: If the refugees were to return from India now, they’d be expecting to get some land back, right?

DR: In this case, once a repatriated Chakma comes back and finds Bengali settlers on his land, the magistrate can reclaim this land for the refugees from the settlers for a compensation of Tk 3000 to the settlers.

NM: This is a process that’s already underway?

DR: Yes. Without the land commission. But this applies to only international refugees. The problem is that the settlers are only displaced onto land a few feet away, which may in turn belong to some other repatriated Chakma. What happens in many cases is that the settler may have to move multiple times. 

OI: This compensation for Tk 3000 for settlers displaced by international refugees was agreed upon from before?

DR: Yes.

OI: And the magistrate would arbitrate in favour of the refugee on the basis of paperwork or documentation proving that this was originally the refugee’s land, I assume. In that case, the new Land Commission created by the treaty applies to who?

DR: It would apply to tribals who have been displaced internally, as opposed to external refugees. The biggest problem in this light would be that of "double settlement" – a case of more than one Chakma family laying claim to the same land. There could be cases where ownership of a piece of land was not tightly determined by the paperwork, but there is no case of a piece of land going unclaimed. By 1979, valley land was so scarce that very acre was carefully documented and owned by tribals or settlers and documented by the Land Commission.

There is another problem, in that a preexisting law has mandated that any tribal can use and occupy up to 30 decimals (100 decimals = 1 acre) of non-urban land, for which he does not have to apply to any authority, under Hill Tracts Regulation . Under that law, the tribal does not need to have documents, he is entitled to those 30 decimals. There are also rare cases of people having prior possession of the land, but no documents. These cases are rare because there are very few cases of settlers actually living on mountainous land, most of it was irrigated and farmed upon, and therefore ownership was carefully documented. There would be no point, however, in documenting land for jum (a tribal method of agriculture where the mountainsides are excavated into steps, with a different crop being farmed on each step – jum operates on a cycle of seven or eight years; once a piece of rugged mountain land has been used for jum, 7 or 8 years are needed to regain its fertility.) since once the cycle ends, farming resumes on a new plot of land. Therefore, it is communally owned. But the settlers never took over jum land, they took over valley land which could be a basis for future problems.

There is a good clause in the pact that refers to "custom rights". Land used by a tribal for jum does not have to be registered, whereas in any other district, unregistered land is claimed by the government. Even though state rights are overriding, custom rights also prevail in CHT. Take a forest in the mountains, that was perhaps communally owned by a tribal village, with the state bestowing ownership to the heads of the village as representatives of the community. What happens to this land, now occupied by settlers? Who is it returned to, since it was owned communally? These are issues that the Land Commission will have to work out, create new categories for.

UP: In addition, land reclaimed by the state automatically reduced the scope of jum. In 1872 for example, when tribal land was used for shegun (a rich timber used for furniture and construction) cultivation, that sent people into the plain lands. Further intervention by the Pakistan government in 1960 meant that jum‘s life span was drastically shortened from 7 or 8 years to 2 or 3 years. The very method of agriculture requires enough land to be under tribal ownership that it can be recycled every 7/8 years while affording scope for agriculture elsewhere in the interim period. Which is why many tribals in the plains may not return to the mountains. Since one tract of land would be used once every 7 or 8 years, and not permanently used for agriculture, there were no measures to stake ownership of that land on a permanent basis. Which makes tribal reclaiming of the land a tricky issue, because they were never permanently ensconced on one piece of agricultural terrain for a definite long-term period.

Whereas the technology and the method for plains agriculture is completely different, and was something displaced tribals had to adapt to, for example the system of plowing the land. There are efforts being made to create a more scientific approach to jum and thereby shorten its life span, whereby fertility of farmed land could be reclaimed within a shorter period.

DR: I had actually written a piece on jum, where I had stated that it is not a primitive, unscientific method of agriculture. In fact on sloping land, it is far more soil- and environment-friendly for the simple reason that plowing and tilling sloping land exposes the bottom layers to the elements, and during the monsoon downpours, you can imagine the erosion that would occur. Conversely, in jum cultivation, very small holes are bored into the land and seeds are planted therein, holes much smaller than would be created on plowed land, thereby making greater use of the topsoil. This is not unique to Bangladesh, it’s been used in Latin America or Indonesia. Jum is a response to the danger of erosion on sloping land. This is the only way you can sustainably farm on such land. The only problem is that you must allow a sufficient rest period for the land, as Arun pointed out.

UP: I think a large portion of land erosion was caused by the original Shegun cultivation.

