All the Fuss about the "Settlers" of the Hilly Districts: Whose Interests are the activists protecting?

The subject of minorities is a very touchy one in any country, especially in nation-states where a national heritage or culture or identity (often dictated by the majority population) defines the characteristic of the state. Such modern concepts of states get complicated if there are other minorities that live in the state, each claiming to be a separate "nation" by virtue of its religion, language, culture, etc.

Bangladesh, as we all know, has about 12% minorities, including approx. 10% Hindus, the remainders being Buddhists, Christians, agnostics, atheists and animists. Most of the latter groups live in the high hills, e.g., Jayintia, Garo Hills and Chittagong Hill Tract districts. Historically the Bengal delta was husbanded by people who resorted to wet cultivation while the people in the hills, who mostly were outside tax collection from ruling authorities, resorted to dry cultivation for their staple food. In the olden days of the Mughal rulers the authority of the state sometimes ended where the hills began. As we all know it was the marauding attacks from the Maghs (Arakanese Buddhists) and Portuguese pirates, which were sponsored by the Buddhist Kings of Arakan, that led to Shaista Khan’s campaign to re-conquest Chittagong and its hilly districts, ensuring these territories’ sovereignty within the Mughal rule. His campaign stopped shy of the present-day Arakan that demarcated itself from Bangladesh by the Naaf River. During the subsequent Nawabi rule of Bengal and British Raj the territorial boundary remained the same, i.e., both those districts remained integral to Bengal and outside Buddhist rules of Arakan, Burma and Tripura.

Unlike the Mughal and Muslim Sultanates of Bengal, the British Raj (esp. during the Company era) was more interested about collection of revenue and had little concern about the goodwill of the local people and their legitimate grievances whether or not such taxes were burdensome. It was their heavy handedness that led to the horrible famine of 1769-1773 (corresponding to Bangla Year 1176-1180, and more commonly therefore known as "Chiatturer monontor") killing some 15 million people of Bengal (that included Bihar and Orissa). One in every three person perished in that great famine.

During the British Raj a more drastic and concerted effort was taken to reclaim hilly areas under taxation. In order to increase revenue collection, the Raj created local tribal chiefs in the Hilly districts, Rajas, who would ensure payment of such revenues. For the planes, it had by the 19th century already instituted a similar scheme of collecting revenues from the zamindars (not to be forgotten in this context the Sunset Law), who essentially became the enforcer of collecting such revenues in the form of money or kind (e.g., paddy) from the raiyats – peasants, and petty merchants. That is, the role of the zamindars was similar to a revenue collector in modern times.

The CHT districts like many other hilly parts of pre-modern era India often became refuges to rebels and revenue dodgers who would settle (without its true connotation) there to escape from being hunted down by the ruling authority. In 1784 in the nearby Arakan there was a massive genocidal campaign that was steward-headed by the racist Buddhist king of Burma — Bodaw Paya — who had invaded the independent state. Arakan – the land of poets Alaol and Dawlat Kazi – had a significant population of Muslims who had lived in the other side of the Naaf River for centuries. [As shown elsewhere by this author, the origin of the Rohingya people of Arakan pre-dates the settlement of the Tibeto-Burman people there.] The genocidal campaign by the Buddhist king led to a mass scale forced eviction and exodus of hundreds of thousands of people of Arakan to the nearby territories of British India, esp. to Chittagong and CHT districts of today’s Bangladesh. Nearly a hundred thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed by the Burmese extermination campaign. The Mahamuni statue of Buddha itself was stolen away from the Arakan. Many Muslims were taken as slaves and forced to live elsewhere, e.g., in places like the Karen States of Burma.

Those Muslims who were able to save themselves from Burmese annexation of Arakan, like many Magh Arakanese, settled mostly in the Chittagong and CHT districts. The Muslim refugees and their descendants that had lived and settled in those places came to be known by the name Ruhis, depicting their Rohingya/Arakan origin. During the Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, Arakan and subsequently the vast territories of Burma came under the British Rule. The exiled Rohingya/Ruhi Muslims and Maghs of Arakan, and their descendants, were allowed and encouraged to resettle in those territories south of the Naaf River. While many did return, others remained behind in Chittagong and CHT districts. The British policy and the subsequent process of return of the Arakanese exiles, esp. the hard-working wet cultivating Rohingya people, facilitated the cultivation of vast territories within Burma, which had hitherto remained barren and uncultivable. This enriched the coffer of the British Government through collection of revenues and taxes. Many descendants of the exiled Rohingyas (or Ruhis of Chittagong) would also become seasonal laborers in Arakan.

Today, the bulk of the non-Muslim population that live in the Hill Tract districts are the descendants of those fleeing refugees from Arakan who fled the territory during Bodaw Paya’s extermination campaign. They are our Chakma and Marma people. Their history to the territory cannot be traced with any authenticity before that historical event of 1784. This does not mean that there was no migration of people over the hills. In fact, there was in those days of porous borders where geography was not often attached with politics, state and administration. Like any nomadic people, the Hilly people had no permanent settlement to the territory – they moved to and fro between porous borders of today’s Bangladesh, Tripura (India) and Burma. Their migration from outside, much like the Ruhis of Chittagong and CHT, cannot be traced before 1784. Bottom line: the Mongoloid featured Hilly people are as much settlers to the CHT as are the Chittagonians/Ruhis living there. Calling these latter people "settlers" would be false and insincere!

