When the “Top boxer” of Bangladesh, for the past eight years, Sura Krishna Chakma raised the national flag of Bangladesh in the first-ever professional boxing tournament held in last month, it reminds the contribution of the UK Ching Marma and other minority people who fought valiantly in the Liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.
Bangladesh began its independence journey with a population that is ethnically homogeneous, with less than 1% of the population being ethnically diverse. However, Bangladesh had struggled to deal with Chittagong Hill Tracts’ (CHT) tribal people as they have been waging an insurgency movement for autonomy. Later, Peace Accord was signed aiming to end the conflict in 1997. But, after 25 years of its signature, the treaty is still failing to instil trust among national political parties and factional groups. Currently, the situation in the CHT area is a complex mix of conflicts and negotiations. The area is also beset by ethnic tensions between indigenous communities and groups, interferences from neighbouring states, widespread poverty, resource scarcity, and low literacy rates.
Why peace in the CHT is still elusive?
In recent years, remote areas of CHT have become more prone to violence due to the involvement of various active groups in the area. The four ethnic political groups – PCJSS, Jana Samhati Samiti (Reformist-MN Larma), United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) and UPDF (Ganatantrik) – in the region appear to be at odds with one another. They have no ideological disagreements but are involved in inter-conflict for narrow self-interest rather than protecting the minority rights. All factions have specific armed wings with advanced weapons such as rocket launchers, automatic sniper rifles, and heavy machine guns, according to law enforcement. They extort wood trade, cooking markets, livestock markets, transportation, and a variety of other services, each on their own turf. Ransom for the abduction of ethnic groups and Bangalis are also a major source of income. Contractors also have to pay at the rate of 10 percent of the original budget. To stay safe, locals were forced to maintain good relationships with all parties. They are compelled to pay monthly tributes to remain in their homes. There are even reports of indigenous women being abducted and raped by rival groups. They are so vulnerable and frightened that they do not even move after the sunset. The inter-group conflicts have claimed more than 1100 lives since the signing of the peace accord. Although according to the terms of the accord, the guerrillas were to surrender and surrender their weapons but many haven’t surrendered arms yet.
What’s to blame for the present unrest?
The agreement’s lethargic implementation has reignited separatist tendencies among the Paharis. Recently, the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), an insurgent organization of small ethnic group, demanded a separate state in CHT with full autonomy and threatened strict armed movement. Prior to this, The UPDF, a breakaway group, continues to oppose the treaty and seeks full regional autonomy.
The most pressing concern in CHT, however, is extensive Christianization among the tribal population. ‘Evangelization’ is generally carried out by the missionaries through a number of NGOs operating under the umbrella of “development partner.” Christian missionaries use money and other worldly trappings to entice poor tribal people to become Christians. So far, 4344 families in CHT became Christian in the last two decades and the number of churches increased dramatically from 274 in 1998 to 644 in 2022. It’s worth noting that more than a third of the Bandarban district’s tribal population is now Christian.
Impact of the Peace Accord on the Situation of ethnic People
Certainly, the Peace Accord made room and rendered opportunities for the CHT’s development. In these 25 years, comprehensive and systematic development efforts have contributed to the socio-economic development of the Pahari people, which immensely contributed in reducing the gap between the Pahari and Bengalis. Many tribes are well-integrated into mainstream middle-class Bangladeshi society, with officers and ambassadors serving in Bangladesh’s military and diplomatic corps.
With its contrasting topography of hilly terrains, immense lakes, wide-open spaces, as well as rich ethnic and cultural diversity, tourism industry flourished in the CHT. Tourism boosted due to the infrastructural projects connecting the remote and mystic parts with the main areas of the country and security ensured by the law enforcement agencies from the precarious hilly terrain to the remote bordering area. The treaty also integrated the CHT people into the mainstream economy, while permitting them to retain their specific ethnic and cultural identities.
