Chittagong Hill Tract Tribes of Bangladesh

Name: Chittagong Hill Tract Tribals
Alternative names: Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras, “Jummas” (collective name)
Location: Chittagong Hill Tracts, south-western Bangladesh
Population: about 500,000
% of population: 0.5% of Bangladesh population, 0.66% of CHT population
Religion: Buddhist, animist, Christian
Language: various

The Tribals of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are part of a much larger tribal minority in Bangladesh. Some of these tribal peoples, such as the Santals, Oraons, Hos, Mundas and Rajbansis, who are found along the border of West Bengal in the east of Bangladesh, are of Australoid and Dravidian stock and have affinities with Hinduism; others, such as the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras, Garos, Manipuris and Khasis, are of Mongoloid stock and are Sino-Tibetan in origin. Most of these groups live in the Bandaran, Chittagong Hill Tract and Khagrachari Districts along the eastern border of Bangladesh adjoining Burma and the Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura. The Khasis and the Garos are predominantly Christian while the Chakmas and the Maghs are Buddhists. Most of the other groups have animistic beliefs. The tribes which live close to West Bengal have strong affinities with Bengali society but those in the CHT are more isolated and so retain a very distinctive culture.

The peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are composed of 13 main tribes of which the Chakmas, Marmas and Tripuras (Tipperas) total approximately 90%. The Chakmas are the largest single tribe in Bangladesh, with a population of 300,000; they account for over half of the tribal population of the Hill Tracts. They are unique among the tribes in having sacred Buddhist texts written in both their own language and in Pali, the language of Buddhist scriptures. Their ancestors are believed to have migrated west from Arakan in present-day Burma and their alphabet is related to early Burmese alphabets. Culturally the Chakmas have affinities with the Chin tribes of western Burma.

Most of the CHT peoples migrated into the area from the south from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, but, from the seventeenth century, when Bengali settlers arrived on the coast, they retreated into the hills. The CHT tribal groups remained largely undisturbed by British rule. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900 left them to govern themselves according to their traditions and non-tribals were not permitted to settle in tribal areas. After partition in 1947, however, the Pakistani government allowed Bengali Muslims to move into Chittagong and the CHTs and this caused resentment among the hill tribes. There was a gradual movement of tribal peoples into India and the proportion of non-tribals living in tribal areas grew, but after the establishment of military rule in 1958 non-tribals were once again barred from settling in the region. The special status of the CHTs was abolished in 1964. The huge Kaptai Dam built in the 1960s submerged 40% of the cultivable land of the tracts and displaced one sixth of the population. In the general election of 1970 the CHTs elected two tribal independents to the Provincial Assembly of East Pakistan and one to the National Parliament of Pakistan. However, the popular uprising of 1971 and the subsequent breakup of Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh meant that their status was again problematic.

When the Chakmas petitioned the new government for a restoration of autonomy for the CHT they received an unsympathetic response, the government considering such a request as secessionist. Some Tribals had sided with the Pakistanis and thus all were so branded, and the government launched retaliatory raids into the CHT in 1972 with the result that thousands of Marmas and Tripuras fled to India and their lands were given to Bengalis. The People’s Solidarity Association (JSS) and its military wing, the Shanti Bahini, were formed to resist the government forces. Numbering between 2,000 and 15,000, it was mainly staffed by Chakmas, but contained also Marmas and Tripuras and conducted a guerrilla war against Bengali settlers and government troops throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The government launched counter-insurgency campaigns against the Shanti Bahini producing fresh waves of refugees into India, most notably in 1979, 1981, 1984 and 1986, and by 1987 50,000 refugees — about 10% of the tribal population of the CHT — were living in Indian camps or in bush settlements.

The CHT and the north-east of India are remote strategic areas which are normally closed to foreigners; therefore, independent information on the continuing war in the CHT is not easy to obtain. However there are some well-attested accounts of human rights violations against Tribals by both military and government personnel and Bengali settlers. Amnesty International has documented cases of deliberate killings and executions, torture and ill-treatment, and detentions although it appears that stricter controls over military personnel may have led to a decrease in such reports after 1987.

The main reason behind the Shanti Bahini attacks is the continuing encroachment of Bengalis onto tribal lands. The CHT contains about 10% of the total land area of Bangladesh which is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries. Consequently for many years the government saw the CHT as a major opportunity to resettle Bengali peasants and between 1977 and 1987 about 300,000 ethnic Bengalis moved into the area and now constitute about one third of the total population, leading to fears by the Tribals that they will soon become a minority in their own land. From the end of 1982 the government claimed that it had ceased to allot land to non-tribals and it appears that official efforts to decrease migration have made some impact on population growth; however, landless peasants from the plain still migrate of their own volition. The CHT are not suitable for wet-rice cultivation and attempts to build industries and development projects have benefited settlers rather than Tribals. Some western development agencies have terminated projects in the area because of the effects of these projects and the government’s human rights record.

There have been attempts by the government to make a settlement with the Shanti Bahini. In 1987 a National Committee was formed to look into the problem and held talks with tribal leaders from the JSS and Shanti Bahini between October 1987 and February 1988 with the hope of creating a permanent settlement and allowing the return of the refugees from Tripura. The JSS made a number of demands contending that these were the only way of protecting the interests of the Tribals; these include the withdrawal of Bengali settlers and prohibition of future settlement by non-Tribals; constitutional guarantees that these provisions will never change without a plebiscite; economic development aimed at Tribals; dismantling of model villages and release of JSS prisoners; and involvement of international agencies such as UNHCR or ICRC in the implementation of such an agreement. However, the government contends that many of these demands are not possible without violating the present constitution. A lull in fighting was broken with renewed attacks on settlers by the Shanti Bahini in April 1988.

Perhaps 50,000 Tribal refugees remain in five refugee camps inside India. India does not accept UNHCR or other international assistance for these camps, which precludes international inspection or aid. Conditions are reputed to be poor; nevertheless the JSS has managed to keep some sense of continuity and to organize schools, medical facilities and temples. Some observers see the Indian decision to isolate the camps as being deliberately obstructive of attempts by the Bangladeshi government to settle the situation; while others maintain that it is a way of defusing possible tensions with the tribal peoples of its own north-eastern states (Tripura, formerly a tribal area is now predominantly a Bengali settler state). In 1982 there was a repatriation agreement between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, but the JSS says that Bangladeshi promises to the returning refugees of rehabiliation and protection were not met and that many were forced to flee to other areas. In 1988 the two governments agreed to seal the borders between the two, preventing infiltration by guerrilla groups on both sides, but at the same time preventing refugees from crossing the border to safety. An agreement to repatriate refugees was reached between the two countries in November 1987; however, after pleas from international human rights organizations, the Indian government suspended the plans. Apparently refugees had refused to return, fearing violence against them.

(See also Adivasis of India; Nagas of India)