Contestations Regarding Identity, Nationalism And Citizenship During The Struggles of The Indigenous Peoples of The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh

Last updated Jun 4th, 2020


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This paper analyzes the contestations pertaining to identity, nationalism and citizenship that have arisen during the struggles of indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh against ethnic domination. { backed by the state }

The region has been a part of the British Indian empire and the post-colonial state of Pakistan, and is currently within the state of Bangladesh.

Even though the latter has a multi-ethnic population with multiple languages and cultures, where ethnic Bengalis speaking the Bengali language are numerically and politically dominant, there has been a systematic reluctance to acknowledge the plural and heterogeneous nature of society within a tolerant legal-constitutional framework.

In the hilly and forested fringes of southeastern Bangladesh, the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have been struggling with threats to their material and cultural conditions integral to retaining their own ethnic identity.2

Indeed, such threats faced by ethnic minorities in the region have been aggravated by the impacts of the in- migration by settlers, land alienation, and counterproductive development interventions.

As discussed below, the experience of the indigenous peoples of the CHT graphically illustrates the ways in which such factors have threatened the identity and citizenship rights of small sub-national groups, generating ethnic nationalism as a means of defense as -well as a platform for demanding fully-fledged citizenship rights and due protection from the state.


The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh lies on the country’s international borders with Myanmar (Burma) and India (the ‘states’ of Tripura and Mizoram), as shown in the map.

The present boundaries of the CHT were carved out of the British colonial empire in 1860 [Roy, 1995: 53; Mohsin, 1997: 26] and demarcated as a new district of the province of Bengal (by Act No. XXII).

The region was sub-divided into the three smaller districts of Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The CHT has been historically inhabited by ‘tribal’ groups or indigenous peoples, with a sprinkling of non-tribals from the plains.

The former consists of around a dozen tribes or ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Chakma, the Marma and the Tripura, in that order.

Among the smaller groups are the Mru, the Tanchainghya, the Bawm (or Bom), the Khumi, the Khyang, the Lushai (or Mizo), the Pankho, and the Chak (or Sak) [Sopher, 1964; Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 34; Roy, 1994: 11; 1998b: 3; Adnan, 2004: 10-13].

These ethnic minorities, taken together, are locally known as the Pahari or Hill peoples of the CHT (also termed Hillmen in colonial parlance).

They differ markedly from the non-hillmen of the plains in terms of physical appearance, language, religion and cultural practices, while having much greater resemblance with the tribal groups of northeastern India and Myanmar.

Most of the Hill peoples of the CHT are Buddhist (e.g. the Chakma and the Marma), with much smaller numbers adhering to Hinduism (the Tripura), Christianity (e.g. the Bawm and the Lushai), animism and forms of nature worship, but hardly any are Muslims.

Traditionally, the Hill peoples have been practitioners of jum or swidden cultivation.

However, this has changed to some extent as valley- dwelling Chakma, Marma and Tripura households have shifted from jum to plough cultivation of wet rice over the years, adopting the techniques of the Bengali peasantry of the plains.

The non-hillmen outsiders residing in the CHT have in most cases belonged to the dominant community and culture at the centre (i.e. the Pakistanis, Bengalis and /or Bangladeshis).

They have consisted of government officials, security forces, professionals such as lawyers and teachers, as well as traders, shopkeepers, moneylenders, craftsmen, industrial wage workers, rickshaw-pullers, and peasant cultivators.

The majority of them have been Bengali, both Hindu and Muslim, originating from the densely populated plains of Bengal adjoining the CHT.

However, non-Bengali outsiders have also resided in the region at various times during the periods of British and Pakistani rule.

Map of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh

Changes in Administrative and Political Status

The CHT Regulation, enacted in 1900 by the British colonial state, has provided the basic legal framework of civil, revenue and judicial administration of the CHT during the subsequent period.3

Its original provisions on the rights of entry and residence, as well as rules of land settlement and transfer in the CHT, were intended to give special protection to the rights of the Hill peoples, while also attempting to check entry and land settlement by non-hillmen from outside.

Subsequently, the British became concerned to isolate the region and its Hill peoples from the rest of Bengal administratively and politically [van Schendel, 1995: 134].

In 1920, the CHT was declared a ‘Backward Tract’, which was to be administered as an ‘Excluded Area’ [Mohsin, 1997: 34; Roy, 1997b: 11; R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 19].

The Government of India Act of 1935 designated the region as a ‘Totally Excluded Area’.

During the Partition of British India in 1947, the CHT was annexed to the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, despite the unwillingness of the leaders of the Hill peoples [Mohsin, 1997: 35-37].

The constitution of Pakistan, promulgated in 1956, retained the status of the CHT as an ‘Excluded Area’ [Shelley, 1992: 30].

However, the Pakistani government was interested in exploiting the rich natural resources of the CHT, and showed little concern about the possible adverse impacts on the Hill peoples and their habitat [Mohsin, 1997: 45].

