Chittagong Hill Tracts land issue

Brigadier General Md Sarwar Hossain, hdmc, psc

 The historical perspective


Ever since independence, integration of the people of Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) with mainstream national life as well as politics has remained a major challenge and constant source of peril for successive governments.


Because of the protracted and asymmetric nature of the problem, the country is unable to explore the full potentials of this region. Given the national socio-economic compulsions, Bangladesh can ill-afford to leave aside CHT in a precarious state clogged by the much discussed land issue. Absence of appropriate land management rules, tribal perception on proprietorship and use of land, multiple controlling authorities, and Bengali settlers, are some of the few reasons that have complicated the issue. In the present context, the land issue has turned out to be the most contentious one. In the light of growing interest in the study of peace-agreement as framework for ending conflicts, this article focuses on CHT issue with particular emphasis on the historical perspective of land issue.


CHT is unique because of its diverse population, cultural heritage and amazing landscape.  According to 2011 census, the population of CHT is 15, 98,291. Apart from the Bengalis, 13 different tribes inhabit CHT. These are Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang, Tanchangya, Boam, Pankho, Khumi, Khyang, Chak, Lushai, Ushai and Riyang. Of the total population, 47% are Bengalis, 26% Chakma and 12% Marma, and 15% comprises the rest of the tribes. Each of these  tribes has their unique characteristics, histroy, evolutionary process and ancestral linkages that must be understood to get a comprehensive picture about the land issue.


In the 16th century, when the Portuguese arrived on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, they were readily offered territorial concessions including trade openings in Chittagong by the Kingdom of Arakan. Besides revenue earnings, this had benefitted Arakan through Portuguese mastery of seamanship and knowledge on arms. However, it is assumed that prior to settling in CHT, various tribal inhabitants were “nomads” migrating from one place to another and lived on “Jhum” or “rotational cultivation system,” until they settled down for a sedentary lifestyle. In the beginning of 1600, some Tripura people from the Indian state of Tripura entered the present Khagrachari District and settled there.


As regards the origin of the Chakma tribe, nothing definitive can be found in the available literatures. According to tribal mythology, the Chakmas  originated from Champak Nagar of Arakan Kingdom. One of the King’s son named Bijoygiri marched east from the foothill of the Himalayas with a large army to conquer new lands. The Buddhist prince eventually crossed the Meghna River and captured Arakan and developed Chakma settlement. It was in the aftermath of Arakan-Burmese clash, sometime in the beginning of 1660, when the Chakmas crossed over the Naf River in the southern part of Chittagong and started living in Ramu.


In 1657, when Emperor Shah Jahan became ill, it prompted his sons to engage in battles for the throne. In 1658, Subedar Shah Shuza of Bengal was defeated by his brother Aurangzeb in the battle of Khawaja in Uttar Pradesh, India, and in 1660 moved towards Chittagong accompanied by 18 army commanders and several thousand soldiers. When he arrived in Ukhiya on the bank of River Naf, he was allowed to take his family members and a handful of followers into Arakan. The remaining soldiers set up their tentacles in Ramu and started living there. Since then the Chakmas had regarded the Mughal commanders as their kings.


Situation in Arakan aggravated when the Buddhist king Shanda Thudamma wanted to marry Shuza’s daughter. At this Shuza got enraged and was brutally killed along with his family members.


Following this tragic incident, number of skirmishes took place in different areas between the Mughal soldiers who had settled in Ramu and the Arakan soldiers. Afterwards, the Mughal soldiers went deep into the forest of Alikadam leaving Ramu.

Shuza’s chief military commander Fateh Khan rushed from Alikadam to Delhi with the news of Shuza’s assassination. On hearing this, Aurangzeb became furious. He appointed Shaista Khan as Subeder of Bengal and ordered him to attack Arakan. Shaista Khan’s son Umed Khan joined him in the conquest of Arakan. Having arrived in Bengal, Shaista Khan was immediately engaged in putting down the rebellions in the hills. He gained considerable advantage when conflict erupted between Arakan and the Portuguese. By promptly offering support, Khan requested the aid of the Portuguese against Arakan, and the Mughal forces succeeded in capturing Sandwip in November 1665. In December 1665, Shaista Khan launched a major military campaign against Chittagong, which was the mainstay of Arakan kingdom, and brought it under the imperial administration.


