The arson attack on three jumma neighbourhoods at Bogachari in Rangamati on December 16 has brought old issues to the fore. It has once again highlighted how vulnerable the jumma people have become to attacks by settlers. Land also continues to be at the centre of the conflicting situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Ever since the landless Bengali people were brought in the late 1970s and 1980s to use them as human shields against guerrilla attacks by the now-defunct Shanti Bahini, the illegal and forcible takeover of jumma people’s individual and community-owned land has become a perennial problem, often resulting in communal attacks. The government is reluctant to address this crucial issue while the jummas continue to suffer. The role of the security forces has also always been biased towards the settlers. It has been proved time and again that without their support, no incident of land grab nor any settler attacks can happen. Communal attacks of the magnitude that we usually witness in the hill tracts can take place only when attackers are certain that they would not have to face justice for their action. Security forces are believed to have been the source of their fearlessness.
It is needless to say that the latest attack in which left 54 houses and seven shops belonging to the jumma people were destroyed and several people, including a Buddhist monk, became wounded, followed the same old pattern. Specific allegations have it that many a soldier not only helped the settlers in the attack, they themselves took part in it. One report said that the settlers had begun torching the houses after the army fired three shots in the air. The soldiers also reportedly doused a house, which was left half-burnt from a fire set by the settlers earlier with petrol and then set it alight. When some of the victims protested and entered into an argument with the guilty soldiers over this matter, the commanding officer of the Naniachar zone, is reported to have appeared in the scene and beat them (jummas) up.
One story going around is that the destruction of a pineapple plantation was what triggered the mindless attack. But an objective analysis of the circumstances surrounding the attack leads us to come to the conclusion that the alleged destruction of the pineapple seedlings planted by Bengali settlers was a mere excuse. While there is no evidence that the victims of the attack had anything to do with the destruction, the settlers’ argument has failed to cut much ice. This is because it is they who have committed the wrong in the first place by illegally occupying the land and then planting pineapple trees on it. I would not be surprised if the person who had planted the pineapple himself or any other settler is found to be responsible for the damage. There are plenty of instances in which Bengali settlers harmed their own people to create an excuse to launch communal attacks on the jumma people.
On August 18, 2009, Bengali settlers tried to attack a jumma village after they found the dead body of a settler woman named Nasiama Begum, 26, near a jumma neighbourhood in Panchari. The attack could be averted when the police intervened in a swift manner. It turned out that she was actually killed by her close relatives, who dumped her body in this way to shift the suspicion away from themselves. In another incident, on February 12, 2012, Roksana Akter alias Rushi, 25, a housewife from Mohammadpur in Panchari, was killed and her body was found in a turmeric field near a jumma hamlet. A section of the settlers then made it an issue to create a communal riot against the jumma villagers. But the attempt failed only when it was proved that jummas had nothing to do with her death. In Ramgarh, couple of years ago, some settler youths killed their friend, also a settler, placed his body near a jum house on a hill and then blamed the jummas for the murder. Later the security forces found out that the jummas were completely innocent.
The Bogachari attack is much similar to the last year’s attack (August 3, 2013) at Taindong in Khagrachari, in which over a dozen jumma villagers were wounded and 34 houses, a Buddhist temple and a shop were burnt to ashes. The attack was carried out after a settler youth named Kamal Hossain claimed that he had been kidnapped by ‘Pahari terrorists’. Of course, it subsequently turned out to be staged and Kamal Hossain was arrested by the police, but by that time the harm and destruction had already been done. It is interesting to note that the Jana Samhati Samiti (the Santu faction), which has blamed the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF) for the destruction of pineapple plantation in Bogachari, had also vociferously claimed that ‘the kidnapping’ of Kamal Hossain was masterminded by the UPDF, which has a strong presence in both areas. By doing this, the JSS may have won some Brownie points with its mentors in Dhaka but at the cost of its credibility and integrity. The UPDF has strongly denied that its members were involved in the destruction of the pineapple plantation that triggered the settler backlash.
It is regrettable that some people are trying to play politics over who is to blame for the damage caused to the pineapple plantation. This is nothing but a way of covering up the real issues involved. It takes the most crucial question, the one of land grab, out of our sight. Even if we assume, for the same of argument, that the jummas are involved, then what difference does it make to the whole situation? Do they not have a right to protect their land from intruders? Therefore, if the jummas have actually destroyed the pineapple seedlings, then it is more appropriate to view their action as a desperate act on their part to defend their land, especially when they do not get redress from the local administration on such issues. It is not fair that you would take action only when the settlers are harmed but would keep silent when forcible grabbing of the jumma people’s land takes place.
The Bogachari attack sparked protests and drew widespread condemnation. The Naniachar Land Protection Committee has continued to block the Rangamati–Khagrachari Road to press home its five-point demand, which includes, among others, the arrest of the perpetrators and guarantee of security of life and property, compensation to the victims, an end to land grab and relocation of the Bengali settlers from Bogachari. Although the local district administration has promised to rebuild the burnt houses, it has yet to take action to bring the perpetrators to justice. On December 22, a team of the victims met Mostafa Kamal, deputy commissioner of Rangamati, at his office and put forward their demands. However, the deputy commissioner failed to make any definitive commitment, which disappointed the victims.
While large-scale attacks on jumma people are not uncommon, with over two dozens being committed since the 1980 Kalampati massacre in Kawkhali, the Bogachari attack emphasised the fact that unless traditional land rights of the jumma people are restored and disputes over land ownership settled, such attacks are unlikely to cease. Therefore, it is imperative that the government should take urgent measures to address the issue without further delay. In the meantime, let us hope that the Bogachari attack is the last one.
Aongay Marma is general secretary of the Democratic Youth Forum and a former president of the Hill Students’ Council.
This article was published on December 28, 2014 in New Age.