By Saydia Gulrukh
Sodork or Totteleng
As our bus entered Khagrachari Sadar, the graffiti on the wall caught my eye. I don’t remember exactly the name of the school. It was a government high school. The main gate almost broken, but the boundary wall seemed recently painted. On this newly painted white wall were colorful images, of Shapla, Ilish, Doyel, and of course the Royal Bengal tiger. They grabbed my attention, because these flowers are not indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts but were adorning this wall. Sodorok, Bhat Jourha or Hurug flower, flowers common to Jumma land were not to be seen on the wall. Jumma children while fishing in the Chengi river catch Totteleng or Pinon Fada, not Hilsa fish. These were icons of Bengali culture, engraved on the landscape of CHT.
Our bus driver was trying to make up for the delay we had faced on the Chittagong road. He did not stop for long at the Khagrachari bus stop. I had been curious to find out if there were Chakma alphabets hidden in the crowd of Bangla barnamala on that wall, but there was no time. We barely managed to have a cup of tea. I was going to Baghaichari. It was the first time, after thirteen long years, that the Hill Women’s Federation would be able to hold a public rally protesting Kalpona Chakma’s abduction day (June 12, 2009) in her own home town. I wanted to attend the protest meeting. Baghaichari was another two hours from Khagrachari.
The changed cultural landscape became more evident as we drove deeper into the town. Around the Bazaar area, the smiling images of Bengali women on billboards, for Pepsodent toothpaste or Pride textile, made me wonder about the explicit and implicit ways in which Bengali presence is ensured in the CHT. Of course, there were more than just posters and billboard of products that are largely meant for Bengali consumers. There were political graffiti, slogans and counter slogans on the walls, written by members of Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS) and United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF). I found the images of Shapla, Doel and Pepsodent unsettling as they signified the increased marginality of all things Jumma.
A statue of late President Ziauar Rahman, standing awkwardly, somewhat disproportionate, waved at us, as we read the sign, “good bye Khagrachari.” The pedestal on which the statute stood was covered with a colorful poster of some Awami League campaign. It had a portrait of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I wondered whether it would be possible for people in CHT to install a monument for Manabendra Narayan Larma. I saw his photograph in nearly every Jumma house that I visited. I saw calendars hanging on the wall with his photograph and his famous quote, “Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bengali or a Bengali be a Chakma… As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity, which unfortunately the Awami League leaders (the then-ruling party) do not want to understand (T.K. Oommen, Nation, Civil Society and Social Movements, 2004).” I saw small replicas of Shaheed Minar all over CHT, but I did not come across any public monument memorialising the political contribution of MN Larma.
The politics that unravelled in the CHT followed by Larma’s launching of Parbattya Chattogram Jana Shonghati Shomiti (1972) is not a seamless narrative of heroism. His politics and position was contested by many jumma people in the CHT, and later, he was killed by members of another faction of his own political organization (10 November, 1983). But, despite differences and contestation, he is accepted by jumma people as the father of the Jumma nations. While the images of Shapla and Hilsa, the awkward statue of Ziaur Rahman appeared to be a symbolic display of Bengali occupation, the calendars with Larma’s portraits were silent tributes to his courage, they seemed to reiterate his demand for constitutional recognition of other ethnic groups, other than the Bengalis, which too, is an ethnic group, although we seem to forget that, since we, ARE the nation. While thinking about memorializing practices and monuments in the CHT, I am reminded of Rahnuma Ahmed’s piece in the International Women’s day supplement (New Age, March 8, 2010), where she writes about Bangladesh’s ethnically singular nationalist narrative. The courage of ethnic others, she says, are excluded from the stories of our national past. I would like to push her point further. Not only are these excluded, they are seen as a threat, as disrupting the hegemonic Bengali narrative.
The bus braked suddenly. It had stopped at Baghaichari Bazaar. I got off, and wandered off to the near-by tea stall for a cup of tea. A portrait of M.N. Larma hung on the rusted tin-wall. It said, “Jumma Jatir Janak Manabendra Narayan Larma (founding father of the Jumma Nationalities, Manabendra Narayan Larma).” Two fathers in one nation state? That is probably too much to ask.
Rupan Chakma’s Mother
A member of Hill Women’s Federation was waiting at the bus stop. We took a rickshaw to the public gathering. The school yard was full and bursting at the seams, but people were still coming. There were posters of Kalpona Chakma. A big red banner demanded the punishment of those who had abducted her. Placards demanded an end to harassment by military personnel, an end to violence against women by both army and settler. I breathed a sigh of relief; I was saved from shameless displays of Bengali culture here.
The speakers were gathering on stage, a friend whispered in my ear, that’s Rupan Chakma’s mother, in the front row. Rupan was studying in class six, in Rupkari Bahumukhi High School. After Kalpona’s abduction, he became very active in Pahari Chatra Parishad (PCP). Two weeks after her abduction (June 28, 1996), when civil and military authorities had been equally busy in covering up their involvement, three Pahari organisations called a blockade, in Marishya, to protest her abduction. During the protest, police opened fire, Rupon was killed along with Monotosh, Shukesh and Shomorbijoy Chakma.
That evening, I went to Rupan’s house. His mother told me about the nightmare she had the night before Rupan Chakma was killed. In her dream, she saw herself killing a dog mercilessly, with a dagger. She was full of anguish and an untold fear the next morning. She was unable to do anything, to concentrate on anything during the day. She had asked her elder son to go look for Rupan. As she spoke, she brought a photograph of Rupan. It was a studio photo, Rupan was sitting on a motor cycle. As she passed me the photograph bound in a wooden frame, she said, “It’s been thirteen years, his face is fading.”
There are eye witnesses to Rupan’s killing. I met them at the Rupakari High School playground. We sat in a circle. At the other end of the play ground stands a Shaheed Minar, this one commemorates the sacrifice of Rupan, Manotosh, Shukesh and Samarbijoy Chakma. They had all been students of this school when they had been killed. Rupan’s friend began, “In those days, the PCP had student wings even at the school level, military harassment was an everyday matter. Rupan was not an active member, but he was a strong supporter of PCP. Kalpana’s abduction was so unjust, so cruel, we thought we must do something. We just had to. I was there with him at the rally, it could have been me, I saw a Bengali settler snatch a rifle from a BDR, and he just began shooting.” After a slight pause, he asked me, “What kind of administration is that that allows an ordinary person, one who has no authority, grab a weapon, and open fire on us, on unarmed civilians?” Even though I knew the answer, I still asked him, “Was there ever a police case, have you ever given your testimony?” He replied, “No. No one has asked me to testify.”
Our Circle of Grief
Since 1971, we have been absorbed in building a nation-state exclusively for Bengalis. Our circle of grief reflects that. It excludes all others. We are unable to inhale the fragrance of any flowers but Shapla, Shaluk or Kathal chapa. Our hearts weep only for Bengali mothers, not for Rupan’s mother. Today, on Independence Day, I want to remind our Bengali-self that there are other lives which need to be memorialised; that there are other Shaheed Minars too, awaiting jumma flowers.Show