Ajal Dewan, a member of the Hill Blogger and Online Activist Forum, talks about their initiative and current political situation in Chittagong Hill Tracts in an interview with Nahid Riyasad
New Age: Tell us about the history behind the formation of Hill Blogger and Online Activist Forum?
Ajal Dewan: We started in 2013, during those triumphant days of Shahbagh Movement. This movement brought many online communities together. We too have joined the movement to demand the trial of war criminals of 1971. In the beginning, the name of our forum was ‘Jumma Blogger and Activist Forum.’ Later, we renamed our Facebook page as ‘Hill Blogger and Online Activist Forum.’ Our collective became known with that name, we never thought of changing it back.
A handful of progressive young mind started the journey of our forum. That was the golden time of community blogging; many Facebook groups were really active and popular. However, hill bloggers used to write in a scattered way. They did not have any dedicated platform. To fill that void, in 2010, we started CHT BD — a Facebook group. It was the first social media community of hill bloggers. Our primary vision was to bring all online pahari community under the same banner. Back then, the political confrontation between different parties representing hill people was not just about expressing ideological difference, but they were bloody. Entire population in CHT were divided, there were no space to have democratic debates or dialogues.
We wanted such an online platform where political activists and commoners alike can express their political views in a constructive way. We did not restrict our group discussions to politics; rather, people could talk about art, literature, little magazine, economics, culture and express their thoughts freely. We wanted to emerge as a politically aware online community.
In 1990s, there were many publications from CHT, but people would take a pen name, hide identity fearing state persecution. That tradition of writing under pen name continued in the early days of blogging. We disrupted that tradition and started writing in our own name. That was a turning point for us, we gained acceptability as site to write and publish our voice in our name.
We think our collective is not only a platform for bloggers, writers and online activists; it actually is a rendez-vous of people from social and cultural movements. Our members came from different backgrounds. A majority of us are from leftist student organisations. Some are active in different cultural-social-literature movements. As a collective, we believe in Jumma Nationalism. Our collective ambition is to be intellectually active in the struggle to protect hill people’s political and cultural identities and as an intellectual community we wanted to be a part of the struggle to protect our lands.
Online or offline, we want to represent the stories of CHT to world audience, make people aware of the demands of our land and our people. In a nutshell, we want to create a structured community, in the form of a civil society that would give voice to concerns of hill people.
New Age: In the past decades, there are two main political parties that are mainstream representative voices of CHT. Very recently, new social groups and organisations have emerged. How do you see the role of two major political parties and recently formed NGOs in CHT?
Ajal Dewan: This question demands an elaborate discussion. Let’s talk about the question of NGOisation first. The very term NGO is rather broad and complex. It will not be a right approach to generalise all non-government activities. You see, the United Nation itself is a non state actor! Many sister organisations of UN such as UNESCO, UNICEF run NGO projects in CHT, then there are local hill people’s NGOs as well. Many of them are operating on questionable grounds. Many are acclaimed and admired in international platforms. Therefore, I don’t want to generalise.
However, we are critical of NGOised social activism. We directly oppose this idea. In our view, people’s right can never be achieved through 9 to 5 office work. In the name of securing human rights, many are collecting funds, publishing colourful pamphlets, securing scholarships, and travelling abroad to attend conference. It is more about making a career than contributing to a social movement. More importantly, these kinds of oroganisations are creating space for social opportunitism. We directly oppose this process of NGOisation of movements.
We think, instead of turning people’s struggle into a NGO project, the later should be movement based. However, if time demands, there could be strategic collaboration with NGOs. Today, indigenous communities all around the globe are vocal about their rights of life and land. The United Nation’s Indigenous Forum, Amnesty International, International Working Group of Indigenous Affairs, International Labour Organisation, Survival International, Tebtebba Foundation, and Anti-Slavery Society are some of the names that are working on indigenous people rights. It is demand of the time that we join the global indigenous people’s movement. However, it will be a mistake to internationalise the movement by losing local ties. While lending our support to the global movement or to raise our demands in international platforms, we cannot forget the historical background of our own movement. We cannot follow their logic of organising. Screaming hard to satisfy the donors will not bring any change. Historically, that is proven.