During the same time a number of cantonments were established in Rangamti, Purangar and Kathgar areas (after Dohazari) for border security tasks. Around these cantonments grew the Bengali community who came from the plains of Chittagong in connection with trade and commerce. These Bengalis have been living here for as long as the tribals and have been getting along well with them since then. The Arakanese Moghs and Portuguese pirates had also grown around Chittagong Port.


With the conquest of Chittagong by Shaista Khan, these pirates had gradually perished. After the conquest of Chittagong, Umed Khan was appointed Nawab of Chittagong.

During this time, the Mughal soldiers who took shelter in Alikadam became loyal to him and regularly paid cotton tax. Although from 1666 to 1724, many Mughal Commanders ran the Zamindari but Jalal Khan broke understanding with the Nawab of Chittagong and stopped paying tax. The Nawab of Chittagong launched an expedition to fight Jalal Khan. He then took shelter in Arakan and got involved in battles with the Moghs and eventually died. After 13 years in 1737, Jalal Khan’s comrade Shermosto Khan, came forward and submitted to the Nawab of Chittagong and settled in Padua-Kodala. He developed a farm house around which many Chakmas and Moghs from Alikadam got settled.


The East India Company had for long cast their covetous eye and twice despatched ill managed expeditions for setting up factory in Chittagong, which failed.

In 1710, the Nawab of Bengal in reciprocation of the service rendered by the Compan,y ceded Chittagong with other territories. However, it wasn’t until 1765, that the East India Company obtained the revenue right of Bengal from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor. The East India Company then detailed two rajas of the Mughal’s to collect revenue in their favour. They were Sher Daulat Khan (Chakma Raja) and Arakan origin Poang (Bomang Raja).The Moghs and Khumis remained under Bomang Raja.

These Kings set up their own administrative systems to collect taxes. As time passed, people became dissatisfied with increasing tax load imposed by the Company. Across the border, after the Mughal invaded Arakan and annexed Chittagong, internal instability and dethroning of kings had weakened the Kingdom. Taking this opportunity, the Burmese King Bodhpaya invaded Arakan in 1784 which caused another influx of Marmas into Cox’s Bazar area. It was Captain Cox who had organized these refugees and the place stands after his name. With Bodhpaya’s invasion, the ancient Kingdom of Arakan vanished from the history of world politics. After conquering Arakan, Burmese soldiers carried out mass killings that continued from 1785 to 1800. During this time too, many Chakmas crossed over and took refuge in CHT.


Following the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the Crown took over the direct administration of the Indian colony from East India Company. In 1860, by Act XXII, a separate district – CHT was created, separating it from greater Chittagong. Much later, in 1881, Chakma Circle was formed with 1658 square miles of Rangamati, Bomang Circle with 1,444 square miles of Bandarban and Mong Circle with 653 square miles of Ramghar. It’s known that to downsize the Chakma tribe, the then DC created the Mong Circle by carving out the Chakma Circle. It’s equally true that, with the setting up of revenue circles, the British authority got strengthened.


From 1859 to 1899, the Kuki tribal community started revolting against the outsiders that cost many lives. In a bid to pacify the tribal people, in May 1900, by introducing ‘Hill Tracts Manual -1900’ they were given degree of autonomy and the Circle Chiefs were made responsible for collecting land revenue. According to rule 34, any sort of lease, sale, transfer or acquisition of the land was at the DCs discretion; as such the DCs remained the unwritten owner of the land.


After the introduction of the manual, Circles Chiefs divided their area into Mauzas and Paras under a ‘Headman’ and a ‘Karbari’ respectively. They were employed to collect taxes, which were ultimately handed over to the DC by the Circle Chiefs. Practically, three Circle Chiefs and 373 Headmen became local agents for collecting revenue.

