Can we hear the cry of Jumma youth?

Siam Sarower Jamil | Published: 00:00, Dec 08,2019


Jumma women fleeing their villages as their ancestral homes are burning away. — Collected

Describing the current political realities of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Siam Sarower Jamil asks can we hear the cry Jumma youths?

BIPUL Chakma is the president of Pahari Chhatra Parishad, a Jumma student organisation backed by the political party, United People’s Democratic Front. I met him at University of Dhaka for journalistic purposes and chatted with him for several times. Whenever we meet, he always raises his hand to shake with a smiling face. During our conversation, I try to read his face as I listen to the dreams of the Jumma youth, hear their stories of struggle for recognition of their ethnic identities and ownership of their ancestral land. The regional autonomy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is also their goal. I have often asked this young dreamer, ‘What will you do after ending student politics?’ He had always quickly replied, ‘Not a job. I must continue the politics for the Jumma people.’ Then, one day, a few years ago, this handsome, elegant, attentive, polite young man was suddenly arrested by the police.

Bipul was on his way to Chittagong Hospital in an ambulance with his cancer-stricken mother. Police arrested him on the way. They violently pulled him out of the ambulance before his ailing mother’s eyes. He begged the police not to do this in front of his mother. Police of course pay no heed. The mother, in her death bed, could not tolerate the scene. She died after she was taken to Khagrachari Sadar Hospital.

Bipul Chakma was then released on parole for seven hours to perform the last rites of his mother. He returned to his village from the prison in bars and fetters escorted by police. In front of his mother’s body, he spoke with deep conviction that how he would continue to fight for rights of Jumma people. His voice, grief stricken but of stern determination, asked people to join the struggle to make Jumma mothers sacrifice meaningful. I saw the scene of a mother going to a shmoshan (funeral site) while her son was handcuffed in a widely circulated video in Facebook.

I was shocked when I heard about Bipul’s arrest. Truly, there was no reason to be surprised. Police cases, arbitrary detention, torture are common occurrences in CHT. Very rarely cases of arbitrary detention and torture make it to the national media. Jumma young men in political struggle commonly face different forms of harassment, even torture. Romel Chakma, a HSC examinee and PCP Naniarchar upazila unit general secretary was taken by army members from Naniarchar Bazar to a camp on April 2017; he died in custody on April 18, 2017. Then there are cases that we don’t know. It is violent reality that the Jumma grew up with the dream of regional political autonomy in CHT.

Bipul Chakma and many other Jumma youth are burning in the fire of Bengali chauvinism and the subsequent socio-political inequality. When ancestral lands are forcibly occupied, would it be a crime to reclaim the land?

I SPENT sometimes of my childhood at Kaptai of Rangamati Hill District. Living in this area used to give me heavenly filling.  Stepping your foot into the lush green hilly area was joyous. Behind that joy of the tourist pilgrims, however, there lies the reservoir of crushed dream and cries of Jumma people. I felt, they carry some animosity towards the Bengalis. In the face of state violence and routine exploitation, they dreamt for a better future.  The tighter the grip of exploitation, the stronger and the louder is their desire for equal rights in their hearts.

In 1962, as part of the Karnaphuli Hydroelectric Power Station, the government of Pakistan constructed a dam on the River Karnaphuli at Kaptai that eventually flooded 655 square kilometers of area evicting approximately 100,000 people from their ancestral land, a large majority of whom were from Chakma community. Beyond the economistic calculation of what is lost and what is gained from the construction of this dam, there are enduring affects and social sufferings that lasted across generations. Sisters were separated from brothers; mothers were separated from children as part of the family left for India’s Arunachal province. This experience influenced Jumma community’s collective political decision during the independence war of Bangladesh. In the post-independent Bangladesh, it was said in the parliament that all and everyone living in Bangladesh are Bengali by ethnicity, thus deprived Bangladesh of the preexisting ethnic diversity. This eventually sparked a movement in CHT and gave birth to the political party Parbatya Chattogram Jana Sanghati Samity on February 15, 1972. The Jumma people of CHT demanded recognition of their ethnic and cultural identity and autonomy from the government.

On April 24, 1972, member of the parliament Manabendra Narayan Larma demanded special administrative status in writing for the local governance of CHT. His demands were unmet. The government’s unwillingness to address the demand and failure to address the concerns of Jumma community through dialogue created a ground for armed struggle. Eventually, PCJSS under the leadership of MN Larma declared an armed struggle in CHT. In the eighties, the-then president Ziaur Rahman brought about two lakhs of landless Bengalis to the hills to change the demographic pattern in CHT that is dominated by ethnic groups other than Bengalis. In a period of ‘counter interagency’ the landless Bengalis from impoverished areas of plain-land helped them gain further control over the area. Each family was given five acres of land. At the same time, number of army camp was increasing, conflict intensified and thousands of Jumma families fled war to India.

The period of ‘counter insurgency’ or armed struggle came to an end on December 2, 1997 with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord. The Accord created an opportunity for Jumma youth in armed struggle to surrender and government promised rehabilitation and resolving the lad disputes. Everyone hoped the Accord will bring peace to the CHT. However, there were political quarters in CHT, particularly younger generation at the time, did not think that the Accord will resolve the political crisis. Two years after the signing of the Accord, those who opposed formed a new political party — United People’s Democratic Front. Bipul Chakma works today in this longer political history.

WHO wants trouble in their own land? Jumma people don’t want that. One of the main promises of the accord is to resolve the land disputes through effective operation of the land commission in CHT. Since its’ formation, it has largely existed on paper. In Khagrachari, there is a commission office but it does not have offices in the other two hill districts.  No human resources or budgetary allocation is made available to make the land commission effective. Over the last few decades, the presence of Bengalis in the hills is multiplying. The total area of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is about five thousand square miles. People with twelve different languages live in these three districts. In 1947, the survey of population proportions, 97.5 per cent of the people were of Jumma background and Bengali was 2.5 per cent. In 1981, there were 58.6 percent Jumma people and 41.4 per cent Bengalis. The number of Bengalis in the region is now increasing steadily threatening and marginalising culture, language, and identity of Jumma people.

Over the CHT has become a popular tourist destination and big earning sources for some, Jumma people paid the economic and social price of this tourist economy.  The tourist industry is controlled by Bengalis. For local Jumma, tourist activities impacted their economic activities, restricted their access to forests. Internal refugees and refugees from neighbouring Myanmar and India also became a burden. A task force had been formed to solve their land problems, but the rules of conduct have not yet been formulated for its operation. Recent times, there have been reports local famine in the area that largely affected Jumma community. Young Jumma men face violence and women are raped by different state and non-state actors. Meanwhile, very little of this reality in CHT is reported in national media and people in the capital largely remain in the dark. The word ‘indigenous’ is not even officially recognised.

THE Jumma youth leadership can build a more inclusive future for Bangladesh, only if they are given that space to voice their opinion and organise without fear.

Siam Sarower Jamil is a young writer and journalist.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email