Communal attacks in Ramu: of family feuds and corporate culture

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by Rahnuma Ahmed 

SUPREME Court lawyer Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, 39, initiated a writ petition immediately after the violent attacks of September 29, 2012 when innumerable Buddhist monasteries, temples and houses in Ramu, Cox’s Bazar district, were set on fire, pillaged and looted by Bengali Muslim men, mostly youths. The attackers included both locals and outsiders, angered at the news that a picture defaming the Holy Qur’an had been discovered on a Buddhist youth Uttam Kumar Barua’s facebook account. Investigative reports reveal that the allegations against Uttam were manufactured since the picture had been tagged to his account; credible news reports also reveal that the attacks were pre-planned and pre-meditated, a view subscribed to by both the ruling party and the major opposition party, who, however, blame each other for the attacks.

Jyotirmoy Barua returned to Bangladesh last year after completing his Bar-at-Law; he lived in the UK for nearly nine years, partly financing his studies as karate instructor. He has filed the writ on the basis of being personally ‘aggrieved’ since he belongs to Ramu. It challenges the ‘inaction’ of the police; hearings have begun
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The interview is based on transcripts of recorded conversations held with Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua on four different occasions totaling more than fifteen hours. I am grateful to him for having taken me into his confidence, for having gone through the draft and suggested modifications.

Sections of the national press have reported that factionalism in the ruling Awami League’s Ramu branch contributed to the attacks of September 29. As a local, your family has lived there for three generations, possibly more, and, as a political and cultural activist yourself, do you agree?

First things first, that was during the late 1980s, we participated in the popular uprising against General Ershad’s dictatorship, sang gano sangeet [people’s songs], performed satirical plays. Some of us even went off to Dhaka to join the millions struggling for democratic rule.

Yes, I too believe that if Sohel Sarowar Kajol, upazila parishad chairman, and Saimum Sarwar Komol, Mohajote’s parliamentary candidate, both Awami League leaders, had been united, an assault of such magnitude couldn’t have occurred. The two brothers may not have participated in the violence, but their failure to actively resist is their contribution.

Dilip Barua [industries minister] reportedly said the same thing in a recent meeting held in Ramu: the widespread violence wouldn’t have occurred if the feud hadn’t existed. Everyone in Ramu thinks the same. We paid the price for their enmity.

Could you give us a bit of background on their personal animosity?

I don’t want to go into personal details, the feud has split the family, their mother, the widow of Osman Sarwar Alam Chowdhury [longtime Awami League politician, locally very influential, in later life, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the UAE], and some of her offsprings support one of them, the rest, the other. The feud has spilled over outside as well, because they belong to a very influential family and are political leaders. Both had sought nomination as Mohajote [grand alliance] candidate for the 2008 parliamentary elections, but the AL central leadership decided in favour of Komol. Furious, Kajol lent his support to the opposition candidate Lutfur Rahman Kajol of the BNP, he secretly campaigned in the latter’s favour, organised public rallies, etc. He developed close ties with a large circle in the BNP, with Jamaat as well, it vastly increased his power. It’s an open secret in Ramu. We have suffered tremendously as a result. The violent attacks of September 29 bear witness to this.

I remember seeing press reports that the top Awami League leadership is well aware of the feud. It must be disastrous for the party, weakening its organisational strength, leadership and programmes.

Absolutely, that’s why the Awami League lost its seat in the 2008 elections, the BNP candidate, who won, is a non-entity. And yes, the central leadership is well aware. Sheikh Hasina reportedly called a meeting of the party’s district-level leaders — Awami League, Juba League, Chhatra League — in Dhaka in 2010 because party discipline was in shambles, the two brothers were constantly at each other’s throats, busily lobbying against each other. Kajol reportedly complained that the Mohajote candidate had no grassroot contacts, implying that the AL had lost the seat because the wrong candidate had been selected. Sheikh Hasina reportedly told him to shut up. She advised them to cooperate with each other, or else, ‘reserve players’ were ready. I was in London but news travels, and this one made big waves. She knows for sure, she’s well-informed.

Bits and pieces of this have been reported in the national press, so readers who’ve followed press accounts carefully, probably have a rough idea of what you’ve just described. What I’m more interested to know is this, how has the feud affected the lives of Ramu’s inhabitants in an everyday sense?