With regards to land management, DC’s position and power were above the Circle Chiefs. At the time of the partition in 1947, when Chairman Boundary Commission, Cyril Radcliffe, divided the sub-continent based on religion, the tribals considered themselves more akin to the Indian Hindus than the Muslims of Pakistan and therefore expected some kind of an arrangement which would address their preference. Since that did not happen, the partition rather added to the tribal agony. When the Kaptai Dam was constructed it submerged 54,000 acres of cultivable lands. Besides, for the expansion of the forest, erstwhile East Pakistan Rifles forcefully evicted natives from Thegamukh, Subolong and Rainkhiang area without compensation. The natives of those areas still claim those lands to be their own.


During Liberation War of 1971, some tribals including the then Chakma King Trivid Roy, opposed the Independence War. The king left Bangladesh for Pakistan and eventually passed away there. After 1971, the tribals who opposed the war, fled across to India anticipating reprisal. The tribals who remained here took control of all the lands. In 1972, M.N Larma – a promising tribal leader met Bangabandhu and demanded autonomy, which was turned down on account of greater national unity. He went back and organized an armed wing called “Shanti Bahini”.


After the assassination of the Bangabandhu on 15 August 1975, the tribal leaders foreseeing very remote possibilities of achieving autonomy through constitutional means resorted to insurgency from 1976. At this time, the newly independent country was struggling with numerous problems.


In the eighties the government dispatched several thousand landless Bengali families to settle in CHT. The Government allotted 5 acres of land for every Bengali family, which the tribal consider unduly given. In the wake of heightened insurgency, the situation deteriorated and the Bengalis relocated themselves in and around secured zones. The tribals then took hold of the lands left by the Bengali settlers. That is how the land dispute kept on getting complicated.


By the Hill District Council Act 1989, the Hill District Chairman has been vested with the power of giving prior approval in case of any sale, purchase, transfer or acquisition of land. Alongside, Hill Tracts Manual 1900, introduction of this new act added complicacy. The CHT peace accord of 1997 has brought a significant improvement in law and order, and with the return of refugees the land issue has come to the forefront.

With the onset of peace, people considered this as an opportunity to regain their lands. This has ignited communal disharmony in some places. Although a major part of the accord has been implemented, the land issue seems to be the current impasse that needs to be addressed with due priority.




Current impasse and prospect of peace


A major part of the peace accord of 1977 has been implemented by the government.

If we look at the issue globally in many other cases to name:  Sudan (1972), Somalia (1990), Angola I and II (1991 and 1994) and Rwanda (1993), peace accords failed to end violent conflicts. Even the Anglo-Irish accord which was signed many years ago couldn’t make that much progress as compared to ours. (53)


However, there are a few issues which militate against achievement of lasting peace, some of which are: the age old tribal perception about land ownership, many dealing organizations and, ineffective land commission.

The proposed amendments to the land dispute settlement act are also ambiguous and procedurally strenuous. Other issues like ILO conventions, controversy over indigenous issue and role of national and international stakeholders that impact peace, also merit consideration.


According to the peace accord, a general amnesty was offered to all insurgents including withdrawal of cases. 1989 surrendered Shanti Bahini members received cash incentives and another 705 members were absorbed in the Police. 12,222 Tribal families from Tripura were brought back and rehabilitated. Under the provisions of the accord, Ministry of CHT Affairs was founded in 1998 and currently Mr. Dipankar Talukder is the State Minister in charge. The Regional Council (RC) has been formed since 1998 under Mr. Santu Larma. This couldn’t function following a case filed in the High Court challenging the legality of the accord. The matter is under stay order of the Court.

The High Court sought explanation from the government to that effect. However, the court announced the RC, including certain powers of the Circle Chiefs, as illegal. The government then submitted appeal against the decision of the High Court in the Appellate Division. Appellate Division gave stay order on the case. Once these matters are settled including voter identity card issue, election for the Chairman and Members can take place. (68)


By now, 22 out of 32 subjects previously held by various ministries have been transferred to the hill district councils.


Transfer of tribal police members in the hill districts was under consideration that got struck after the revelation of ammunition theft by tribal police members In Dhaka. A Land Commission was formed in 1999 under a retired Justice of Supreme Court and ‘CHT Land Dispute Resolution Act 2001’ was enacted to resolve the land disputes.

