Chakmas of Chittagong Hills: 'Indians' on Aug 15, Pakistanis two days later and 'rebels' by Aug 19

By Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

Kolkata, Aug 19 : Every year, motley groups of Chakma tribals gather in various parts of the country with placards calling out August 17, 1947 as 'Black Day'.
     Seventy-five years ago, the Chakmas lost the short-lived 'rebellion' they mounted to make their homeland in the Chittagong Hills a part of India and since then, the tribe's now scattered diasporas lament that loss.
     On August 15, 1947, Chakmas, Tripuris and other tribals, mostly Buddhist, living in the over 13,000 square kilometers of hills and dales in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) decided to raise the Indian tricolour at the Deputy Commissioner's Bungalow at Rangamati to signify their new citizenship.
     "My father Sneha Kumar Chakma, who was a member of the All India Excluded Areas Sub-Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India for CHT, engaged with Col GL Hyde, the then deputy commissioner of the district, and after he agreed that the hill tracts were part of India, raised the Indian flag on the morning of August 15, 1947," said Gautam Chakma, a professor of political science at Tripura University.
     However, the jubilation that accompanied that momentous occasion was short-lived. On the evening of August 17, after the Radcliffe Award, which demarcated the boundary between India and Pakistan, was announced over the radio, it came to be known that Chittagong Hill Tracts had been given to the latter.
     A few days later, the Baluch regiment marched in to tear down the tricolour and replace it with Pakistan’s flag.
     In Banderban, also in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, some tribals who felt closer to Burma, now Myanmar, had raised the Burmese flag. This too was torn down by the Baluch soldiers.
     An arrest warrant was issued against Sneha Chakma and his associates, branding them traitors.
     However, Sneha along with others, including Indramoni Chakma and Girish Dewan, the 'captain' of Chakma guards, had already left for Agartala after an emergency meeting of tribal leaders on August 19 at the deputy commissioner’s bungalow where it was resolved that "CHT shall not abide by the Radcliffe Award and that resistance be put up and squads be immediately set up with indigenous weapons".
     Sneha Chakma’s team was authorised to travel to Kolkata and Delhi to seek arms and to protest what they felt was "gross injustice".
     Chakma tribals claim that Sir Cyrill Radcliffe dismissed a seven-page argument written by Justice Bijan Mukherjee and Justice Charu Biswas (non-Muslim members of the Bengal Boundary Commission) in favour of retaining CHT within India, and had agreed to give it to Pakistan.
     While Chakmas in their memorandum, and justices Mukherjee and Biswas in their arguments pointed out that CHT had a 98 per cent Buddhist population whose tribal ethnicity made them clan-cousins to people living in Tripura and Assam, Radcliffe held that the area was the headwaters for Chittagong port and without it, the port, the only major one in East Pakistan, would be unsustainable.
     "The Maharaja of Burdwan offered my father some Lee Enfield rifles and ammunition. But most Indian leaders counselled a legal battle rather than an armed rebellion," said professor Chakma.
     Raja Nalinaksha Roy, the titular tribal chief of the Chakmas despite being part of the decision to opt for an armed rebellion taken on August 19, later opted to work with the Pakistan government, perhaps to safeguard his clansmen.
     "The princely family and elite among Chakmas did not really support our struggle, some of them felt Pakistan would give them a better deal," felt professor Chakma.
     However, the Chakma homeland in Chittagong Hills, did not remain a safe haven. In 1957, work on Kaptai dam, which eventually flooded hundreds of villages and submerged more than 1,300 sq km, started. Between 1962 and 1965, tens of thousands of Chakma villagers were forced to leave for India and Myanmar.
     "After the Kaptai dam was built (and tribals displaced), there was a rise in political consciousness among the Chakmas," said Amena Mohsin, a professor of Dhaka University's International Relations Department
     While some became refugees in neighbouring Tripura and Assam, where their clan brethren lived, others were resettled in Arunachal Pradesh.
     However, life in diaspora has not been a bed of roses. Most of those settled in Arunachal still do not have voting rights and periodically there are agitations, which seek their resettlement elsewhere, branding them "foreigners".
     "There are just 60,000 of the 2.5 lakh Chakmas in India living in Arunachal Pradesh. Just 6,000 of them have voting rights, yet they face agitations," said Suhas Chakma, the director at Rights and Risks Analysis Group, and author of several books on Chakma issues.
     Chakmas living in Mizoram are similarly in a quandary with the state government seeking to conduct surveys to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which could identify “illegal” Chakmas living in the state.
     "In 1900, the British took a slice of Chittagong Hill Tracts and made it part of the district which is today Mizoram, making many Chakmas and Rheangs citizens of that area... yet today, they face illegal censuses which could target them," alleged Suhas.
     In Chittagong Hill Tracts where an estimated 7 lakh Chakmas still live, much of their ancestral lands have been encroached upon by settlers from the plains, often with the help from the Bangladesh Army.
     "Much more than partition or the Kaptai Dam displacements, the throttling of tribal identity by the Sheikh Mujib government in Bangladesh and the later displacement of Chakma tribals by plains settlers have been disasters for them," said professor Ranabir Samaddar, the former head of Kolkata-based Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.
     The 'Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti' (Chiitagong Hills People's Solidarity Committee) was formed in 1972, soon after Bangladesh became independent and its armed wing 'Shanti Bahini' (Peace Army) launched its first attack on that country's army in 1977.
     "India was willing to assist them (Shanti Bahini) after the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975," claimed Mohsin, a charge many Bangladeshis make, but one which India denies.
     In 1997, after Sheikh Hasina came to power, a peace accord was brokered, ending the two-decades-long bloody rebellion. However, as plainsmen-settlers continued to grab land in the hills, and as a strong army presence kept the tribals in check, the peace remained an uneasy one.