In this new post-colonial dispensation, the erstwhile colonial policy of keeping the CHT isolated from the rest of the country became an impediment for Bengali interest groups concerned to lift the restrictions on their entry, residence and rights to hold landed property in the area [van Schendel, 1995: 136].

As a result, the status of the CHT was altered from an ‘Excluded Area’ to a ‘Tribal Area’ in the new constitution adopted by Pakistan in 1962.

The limited protection provided by even this modified status was stripped away by a constitutional amendment in 1964 and other administrative and judicial interventions [Mohsin, 1997: 105; Adnan, 2004: 22-23].

Adverse Impacts of the Kaptai Hydro-Electricity Project

In parallel, certain development interventions had critical impacts on the CHT, profoundly altering its socioeconomic conditions and demographic structure.

Foremost among these was the Kaptai hydroelectricity project built during the early 1960s [Adnan, 2004: 23-24]. Its artificial reservoir submerged huge swathes of land containing human settlements and arable areas.

The aggregate stock of cultivable and forested lands in the CHT was substantially reduced, as a result of which swidden cultivation in the remaining areas was dangerously intensified, leading to excessive exploitation and degradation of the soil [CHTDP, 1987: 2; Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 40; Roy, 1995: 65-66; Mohsin, 1997: 104; Adnan, 2004: 44-46].

Of the total Pahari population of 335,000 in the CHT4, approximately 80,000-100,000 were forced to move from their farms and homesteads, without adequate compensation or rehabilitation [Sopher, 1963: 347-360; Roy, 1996a: 5; [R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 64].

Mohsin, 1997: 102-103; Adnan, 2004: 23-24, 44-46]. Around 30,000 displaced Chakmas crossed over the Indian border, becoming international refugees who were subsequently settled in the states of Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India.

Another 20,000 Hill peoples are reported to have moved as international refugees to Myanmar [Hazarika, 1994: 282].

Thousands of other uprooted Hill peoples became internally displaced persons (IDP) scattered in the rural interior of the CHT, mostly encroaching into the remote Reserve Forest areas to eke out a subsistence [Hume, 1999].

New opportunities for employment and business in the CHT created by the Kaptai project and other development programs were mostly taken up by non-hillmen, who included both Bengali and non-Bengali citizens of Pakistan [Mohsin, 1997: 46, 105].

Government jobs in the CHT were largely given to non-Pahari employees from outside.

Virtually all wholesale and retail trade, transport services, financial businesses and money lending activities in the region were controlled by outsiders, the bulk of whom were Bengalis.

Despite the existence of legal restrictions to the entry of outsiders, administrative policies of the local state tacitly facilitated their in-migration during the post-Kaptai years [Ali, 1993: 177].

The proportion of Bengalis in the total CHT population rose from 13% to 19% between 1961 and 1974, while that of the Hill peoples declined correspondingly [Adnan, 2004: 55-57, Table 1].

Impacts of the Bengali-Pakistani Conflict and Indo-Рак war of 1971

During the 1960s, economic disparity and political stresses within the federal polity of Pakistan led to the growth of a Bengali nationalist movement in its eastern wing, spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic leader of the Awami League [Mohsin 1997: 50-56].

The ensuing conflict resulted in a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army on the Bengali populace of East Pakistan on 26 March 1971.

In response, Bengali nationalist guerrillas, known as the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) began an armed resistance against the Pakistani occupying forces, which subsequently became known as the liberation struggle of Bangladesh.

The Indian security forces gave clandestine support to the Mukti Bahini and subsequently became directly involved in open war with Pakistan, which ended with the surrender of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka on 16 December 1971.

This complex chain of events led to not only the break up of the federal polity of Pakistan but also the transformation of the former province of East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Significantly, constructs of neither the Pakistani nor the Bangladeshi nation had any space for accommodating the Hill peoples of the CHT, who were definitionally excluded from both of these ‘imagined communities’ [Mohsin, 1997: 43-45].

Not surprisingly, most Paharis remained indifferent to the Pakistani-Bengali conflict during 1971.

However, some were caught up inexorably in the ensuing crossfire.

Due to limited collaboration with the Pakistani regime by a very small minority of the Hill peoples, there arose a widespread misconception that the Paharis as a whole had opposed the struggle for Bangladesh.

Tragically, this provided the pretext for drastic acts of ‘revenge’ against the JŘ ill peoples by some Bengali groups, including misguided elements of the Mukti Bahini, during the last phase of the 1971 war and its immediate aftermath [Shelley, 1992: 33 and 109; Ali, 1993: 183-184; Mohsin, 1997: 58 and 165; Adnan, 2004: 25].

Alienation of the Paharis in independent Bangladesh

Early in 1972, leaders of the Hill peoples decided to approach the new government of Bangladesh to seek protection from further assault on their lives and property by vengeful Bengalis and obtain constitutional recognition of their rights as ethnic minority groups.