Very deeply. Disputes at the local-level — marital conflicts, personal rivalries, property disputes, territorial quarrels between local organisations over who’s encroaching into whose space — hardly ever get settled. To settle a dispute, there has to be give and take, but giving anything up is interpreted by the two, and their respective factions, as involving a loss of face. Any disputant seeking arbitration to help resolve a conflict, inevitably becomes a party to Kajol and Komol’s feud. If a husband and wife have quarreled, which might well be over something easily resolvable, it achieves larger than life proportions. It is likely to drag on interminably.

Their animosity is downright scandalous, it has, in effect, divided the whole population.

It has forced people to turn to the courts, which means legal hassles and expenses, more significantly, the intrusion of state institutions into everyday lives. People have lost confidence in the capacity of social institutions to mend broken ties.

What makes you think Kajol and Komol could have contained the violence? 

Let me digress a bit. The mass uprising got rid of Ershad, but what did we get in its place? Definitely not the democratic order we struggled for, yes, parliamentary elections are held but…

Nurul Kabir calls it ‘electoral autocracy’…

Very appropriate. What is shocking is the absence of institutionalised or well-defined criteria for the growth of political leadership in Bangladesh, it is true for all major political parties, AL, BNP, Jatiya Party. Cadres become leaders overnight, they just need to explode a few bombs or become rich through illegal means; or, become ‘heroes’ after beating up a rival, or, by getting imprisoned. Anyway, regardless of how they become ‘leaders’, what’s essential is having a gang of thugs, a petoa bahini, who exercise control through the monopoly of violence. This culture belongs to the Ershad era, at least as far as I can tell. It still exists.

To come to your question, this means that our honourable Mohajote candidate and our most respected upazila chairman, must be having their personal petoa bahinis, as well as petty leaders at various levels. Where were these petoa bahinis on September 29 night? What was their role? Komol says he was away in Dhaka [as a Sonali Bank director, he had been ordered by the Anti-Corruption Commission to appear over allegations of fraud and embezzlement], hence, he’s above reproach. But I don’t buy that, there were 11 sectors during the war of liberation, General Osmani was not present in all sectors simultaneously, it is not humanly possible. So what if Komol was in Dhaka? Where were his followers? Isn’t there a chain of command?

It can mean either of two things, and that’s true for Kajol as well who was in Ramu that night; either their cadres were busy setting fire, looting and pillaging, or, they were totally inactive, a mere bunch of disorganised youths.

What good is this leadership? Is this ‘leadership’? If Kajol, Komol, their followers and cadres had stood up, the six to seven hundred people belonging to Mondol para [Muslim neighbourhood] wouldn’t have joined the procession, wouldn’t have taken part in the attacks. If they’d sent word to members of their extended families living all over Ramu, Muslims, Baruas and Rakhains would have had the courage to collectively resist the attacks. The Buddhist community would not have been left defenceless. The AL leadership in Ramu failed us abysmally.

Resistance was possible. Faridul Alam, former upazila chairman of Uttor Fatehkhar Kul, organised the local people, they resisted the attackers, they saved their temple from being burned and looted, Alam has stated it in his deposition to the government probe committee. What prevented Kajol? Why wasn’t he able to protect a single temple, or a single house?

Or, did the attacks provide a means for asserting leadership? For, one-upmanship, one brother trying to outdo the other?

There’s no significant difference in the AL and the BNP, many people seem to think that the AL is a secular party, but it’s a sham. The Awami League is just as communal as Jamaat and the BNP.

When I went to Ramu, I was repeatedly told that it had been communally harmonious, I believe the contribution of two men — Osman Sarwar Alam Chowdhury, professor Mushtaque Ahmad (founder, Ramu College) — and your own family, who’d been the local zamindars, was paramount.

Yes, it was. Life was peaceful but with hindsight, we were intellectually ill-equipped to foresee that it wouldn’t last forever. If we had, we’d have built defences, we’d have created lines of resistance.
The majority didn’t have the time to reflect on the larger changes, they were busy struggling to make ends meet. But those of us who were far better off, progressive, intellectually inclined, we hadn’t anticipated it. Not even secular people belonging to the Muslim community who’d always stood by us, even they hadn’t thought of the spectre of communalism. They should have. As members of the majority community, it was their duty.

I think the biggest contribution toward maintaining a non-communal order was that of Kajol and Komol’s father Osman Sarwar Alam Chowdhury. He’s a legendary figure in Ramu. He was an Awami League presidium member, but people viewed him more as a social leader, not a politician. He’d rush over if someone’s relative died, it didn’t matter whether it was a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim family. Osman Sarwar was a people’s man. Mushtaque sir is the other giant figure, but since he’s an intellectual, people are a bit scared of him.

