February 21. A red-letter day in Bangladeshi history. The day we Bangladeshis celebrate our language and cultural heritage.
The day we remember the four martyrs cut down during the 1952 language movement that was the foundation stone in our struggle for self-determination and the formation of a national identity that culminated in independence in 1971.
How better to celebrate and commemorate this flowering of national identity than for Bengali settlers to attack Pahari villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the eve of February 21, burning down 200 homes and going on a rampage that ended with at least two Paharis killed and countless others injured and arrested.
Of course the Chakmas and other ethnic minorities in the Hill Tracts and elsewhere in Bangladesh have never really been part of the national narrative.
From day one (in fact, their mistreatment predates independence) we have treated them like second-class citizens.
The 1997 peace treaty was supposed to resolve all the simmering tensions and the signing of the accord was a bold and long overdue act of leadership by the PM back during her first term in office.
But the truth of the matter is that the treaty has never been implemented fully by successive governments and the hills have remained a tinderbox of tensions and resentment.
But make no mistake about it: in the battle for control between the Bengali settlers and the Paharis, there is a right and a wrong.
It is the settlers who have a history of land-grabbing, who have unleashed a reign of terror in the Hill Tracts, and who are responsible for the lion’s share of the violence.
Certainly, there have been reprisal attacks on the settlers and certainly Paharis have committed atrocities of their own — but let us call a spade a spade.
Since independence we have made no efforts to integrate our ethnic minorities into the national project.
When he came to power in the mid-70s, military strong-man Ziaur Rahman went one step further, initiating a policy of encouraging ethnic Bengalis to settle in CHT in order to actively integrate their lands in CHT with the rest of the country.
Since then, militants waged a low-level insurgency until the 1997 peace treaty, but the insurgency was never widespread, never had much sympathy among the Pahari people, and never struck terror in the heart of the general population the way that more popular and ruthless insurgencies and movements have done elsewhere.
For the most part, Bangladesh’s ethnic minorities have wanted only their democratic, human, and civil rights.
If we had addressed their legitimate grievances, there would have been no insurgency, and if we implement the peace accord, we will have no reason to fear one in future.
As recent events have shown, almost all of the unrest in CHT is triggered by attacks by Bengali settlers.
The government must seriously listen to and take concrete steps to address the legitimate grievances of the Paharis.
For the local civilian administration and the armed forces to be unable to even keep Paharis safe in their own homes is, at the very least, a shameful dereliction of duty.
The proximity of the violence to February 21 forces one to ask: Is there some connection between our fetishistic glorification of the Bangla language and the short-shrift that non-Bengali ethnic minorities have received in independent Bangladesh?
It’s possible. One of the ironies of independence, as historian Afsan Chowdhury once remarked to me, was that we fought a war of independence to create a secular, open, democratic society in which religious and ethnic minorities would have more freedom than in Pakistan.
In the end what we created was a state that has reduced religious and ethnic minorities to secondclass citizens due to our linguistic, cultural, and ethnic chauvinism.
This would be more palatable if the chauvinism were a reflection of true pride in our identity and nation.
But the truth is the opposite. We have opted for chauvinism and xenophobia in place of self-respect and patriotism as national characteristics. It is the worst of both worlds.
Less than 40 years ago, we fought a war so that as a people we would have the right to determine our own destiny.
The price of self-determination is minority protection, and we owe to the nation’s ethnic minorities the right to live as free and equal citizens of the republic.
We need to implement the 1997 CHT accord and we need to rein in the Bengali settlers.
Crucially, we need to ensure that the army and the civilian administration protects the rights of all Bangladeshis in the Hill Tracts, not just those of the Bengalis.
If we fail in this endeavour and Bangladesh turns into a country with no place for ethnic and religious minorities, it is worth asking the question:
Did we really fight a war of independence only to establish a nation for Muslim Bengalis? It would be a shame if it were true.
Daily Star, February 26th, 2010
Writer : Zafar Sobhan