Disturbingly, however, the Pahari delegations failed to get any assurances from the government regarding protection from such acts of misconstrued ‘revenge’, as well as their demand to be recognized as groups with distinct cultural identities.

On the contrary, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is reported to have advised them to ‘become Bengali’ and assimilate themselves into this hegemonic identity [Hazarika, 1994: 278; Mohsin, 1997: 58].

Paradoxically, the demand of the Hill peoples for protection of their lands, lives and cultural identities was perceived by the government as secessionist and deemed to be a threat to national security.

The Paharis were treated as a ‘rebel’ community and punitive military raids against their settlements in the CHT were carried out almost immediately afterwards by the Bangladeshi security forces [Mey, 1984: 114; Mohsin, 1997: 58].

In response, a political party was set up on 7 March 1972 to represent the interests of the Hill peoples under the leadership of Manabendra Narayan Larma, named Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) [Ali, 1993: 184; Mohsin, 1997: 57-58 and 165].5

The PCJSS propagated ‘Jumma’ nationalism and a collective ‘Jumma’ identity, based on the idea that all the various Pahari groups shared the tradition of jum (swidden) cultivation in common.

Another crucial step was the formation of a military wing of the PCJSS in early 1973, known as the Shanti Bahini (SB), in order to resist the Bangladeshi state and its security forces [Shelley, 1992: 111].

In November 1972, the Bangladesh parliament adopted a new constitution that unilaterally imposed a common ‘Bengali’ identity on all groups inhabiting the country, regardless of their linguistic and ethnic diversity.

Far from providing guarantees protecting the distinct culture, identity and life-styles of the Hill peoples within the framework of a plural society, it served to institutionalize hegemonic Bengali nationalism and a policy of forced assimilation towards culturally distinct minority groups [Mohsin, 1997: 59, fn.].

During 1972-75, a state of low-intensity warfare prevailed in the CHT for a number of considerations related to domestic security and foreign insurgency [Mohsin, 1997: 166, fn; Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 241]. In particular, the Bengali-dominated government and military establishment suspected that the Hill peoples were being mobilized for a secessionist movement, purportedly posing a threat to national security.

As a result of such considerations, the armed forces became involved in raiding the settlements of the Hill peoples and perpetrating violent atrocities [Mohsin, 1997: 166].

The situation took a critical turn after 15 August 1975, when Prime Minister Mujib was assassinated and the Awami League government ousted from power by an army coup d’etat.

Following a few months of turbulence, General (and, subsequently, President) Ziaur Rahman emerged as the military strongman of the country.

Even though the PCJSS was the principal political platform of the Hill peoples, the Zia regime banned the organization, forcing the leaders of the party to seek refuge in India [Mohsin, 1997: 66-67; Shelley, 1992: 111].

This constituted the turning point when the Pahari leadership lost all hope of reaching political accommodation within the constitutional framework of Bangladesh, triggering a move towards armed insurgency.

Significantly, relations between the governments of India and Bangladesh had also become strained at this stage.6

The Indian government decided to allow the PCJSS and the Shanti Bahini to set up bases in the states of Tripura and Mizoram adjoining the CHT.

Furthermore, Indian agencies provided the Shanti Bahini with covert military training and arms supplies, enabling its guerrilla units to undertake operations inside the CHT against the Bangladeshi security forces [Hazarika, 1994: 279-280; Bhaumik, 1996; Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 242; Shelley, 1992: 126-129; Ali, 1993: 187-191; Mohsin, 1997: 167-168].

Counter-Insurgency and Demographic Engineering

The regime under General Zia responded to these Shanti Bahini attacks by launching full-scale counter-insurgency operations from late 1976.

It displayed little understanding of the root causes that had driven the Hill peoples into armed rebellion, blaming it simply on the Tack of economic development’ among them and the fact that the CHT was “a backward area without basic infrastructure for development and an organized market system, and had a primitive mode of cultivation” [Shelley, 1992: 129].

In this official view of things, the deeper anxieties and apprehensions of the Hill peoples, confronted by growing threats to their cultural identity, habitat, and culture were conveniently overlooked.

In addition to military brutality, the counter-insurgency strategy of the Zia regime incorporated demographic engineering as a means of increasing the number of Bengalis in the CHT at the expense of the Hill peoples.

This consisted of a two-pronged operation, the first of which involved use of violence and arson to evict Paharis from their lands and villages and ‘regroup’ them intö camps and ‘cluster villages’ under military surveillance [R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 79; Hume, 1999: 4; Ali, 1993: 190- 193; Roy, 1997c: 183].

Approximately, 100,000 Hill peoples were forcibly evicted from their homes and lands, around 55,000 of whom are estimated to have fled across the international border to the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram, eking out a miserable existence in refugee camps [Ali, 1993: 193; R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 78; Roy, 1997c: 168].