There were others, much younger but like-minded: to name a few, professor Dipak Barua, Obaidul Huq, a former upazila chairman, and many others including my uncle Sumatha Barua — they were part of the organic civil society. They were learned men, voracious readers, very progressive. I picked up my reading habit from them. The murubbis [respectable elders] had high social standing, they were deeply respected.

Disputes, whether a family squabble, or over property, or even fights between schoolkids, were nipped in the bud. Disputants wouldn’t turn to the upazila chairman; if Osman Sarwar called a bichar [meeting to arbitrate], people would turn up. As a lawyer, I can look back and pick holes in some of the settlements, but what’s more important is that it was acceptable to all parties.

They gradually took the backseat as they grew older, but the civic bodies they’d built, the people they’d moulded meant the tradition continued, disputes continued to be resolved deshi-style. Sometimes offenders would be softened up, I remember, my brother and I beat up a guy before dragging him over to the bichar, because he’d hit his wife. Whether it was right or wrong is another matter, that was the culture. It was effective. It roughly continued till ’90-’95.

But their successors slowly grew passive. Osman Sarwar’s own sons Kajol and Komol, didn’t attempt, not even half-heartedly, to follow in their father’s footsteps.

What led to the changes? 

A combination of several things: during the autocratic regime of General Ershad, we hadn’t thought of anything else for ten years but how to oust him. He was the arch enemy, we were unified against him. But his downfall has meant the initiation of a different kind of autocracy, petoa bahinis, cadre-turned-leaders, the politics of vote banks, the dissolution of political ideals, the adoption of economic policies which has vastly increased class differentiation, the adoption of materialistic lifestyles, extreme intolerance setting in. The previous social order, to which I’d been accustomed since my childhood, became irrelevant. Political, social and economic changes introduced at the national level gradually re-organised social institutions and relations in Ramu. Cumulatively, the changes were dramatic.

Let’s move to the question of why you think the communal attacks in Ramu are a by-product of corporate culture. I want to add a small note here, before we went to Ramu [October 12, 2012] two good friends, professors Meghna Guhathakurta and Swadhin Sen, requested us to look into the issue of whether the communal attacks were in any way connected to ‘land grabbing’. I raised the issue on a one-to-one level with most Rakhains and Baruas whom I met in Ramu, Ukhia and Teknaf, but everyone said, no, land was not the issue, they’d lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbours until now. The destruction of temples, monasteries and houses had made them feel that it was Buddhism, as a lived religious practice, which was under attack. 

But the connections that you make, speak of something larger, more evil, than any of us have imagined. As Dhaka city’s residents we’ve heard of fires being set to slums, apparently ‘accidental’, but actually the handiwork of thugs in the employ of real estate agencies, who have suave and well-groomed owners and managers holding fort in corporate offices. No one else has connected the dots as you do, and I’m sure readers and activists will be most interested in your analysis. 

I’ll focus on two things: corporate land grabbing, and the demographic, economic and cultural changes in Cox’s Bazar city, some of these changes began largely after independence, they have escalated and intensified in the last two decades.

People in Bangladesh have always been greedy for land, it was true earlier, it is true now. Undoubtedly, increasing population densities matter; but it is the relations and structures of power which divest a particular community[ies], or class, of their claims to land. Successive constitutional amendments, the declaration of Islam as the ‘state religion’ [1988], the declaration of the ethnic identity of all communities as being ‘Bengalis’ [2011], and the adoption of free market economy principles by elected governments, have cumulatively worked to make Bangladesh state, society and economy, exceedingly communal in nature. Communalism is systematic, deeply entrenched, it doesn’t matter which political party is in power.

Previously land grabbing was local — it was undertaken by individuals or groups of individuals at their own initiative, to further their own interests. With the emergence of real estate agencies, phenomenally powerful corporate groups, land grabbing has become institutionalised. Poor people, ethnic and religious minorities, are the worst-affected, victims of the predatory agendas of both local and corporate land grabbers. The difference between the two is that the reach of corporate land grabbers is nationwide. Their activities are totally unregulated. It occurs within a nexus of ties, which includes corrupt government officials. Our gangster-style political culture benefits corporate groups as well, they too have their own petoa bahinis.

