Between ashes and hope

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published by the Daily Star on 24 Dec 2008.

IN Dighinala, the lead Jumma (Pahari) speaker switches to Bangla after the initial Chakma greeting. As I film the crowd, I can see scattered Bengali faces. Later I ask one organiser if speaking Bangla is a way to appeal to Bengali voters. “Yes,” he replies, “But don’t forget, not all Paharis speak Chakma.” Chakma, Marma and Tripura are the biggest presence at these meetings, but the official records show eleven different ethnic Jumma groups in Chittagong Hill Tracts.

In this last election week, jumping on the candidate’s ramshackle jeep (with prodigious horse power on the up-slope) is the easiest way to get around. I had taken a ride with the vehicle belonging to Ujjal Sriti Chakma, independent candidate running with support of UPDF. As we move between locations, I note the language changing.

In Panchori, Pujgang, Logang, Matiranga, the speeches are in Chakma. In Dighinala in Bengali, but in Mohalchori, where there is a large Bengali population, the speeches are in Chakma again. This time, there are no Bengalis in the audience. Unlike Dighinala, which has an older Bengali population mixed in with recent “Settlers”, Mohalchori has seen vast amounts of Pahari land grabbed by Bengali settlers recently — tensions run high, and Jumma candidates don’t expect Bengali Settler votes. The Sajek that hit headlines after Pahari homes were burned, same equation.

After Shantu Larma signed the 1997 CHT Accord on behalf of JSS, their armed guerilla wing Shanti Bahini laid down arms. In “peacetime,” a portion of the JSS broke away and formed UPDF. This new party rejected the CHT Accord, saying it fell far short of “self-rule,” which had been a basic demand of the guerilla war. In 2008, the Election Commission refused registration to both UPDF and JSS on grounds they were “regional.” A writ petition resulted in a stay order from the High Court, but it came too late to allow registration with EC. So the two largest Jumma political parties have put their support behind independent candidates.

The political speeches are focused on the key crisis for the Jumma people: implementation of the 1997 CHT Accord and an end to Bengali Settler land-grabbing. The settlers are sometimes referred to as “Onuprobeshkari” and Paharis frequently point to land alongside the road that was “a Pahari family, but the Settlers threw them out.”

The cloud of fear and anger is thick, but even so there are some positives. Dhiman Khisha, a candidate who withdrew his name in favor of a UPDF unity candidate, invoked Barack Obama (“America’r kalo manush”) in his speeches. Unlike the “Generation Obama” cheerleading, this seems the true lesson of November 2008. Why not a Pahari president? Why not a Hindu prime pinister? Will it take forty years?

In 2001, militant Settlers aggressively intimidated Pahari voters to stay away from polls (resulting in shock victory of BNP’s Wadud Bhuyan, now jailed on corruption). Moni Swapan Dewan, another 2001 victor, is a figure pilloried in speeches. Elected MP from BNP in 2001, he became CHT Affairs Minister and was completely powerless. “I won’t be Moni Swapan Dewan,” says Ujjal Sriti Chakma. The sentiment seems to be that neither AL nor BNP can deliver, only a regional Jumma party can.

Numbers matter. In Khagrachari there are 337,000 registered voters, of whom 190,000 are Jumma, 117,000 Bengali (out of whom 37,000 are Hindu) and 30,000 are security forces. The numbers add up to a Jumma candidates victory, but this year the Jumma vote will get split between multiple candidates. Add to that the still remaining possibility of voter intimidation, especially remote areas where neither the media nor observers will reach.

Whenever convoys leave main sadars, the mobile networks go off. When we return ten hours later, there are new disturbing news over SMS. Bandarban DC has burned posters of independent candidate because UPDF name was on it. Jumma activists arrested for giving out flyers.

This time, a record number of Paharis registered for voter ID cards. One speaker says: “When election comes, we used to get scared. But this election is different, do not be scared, do not stay away. Now we can take legal action if something happens.”

But at a night meeting, I hear organisers complain: “How can we work, we are being threatened that our legs will be broken. If you lose, how will you protect us?” After 2001, violence against Jumma grew (just like anti-Hindu violence) and many fled to Dhaka and Chittagong. Now they are back, to vote. “The international community is very concerned about us, be brave.” But when will the Bengali community be “very concerned”?

I’m thinking of the young Jumma woman, who waved as we left the convoy. “Deka hobe bizoye.”

Yes. I hope you get Bizoy. For you. In our month of Bijoy. If not this time, soon.


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