It is true that the donor funded organisations have many drawbacks. There is a limit to their outspokenness. In the back of their mind, they always have to remember the interest of the stakeholders. The main problem is that since NGOs are entrenched in the system that have to work by ‘keeping everyone [stakeholders] happy.’ In the name of maintaining this false sense of ‘communal harmony’, they don’t say anything about Bengali settlers. Besides, they have to make sure that the ruling party elites’ interest is secured. Let alone saying anything about the military atrocities. Then there is the noose of government’s repressive measures such as section 57. Under these circumstances, when NGO activists raise their voices in national and international forums, it is rather calculated, lacks political edge.
This brings me to the second part of the question that is the role of two political parties in CHT. Despite their major limitation, two political parties active in CHT are engaging with the ongoing crisis at a political level, they are still in some ways the main forces of resistance. However, their techniques and strategies of resistance are, at times, inapt to respond to the changing nature of domination in CHT.
In the last decades, the political situation in CHT has taken so many turns. In broader sense, we can divide political history of CHT into a few chapters. During early periods of nation building, in the post 1971 Bangladesh, the-then Awami League led government wanted to build an ethnically singular nation state. The first prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman dreamt of building a monolithic state based only on Bengali nationality. He even urged us to convert to Bengali. In response to this assimilationist state policy, the Parbtya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity emerged. The following years were the violent periods of insurgency and counter-insurgency that is known to all and could be considered as a chapter. During this political chapter, there were many incidence of mass killings that were documented in Life is Not Ours by Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission as a form of genocide. It has been clearly defined as a genocidal process in many academic writings. Fleeing violence and killing as part of the counter-insurgency, hill people took refuge in India. As part of these counter-insurgency strategies, the government brought landless Bengali settlers to CHT. They now constitute the majority of the population in CHT. The episode of direct physical assault came to an end with the signing of Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord in 1997.
With the signing of the Accord, we have entered into a new political chapter, a new political party has emerged that rejected the accord — United People’s Democratic Front. Entire political communities were divided into two groups — those who signed the accord and those who rejected it. In this situation, we did not need the army or the government to kill — we were pitted against each other.
There were other changes too. In this so called period of peace, violence occurred in the form of economic development, for example, the development of military backed tourism industry in CHT. Many termed it as development genocide. Academics like Wolfgeng Mey described the CHT as a case of developmental genocide — beginning from the construction of Kaptai dam to the recent emergence eco tourism, the hill people have been victim of development aggression.
This eco-tourism industry commodified the lives, culture and land of Jumma people. Instead of direct war-like violence, now we are being subjected to new forms dispossession. The technique of oppression has changed in the sense that now we are being ruled in the name of economic development of CHT. The reason I am bringing this history here is to underscore this political transformation, to underscore the changes in the government’s strategies of violence. It is really important for the two political parties in CHT to acknowledge this change and revise their strategies of resistance. It is quite evident that mere political meetings-protests are not sufficient these days. In case of a failure, the Jumma community might be just another case of silent extinction.
During the counter insurgency period we were subjected to direct military killing — Khagrachari massacre (1984), Langadu massacre (1989), and Naniarchar massacre (1994). Now, our lives, ecology and economy are facing slow decay, slow violence. Although, it has not been always that silent and slow. In the past few years, many incidences of arson attacks took place in CHT when Bengali settlers have brunt villages of Jumma people into ashes in the silent presence of local civil and military administration. Most recent of which is the arson attack in Langadu, Rangamati (June 2, 2017).
The political parties in the hills do not seem to have any strategy regarding development aggression, acculturation, and attack on our cultural existence. After the treaty, they were busy in violent and armed resistance for one and half decade. Their current policies are rather reactive, than proactive one. We cannot survive with this kind of politics.
The recent reality of the hill is seriously fragmented. The political parties of the hills are working on their own, largely alienated from the people. We are writing blogs. NGOs are also mainly working following donor’s agenda. In the post-accord era, with different kind of state and non-state interventions, a large number of educated middle-class is formed in CHT. They are totally indifferent towards their society-nation-culture-ethnicity. In this grim situation, a larger unity is the ultimate solution and the political parties in the hills have failed to effectively work towards building that unity. What is undoubtedly needed is a unity of people to bring this fragmented efforts together.
New Age: One of the main focuses of Hill bloggers writing is the unresolved land issues in CHT. Earlier, in an interview with New Age, one of the bloggers of HBOAF, Rajumoy Tangchangya suggested that hill people’s decreasing access to forest has caused the latest famine. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Ajal Dewan: You know about the customary laws in CHT. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900, popularly known as Chittagong Hill Tracts manual, granted hill people the right to 5 acres of lands, as well as legal access to the adjacent 10 acres of forest. However, the government has denied those rights by saying that there is no adibashi in Bangladesh except for Bengalis.
