Where was Jhum cultivation mainly practiced?

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There is again increasing talk of rebel raids and attacks by the military against the non-Bengali population. In addition, increasing radicalization is noticeable and the fear of Islamization of the region is growing, especially abroad. Few believe that the agreement will be fully implemented. The supporters and supporters of the peace process in the ranks of the former resistance movement feel that the government of Bangladesh has betrayed them. At the same time, they are being pressured by the internal opposition to resume the struggle for full autonomy.

The reasons for the discontent and the flare-up of violence are the innumerable non-adherence to agreements in the agreement. The situation is also contributing to an increasing division among the indigenous peoples of the region. But the government in Dhaka under Begum Khaleda Zia is either unwilling or unable to bring the long-awaited stability to the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The indigenous inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts fought for land after the establishment of the state and against the attempt at assimilation by Bengali nationalism, which is mainly based on the Bengali language and culture. The new government of Bangladesh was concerned on the one hand with national unity and security, which it saw at risk from a possible autonomy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and on the other hand with the further development of the rich natural resources including gas and oil. The geographic location of the mountain region is somewhat precarious in terms of security policy. The Chittagong Hill Tracts have international borders with the Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura, which are shaken by violent movements for autonomy, as well as Myanmar, which is ruled by a military junta. In addition, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are wedged between the world's largest transshipment points for drugs and small arms.

History of the conflict

The densely forested Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeast Bangladesh make up about a tenth of the country's total area and are home to more than a million people. About half of them belong to the 13 indigenous peoples of Sino-Tibetan origin. They are called tribal or hill people in English, which corresponds to the local name pahari, and differ in language, culture and religion not only significantly from the other half, the Bengali-speaking Muslims, but also from each other. So the larger ethnic groups, like the Chakma, are mainly Buddhists, the other Christians or Animists. In addition, each group has its own language, some of which influence each other or also have Bengali traits. However, ethnic identity is not a rigid category but the subject of constant transformation processes and has been heavily politicized, especially since the outbreak of the conflict.

Changing rulers and migration movements have always shaped the history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but the final end of their relative independence and self-government did not begin until they were linked to East Pakistan in 1947. Even under British rule, the Chittagong Hill Tracts still enjoyed a special status, although considerable administrative ones Changes have been made. The Chittagong Hills Tracts Regulation of 1900 divided the region into three districts and, among other things, placed the responsibility for tax collection in the hands of indigenous leaders. In addition, any migration into the Chittagong Hill Tracts was banned, which further isolated the region from the rest of Bengal, especially economic influences. It was also the British who gave the region its current name, Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parvatya Chattagram). At the same time, by giving preference to certain ethnic groups, they created the basis for today's intra-ethnic rivalries. So many leaders of smaller ethnic groups had to surrender their power to larger groups like the Chakmas and Marma.

After the partition in 1947, the Pakistani government intensively pursued the economic development of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The migration ban has been lifted and investments have been promoted. Among other things, the construction of the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River near Rangamati began in 1957. However, this not only generated electricity, but above all a flow of the flight of indigenous groups living there. It robbed the farmers of 40% of their fertile land and displaced about 100,000 people. Traditional agriculture in the Chittagong Hill Tracts was permanently influenced by the loss of land and the interference with the cultivation methods of the population. Part of the Pakistani development plan for the Chittagong Hill Tracts was also the intensive settlement of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by Bengal due to the growing scarcity of land in the densely populated Bengali heartland. This policy was later continued by the government of Bangladesh. Bengali settlers have been populating the region since the 18th century, but it wasn't until the state was founded in 1971 that it increased so rapidly that today almost half of all residents in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are Muslim Bengali. To protect them, more and more soldiers were transferred to the region over the years and numerous military camps were set up.

During the War of Independence there was mixed sympathy among the residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but no active participation. Some supported Pakistan, others complained about not being included in the struggle. In the rest of the country, opinion hardened that the residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts were against the independence of Bangladesh. Initially, the indigenous groups were only concerned with the recognition of their political and cultural interests in a state that relies exclusively on an identity that was not theirs. Because the new state was based exclusively on the Bengali nationality, consisting of the Bengali language and culture, mainly in contrast to Pakistan. With Islam, although it was later proclaimed as the official state religion, another pillar was added to the scaffolding.

