Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT): Overview


The Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) is a region in Bangladesh that has seen significant amount of conflict and human rights violations in the recent past. The region comprises an area of 5093 square miles and it constitutes 10 percent of the total area of Bangladesh (Guhathakurta, 2012, p. 190). The area is also a border region, with parts of its territory bordering with two countries, India and Myanmar. The CHT region lies in the southeastern part of Bangladesh (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). It is home to eleven different communities. The CHT region is also otherwise known as the homeland of the Jumma people (Gilbert, 2007, p. 269). The word ‘Jumma’ is derived from the farming practices of the Hill peoples, which is called as Jum farming or slash and burn farming. As such, the term ‘Jumma’ has come to become a term used for the collective identity of all the indigenous Hill peoples of the CHT region. The term is also important because it has come to signify a new sense of identity and being for the Hill peoples of CHT region (Guhathakurta, 2012, p. 193). The unique aspect about this collective identity is that it comprises different communities, whose commonality is that they are all Hill peoples. This commonality and the common resistance to repression has enabled the creation of the new Jumma identity which actually transcends over issues of language and culture for the indigenous communities of CHT region (Guhathakurta, 2012).

The CHT region is an area for which the discourse on marginalisation is historically established (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). The region was annexed by the British after which a separate hill district was created in 1860. At the time, the government made three divisions of circles within the district, these being, Bohmong, Mong, and the Chakma circle. These divisions continue to be of relevance even today. The CHT has three districts divided into sub-districts, which are twenty-six in number. The lowest division is the villages that are about 4811 from 375 Mouzas and 21 unions. The 21 unions’ generation is from seven municipal councils (Naba, 2016).

The history of the region in the recent past has been one of conflict between indigenous peoples and the state. This has also involved human rights violations. Issues of marginalisation, displacement, change in livelihood patterns have all been at the centre of the conflict.

Licence: Flat

History of Marginalisation

The history of marginalization within the CHT is seen from the colonial period onwards, when the Chakma, Bohmang and Mong Chiefs were given recognition by the British and the other local chiefs were excluded from such recognition, leading to marginalization of the other local chiefs (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). The CHT region is also unique because of the distinct cultures present here as represented by different Hill communities. However, race, ethinicity and religion, which were the distinct characteristics of the Hill communities, became the factors of marginalization for them over a period of time. Research shows that the lands of the communities suffered destruction through invasions on jhum farming (slash and burn), and also the construction of the Kaptai dam (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). When CHT became a part of Pakistan, the Pakistani government too projected the Hill peoples, with their distinct culture, race and ethnicities, as ‘primitive’ or ‘nomads’ or those who are anti-‘development’ (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). A number of developmental projects were carried on by the Pakistani government in this region, but these projects are all characterized by the total or near complete exclusion of the Hill people (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). When CHT region was promoted under tourism projects, a further erosion of its demographic profile took place with the incoming of Bengalis and westerners for the implementation of the projects (Van Schendel, Mey, & Dewan, 2000). The tourism projects also led to the disturbance or destruction of the local habitats and ecology of the region.

The basic problem of marginalisation in the region stems from reasons or factors that are racial, linguistic and ethnic. These differences arise between the Hill tribes on one side and the Bengali speaking mainland populations on the other. Marginalisation in CHT stemmed from the gradual but deep penetration by the bureaucratic, political, economic, cultural and military forces into the CHT region. This led to the destruction of the cultures and identity of the Hill peoples or the Jumma people (Chakma, 2010). Finally, this led to a demand for autonomy by the Jumma people. Due to the increasing armed nature of the struggle by the Jumma people, the state also responded with the use of force leading to a situation of ethnocide in the region, with the state actively pursuing the Jumma people (Chakma, 2010).

In the 1970s, due to the policy of population transfer and the change in land law allowing sale and transfer of Jumma lands to non-indigenous peoples, a struggle began by the Jumma people against the military forces of Bangladesh (Gilbert, 2007, p. 269). The struggle was rooted in the perceived and real marginalisation of the Jumma people, where the central issue was that of land. The struggle was based on two principal demands: first, the land taken by the Jumma people must be returned to the Jumma people who had been forced to seek refuge in India; and second, to recognise the tribal rights of ownership of the Jumma people (Gilbert, 2007). The struggle lasted nearly 23 years, after which, a Peace Accord was signed between the government and the JSS.