The ‘Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Organisation Act 2010’ was passed in order to safeguard and foster the cultural expressions of Bangladesh’s small ethnic groups. Small ethnic groups’ rights are now more recognized by the government in Bangladesh than before. The development allocation per capita in the CHT districts is significantly higher than in the rest other districts. The government has amended some laws to allow for the implementation of the peace accord mainly the formation of the ‘CHT Regional Council’ and the ‘Ministry of CHT Affairs’, establishing the ‘Land commission’ to deal with conflicts over land and natural resource rights. The government is also gradually reducing military camps. The number decreased from 546 to 206. Another feature of post-agreement development in the hills has been the influx of development partners and the extension of NGOs and INGOs in the CHT area.
The first and foremost, the Bangladesh Government must take into cognizance the factors behind the failure of establishing peace in CHT areas to ensure peace in the hilly region. Secondly, the implementation of the remaining articles should also need to be prioritized. So far, out of 78 provisions, 48 provisions of the Accord have been implemented. Hill people strongly believe that the implementation of the Accord is the key to solving problems in the CHT. Thirdly, it is crucial to control the armed factions to evict violence and restore peace to CHT on an urgent basis. Fourthly, both the Hill and the Bengali people emphasize that land disputes need to be resolved immediately. And finally, there is a need for consolidating the progress achieved so far.
Nevertheless, an established misconception is prevailing among the hilly people that their voices are not heard and they are treated differently from the rest of the Bengalis. To eradicate this misconception and build trust and harmony, more initiatives should be undertaken by the government.
Politics of Pakistan: A Riot or an Opportunity
On 14th August, 1947 Pakistan appeared on the world map as the largest independent Muslim state of that time. Sixty-five million people out of Ninety-five million population were Muslims. Despite of the shared religion of its majority, Pakistan is still struggling to build a national identity. Earlier, linguistic and cultural diversity were a hurdle but, in the Common Era political imbalance, rivalry and groupings left Pakistan with nothing but social, political and economic crisis with no future of stability.
Division of Sub-continent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan was a kick start to the largest demographic movement in history. Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali Jinnah died when Pakistan was less than a year old. The politics of Pakistan has not been less than a roller coaster ride. Till date the State has been ruled by 27 different Prime Ministers where some of them ruled twice and even thrice. Adding to that, the state has been under dictatorship four times since its independence. This political chaos has badly affected the economy of Pakistan. Not that Pakistan is a barren landlocked country with no reservoirs or no beneficial source to strengthen the economy, but, the political riot has played a vital role in paralyzing the social and economic bodies. Pakistan’s politicians have obediently followed the tradition of blame game since independence. Political representatives have always considered it necessary to blame the opponents for unstable environment in rather than being united against the state issues. The truth is that none of the political party could ever succeed in fulfilling the objectives of their five-year plan.
Due to sudden change of government, corruption, fragile institutions, the country’s economy suffered harsh weather. In 1980’s the economic growth was an impressive 6.3% which had a sharp decline during 1990’s and dropped to 4.9%. By the end of dictatorship the growth decelerated to 1.7% in 2008 and political instability accelerated to -2.4%. During the regime of PPP, the Nation succeeded in nothing but increase in economic instability, rise in corruption, inflation, and unemployment. PPP has set Karachi as a portrait of their inefficiency which the city witnesses every year during monsoon season. In 2013, the biggest political parties of Pakistan, PMLN and PTI fought the elections and undesirable results ended in a 126 days long dharna in the Capital of Pakistan with the inclusion of rallies, aggressive speeches and corruption cases against the opponents to hold them responsible and throw them out. The dramatic political unrest forced the country to lose hundreds of millions, foreign trust, foreign investment as well as paralyzing the Capital of the state. Nawaz Sharif was proven guilty and sent to jail, PMLN succeeded in making the institutions fool and Nawaz Sharif flew to the UK for medical treatment. In 2018, the ineligibility of Nawaz Sharif, Panama leaks and support of the number of people of the nation gave Imran Khan a chance to win the majority vote in National assembly. Forced to habit, the opposition instead of efficiently working with the government for the welfare of state, jointly formed PDM to demolish PTI’s government. Protests, long march, boycotts became the fate of Pakistan and which couldn’t affect the government much but, to lead to vote of no confidence in April, 2022 which resulted in Imran Khan’s removal. PTI blames PDM for joining hands with US in their regime change strategy. Even during PTI’s government, the instable economy was in the destiny of Pakistan. Currently, Shahbaz Sharif is the Prime Minister of the State and the economic conditions are nowhere near to a betterment; a total chaos.