Shortly after the declaration of independence, in April 1972, Manabendra Narayan Larma, leader of the emerging Chittagong Hill Tracts resistance movement and brother of Shantu Larma, presented a manifesto. It contained among other things the demand for an autonomous status for the Chittagong Hill Tracts as well as the prohibition of the further settlement of Bengal in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The founder of the state and first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League promised recognition of the rights of the indigenous people, but for him they were primarily Bengali. None of the demands were included in the new constitution. Under these circumstances, the Parbatya Chattagram Jana-Samhati Samiti (Association of Solidarity of the Peoples of the Chittangong Hill Tracts, PCJSS) was founded on February 15, 1973 under the leadership of M. N. Larma. Its militant wing, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Army), was launched a little later in the same year, but did not begin its violent activities until 1976. Resistance to the overwhelming power of Bengali nationalism, actively promoted by the PCJSS, created an identity for the indigenous people Völker, jhumma [1], which, however, does not go beyond the political level and is to be regarded as extremely fragile. Like the PCJSS, the Shanti Bahini were also dominated by the Chakmas, which marginalized, if not completely excluded, smaller groups. Personal and intra-ethnic rivalries ultimately led to the split-off of the Jana Sanghati Samiti and culminated in the 1983 murder of M.N. Larmas.

The assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975 marked a decisive turning point for the PCJSS. M.N. Larma fled to India, and the Shanti Bahini began their military operations in the struggle for the autonomy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which marked the beginning of over 20 years of guerrilla warfare.

All subsequent governments of Bangladesh tried to solve the problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts through negotiations as well as through economic development, if not to defuse it. At the same time, however, the militarization of the region was promoted, thereby increasing the propensity for violence among the indigenous population.

With the first takeover of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) under General Ziaur Rahman (1975-81) began Bangladesh's departure from secularism. At the same time, landless Bengali settlers were provided with land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with the aim of changing demographic conditions to the detriment of the indigenous peoples. Under Zia, however, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) was established and respected members of the Chittagong Hill Tracts population were appointed as advisors to Dhaka. But the plan to win the favor of the Chittagong Hill Tracts residents and undermine the influence of the PCJSS did not work.

During the years of General Ershad's dictatorship (1982-90), Islam became the official state religion and continued to be heavily politicized in the fight against the autonomy movement. This provoked increased resistance in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and intensified the violence. At the same time, the first negotiations between the government and the PCJSS began, but with no satisfactory results for either party. In 1989 the Hill District Council Act was passed, which gave members of the indigenous groups more control over the districts in the form of district councils in which they were represented in a majority. The activities of the CHTDB were also expanded and even recorded short-term economic successes.

After long years of military dictatorship, the first democratic government under Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996), widow of Ziaur Rahman, was willing to resolve the situation peacefully. A nine-member parliamentary commission of inquiry was set up to deal with the sensitive issue of land law, among other things. In addition, many refugees were compensated retrospectively and programs for pacification were launched. The general calming of the situation was further promoted by the unilateral armistice proclaimed by the PCJSS in 1992. But the initial momentum ebbed in the mid-1990s, the compensation payments were stopped as well as the negotiations.

The 1996 peace agreement

With the change of government in 1996, the Awami League came back to power for the first time since the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. The new Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed, daughter of the founder of the state, revived the peace process. It culminated on December 2, 1997 in the peace agreement. This was preceded by tough negotiations of a new parliamentary commission as well as considerable improvements in the relations between Bangladesh and India, which has supported the Shanti Bahini financially and militarily for years. Allegedly, the various military dictatorships in Bangladesh had provided Pakistan with intelligence information and military material for years, which in turn were said to have supported the separatists in northeast India. With the support of the resistance in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, India made a kind of compensation and is said to have given its blessing for the agreement with the Awami League (AL). [2]

The agreement included the establishment of a Regional Council with responsibility for order and security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as well as for tax collection and the development of the region. According to the agreement, the central government must from now on consult the Regional Council on all decisions affecting the indigenous population. The council consists of 22 members, including 14 from indigenous groups, with Shantu Larma at the head. The district councils were further strengthened. A ministry for the affairs of the Chittagong Hill Tracts has also been established under the direction of an indigenous peoples. The minister is supported by an advisory committee. Although the ministry did not provide a concrete description of its tasks, it was hoped that it would develop as an intermediary and thus an effective representation of the interests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts population in Dhaka.

The planned establishment of a land commission contained most of the explosive elements of the agreement. On the basis of an investigation, this should regulate and legally enshrine the claim to land. Meanwhile, many Bengali settlers had displaced the native population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts from their land. However, neither one nor the other can legally prove their claims.