OI: Being that jum requires a fair amount of land with a fair amount of flexibility, does it become an unsuitable method under the population pressures created by repatriation and resettlement?

DR: Problem is, many of the farmers indulge in jum for want of a better alternative. The same farmer will do plow cultivation on the river banks and jum cultivation on the slopes. It’s not as if he is doing jum because he doesn’t know how to plow, he just doesn’t have enough land to plow on. In the remote areas, the nearest market is a good day’s journey away. There, the only marketable crops you can grow are turmeric and ginger. Even on the plains and on less remote slopes, suitable for horticulture and fruits, there aren’t that many tracts with access to functional roads or manageable rivers. Therefore, in the even remoter areas, jum will continue as a measure of self-sufficiency because the farmer is not getting an opportunity to lay his hands on a well-situated market.

But of course now, viable alternatives are being provided to the farmers, such as fisheries and horticulture, so that they are not limited to jum. I feel the government should take all these alternatives to the people and let them choose instead of arbitrarily designating such and such land for such and such purpose. The farmer is quite shrewd, and he is capable of choosing the better option. Horticulture is taking off quite well in Rangamati to supplement or even supplant jum. The best alternative technology is known as Sloping Agriculture Land Technology (SALT), used in Nepal to combat erosion, whereas contoured lines are hedged. The hedge itself has to be a marketable crop, tea or cattlefeed for example, whereas the interim strips of land, protected by the hedges, could be used for more lucrative fruits and vegetables. The Development Board already has a pilot plot. There is a good cultural reason as well, since jum is in many ways similar to SALT.

Professor L. G. Locklear, an anthropologist, has already proclaimed, " The real problem of the Hill Tracts is the soil. If nothing is done within the next 10 or 20 years, the greater part of the land will become unsuitable for even forestry." It will become, is already becoming, brushland. It will take a while to regenerate this into healthy forests. Meanwhile, people with little or no access to markets work away at jum on this already eroded land.

Many internally displaced tribals were settled on the reserve forests, which is about 24% of total CHT land. At least 50% of this reserve has little or no vegetative cover. What happens to these people? There is the short-term problem of accommodating the internally displaced people, since the settlers can’t realistically be moved too far away. There has been an offer of help from the European Parliament with financial grants to resettle the non-tribals outside CHT. This will have to be thought out, as well as the problem of how the forestry policy is going to be administered, for the entire country as well as CHT. The Forest Department is a dismal failure, even worse than its counterpart in India. Corruption is so far gone; the Monno tea plantations are always under threat from smugglers. The virgin forests are being lUPged and cleared away by the government. The Forestry masterplan currently includes plans for lUPging upto the year 2000. How much of the forest will remain at this rate? The Forest Department lUPging interests have a very strong lobby and if this is maintained, you can take it for granted that the CHT forests will be cleared in due time. Whereas noone is bothering to tap into indigenous knowledge for replantation.

The authorities forget that in tropical areas, forests regenerate themselves, and regenerated forests are heterUPeneous forests. When the government talks about forestry, what they mean is plantation, limited to a few species. That will definitely have its effect on the soil. Jum is not the biggest threat to the forests, it may be marginally responsible but, a few blunders notwithstanding, jum over the centuries has been quite in tune with the ecolUPy of the forests. The biggest threats to the forest lie in lUPging and theft. This accord has nothing in it to increase local participation in forestry. There is a clause for Protected Forests for the tribal but that extends to only 1% of CHT. There are no provisions for the lion’s share of the 24%. These lands were stolen away by the British in the 1870s, they still remain stolen. If the nation was actually benefiting from this land, that may have been a different issue altUPether, but nobody’s benefiting, except some smugglers and Forest Department officials and tribals being paid subsistence wages for their labour.

Unfortunately, this is not a political priority, either for the government or the PCJSS. It is a major environmental issue, where areas of CHT that had never experienced floods before are now being regularly deluged, crops being destroyed.

OI: There is another environmental issue, in that this area is up for gas exploitation. In other countries exploited by large MNCs, for example Shell Oil in Nigeria, there has been a large amount of damage from drilling. The government, whose coffers are well fed by the MNC, readily quells local protests. Are there any such concerns in CHT?

DR: It has not entered discussion yet in a big way, because most people aren’t aware of the potential damage that mining could cause. Hopefully it won’t be too late to make it a priority. Definitely it‘s a serious concern. Things are already underway, with a few thousand locals recruited as mining labour, the Army tagging along as security. The Bangladeshi government is of course getting a hefty concession in royalties. My father had once said that the one factor that could lead to major public disagreement would be if gas or oil was struck in CHT.

