Ziauddin Choudhury provides a personal account of the politics behind the CHT settlement plan
A treaty, in the minds of our people, is an eternal word.
Events often make it seem expedient to depart from the pledged
word, but we are conscious that the first departure creates a
logic for the second departure, until there is nothing left of the word.
---Declaration of Indian Purpose (1961) American Indian Chicago Conference
In late 1979, probably around October, I was asked by the Chittagong divisional commissioner at the time to attend a meeting in his chamber at the commissioner's residence. Meetings at the divisional commissioner's residence were not unusual and I never asked what the topic of the meeting was. When I arrived at the bungalow I found the deputy commissioner of Chittagong Hill Tracts there as well. As soon as I entered the meeting room, the doors were closed, with only three of us there. Without much ado, the commissioner broke open the subject of the meeting, but with a request that the matter remain at least temporarily within the four walls of the room. The subject was relocating people affected by erosion in Sandwip and Kutubdia to the CHT.
The news startled me. The erosion of Sandwip and Kutubdia, along with the neighbouring Hatyia Island in Noakhali, had been going on for years, with hundreds of people losing their homesteads. The affected people had been moving inland without much government support. We in the district administration had been coping with the affected people's requests to help in whatever way we could. Initially, it pleased me to learn that the government was directing its attention to this problem, but relocating these people to the CHT? What about the CHT regulations that govern and restrict non-hill people settlements in that district? Answering my questions the commissioner simply stated that the government had decided that people of the islands who had lost their homes to erosion would be settled in designated areas of the hill tracts. The deputy commissioner of the CHT had identified the areas of relocation. I was required to find volunteers from the displaced people of the islands, who would later be transported to the designated areas in the hill tracts. They would be given cash and housing materials to construct their new homes.
The news was astounding! I could not believe that we were participating in a plan to destroy the very foundation of a regulation that the government had been following, at least officially, for last so many decades.
It was not like there weren't Bangali settlements in the hill tracts prior to 1979; but there had never been a massive transplantation of people to the area. The Bangali population had been steadily increasing, particularly after war of liberation. Officially these settlements required permission from the deputy commissioner, with limitations on leases for land holding. But even with these restrictions, the non-hill population had been rising due to the growth in trade with the main land, land grabbing, and often-illegal settlement in the forestlands at the connivance of government officials.
However, I was very disturbed that we would be shipping loads of non-hill people to the tribal areas and thus officially flouting a regulation that had governed the area for such a long period. I was particularly surprised that this plan was being thought of at a time when the government was battling an insurgency in the hill tracts that had been going on for three years. How could we think of transporting civilians to the mouth of this Vesuvius? I was told that the government had already drawn up and agreed upon this plan to counter the insurgency. The settlers would provide a base of local support to the law enforcing agencies in their counter-insurgency operations.
I told the divisional commissioner that I would let him know about our participation in the "settlement program" as he put it. A few days later I informed him that there were no volunteers from my district who wanted to settle in the hill tracts, and that Chittagong district should be kept out of the program. Little did I know that it mattered little whether I agreed with the program or not; it would be implemented with or without me.
The commissioner said nothing to me about the program after that, but I knew he was under strict instructions from President Ziaur Rahman to make the program a success. I would learn a month later from the sub-divisional officer of Cox's Bazar that the commissioner had personally conducted a meeting of local UP chairmen from Sandwip and Kutubdia and had asked for a list of volunteers to settle in the hill tracts. In similar manner the district authorities in Noakhali and Comilla were also asked to send lists of volunteers for settlement. I could not make this an act of defiance any longer; as I knew well that I could not stop this politically motivated operation, even if I were to leave the government.
Starting from the end of 1979 and through 1980, hundreds of families from the coastal areas of Chittagong and Noakhali, and river erosion affected areas of Chandpur would be transported by the truckload to the hill tracts. The first settlements would be in areas closer to Chittagong district, and then to the more interior parts of the hill tracts. The families would be housed in make shift camps first, and there after they would be given housing materials and cash. They would also be given land for cultivation under the land lease laws. They were located in what became known as cluster villages under the watchful eyes of the army and armed police battalion, who would camp nearby. (The armed police battalion had been deployed in the hill tracts since 1976 to support of the army to contain the insurgency.)
The whole operation of Bangali settlement in the cluster villages was conducted under the guidance of the army. As the commander of the counter insurgency operation in the CHT, the GOC of Chittagong, Maj. General Manzoor had a major role in planning and executing the settlement operation. It is interesting to note that in this operation the army was following the US counter insurgency model in Vietnam. In 1962, the US had developed a system of resettlement and population security that would eventually become known as the strategic hamlet program. In Vietnam, strategic hamlets would consist of villages consolidated and reshaped to create a defensible perimeter. The peasants themselves would be given weapons and trained in self-defence. Moreover, the strategic hamlets would not be isolated; instead, they would function as a network. The hamlets were to be used as an administrative tool to institute reforms and improve the peasants' lives economically, politically, socially, and culturally.
In their zeal to implement the strategic village concept, and urgency to build some kind of local support base to contain the insurgency, the planners forgot the lessons of Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the government was moving local people from their homes to the outskirts of the village to create a defence perimeter against Viet Cong guerillas. This involved moving local people within their known territory, not transplanting people from one geographic area to another. Even then the program failed because most people did not want to be moved, and were reluctant to take up arms against their own people. In the CHT the settlers were not only unwelcome to the insurgents, but also to the local people. The only friends that they had were the law enforcement authorities; but they could not guard them twenty-four hours a day.
Credit goes to the relocated people for their courage and grit, but it is only because they were homeless that they volunteered to be bussed to such a harsh environment for resettlement. They would soon find out that their fate was worse than what they had originally bargained for.
The first attack on a Bangali settlement happened a few months after the settlement in an area not too far from Kaptai. In a brazen attack after dark, the insurgents killed several settlers, burnt the newly built thatched-houses, and drove hundreds of men, women and children out of the "strategic village" to Rangunia in Chittagong. As deputy commissioner of Chittagong I had the misfortune of witnessing these refugees, and offered them what little relief I could. Again they were huddled in makeshift camps, and taken back to the hill tracts under police security.
Unfortunately, the "settlement operation" would not be stopped by this setback or the many other insurgent attacks that would follow in other parts of the region. The Shanti Bahini militants easily garnered support for their insurgency from the locals, because the entire program of "forced settlement" was an anathema to them. As retribution the army and the armed police battalion would undertake combing operations in the surrounding villages, further alienating the local population and baiting the insurgents to perpetrate even bolder acts. These acts of insurgency and counterinsurgency would dog the hills for two full decades.
I thought things would simmer down after the signing of the peace accord. I thought that our political leaders who were opposed to this accord would finally come to realise the value of preserving and promoting amity between the majority population and our ethnic minorities. To my sadness, however, I find that in the name of national solidarity and sovereignty these so-called leaders seem bent on fomenting suspicion and sowing the seeds of division in the hill tracts. Instead of allaying fears of subjugation, destruction of culture, and forced assimilation of the minorities, they are encouraging the reappearance of the same ideological forces that led to the predicament in the hill tracts.
Bangladesh is tiny for such an overwhelmingly large population. I understand why there would be a mad rush for open space in every direction. However, in doing so we have to learn and educate our people in respecting rights of others to life, property, and culture. Respect for rights and liberties of other human beings are an integral part of nationhood. The sooner our leaders inculcate these feelings and impart this training on their followers, the better it'll be for everyone who lives in Bangladesh.
Ziauddin Choudhury was Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong, 1978-81. He now works for the World Bank in Washington DC.