Chittagong Hill Tracts and the missing <i>Pahari</i> vote
BURIED in the middle of the raja-raja war over elections is news of the ulu-khagra getting crushed. I first saw the news in an item in Shamokal: in a list of political parties denied registration, two names jumped out. UPDF (United Peoples Democratic Front) and PCJSS (Parbotto Chottogram Jonoshonghoti Samity) -- the only two large political parties representing the rights of the Pahari/Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Chittagong's regional paper Shuprobhat Bangladesh (27/10/08) first carried a detailed news item about this denial of election registration. Among mainstream newspapers, only Ittefaq (29/10/08) seems to have picked up the news. And there the matter will rest and die out. Or will it?
2007 marked the tenth anniversary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord. In the CHT, there was a crackdown on political dissidents, which included not only members of indigenous political parties (JSS and UPDF), but also civil society representatives without political affiliation, who have been vocal on the rights of indigenous people.
The year saw a continuation of the long-term unstated policy of ethnic displacement in the CHT (bringing Bengali settlers from elsewhere and displacing indigenous Jumma people), a trend that had accelerated during the five years of BNP-Jamaat government.
At the same time, a few positive trends emerged: BLAST lawsuit regarding district judges' court, the first meeting of the CHT advisory committee in seven years, and the appointment of Raja Devashish Roy to the Ministry of CHT Affairs.
The landmark 1997 Peace Accord, that ended Shanti Bahini's twenty-year autonomy insurgency, shows very few signs of implementation. Vital clauses that have remained unimplemented by the last two political governments include activating the Land Commission, withdrawal of all "temporary camps" of the army, BDR and APBn (Armed Police Battalion), and handing over of full control of local, civil and police administrations to three hill district councils.
The one Peace Accord clause that has been settled is the setting up of district judges' courts in 3 hill districts to clear a backlog of over 25,000 cases. This followed a writ petition at the high court by BLAST.
The verdict, delivered by the High Court, instructed the government to set up district judge's court in all three-hill districts. Another positive development was the CTG's decision to call a meeting of the CHT Affairs Ministry Advisory Committee, the first such meeting after a five year gap during the BNP-Jamaat government.
At the same time, the pro-Bengali settler group "Parbottho Shomo Odhikar Andolon" (The Hill Equal Rights Movement) continued to harass pahari populations with the knowledge and support of local authorities.
In a disturbing new development, a writ was filed in 2007 in the High Court by Advocate Md. Tajul Islam, a member of the Jamaat e Islami, challenging the constitutionality of the 1997 Peace Accord.
The case has been filed against various government ministries but, interestingly, did not initially include any of the CHT based institutions or Pahari leaders. Later, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council and the Rangamati Hill District Council petitioned the Court to become parties to the writ.
In their response to the Court, they argue that the democratically elected National Parliament passed four laws ratifying parts of the Peace Accord: Parbattya Chattagram Ancholik Porishad Ain, 1998 (Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council Act, 1998), Rangamati Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998, Khagrachhari Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998, and Bandarban Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998.
They also argue that reservations for "tribal persons" of particular posts is fully mandated under Articles 28(4) and 29(3)(a) of the constitution, and also by the state's international treaty obligations.
Advocate Tajul Islam's writ, filed at a strategic moment, has already accomplished what may be its main objective -- inclusion of Bengali settlers in the Pahari voter list for the December 2008 national elections.
In response to this petition, a Division Bench ruled in August 2007 that until the writ was disposed, the Election Commission should not differentiate between permanent and non-permanent residents in CHT while registering voters.
This would mean that Bengali settlers who had been brought to CHT as part of government policy of displacement would effectively be able to vote in the area -- this would result in permanently dismantling the one-time numeric majority of the Paharis, risking lack of representation at all levels of administration and public life.
This could be interpreted as undermining the 1997 Peace Accord and the Hill District Council Acts of 1989 (Acts Nos. 19, 20 and 21 of 1989), which provide that only permanent residents of the respective Hill Districts can be enlisted as voters on the electoral roll for election in the respective Hill District Councils.
In a straight vote, without separate seat allocations for the Pahari vote, Bengali candidates (who would get the votes of all settlers) would most likely win most (if not all) the seats of the CHT. Thus, Bengali MPs will decide the life and future of Pahari people, undermining all their struggles for self-representation.
It is in this context that we look at the EC's decision to deny registration to UPDF and PCJSS. It, in effect, penalises the Pahari people for participating in the democratic process, telling them they do not have the right to have their own regional political parties.
Among the reasons stated by EC, as reported by Ittefaq, the parties have been denied registration because they lack offices and committees in ten zilas and fifty upazilas. There are several other "technical" reasons given as well, but this is the one that jumped out at me. Chittagong Hill Tracts has a total of three zilas.
Based on this logic, a regional party representing indigenous people would never be able to contest the national election-- now or in the future.
In a writ petition currently being filed on behalf of United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), each of the EC's arguments for non-registration is refuted. But legal arguments are not sufficient to sway the courts. One government official I spoke to said: "There is not enough time to reverse the decision."
What it boils down to is political will. We have seen many rules being bent over the last six months (and even now) to accommodate the negotiations of the large political parties. What will it take to show a similar spirit of accommodation here? In order to allow UPDF and PCJSS to run their own Pahari candidates in their own indigenous land.
It is really up to you. Each and every silent one of you.
(Portions of this op-ed are adapted from the author's chapter in the 2007Ain O Salish Kendra Annual Report.)