Brief History of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, situated in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, is a home to a number of ethnic minorities such as Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Chak, Bawm, Murang, Panku etc. They are collectively known as Jumma people. For the last three decades or so they have been waging a fierce struggle for their right to self-determination. For those who are not so familiar with the Chittagong Hill Tracts and its ongoing resistance, a brief historical background of the region would not be out of place.

a. During British Colonial Period

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, prior to the advent of British rule, was an independent state free from outside control. In the precolonial period, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had not been part of any state, although they had long been influenced by waxing and waning of power centres in Tripura (to the north), Arakan (to the south) and Bengal (to the west).

The powerful Mugal rulers tried unsuccessfully to bring the CHT into its full suzerainty, but they had to be content with a kind of trade relation, which was beneficial for both the CHT and the Mugal rulers. According to an agreement reached between them, the CHT Rajas (chiefs) used to pay some sort of a trade tax in kind (Karpas or cotton) to the Mugals in exchange for trade facilities along the border areas of Chittagong, a part of greater Bengal. Because of this trade tax in cotton the Chittagong Hill Tracts came to be known as the Karpas Mahal or Land of Cotton during Mugal era.

The British annexed the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1860, more than a century after the battle of Palashy (in 1757) in which the Nawab of Bengal Siraj Uddollah was defeated in the hands of the British forces. During the early periods of its rule, the British refrained from interfering with the internal affairs of the CHT and though administered from Calcutta, the CHT was not a regular part of Bengal. Its administrative system, land rights, and closure to outside settlers all set it apart from the rest of Bengal. This status was reconfirmed in the 1930s when the region was declared an excluded area under the Government of India Act. Later the British enacted a legal instrument the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900, also known as CHT Manual, for the general administration of the area. Through this Regulation the British allowed the Jumma people to enjoy a limited measure of autonomy and banned permanent settlement of the outsiders.

b. Pakistan Period

In 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was de-colonized the Chittagong Hill Tracts was awarded to Pakistan. The Pakistani government viewed the Jumma people with suspicion and took measures to do away with the legal safeguards granted by the British. Outsiders were encouraged to settle in the CHT. In 1960s a dam was built over Karnaphuli river at a place called Kapati without any kind of prior consultation with the Jumma people. The dam, which had far-reaching socio-economic and political consequences for the CHT, submerged 54 thousand acres of first class arable land and evicted 100,000 Jumma people from their homestead.

c. Bangladesh Period

In 1971 after nine months of bloody war against the Pakistani occupation forces Bangladesh came into being. The Chittagong Hill Tracts being a part of the then East Pakistan now became a part of the new state. The first blow to the Jumma people came from the new state when it tried to impose ultra-Bengali nationalism on them. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first Prime Minister, ordered the Jumma people to forget their own national identities and become Bengalees. After his assassination in a coup de tat the military dictators embarked on a massive militarization programme, did away with protective provisions of the CHT Regulation and encouraged and sponsored settlement of outsiders in the CHT. Human rights violations in the form of political repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape, arson, eviction, land grabbing continued unabated. The Jumma people reacted sharply to these undemocratic and repressive measures of the successive governments of Bangladesh and resistant movement developed in the form of an armed struggle.

The JSS and its armed struggle

At the beginning, the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts organised themselves under a political party - the Jana Samhati Samiti or JSS, which was founded in 1972. A year later its armed wing Shanti Bahini was formed. The party went underground in 1975 following the killing of Sheikh Muzibur Rahman, the then President of Bangladesh, in a bloody military coup that ousted the Awami League from power. The JSS started armed struggle in 1976 and established a semblance of parallel civil administration throughout the CHT. The party faced a major setback in 1983 when it split into two factions - Lamba (long) and Badi (short) - over the party's strategic and tactical questions. The Lamba faction led by the Larma brothers sought to achieve the right to self-determination through a protracted guerilla war. On the other hand, the Badi faction led by Priti Kumar Chakma and Bhabatosh Dewan opposed this line and advocated that the party should sever the CHT from Bangladesh with the support of the Indian government. The conflict between the two opposing factions led to a bloody civil war that claimed many lives in their primes including party's founding president M.N. Larma. The civil war ended in 1985 with the surrender of Badi faction to the government of Bangladesh. This helped the Lamba faction to become the sole guerilla group with control over the whole of the CHT. But in spite of that the civil war greatly weakened the JSS as a party, which was much evident by the fact that the party failed to achieve any tangible success during the post-civil warperiod.

