Putting the Accord into Practice: More Pain than Pleasure?

by Imtiaz Ahmed

The Accord between the government and the PCJSS is now 2 years 7 months old. This may not be a lot of time for realizing all the provisions of the Accord and that again in full, but it does provide a reasonable span of time for reflecting on the areas of success and failure of the Accord till date. Before taking those up in some length, let me take recourse to some generalities surrounding the Accord. I will limit myself to three.

Firstly, the changed circumstances. There has been a remarkable change in so far as the subject matter of CHT is concerned. While the topic of CHT at one point of time was a taboo and then for a brief period of time "closed door," it is now fully open for public discussion, debate and even consultancy! In fact, in September 1991 when I first wrote a piece in the Ajker Kagoj titled “Limitations of the Modern State: The Chakma Question,” the Editor of the newspaper waited one whole week before publishing my paper. The Editor later told me that he was bit worried as to how the military and the government would react to the views expressed in the said article since the subject matter was still a taboo. But that was 1991.

In December 1994, I was invited by the Military Staff College to present a keynote paper on a theme related to the issue of CHT. Since it was closed door, no journalists were allowed to attend or participate in the conference. Even as late as February 1997, only one Bangalee Bangladeshi (and that again, for reasons of residency more than anything else) participated in the International Conference on CHT in Bangkok. The entire Bangladeshi delegation could not participate in the conference since they were refused visa by the Thai Embassy, incidentally for reasons of alleged pressure brought upon on the latter by the government of Bangladesh. Since the signing of the Accord, however, things have changed for the better. People are now openly debating and seriously researching and writing on CHT. The changed circumstances must be appreciated and kept alive for all time, indeed, for other things as well.

Secondly, the issue of CHT is a civilizational one. Not in the manner Nirad C. Chowdhury or Huntington have used the term but more in the sense of modern civilization being structurally limited in appreciating and accepting differences. This is clearly marked in the divisive nature of the modern national state, with people more often constructed and divided into majority and minority communities. An all-time resolution of the CHT issue will no doubt benefit Bangladesh but at the time will also have implications beyond, particularly in modern post-colonial South Asia which is so much periled by the forces of majoritarianism and communalism.

Finally, implementing the Accord is no less difficult than the signing of the Accord. One is almost reminded here of T.S. Eliot: Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow. The longer and blacker is the "shadow" the longer will it take to implement the Accord. A sense of urgency is required to fulfil the provisions of the Accord lest the momentum is lost through inaction and deferring, both having remarkable qualities in extending the shadow and upsetting whatever limited success it has up until now.

It is against this background that the performance of the Accord or the lack of it will be judged, beginning with the areas of “success” and "relative success” to areas of “stalemate and contention.”

A. Success Areas

  1. Return of the Refugees: The conflict in the CHT produced several thousand refugees over time, all taking refuge in the Tripura State of India. All of them – that is, some 70,000 of them – have now returned to the CHT. The return, however, began in 1994, resumed in March 1997 and fully completed following the signing of the present Accord. Repatriation of the refugees could not have been completed so smoothly and peacefully, however, without the Accord. Refugees also were eager to return and there are good reasons for this.

    The bulk of the refugees were living in miserable conditions in refugee camps in Tripura. In fact, they were given “a daily ration of 400 grams rice, 15 grams of salt, and a dole of 20 paise per day.” One Indian weekly, Frontline, once commented that “financially the refugees’ presence on Indian soil has cost the government a relatively small amount – Rs. 45 crore in about eight years, that is, on the average yearly Rs 5.6 crore!” It is not very difficult to see now why India was able to sustain the cost of sheltering the Pahari refugees quite easily, indeed, without international, including UNHCR, support. Moreover, refugee children were not allowed to take Tripura’s madhyamik examination, and this further eroded whatever soft feeling the refugees had for the host country. Put differently, the refugees returned en masse almost at the first instance of a political settlement and a promise of peace in the CHT.

  2. Surrender of Arms: Some 2000 PCJSS armed guerrillas (also known as Shanti Bahinis) surrendered. They also formally deposited weapons of various kinds, including automatic rifles. Not all weapons had “governmental” stamp, whether of India or some other countries. Most of the weapons used by the Shanti Bahini were locally made or were purchased in the black market. Given the menace of small arms proliferation in the region this is no surprise. This also implies that the disaffected members and the wrongdoers will face little difficulty in equipping themselves with arms and ammunitions should a need arise for violence and coercive interventions.

