FREED at last! After 32 days of captivity, long 32 days when one had absolutely no idea where they were, how they were, or how they were being treated by their male captors. No credible bit of information, only stray rumours here and there. As the weeks went by, we were too afraid to ask ourselves, were they still alive? Could they still be alive?
Monti Chakma and Doyasona Chakma, leaders of the Hill Women’s Federation, were abducted in broad daylight by a group of 12–15 armed gunmen on March 18, 2018 from a community-built students’ mess in Rangamati Sadar. Monti Chakma, in her early 20s, a 2nd-year degree student of Khagrachhari College, is the central general secretary of the HWF. Doyasona Chakma, younger to Monti, is the general secretary of the HWF’s Rangamati unit. Had she not been abducted, she would have been sitting for her Higher Secondary Certificate exams, currently taking place.
Yes, it’s true, life did go on, but our throats were parched dry.
I don’t recall a single rally, demonstration or torchlight procession demanding immediate government action to ensure Monti and Doyasona’s safe recovery, where speakers did not raise the enforced disappearance of Kalpana Chakma.
Kalpana, in her early twenties, had been the organising secretary of the HWF (it had not split then). She was picked up at gunpoint on June 12, 1996 from her home in New Lalyaghona village in Baghaichhari, Rangamati, allegedly by a team headed by the local camp commander Lieutenant Ferdous, with whom she had had an altercation days before her abduction. Nine Jumma houses in her village had been torched, pahari men who had stayed up to guard the village, severely beaten. Kalpana had protested. She was led away blindfolded, hands tied.
Nearly 22 years on, she still remains ‘missing.’ After three investigations — by the police, a three-member judicial inquiry commission, and the Criminal Investigation Department — and 39 investigation officers having succeeded each other, the government says it has ‘failed’ to identify her abductors.
During Monti and Doyasona’s 32-day-long captivity, I did not hear of any serious attempts by the law enforcing agencies to try and trace their whereabouts or to launch a rescue operation. No one had been arrested, questioned, remanded.
As a matter of fact, when news of their release spread like wildfire (even in Dhaka) on the evening of April 19, Rangamati police superintendent Alamgir Kabir told members of the media who had contacted him for confirmation, we’ve heard about it from you, we’re inquiring now (‘amra apnader maddhomei khobor pelam. ey bishoye khoj khobor nicchi,’ ntvbd.com, 19 April 2018).
According to press reports filed that evening, the abductors had rung and instructed family members of Monti and Doyasona to be present in front of the APBN High School at Madhupur in Khagrachari town. The young leaders were brought over by their abductors and released at about 7:45pm; traditional leaders were also present and witnessed what happened.
Of course we are overjoyed, but that’s not the end of the story. Kabita Chakma, researcher, writer and coordinator of the CHT Jumma Peoples Network of the Asia Pacific, expressed the feelings of many when she posted in Facebook, “Relieved. But, it is a failure of the rule of law in the CHT and of civil and military administrations in Bangladesh. It also shows how uncivilised and barbarians we have become as Bangladeshis. A black mark in CHT’s political history. Shame!”
According to press reports soon after the abduction, Monti and Doyasona were about to have breakfast in the community-built students’ mess in Kutukchhori (Rangamati Sadar) when a group of armed men appeared, firing shots randomly. They ran to my house but the gunmen had seen them flee, said neighbour Bidyarani Chakma, one of them came and stood outside my house, he aimed his gun and ordered that they be handed over. I had fled to a nearby house, she said, but when things became quieter I returned and looked around. They had fired so many bullets, maybe I would find Monti lying somewhere. But I was told that the gunmen had dragged them away, beating them viciously (Manobkantha).
Dharma Singh Chakma, leader of the Democratic Youth Forum — both the HWF and the DYF are affiliated to the UPDF, United People’s Democratic Front, a political party fighting for the autonomy of the Jummas — had sustained bullet injuries in his leg. He had to be hospitalised.
The gunmen set fire to the students’ mess which had provided accommodation to young people from remote and faraway areas, as they left. Meki Chakma, a student of Class VIII, and Paromita Chakma and Jonaki Chakma, students of Class IX, found everything burnt to a cinder. We heard when we were in school that our house had been burnt down, said Paromita. My registration card, birth certificate, everything is gone. I only have my school uniform and the books I took to school that day.
Whenever Monti pishi (aunt) comes to Rangamati, she stays here, with us, said Jonaki Chakma. Monti had come to Rangamati from Dhaka the night before (Manobkantha, 20 March 2018).
