The tragedy of the majority: Sajek once more

By Tazreena Sajjad.

Published in the Daily Star on 2 March 2010.

This piece urges the Bengali majority of Bangladesh to speak up against the violence against the country’s ethnic minorities.

ON Friday, December 11, 2009, the mosque in the village of Yasuf in the West Bank was vandalised before dawn. The vandals burned prayer carpets and a bookstand with Islamic holy texts, and left graffiti on the floor reading: “Price tag — greetings from Effi.” The graffiti was accompanied by the more direct threat, “we will burn all of you.”

Settler attacks — arson on agricultural fields, chopping down olive trees, poisoning water wells, killing livestock and assaulting villagers living near settlements — have become a way of life for Palestinians all over the West Bank. Israeli authorities are well-reputed for turning a blind eye to such incidents. When ordered to provide daily military escorts for children from various towns and villages in the southern West Bank, the Israeli army has faced criticisms of being a source of hostility towards the children themselves, as many of the soldiers are sympathetic towards the settlers.

If any account of the violence perpetrated against Palestinians brings a tear to your eye, makes you shake your head in disbelief at the brutality of settlement wrath, the indifference (if not antipathy) of the authorities towards Palestinians, you certainly can lay a claim to being on the side of the just, the “true” victims of a longstanding military and settler occupation.

Yet, when you have shed your tears and expressed your indignation at the continuing systematic oppression of Palestine, expressed moral outrage at the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, when you have celebrated February 21 as a day of national pride and cultural heritage, do you think you could spare a thought for the people of Sajek?

Could you for a moment feel not just a surge of empathy but a twinge of conscience, before being swamped by compassion fatigue?

Substitute the names and location of the first two paragraphs, and a few details, and you will see that while your nation prepared to herald the anniversary of the moral victory of the Bangla language over the tyranny of the Pakistani regime, a handful of settlers launched yet another attack on the Jumma people in Sajek.

On the night of February 19, arson attacks were carried out on 200 Pahari homes in the Baghaihat area of Sajek union under Baghaichari upazila in Rangamati district in the following villages and their adjoining areas — Gangaram Mukh, Guchchhagram, Hazachhara, Jaralchhari, Dane Baipachhara, Bame Baipachhara, Simanachhara, Chhurung Nala and Gulakmachhara. As I write this, there have been two confirmed deaths, although the number may be much higher, and efforts might already be underway to destroy evidence by burning the dead bodies.

This is not the first time that atrocities have been committed against the Pahari people. For example, on April 20, 2008, a group of settlers attacked several indigenous villages, injuring people and burning down more than 70 houses. The official military response was “communal harmony,” that the Bangladesh military exists in the Hill Tracts between the Bengalis and the Pahari people and that “external terrorists” threatened the peaceful status quo. In saying so, it ignored a litany of tragedy that mars Bengali-Pahari relations and the atrocities committed by Bengali settlers — the Logang cluster village massacre in Khagracchori on April 10, 1992; Naniarchar Bazar massacre in Rangamati on November 17, 1993; the Malya massacre in Langadu upazilla in 1992 and communal riots such as the Bhuacchari incident, that took place between April and May 2003.

As the few reports from Sajek manage to circuitously enter the news waves, the picture that emerges is yet of another tragedy — of frightened communities, dead bodies, burning homes, and a desperate search for safety; and even in a place of worship, desecrated by the attacks, there is no place to feel secure. There is anger too — an immediate knee-jerk human response to the brutality witnessed, an anger that is and will manifest itself through local youths banding together to physically express their anger and frustration, targeting Bengali settlers and bringing the army back into the mix, using more force to quell an already unsettled community.

And so, while the government continues to ignore the deep-rooted causes of this cycle of violence and unleash the military against a largely civilian population, a seething community will continue to experience a deepening of the fault lines of “us” and “them” and the politics of settlement and that of dispossession.

Sajek is not an isolated incident of a disgruntled Pahari population clashing with the settlement population because of the struggle for access to land and resources. It is a culmination of the unresolved questions of citizenship and citizenry that Bangladesh has not confronted with humility and sincere engagement.

It is not only about the denial of the constitutional rights of the indigenous populations that reside within the physical boundaries of Bangladesh, but the unfulfilled commitments made 12 years, 2 months and 3 weeks ago in the Peace Accords signed between the Government of Bangladesh and the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS).

It is about the dire need, right here, right now, to adroitly address the simmering violence and ethnic tensions in Sajek and in other communities where the Bengali muscle power is supplemented by the military might of the national army. This tension will not be vanquished by a few troop withdrawals, or as some political groups might argue, with massive military build-up, which will only pave the way for a further escalation of conflict. The military has never been, and never will be, a permanent solution to any political crisis.

The story of Sajek is a story of illegal occupation, forced dispossession, of indiscriminate use of violence, intimidation, and disproportionate use of force. It is about using a military, which has an established international reputation in peace-keeping and protecting civilians, to inspire fear and distrust in a minority population.

Portraying both sides as equal antagonists in the current conflict serves to distort the realities of this tragedy. And the facts on the ground are that, this time, the Bengalis are the aggressors.

The tragedy of the majority is that it can choose to be silent. The greater tragedy is that the silence can alter the course of history. This time, we, the Bengalis, are the majority, and the onus is on us to speak up and demand that the voices of Sajek be heard.

This time, we should break the silence, recognising that the moral authority of victimhood is not ours to claim.

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