Another important point was the decision to withdraw the Bengali military from all camps temporarily set up in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Only the permanent camps in the district capitals and the Bangladesh Rifles, a kind of paramilitary border force. The Shanti Bahini fighters were disarmed on the condition of a general amnesty and severance payment. In 1999 they officially dissolved for the time being. Many of them are now in influential political positions. Since there was never a complete count of the rebels, however, it cannot be said with certainty whether everyone has actually said goodbye to fighting life.

But the signing of the peace agreement did not meet with approval everywhere. Although they themselves had promoted the solution of the problems during their reign, the BNP rejected the agreement from the outset as unconstitutional. She claimed that national unity and authority would be jeopardized by the extensive powers of the district councils and especially the regional council. It only announced that it would immediately reverse it if it took over government, but later weakened this position. The opposition's habit of torpedoing the decisions of the respective government for purely party-tactical reasons is a popular tool in Bangladesh to stir up the mood and to attract votes. Incidentally, this applies to the BNP as well as to the Awami League. However, it cannot be denied that the peace agreement would have met with broader overall approval if members of the opposition had also been represented in the commission that signed the agreement on behalf of the government. Especially since it was not based solely on the negotiations of the AL government, but on previous efforts.

Even within the indigenous groups, the peace process was not unanimously welcomed. For many, the agreement represented only a minimum of concession. Their long-cherished wish for all Bengali settlers to be evacuated was neither granted nor granted the desired status of autonomy. In particular, other political organizations, such as women's and student associations, were bothered by the Chakma-dominated PCJSS's claim to sole representation. Internationally, however, the agreement was welcomed and rewarded with ample financial pledges for development aid in the region.

After the peace agreement

Seven years after the agreement, the peace process is hanging by a thread. Central points of the agreement such as demilitarization, full compensation for displaced persons and the establishment of the land commission have not been implemented by either the Awami League or the BNP, which has been in power since 2001. Institutions such as the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs or the Regional Council have been set up but are unable to function effectively. The central line of conflict between the indigenous population and the central government or the Bengalis who have settled there is increasingly being overlaid by intra-ethnic disputes over power and resources. The division of power among the various ethnic groups within the councils in favor of the larger groups creates tension and discontent among the smaller groups.

The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts do not seriously want to return to violence, but with ongoing human rights violations and promises not being kept, advocates of the Shantu Larma's PCJSS peace agreement are finding it increasingly difficult to stay on course. On the occasion of the 6th anniversary of the agreement, Larma organized public strikes (hartals) at the end of 2003. He accused the government in Dhaka of a lack of will to implement the agreement and threatened further mass protests. But how long can Larma, who is already being described by adversaries as a traitor, continue to defend the agreement credibly? Rival forces such as the United People's Democratic Front (UDPF), a split from the PCJSS, established after the agreement, see themselves strengthened in their efforts to achieve full autonomy for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They continue underground military operations, which are increasingly directed against their own people. In February 2001 supporters of the UPDF kidnapped four foreign engineers, three British and one Dane, in Rangamati district and released them a month later, with or without the required 1.6 million is not officially known.

Complete secession from Bangladesh would not be in the interests of the government or the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From a security perspective, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are dependent on a certain military presence. The secession struggles in the northern Indian Union states as well as the opaque situation on the Burmese border with a high concentration of crime, drugs and weapons smuggling repeatedly cause unrest in the mountain region. Economic development is of course also affected by the unstable situation in the region. The extraction and export of raw materials can only take place under peaceful and safe conditions. Only then can the great potential of the port of Chittagong be fully exploited. Not only Nepal and Bhutan could handle their transports via Chittagong, this variant would also be more lucrative for northern India than the detour to Kolkata.

The indigenous dominated administration and the political leadership of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have to prove that they in no way question the national integrity and that they are able to bring together the interests of the various ethnic groups in the interests of the overall development of the region. At the same time, the non-indigenous population must also be included. On the other hand, the government in Dhaka must give up its passive policy and pursue the full implementation of the peace agreement in order not to play into the hands of the militant forces in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to strengthen the structures in place. As long as the political will to resolve the conflict, especially in Dhaka, does not prevail, the situation will not improve. Rather, it is to be feared that the violence could prevail again.


[1] Jhum is the name for the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced in the mountain region.

[2] More on India's role in the conflict can be found in Rashiduzzaman 1998.

This post belongs to the focus: Between War and Peace.


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