Earlier, when you entered Cox’s Bazar city, you’d find Burmese houses on either side of the road, wood houses, made of Burma teak, with engravings, very aesthetic. The houses are all gone. Earlier we had the ‘Burmese market’ where mainly women and girls, would sell locally-produced cosmetics, showpiece items, handlooms, etc; the market was the mainstay of their economy, they weren’t fabulously wealthy, just small shopkeepers. The small shops have been torn down, a big market has been built, it’s still called the ‘Burmese market’ but the Burmese have been replaced by local Bengali men, only a handful of Rakhains are left. The covenant which had protected Rakhains during the British colonial times — land transfers could take place only among Rakhains — has been totally disregarded post-independence.

The expansion of the middle class in Bangladesh over the last two decades, its increased purchasing capacity has led to the ‘discovery’ of Cox’s Bazar as a holiday resort. There are deluxe five-star and three-star hotels, some even have private beaches, European food and wine is served, large companies and NGOs hold seminars and conferences. Earlier, for us locals, Lal Dighir paar [in Chittagong] was the dividing line, people to the south of Lal Dighi spoke the Chittagonian language, north of it you had shadhu bhasha. But now you get shadhu bhasha in Cox’s Bazar — hotel staff, management, tourist agencies, shop-keepers are all non-locals. Rakhain culture has disappeared in Cox’s Bazar city, it has been replaced by hotel culture, a homogeneous corporate culture.

Does this mean that in order to fight communalism plus ethnic chauvinism — since Rakhains are Buddhists — we need to fight corporate-style development, we need to resist corporate culture, including ‘hotel’ culture, is that what you are saying? That, to regard communalism as essentially religious, fanatic, textual, shorn of political economy, is not only partial — possibly, comforting for those who claim to be secular and progressive Awami League-style — but downright hypocritical? 

Yes, precisely. Viewing communalism as solely religious absolves the middle class, it doesn’t need to be critical about its own lifestyle, its class aspirations.

Is land grabbing taking place in Ramu?

In the southern belt as a whole, the prospects of building a deep sea port has led to a mad rush; uninhabited islands earlier used for drying fish are now being occupied and sold. The frenzy has afflicted probashis as well, when I lived abroad, some Bangladeshis approached me, if 8-10 of us formed a committee, they said, we could bag a piece of land, they had contacts in the ministry, we could go for construction, let it out as residential or commercial space. I declined.

Outside Ramu proper, by the Bakkhali river is a place called Rajarkul. Deep inside the forest, where you’d least expect it, you come across acres of land under tobacco cultivation. On the adjacent plot is a large billboard, declaring Basundhara to be the owner.

Land prices in Ramu have risen phenomenally, the value of 40 decimals of land in Ramu proper was 5-7,000 taka twenty years earlier, the same-sized plot now, in Ramu proper and by the Bypass, is 10,000 times higher, that is, 1 crore taka. It is conducted by a sort of ‘syndicate’, comprising three groups of people, all locals — the first group is knowledgeable about land disputes, they focus on aggravating them; the second are the financers and the third group makes sure that all attempts at arbitration fail at the village level, that top lawyers are engaged if the matter goes to the courts. Eviction has been made easier because of our land registration system, the clumsiest in the world, the root of all problems. Since the khatian [cadastre] is not conclusive evidence of ownership, plus, since people are not in the habit of checking deed records before buying, it is not unusual for a person to possess a piece of land but not ownership rights to the land.

Many families are riven by old conflicts over the division of land, caused by say, a father having promised a certain plot of land to one of his sons, but because it hadn’t been transferred, other inheritors refuse to respect his wishes after his death. Or, maybe, the elder brother’s plot is a bit bigger, the younger son is miffed about it. Now these are not secrets in a place like Ramu, and I know of a group of people who dig up these half-buried ill feelings and stoke them: ‘you’ve been deprived, we can help you get your equal share.’ Many transfers were earlier done by word of mouth, in those times, words had value, a plot of land would be given away to till, ‘return it to me when you can.’ I have seen dolils where land was transferred in exchange of 1 hen, 3 gourds, 50 anna, 10 pice, maybe that was the price of land. Syndicate members target people whose rights of ownership to the land is less secure. Families, when faced with the prospect of losing rights of possession to land, prefer to come to some sort of a ‘settlement’, a meagre amount, to cut their losses.