Peace Accord 1997

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord was signed in 1997. The Peace Accord was signed as between the government of Bangladesh with the Parbottyo Chattagram Jan Samhati Samiti (also known as PCJSS or JSS) (Guhathakurta, 2012, p. 191). The Peace Accords came after years of conflict and it was aimed at ending the conflict and also granting certain benefits to the indigenous people of the CHT region, who had been marginalised so far (Jamil & Panday, 2008).

The Peace Accord itself sought to establish certain measures by which the land rights of the Jumma people were to be ensured of protection. First, the Accord established the CHT Regional Council. This Council was to control all leases, sales and transfer of land within the CHT region. A Land Commission was also to be established by the Accord. As per Article D.4 of the Accord, a Land Commission was to be appointed under the leadership of a retired Justice. The principal task of the Commission was to determine the legality of land ownership and the decision of the Commission was to be final and non-appealable. The Land Commission was established in 2000, but the work done by it is largely unsatisfactory as far as setting aside of leases given to non-indigenous people is concerned (Gilbert, 2007, p. 270). Years after the Peace Accord was formulated, the question still remains as to how far the accord has been successful in achieving its aims with respect to the indigenous people.

A study that sought to answer the question found that the Peace Accord has largely failed to achieve its aim (Jamil & Panday, 2008). The study also suggested that the accord has not been successful in providing measures of protection for the indigenous communities of the CHT region. The harassment of the communities continues at the hands of the law enforcement agencies and Bengali settlers (Jamil & Panday, 2008). There are intra-group rivalry and conflicts and the communities report fragmentation. The economy of the CHT is not sound and human development indicators remain dismal, including in the healthcare and education sectors (Jamil & Panday, 2008).

Another research study by the same authors concerns itself with the level of implementation of the Peace Accord (Panday & Jamil, 2009). The study identifies the top-down approach and nature of the Peace Accord, which may be to blame for the gaps in loopholes in the implementation of the Accord (Panday & Jamil, 2009).

The gendered aspects of the nature of the conflict have also been a source of academic interest and concern (Guhathakurta, 2012). Women in the CHT have also had to negotiate conflict. Women who had to negotiate with new roles in the absence of men, also came to be politically organised in the 1980s. The Hill Women’s Federation, which came into being in the 1980s, was a very active forum for women’s struggle against conflict in their region (Guhathakurta, 2012).

Religion is a very important factor for conflict in CHT region. As such, the Muslim population is predominant in Bangladesh, with at least 88.4% of the total population being Muslims. Populations from other religions are minorities with Hindu at 10.7%, Buddhists at 0.7%, and Christians at approximately 0.5% (Anudeep, 2016). Religion became a source of conflict, primarily between the Muslims and Hindus, when the British government used religion to divide Bengal in 1905. West Bengal in India with a majority of Hindu population, and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) with a majority of Muslim population were divided by the British government (Anudeep, 2016). The CHT region consists of many communities, and these communities have their distinct culture and languages. The issues of displacement and marginalisation are deeply related to the question of ethnicities and language.

Land, Displacement, Migration and Marginalisation

Of the total land in CHT region, which comprises of 5093 square miles, only 3.1 percent is suited for agricultural cultivation, 18.7 percent is suited for horticulture and 72 percent for the purposes of forestry (Guhathakurta, 2012, p. 190). The people of the region derive their livelihoods largely from the land.

Land and the rights deriving from land ownership, or the deprival of land ownership, emerge as recurrent themes in the literature surrounding the CHT discourse. The indigenous people of the CHT region have suffered displacement and at times forced migration and this places the issue of land rights in the centre of the discourse on CHT communities and their marginalisation (Roy, 2000).

At the time when the British ruled over the CHT, the sale or transfer of land to non-indigenous people was prohibited (Gilbert, 2007, p. 269). The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900, section 34 specifically prohibited the sale or transfer of land to non-indigenous people. In 1958, the relevant provisions of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900, were amended through the Chittagong (Land Acquisition) Amendment Act 1958. This finally allowed the sale and transfer of the Jumma land to non-indigenous people (Gilbert, 2007, p. 269). In 1971, when Bangladesh became an independent state, the government followed a deliberate policy of population transfer from the plains to the hills in order to create an assimilated and homogenous Bengali society. The result of the policy was that in the period between 1958 to 1991, the Bengali speaking population in CHT region went from just 9 percent to 49 percent (Gilbert, 2007).