Another 30,000-50,000 were forced by military and settler attacks to seek shelter in the mountainous tracts and forests in the interior of the CHT, becoming internally displaced persons (IDP) [Roy, 1998b: 7; Hume, 1999].

The second component of demographic engineering involved bringing in massive numbers of landless Bengali settlers from the plains through state-managed transmigration.

These settlers were also promised homestead and arable lands in the CHT, and government officials forcibly (and illegally) allotted the lands of the Hill peoples to them for this purpose [R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 78 and 94-96; Hume, 1999: 4].

These planned population transfers, begun in 1978-79 and continued up to 1984-85, led to the net addition of 300,000-340,000 settlers to the CHT population, virtually all of whom were landless Bengali Muslim peasants [Adnan, 2004: 47-53].

The political objective of these transmigration and land redistribution operations was to accelerate the settlement of a sizeable Bengali population in the CHT that could be counted upon to be loyal to the Bangladeshi state.

The success of demographic engineering as a means of counter-insurgency was evident in the accelerated growth of Bengalis from 19% of the total population of the CHT in 1974 to 49% in 1991, while the Pahari population fell drastically from 81% to 51% over the same 17- year period.7

The dynamics of the ethnic conflict in the CHT did not remain confined to purely military targets consisting of the ‘armed’ forces on both sides (i.e. the Bangladeshi security forces and the Shanti Bahini).

On the contrary, armed attacks inexorably spread to the respective non-combatant civilian populations, irrespective of whether they had been responsible for any violence [Roy, 1997c: 168; 1996b].

Gross human rights violations were perpetrated by both sides in this bitter ethnic conflict, but there is little doubt that the Hill peoples were the victims of much greater human rights violations perpetrated upon them by the security forces and sections of the Bengali settlers [Shelley, 1992: 123-125; Ali, 1993: 165; Loffler, 1991: 28; Mohsin, 1997: 185].

Between 1980 and the 1990s, at least 11 major massacres of the Hill peoples by Bengali forces were reported [Mohsin, 1998: 116; Roy, 1997c: 183].

Furthermore, the security forces were also responsible for the widespread raping of Pahari women, which was systematically used as an instrument of humiliating and devaluing the ethnic identity and nationalism of the Hill peoples [Mohsin, 1997: 178; 1998: 116].

These counter-insurgency measures predictably provoked retaliation by the guerrilla forces of the Shanti Bahini and gave justification to their counter-violence.

Settlements of the Bengali migrants became prime objects of their attack, constituting ‘soft targets’, compared to the ‘hard’ military ones [Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 242; Ali, 1993: 190-193].

The aim of the violent attacks of the Shanti Bahini was to force the Bengali settlers to leave the CHT and thereby also regain the lands of the Hill peoples that they had taken over.

Shift in Counter-Insurgency Strategy Towards Co-option

While the counter-insurgency operations by the security forces failed to crush the resistance of the Hill peoples, the mounting costs of maintaining a large body of troops in the CHT became prohibitively expensive.

These considerations led to a significant shift towards a ‘softer’ strategy of co- opting the Hill peoples into networks of patronage and privilege.

This policy change was initiated by General Ershad, who captured power in 1982, following the assassination of President Zia in 1981. In October 1983, the Ershad regime declared its willingness to suspend further transmigration of Bengali settlers to the CHT and initiate direct dialogue with the PCJSS, while granting amnesty to Pahari rebels [Shelley, 1992: 139].

In 1985, the regime announced a set of new policies and programmes for the economic development of the CHT, with the aim of integrating ‘tribals and non-tribals’.

This indicated that the policy of assimilating the Hill peoples into the dominant national culture was still at work, despite the shift in strategy.

The regime also allocated large amounts of resources to the so-called programmes of ‘pacification’ of the Hill peoples, concerned with “confidence-building measure geared to winning hearts and minds of people”, undertaken by the security forces in collaboration with the civil administration [Shelley, 1992: 157].

During the second half of the 1980s, the Ershad regime proffered a wide range of incentives and concessions to win over the Hill peoples.

Among these were reservation of seats in institutions of higher education, jobs in government departments and scheduled banks, as well as contracts for development projects and public works [Shelley, 1992: 136-139].

It placated Pahari demands for local self-government by establishing Hill District Local Government Councils (HDLGC) in the CHT in 1989 [Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 244; Shelley, 1992: 142-143; Ali, 1993: 194; Mohsin, 1997: 74, 202-203].

Furthermore, the regime offered various inducements to encourage existing cadres of the PCJSS/SB to give up the struggle and return to normal life, making use of public funds and development resources to co- opt the Hill peoples into the lucrative networks of state patronage.

In fact, these offers of amnesty and patronage succeeded in encouraging significant numbers to defect from the ranks of the PCJSS/SB during the 1980s [Shelley, 1992: 147].