    Reports already indicate that not all Pahari guerrillas have surrendered their weapons. There are also instances of the more sophisticated weapons going underground! This is not very difficult to verify, as some of the post-Accord conflicts, particularly those between the pro-Accord PCJSS and anti-Accord UPDF, had been armed and violent. The incident of 12 December 1999 where armed members of UPDF attacked and killed a PCJSS member and again, the incident of 8 March 2000 where armed members of PCJSS ambushed and killed a UPDF member amply demonstrate the ready and almost free use of weapons. But this in all fairness has more to do with small arms proliferation in the region than a deliberate sponsorship of (illegal) arms or inversely, the lack of will to contain the use of (illegal) weapons on the part of the government.

B. Areas of Relative Success

  1. Rehabilitation: This involves three groups of people: (i) The rehabilitation of the refugees; (ii) The rehabilitation of the PCJSS members; and (iii) The rehabilitation of IDPs (internally displaced persons). In so far as rehabilitation is concerned, the difference between the first two groups is very important. As per Section Gha, Article 16, para Ka of the Accord, only “repatriated members of PCJSS will be given Taka 50,000 in cash at a time for their rehabilitation.” No amount has been fixed for the refugees. Rather, they have been provided (!) with a rehabilitation package, which included some cash money and tin to build a house, a bullock and ration for a fixed period of time. The very fact that the Accord failed to mention the contents of the rehabilitation package, including the amount to be spent, created some misgivings amongst the refugees, the latter found themselves at a different plane from the returnee PCJSS members. Some refugees also complained of not getting the rehabilitation package in full. More problematic has been the issue of IDPs or “internally displaced persons.” Recently, some pro-Accord Hill members, including the Honorable Minister Mr. Kaplaranjan Chakma and the Chairman of the Task Force for Refugees Mr. Dipankar Talukdar, indicated that the IDPs in the CHT include both Hill (some 60, 000 of them) and Bengali members. Opinion, however, is sharply divided on the inclusion of the latter in the ranks of IDPs. Those opposed to the Accord, including a section of the PCJSS, find the inclusion of the Bengalis unacceptable and think of it as something of a sell-out to hegemonic Bengali forces and the government.
  2. Local governance or Regional Autonomy: Some progress has been made in this respect. Its implementation apparently includes the birth of two institutions. One, the Regional Council; and two, the Ministry of CHT Affairs. If the Regional Council has been subject to some delays, formed only last year in May 1999, the Ministry is still without an "Advisory Committee" and a proper set of functions. More importantly, however, both the institutions till date remain highly governmentalized. The second one is understandable, whereas the first one remains “handicapped” more for the reason of governmental appointment (despite a free hand given to the PCJSS Chief, Shantu Larma, following his appointment in "selecting" most of the members of the Council) and lack of democratic participation and elections. Put differently, the governmentalization of regional autonomy not only runs contrary to the notion of autonomy but also sets out to rob the region of autonomous development. But that is not all. A noted retired member of the judiciary once told me that the problem lies with our inability to understand the very concept of autonomy! It is no wonder that some of us (in the case of CHT, the UPDF in particular) even go on to use the word “full autonomy” as if “autonomy” can be divided into halves or one-thirds! It may be noted that the word “autonomy” first came in vogue in 1623 - some 12 years after the word "independent" (1611) and some 17 years before the word “independence” (1640) came to be used in public. The interchangeability in its meaning and content, particularly in so far as "self-government" or "self-governing" is concerned, has continued since then. This has blurred both action and intent, not only of those demanding it but also of those from whom the demand is being filched out. For the sake of concretizing the intent and overcoming the divisiveness of modernity, it is imperative that we rethink and reinvent the concept of "autonomy." Indeed, if it is to have any meaning and practical application, the concept of autonomy has no option but to change and transform.

C. Areas of Stalemate and Contention

  1. Demilitarization: A gradual phasing out of the temporary camps has been agreed, albeit with the condition that "normal life" must prevail in the CHT. Until now only 60 or so out of more than 500 temporary army camps have been withdrawn. Demilitarization, however, is beset with two problems. Firstly, there are some logistical problems in withdrawing the military, that is, where will they be housed? Moreover, the size of the six permanent camps in the CHT (as agreed by the two parties of the Accord) has not been clearly spelled out. Those opposed to the Accord, including some members of the PCJSS, believe that the government would simply fill the permanent camps with troops from the temporary camps. Put differently, as the critics contend, CHT will continue to have the same number of troops, far outnumbering the army-civil population ratio elsewhere in the country. Secondly, and this is more of a recent development, some pro-Accord Hill members now voice in favour of keeping the army, albeit for their own protection from the armed dissenters. On this issue, the anti-Accord Hill members further point out that many of the PCJSS members now enjoy military protection and the said critics even cite the recent police escorting of some PCJSS members to a conference in Dhaka as evidence of PCJSS’ hobnobbing with the government and the military.
  2. The Issue of Land: A Land Commission, to be headed by a retired judge, has been constituted for the settlement (albeit only) of "disputed land." The work of the Commission has suffered setbacks, first by the death of the Commission's Chairman, Justice (Rtd.) Anwarul Huq and second by the unresolved issue of the status of two circle chiefs. More importantly, however, the Commission, if it is to resolve all disputes relating to lands, would in all fairness require a magic wand in the wake of the following developments:

