Where is the Conscience of Our Nation?

Tazreena Sajjad

Published in the Forum (June 2008 )

Why speak up about things that don’t seem to affect you? Silence is, after all, protection. When demanding accountability and seeking dignity can be slandered as “anti-state activity,” it is better to save one’s skin by not raising one’s voice.

Yet silence connotes another message — compliance, and more wretchedly still, agreement. In the end, the politics and psychology of fear, compounded by our ability to disengage based on what is “us” and “them” robs us of our conscience. And we seem to accept without censure or question, what we give away — our consent.

In the weeks that have followed the incidents in Sajek, where Paharis have again lost their homes, their land, their papers, their schools, their security and been forced to sleep under open skies, the Bangladeshi civil society that pats itself on its back for its progressive ideals, has been largely silent. There have been individuals with courage who have spoken out and assembled a fact-finding mission to investigate the incidents. There have been five courageous Paharis who have come forward at a time when such a decision compromises their security and lives. Yet, for most, it is an unfortunate incident we can dismiss and move on to something that we can more easily relate to. It is imperative to recognise Sajek as part of the larger program of forced displacement of ethnic minorities that has continued to happen under our noses for years and of which we plead ignorance. How can a country that has struggled so hard to establish its own right to self-rule, to language, and to resources condemn communities to a life without identity and to a fate of dispossession? Where is our moral outrage?

The Unoriginality of Dispossession
Land grabbing from indigenous populations using force and intimidation is nothing new; neither is the attempt to cover up the systematic pattern of such abuse. The United States has been built on the lands of Native Americans who are today confined in reserves, completely removed from mainstream socioeconomic and political processes.

Oh yes, today there is some acknowledgement of the genocide that was perpetrated against them; but for the most part, mainstream images of Native Americans are restricted to the wise “shamans,” the elaborate head-dresses, and names such as “Redskins” for sports teams.

Fast forward into more recent times and two examples come easily to mind — the systematic dispossession of the Palestinians and the large-scale settlement of the Han Chinese by the Chinese government in Tibetan lands.

According to a 2006 statement released by Peace Now, an established settlement watchdog group, 40 percent of all West Bank settlements were built on private Palestinian land and are therefore illegal. In fact, since 1967, each Israeli government has invested significant resources in establishing and expanding the settlements in the Occupied Territories, both in terms of the area of land they occupy and in terms of population.

As a result, approximately 390,000 Israeli citizens now live on the settlements on the West Bank, including those established in East Jerusalem (this does not include the Gaza Strip).

Israel has used a complex legal and bureaucratic mechanism to take control of the land in the West Bank. This land was used mainly to establish settlements and create reserves of land for the future expansion of the settlements. The principal tool used to take control of land is to declare it “state land.” Other methods employed by Israel to take control of land include seizure for military needs, declaration of land as “abandoned assets,” and the expropriation of land for public needs. In addition, Israel has assisted private citizens purchase land on the “free market.”

The Chinese settlements in Tibet have followed a pattern of urbanisation and Sinicisation. The Harvard Asian Quarterly has reported that 60-70 percent of the population in Lhasa now is Chinese.

Han Chinese also occupy most government-related employment with 95 percent of official Chinese immigrants employed in state-owned enterprises. The mass resettlement of Chinese migrants has reduced Tibetans to a minority in many areas, including Lhasa, causing chronic unemployment among the native people. In the Tibetan border provinces of Kham and Amdo in the east, the Chinese outnumber Tibetans many times over.

In 1991, the Dalai Lama said: “The new Chinese settlers have created an alternate society; a Chinese apartheid which denying Tibetans equal social and economic status in our own land, threatens to finally overwhelm and absorb us.”

Charity Begins at Home
‘While comparisons with Palestine and Tibet are not totally correct, yet the examples provide important lessons. While condemning the Israeli military’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and sympathising with the Tibetan cause (albeit cautiously, since who wants to be an irritant to China?), a quick look at the activities of our own record might not just be sobering but also humbling.

Over the years, land acquisition by the government for its “social forestation programs” has made the highest number of ethnic minority families landless in the north-western areas.