Indeed, these softer forms of counter- insurgency succeeded in weakening the social support-base of Pahari resistance to an extent that had not been possible earlier with the blunter instruments of brute violence and forced displacement.

The Peace Accord and its aftermath

In December 1990, General Ershad was toppled from power by popular protests across the country, leading to the restoration of parliamentary democracy.

Elections held in 1991 brought to power the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Despite a sustained ceasefire and several rounds of negotiations with the PCJSS however, no formal agreement was reached by this BNP government during its tenure (1991-96) [Shelley, 1992: 148, 170-171; Mohsin, 1997: 74].

However, the 1996 parliamentary elections resulted in an Awami League government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Relations between the governments of India and Bangladesh improved, given the former’s favourable disposition towards the Awami League.

Discernible combat fatigue among the Hill peoples was reinforced by pressure from the Indian government on the PCJSS/SB as well as the government of Bangladesh to reach a political settlement [Mohsin, 1997: 177, fn. 17; 1998: 115].

After several rounds of negotiations, a Peace Accord was eventually signed between accredited representatives of the Government of Bangladesh and the PCJSS on 2 December 1997.8

The Accord led to the surrender of the members of the PCJSS/SB along with the de-commissioning of their arms.

The government provided general amnesty and rehabilitation facilities to the PCJSS/SB members returning to normal life.

It also agreed to the repatriation of Pahari refugees from India and rehabilitation of the internally displaced Paharis scattered around the CHT.

Several wide-ranging measures for resolving land-related disputes and problems were accepted by the government.

The Peace Accord also redefined the status and powers of the existing district councils of the CHT, re-naming these as Hill District Councils (HDC).

Furthermore, a new body called the Regional Council (RC) was established with jurisdiction over the entire CHT, overarching its three districts.

Flowever, the extent of devolution of power was quite limited, and the decisions made by these councils clearly remained subject to the concurrence of the national government, which retained control over their purse strings and had the final say on all substantive matters.

Crucially, the Peace Accord was not backed by any constitutional guarantee or legal act, making it susceptible to potential violation and modification by subsequent governments [Roy, 1998].

A section of the Bengali population and settler organizations vehemently rejected the Peace Accord.

So did major national-level political forces including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as smaller right-wing and pro- Islamic political parties and organizations.

In their view, the Accord had made ‘too many concessions to Pahari interests’, while converting Bengalis in the CHT into ‘second class citizens’ who were denied their due constitutional rights [Mohsin, 1998: 107].

The decade following the Peace Accord provided a test period for assessing the good faith of the two parties in implementing its provisions.

The PCJSS/SB leaders and cadres rejoined civil life and took up the positions in local self-government that were made available after the truce.

However, the Awami League government (1996-2001), having signed the Accord, failed to implement many of its substantive clauses – allegedly, for fear of losing support (and votes) among the dominant Bengali community.

Significantly, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had publicly rejected the Accord when in opposition, were not even interested in implementing the clauses of the treaty when they became the major partners of the subsequent elected government (2001-06).

Indeed, many violations of the Accord took place under this government, which resulted in partially reversing the peace process and reactivating the very factors that had precipitated the ethnic conflict in the first place.

In particular, the continuation of settler in- migration, forced land acquisition, as well as human rights violation in the form of killings and rape have generated widespread disillusionment among the Hill peoples, such that they no longer believe that the government has the will to implement the Peace Accord.

The key events marking the struggle of the Hill peoples against the state and the dominant Bengali community have been briefly outlined above.

These provide the factual basis for analyzing the various contestations pertaining to identity, nationalism and citizenship thrown up by the struggle, as taken up below.

Ethnicity and Innovation in Identity Formation

The British recognized the Hill peoples as a special category among their colonial subjects, whose distinctive ethnic identities, cultural traits and natural habitat in the forested uplands of the CHT needed to be protected from encroachment of outsiders.

This concern is embodied in the CHT Regulation of 1900 in terms of restrictions on the entry, residence and property-holding rights of non-hillmen.

While some of these protective clauses were relaxed during the last decades of British rule, the Hill peoples continued to be protected, as well as isolated, by the special status given to their identity and habitat by the colonial state.

However, these measures began to be undermined Under the post-colonial order in Pakistan, because they constrained the exploitation of the CHT resources by the state and the market.

None the less, there was still some recognition of tribal identity and status, while non-hillmen outsiders were legally restricted from holding land rights in the region almost until the end of Pakistan rule.

However, in the new state of Bangladesh, there was virtually no legal- constitutional recognition or protection of the Hill people’s identities,The British recognized the Hill peoples as a special category among their colonial subjects, whose distinctive ethnic identities, cultural traits and natural habitat in the forested uplands of the CHT needed to be protected from encroachment of outsiders.

