Courtesy: The Daily Star, Dhaka
Published: Friday, August 23, 2013
On August 3, life in Taindong, a remote hamlet in Khagrachhari, became a nightmare that would not end. Thirty-five houses were burnt to the crowd, leaving the residents homeless and terrified by this unprovoked act of hatred and racism. According to the victims several members of their community were brutally beaten up by the arsonists - all of them from neighbouring areas, all of them Bangali. Was it just because they were of different communities or was it the land that needed to be grabbed at all cost? the Star talks to the locals of this far away place snuggled deep in the forests of Khagrachhari to unravel the age-old conflict between Bengali settlers who are an overwhelming majority and the small communities of indigenous people.
The August 3 incident, however, has some antecedents. On July 29, trouble started to brew when a local Bengali Md Osman of Saheb Sardar para of South Asalang in Taindong was attacked by 5 to 6 miscreants in the middle of the night. The miscreants beat him up before leaving the place.
Although Osman or his family are not able to recognize the assailants the story that spread like wildfire all over Taindong was that it was an indigenous terrorist who had attacked him. Consequently, thousands of people from different parts of Matiranga were agitated and demanded the highest punishment for the attacker.
A day later, on July 31 around 11:30pm announcements were made on loudspeakers that indigenous miscreants were preparing to attack the Bengali villages. Consequently they brought out a procession in Taindong chanting slogans such as, ‘Bangalider kichhu hole jolbe agun ghore ghore’ (Homes will be on fire if anything happens to Bengalis) and shantibahinir astana jaliye dao, puriye dao‘ (Burn the Shantibahini’s den, set it on fire).
In the meantime, a group of people affiliated with all political parties started cashing in on the incident. The agitators tried to move towards two indigenous villages- Headman Para and Boga Para, but stopped when Bengalis requested them to be patient.
Panicked, the indigenous people fled the troubled area to the nearest border – a no man’s land at Jolaya BSF camp. That night the attackers were not able to come to the ethnic villages but the hate speeches continued on August 1 and 2.
The Imam of Battali Shahi Jame Masjid, Khalilur Rahman, confirmed that the microphone of different mosques had been used on that day. Local people from Battali confirmed that the mosque’s microphone was used by MD Rubel of Majhpara, who is also general secretary of Taindang union chapter of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of Awami League.
On August 2, Major Shihabuddin Shoaib, zone commander of Zamini Para Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) called a meeting with the indigenous and the Bebgalis in the BGB camp. During the meeting he assured the ethnic people that as long as he wore the uniform no one would harm them. He told the Star, “We requested them to inform us if they needed any kind of help because crossing the border is not a solution.”
Next morning on August 3, Bengalis from Tanakka Para informed the indigenous people that a motorbike driver Kamal Hossain of Battali, Taindong had been abducted allegedly by indigenous terrorists. It was the spark to ignite the inferno.
Kamal is a leader of Taindang’s ward 4 chapter of Jatiyatabadi Jubadal, youth wing of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Bengalis from Para, requested the indigenous people to help them to find Kamal. Union parishad councillor Phoni Bhushon Chakma, Bokul Bikash Chakma and Supayon Chakma from Boga Para rushed to the place called Crossing where Bengalis gathered to rescue Kamal.
The same day a procession led by former chairman MD Siraj and different political leaders went on to the nearby Panichari and mobilised a big gang to attack the ethnic community.
Bokul Bikash Chakma recalls, “When we arrived at Crossing agitators threatened us and framed a time limit of one hour to give him back. They repeatedly warned that unless we give him back, our households would be demolished and set on fire.”
Behind the Scenes
Many indigenous people believe that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party backed former Member of Parliament (MP) Wadud Bhuiyan deliberately aggravated the tense situation in Khagrachari. During his reign he started reforming the political arena of hill tracts. To run his vision successfully he formed a Bengali organization SOA (Sama Odhikar Andolan, Equal Rights Movement). The members of the organisation become more powerful since it was headed by the MP himself.
The local Benglali and indegenious people confirm that there is significant evidence that he has conducted countless harassment, such as covering up land-grabbing cases, causing delays in prosecution of rape cases, delaying approval of development projects, and so on.
Since then acts of repression have become a common phenomena in Khagrachhari. Moreover local Bengalis admit that many members of the Bengali community are involved in different criminal activities. And to get rid of criminal allegations they used to hide dead bodies in the indigenous villages.
