Water drenched, tropical sweat-soaked while celebrating Songkrant festival just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, my phone started getting clogged with alarming news coming from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Another arson attack, another settler versus indigenous clash and henceforth more deaths, another authority-backed violent incident in our country, another media outcry that doesn’t tell all the stories.
The tension first escalated in Khagrachari district on 14 April between a group of Bangali settlers occupying and trying to plant crops on areas within the Marma Jumma’s ancestral lands. Some termed it ‘disputed’ land, in the case of which, both Marmas and Bangalis are to resist from plantation and Bangalis went ahead and broke the order. They set out large arson attacks and cleared forests, while crops and rations burnt. In retaliation, the Jummas sought help from the authorities, in vain. Communal attacks like this are nothing new in southeastern Bangladesh, and the fact that the Marma people, along with the greater indigenous community, could not even properly conclude their Sanghraing festival is no surprise either.
The traditional Shongkranti festival usually consists of three days. For the Chakma and Tanchangya, the 1st day is the day for Phul (flower) Bizu; the 2nd one is for the Mul (main) Bizu and the last day for the Gojyapojya (literally ‘rolling on the ground’ in fun and frolic) Bizu. Different communities celebrate the same fest at the same time: Chakmas call it Bizu, Tanchangyas call it Bishu, Tripuras call it Boishukh or Boishu, and Marmas call it Sanghraing. Thais call it Songkrant, while the Assamese call it Bihu. All are perhaps rooted in ‘Bishubo Shongkranti’, the constellation centring on ‘Bishubo’, heralding the end of a year and the beginning of another in South and Southeast Asian calendars.
Somewhat like in Thailand, the CHT peoples relate the event to cleansing of Buddha images, bathing of elders, offering of vegetarian food, traditional rice wine and rice beer. The Marmas — like Thais and Burmese — throw water at each other in festive gatherings, usually mocking battles between the two sexes. Buddhist monasteries throng with devotees — presenting robes, flowers and food offerings.
* * *
Meantime, at Jaliapara, Bangali settlers were allegedly stopping every vehicle and looking for indigenous people. First few news reports said, amongst others, that senior government official Jyoti Ranjan Chakma was taken off a bus there and severely beaten up. Reports from Manikchari said that almost all the houses of the indigenous people on both sides of the Chittagong-Khagrachari highway between Manickchari upazilla headquarters and Jaliapara were looted and most of the houses were burnt.
No violence is a strict rule of concern during these festivities and such were the ironic realities! In the spirit of goodwill, peace and respect, the Chakmas and Tanchangyas do not allow even eating meat during their open-house-for-all celebration, so as to symbolise washing away of all defilements. What a tragic twist of fate!
Debates set ablaze on blogs and other internet platforms. Most being sympathetic towards the gruesome chain of massacres on the very day of Bangla New Year — a similar calendar also followed in Myanmar, Thailand and Nepal. Others defended — that only after three Bengali settlers were killed on 17 April, allegedly by Jumma people — settlers looted surrounding indigenous villages and injured people, burning at least 60 homes — so as to justify their crimes.
Indigenous sources say they informed the local authorities, and of course the army, which has a heavy presence in the area of the settlers’ movements, but like all the other times, they failed or refused to act on the information. It was only then that they had to act, in defence of their lives and property, when the authorities had clearly failed or refused to act on their behalf.
All of the above, again — nothing new. A sense of a never-ending déjà vu.
* * *
Photos of Buddhist temples burning and Buddha statues smashed to the ground went around on facebook. Similar photos jammed the cyber in February 2011 in Longadu, in February 2010 in Baghaihat and August 2008 in Sajek. I couldn’t help but picture a parallel scenario. On 14th April, what would have happened if, while we were singing and celebrating Bangla Naba Barsha at Ramna Batamul, and in place of that Temple, a Mosque was burning in Dhaka? What would be the consequences had some indigenous people set fire to our praying space on our new year’s day?
