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Politics of Peace Building in Chittagong Hill Tracts

Bhumitra Chakma ( teaches at the University of Hull, United Kingdom.

Life in Peace and Conflict: Indigeneity and State in the Chittagong Hill Tracts edited by Nasir Uddin, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2017; pp xix+248, ₹ 495.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of Bangladesh has a chequered history. During the British colonial rule, it enjoyed significant internal autonomy. The colonial administration undertook several measures to maintain the demographic and environmental balance of the region. This included the enactment of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation, 1900 (in which stringent conditions were imposed on the settlement of outsiders in the district), the declaration of the CHT as a “totally excluded area” in the Government of India Act, 1935, etc (Al Ahsan and Chakma 1989). The CHT was administered directly from Delhi through a representative of the Governor–General, separate from the administration of Bengal and Assam.

A Brief History

At the time of the British withdrawal from India in 1947, the CHT, an area with more than 98% non-Muslim population, was bizarrely included in Pakistan, a country which was created on the basis of religion (Islam) and as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. The Pakistani state surreptitiously took away the safeguards that were put in place for the indigenous people by the regulation of 1900. Most importantly, the administrative and developmental measures undertaken by the then Government of Pakistan initiated a process of marginalisation and “unpeopling” of the CHT’s indigenous population.1 Of these, the most impactful project was the construction of the Kaptai dam (1957–62) on the Karnafuli river which left a devastating impact on the livelihood of the hill people, by inundating an area of about 400 square miles, including 54,000 acres of cultivable land (40% of the district’s plough land) and uprooting 10,000 ploughing and 8,000 jhumiya (shifting cultivator) families, totalling about 1,00,000 people (27% of the district’s total population) (Islam 1978). It would contribute to the rise of ethnic resistance in the CHT in later years.

In 1971, Pakistan was dismembered, resulting in the creation of independent Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan. CHT became part of this new state. However, the process of marginalisation and unpeopling of the hill people intensified after 1971. This happened primarily due to the new state’s adoption of a “monocultural” (Bengali only) constitution and an assimilationist policy towards the hill people (Chakma 2010). Such an approach threatened the cultural identity of the hill people which prompted an armed resistance in the CHT in the 1970s.

After more than two decades of violent conflict, the government and the indigenous group—Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) (United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts)—signed a peace accord on 2 December 1997. Since then, a peace process has been underway. After more than two decades of peace building, a pertinent question concerns whether the process has produced, or is likely to produce, durable peace in the conflict-torn region. In reality, peace still remains elusive in the CHT as key provisions of the peace accord have not been implemented (Tripura 2017).

Bottom-up Peace Building

The issue of peace in the CHT is taken up in the book under review. Consisting of eight chapters, it is a significant effort to understand various dimensions of the peace-building process and the current state of peace in the CHT. It adopts an ethnographic method (barring a couple of chapters) and argues that peace has remained elusive because peace building has been pursued as a “top-down” process. What is needed, the book posits, is a “bottom-up” approach which “pays particular attention to how people interpret the role of the state in their everyday life” (p 3).

In Chapter 1, the editor builds the central argument of the book (as noted above) and illustrates, through an ethnographic approach, the dialectic relationship between indigeneity and the state and how the state figures in the everyday life of the people. Chapter 2 explores the external dimension of the CHT peace accord and assesses it in the context of the India–Myanmar–Bangladesh trilateral relationships. Chapter 3 evaluates the peace accord from a gender perspective and critiques it for neglecting women.

Chapter 4 provides a critical evaluation of several materials on the peace accord concluding that ground realities need to be understood to attain peace in the CHT. Chapter 5 explains the importance of land and forest in indigenous life, livelihood and identity, asserting that the lack of access to these resources impede peace building in the CHT.

The final three chapters explore the developmental dimension of peace building in the CHT. In Chapter 6, the role of development agencies in the CHT post the accord is assessed. It asserts that development initiatives are instrumental in building peace. In a similar vein, the issue of development in the CHT is taken up in Chapter 7, arguing that local, national and global actors generate statist discourses which cannot yield positive outcomes. Finally, Chapter 8 assesses the efficacy of microcredit financing to build peace in the CHT. Nasir Uddin asserts that local power relations determine the outcome of microcredit schemes, implying that the schemes are not necessarily helpful to build peace in the CHT.