Historically, lands and forest have been considered as common property in CHT. It is the British colonial rulers that had introduced the private ownership of lands, alongside communal ownership. However, the forests are never owned by any individual; rather, the adjacent villagers have equal claim on the resources of the forest, and this has been the norm for centuries. They collect food, wood, and bamboo from the forests, as they need. Historically, this system has been there. Hill people feed from the forest, and they know the ecosystem very well. Therefore, they take care of the forest by maintaining its ecology. For example, hill people will not cut down big trees around jhiri (local canals), because that will affect the water flow, dry-up the canal water. Jumma people are living for centuries in the hills at a harmony with the forest, without doing severe harm to the nature.
But the government, ignoring all these historical facts and factors, has leased over 40,000 acres of forest lands to external traders for rubber plantation, forest garden, fruit garden and horticulture. Lands are usurped for personal garden and social forestation. For example, the Garden of Colonel in Ramgarh, Khagrachari. In Ramgarh, the 90 acre natural forest is now appropriated. As a result, lives of the community relied on that piece of land are severely hampered.
In addition to denying the communal rights to forest, a new tendency has emerged that univocally labels all Jhum cultivation process as harmful to nature. However, this process of cultivation never cuts down big trees. In case of draught seasons, Jhum desperately need large trees to protect the harvest. For their survival, Jhumyas tries to preserve the forest. They will burn the weed, but will protect forest.
Now, only 3.2 per cent of the lands in CHT are cultivable. With the building of Kaptai dam, 54,000 acres of cultivable land in Rangamati was submerged. In the following years, land acquisition continued to accommodate the influx of Bengali settlers, the appropriation of forest land for tourist resorts, the government acquisition of over 1,00,000 acres for reserved forest and to install training camps and check posts for army. All these acquisition and appropriation radically cut down the size of cultivable lands. Increasingly, hill people’s right to forest and cultivable land is violently disrupted. The curtailing of hill people’s access to forest and cultivable land in the long run will cause severe famine.
In a small scale, we have been witnessing that in Thanchi and Sajek. In these areas, local hill people no longer have the same access to forest they historically enjoyed. The construction of major tourist resort in these areas has indirectly contributed to the famine situation. In future, we will see famine in a larger scale. The famine will trigger more people to migrate from the hills. The land commission formed in 2001 to resolve the land issues in CHT failed to serve its purpose. There has been no real progress in this regard.
New Age: Besides writing blogs, you are also participating in different social welfare works. In light of your works, what do you think should be the role of young people in CHT?
Ajal Dewan: We started as a bloggers collective. We are also bringing out a little magazine named ‘Huch’. Through our writing, we are working to intellectually and politically inspire our youth on Jumma nationalism. However, to respond to the demand of the times, eventually, we took on relief work. We have distributed relief in famine affected Thanchi, distributed clothing and medicines in Sangu reserve area and worked with other groups in providing educational aid for victims of arson attack in Langadu.
In 2014, when 21 families of Babuchara (Dighinala, Khagrachari) were forcibly evicted from their home overnight, most national media blocked the news. We felt, it was our responsibility to break this media censorship. We worked in all social media forum to bring the news to local, national and global public. Later, we broke the news of government’s plan to have another dam in Guimara, Khagrachari against greater media silence. Our primary goal is to write and speak against state censorship and media blackout, but from time to time, in moment of crisis, we were forced to take on responsibilities in real life social spaces.
Speaking of pahari young generation, there is another form of blackout we face. We are witnessing a majority of young people are unaware of their cultural heritage and political history. There is a large group of depoliticised youth unaware of their own history. We want to break this process of depoliticisations.
The history of CHT is the diverse history of 13 ethnic minority communities. This generation should broaden their horizon of knowledge on social-cultural-political aspects of this land. We believe, greater awareness of this history could break this process of depoliticisation.
This awareness is needed for all people. The majority of Bangladeshis across the country are unaware of the cultural and political history of CHT. To bring real change, we need to make everyone aware. We need a platform that is non-partisan in appearance, but politically inclusive in modalities. We are in a situation where the state agencies are continuously trying to divide us; they are oppressing us to the edge of extinction. Therefore consciousness is a must to exist, to put up a democratic resistance.
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