Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, 1997

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Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, 1997 an agreement signed on 2 December 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and the parbatya chattagram jana-samhati samiti (PCJSS).

On the eve of the formation of the Constitution of Bangladesh, a delegation of hill people headed by manabendra narayan larma formally placed before the Prime Minister bangabandhu sheikh mujibur rahman some demands for autonomy towards maintaining cultural and linguistic identity of the hill people. The failure of the government to accommodate the demands of the hill people led Larma to form the Parbatya Chattagram Jana-Samhati Samiti in March 1973 with the object of safeguarding the interest of the hill people. Subsequently an armed wing called the shanti bahini (Peace Forces) was added to it.

The assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 was a turning point in the history of the PCJSS. Larma crossed over to India. Between 1975 and 1977 the Shanti Bahini (SB) developed its military organisation and weaponry. Its members swelled over time. The SB began its operations allegedly from bases in Tripura in India. In 1977, they ambushed a Bangladesh military convoy which followed by a build-up of increased defense system in the area by the Bangladesh army. The CHT was placed under the GOC of the 24 Division, and the Bangladesh army began its counter insurgency operations.

Along with military actions the government undertook economic measures to pacify the hill people. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) was set up. However, the hill people had deep misgivings about the development endeavours of the government. They had little confidence in the operation and management of the CHTDB. Its chairman was the GOC of the 24 division, and it was largely managed by Bangalis. An old grievance of the CHT people was the loss incurred by them due to the construction of the Kaptai hydroelectric project which devoured about 40 percent of their prime land. Nearly one lakh people were rendered homeless. Many of them are said to have migrated to Arunachal Pradesh of India. The government failed to fully compensate the people for the land they had lost. Thus at the heart of the misgivings grew a deep sense of alienation and frustration.

The government also began a programme of settling Bangalis in the region in 1979. This programme violated the customary jhumia rights of the hill people. The process of settling Bengalis in the newly declared khas land led to the eviction of many hill people. Many of them crossed over to India as refugees. By 1991, the Bangalis constituted about 48.5% of the total population of the CHT while in 1974 (ie pre-settlement period) they were only about 11.6 percent.

Since the 1980s, the PCJSS gave a new identity to the hill people. It was Jumma nationalism. It claimed that the thirteen different ethnic communities in the CHT together constitute the Jumma nation. The nomenclature was adopted to unify the hill people under one banner in order to counter the hegemony of the majority. More importantly, it was an assertion of their equality and an attempt to come out of the negativism associated with tribalism. The PCJSS also demanded that a constitutional guarantee be given to their cultural distinctiveness.

The government under the District Council Act passed on 28 February 1989 established three distinct local government councils for the districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban. Each of these councils is headed by a chairman who must be an indigenous person. Out of 30 members of the council two-thirds are indigenous and one-third Bangali. The indigenous seats are proportionately divided among the different ethnic groups of the districts. The council is elected directly on the basis of adult franchise. It is responsible for law and order; coordination of development works; primary and secondary education; health; public health; fisheries; agriculture and forestry; livestock; cooperatives; small and cottage industries; social welfare; art and culture; non-reserved roads and bridges; recreations, games and parks; rest houses; ferries; implementation of government sponsored development projects; communication facilities; water supply and sewerage; local multipurpose development; religious and moral affairs; local control over sale, settlement and leases of land. The Council is also responsible for formulating its own budget. The district councils were rejected by the PCJSS on the ground that the District Council Act had no constitutional basis.

The CHT Peace Accord recognised the special status of the hill people. Under the Accord a Regional Council (RC) has been formed representing the three hill districts local government councils. The following is the composition of the RC: chairman 1, members (tribal) male 12, members (tribal) female 2, members (non-tribal) male 6, member (non-tribal) female 1. Among the total male tribal members, five will be elected from the Chakma, three from the Marma, two from the Tripura and one each from the Murang and the Tanchangya. In case of female tribal members one from the Chakma and one from another tribe will be elected. As for non-tribal members two would be elected from each district. The members of the RC will be elected by the elected members of the three hill district councils. Chairmen of the three hill district councils will be the ex-officio members of the Council and they will have the right to vote. The elected members of the RC will elect its chairman. The Council will be elected for five years. It will coordinate and supervise the general administration, law and order, and development activities of the three hill districts. Tribal laws and the dispensation of social justice will also come under its purview. It will coordinate disaster management and relief activities with NGOs and issue license for heavy industries. The government will enact laws relating to the CHT in consultation with the Council.

The Accord also provides for the setting up of a Ministry of Tribal Affairs to be headed by a tribal to look into the affairs of the CHT. It is evident that the RC is a symbolic institution. Its powers and functions are of a coordinating and supervisory nature. The powers and functions of the district councils have remained the same, though in certain cases amendments have been made in the Act to make them more functional.

The accord stipulates that land would be returned to the owners once their ownership rights were ascertained, and a land survey would be undertaken in the CHT to ascertain ownership rights.

Under the present accord the army will remain in the CHT. Permanent cantonments will remain; only the temporary camps of the army, ansar and the village defense forces, save and except the BDR, will be gradually withdrawn. The members of the armed forces can be deployed under the state rules and procedures in case of deterioration of law and order and in times of natural calamities as in other parts of the country under the control of the civil administration. The RC may request the appropriate authorities for such help and assistance as and when necessary. [Amena Mohsin]

Bibliography MS Ali, Parbattya Chattagram Shanti Chukti, Dhaka, 1998; Amena Mohsin, The Politics of Nationalism: The Case of the CHT, Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1997 pp. 164-187; Dabeenama, 1996 (Charter of demands of the PCJSS to the Government of Bangladesh).