MAJOR national political parties and alliances have come up with their own election manifesto in view of the forthcoming 11th parliamentary elections. There is no space to undermine election manifestos although they are mostly considered mere documents in the context of the political culture of Bangladesh.
The ruling Awami League’s election manifesto, ‘Bangladesh on a March towards Prosperity’, is one of the published party manifestos. What is new in the commitments made under section ‘Aims and Plans’ of the manifesto is the formation of a national minority commission and the formulation of a special minority protection act. This year too, the party has iterated the commitments it made in the manifestos for the 2008 and the 2014 national elections. The manifesto reads: ‘rights to land, water reservoir and forest of indigenous peoples of plain land will be ascertained; a land commission for them will be formed; all discriminating laws and systems inflicting injustice will be put to an end; and their culture and uniqueness will be preserved, etc.’
Under section ‘Successes and Achievement’, it has mentioned that ‘the Land Commission programme, including special protective measures for rights of the small ethnic groups living in plains to lands, water bodies and forest areas has been kept active’ and ‘for the national and religious minorities, their rights to land, homesteads, forests, water bodies, and other property have been protected.’ But what does the real situation reveal? In the past 10 years, not a sign of efforts to set up such a land commission could be noticed, let alone the programmes of the already formed Land Commission for the recovery of dispossessed land of the indigenous peoples living in the plains. Instead, the indigenous peoples of the plains have fallen victim to continued and forced illegal land occupation and eviction from their land over the years.
The biggest concern is that the election manifesto of the ruling party, under section ‘Aims and Plans’, does not say anything about the implementation of the CHT Accord. The apprehension of Santu Larma that ‘this government will never implement the accord’ is all that might happen if the government stands such a ground. Under section ‘Successes and Achievement’, it has mentioned that ‘in order to implement the accord, as per various provisions of the accord, the subjects concerned have already been devolved to the CHT Regional Council and Hill District Councils’ and ‘measures have already been taken to keep the process of devolvement of power going.’ But, as it appears, many subjects and functions including the local administration, law and order, police (local), land and land management, forest and environment, etc have not yet been transferred to the councils. What is most regrettable is that even after 21 years of the signing of the accord, no initiative has been taken to hold the elections to these councils. The government has left the tasks of the formulation of the election rules and electoral rules, including the preparation of voter roll, only with the permanent residents which has been pending for the past 10 years as it had been before.
In the decade of its tenure in government, the Awami League has accomplished some of the tasks such as the devolution of some subjects and functions to the Hill District Councils, the withdrawal of 35 temporary camps, the construction of CHT Complex in Dhaka, the amendment of contradictory provisions in the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act, but no effective initiative has so far been taken on part of the government to attend to core issues of the accord that have remained unimplemented such as the withdrawal of more than 400 remaining temporary camps including de facto military rule Operation Uttaran, the restitution and return of the dispossessed land to the indigenous peoples through the Land Commission, the cancellation of land leases, proper rehabilitation of people who returned from India and internally displaced refugees in their dispossessed land after having recovered and returned them to actual owners, legal and administrative measures for the preservation of the tribal-predominant feature of the CHT region, amendment to the national and special laws applicable to the CHT so as to make them in consonance with the CHT accord, the rehabilitation of the Bengali settlers outside the CHT region, etc.
Under section ‘Successes and Achievements’, the election manifesto upholds that a good number of projects, including tourism industries, have already been undertaken and a decision has already been made to pay three times the market price in compensation for land taken in acquisition as is applicable to the plains. But the fact is that where the human rights of the indigenous peoples have been under gross violations all the time, letting the CHT region get floated in the tide of development, however, means nothing else but to follow the earlier wrong policy of seeking a solution to the CHT political crisis by development means and, consequently, to pus CHT crisis into further complexity.
The manifesto of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has stayed off state power for 12 years, upholds two objectives under section ‘Small ethnic groups and minorities.’ It reads: ‘The life, property, dignity and status of the small ethnic groups living in the hills and the plains will be safeguarded. Job and education opportunities for backward small ethnic groups living in the hills and the plains and development programmes of the CHT will be strengthened’ and ‘Security of social, political, economic and religious rights as mentioned in the constitution will be ensured to the fullest for all the races irrespective of group, opinion, community, religion and caste and to this end, a religious minority affairs ministry will be established.’
As it had been earlier, the BNP has carefully avoided issues of the implementation of the CHT accord and the principal issues of land rights of the indigenous peoples living in the plains. From this stand, it may be undoubtedly concluded that the BNP is not at all interested in the principal aspects of the crisis of the indigenous peoples such as regional autonomy for the CHT region and cultural autonomy for the indigenous peoples in the plains and, above all, resolution of land disputes of the indigenous peoples. It may be recalled that the then BNP-led alliance opposed the CHT accord when the accord was signed in 1997. That time, BNP-led alliance had declared that it would cancel the CHT accord if it had the opportunity to go to power, yet the alliance did not cancel the accord when it came to power in 2001. But it undertook no effective measures to proceed with the implementation of core issues of the accord. The four-party alliance government rather undermined the terms of the accord by various forms and means.
The manifesto of Jatiya Oikya Front in paragraph 27 headlined ‘Religious and small ethnic groups’ states: ‘A ministry of minority affairs will be established to ensure human dignity, rights, security and opportunities of the minorities. Even a slight lack in security matters of the minority peoples will be dealt with utmost importance. Any attack on minority communities will be tried in a special tribunal. Effective measures will be taken to preserve the culture of small ethnic groups living in the hills and the plains. It is through enhancement of economic activities in small ethnic areas, their socio-economic situation will be developed.’
In fact, the formation of a special tribunal for the trial of any attack on small ethnic groups can undoubtedly be considered a positive gesture. But in the context of the statement made in the manifesto, Oikya Front also seems interested in judging the CHT crisis as an economic problem and rather not interested to view the crisis a political and national issue and an issue of establishing rights to land.
In the 18-point manifesto of Jatiyo Party, led by HM Ershad, there is no separate commitment with headlines for indigenous peoples or small ethnic groups. But under section headlined ‘Protection of interest of the religious minority’, in point 18, there is a commitment saying that 30 seats in the parliament will be reserved for religious minorities while there will be opportunity in employment and higher studies and a minority affairs ministry and a minority commission will be formed. The manifesto also has not mentioned the CHT accord and land dispute, which are principal problems of the indigenous peoples. As usual, the issue of a provincial system and federal governments is what is exceptional in the manifesto. There was once a provision to make the CHT a separate province as envisaged in Ershad’s provincial system but later, the provision was dropped and this has not been restored to this manifesto.
Indeed, the issue of establishing rights of the indigenous peoples is rooted in establishing democratic, non-communal and progressive governance systems and society. But all these issues have been left neglected, obscure and confusing in the manifestos of major political parties. The manifestos of political parties were crammed with commitments for development. Issues such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, political solution to the problem of nationalities, etc have been left aside. This constitutes the great idealistic challenge in the present political culture of Bangladesh.
Mangal Kumar Chakma is information and publicity secretary of the PCJSS.
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