Formation of overground Jumma organisations

Another failure of the JSS was its inability to realise the importance of the overground political activities in the context of the CHT politics. This resulted in the winding up of all activities of their student body - the Pahari Chattra Samiti (Hill Students Organisation). Later, almost all its members were inducted into the Shanti Bahini, the armed guerrilla wing of the JSS. Thus JSS' initiation of armed struggle created a vacuum in the overground political stage, which was largely filled up by reactionary elements with the support of the government and the army. This is the primary reason why it took long two decades to organise the Jumma students in a new platform called Hill Student's Council. This student body and two other overground Jumma organisations namely Hill Women's Federation and Hill People's Council were founded in the late 1980s.

The formation of the Hill Student's Council (Pahari Chattra Parishad, PCP, in Bangla) marked the beginning of a new era in the struggle of the Jumma people. Born out of student protests against the Longudu massacre in 1989, the PCP soon became the symbol of democratic resistance to the oppressive rule of the government in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The CHT Accord of 1997

Following a protracted negotiation the Jana Samhati Samiti struck a deal with the Awami League government on 2 December 1997. Pursuant to the said deal, which came to be known as the CHT Accord, the Jana Samhati Samiti and its armed members gave up arms and surrendered to the Bangladesh Army in phases beginning from 10 February 1998. The accord is nothing but an instrument of surrender on the part of the JSS and has failed to fulfill any of the major demands of the CHT people. The above mentioned three overground democratic organisations of the CHT people expressed strong reservations about the accord and vowed to carry on the struggle of the CHT masses. As a mark of protest, they burned down copies of the accord in Dhaka, hoisted black flags and showed banners reading "No Full Autonomy, No Rest" during surrendering ceremony at Khagrachari Stadium.

Founding of a new political party

In December 1998 the three organisations - Pahari Chattra Parishad, Pahari Gano Parishad and Hill Women's Federation - met in a joint conference in Dhaka and founded a new political party "United Peoples Democratic Front or UPDF" on 26 December. A central convening committee headed by Prasit Bikash Khisah was formed to organise the progressive forces of the CHT people. The three organisaitons now became front organisations of the new party.

Present political situation in the CHT

About UPDF

The United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) is a political party based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. Founded on 26 December 1998 at the end of a Preparatory Conference held in Dhaka, the UPDF is a manifestation of the strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 2 December 1997. The Accord failed to address fundamental demands of the Jumma people. UPDF was formed with a pledge to fight for the right of self-determination of the indigenous Jumma peoples through the establishment of FULL AUTONOMY. The UPDF firmly believes in the principles of democracy, fraternity and equality, and above all it seeks to establish a society free from all forms of oppression and exploitation. The principles of equality of nations, equality of both sexes and non-communal and democratic ideals constitute the basis of all activities of the Party.

United Peoples Democratic Front Manifesto (Preliminary)

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, which happens to be a disturbed region in the country, has been subject to continuous neglect and oppression. Its history is one of deprivation, exploitation and repression on the one hand, and resistance and rebellious struggle against it on the other. The inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts - the national minorities - who have distinct features of their own are sharply different from the people of the plains in respect of history, heritage, culture and life-style.

In the past the peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts were independent - free from outside control. To the powerful rulers of that time, it was like a "buffer state", which became the next target of the British colonialists after they had succeeded in taking control of the whole of India. A long and protracted war ensued between the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the British when the later tried to extend its colony up to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Even the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts fought against the Moguls and were able to maintain their distinct identities.

As was inevitable, the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts at one stage were outwitted by the British colonialists and conceded defeat. The British gave the status of Excluded Area to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and enacted a special rule for it - the 1900 Act or Hill Tracts Manual, through which the CHT was administered independently as a "Special Area".

When in the face of anti-British movements the all-powerful British colonialists were compelled to quit India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts was annexed to Pakistan ignoring the Rule of India Act, 1947. The founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah promised to maintain the "Special Area" status of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The first constitution of Pakistan adopted in 1956 retained the status of Excluded Area as granted by the 1900 Act. But in the revised constitution of 1962 the phrase "excluded area" was deleted and instead the CHT was mentioned as a "Tribal Area". Thus the successive Pakistani rulers very tactfully abolished the rights and status of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and imposed a tyrannical rule upon the people. The twenty-five years rule of Pakistan was an unbearable one.

Through an armed insurrection against Pakistani oppression and exploitation the independent state of Bangladesh came into being. The irresistible urge for emancipation from exploitation, oppression and deprivation - the urge with which the people of Bengal fought against the Pakistani Junta, remained largely unfulfilled in the independent Bangladesh. Though the people of Bengal got rid of direct oppression and exploitation of Pakistani rulers through the establishment of Bangladesh State, they however failed to achieve complete freedom or victory in the truer sense of the term. In the place of the Pakistani exploiters and oppressors, a small group of emerging capitalists, traders and bureaucrats from among the Bengalees seized state power and began to exploit and oppress the people in a slightly different manner. Naturally, thus the lot of the common people remained nearly unchanged, even after independence.