The 2008 survey, conducted jointly by the Jatiya Adibashi Parishad, Incidin Bangladesh and Jahangir Nagar University’s Department of Anthropology, of the north-western ethnic minority communities since January this year, revealed the government hardly paid any heed to the causes and miseries of the communities. The preliminary result of the study showed that a total of 1,983 ethnic minority families in 10 north-western districts lost control over 1,748.36 acres of land in the last few years. The forest department grabbed the largest area of 1,185.76 acres, followed by 356.7 acres by different influential quarters who evicted the rightful owners from their ancestral lands by forging documents. Lands used as common property, graveyards and shrines were also grabbed and it was revealed that every indigenous family lost more or less than one acre of land.

According to a 2007 Ain O Shalish Kendra report, a three decade long policy of resettlement and pacification, in which heavy military presence played a significant role, has made it possible for Bengali settlers to occupy land in the CHT.

The model disturbingly mirrors a pattern that has been observed with the resettlement program for example in the West Bank. In addition to Bengali settlers, land has also been occupied directly by the Army itself. According to the Asian Center for Human Rights, from March to November 2007, a total of 399.22 acres of land belonging to 133 Jumma individuals and a primary school in 14 villages under four Unions of Mahalchari police station and Khagrachari Sadar police station under Kagrachari district have been illegally and forcibly grabbed by the illegal plain settlers with direct help from the army. Further, in 2007, the Ruma army cantonment announced plans to expand the garrison by 7,570 acres, and reportedly ordered more than 4,000 Mro indigenous families to vacate the land.

In other words, over the years we have proudly celebrated our language, culture and independence, while we have screamed “bloody murder” at any juncture where “our” rights have been trampled — whether as Bangladeshis, South Asians, Palestinians, Muslims in the United States and Iraq we have continued trampling on the rights of those who share our land, and yet who have fallen through the cracks of our conscience.

Door to a Myriad of Questions
While many might choose to ignore what happened in Sajek, the horrors visited upon those who suffered on that day opens the door for some troubling questions. Sajek has not been a stray incident, a blot in the history of the “communal harmony” between Bengali settlers and the Pahari people, a deviance caused by “unknown agents” who appeared out of the blue to wreck havoc and whose disappearance bodes the return to stability.

Sajek is a grim reminder of the indiscriminate abuse of power unleashed on those without it. It is a jarring reminder of an irritating question that never seems to go away: What defines a Bangladeshi?

Over the last thirty odd years, somehow, we have managed to distill the possibility of a civic citizenry into something incredibly myopic — defined along the lines of language and religious affiliation in ways that marginalise and intimidate those who are not Bengali Sunni Muslims.

We have, consciously and unconsciously, drawn the lines between “us” and “them,” inventing and reinventing our identities such that access has been defined and controlled based on a very narrow platform; one that has little to do with what this nation could have stood for, and everything to do with the politics of power.

Perhaps some will take issue with the use of the examples from Israel and China and vehemently argue that what is happening in Bangladesh is not the same. One can argue about the finer points of differences between these cases and, indisputably, there are many.

But slicing through the characteristics which make each of these cases unique is the raw, naked, and unpalatable reality that we consistently fail to protect and value people of our own country, based on distinctions that we can celebrate at festivals but never embrace with true respect. Ultimately, if we are consoling ourselves with the argument that the scale of the atrocities in Sajek and the larger issue of illegal settlements are not comparable to other cases, we are foolishly deluding ourselves and accepting the systematic annihilation of a people.

The compartmentalisation of “us” and “them,” evident from the general silence around Sajek, lends itself to a vicious cycle of “us” and the “other” politics. We (the majority) may not yet be the Israelis or the Chinese in our treatment of indigenous people, but it is certainly not the standard we should feel compelled to live up to. In the “us” (Bengali Sunni Muslims) and “them” (in this instance, indigenous communities) categorisations, “our” silence legitimises “their” comparisons to the very systems we as Bangladeshis condemn because of these countries’ treatment of minorities.

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, I was left wondering how a people who have suffered so much could internalise the same system to be used so effectively against another population.

Today, with Sajek, the reality of illegal Bengali settlements and forced displacement of indigenous people on such a high scale, in violation of international agreements we are signatory to, I find myself again confronted with the same disturbing question: What ultimately do we stand for?

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