This concern is embodied in the CHT Regulation of 1900 in terms of restrictions on the entry, residence and property-holding rights of non-hillmen.

While some of these protective clauses were relaxed during the last decades of British rule, the Hill peoples continued to be protected, as well as isolated, by the special status given to their identity and habitat by the colonial state.

However, these measures began to be undermined Under the post-colonial order in Pakistan, because they constrained the exploitation of the CHT resources by the state and the market.

None the less, there was still some recognition of tribal identity and status, while non-hillmen outsiders were legally restricted from holding land rights in the region almost until the end of Pakistan rule.

However, in the new state of Bangladesh, there was virtually no legal- constitutional recognition or protection of the Hill people’s identities, cultures and minority rights.

This was somewhat paradoxical, since Bangladesh itself had emerged through a struggle for recognition of the Bengali identity, language and culture against the Pakistani military regime.

Indeed, there was little sympathy in the Bangladeshi government for the Hill peoples’ plea for recognition and protection, which was viewed as being ‘secessionist’ and ‘subversive’.

The identities of the Hill peoples thus became subject to the combined pressures of

(a) the assimilationist project of the Bangladeshi nation-state and

(b) encroachment into their natural habitat by Bengali migrants, state- sponsored settlers and the security forces.

Consequently, the crystallization of the collective Jumma identity of the Hill peoples can be viewed as being driven by the need to distance themselves from this Bengali assimilationist project.

It was essentially identity formulation by negation- in contradistinction to the identity of the dominant Bengali population.

Articulated by the PCJSS and the Shanti Bahini, the Jumma identity was deployed in the armed resistance of the Hill peoples against the Bengali-dominated state.

Ironically, even though the struggle led to their distinctive identities being recognized by some clauses of the Peace Accord, this was still in terms of non-specified ‘tribal , groups’ rather than as ethnic peoples with specific names and features.

The identities of the Hill peoples have also been influenced by ongoing processes of demographic change and globalization, as modified by the impact of the armed conflict.

Rural out-migration to urban areas has been accelerated by the violence and insecurity affecting Pahari society during several decades of counter-insurgency.

In addition to many Paharis who have become residents of urban areas of Bangladesh, a small proportion has migrated to India as well as various countries of Europe, North America and Australasia.

For such migrants, there has been some erosion of Pahari identities through adoption of urban and global life- styles.

At the same time, diaspora-based Pahari activist groups have consciously attempted to re-assert their identity and grievances in the international arena.

Contestation Between Rival Nationalism

During most of the twentieth century, the Hill peoples were essentially passive spectators to contestations between rival nationalisms espoused by dominant groups.

Initially they were incorporated against their will into the state of Pakistan, which was created by Muslim nationalism concerned to create a separate polity in which Muslims would form the majority, and thereby become free of Hindu domination.

Subsequently, conflict within the Muslim polity of Pakistan gave rise of Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan, which began to contest the hegemony of Muslim nationalism.

It was aimed at resisting political domination of West Pakistani elite groups, resolving economic disparity between the eastern and western wings of the country, and ending discrimination against Bengalis, who were treated as second class citizens by the Pakistani administration.

However, the Pakistani regime viewed the growth of Bengali nationalism as secessionist, and launched a military crackdown on the Bengali population in East Pakistan to pre-empt any such outcome.

Even though Bengali nationalism did not explicitly include the Hill peoples, it is significant that one of the Pahari chiefs, several senior leaders and some young men did try to support the cause of Bengali nationalism against Pakistani repression [Adnan, 2004: 25].

Some of them crossed over to India but found themselves distrusted and cold-shouldered by Awami League party bosses and Indian intelligence officials [Shelley, 1992: 33; Ali, 1993: 182-183].

Attempts by some of the Hill peoples to express solidarity with the cause of Bengali nationalism during 1971 were thus rebuffed at the very outset.

As noted earlier, the new constitution of Bangladesh explicitly incorporated a hegemonic form of Bengali nationalism that simply suffocated all other linguistic or ethnic identities and nationalisms among the people of the country.

However, this kind of chauvinistic intolerance backfired and made the Bangladeshi nation-state weaker , rather than stronger, by alienating the Hill peoples and precipitating an ethnic conflict that sapped the strength and resources of the country.

The situation did not improve when the Zia regime supplanted Bengali nationalism with Bangladeshi nationalism.

While the latter did nominally provide room for non-Bengali elements in the construct of the nation, in practice it treated them as subordinate to Bengalis.

In sum, these various nationalisms-Muslim and Pakistani, Bengali and Bangladeshi-were espoused by the dominant groups controlling state power in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi nation-states respectively.

These hegemonic ideologies served to subordinate groups such as the Paharis of the CHT, excluding or marginalizing them from the national mainstream.

Emergence of nationalism among the Hill peoples thus took place in reaction to the assimilationist ideologies of the nation-state propagated by the regimes in power, viz. Pakistani, Bengali, or Bangladeshi nationalism.

