chapter
20 Pages

Introduction

In the immediate aftermath of the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, an armed struggle began in its remote south-eastern corner. Hill people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who by this time called themselves the ‘jumma’ people (i.e. practitioners of ‘jhum’ or shifting cultivation), demanded official recognition, and autonomy, as the indigenous people of the Tracts. Their demand was based on the claim that the hill people of the Tracts were ethnically distinct from the majority ‘Bengali’ population of Bangladesh, and therefore needed special protection to preserve their traditions and customs. Their claim to indigeneity posited a binary relationship, between ‘Mongoloid’ paharis and ‘Indic’ Bengalis on one hand, and between swidden and plough cultivators on the other. The movement was led by the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), the armed wing of the Parbotto Chottrogram Jono Shonghoti Shomiti (Chittagong Hill Tracts Peoples’ Solidarity Association), or JSS.1 Originally founded in 1957 as the underground Pahari Chatro Shomiti (Hill Students’ Association), the Shomiti led a protest movement against the Kaptai hydroelectric project, which threatened to displace thousands of paharis and submerge arable land in the surrounding areas. The Shomiti also protested against the abolition of the Tracts’ special ‘excluded’ status in 1964.2 Paharis in the Hill Tracts had long struggled to communicate their discontent to successive authorities, both in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The founding of the Shanti Bahini, and subsequent militarisation of the Tracts in the mid-1970s, were signs that political mechanisms through which their discontent could be addressed had hardly developed in the post-1947 era. In the years leading up to 1971, the Tracts remained on the periphery of the political movements taking place in the rest of East Pakistan in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and did not become incorporated into the wider secessionist movement that would eventually create Bangladesh. This poses the question whether ‘non-incorporation’ of the region had resulted in its political institutions remaining weak or underdeveloped as compared to its neighbouring regions. This book, which is an extension of my PhD dissertation on the same topic, suggests that many answers to this question lie in the period of British colonial influence in the Tracts, and will aim to excavate that history.