    1. Lack of proper documentation in the hands of the displaced Hill members. This issue has been further complicated by the burning of the land records office in Khagrachari some year back.
    2. Bengali settlers, including the recent ones with land documents. Not all of these documents were legally acquired and provided by the government at the time of their settlement; some in fact got the documents by bribing the officials. Corruption in land documentation is one of the least explored areas and on this the CHT is no exception.
    3. The fate of the poor and landless Hill members has not been adequately addressed. In fact, there has been a pathetic absence of the class question, a point that was well raised by one Hill critic in the context of the rising gap between the educated urban Jummas and the less fortunate and underprivileged jum-cultivators.
    4. The recent expansion of reserved forests has created some misgivings amongst the Hill members. It may be mentioned that about one-fourth of the CHT are reserved forests and more areas are now being included in that category. In a memorandum submitted to the government by some Hill members on 10 September 1998 it was stated that 217,790.3 acres of land in the CHT have been primarily/provisionally notified as reserved forests between 1990 and 1998, of which 140,341.31 acres have been finally notified as reserved forests. The government, however, has disputed this figure, bringing down the primary/provisional notification to 208,148 acres and final notification to 116,883 acres. Whatever may be the actual figure the new reservation, as Raja Devasish Roy noted, includes "private lands registered in the office of the deputy commissioner; private homesteads; forest commons and grazing lands over which the Hill people have traditional and legal rights." This of course goes beyond the parameters of the present conflict, symbolizing more dramatically the rising conflict between population pressure and the preservation of forestry in the region.
    5. The overwhelming use of the Bengali language in legal disputes, particularly those relating to the land, poses serious problem to the (non-Bengali) Hill members. The use of the Bengali language has benefitted the Bengalis more than the Hill members when legal interpretations are required for resolving land disputes. Since “land” and “language” are culturally intertwined, lack of understanding or misuse of the latter could have serious implications for the settlement of the former.
  3. Development: This was bound to take place, and in some respect already has, following the signing of the Accord. Non-governmental organizations, both local and international, have become active following governmental withdrawal of restrictions. The euphoria, however, has mostly died down and the issue of development is already under pressure for two key reasons. Firstly, international donors are still waiting for full stability, including the fulfillment of the provisions of the Accord. But then, there is a Catch-22 in this, for stability and even fulfillment of some of the provisions of the Accord could come about only with the flow of donor money and not by way of its deferment. Secondly, and this is more relevant in the context of the rationale for the Hill people's struggle, the region is now being flooded with NGO activities, all of them working with their own, albeit modernist, ideas of development. There has been a total lack of emphasis on sustainable development, the result of which is that the Hill people are now being submerged by a notion of development inimical to their life and living. If the state has been hostile to the autonomous development of the CHT, the post-Accord semblance of autonomy and the follow up developmental activities is now posing a threat to the traditional life and living of the Hill people.
  4. Gender and Women’s Security: Gender issues have not received serious attention, except for the inclusion of 2 tribal and 1 non-tribal female members in the Regional Council. Reports indicate that women Hill members continue to suffer from insecurity, including sexual harassment, unlawful punishment and even rape. Failure to publish the inquiry report on Kalpana Chakma has added to the Hill women's state of insecurity.
  5. Identity and Culture: There has been a significant retreat in this field, particularly in the Accord’s depiction of the Hill people as "tribal." Critics maintain that the use of "Jumma nation" would have gone a long way in diffusing the tension in the CHT since the change would have eroded the age-old sense of inferiority that is so much a part of the word "tribal." Moreover, the failure to give constitutional recognition to the cultural distinctiveness of the Hill people has kept alive the tension and the rationale for a continued struggle on this issue. Finally, "culture" being a mere construction there is also an absolute lack of imagination and innovative intervention in this area, reproducing further the tension between urban dwellers and cultivators, elite and underprivileged, modernists and traditionalists, relatively advanced and backward communities, and the like.

Time possibly has come to reflect on and work imaginatively in the areas of relative success and the areas of stalemate and contention and not be blinded by some of success areas of the Accord. Anything less could rob and submerge the latter!

The author is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka.