Bengali Muslim Settlers

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The settlers are land less Bengali speaking Muslims from the plain districts of Bangladesh, majority are from Chittagong, Noakhali, Comilla, Sylhet districts. The Bangladesh Government and the Military lured the poor Bengali Muslim families with money and promise of empty land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The real motive was to outnumber the indigenous people in the CHT and evict them from their traditional land.

1. ABOLITION OF CHITTAGONG HILL TRACTS ACT 1900

The abolition of special status in 1964 opened up the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to outsiders. Bengali Muslim families started settling there in numbers large enough to alarm the indigenous people, who felt that it was official government policy to outnumber them on their own land. Grounds for this fear could be seen in the industries like Kaptai hydroelectric power station, Chandraghona paper mill whose founding in the CHT coincided with the influx of Bengali Muslims who were given preferential employment.

2. SECRET MEETING

Eight years after the independence of Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman presided a secret meeting in mid 1979. In the meeting it was decided to settle 30,000 Muslim families during the following year. The importance of the meeting was emphasized by the attendance of Deputy Prime Minister Jamaluddin, Home Minister Mustafizur Rahman, the commissioner of the Chittagong division and the deputy commissioner of the CHT. A sum of Taka 60 million was allocated to the scheme, but the budget heading under which this state money was provided was not disclosed. As a result of the meeting, implementation committees, made up of government officers and leading Muslim settlers, were formed at district and sub divisional levels. The district commissioner headed the district committee and sub divisional officers the sub divisional committees. The committees appointed agents from among the Muslim settlers and assigned them to contact land less Bengali Muslims willing to settle in the CHT. These were not hard to find and from February 1980 truckloads of poor Bengali Muslim families poured into the CHT attracted by the government scheme to provide five acres of land, Taka 3,600 to each new settler family. According to USAID in July 1980, the government decided to resettle 100,000 Bengali Muslims in the CHT in the first phase of this scheme.

3. GOVERNMENT SPONSORED MIGRATION

From the government's viewpoint the settlement plan was successful from the start. By 1980 the Feni valley which borders Tripura state of India contained about 18,000 Bengali Muslim families and roughly 1,500 indigenous families. There are now even fewer indigenous people left and those who remain are eager to leave. Myani valley in the northern part of the CHT contains 40,000 indigenous people and about 10,000 Bengali Muslims, a large number of whom arrived in the valley in 1980. In Chengi valley the Bengali Muslim settlements received 1,500 families between 1978 and 1980. By the same date there were 1,000 Bengali Muslim families at Kaptai and 5,000 families in Rangamati sub-division of which 3,500 families alone settled at Kalampati. In the southern part of the CHT, the Lama thana had about 3,000 Muslim families and even more were settled at Nakyangchari. In Rangamati town, in 1980, the indigenous people were accounted for about 30 per cent of the population. The Bangladesh Government initially denied its settlement program, however in May 1980 the government confirmed its policy towards the Chittagong Hill Tracts and actively encouraged Muslim settlers to move there. A secret memorandum from the commissioner of the Chittagong Division to government officials in other districts stated that it was "the desire of the government that the concerned deputy commissioners will give top priority to this work and make the program a success". During 1980 some 25,000 Bengali Muslim families were settled in the CHT. At the same time thousands of indigenous families, dispossessed by the Kaptai dam project in the early 1960s, were still attempting to get some kind of monetary or land compensation. Under the second phase of the plan each land less Muslim settler family received five acres of hill land or four acres of mixed land or 2.5 acres of wet rice land. They also received two initial grants of Taka 700 altogether, followed by Taka 200 per month for five months and 24lb. of wheat per week for six months. In July 1982 a third phase of Bengali Muslim settlement was authorized under which a further 250,000 Bengali Muslims were transferred to the area.

4. Dispossession of Indigenous People

Muslim settlers, with the connivance of the almost totally Bangladeshi administration, have been able to take over land and even whole villages. There is a severe population pressure on land in Bangladesh generally and indigenous peoples' land had been regarded as readily available. One excuse often given for allowing or encouraging this immigration is the relatively low population density in the CHT. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had noted that "the Chittagong Hill Tracts are relatively less crowded than the plains of Bangladesh. Because of this difference in population densities, there has for some time been a migration from the crowded plains to the hills". In 1967, a study commissioned by Dhaka, however concluded that "as far as its developed resources are concerned, the hill tracts is as constrained as the most thickly populated district. The emptiness of the hill tracts, therefore is a myth". Only 5 per cent of land outside forest reserves is suitable for intensive field cropping. In spite of the shortage of farming land in the tracts, the government has succeeded in attracting many thousands of land less Bangladeshis. To be land less in Bangladesh is to be absolutely poor and dependent. Jobs are seasonal, insecure, and pay is enough for subsistence only. An agricultural laborer receives about five Takas a day when he is working and is usually unemployed for about six months of the year. For the overwhelming majority of Bangladesh's rural population there is little hope to escape from constant poverty. The settlement plans offer an opportunity which no land less or poor Muslim family can ignore. The land however un-arable, and the money and food grants, however depleted by corrupt officials, can mean survival for six months or more for poor Bengali Muslim peasants. The Bengali Muslim peasants who move to the Chittagong Hill Tracts come principally from the plains districts of Chittagong, Noakhali, Sylhet and Comilla, and have no experience of hill slope cultivation. When they find they cannot make a living from the land they have been given they encroach on indigenous peoples' land. There were various ways in which the indigenous people have been, and still are being dispossessed of their lands. In many cases, Muslim settlers move into an area and gradually encroach on the lands of their indigenous neighbors. A Chakma refugee from Panchari describes the initial process as follows:

" In 1980-81 the Bengalis moved in. The government gave them rations of rice etc. and sponsored them. The settlers moved into the hills, then they moved the Jummas by force with the help of the Bangladesh Army. The Deputy Commissioner would come over and say that this place was suitable for settlers so Jumma people must move and would receive money in compensation. But in reality they did not get money or resettlement. In 1980 the Jumma people had to move by order of the government".

Attacks on indigenous peoples' villages are the most common way to evict the inhabitants from their lands. A Tripura refugee in India from Bakmara Taindong Para near Matiranga described what happened to his village in 1981 when the settlers moved into his village:

"Muslims from different parts of Bangladesh were brought in by Bangladeshi authorities. Before that our village was populated only by Chakma, Tripura and Marma. With the assistance of the government these settlers were rehabilitated in our village and they continued to give us troubles..they finger at the Jummas and the army beats them and rob. They took all the food grain. Whenever we seek any justice from the army we don't get it. All villagers lived under great tension due to various incidents all around. Three days after an incident when six persons had been killed, just before getting dark, many settlers came to our village, shouting 'Allah Akbar' (Allah is Great). When they arrived we escaped so the settlers got the opportunity to set fire".

A Chakma refugee in Tripura told what happened to his village in 1986:

"I lost my land. Settlers came and captured my land. They burnt our houses first. They came with soldiers. This took place on 1st May 1986 at Kalanal, Panchari. My house was in a village with a temple. The whole village of 60 houses was burnt. After seeing this we ran through the jungles and eventually reached India, coming to Karbook camp."

The following interview refers to events which took place on 21 November 1990:

"Muslim settlers wanted to take us villagers to a cluster village (concentration camp), but we refused to go there. The villagers were beaten up by the Muslim settlers of which three families managed to escape, one of which is mine. These three families came to Kheddarachara for 'jhum' cultivation. We stayed there for one and a half years. The day before yesterday the Muslim settlers came to the same village and rounded up the households. The settlers were accompanied by Bangladeshi soldiers. I took shelter in a nearby latrine when the villagers were rounded up. Later I tried to leave the latrine to go somewhere else. The village had been surrounded. As I was trying to escape, the Muslim settlers shot me. It was a singled barreled shot gun. The incident took place in the early morning around 6 o'clock. After getting the bullet injury I ran away into a safe place. I don't know what happened to the other villagers. I ran away from the place for about half a mile. Then I fainted and lost consciousness. Two refugees went there to collect indigenous vegetables and brought me to the camp about 10 o'clock. I have been twice attacked to be taken to a cluster village, the second time I was shot."

Violence, intimidation and arson are the main methods used by the both the Bangladesh Army and the Muslim settlers to force the hill people to leave their villages. Entire villages have been forced to flee from their lands.

5. SETTLEMENT IS A POLITICAL ACT

Landlessness is on the increase in Bangladesh in general. Land ownership has become increasingly concentrated and now 10 per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of available land. There has been no will on the part of any Bangladeshi government to assist land less laborers or marginal farmers anywhere in the country. Indeed organizations of land less people are often put down with the utmost brutality by hoodlums hired by local landlords, the police, the army, or by all three. The government's power rests with the middle and upper classes in the urban areas and with rich farmers. The poor will seize any survival chance they are presented with. Illiterates have limited horizons and they are not fully aware that the government's scheme to settle them in the CHT is not essentially an attempt to improve their lot. It is a political act to nullify the question of indigenous peoples' rights of self determination by increasing the number of Bengali Muslims in the CHT to majority.

6. SETTLERS USED AS CANNON FODDER

The Pakistani government instituted a settlement plan in the Feni valley bordering India because it distrusted the indigenous people living there. Bangladeshi governments have similarly used poor Bengali Muslims against the indigenous people as cannon fodder. There seems to be a determination to destroy indigenous society and if necessary the indigenous people. Illiterate Bengali Muslims peasants who, under this scheme move to the CHT, know nothing of the indigenous peoples' situation. All they know is that the government has given them land and is prepared to assist or at least to turn blind eye to encroachment on indigenous land.

7. GOVERNMENT'S CONSTITUTIONAL ARGUMENT

The government argument is that settlement in the CHT is necessary because much of the land there is uncultivated and therefore in their view wasted. Furthermore Dhaka maintains that "it would be against the constitution to prevent any Bangladeshi from settling or buying land in any part of the country". This argument takes little account of the economic or political realities of the CHT, where little of the land is suitable for farming and where the traditional owners are coerced into giving up their property. As an example India could have used the same argument in the Muslim majority state of Kashmir, where most of the land like the CHT is empty. By settling people from overcrowded part of the country to Kashmir India could have altered the demographic profile of Kashmir from Muslim majority to Hindu majority state. But Indian constitution forbids settlement in areas like Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram etc, because of their distinct cultural, religious and ethnic background.

8. WIDER POLITICAL OBJECTIVE

A direct result of the settlement scheme works to wider political advantage of Dhaka. The conflict between the poor Bengali Muslims and the indigenous people for a tiny proportion of the total land distracts attention from the general situation of landlessness in Bangladesh. In the CHT, this struggle has polarized the Bengali Muslims and the indigenous people. The Muslim settlers, in collaboration with the Bangladesh Army and Police harass the indigenous people. Civil suits taken out by indigenous people have increased substantially but, since the judiciary is manned mainly by the Bengali Muslim officials, they have been unsuccessful. Resulting from this, indigenous families have been forced to leave their homesteads and become land less.


More:

  1. Secret Memorandums of the BD Government
  2. Illegal Grabbing of Jumma Land : A Case Study
  3. Cases of Land Dispossesion
  4. Land Grabbing
  5. Settler Activity
  6. Settler Encampment
  7. Sadhantila Buddhist Temple
  8. Maischari land grabbing: HWHRF Report 13 Dec 2007

Sources:

  1. Chittagong Hill Tracts: Militarization, Oppression and the Hill Tribes (Anti Slavery International, London, 1984)
  2. Photos from Lonely Planet

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