While referring to the situation Union parishad councillor Phoni Bhushon Chakma says, “In Khagrachhari we have been victims of rumours for years. I believe it is a conspiracy to uproot us from our land. And for that reason they try their best to make us perpetrators of any crime. And the rumour of attacks by the ethnic people continues. This kind of stories gives birth to incidents like that in Taindong.”
On August 29 an unidentified dead body of a Bengali was recovered from Jharnatila area in Tabalchari-Panchari road the incident blowing up tensions among Bengalis at Taindang. The bottled up anger became a catalyst to establish such rumours as the truth leading to the attack on the villages.
The Khagrachhari police confirm the Star that they found the perpetrators and they are all Bengalis. Officer-in Charge (OC) of Khagrachari Sadar Police Station, Mostafizur Rahman Tells the Star, “We found his name and identification. And now we are pretty sure that some of his friends were involved with the killing. But we cannot divulge more since the investigation is still going on.”
The Osman story is directly linked with Khash land believes Major Shihabuddin Shoaib. Osman lives in a government-owned Khash land. For the last few years he is having problems with his neighbour, “From our investigation we found that on the night of August 29 he was attacked by the Bengalis and we informed the Police. We hope they will take action against it.”
The indigenous people believe that Kamal is a part of the drama that was staged mainly to grab the cultivable and liveable lands from the ethnic people. On condition of anonymity a close associate of Kamal sayes that it was when some miscreants demanded extortion money from him, he made a plan to get ri9d of them.
However allegations by indigenous people found that to make the case more political most of the accused Awami League backed leaders have been omitted from the police case. While filing the case some of names have been ignored such as MD Rubel. Local Bengalis claimed he has a good relations with the union parishad chairman Md Tazul Islam and that is why he gets this privilege. Humayun Kabir, who lead the mob in torching the indigenous villages and was one of the prime perpetrators, has also not been included in the case.
Awami League backed chairman of the union parishad, Md Tazul Islam believes that the scale of the attack indicates that it was pre-planned. However, he brushed aside all the allegations and said, “Awami League leaders work for the ethnic people, they do not harm any of them.”
The Drama Continue
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord 1997 was supposed to bring peace among the hilly people. Sadly, the story of land grabbing and subsequent violence has been prevalent in the area since the signing of the accord. The conflict between Bengali and Hilly people is mostly rooted around land, its ownership and possession.
The huge resource in the hilly area attracted the then British government around 1870. They declared the area as reserved and consequently jum cultivation was prohibited around 800,000 acres of land. Thus, people were forced to move deeper into the hilly areas. Later, the 1900 Chittagong Regulation granted the ethnic people right over their land, however, keeping the 800,000 acres still reserved.
Since ages, a feudal system has prevailed in the ethnic community pertaining to the management of lands, forests, grasslands, grazing lands, jum lands and water bodies. The British government carried out a brief research to build a dam on the up stream of Karnaphuli in Rangamati dictrict in 1906. But the whole construction was completed by the Pakistan government in 1962.
The giant dam covered 220 km of cultivable land and consequently displaced 18,000 families. It was the beginning of the continuous human rights violations against the ethnic communities, since most of the displaced people did not get any government support.
Protim Roy Pampu, a lawyer and an independent researcher shows it has been the policy of the Pakistani government to turn a non-Muslim majority populated areas into Muslim-majority populated areas, which was supported by the different governments after independence. The recent violence is a continuous part of this pushing Bengalis into the hilly area. At least four lakh Bengalis were pushed into the CHT during the reign of President Ziaur Rahman. In 1991, the census revealed, Bengalis comprised half of the population in CHT and adjoining areas such as Teknaf.
The ethnic people enjoyed their rights over land from ancient times, but from British period till Bangladesh was born, they have been deprived and their lands were seized by the Bengalis with direct assistance of Bangladesh army.
Unfortunately, the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 and the following establishment of Land Commission failed to solve the land related problems in the hilly area. According to a Daily Star report Published in May, the commission chair Justice Khademul Islam and the representative of Chittagong division commissioner Nurul Islam, who is an additional commissioner, were present for the hearing of 48 land dispute cases but they postponed the hearing due to quorum crisis. Moreover, according to Land Commission report at least 5,000 applications for resolving land disputes have been filed with the commission and it has sorted out 3,000 for hearing. Among them 48 were finalised for the first hearing.
Pampu neither blames Bengali nor Hilly people for the incident, but he believes it is the government who is more reluctant to resolve the problem.