By now 238 security forces camps have been withdrawn. District Judge Courts have been established in 3 Hill Districts. ‘CHT Peace Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee’ was formed chaired by MP Begum Sayeda Sajeda Chowdhury. Government recently recognized the tribal communities according them the status of “Tribal Ethnic Minority” through 15th Amendment of Constitution in 2011 and taking measures to implement the peace accord. (64)


The tribal communities believe that land, forest and hills are collective property. The existing government system of land registration is at variance with the ancestral land management system. To the Chakmas, land used for habitation is considered as ones personal property, but a collective ownership prevails over lands outside their habitats. According to the tradition of the Chakma clan, anyone can use a piece of land to build house for which no deed or legal document is needed. The perception about land ownership and use also largely vary from tribe to tribe. In Chakma community, a land cannot be used for cultivation if it has been already used by someone else. Khyang people believe that children and lands are the gift of nature. Everyone has equal share on any land. In spite of advancement in socio-economic conditions the tribal generally remained firm in their perception about land rights including use. As per Act 42 of the Hill Tracts Manual 1900, one does not need the ownership to use a land. Thus the tribal continued to reside and cultivate in their ancestral lands without registering and acquired fresh lands whenever needed by paying revenues to the Circle Chiefs.


The total area of land in CHT is difficult to assess, as there had been no land survey recently. According to various sources, the total area of CHT is 5093 square miles. Of these, reserve forest is 775.63 square miles, public owned land 1423 square miles and unclassified state forest about 2894.37 square miles. Of these, reserved forest, Kaptai Hydro Electricity Project, Betbunia Earth Satellite Station, state-run industries and recorded government lands, are not subjected to the peace accord. Thus, total area of land subjected to the accord is about 1423 square miles comprising 3 Districts. This means, rest 3670 square miles area is Government controlled land. Although Act 64 of the Peace Accord empowers the RC to provide permission before (including Khas land) any sort of lease, purchase, sale or transfer, this has now been stayed by the High Court Appellate Division. The rules of business for the RC are yet to be finalized and the Chairman opposes any development within this region for reasons best known to him.

Currently land is looked after by the district administration, Hill District Council and the traditional system under the Circle Chiefs. DCs usually employ the Headman in consultation with the Circle Chiefs. The Headmen collect revenues on the Jhum and lands from respective mouzas under the overall jurisdiction of the Circle Chiefs. Land administration, specially the transfer process, is time consuming, that many applicants expire before the completion of the process. As such, many of them turn out as illegal buyer, unsettled successor or unauthorized owner. Taking this opportunity, a few frauds and local figures deny the sale-purchase of unregistered land and forcibly snatch away the lands of the innocent people and register those in their name. These incidents trigger communal violence in CHT. As a result, it is becoming difficult to own a piece of land without adopting unfair means, which often generates disputes and clashes. Most of the land disputes are the result of such complicacies.


A solution to the land problem has become absolutely crucial to ensure peace and harmony in the region. The land Commission is empowered to cancel the ownership of illegally occupied lands and hills. Unfortunately, the commission didn’t get much support to be able to deliver desired service.


The first conference of 4th Land Commission, held on 27 January 2010 at Khagrachari, discussed the importance of land survey before resolving the land dispute cases. But the tribal members demanded the amendment of ‘Land Dispute Resolution Act 2001’ before everything else. Accordingly, the Chairman RC proposed 23 amendments to the Act but later opted for 13. The ‘Peace Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee’ recommended 12 amendments on 22 January 2012. On 28 March 2012, Ministry of Lands called for an inter-ministerial conference to amend the ‘Land Dispute Resolution Act 2001’. Ministry of Lands agreed to six amendments and the rest seven were not approved, those being in violation of the constitution. Some of these amendments are very complex in nature; some are likely to threaten the future of several key point installations, some would weaken the commission’s potential to work as independent body, and few are contrary to the rules of business.


Without conceding space for each other’s demands based on mutual respect and reconciliation it would be difficult to reach an amicable solution. Alongside this, we should also think if these amendments are in consonance with the spirit of the constitution? If not, we should use our wisdom, unity and prudence to get over these paradoxes.