The fake promises of every government has left the nation with nothing but empty bank accounts, economic collapse, inflation, extreme foreign debt, intolerance and extremism among its own people. The prime reason to every government’s failure is more or less their self- priorities. It was and is never about the betterment of state and its people but the authority, rivalry and seat. Every government without any discrimination focused on plans which would temporarily benefit the Nation during their tenure but, later due to huge foreign debt and IMF instructions, the country suffers inflation and hurdles in development of the country. Moreover, every new government finds the work of the former useless and terminate the projects, plans and policies initiated by them. This restricts the foreign investors from huge investments as more political instability leads to more economic deceleration.
Another huge drawback is that every government demands the state’s institutions to work their way, for example; the security departments’ ultimate duty is to protect the state from internal and external threats but what they do nowadays is to arrest the opponent leaders, raid their houses, protect red zone and blindly work under government’s thumb.
The biggest threat to Pakistan is its own poisonous politics. The political parties do not find their victory in providing the Nation with excellence and betterment but, the lust of power and hatred has forced the public to witness a psychotic political behavior. Election campaigns, days of protests in Islamabad, societal unrest and cyber-attacks have become a trend which has divided the Nation into groups.
Pakistan is on the verge of losing everything. IMF and other states have either denied or are delaying in providing aid to the country and the major reason is the political unrest but, a bitter reality is that politics cannot be ignored as it plays a prime role in connecting Pakistan on national and international levels. Political stability shall be the ultimate goal as it would help in formation of beneficial policies and would allow the institutions to work in a normal way which would only make Pakistan a healthy developed state. This 75th year and the years coming ahead can be good for Pakistan if elections are truly conducted on their time and the losing parties instead of creating a chaos, aids the ruling party in running the affairs of Pakistan smoothly.
Seventy-Five Years of India’s Independence
If anyone had asked Jawaharlal Nehru as he made his midnight speech on August 15 and freedom dawned, how he visualized India 75 years hence, he would have described a Fabian paradise of equality and plenty. Would he be disappointed?
The neo-liberal agenda, far removed from socialism, introduced by Manmohan Singh a few decades later was designed to invigorate the economy. He lowered taxes, privatized state-run industries and encouraged foreign investment. It did spark an economic boom but the withdrawal of the state from healthcare, education, banking and credit made it a country obsessed with profit.
If cities boomed, rural areas were left to stagnate. GDP grew but the growth favored the upper 50 percent — the lower half did not enjoy a similar access to education or healthcare or have the same mobility.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), a quarter of the world’s undernourished people now live in India and a fifth survive on less than $1.90 per day. WFP has been working in India since 1963, and it reports that in the last two decades per capita income tripled yet the minimum dietary intake fell, and the gap between rich and poor actually increased despite this high economic growth.
Nehru’s ideal was a country of different faiths and different ethnicities, speaking many languages but living harmoniously and sharing a common Mother India. Instead, unbalanced growth at the cost of the lower half of the population has led to scapegoating and the major target is the sizable Muslim minority.
The blame game now includes historical revisionism blaming Mughal emperors from India’s glory days when the exquisite Taj Mahal was constructed, the arts flourished and India generated almost a quarter of the World GDP.
This game also chides the Hindu Rajput princesses that Mughals married or the respected Hindu advisers that served the Emperors. The much decried last great Mughal emperor in this blame game is Aurangzeb who extended the empire to almost India’s southern tip, ruling a vast area stretching into Afghanistan and its borderlands in Central Asia.
The Aurangzeb narrative excludes a simple fact: the majority of Aurangzeb’s advisers were Hindu. A Hindu chronicler, Bhimsen Saxena, penned a memoir titled Tarikh-i-Dilkusha or a history that warms the heart, describes life as a soldier in service to the Emperor for more than a quarter century. He may rail at Aurangzeb’s tactical or strategic errors but is forever loyal. Hindu generals, nobles and advisers … they were not on the outside looking in, they were an integral part.
