The legacy of a disappearance

Tazreena Sajjad.

Published in the New Age on 12 June 2010.

Kalpana Chakma had a rightful place in the politics of this country … By demanding accountability and raising the plight of the Jumma people, she had joined the ranks of leaders, Bengali and non-Bengali before her, who had wanted Bangladesh to be one that was accepting of differences. Her disappearance signifies how far we have yet to go before we can truly call ourselves a democratic nation.

HER name was Kalpana Chakma. She was twenty years’ old. She was from Lallyaghona village, a Jumma rights activist and a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

On June 12, 1996 she disappeared.

Fourteen years since her forced disappearance, what do we know about what had happened?

Some facts have been known for over a decade: Lieutenant Ferdous with 11 soldiers from the Kojoichari army barrack allegedly raided Kalpana Chakma’s home; at 1:00am, 6 hours before the general elections, Kalpana was forcibly abducted along with her two brothers; while they managed to escape, she never made it back home; on July 14, 1996 several women’s organisations jointly submitted a memo to the home minister of Bangladesh who advised the team to meet the prime minister since ‘the home ministry is not concerned with law and order in the CHT’, the CHT, being an operational zone, is the affair of the general officer in command of the Chittagong Division of the Bangladesh Army; in an ironic twist, the Bangladesh Army circulated leaflets from a helicopter on July 18, 1996 declaring Tk 50,000 for the whereabouts of Kalpana Chakma; the government formed an inquiry committee but its report is yet to be published; human rights activists have continued to demand answers for over one decade and a half; and, her family is still waiting to know where she is.

On the 14th anniversary of Kalpana’s disappearance, there is much reason for humbling reflection and even more inspiration for action.

What has the government of Bangladesh achieved in terms of effectively addressing the tensions in the CHT since the signing of the peace accord? Have the lives of the Jumma people improved despite official proclamations of military drawdown? And have we come far enough in making this country a home for the minorities that live within our borders?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’. The relations between the settler population, the military and the adivasi communities continue to falter, because of the grotesque culture of impunity that allows gross human rights violations to prevail creating a constant cycle of distrust. It allows for Sajek to burn, for the destruction of religious institutions, for dispossession, for rape, torture, and for voices of protests to be silenced.

Bangladesh’s democracy still does not allow for voices of opposition, except for those of the old guard, it has still not acknowledged the challenges of a multiethnic nation, which comes with the responsibility to protect and participate in pluralistic politics. Kalpana Chakma had a rightful place in the politics of this country – a right to demand for culpability of violations committed against a minority group, a right to voice her dissent, and a right to be involved to political mobilisation. By demanding accountability and raising the plight of the Jumma people, she had joined the ranks of leaders, Bengali and non-Bengali before her, who had wanted Bangladesh to be one that was accepting of differences. Her disappearance signifies how far we have yet to go before we can truly call ourselves a democratic nation.

And so, the best laid plans of those who silenced her on June 12, 1996 really have come to naught. Hers is the legacy of a 20-year old, whose courage to challenge the military is no less than the courage of those who fought for the Bengali language in 1952, those who fought for independence in 1971, and those who have battled to reclaim democracy in Bangladesh over and over again.

No, we have not forgotten. She was a Jumma activist, a women’s rights activist. Someone’s daughter and a sister. Her name was Kalpana Chakma. She was only twenty years’ old.

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