I met Monti first when I went to Rangamati last May to investigate Romel Chakma’s custodial death. After returning to Dhaka, while writing my five-part series, I called Monti more than once, wanting to know whether I had heard this correctly, jotted down something else rightly (‘Is custodial killing heroic?,’ Parts I–V, New Age, May 14–18, 2017).
My phone calls had lessened but we had been in regular contact, more through text messages. The content and form of these messages, whether initiated by me or her, would be unvaryingly simple,
Monti: ‘Kemon asen?’ (How are you?).
Me: ‘Eitto, baysto. Tumi?’ (Okay, busy. And you?).
Monti: ‘Bhalo’ (Good).
Me: ‘Accha, shabdhane theko’ (Okay, be careful).
There had been a few exceptions. I remember texting her once, this was before the Langadu landslide, ‘Haven’t seen you in ages. Shall I come to Khagrachhori?’ ‘No, no. Not now. We are busy.’ And early this year, when Monti came to Dhaka, ‘When do I get to see you? Come over for lunch.’ ‘No, no, I can’t. Lots of work to do.’ Shahidul Alam, my partner, had chuckled, “It’s most fitting, your daughter is busier than you!”
Our last exchange, according to my cell phone Inbox, was on the night of the 16th. I’d been working on something intently when the set tinkled. I remember lifting my eyes from the computer screen, our usual round of brief mesages followed, eager to get back to work I hurriedly texted the oft-repeated ‘shabdhane theko.’ But something made me stop, I deleted the words, thought for a second, and then wrote, ‘Shahosh rekho’ (Stay strong), despite knowing that Monti is far more courageous than me.
She replied, ‘Okay.’
Doyasona, a thin wisp of a girl, I met much later, during the many rallies and processions held in Dhaka early this year, condemning the rape and sexual assault of the Marma sisters — the elder had allegedly been raped by a soldier, the younger one, sexually attacked — and the subsequent attack on Rani Yan Yan, the Chakma queen, by members of the security forces, when the latter forcibly removed the victims from the Rangamati Sadar Hospital, to prevent them from seeking refuge with Devasish Roy, the Chakma raja. The sisters had insisted, they felt far safer with the Chakma royal couple than with their parents, who were constantly being minded by unknown men, both in plain clothes and in uniform. Since Doyasona and and Nirupa Chakma, president, HWF, had visited the Marma sisters in hospital, Saydia Gulrukh and I met up with them in Dhaka one day, wanting to know about their visit. A serious but lively, hour-long discussion had taken place, Doyasona spoke less, but her comments were sharp, perceptive. I listened intently, watching her dimples flit in, flit out.
A local elected representative had said on the condition of anonymity, that those who had set fire to the house and fired bullets and abducted Monti and Doyasona, were “familiar faces.” They had belonged to the UPDF, had been frequent visitors to the house. But now that they have left the party, they have set the house on fire. (Manobkantha, 20 March 2018).
A group of men had been working near the Buddhist temple to the east of the Rangamati–Khagrachari road. There had been eleven gunmen, said one of the workmen, if you counted Monti and Doyasona, the number would be thirteen. One of them was not armed, he was the one who beat the young women. Their leader, Borma, told us as they marched past, “go take Dharma [Dharma Singh Chakma] to the hospital. If he gets proper treatment, he’ll live.”
Doyasona’s father Brishadhan Chakma — who filed an abduction case at the Kotwali police station on March 20 against nineteen people including Tapan Jyoti Chakma alias Borma, and Shaktiman Chakma, vice-president of PCJSS reformist (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti) — received death threats soon after: withdraw the case or else we will kill you and your family. This was mentioned in a written statement, signed by 188 persons including elected representatives (union parishad chairmen, ward members), traditional leaders (headmen, karbaris), and members of the public. Addressed to the district commissioner of Rangamati, the statement was read out at a press conference in Sapchhari (Rangamati) on March 28. The string of reckless killings (Anadi Ranjan Chakma, Pluto Chakma, Mithun Chakma), abductions and extortion by the “Borma-led armed, terrorist gang” has “scared and terrified” the residents of Naniachar and its adjacent upazilas. This state of affairs must stop, the administration must take effective action to rescue the two women leaders immediately, and they must ensure that the abductors receive “exemplary punishment in accordance with the law.”
The UPDF alleges that Borma’s group has killed five leaders and activists in three months. An allegation denied by Borma, “We are not engaged in murder and abduction. We have no connection with these [activities].” None of his activists, he insisted, were involved in any of these incidents (Financial Express, March 23, 2018).