On the other hand, the condition of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, situated on the border of the country, is far more worse and pathetic. Like the Pakistani ruling classes, the new ruling elite ascending state power began to show inimical behaviour towards the people of the CHT. Whatever rights and privileges reserved for the CHT during the period of Pakistan were curtailed after independence. In the constitution of the free country, the issue of multi-lingual national minorities was completely overlooked. It did not give recognition to them, to speak the least. In order to throttle the people of the CHT, steamroller of repression was put into use. All sorts of machinations were on to reduce them into minorities in their own land by uprooting them from their own homesteads. A series of massacres and killings was organized in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

In accordance with the incontrovertible law of history, resistance movement against all this repression developed in the CHT, and a number of organizations came into existence with the aim of establishing people's rights. In the process of the struggle at different stages, however, many of them were perished. Speaking for the establishment of people's right, the Parbattyo Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) led the resistance movement for about two decades through leagal as well as illegal means, and initially it was able to muster overwhelming support from the peoples.

But of late, the agreement with the ruling Awami League (2nd December 1997) and the "surrender" (10 February 1998) have clearly demonstrated the political bankruptcy of the PCJSS. A few leaders of this party have compromised the people's interest and fallen deep into the marshland of opportunism. They have made it their raison detre to advance self-interest by winning favour of the ruling party other than to carry the struggle forward for establishing people's rights.

No agreement or compromise that went against the hopes and aspirations of the people, could yield any good result in the past. Nor has any other settlement imposed conspiratorially been effective either. The agreement with the Priti faction of the Jana Samhati Samiti in 1985 and its surrender, a deal with the governmentally selected representatives and imposition of District Council System testify to this. Now the PCJSS has finally met its doom through the "agreement" and the "surrender". So it has become the demand of time to build up such a party which would carry out its activities in a manner that would give priority to the specific political issues of the area.

Why a New Party?

It would not have necessary for us to launch a new party, had there existed any other political party in the CHT truly representing the people in terms of giving leadership to the struggle for establishing the rights of the downtrodden masses. The democratic forces of the Hill People's Council, Hill Student's Council and Hill Women's Federation, which emerged through the students upsurge of 1989, would have joined such a party and played their due role in the struggle. Unfortunately, no such party exists in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In spite of the fact that the JSS has fought for so many years for the establishment of people's rights, it has now been suffering from complete political bankruptcy since its agreement with the ruling Awami League and the subsequent surrender. The Jana Samhati Samiti is destined to be liquidated in the course of history like the Muslim League of this country and it is now only a matter of time. Except for sympathetic statements issued by the progressive left democratic forces to condemn and protest the massacres and atrocities perpetrated so far by the ruling classes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, no significant protest or movement has been organized on a national scale. Nor has any nation-wide action program been undertaken as a mark of solidarity with the oppressed people of the CHT either. During the crucial moments of political changeover or power-transfer the issue of the CHT has been always overlooked. The political parities of the ruling classes failed to give importance to the CHT issue at the time when through the mass upsurge of 1990 the caretaker government was being formed on the basis of national consensus. The same thing was repeated during the caretaker government in 1996. This caretaker government, however, refused to take any action against the known abductors of Kalpana Chakma who was abducted just seven hours before the general election.

Aims and style of work of the Party

''The aim of the Party is to ensure the existence of all nationalities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts through the establishment of FULL AUTONOMY, and to establish a democratic society free from oppression and exploitation. Equality of nations, equality of both sexes and non-communal and democratic ideal shall constitute the basis of all activities of the party; it shall show respect to the freedom, sovereignty and integrity of the country.

The Party, like other democratic parties of the country, shall demand for repealing of all black laws including the fourth and eighth amendment to the constitution and the Enemy Property Act; it shall play its role in all movements against fascism and autocracy, and also take part in movements against oppression.

The Party shall take part in the struggle for the recognition of all national minorities of the CHT as well as other parts of the country.

The Party shall endevour to ensure the rights, dignity and interest of all residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The Party shall give priority to the specific issues of the people of the CHT in performing its activities.

The Party, with a view to ensuring the rights of the citizens of the country and to establishing a democratic society, shall work together with other democratic parties.''

Adopted at the Party Preparatory Conference on 25-26 December 1998 organized jointly by the Hill People's Council, Hill Student's Council and Hill Women's Federation.

Permission to this was granted on November 25 2005 by Mithun Chakma.