When I returned last year, I went to pay my respects to the bhante [monk] of the Boro Kiyang in Ramu, it was damaged by the attackers on the inside, its outside is still intact. Rakhains were losing their land, he said. It’s true, the neighbourhood where Mushtaque sir lives was basically a Rakhain para but now there are very few Rakhain families. Viewed superficially, it would seem families have moved away voluntarily, in search of better opportunities, many to Chittagong which, for us is the big city, not Cox’s Bazar. But if you know the family histories and histories of land disputes in Ramu, you can see patterns in these apparently voluntary land sales and migrations. You can see a hidden hand at work, cashing in on property disputes.

After September 29, a climate of fear prevails among the Buddhists in Ramu, more so, because the attacks weren’t resisted collectively. Poorer families feel more vulnerable, none of the houses belonging to well-off Buddhists was attacked. Is that accidental? How do we know that separate forces, each with their own distinct agenda, hadn’t merged their interests to carry out the attacks?

I was relating what you’ve said about land grabbing to someone who’s pretty well-informed, he says, army officers have become the owners of many plots of land in the southern belt. What’s your take on that?

That would need looking into, but most business groups, including real estate agencies, have retired army officers in top positions. But if you look at the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the problem was obviously created by the army, what occurred there is a prime example of land grabbing, of state terror. Army officers are in an advantageous position even after retiring, it’s a gross abuse of power.

The Rohingyas have been subjected to repeated violence and persecution in Myanmar; they are regarded by the government, and more generally, as being ‘foreigners’, ‘Bengalis’. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government has implicated ‘extremist’ elements among Rohingya refugees as having been involved in the communal attacks of September 29, how do you view it?

The national boundaries that we know today are new inventions, our histories were intertwined for many centuries, Chittagong was a part of the Arakan kingdom until the middle of the 18th century, whereas Burma was forced to cede Arakan to British India in the early 19th century. Historically, people have migrated in both directions, both to escape oppression by their rulers, and also, during peacetime. In recent history, because Burma was not a democracy but ruled by a military junta, both Rohingyas and Rakhains fled in large numbers whenever oppression became unbearable. The Rohingyas, who fled in 1978, are accepted as ‘locals’ in Ramu. We’ve gone to school with them, they have bought land, set up trade, they’ve settled here. They are part of us. But the 200,000 or so Rohingyas who fled in the 1990s is another matter. Now that democratic rule is finally being introduced in Burma, I think Burma should resolve its own ethnic problems. But Aung San Suu-Kyi declared, she won’t intervene in the ethnic conflict, what’s preventing her? I blame western news agencies as well for colouring the conflict, despite it being an ethnic conflict, the BBC presented it as being between ‘Muslim’ Rohingyas and Burmese ‘Buddhists’. I was accosted by a lawyer in court the other day who said you guys are protesting against the Ramu incident, why are you silent about the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar? I don’t understand why Buddhists in particular are expected to protest against the atrocities across the border, most Buddhists are Bengalis. But anyway, whether we are Bengali Buddhists or adibashiones…Burmese Buddhism is something separate, distinct, I don’t feel any particular affinity towards it. Of course, our government shouldn’t have closed down the borders, it’s inhuman, the government should have been pro-active on the international scene. As for Rohingya involvement in the September 29 attacks, individuals might well have been involved. But they were collectively blamed before the investigation began, this was highlighted by a leading daily. Were they really involved or was it to cover up someone else’s tracks?

Ethno-sectarian clashes in Myanmar and the persecution of Rohingyas, argue some political analysts, is connected to ‘geopolitical realities’, part of ‘US-Saudi sponsored destabilisation’, aimed at containing China through aggravating ‘long-standing ethnic and religious tensions’  (Nile Bowie). What do you think?

It’s not unlikely, Iraq is proof of that, Saddam was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction, they invaded, killed thousands, later [president] Bush said, sorry but we couldn’t find any WMDs. The US government hasn’t been held accountable for its actions by any international court. They now have Iran in their sight, Pakistan is already a failed state, and we, being one of the largest Muslim countries, are an easy target. The dispute over islands has suddenly flared up between Japan and China, building a base here may serve US interests. Who knows? I’m far from being an expert on these matters, but after what happened in Ramu, buying off a class of people seems easy. If a bigger power intervenes, promises payoffs so that we play to their tune, some could well go out of their way to prove that we are an ‘Islamic terrorist state’, handing the US administration the biggest possible weapon. It’s not impossible. But I don’t see why we have to dance to their tune.

Published in New Age, Saturday, December 8, 2012

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