In no form do I support acts of violence, whoever it is aimed against. I was taught as a child that destroying or disrespecting a mosque or any other praying space has unimaginable consequences, whether you believe in God or no God, sins, karma, heaven and hell, or consecutive incarnations! The karma of destroying Buddha statues — not once, twice or thrice, but many a times — shall come back thousand fold. Even though, in this case, karma does not seem to travel that fast — at least not for minorities or the most marginalised — in a Muslim majority country.
In that light, it is crucial to identify that time and again, we, the Bangalis, have been destroying and looting others’ prayer spaces, on top of the hideous genocide committed on our own people. Of course not all Bangalis are necessarily Muslims, and not all Bangalis — Muslim or of other or no spiritual belief or tradition — are necessarily settlers. Amongst settlers, there are the government-sponsored ones, and there are the settlers who are naturally migrated inhabitants of CHT. Not all settlers are the villains. Not all settlers are murderers. Not all settlers take advantage of the security forces’ courtesy of the government.
The sad problem that remains with our Bangali Nationhood is that 40 years down our Independence, we still have not been able to establish an ethnically neutral state. The concept of multicultural pluralism does not exist in our dictionary. Yet when international cricket matches take place, our international airport lobbies proudly boast pictures of colourful indigenous women happily working in the field, with convenient labels by the Bangladesh Tourism Board gallantly proclaiming “Smiling Indigenous Women of Bangladesh’’. Even after our honourable MPs deny issuance of their just recognition they have been screaming out loud for the last four decades, and refuse to call them ‘Adibashi.’
* * *
Survival International reported on 21st April that, “The army and police allegedly refused to allow a relief team, carrying supplies for the Jummas, to visit the affected areas. Mr. Rabi Shankar Talukder who was leading the relief team, said, ‘They want the victims to die without food and shelter’.” On April 23, CHTNews reported that the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari, Anisul Haq Bhuian, refused to allow relief materials to be distributed among Ramgarh victims, saying that “No unofficial relief activity can be carried out in the area.” On 21 April, Sukriti Jiban Chakma, a Jumma leader, called on Dipankar Talukder, State Minister of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs, while the latter was on a visit to Ramgarh, and raised the issue of relief distribution with him. The Minister told him that there was no restriction on distribution of relief to the victims by non-government organizations and ordered the DC and SP, who were present there, to provide necessary help in this regard. Yet, the DC continued to refuse any relief material distribution made by the Jumma organizations. This is clear violation of basic human rights and humanitarian norms.
If this is not the perfect example of systematic racial cleansing, then what is?
We urge our government to speed up its efforts into implementing the 1997 ‘Peace’ Accord that it had signed 14 years ago. No, there is probably no Nobel Peace prize or UNESCO Award guaranteed in exchange of that (PM Sheikh Hasina got a UNESCO Award for signing the 1997 Peace Accord), but maybe it will help gain back some of the respect and trust ordinary citizens had bestowed upon this government whose major component, the Awami League, had promised clearly in its 20-point election manifesto: to fully implement the CHT Peace Accord and to safeguard the rights of Adibashis and minorities groups.
More so, we demand a thorough, independent and impartial investigation done on the recent carnages. Several Jummas still remain missing, some thought to have fled into the jungle and some feared dead. As long as security forces are there in hundreds of temporary camps outside of the specified cantonments – they may continue to serve as nothing but direct ammunitions for intimidation and discrimination and a safe sense of home will elude the CHT. Therefore, the withdrawal of some 400 temporary army camps in the area, which has been allowing the advancement of Bangali settlers onto indigenous land, rather than preventing it, is mandatory.
The more time we allow for these conspiracies to thrive, the more damage we are doing as a State in whole to our combined entity. Violence in one area will almost inherently trigger revenge attacks elsewhere. Let us not, as a Nation, wait for that doomsday.
Wasfia Nazreen is a development practitioner, a multi-disciplinary researcher and a member of DRISHTIPAT Writers’ Collective.