THE Naniachar army zone did not want Romel Chakma’s death to be turned into an ‘issue,’ says Monti Chakma. They repeatedly told us over the telephone, ‘Don’t make a fuss over the corpse, don’t do any michil-miting [processions and rallies]. They wanted him to be laid to rest quietly, discreetly’ (‘Is Custodial Killing Heroic - IV’, New Age, May 17, 2017).
But there was nothing ‘quiet’ or ‘discreet’ about Nurul Islam Nayan’s funeral. And, oddly enough, it would seem that that was what the powers-that-be in Langadu (maybe, even higher up?) wanted.
That it should be turned into an ‘issue.’ That it should lead to ‘processions and rallies.’
Nurul Islam Nayan: ‘Michil-miting’ funeral
ACCORDING to press reports, Nayan’s body was brought to his home in Baityapara village on Friday morning, June 2nd.
‘We were not allowed to bring back my brother’s body [from Khagrachari General Hospital where it was autopsied] on Thursday night because Langadu [thana’s] police Officer-in-Charge Moinul Islam warned us of things going awry,’ said Nayan’s younger brother Mohd Din Islam Liton (Dhaka Tribune, June 11, 2017).
But wouldn’t a night burial have aided in ‘things going less awry’ since Bengalis had already begun mobilising from late afternoon onwards?
According to the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, which led the 20-year insurgency before surrendering arms and signing the Peace Accord in 1997), army officials said Bengali settlers had the ‘right’ to bring out a procession but Major Rafique, second-in-command of Langadu zone, had added, ‘we will ensure that they hold the procession peacefully’ (Dhaka Tribune, June 2, 2017). Police officials, accompanied by several Bengalis, dropped in at Langadu PCJSS general secretary Manishangkar Chakma’s house, don’t worry, they said, ‘nothing will happen.’ Despite these words of reassurance, paharis — haunted by memories of the 1989 ‘Langadu massacre’ (bdnews24.com, June 4, 2017) — were still afraid; some Chakma families left their homes that night.
Nayan’s family wanted the namaz-e-janaza to be held at the village mosque but ‘influential individuals’ persuaded them that the first janaza should be held at the upazila parishad ground in Langadu sadar. The ground was far bigger, many more would be able to pray for the departed soul. The atmosphere was tense, public announcements of Nayan’s janaza over loudspeakers were paralleled by heated allegations which spread from word to mouth: it was the ‘paharis’ fault, they were to blame.
‘[When] Nayan’s body was brought to his village home in Baityapara at 8 in the morning, crowds rapidly gathered. Very soon, there were thousands of people. As the coffin was being carried to the upazila parishad ground, waves of people surged behind, turning it [funeral procession] into a bikkhobh michil [angry procession]’ (parbattanews, June 2, 2017). Through muddy paths bordered by pahari localities on either side, the huge michil, accompanied by army and police contingents, snaked its way to the upazila headquarters a few kilometres away.
A grief rally preceded the janaza. It was addressed by leaders belonging to the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, student and youth fronts of the ruling party, and Shomo Odhikar (settler Bengali organisation). Langadu zone commander Lt Colonel Abdul Alim Chowdhury and Langadu thana Officer-in-Charge Mominul Islam spoke at the rally, standing behind big banners which declared paharis to be ‘terrorists,’ they advised everyone to remain calm.
But by then the first round of looting and arson attack, had taken place. When the bikkhob michil reached Tintila, a false rumor that Marfot Ali’s house had been attacked by paharis, enraged many processionists. They stopped, vandalised, looted, and set fire to the PCJSS office, a community centre, shops and houses. Bijoy Ketan Chakma, part of a citizen’s committee, who visited the spot later said, furniture belonging to Bengalis had been carefully brought out of a shop before setting it on fire.
As the grief rally at the Langadu upazilla ground proceeded, so did the looting and arson attacks. Section 144 was promulgated at midday but this does not seem to have deterred the rampaging crowds. Both army and police officials say, it was because the crowd was too large, and their forces too small. According to Brig Gen Mir Mushfiqur Rahman, regional commander of the army in Khagrachari, ‘there were only 100 to 150 law enforcers in the areas against a mob of seven to eight thousand people’ (Daily Star, June 6, 2017). While the additional police superintendent of Rangamati district Mohammed Shafiul Sarowar said, ‘we have a troop of only 40 policemen. On that day, around seven to eight thousand Bangalees from surrounding villages came to attack the indigenous villagers. [Controlling the crowd] was an impossible task..’