It’s imperative that the commission enjoys the support and cooperation from all its members which is vital for resolving land issues. Tribal leaders, regardless of their support to and stand against the peace accord, need to cooperate to make the commission functional. Even a few stakeholders, namely, CHT Commission, United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issue (UNFPII), European countries and their unilateral support for the tribal cause have complicated the issue further.

Of these, the role of CHT Commission has been contentious. The leading personalities of these organizations have proven track records for working with indigenous issues. Chairman of CHT Commission, a British by national, Lord Eric Avebury, was a veteran Parliamentarian. He had campaigned on a wide range of global issues e.g. advocacy for the rights of people in Peru, Cameron and Iran. His role behind creation of separate Christian states of South Sudan and East Timor is well known. Reported incidents of evangelization, coupled with dubious role played by several agencies, add to the security threats and keep us from making progress.


Another member of the Commission, Mr Lars-Anders Bear, a Swedish national and a longtime activist for indigenous issues, is explicitly serving the tribal cause. He is also the “Special Rapporteur of UNPFII. His report on the “Status of the Implementation of CHT Peace Accord of 1997” during the 10th session of UNPFII created lot of controversies. He visited Bangladesh as member of CHT Commission and took back his findings and presented those as UN Rapporteur in the UNPFII. It was his recommendation to put Bangladesh peacekeepers through human right scrutiny before deployment that tarnished our image. With all these aspects, the indigenous issue got multifaceted and can no more be treated in isolation.


After  World War II, to protect the indigenous people, the UN formulated ILO 107 in 1957, which Bangladesh signed in 1972. It’s not in contradiction with the constitution nor undermines the sovereignty. In 1989, to secure the interest of the indigenous people, ILO Charter 169 was devised to which Bangladesh is yet to become a signatory. So far 22 countries have ratified it and in Asia, none other than Nepal has endorsed it. As per ILO 169, the tribal people are supposed to enjoy “indigenous” status which has got several connotations. According to ILO 169, apart from traditional, personal and communal ownership, the right and possession of land used for livelihood is to be preserved by the state. There is nothing mentioned about Khas land. Even exploration of resources including conduct of operations by security forces have to be done with prior approval of the native people. The State has to ensure that lands are not owned by the outsiders. Besides, UN and other International Organizations, the tribal often refer the term ‘indigenous’ to gain leverage in the settlement of land issues. Late Aungshoi Prue Chowdhury, the 15th Bomang Circle Chief clearly said that there are no indigenous people in CHT. In 2008, while Barrister Debashish Roy was the Advisor on CHT Affairs, his office even didn’t endorse such claim.


In India there are no indigenous people. As per section 341 and 342 of the Indian constitution, they have scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. They make roughly about 24% of the total population, yet there is no controversy. Although the saga of counter insurgency efforts in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere conjure up the myth that insurgencies cannot be defeated but we have addressed it differently yet successfully. (68)


Strategies can, in fact, succeed if the root causes are addressed. Our politico-military strategy made significant progress, but would mean little without settlement of land issue. The recent approval by the Cabinet to some of the proposed land dispute settlement acts ushers new hopes though but wouldn’t last long without addressing Bengali aspirations. At least, from the instant Bengali reactions in all the three Hill Districts, it appears so.


The nation is steadily moving from the list of low-income to middle-income category, thus it is essential to expedite the peace process resolving the land issue and facilitate development. This should be seen without being too judgmental for the sake of preservation of tribal heritage. There are challenges and paradoxes which are to be negotiated taking the stakeholders onboard. Besides the tribal people, the Bengalis constitute nearly half of the total demographic makeup of CHT. A solution which will fulfill the tribal aspirations without disregarding the Bengalis can help overcome the current impasse. Integration of media, politicians and the intelligentsia can be very effective in gaining broad domestic support. More development initiatives should be taken so that the people of this region can merge with the mainstream national life. The tribal leaders need to be compassionate and pragmatic in thoughts so that the peace implementation process can go ahead towards a constructive conclusion. It’s time that we collectively strive and infuse unity in diversity for the peace and harmony in this region.


The writer is serving as a Brigade Commander in the CHT.


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