IT’S too late now. If I could start all over again, I would give each individual piece in this series a name, not a number. This one would be called, Politicising the corpse.
The Naniachar army zone didn’t want HSC examinee and indigenous student leader Romel Chakma’s death to be turned into an ‘issue’— at least, that’s what Monti Chakma, general secretary, Hill Womens Federation, says.
‘Don’t make a fuss over the corpse, don’t do any michil-miting [processions and rallies], they repeatedly told us over the telephone. They wanted him to be laid to rest quietly, discreetly.’
But presumably worried that neither Romel’s family members nor the larger jumma community would oblige, they took charge. They bungled things humongously.
After Romel’s body was brought over in an ambulance from the Chittagong Medical College and Hospital to the ghat, small quay, at Burighat in Rangamati (Romel’s village is across the Chengi river), they ‘hijacked’ the corpse, crossed the river, took the coffin to an abandoned, derelict structure at Burighat bazar belonging to a Bengali, Muslim ward member, and left it there overnight. They interned the karbari (headman) and another hill person at the army camp for the night. Next morning, they took Romel’s coffin to his village, assembled several persons including the karbari and a young Buddhist monk, poured petrol over the body, and set fire to it.
Having failed to hand him over to the police the very day (April 5) they picked him up, they kept breaking the law over and over again.
Romel had gone to the Naniachar bazar to buy groceries. He had no exams that day.
I was in Rangamati a week after his death, I interviewed three elected representatives of Naniachar upazilla: Promod Khisha, chairman, and Aung Shwe Prue Marma, ward member, of Burighat Union Parishad, and Jogendra Chakma, member, Ghilachari Union Parishad. I asked them what had happened.
(I prefer not to disclose the location where the interviews took place; they were conducted in Bengali, and have been translated and lightly edited for the sake of length and clarity. A small note, people in the Hills refer to any soldier or officer, as ‘the army’).
‘I was not well, I did not go to the hospital or to Burighat. I have heard what happened, but I did not see anything with my own eyes,’ said Promod Khisha.
When I asked Jogendra Chakma what had happened, he said, ‘We left the hospital with Romel’s body at about 3:00-3:30 in the afternoon [on April 20]. We reached Burighat at about 7:00-7:30 pm. The army and police were there. The coffin was loaded on the boat to take him home. I left. People from his para [neighbourhood] were there, let them take him. Beside their boat, there were two army boats.’
‘You mean you loaded the coffin on the boat?’
‘No, I didn’t, but our people did. I wasn’t there [when it was being loaded], I was talking to the OC [officer-in-charge, Naniachar police station].’ He went on, ‘So I returned to Ghilachari, but I heard [and] they called me to say that the body hadn’t reached his home yet. There was nothing I could do, Romel’s house is far away [it was late]. They called me again in the morning, the body hasn’t come. What do we do?’
‘So, did you go there?’ I asked him.
‘No. I didn’t.’
I turned to Aung Shwe Prue Marma, thinking to myself, but how was Romel’s coffin hijacked? And what about the burning? What did happen?
This is his story. ‘We left the hospital [CMCH] at 3 pm, we reached Burighat at 7:30 or 8:00 pm. It was raining cats and dogs, Romel’s mamas [maternal uncles] were there, the karbari, a chacha [paternal uncle], and several people from the para, 3 or 4, maybe 5. But Romel’s parents weren’t there. The body was brought out from the vehicle, we handed it over to his neighbours. They mounted it on their shoulders, went and loaded it on the boat. It was about 8:30-9:00 pm when we left. No calls, my mobile was closed, I didn’t hear anything. My in-laws live in Pulipara, I spent the night there.
The next morning, it was raining heavily. I went home after it had stopped. My mobile phone had no charge, I changed clothes, I went to the shop. Suddenly, the army appeared, ‘Member shaab, why is your phone closed? You have to come with us.’ ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘To the centre, sir wants to speak with you.’
‘Where did you go?’ I asked.
‘Burighat bazar. I went and found the body kept in a [pause, left unsaid], in Babul member’s home.
‘It was raining heavily, they couldn’t take the body. After the rain stopped, the army immediately mounted the coffin on their shoulders and went and loaded it on the boat. A police force was there, policewomen too, and the Naniachar TNO [Thana Nirbahi Officer].
‘I found the karbari and his chacha there, they reached [Burighat bazar] before me, they had been taken [to the army camp] the night before. I asked the karbari, how are things? He said, member shaab, the army went and brought us here. I told him, it’s been the same with me.