The ethnographic method adopted in this book is sound. Its “bottom-up” approach for a durable peace in the CHT is plausible because peace ultimately is meant for the ordinary people who live there. However, a political scientist will view the issue differently. Arguably, peace building in the CHT and elsewhere in post-conflict environments is essentially a political process, where there exists a close connection between the micro-level reality of peace and the macro-level political process of peace building. It can be asserted that the former is primarily shaped by the dynamics of the latter. In other words, the micro-level reality of peace and the macro-level process of peace building are intertwined.

The book rightly points out that after two decades, peace remains elusive in the CHT as it is “found only in paper (and) not in practice” (p 14). Moreover, the conflict has become multidimensional and more complex as the needs of the people at the grass-roots level have been overlooked in policy planning. While one would largely agree with this, I am of the view that to understand the complexities of peace building in the CHT, we need to dig deeper into the dynamics of the politics of peace in the region.

Tactics of the State and Military

This reviewer has argued elsewhere that the 1997 peace accord was made to fail (Chakma 2012) due to a variety of reasons. First, the Bangladesh government signed the peace accord knowing that it would not fully implement its provisions and promises (Mohsin 2003). The intrinsic objective in concluding the accord was disarming the insurgent Shanti Bahini (the armed wing of the PCJSS), albeit giving some concessions in several areas. However, as I illustrate below, a different strategy pursued by the Bangladesh military was at work here. It should be noted that the civilian Government of Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina, and the military, were and still are two distinct stakeholders in the CHT affairs. The latter has had the upper hand in the affairs of the CHT since the late 1970s.2

Although the Bangladesh government massively militarised the CHT once the insurgency surfaced,3 the core counterinsurgency strategy was to change the demography of the region, also known as “demographic invasion.” For this, a programme of transmigration of Bengalis was undertaken in the late 1970s (Anti-Slavery Society 1984: 71–73). Four lakh Bengalis were settled in the CHT between 1978 and 1985 (CHT Commission 1994: 26); consequently, the Bengali population in the CHT increased sharply from 9% in 1951 to about 50% in 1991 (Adnan 2004: 15). In the 2001 and 2011 national censuses, the Bangladesh government did not show separate figures for the indigenous and non-indigenous people in the CHT.

Three specific objectives underpinned the transmigration programme: (i) outnumbering the local indigenous Chakma population and “Bengalise” the CHT; (ii) enabling the Bangladesh military to counter the Shanti Bahini members by building “strategic hamlets” similar to those of the ill-fated American strategy in Vietnam;4 (iii) pursuing a policy of what came to be known as “we want the land and not the people,”5 which aimed at driving the indigenous people away and grabbing their lands.

The issue of Bengali settlement was discussed during negotiations for the accord, but it was not mentioned in the final document. The PCJSS leaders claim that there was an unwritten understanding about the Bengali settlers in which the Bangladesh government representatives promised that the transmigrated Bengalis would be resettled elsewhere following the signing of the accord.6 The European Union offered financial assistance to resettle the Bengalis (Roy 2003), but the Bangladesh government (read the military) did not accept the offer. Later, the Bangladesh government claimed that there was no such unwritten understanding (Chakma 2016).

Arguably, the military would not have agreed to the accord if their “demographic change” strategy were nullified by the accord. The idea being that if the demography could be changed, the accord itself would become redundant in the course of time. This calculation has been at the core of why the “temporary” military camps so far have not been withdrawn. The key purpose of the military after the accord was to provide security to the transmigrated Bengalis and maintain the demographic change strategy.

On Sexual Violence

Finally, one specific issue noted in Chapter 4 warrants brief comments. It is asserted in the chapter that the Shanti Bahini used rape as an instrument against both Pahari and Bengali women (p 94).
I have not come across any credible research that makes or establishes such a claim. On the contrary, a substantive body of research work does exist on how the Bangladesh military and the Bengali settlers have used rape as an instrument to realise their objectives. For example, a Chittagong University ethnographer has noted: “… many helpless indigenous women and girls have been raped or sexually assaulted by Bengali settlers and the security forces” (Uddin 2016: 331). Indeed, violence against indigenous women appear systematic. Adnan and Dastidar (2011: 97) have pointed out that rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated as mechanisms of pressurising indigenous families and communities to leave a particular locality, enabling settlers to grab their lands. Many more studies can be cited on the military’s and the settlers’ use of sexual violence as a political instrument. Issues such as these needed greater editorial scrutiny.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, this is an excellent endeavour in the quest for understanding the 20-year-old experience of peace building in the CHT. It highlights some of the key failures of the peace process which may contribute to the policymaking of Bangladesh for building durable peace in the region.