The Kotwali thana police claims to have conducted search and rescue operations, it was not an easy task, they said, because of the terrain and remoteness. But HWF leaders and activists were sceptical; the police had arrived at the crime scene three hours later, they alleged. More damning was the allegation that instead of hunting down Monti and Doyasona’s captors, the police were far more preoccupied with foiling rallies, processions, marches and blockades protesting against their abduction. Demonstrators in Panchori were teargassed, those in Guimara were subjected to rubber bullets.
The army has been implicated in the abduction, both by Jumma activists, and informed Bengali activists and scholars. In a joint statement to the press, released shortly after the abduction, HWF, YDF and PCP (Pahari Chhatra Parishad, the student front of the UPDF) had alleged that the group of gunmen — generally referred to as the Nabya Mukhosh Bahini (newly-formed Masked Men) — is a “terror group” armed and abetted by the army, and that the gunmen who had abducted Monti and Doyasona had “gotten down from an army vehicle” on the 18th morning.
Tapan Jyoti Chakma heads the breakaway part of the UPDF, it came into existence on November 15, 2017, its official name is UPDF-Democratic. The shared history of the two parties has led mainstream media to portray the conflict between the UPDF and UPDF-Democratic as being a “fratricidal” one, a misleading term as it helps invisibilise the all-powerful presence of the army in the CHT. Whether the Mukhosh Bahini, as UPDF alleges, is truly “an army-backed vigilante group” birthed because the “government and army have failed to counter politically” the UPDF’s increasing support and popularity, particularly among the youth, is unknown; what is incontrovertibly true however, is that the Mukhosh Bahini would not have been able to function as it does — in a place as heavily securitised and surveilled as the Chittagong Hill Tracts — if it did not enjoy the army’s blessings. A point obliquely raised by a group of concerned citizens, including a professor emeritus, university teachers, writers, rights activists, lawyers and artists. In a statement to the press, they say, “Since people live under constant army surveillance in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, it is only natural to ask, how can terrorists of the newly-formed Mukhosh Bahini get away with abducting political activists a la filmi style, how can they get away with killing them, what makes them bold enough to carry out such reckless acts more and more?” The sixty-six signatories expressed “deep concern” at the indifference of the government towards Monty and Doyasona’s abduction and the general state of lawlessness and impunity towards disappearances, killing and rape. Immediate action, they had demanded, should be taken to secure the safe release of the HWF leaders.
An army crackdown prevented the holding of a protest rally in Naniachar College grounds (Rangamati) on March 30, which had been organised by HWF and its allies. Leaders and activists from Dhaka and Chittagong belonging to women’s and left-leaning groups (Bangladesh Nari Mukti Kendra, Nari Samhati, Biplobi Nari Mukti, Bangladesh Chhatra Federation, Samajtantrik Chhatra Front, Chhatra Federation (Gonoshonghoti)) had been hauled away to the nearby army camp, temporarily detained, then forced to board transport which brought them back to Dhaka and Chittagong.
The local police had told the media, Bengali leaders and activists had been “rescued” from being abducted by the UPDF. Such flippant and irresponsible repartees have become characteristic of members of the police force, serving the narrow and divisive interests of an unelected government (2014), which rules through a toxic combination of brute force (abduction, killings, disappearances), repressive laws (ICT Act), and the construction of a tyrannical national identity (majoritarian, Bengali instead of a pluralistic one) which, as Lailufar Yasmin and scores of other scholars have argued, “subsumes and delegitimizes other claims to identity within the state.”
Were Monti and Doyasona targeted because they had refused to be cowed down by the army’s “terror” tactics? Romel Chakma had confided to Monti Chakma how he had been tortured by army personnel in the Naniachar army camp last April. He died in hospital a fortnight later. Doyasona Chakma had visited the two Marma sisters, raped and sexually assaulted, allegedly by men in uniform, in the Rangamati Hospital.
Has Kalpana Chakma’s enforced disappearance helped still Jumma women’s voices? Will Monti Chakma and Doyasona Chakma’s month-long abduction silence Jumma opposition to the continued presence of army camps, two decades after arms surrender and the signing of the Peace Accord? The answer can only be a resounding ‘no.’ Doyasona has already told the media, I am stronger than before, such things are bound to happen if you protest and resist injustices (chtnews24.com, April 21, 2018).
What may seem to be ‘clever’ strategies thought up by ‘bright’ men in uniforms — sponsoring armed terrorist groups instead of dirtying one’s own hands, blaming it on ‘fratricidal’ conflict — are bound to fail. Bangladesh, possibly more than any other nation, should know that applying military solutions to political problems don’t work. It failed in 1971. It will fail in future. History will repeat itself, only this time, the victors will be vanquished.
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