After the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, the CHT was made part of East Pakistan. During the War of Liberation, its Raja openly aligned itself with the Pakistan regime, thus leaving a strong sense of betrayal and mistrust between the local Bengali or Chittagonian people and the Hilly people. During the war of liberation and in the post-1971 era, many Bengalis were kidnapped and killed by the extremist elements of the Hilly people. [An uncle of mine, who had worked as an engineer in the Rayon Mill of Kaptai, embraced a similar fate.] Crimes of this nature continued unabated making the territory unsafe and insecure. Outside the towns, there was virtually no functioning of the government. The territory became impassable and unlivable for most Bengali speaking people. They would be kidnapped, and often times killed, even when ransom money had been paid to the kidnappers.

The so-called Shanti Bahini comprising of armed Hilly bandits and extremists demanded autonomy and they were aided and armed by anti-Bangladeshi forces. With the assassination of Sk. Mujib, as the political scene changed drastically inside Bangladesh, the Shanti Bahini had a new sponsor – India – to destabilize the country. This led to some uneasy situation between the government of Bangladesh and the Hilly people, leading to the deployment of BDR and Army. (India likewise has claimed that Bangladesh government had armed rebels in its north-east corner.) The era of instability persisted during the military-supported govts. of Zia and Ershad.

After the overthrow of the military dictatorship, the situation improved somewhat with the signing of peace treaties with rebel leaders. Unfortunately because of its demography and geography, the region has seen infiltration of arms, which inevitably has gone to forces that are destabilizing the region. Thus, even to this day, criminal Hilly gangs armed by anti-Bangladeshi governments and NGOs still continue to harass the local police, BDR and military outposts, and kidnap and kill Bengali speaking population, including members of the local and foreign NGOs that work on various projects aiming to improve the economic and social condition there.

In recent years, some NGOs have emerged with questionable intentions and aims that are at odds with aspirations of our people and territorial integrity of Bangladesh. Some of the so-called human rights activists are nothing but foreign agents working towards weakening the sovereignty of Bangladesh. They are in cahoots with foreign governments and agencies that want to further destabilize the country under the name of autonomy for the Hindus, Christians and Buddhists – almost everyone but Bangladeshi Muslim citizens! [1] Interestingly, these same people would object to any Islamic and Muslim NGOs, smelling there deep conspiracy for Talibanization of the country, but have no problem working with foreign governments and NGOs that like to turn Bangladesh into Sikim or a failed state that is fragmented into parts along ethnic or racial lines.  Nor would these charlatans have any tears shed for the victims of Hindu and Buddhist pogroms inside India and Burma, respectively. What hypocrites!

How can we be oblivious about the harmful activities of some of those NGOs that, taking advantage of Bush’s anti-Muslim doctrine in the post-9/11 era, had lobbied the US Congress to punish Bangladesh, claiming falsely that there was a government policy for ethnically cleansing minorities? Some even called for separate homeland for Hindus! They had no bite of moral conscience into hobnobbing with religious extremists and ultra-nationalists, racists and bigots within the RSS, BJP, VHP, SPDC and Likud.

Dr. Ajay Roy, father of Mukto-mona’s founding moderator Avijit (the site became a major platform to insult the Prophet of Islam and for anti-Islamic campaigns in the post-9/11 era) bemoans that currently 56% of the population living in the Hilly districts are Bengali-speakers. I never heard him complain about the demographic change that had been taking place inside Indian Kashmir. Unlike Kashmir where there is a government-run program and policy towards change of the demography, so as to turn the Muslim majority area into a Muslim-starved area, Bangladesh government does NOT have a discriminatory policy of preferred settlement for its Bengali-speaking population into the Hilly districts. As anyone else living inside Bangladesh, the Hilly people are entitled to live and work anywhere. That is why there are today more Hilly people living outside the Hilly districts mostly for economic reasons. As minorities, they also enjoy certain preferred treatment in education and employment sectors that are denied to the majority.

With a high fertility rate among Bengalis, it is no accident that they are a majority in some Hilly districts today. Many of them are engaged in various professions, mostly in trading and commerce. Bangladesh government cannot enact fascist ghettoization laws that confine any particular ethnic or religious group into living in enclaves or reserves. Any suggestion along that line is simply unrealistic and criminal to the core.

The Hilly people are aware that in a poor country like Bangladesh with scarcity of land (where national earning is dependent on foreign remittance of her economic labors around the world) any law that is discriminatory to the pursuit of freedom of movement, employment, economic prosperity and happiness for all will be detrimental and almost suicidal. They also understand that they are the best protectors and preservers of their language and heritage, something that is unfortunately becoming very difficult for small minorities in a global economy of our time. Even in places like Kolkata, how often does one hear Bengali compared to Hindi or English?

I could not disagree more with speakers of the event reported in the Daily Star who said that the Bengali-speaking people needed to be removed forcibly from the Hilly districts for, what they called, "preservation" of its "indigenous" tradition, culture and heritage. Their prescription is no different than that of a racist or a bigot that prefers exclusion over inclusion, ghettoization over pluralism, discrimination over equal opportunity, unless being too disingenuous, serving to the altar of anti-Bangladeshi forces that like to see Bangladesh become a Sikim of our time. Shame on them on all counts!


[1]. Read e.g., Richard Benkin’s articles on the subject, esp.,