1 The term is borrowed from Abul Barkat (2016). Initially, George Orwell used the term “unperson” which was modified by Noam Chomsky as a phenomenon of “unpeopling” to illustrate the “vanishing” of a group of people by various means.

2 Once I asked a former Bangladesh foreign minister about the issue, who said that decisions regarding the CHT were the prerogatives of the military.

3 A total of 1,15,000 military personnel was deployed in the CHT, that is, one soldier for five to six hill persons (Levene 1999: 354).

4 A former Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong district, Ziauddin Choudhury, has provided an inside account of the Bengali settlement programme. He opposed the programme because he thought that it would have a disastrous impact on the indigenous communities (Choudhury 2010).

5 The statement was made by the general officer commanding of the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh armed forces, Major–General Abul Manzur, on 26 March 1977 at a public meeting (quoted in Mohsin 1999: 111). This policy can be traced back to the initial years of independent Bangladesh. In 1972, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman threatened a delegation from the CHT that if they did not abandon the demand of regional autonomy, the government would eliminate them by settling thousands of Bengalis in the CHT (van Schendel 1992: footnote 80: 117).

6 It is very likely that there was an unwritten agreement on the issue of resettlement of the government-sponsored settler Bengalis from the CHT, because the PCJSS leaders would otherwise not have possibly signed the 1997 accord. According to Peace Campaign Group, the PCJSS leaders agreed to keep it unwritten because Government of Bangladesh representatives explained to them that the “domestic constituency does not allow the simple majority Awami League Government to openly address the issue in the agreement … once the issue is addressed in the agreement, the opposition parties, particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, will come out in the streets with mass agitation that can even raise the question of survival of the government in power” (quoted in Roy 2003: footnote 23: 30).


Adnan, Shapan (2004): Migration, Land Alienation and Ethnic Conflict: Causes of Poverty in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Research and Advisory Service, Dhaka.

Adnan, Shapan and Ranajit Dastidar (2011): Alienation of the Lands of Indigenous Peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, Dhaka.

Al Ahsan, Aziz and Bhumitra Chakma (1989): “Problems of National Integration in Bangladesh: The Chittagong Hill Tracts,” Asian Survey, Vol 29, No 10, pp 959–70.

Anti-Slavery Society (1984): The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Militarisation, Oppression and the Hill Tribes, Indigenous Peoples and Development Series, Report No 2, Anti-slavery Society, London.

Barkat, Abul (2016): Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case of Bangladesh, Dhaka: Mukto Buddhi Publishers.

Chakma, Bhumitra (2010): “The Post-colonial State and Minorities: Ethnocide in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Vol 48, No 3, pp 281–300.

— (2012): “Bound to Fail? The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts ‘Peace Accord,’” The Politics of Peace: The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, Nasir Uddin (ed), Institute of Culture and Development Research, Dhaka, pp 121–42.

— (2016): “The CHT and the Peace Process,” Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Bangladesh, Ali Riaz and Sajjadur Rahman (eds), New York: Routledge, pp 306–15.

Choudhury, Ziauddin (2010): “Broken Promises,” Forum, Vol 3, No 4,

CHT Commission (1994): Life Is Not Ours: Land and Human Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, The Report of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, Amsterdam.

Islam, Syed Nazmul (1978): “The Karnafuli Project: Its Impact on the Tribal Population,” Public Administration, Vol 3, No 2.

Levene, Mark (1999): “The Chittagong Hill Tracts: A Case Study in the Political Economy of ‘Creeping’ Genocide,” Third World Quarterly, Vol 20, No 2, pp 339–69.

Mohsin, Amena (1999): The Politics of Nationalism: The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press Limited.

— (2003): The Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: On the Difficult Road to Peace, London: Lynne Rienner.

Roy, Raja Devasish (2003): “The Discordant Accord: Challenges towards the Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997,” Journal of Social Studies, No 100, pp 4–57.

Tripura, John (2017): “Twenty Years of the Elusive CHT Accord,” Daily Star, 2 December,

Uddin, Ala (2016): “Dynamics of Struggle for Survival of the Indigenous People in Southeastern Bangladesh,” Ethnopolitics, Vol 15, No 3, pp 319–38.

van Schendel, Willem (1992): “The Invention of the ‘Jummas’: State Formation and Ethnicity in Southeastern Bangladesh,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 26, No 1, pp 95–128.

Updated On : 27th Oct, 2018


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