A Glowing Tribute to a Leader

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This planet has seen hundreds of indigenous peoples who disappeared from the face of the earth in their arduous journey through history in the face of aggregation from the more organized or stronger and numerically larger races. The latter came in hordes from near and far lands to plunder complex-free and easy going indigenous folks who held in collective ownership valuable resources in the form of land, minerals, forests, waters etc. Of these indigenous peoples, some succumbed to the onslaught without offering any resistance to the invading marauders, some few mounted a nominal resistance and put up an unequal fight and perished in the process. But still there are some few who were defiant and fought a bloody battle to be disintegrated as a race. Some melted away with the invaders. This is a painful legacy that the indigenous peoples have come to inherit for thousands of years. To get extinct has become a destiny for them. These ruthless and brutal stories of racial elimination in the annals of history flashed through my mind for a moment as I pondered to pen through a few lines in respectful memoriam of Manabendra Narayan Larma (M N Larma), who stood exceptional as a leader of the Jumma people in many ways. For the first time in the history of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT hereafter) a voice of defiance raised by this otherwise clam and composed man against injustice resonated throughout the region. He will go down in the history of CHT as the first ever political activist who was prepared to go to any length to realize the legitimate rights of the indigenous people. The demand was not for few rights but continuation of what they enjoyed during Pakistan period.

It was in the year 1964 when I first met him while he was kept in captivity in the Chittagong Jail. He was arrested for some articles that recounted the tales of woes and sufferings that the indigenous people of CHT had to bear with following the damming of Karnafully River. About one lakh people belonging to different ethnic communities lost their ancestral homesteads and best farmlands under the rising waters of the river causing colossal damage of the indigenous economy and their social structure which was never quantified following poor level of political consciousness among the hill people. In those days hill people did not enjoy access to political activities. Government in those days used to consider political dissidence or criticism of any government activity/policy in the CHT as anti-state and therefore a criminal offence. Politics was a forbidden fruit for the hill people who were wrongfully discredited to be wanting in loyalty to the state of Pakistan. There were no organizations of any kind which might have worked as the mouthpiece of the suffering people. An atmospheric of suffocation was pervasive all around. Visibly agitated and moved at the untold miseries of the people displaced by the Kaptai Dam and the unfair deal with respect to adequate compensation and proper rehabilitation perpetrated on hill men by the then government, M N Larma decided to speak out the hearts of the people so long kept shut. It was an outstanding courage on his part to do that as members of the indigenous communities in those periods could hardly think of spreading against the government on its wrongful activities and policies. Government was not also prepared either to yield to a stubbornly unyielding young man from the hill communities speaking out his heart. The first ever protest in writing, as it was, in the form of leaflets against the human catastrophe caused by the Kaptai Hydro-Electric Project took the government by surprise. Soon he was detained.

M N Larma
M N Larma in his college life, Photo: M N Larma memorial foundation

I don’t remember the day and the date on which I met him as the age is having its toll on the faculty of my memory. But the meeting is still vivid in my memory, as fresh as a budding leaf. I was then a first year student in Chittagong College doing my honors course in economics. Of course in the year following I got myself transferred to Dacca University.  I remember that I accompanied Shantuda (Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, the honorable Chairman, Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council) to the Chittagong Court Building where M N Larma was to be produced on that day for the resumption of hearing of his case. We waited near the court hajat. Soon M N Larma was brought out of the court hajat and taken to a nearby room used by the police. He was in all white, a while trouser and a white shirt. He was smiling. He looked at me inquiringly and asked Shantuda about my identity. He seemed to have been extremely pleased and felt encouraged at my coming to see a political prisoner who was arrested on charge of anti-state activity. Hill men in general in those days were very much afraid of getting involved in politics. As Manbendra Narayan Larma was detained on political ground nobody, even his close friends, dared meet him in the jail or in the court as the police might suspect them as having any link with his political thought. That is why my presence in the court surprised him and from then onwards he took a fascination for me that lasted till his last days.

It was a sheer excitement for me to see a man who had shown the courage to dismantle the age old taboo of giving acquiescence to any actions, good or bad, taken by the government for implementation in the CHT. He was the prisoner in Pakistan period to show the path to speak out against injustice. It was a wonderful experience to meeting a man whom I started adoring as soon as I learned about his intrepid stand he took in defense of his jumma people. Now the man was in front of me. I was amazed at the resoluteness and firmness of purpose in his face. His eyes were shining with resolve and conviction for what he was aiming to do. He enquired about the wellbeing of his parents and other family members from Shantuda, his younger brother, also a resolute man known for his tenacity. He also wanted to know from Shantuda about the latest developments in CHT, activities among the indigenous students’ circle, their level of consciousness, their readiness to work for the tyrannized and maltreated Jummas. Lastly he asked for the details of progress of his case. The problem was with the government. Police failed to prove that M N Larma was involved in anti-state activities and was consequently buying time by shifting the time of hearing of his case time and again.

He was much worried at the state of affairs that the indigenous communities in the CHT were made to put up with. Which concerned him most was that the Jummas neither had political authority nor they had economic power. People without economic and political power according to him could hardly survive in the face of stiff economic and social aggression coming from the powerful neighboring communities unless special constitutional provisions were made to protect the weaker. He used to say that the jummas were much exposed to the threat of gradual elimination in an independent Bangladesh then they were in Pakistan where they enjoyed constitutional protection both in the constitutions of 1956 and 1962. I can still remember him talking to me at the MNA hostel in Dacca way back in 1972 during the Constitutional Assembly session: ‘I come to learn from a reliable source that the draft constitution to be placed for approval in the Constituent Assembly does not contain any provision safeguarding the interests of the indigenous peoples of CHT. All people belonging to different caste, creed, ethnicity living in the geographical boundary of Bangladesh will henceforth be known as Bangali. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has wiped out the identity of indigenous peoples with the stroke of a pen. My last hope has been shattered. Something has to be done and we have to be prepared for the worse. I do not know where this body of mine will lie dead.’ He was sounding prophetic. At least I thought that way on that day. Amazingly he was proved true in later years.