The process was aided by the expansion of education and literacy among Paharis, particularly the Chakma community, and the rise in social and political consciousness among them following the devastating impacts of the Kaptai project and the growing in-migration of non-hillmen.

Like the Jumma identity, the Jumma nationalism embracing all Pahari ethnic groups was deliberately constructed and propagated by the PCJSS and SB in order to unify them in the political and military struggle against the hegemony of Bengali/Bangladeshi nationalism.

Thus, the emergence of Jumma ethnic nationalism among the Hill peoples was also based on a negation of the dominant nationalisms being imposed by groups controlling state power.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the Peace Accord makes no mention of Jumma nationalism, even though it uses the apellation ‘tribal to describe the Hill peoples.

However, the Pahari diasporas in India and the West continue to propagate Jumma nationalism through their networks and publications.

Citizens and Rebels

Despite being created by the politics of Muslim nationalism, Pakistan was not a theocratic state, so that resident non-Muslims, including the Hill peoples, were entitled to be citizens of the country.

However, despite this formal status, the Paharis were treated as defacto second-class citizens by the government and agencies of the state.

This became evident during the rehabilitation of people uprooted by the Kaptai project, when Pahari oustees were given second preference to Bengalis in the allottment of alternative lands for rehabilitation [Sopher, 1963: 348-357].

Many were also harassed and cheated when attempting to get the monetary compensation package to which they were entitled [R.C.K. Roy, 1996: 61].

Among the many thousands of Paharis who were forced to become international refugees, many ended up being stateless, without any citizenship rights in either Pakistan (later Bangladesh) or India, e.g. Chakma refugees who were eventually re-settled in remote Arunachal Pradesh of India [Brauns & Loffler, 1990: 40; Roy, 1996a: 5].

Thousands of other internally displaced Paharis uprooted by the Kaptai project and the subsequent counter-insurgency operations had to live as illegal dwellers in reserve forests, detached from the agencies of the Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) state, effectively lacking any citizenship rights.

During 1971, even though some Paharis attempted to join the Bengali cause against Pakistani occupying forces, they were prevented from doing so by concerned political and military gatekeepers.

Subsequently the Hill peoples were misconstrued as being disloyal to the new state of Bangladesh.

Their formal status as citizens of the country did not save them from attacks by Bengali vigilante groups seeking ‘revenge’.

Moreover, the political leadership of the country was unwilling to provide them with any protection against such violence, while juridical and administrative agencies failed to render justice against wrongs done to them by Bengali civilians and the security forces.

Despite Pahari pleas to the contrary, the newly crafted constitution of Bangladesh failed to incorporate any provisions recognizing and safeguarding the status and culture of the Hill peoples as citizens belonging to ethnic minorities.

Even their attempts to plead their case with the political leadership of the country were misconstrued as harbouring a secessionist agenda.

As a result, they were treated as a virtually rebel population and subjected to armed repression by the security forces.

These acts marked the beginning of a trajectory in which the Hill peoples were suspected of conspiring against the nation-state which, in turn, triggered off Pahari responses that constituted preparatory steps towards insurgency, e.g. the formation of their own political party (PCJSS) and a military wing (the Shanti Bahini).

Given the absence of any meaningful citizenship status and relationship with the state, the next step in the process was for the Hill peoples to transform themselves from suspected to actual insurgents, challenging and contesting the authority of the Bengali-dominated state.

Indeed, the PCJSS and the Shanti Bahini set up a parallel government in the areas under their control, displacing the Bengali administration and imposing governance through their own forces and cadres, inclusive of collecting taxes and resolving disputes [Adnan, 2004: 28, Box 2.1].

From the vantage-point of the Bangladeshi government and military establishment, the Pahari forces were viewed as committing treason, particularly because the PCJSS/SB were being supported by the Indian state and security forces (even if for opportunistic considerations of national interest on the part the latter).

Such transformation of the alienated Paharis from citizens to rebels also embodied the very negation of the duties of citizenship.

It was the inexorable consequence of the denial of the citizenship rights of the Hill peoples by the Bangladeshi state, breaking the contract of citizenship.

This metamorphosis in the citizenship status of the Hill peoples was undoubtedly a crucial consideration underlying the demographic engineering strategy undertaken by Bangladesh during the period of counter-insurgency.

In effect, the state organized transmigration on a massive scale to expand the Bengali settler population of the CHT, in order to provide a demographic and political counterweight to the support-base of the PCJSS/SB among the Hill peoples [Mohsin, 1998: 113 and 174; Adnan, 2004: 48-52].

The relative weightage of ‘loyal citizens’ was increased by bringing in Bengali settlers, while simultaneously reducing the numbers of the ‘rebellious’ Paharis through military operations, massacres, and expulsion as international refugees.