Paharis allege that both army and police stood by as the attacks took place. But far worse allegations have surfaced in the case of Manikjorachara, two-and-half to three kilometres distant from Langadu town. Paharis were bent on resisting the marauding crowds but when the soldiers positioned behind the attackers, fired blank shots, the paharis were forced to disperse. According to the village headman, ‘We could have fought [back, if it hadn’t been for the] army...’ (Dhaka Tribune, June 11, 2017). Human rights activist Pallab Chakma voiced similar concerns on a TV talk show (ATN News, June 5, 2017).
According to eye witnesses, the attacks were not spontaneous, not the sort that are triggered off on the spur-of-the-moment, by a rumor. It was planned, the attackers had ‘petrol and other flammable material’, ‘octane,’ ‘fuel, staves and sharp weapons,’ the ‘settlers looted [our] valuables and took them away in Mahendra pickups.’ There are reports that cattle too were taken away. Only pigs, haram for Muslims, were left behind. But dead.
Some locals, on condition of anonymity, allege that anger at Nayan’s killing, blaming it on paharis, was a ruse, that land grabbing was the motive. It has happened before. Four pahari villages of Sajek union were burnt down in an arson attack on April 20, 2008, the ‘valuables were looted first, houses were set on fire after.’ According to a fact-finding committee, the settlement of Bengalis intensified during the state of emergency imposed by the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008), land grabbing and pahari eviction had accelerated, it was taking place ‘under army supervision’ (New Age, May 12, 2008). History reveals, tragically so, that some of the paharis belonging to the four villages razed to the ground in 2008, had settled there after the 1989 Langadu massacre. Things do not seem to have changed much in the CHT with the return of ‘democratic’ governance.
Sajek now, is a tourist spot. Billed as the ‘paradise of Bangladesh,’ it is run and controlled by the army.
Nayan was buried near his village home late in the afternoon.
Gunamala Chakma: An officially unrecognised death
GUNAMALA Chakma, a widow, in her 70’s and hard of hearing, burned to death when arsonists of the ‘michil-miting’ funeral attacked Langadu Sadar union parishad chairman Kulin Mitra Chakma’s house in Tintila. Gunamala’s daughter Kala Shona had sent her there believing that the dwelling of an ‘elected representative’ would be safe from attacks, fleeing to the distant hills herself, with her son. But the arsonists attacked Kulin’s house as well, ‘Even though I had given her shelter, I had to flee and leave her behind to save myself.’
Kala Shona’s husband Joseph Chakma alleges, when he pointed out Gunamala’s remains in the ruins of Kulin’s house to officials, they scoffed, ‘these remains may not be human, they could belong to animals.’ OC Mominul Islam too, seems unconvinced, we do not know of any human casualty. ‘We have sent [bone samples] for forensic testing’ (Star Weekend, June 9, 2017).
The FIR (First Information Report) says, ‘... in the said incident, about 50 houses were set ablaze and vandalised. No deaths took place.’ Langadu thana OC says, Gunamala is recorded as ‘missing.’ If the forensic tests prove positive, a murder case will be filed (Samakal, June 12, 2017).
Romel Chakma: ‘Petrol’ funeral
AS I’D written several months earlier,
‘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 (New Age, May 17, 2017).
Romel’s parents were not permitted to visit him while he was in hospital, nor was his body brought home for the performance of nightlong rituals as is Buddhist custom, nor was it washed and wrapped in new white cloth and cremated. His mother Alo Debi Chakma grieved, ‘I didn’t get to see him. Neither alive, nor dead.’
According to eye witnesses, Romel’s body was not removed from the black plastic in which it had been wrapped by hospital authorities. Instead of sandalwood powder being scattered on the funeral pyre, Romel’s body was doused with an extra helping of petrol, to burn to ashes his ribcage, which had stood defiant.
As far as I know, no officials have been reprimanded let alone punished for having failed to assess the costs of a ‘michil-miting’ funeral. According to the PCJSS, nearly 250 houses were burnt to ashes: 94 houses and shops in Tintila, 88 houses in Manikjorachara, and 42 houses in Baityapara.
The costs of the reign of terror that was unleashed, is far more difficult to compute.
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