Land issues were the central driving point for the demand of autonomy from the CHT Hill communities from the state of Bangladesh. The struggle for autonomy for the CHT peoples began in the 1970s. Three major causes for the demand were: land issues, transfer of Bengali speaking populations from the plains, and the gradual control over the administration by the non-residents or non-indigenous peoples in the CHT region (Guhathakurta, 2012). The issue of non-indigenous people settling in CHT region is one that has been particularly thorny for the Hill communities and the programmes of assimilation with the non-indigenous people also led to the compounding of the problem (Guhathakurta, 2012). The change in population demographics of the CHT region, with the Bengali speaking people gradually outnumbering individual communities of the region, led to the indigenous ethnic people becoming outsiders (Uddin, 2008).

One study used empirical research during the period from 1998 to 2002 to identify the causes of the poverty of the Pahari people in the CHT (Adnan, 2004). The issues that were studied with particular emphasis were migration, land alienation, and ethnic conflict. The study identified certain state policies that have also contributed to the growing displacement and poverty amongst the hill people of CHT (Adnan, 2004). The many factors that were identified as responsible for leading to migration and poverty for the people of the region, were the Kaptai Dam project, counter-insurgency operations and the forced transmigration of Bengali settlers (Adnan, 2004). The study found that despite the 1997 peace accord poverty, resentment, and disillusionment among the hill people had continue to operate (Adnan, 2004).

These minorities are discriminated and have their rights violated by the majority. It is evident especially with the laws of the land such as the 1951 act on the East Bengal evacuees and the 1972 property resting order of Bangladesh (Anudeep, 2016).

Diversification of Livelihood Activities of the Jumma people

The Jumma people have traditionally relied on the land to create livelihood for themselves. The principal source of their livelihood has been subsistence farming where through shifting cultivation, Jumma people have been able to create sustainability for their livelihoods (Nath, Inoue, & Myant, 2005). Another source of livelihood for the people in the CHT region has been the forest. The Bangladeshi government created a number of participatory forestry (PF) measures since the early 1980s (Nath & Inoue, 2010). The programmed of PF on livelihoods of ethnic people had varying impacts (Nath & Inoue, 2010). Finally, it was also found that PF projects were by themselves not sufficient to conserve and develop forests. What was needed was that the basic needs of food and income for people had to be met (Nath & Inoue, 2010). Over dependence of forests has however, contributed to the forests and arable land degradation (Uddin, 2013, 97-102). At the same time, research also blames government policy and programmes for the degradation of forests (Rasul, 2007).

The construction of the Kaptai dam for hydroelectric power also had massive implications on the arable areas for cultivation, thereby impacting the rights to livelihood of the indigenous populations of CHT region. About forty percent of the arable land immersing into the water has a great economic depression implication. The ecological and the massive environmental damages displacing over a hundred thousand people was an irreparable harm (van Schendel, 2001).

Sustainable Livelihood Framework

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework can be seen as a tool that can be utilised by the development agencies in their tasks of planning and assessing development interventions (Parkinson & Ramirez, 2007). The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework focusses on how people strategically employ resources available to them for the purpose of forging livelihoods (Parkinson & Ramirez, 2007). The tool also helps to assess the development interventions with respect to available resources and the manner in which people interact with the resources (Parkinson & Ramirez, 2007). In DFID’s framework, there are five types of assets, which are, human, social, physical, natural and financial and these are structured as corners of a pentagon, which depicts how the assets are inter-related (DFID, 2001).

The practice of shifting cultivation has continued in the CHT region despite the productivity levels dwindling (Nath, Inoue, & Chakma, 2005). An empirical study in the Khagrachari district of the CHT, found that productivity in the region had declined and farmers were faced with food shortages for at least two to six months in a year (Nath, Inoue, & Chakma, 2005). In the search for livelihood, farmers have now shifted to wage labour, animal husbandry, cultivation of annual monocrops and extraction and selling of forest products (Nath, Inoue, & Chakma, 2005). The study finds that the alternative sources of livelihoods that the government should now be coming out with have eluded the farmers in the CHT region (Nath, Inoue, & Chakma, 2005).

The literature review shows that there is some literature on history of marginalization and displacement of the indigenous people in the CHT region. However, most of this literature is situated in the period between 2000 to 2008. There is a paucity of research in the last 5 years or so. In this period, there may have been more changes in the livelihood patterns of the Jumma peoples. These need to be studied in depth.



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