For centuries, religion was not a divider. Adherents of the two principal faiths worked together, lived together, married each other, and fought together including in 1857, during what the British called the Indian Mutiny and Indians refer to as the First War of Independence.
Thereafter, the British instituted systems and processes to develop rivalry and resentment, including quotas for intake into the prestigious Indian Civil Service as well as the lower level jobs. The rivalry progressed into mistrust, then riots and killings, eventually into two countries fighting wars, and then to a nuclear stand-off and a divided Kashmir.
North versus South, East versus West, a continent is difficult to govern. Have we heard this story before?
The two Punjabs
Even in the midst of tensions between India and Pakistan, people to people linkages between both countries – with both Punjabs (Indian and Pakistani) as key stakeholders – have given reason for cautious optimism.
While cultural commonalities and the emotional attachment on both sides has been the driving force for Punjab-Punjab initiatives, the potential economic benefits of improved relations have been repeatedly reiterated not just by the business communities, but political leaders (especially from Indian Panjab)
In recent years, ties between both countries have steadily deteriorated. After the Pulwama terror attack in 2019, economic linkages between both countries have got severely impacted, and this has taken its toll on the economy of Panjab (India). India imposed tariffs on Pakistani imports, and revoked Most Favoured Nation MFN status to Pakistan in February 2019, while in August 2019, trade links via the Wagah (Pakistan) -Attari (India) land crossing were snapped after the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The suspension of trade ties between both countries has had a serious impact on the economy of the border belt of Punjab (India) with over 9,000 families being impacted as a result of job losses in the tertiary sector.
Developments of the past few months
The one glimmer of hope has been the Kartarpur Religious Corridor which was inaugurated in 2019 (in 2020 this was closed due to the covid 19 pandemic but re-opened in November 2021). The Corridor connects Dera Baba Nanak (Panjab, India) with Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur, Narowal, Pakistan) which is the final resting place of Guru Nanak (the founder of the Sikh faith). Devotees from Panjab (India) can pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) without a visa, though they do need to carry their passports. While the number of people crossing over, via the corridor, is way below the initial target of 5000, it has helped in promoting people to people ties as well as re-uniting a number of separated families. There has been a growing demand for easing out visa procedures for individuals over the age of 75 years and those from separated families (some of the individuals reunited at Kartarpur have been issued visas) which has been backed strongly by civil society organisations – as in the past.
The phase from 2019-2022 has been witness to people to people linkages, especially with regard to religious tourism, but interactions between state governments of both the Punjabs, or what is referred to as ‘paradiplomacy’ unlike earlier years has been restricted. After the re-opening of the corridor in November 2021, then Chief Minister of Panjab (India) Charanjit Singh Channi, and other political leaders from the state, paid obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur), while also flagging the need for resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing — though to no avail.
There have however been calls for resumption of trade from sections of Punjab’s political class, business community as well as farmers from Indian Punjab. Pakistan which has been buying essential commodities including wheat at exorbitant prices could purchase the same from Panjab (India) and the Punjabi farmer could benefit by getting much higher prices for his produce.
In conclusion, even in the midst of strained ties between both countries, the Punjab has played an important role in trying to reduce tensions and build bridges between both countries, and the role of civil society, business community on both sides and the diaspora needs to be acknowledged. In the 75th year of independence while ties between New Delhi and Islamabad remain strained developments of the past few months, in the realm of people to people contact have given reason for hope as a result of the tireless efforts of civil society and some individuals committed to peace. The next stage of this should be easing out of visa regimes especially for certain categories of individuals – specifically those over the age of 75 who want to visit their ancestral homes. Resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing will benefit not just Panjab (India) but other parts of North India and the Pakistani consumer. If both countries can focus on giving a greater fillip to people to people linkages and economic ties — with the Punjabs taking the lead – ties between India and Pakistan could be less frosty.
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