M N Larma
M N Larma, Photo: Memorial Book, Life and Struggle of Manabendra Narayan Larma

Few days after, the draft constitution was tabled before the Constituent Assembly. Expecting M N Larma all other members of the Constituent Assembly belonged to Awami League. They were all praise for the Bangabandhu, the founder father of the nation, for presenting the nation with a constitution fully democratic and secular within a span of nine months. They were not interested to care for the apprehensions of the ethnic peoples, a greater proportion of which lived in the CHT. The personality of Banganadhu was so great and overshadowing that no members of the Constituent Assembly dared speak against his wishes. M N Larma taking the floor of the assembly declared in presence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he did not endorse a constitution which did not contain provisions safeguarding the interests of not only the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh but also the interests of the downtrodden and underprivileged farmers and workers working in the field and factories, fisherman fishing in the rivers of Bangladesh and other disadvantaged and marginalized people spreading all over the country. This was indicative of his wish that a country’s constitution should aim at building an egalitarian society where all people high or low, whatever may be their creed or culture must be provided with an adequate space to breathe in their own way in their own environment. That he was bold not only in words but also in action was evident from his refusal to put his signature in the constitution in endorsement.

The ego of Bangabandhu apparently got wounded at this. It was beyond his imagination that someone in Bangladesh, at least in those days of 1972 when his words were considered divine, could dare go against his wish. He warned in his speech in the Assembly not to play with fire in an oblique reference to M N Larma’s role. He warned of the severe consequences in the event of not complying with his admonition. M N Larma defied Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his remonstration not to show his personal gallantry but to hold the indigenous causes high in the eyes of the nation. This particular role of M N Larma is a testimony of the extent of his commitment and dedication to the cause of his Jumma people. One can also easily conjure up of the extent of his involvement in the Jumma’s movement for sheer survival which aimed at achieving vital protective measures for them in the form of constitutional safeguard.

M N Larma was a lone crusader against the unjust government policies which went against the general interest of the indigenous communities during the sixties. The local elite did not cooperate with him rather they were found eager to show their loyalty to the government. It was unfortunate in those days that anti-government stand was equated with anti-state activity. Common people used to believe that way. Local elite was no exception. Due to low level of awareness among the general mass it was difficult to drive home the idea that it was their democratic right to articulate their opinion with regard to the government policies that concern their life and living. Fortunately enough M N Larma, by and large, got the full backing of the student community studying at different colleges and universities of the country. Later they were to become his vanguard in his campaign for realizing the indigenous rights which they lost to the Bangladesh constitution. His popularity grew in stature among the greater section of students and people in general in the greater Chittagong Hill Tracts. Gradually he become a role model for many of them. It was a great achievement for him.

No other leader in the CHT is so much respected and honored as Manabendra Narayan Larma. No name was as frequently uttered as his name. Human beings are not angels. M N Larma was not above blemish either. But whatever infirmities he had was outshined by the contributions he made to the development in the level of political thinking in the CHT. His stubborn resistance to the unjust mechanism of the coterie in power constrained the government to find out a lasting solution to the ethnic problems in the hills. The present scenario in the hills is nowhere near the arrangement he sought and fought for. I do not know what his lieutenants whom he guided and led, who share his visions, dreams and ideals are as committed and dedicated that M N Larma set for. I hope that they have not lost their way. His visions will come true only on the meticulous continuance of his style of leadership.

Used to a very simple life-style he was soft spoken and introvert in nature. A pair of khaki trousers and a pair of white cotton shirts, very cheap in price, were his dress.  He had a strong distance for perfumes or cosmetics.  When he was MP, poor folks from the villages used to come to him with the hope of getting their problems solved. They come with pack of vegetables, as they were unable to afford costly items, to be presented to him as a complementary gift or tribute. He never agreed to keep them unless they accept the reasonable price he offered them. He could have easily resigned to the cozy comforts of urban living. Avenues were open to him. But he preferred to go underground and opted for a fugitive life to place himself and his services at the altar of Jummas cause. How many people can resist the temptation of an assured life?

M N Larma
M N Larma at the shore of the river, Photo: M N Larma memorial foundation

In the beginning of this article I happen to touch upon the painful saga that the indigenous peoples all around the world have been experiencing throughout the human history. Many fell prey to the stronger or larger human predators. The number of indigenous peoples in the world is now alarmingly being adjusted down the numerical scale. In order words, elimination process being active as ever, the indigenous peoples are decreasing in numbers at an alarming rate. Indigenous peoples in the CHT lived and multiplied here for centuries with an order of living and a culture of their own shaped out by the hills and forests around them, are struggling hard to survive. Their breathing space has narrowed considerably. Are these miserable indigenous communities capable to stop them from being caught up in the historical elimination process? Their Messiah M N Larma who tried to lead them out of this critical situation and in whom they reposed their hope for survival is no more. Can it then be inferred that the CHT indigenous peoples are no exception to their historic predecessors and have just joined the historical caravans heading for their inevitable ‘’tryst with destiny?’ This question keeps on hammering my mind as I remember great M N Larma on his death anniversary.


Mong Sa Nu

Memorial Book, Life and Struggle of Manabendra Narayan Larma; April 2016.

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