Safeguarding land rights in the CHT
Before you book your trip to a shiny hotel down at the Sajek Valley, make sure you know if that is standing upon Bangladesh’s founding contradiction. Yes, I am talking about the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land crisis. If America’s foundational contradiction was slavery, Bangladesh’s foundational contradiction is CHT, and the crisis continues to this day. The US was founded upon the bold idea that “all men are created equal” but still failed to extend the equality to the slaves until 200 years later.
The same way, the Bangladeshi national liberation movement that was born out of the demands for recognition of non-dominant cultural identity and regional autonomy failed to extend the same rights to the more than 42 non-Bengali indigenous communities living in Bangladesh after our independence. Just like the first US constitution failed to mention the property rights of the slaves, our first constitution failed to mention the cultural rights of the indigenous communities.
When British colonialists first came into the CHT region, they disregarded the customary practices of the indigenous people, regarded their land as terra nullius (nobody’s land), and almost all their land was taken under state ownership.
These lands could be taken back at the will of the state and settled or leased to anyone else under colonial regulations. Due to such a legal classification of the common lands, the indigenous people of CHT became squatters on their own ancestral lands. And they fought back like any other desperate people would.
However, the re-establishment of democracy in Bangladesh brought new hope for a multi-cultural, decentralized Bangladesh. This hope resulted in the signing of the 1997 peace accords between the Government of Bangladesh and the indigenous peoples’ organization PCJSS. This accord was a great step forward, although not enough.
CHTPA was generally seen as a great step towards peace. It promised the restoration and protection of the indigenous people’s land rights, the revival of cultural identities, and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people. It also promised the withdrawal of the military from CHT (with the exception of permanent military establishments) and self-governance for the region through regional and district councils.
But decades since the treaty, not much has improved. The Forest Department has proposed to expand state forest areas by acquiring the USF lands on which the indigenous communities reside. In such a scenario, the expansion of state forests necessarily entails the loss of lands. This kind of forced afforestation programs by the Forest Department are typically supported by international donor agencies. The programs violate the land rights of the IP and result in the eviction of thousands of people from their settlements. From 1979, the government started to award leaseholds to private entities for setting up rubber and other commercial plantations and enterprises from the common lands of the IP in USF areas, treating the land as state-owned land according to the aged colonial designation.
The people who were awarded these leases were members of the influential Bengali elite, most of whom did not reside in the CHT. Many of them have now built resorts and hotels in the region that the tourists often reside in.
So what about those settler Bengalis we keep hearing about who fight with the indigenous communities and burn down their houses? They are only the tip of the iceberg. They are also poor, landless farmers who are often artificially put into the region.
In reality, both of the parties lose. People from both sides die as they fight to protect their land, liberty, and property. Along with them, people from law enforcement and the military also die while getting the whole blame for the crisis. Who benefits the most from land-grabbing in the meanwhile? It is a question worth asking. It is the old British doctrine of divide and rule.
When the British played this trick, it didn’t work, but when the Bangladesh government did, it worked. Let us be reminded of the history of injustice inflicted upon that region and be inspired to act upon the guilt. It is of paramount importance that we start a campaign, both with Bangali and non-Bangali support, to make sure that the first step is taken as soon as possible so that nobody can take these lands anymore. We have caused much damage to the little diversity that we have. Let’s not do so anymore.
No nation is born perfect. It is upon the citizens of a nation to not only uphold the founding morals of that nation, but to expand upon them and finding ways to make them even firmer.
Anupam Debashis Roy is an editor and organizer of Muktiforum. Reach out to him at [email protected]