‘The army loaded a bit of firewood on the boat. There was a big boat [as well] with about a hundred army. We were in a separate boat, the OC, army, upazilla TNO, and policewomen. There were about 15-20 of us. When the boat landed at the ghat, I discovered that their [Romel’s] house was up on a hill, far, far away from the ghat. It took an hour, a long walk, muddy, dense jungle, full of thorns. It was gruelling.
‘When we reached Romel’s home, there was no one. No neighbours, no parents, no relatives, only the karbari and his chacha. I don’t think he’s an apon chacha [not blood-related].
‘They set down the body[coffin], and asked the karbari what was needed. They did as told, then they placed the body in the front, called us, member shaab, please come here. All of you, come and stand here. We did. They took our photo.
‘They had arranged all this, to make us witnesses [involved participants] to the burning.’
I asked Romel’s parents, Binoy Kanti Chakma and Alo Devi Chakma, weren’t you at home? (a Chakma person acted as an interpreter). No, said his father, I fell ill after hearing Romel had died, I went to see a doctor; I accompanied him, said his mother.
Chakma Raja Devasish Roy, who went to Romel’s village to offer condolences to his grieving parents, wrote a long FB post. I quote these insightful lines, ‘No one was in the village the day Romel’s remains were brought there, neither his parents, nor any neighbours. His body was cremated 50-60 feet away from their house. A karbari and another person from the area was called to the army office the day before, they were not allowed to return home that night. Everyone, Romel’s parents and the villagers, fled away in fear’ (translated). The raja was accompanied by Queen Yen Yen, and Goutam Dewan, president, Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizen Committee (the FB post has been published in its entirety in chtnews.com, May 3, 2017).
The elected representatives told me, at one point, Romel’s parents, relatives and villagers had agreed to return to the village, but only on the condition that they would be left alone, to cremate in accordance with their own customs, without the presence of any soldier, police, BDR, or RAB member. No security forces, they had insisted.
I interviewed Thuikyachinu Marma, organising secretary, Democratic Youth Forum (closely allied to the United Peoples Democratic Front, UPDF); he was a member of the team which was dispatched to the CMCH after his organisation learnt of Romel’s death. It was a long conversation, conducted over the telephone.
‘[After we reached Burighat with Romel’s coffin], three other elected representatives joined us. The women were crying, the coffin was brought out of the ambulance. The villagers had brought a boat. Major Tanvir [who allegedly tortured Romel] asked Babul member, ‘Is everything okay?’ The boat started, there were two army boats, we left at 7:30 pm, after the coffin had been handed over. Half an hour later, we learnt that it had been hijacked.
‘And yes, I have seen media reports where the OC had said, heavy rains prevented handing over Romel’s body to his relatives. It is a white lie, it was drizzling. Maybe he was forced to say it.
‘[I have heard that], Romel’s body was burned at 2:30 pm, that they had first brought a Buddhist priest, but he fled soon. They brought a Marma priest next, an SSC candidate, he’s appearing for his referred exams, he’s not matured.’
According to press reports, ISPR director Lt Colonel Rashidul Hasan said in a text message, the ‘cremation’ took place between 1:30-4:00 pm, the Naniachar OC and Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Kaukhali were present.
The OC disputes it, however. He was not present at the cremation, but working in the area to ensure security.
When the ISPR director was asked whether Romel’s family had been present at the ‘cremation,’ he replied, ‘I’d have to check. My common sense tells me that it’s only natural that the family members were there’ (Daily Star, April 23, 2017).
There were about 150 soldiers, the surrounding hills had been cordoned off, said Thuikyachinu.
The Chakmas, like most hill people, are Buddhists. ‘According to our religious customs,’ says Jogendra Chakma, ‘the body must be brought home regardless of where the person has died.’ Monti Chakma added, ‘We guard the body all night long. We play religious songs, and hold prayers. At daybreak, the body is washed, and wrapped in a piece of new, white cloth. We cook rice for the dead, separately, specially, we feed him.’
I turned to Jogendra who said, ‘A dwelling is made for the corpse and once the prayers are over, the body is placed above it, we place firewood all around.’
He asked me, ‘Didi, which religion condones the killing of innocent people, and disposing of it as they please?’ I had no answer.
After a long silence I softly asked, ‘Was Romel’s body taken out of the coffin, out of the black plastic in which they had wrapped him at the hospital?’
No. They only removed the lid.
‘And his body burned to ashes...how long?’
Everything had burned but Romel’s chest, his ribcage. The army had to pour petrol again.
We scatter sandalwood powder didi, that is how we pay respect to our dead, were his last words.
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