Chakma repatriation between India and Bangladesh


Dr Rajkumar Singh

THE decision of the Pakistani Government in 1964 to remove the curbs on the plains people to settle in the tribal areas created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among the Chakmas. Being Buddhists, they also had genuine fears on account of the Islamisation drive. Chakma tribals fled from Bangladesh 11 years ago when the country decided to become an Islamic state. The Chittagong Hill Tracks are full of thick forests where the land-man ratio has been much lower than the rest of Bangladesh. The tribal refugees had taken shelter in South Tripura since April 1986 following massacres, armed clash and violence in various parts of the CHT. At one time during 1989-90 the number of refugees had gone up to 72,000. The Bangladeshi tribal refugees sheltered in six South Tripura camps for the last 12 years. The Ziaur Rahman Government, in fact, followed a well-calculated policy of encouraging the plains people to settle in the tribal land. The Khaleda Zia’s regime obviously could not discontinue such a policy despite assurances given to the Indian Government. The repatriation of refugees first began in February 1994. Since then 11,900 refugees have gone back to their homes in three phases. The last batch left for Chittagong in April 1997.
The smooth repatriation of Chakma refugees in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill Tracks (CHT) is a welcome sign of fast improving relations between Dacca and New Delhi. In March 1997 Bangladesh and Chakma refugee leaders signed an agreement for the repatriation of refugees, sheltered in six camps in Tripura for the last 11 years. On 7 August 1997, a six-member high powered Bangladesh delegation led by ruling Awami League tribal MP Kalpa Ranjan Chakma arrived at Agartala to persuade 44,000 tribal refugees, mostly Buddhists, to return home. The delegation held a series of meetings with the refugee leaders for three days but the refugee leaders were unwilling to return home until their five-point demands were met. After a marathon seven-hour-long meeting with refugee leader and former Bangladesh Parliament member Upendra Lal Chakma, who led a nine-member refugee delegation in the meetings with Bangladesh Government delegation, said that the Bangladesh Government had failed to implement the provisions of the 20-point economic package and bipartite agreement signed between the Bangladesh Government and the refugee leaders.
With a view to finalise the modalities for the fourth phase of repatriation a five-member high level Bangladesh official team arrived at Agartala on 13 November 1997. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, assured the refugee leaders that her government would implement the 20-point economic package and provisions of the agreement. The present delegation would hold meetings with the task force headed by the tribal MP Kalpa Ranjan Chakma and the 20-point implementation Committee headed by Nutan Mohan Chakma. These meetings would scrutinise the implementation of the 20-point economic package and rehabilitation of the refugees. Still the Chakma refugees were not sure of their safety and security that they want to be ensured. The refugee leaders, in general, felt that if the Indian Government wanted the refugees and tribals to live in CHT of south east Bangladesh with dignity, the problems of tribal masses could be solved easily. New Delhi should apply its influence on Dhaka for the betterment of the CHT people. However, the Bangladesh Government has assured refugee leaders that it is committed to provide economic package to the tribal and has urged the Indian Government to send all the Chakma tribals in one go to settle this problem permanently and without any delay. But the Chakma leaders want to return in batches and have decided to send another group of refugees to Bangladesh. The resumption of the repatriation process after a gap of seven months is indeed heartening. This will create a favourable atmosphere for the scheduled meeting between the Bangladesh Government and Shanti Bahini leaders on 26 November 1997. The two sides are expected to sign an agreement to end tribal insurgency. Such an agreement would have a sobering effect on Tripura’s militant groups.
In a significant development, the Awami League Government signed a peace pact with Shanti Bahini, an armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS). The two sides have arrived at a formula to end the insurgency which has claimed about 25,000 lives. According to the provisions of the pact the Shanti Bahini guerillas surrendered before the Bangladesh Government on 9 February, 1998 at Khagra Chari Stadium and it would be completed in three phases, the last phase would be on 28 February 1998. Although the accord has been criticised by the Bangla National Party, Begum Khaleda Zia had charged that the deal would help New Delhi gain control over the territory of greater Chittagong up to Feni (Begam Zia’s) constituency. But a senior official maintained that despite objections by the Bangladesh opposition parties to the signing of the peace accord with the tribal leaders, the refugees began returning home after the Bangladesh Government’s assurance about security of their life and property and satisfactory implementation of the economic package. As far as India is concerned, the Chittagong Peace Pact will have a solutory impact on insurgency movements in the North-East, much will, of course, depend on Dhaka’s attitude. New Delhi will have reasons to be happy about the deal for it removes a major irritant in Indo-Bangla relations.
— The writer is Professor and Head, P G Department of Political Science, Bihar, India.