OI: There have already been articles about oil companies that have reconnoitered the area and are concerned about security issues. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for someone to pick up the phone and convey these concerns to the government, in a situation where PetroBangla is already receiving bidding gratuities as intermediaries.

DR: I believe that their lobby is very effective, very quite and very subtle.

NM: As has been the case in many other countries, where oil companies from outside are much more powerful than any inside interest.

DR: Our big fear is that there will be a lot of NGOs coming in with all sorts of agendas, and confront us with changes. Nobody is against change, but this is accelerated change, which could aggravate current social problems.

OI: If gas and oil becomes a lucrative commodity in CHT, that will attract more outsiders and you may have the settler problem all over again.

DR: We should definitely be aware of the risks involved, since these groups only understand the logic of currency. Protecting the environment is never a high priority.

OI: And the invasion is aggravated by safety standards in other countries so that oil companies are attracted to countries with low environmental safety standards, such as Bangladesh. For example, there was the WB memo advsing the dumping of toxic waste in Bangladesh.

It seems form talking to you that you are fairly confident that the Land Commission will go through as proposed by the treaty, whereas there is a strong lobby against it, the strongest component of which is the Bengali settlers, for whom it’s a life-and-death issue. You don’t feel that will be a factor?

DR: There will be pressures that might lead to changes in certain clauses of the treaty, but I don’t think that the entire accord will be undone. The forces for the accord are too powerful, much more powerful than the anti- lobby. Also, the settlers that have objections, they aren’t united. There are many different interests, business interests, social interests, livelihood interests and so on. So I don’t feel an anti-treaty lobby can be sustained for too long. it will also depend on governmental maturity, how well it can accommodate the settlers and defuse the tension. Already there are clauses to ensure that Chakma business interests cannot dominate either the Regional or the District Council- it is evident in the composition of the Councils. Overall 30 Bengalis, 20 Chakmas, and 20 non-Chakma tribals. So there’s no way that Chakmas can dominate any of the councils without support from Bengalis or non-Chakma indigenous people. That is a concession made to coexistence. So the myth of Chakma domination that is making the circles has no basis.

UP: In 1989, when the first Councils were established with some degree of Chakma representation, albeit much less than under the treaty, there was no response. Suddenly , once the same thing is undertaken 8 years later, and well publicized in the press, everyone starts to worry, including the politicians.

DR: They really don’t know, arrUPant of me to say so, but I don’t think most of the politicians who are making their anti-treaty claims have read the treaty thoroughly or are aware of the amendments being made to the 1989 Councils. The Regional Council is a new thing, and objections to it are quite lUPical, since they are being anointed with new legislative powers. But chairmanship being reserved for tribals and two seats of the council to be reserved for tribals, these were clearly in Ershad’s 1989 Act, later amended by the BNP government to merge the three chairmen into one. The current Jamat Amir in Rangamati, who is so anti-treaty, was a member of the District Council.

In any case, it is not the Regional Council that plays the pivotal role as much as the District Council in terms of power. The Regional Council‘s realm is more in policymaking, supervising and coordinating functions. They have no financial power without taxes, and are thereby dependent on the District Councils to dole out money. The structure of the 3 councils is such that you could easily have an AL dominated council with a BNP chairperson, as in the American system. Therefore, it is not just the communities involved, but also the political parties who will have to work with each other. If they can, that would be a very good example of pluralism in practice.

UP: These myths strike me as amusing, because the only real change from before is that the Regional Councils have supervisory and coordinating capabilities. Most of the powers still reside in the District Council’s hands, where the chairman would be the State Minister.

NM: Well you know how there are tribal groups protesting the treaty to the effect that "This is not what we struggled for", splinter groups mostly. How valid is their protest and how many people empathize with that, that they haven’t really gained much?

DR: Difficult to say, because there are many bits of this proposed dissolution that are still not clear or have not even been thought out. On the whole, I feel that there are more pro-accord tribals, and a smaller group of anti- people. Aspirations are one thing and political reality is another. Many tribals may think, "If this Treaty had been faithful to the original 5 point manifesto, that would have been real autonomy." And if there are mistakes in the dissolution process, the splinter groups will think that they were right. But if they can pull it off, I think that the majority will be for it.

Transcribed by Sagheer Faiz, New York

Posted by: naeem on Jun 15, 03 | 7:56 pm | Profile