Kalpana ekhon Kothai? (Where is Kalpana now?) was an investigative article on the abduction of Kalpana Chakma by Shaheen Akhtar, now a renowned filmmaker and writer, published in the Bengali national daily Bhorer Kagaj, on July 17, 1996. Along with her friends, Akhtar embarked on an arduous journey, defying torrential rain, to Kalpana's home in remote Lallyaghona of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to investigate what really happened to her.
Akhtar's question—Where is Kalpana now —burns bright even today, as we mark the 20th anniversary of Kalpana's disappearance on June 12, 1996.
Kalpana Chakma was the Organising Secretary of the Hill Women's Federation (HWF), an organisation of indigenous Jumma women of the CHT. Kalpana's abduction at gun-point from her home in the dark, early hours of June 12, was allegedly by a group of plain-clothed men from the military and the Village Defence Party led by Lt Ferdous Khan (17 East Bengal Regiment). He was then the commander of Kojoichari army camp, situated near Kalpana's Lallyaghona home. Since that day, Kalpana has not been seen.
The abduction of this 23-year-old young political and human rights activist of CHT received wide national and international coverage. This was possible through the solidarity work of Bengali and CHT Jumma activists of Bangladesh. At one level, the demand for justice for Kalpana's abduction united all the activists in Bangladesh, irrespective of their ethnicity, gender and class. At another level, it united and solidified the women's rights movement in Bangladesh. A study of the two women's movements, Bengali and Jumma, of Bangladesh, in a forthcoming publication Dissident Friendships: Feminism, Imperialism and Transnatioanl Solidarity, edited by Elora Halim Chowdhury and Liz Philipose, argues that “[t]he abduction of Kalpana awakened many Bengali women's rights and human rights activists in Bangladesh to the plight of indigenous women. Some Bengali women activists, risking the rainy season and the perils of the long journey, travelled to Kalpana's remote village to investigate the incident. They were instrumental in publicising Kalpana's abduction in the national media and breaking a long public silence about violence against women in the CHT.”
The tireless work of Bangladeshi activists, who continued to demand justice for Kalpana, also attracted international attention from human rights organisations and media, the Parliaments of Europe and Australia, and the agencies of the UN. In the wake of the campaign that year, NGOs and civil society organisations from 37 countries asked the Bangladesh government to rescue Kalpana immediately and conduct an inquiry into the incident.
Kalpana's brothers, Kalindi and Lal, were also abducted with Kalpana. But they managed to escape. They named three of the abductors, one from the Bangladesh military and two from the Village Defence Party, a paramilitary organisation. But a three-member commission set up to enquire about the abduction as well as the police failed to answer the question: Where is Kalpana?
On September 7, 1996, under national and international pressure, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the above mentioned three-member Enquiry Commission that included Justice Abdul Jalil as chairperson, Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong, Shakhawat Hossain, and Professor of Chittagong University Anupam Sen. The commission submitted its investigation report to the Ministry of Home Affairs on February 27, 1997. The news of the submission of the report was only mentioned in Bangladeshi national dailies in March 1997. But the report, which absolved the military and the Village Defence Party of Kalpana's kidnapping and mentioned that “she had been abducted willingly or unwillingly”, was never made available to the public, until an English daily obtained a copy in 2011—15 years after the abduction—and subsequently reported on it.
* By 2015, about 35 police officers had investigated the Kalpana disappearance case. In June 2014, it was reported that Amena Begum, the local Superintendent of Police, missed the 11th deadline for submitting any police investigation report of the case at CHT's court. At one of the 'umpteenth' hearings of the Kalpana Chakma abduction case in May 2015, a police investigation report of July 20, 2014 was presented. The report insists that since the victim herself was the witness of her case, no progress could be made until her return. For many, the police report appeared to be evading dealing with the alleged perpetrators, one of who were in the military.
* 20 years on, the perpetrators of this heinous crime thereby continue to enjoy absolute impunity.
I met Kalpana for the first and last time in mid January 1995, during the first national conference of the Hill Women's Federation (HWF) at Khagrachari, the beautiful northern town of the CHT. It was my first visit to Khagrachari, just as it was for my companion Mukti Saha from Dhaka, who was reporting the event for Pakhik Chinta, a feminist magazine. During my high school, college and university years, from the mid of 1970s and in 1980s, visiting any other part of CHT was unofficially prohibited during the ongoing undeclared CHT's agitation for autonomy. The visit to Khargachari after my return from postgraduate studies abroad, meeting many activists, including Kalpana, and learning about their work and life was an eye opening experience. While the HWF conference was held on January 15, there was a lively open discussion on January 16. A woman full of life with a lovely smile on her lips, Kalpana brilliantly shined as an emerging leader at that conference. She listened, questioned, spoke and acted with full concentration, confidence and enthusiasm. Before her abduction, when I was in Dhaka and overseas, I received letters from Kalpana. I admired her for her courage, clarity in thinking, good leadership, friendliness, inquisitive mind, and also for her placid presence.
* A number of days before her abduction, she publicly argued with her alleged abductor Lt Ferdous. She claimed that Lt Ferdous was responsible for burning down seven houses and destroying a Buddhist temple in her village on March 19, 1996. Kalpana was also campaigning for an enquiry over the rape and murder of Shapna Rekha Chakma, a young girl who lived in her village. Her journal and letters, which were published in a 2001 book titled Kalpana Chakmar Diary, inform us of the injustices carried out in the CHT, which continue till date.
* For 20 years, many voices from Bangladesh have raised the question of Kalpana's whereabouts. 'Kalpana's Warriors', portrayed in the exhibition work of photographer, artist and activist Shahidul Alam, are some of the people who have been fighting to ensure justice for her. Robin Ahsan, a young poet also raises the same question with his poem Oi Pahare Julum Chole (Torture in the Hills). Here the poet identifies himself as a friend and brother of paharis, inhabitants of the Hills, and demands an answer from the state on the whereabouts of his sister Kalpana. The poem reads:
'…Sei pahari janaganer
Bandhu ami bhai
Kalpana Bon haralo koi
Rastra jabab chai.'
("Kalpana Chakmar Diary", 2001)
This foremost question of Akhtar, Ahsan and others is also the question for every Bangladeshi who dreams of a just Bangladesh, hard earned in the blood bathed Muktijuddho. In solidarity with millions of Bangladeshis, this demand, highlighted in the 20th year of Kalpana's disappearance, is now echoed in the Amnesty International's June 2016 campaign poster:
20 Years Disappeared - Still No Justice
Where is Kalpana?
In a sense, Kalpana Chakma is now a name of collective resistance against injustice and impunity in Bangladesh. By asking about Kalpana, we are also asking about what happened, for example, to Tonu, our sister, who was recently murdered in Comilla Cantonment area, as well as what happened to all of our 'lost' Bangladeshi sisters and brothers?
By asking Kalpana Hudu? Kalpana Kothai? in Chakma, Bangla or any of the languages of Bangladesh, 'Where is Kalpana?' becomes the call for justice for all our unseen sisters, brothers and friends, while imagining a just, peaceful and diverse Bangladesh.
The writer is a human rights activist.