Subsequently, when the Bangladeshi state realized that violent brutalization was not succeeding in crushing the insurgency, it switched to the softer strategy of cooption, attempting to ‘pacify’ the alienated Pahari community in order to get them to return to being loyal citizens rather than rebels.

In continuation of this modified counter-insurgency strategy, the Peace Accord incorporated offers of patronage aimed at giving the Hill peoples a stake in the existing social order.

Significantly, however, the Accord was negotiated and signed within the framework of the state of Bangladesh, thereby ensuring that the Pahari rebels were brought back to the fold without compromising on national sovereignty.

However, this return to citizenship did not necessarily mean that the position of the Hill peoples improved in all cases.

The failure of the Bangladeshi government to implement many of the crucial clauses of the Peace Accord seriously undermined that prospect.

Furthermore, many of the disruptive factors that had led to the Pahari insurgency in the first place, such as in-migration and land alienation, continued to operate during the post-Accord decade.

Indeed, the position of the Hill peoples has not improved beyond that of being second class citizens, subject to discrimination by the administration and repression by the security forces and Bengali settlers.

Concluding Remarks

The preceding analysis has traced the contestations pertaining to the identity, nationalism, and citizenship of the Hill peoples during their struggle against domination by outsiders backed by the state and its security forces.

While their intrinsic identities are based on ethnicity, the forging of a new Jumma-based identity and nationalism shared by all groups was propelled by the concern to counter the assimilationist project of the Bangladeshi nation-state and the destruction of their natural habitat by Bengali settlers and security forces.

Despite their formal status as citizens, the Hill peoples were marginalized and subordinated by the Bangladeshi government not only through legal-constitutional means but also by the direct exercise of state power and violence, including ethnic cleansing and violation of human rights.

This was most clearly apparent in the demographic component of the counter-insurgency strategy which aimed at reducing the ‘rebel’ Pahari population and drastically increasing the proportion of loyal Bengali citizens in the CHT.

Given this context, the counter-attacks by the PCJSS and Shanti Bahini can be seen as attempts to force back settlers and reclaim their alienated lands. Success in such efforts would have provided them with the space where their new-found Jumma identity and nationalism could have flourished and enabled them to enjoy a kind of defacto citizenship based on their own power and institutions.

Despite government and military suspicions to the contrary, the Hill peoples of the CHT were not secessionists bent upon establishing a state for themselves.

Rather, they were driven into rebellion by the inconsiderate attitudes and provocative policies of the Bangladeshi government and security forces.

In fact, the prime demands of the Hill peoples were that their lives and land rights should be protected by the state and that their distinct cultural identities should be given due recognition in the constitution and laws of the country.

None of these expectations was unreasonable, and the government could have easily accommodated them through legal and constitutional amendments and suitable administrative measures, without any substantive loss or limitation of national sovereignty.

It follows that the insurgency and ethnic conflict in the CHT could well have been avoided if the government had been far-sighted enough to have ensured that their position and rights as citizens belonging to minority groups were adequately enshrined in the constitution and laws of the country.


1. This paper draws upon my earlier research and publications, particularly Adnan [2004; 2006].

2. For present purposes, ethnic identity is defined as an indivisible and irreducible social and cultural construct, based on the specific combination of the distinctive physical features, langüage, culture, life-styles/ religious or ritual beliefs characterizing a particular social group. The boundaries or lines of demarcation between ethnic groups are delineated and maintained by certain accepted codes of behaviour governing the social interaction between such groups [Barth, 1996: 81-82]. Viewed in these terms, the pro-active assertion of its identity by a group vis-à-vis others can be regarded as a form of ‘boundary maintenance/ Apart from routine rituals, measures for pro- active boundary maintenance can be triggered off by the concerns of a community that the material and cultural conditions integral to retaining its own identity are being threatened by the acts of other ethnic groups. It can also be a response to demands imposed upon its members by the nation-state to assimilate with the dominant form of nationalism and national culture.

3. Mohsin [1997: 32], Roy [1995: 54] and Adnan [2004: 39-43]. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900 (Act 1 of 1900) is known in brief as the CHT Manual or Regulation.

4. Based on revision of the 1961 census data in Adnan [2004: 55-57, Table 4.1].

5. The name of the party can be translated as the Chittagong Hill Tracts People’s Solidarity Association.

6. Factors underlying the deterioration in Indo-Bangladesh relations are not presently pursued; however, these issues are discussed elsewhere [Cf. Ali, 1993: 188, and Mohsin, 1997: 167].

7. Based on revised estimates of official census figures, as specified in Table 4.1 and Figure 4.2 of Adnan [2004: 55-57].

8. GoB & PCJSS [1997]. The original treaty is composed in Bengali and its full title can be translated as follows: Accord between the National Committee Concerning the Chittagong Hill Tracts Instituted by the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti.


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Author(s): Shapan Adnan

Source: International Review of Modern Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 27-45

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