“We will be soldiers in a battlefield” | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 16, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:19 PM, June 16, 2017

human rights

“We will be soldiers in a battlefield”

Kalpana Chakma and her feminist thoughts

Kalpana Chakma, the Organising Secretary of the Hill Women's Federation, was abducted by security forces from her home 21 years ago on June 12, 1996. She was a college-going young woman who was compelled to become an activist by state-led repression. Military occupation, counterinsurgency, violent eviction of her community's people through development and transmigration, rape of Jumma women and state impunity had been the reality she grew up with as a Jumma woman. This reality made her become an activist for the self-determination of the Jumma peoples and the liberation of Jumma women from all forms of domination.

In 2001 Hill Women's Federation published a compilation of her diary entries, letters to her comrades, news articles about her abduction and fact-finding reports by groups about the circumstances around her disappearance. The issues that she talked about in her diary and in the public speeches centre around class, self-determination movement, militarisation and gender discrimination faced by Jumma women. She was clearly very well-read on political thought, feminism and world issues. Entries in her diary were not about her everyday activities but about things she had read that made an impression on her political thoughts. There's a section with the title “What is patriarchy?” in which she compiled a list of 13 points that illustrate the nature of patriarchy in Bangladeshi society. In this, she highlighted the various ways patriarchy is embodied within a family, marriage, society and the workplace. She was critical of the state but she held society, family and her own community accountable for propagating patriarchy. Her feminist thoughts were the overarching theme of her writing and speech but she also repeatedly asserted that the feminist movement and the movement for self-determination against a repressive colonial state needed to function in parallel. She talked about it in this speech given to representatives of the Hill Women's Federation at the first national conference on 21 May 1995:

On the one hand is the steamroller of rape and torture by the military and the Bengali settlers and on the other is societal discrimination, systematised living and the disparity between men and women. And then there are the brutal killings and ethnic persecution… we will have to continue our political struggle through a fire test… we already know that without the liberation of the masses and the society's oppressed class there cannot be liberation separately for women. An exploited community cannot give rights or security of life to another community. Therefore, my sisters, we must give the utmost importance to our national movement [for self-determination] in order to advance equal rights for the women. We have to bring radical changes in our social arena. We are not going to deny our threatened social system, our patriarchal social system. In our objective, the Hill Women's Federation's struggle is not only political, it is at the same time a struggle against male domination and oppression in our family and society. 

While she was an activist for Jumma people's rights she was also critically following world events including the US war on Iraq and the South African apartheid. She admired the work of international revolutionaries and feminists. She wrote down notes about the lives and teachings from South African leader Nelson Mandela, Jumma leader Manabendra Narayan Larma, and feminist writers Begum Rokeya and Taslima Nasrin. Nasrin seems to have had a strong influence on her thinking. In “Taslima Nasrin hotey Udhriti” she noted down her thinking on how religion and society repressed women. Reading from feminist writers and her own experiences influenced her to write and speak very critically about gender inequality. In this article titled 'Do not keep me in the dark any more, let me see', she wrote:

There is a natural difference between men and women but this does not make someone strong or weak. It does not make them worth or unworthy. The idea of this worthiness or unworthiness has been constructed through society's laws, customs, food and work evaluation. A patriarchal society does not acknowledge the different existence of women. In this society women more or less perform the role of a slave in her husband's home. Exceptions can never be examples.

At the first women's conference in Khagrachari Town Hall on January 15, 1995 she was heard talking about feminist challenges against capitalist commodification of women:

Women are not commodities, they are not objects that can be consumed, they are not objects to be used, they are not dolls to play with. They are not even just baby-producing machines, women are human beings. They must have the same dignity as human beings. We will no longer silently tolerate this oppression.

She frequently infused her feminist thoughts with her belief in a socialist solution to all forms of discrimination. At the women's conference on January 15, 1995 she disclosed her thoughts thus:

We want such a social system where there will be no rich poor class divisions. There will not be a hierarchy between men and women and there will be no discrimination between them. A class of people will not be able to exploit another class of people.

Kalpana was taken away in the dead of night. Both her brothers who were witnesses to the abduction have been repeatedly telling their story for 21 years. The writings in her diary give a glimpse into the kind of person she was and her feminist and political views that made her feared by the state. The state has little patience or compassion for someone who challenges its authority, especially a young woman whose popularity and mobilisation powers through her mere words were spreading far and wide. Consequently, even after 21 years of investigations from various sources the state has failed to find her abductors and make the circumstances around her disappearance public. An investigator ironically said that since Kalpana Chakma is the victim and the main witness in the case the investigators cannot complete their work or “take a final decision about her whereabouts”, until she [Kalpana] comes and gives her witness testimony. Through her abduction, the failure of government investigations to come to any conclusions despite the overwhelming evidence and the Kafkaesque process of justice, Kalpana has proven that the cliched saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” is not so clichéd after all, especially if the pen belongs to a fearless feminist woman who overcame her marginal gender, ethnic and religious position and made it the greatest source of her strength and courage.

[Translations from Kalpana Chakma's Diary are by the author of the article.]

Hana Shams Ahmed is currently doing an MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario and can be reached at hana.s.ahmed@gmail.com

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