“holding governments accountable is not just people voting every five years, but holding governments accountable to the people throughout their tenure”
Khushi Kabir is Coordinator of Nijera Kori, a renowned grassroots organization in Bangladesh that supports the landless of Bangladesh. She is also a new member of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHT), monitoring the implementation of the CHT peace accord. GHRD talked to her about the current situation in the CHT, issues faced by minorities today and her thoughts on the future for her country in light of the upcoming elections.
What is the situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts right now?
In 1997 a peace accord was signed between the then Awami League Government, which is now currently back in power and the PCJSS, the representative of the CHT peoples federation, who were directly a part of the struggle for establishing their rights. Though the accord was signed almost 15 years ago, implementation of the accord is still a far cry. There is still a lot of harassment, killings, abductions and rape going on – it’s a conflict and clash of cultures and religions, but one of the biggest issues is the land. Some solution has to come about, but until that happens, I think the human rights violations will continue.
Why is it important that it is being solved?
No nation should ever want an area to be under this kind of stress, where people feel insecure, where you need military interventions to maintain law and order, where people’s basic rights as citizens and their own cultural and indigenous rights are being violated. Where, two groups of peoples (indigenous peoples and the settlers) live in a constant state of insecurity and mistrust. That too, is not something that any citizen of any country would tolerate. So it is a basic question of independence of its citizens and the right of those citizens to enjoy equal rights.
What do you think about the consequences for the CHT in the event that BNP (and Jamaat-e-Islami) win the elections in 2014?
If BNP and Jamaat come in there will be a problem and definitely a change, possibly not in favour of the indigeous peoples of the CHT. The BNP to begin with was not in favour of the Accord, there was a long march to try to protest the signing of the Accord under the leadership of Khaleda Zia (President of BNP) herself. When BNP and its allies were in power from 2001 to 2006, they did not do anything to implement the accord. They continued to increase the military presence, and encourage Bengali settlers into that area so the demographic balance changed even more in favour of the Bengali Muslim settlers. However, having said all that, the present government that did sign the Accord, didn’t make any serious moves during this regime either to try to resolve the crises and they are almost at the end of their tenure. They have to act in a more responsible manner to win back the confidence of the indigenous peoples.
How about for the rest of the country?
For the general public, if the previous BNP and its allies particularly the Jamaat came to power, the overtly Muslim dominance in education and in the public sphere would be much stronger. For the religious and ethnic minorities it means they are always a much more vulnerable community.
The 2001 elections has gone down as one of the most violent period in Bangladesh’s history, where mainly Hindu minorities were attacked, raped and killed. Do you see any risks in a repetition of violence in this upcoming election?
The risk is there, in areas where there is a large proportion of religious minorities, especially the Hindu community. If you can intimidate the Hindu community who are considered traditionally as Awami League voters, then you can undermine that vote bank and they are almost 10 %. I think in terms of a repetition of the violence in 2001, the election is not something that people are discussing yet. But I think that this is something that one definitely should start thinking about, start worrying about.
What are the main issues faced by the Hindu community in Bangladesh today?
The main issue is (land grabbing - GHRD note) and the Vested Property Act: that is the return of the property belonging to Hindus which was confiscated by the government after the war in 1965. Abuse and misuse of this law has been uniformly rampant, in contradiction to even the Supreme Court’s (the highest Body’s) decisions. The second issue concerns Hindu marriage and divorce rights for women. In Bangladesh, despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees equality to all its citizens, personal law is still governed by religious laws. And unlike other countries like India where there is a large Hindu majority and the traditional Hindu laws have changed, over here it is still very archaic. Hindu women do not inherit any property or have the right to divorce. Demands from groups fighting for women’s equality have tried to bring about draft laws so that all women from every religion shall have the right to have their marriage registered, to have the ability to divorce, ensure child custody and maintenance, and the right to equal inheritance.*
Footnote: Since the interview a new law was approved introducing official marriage registration for Hindus. It is expected to be passed shortly in parliament, and has been welcomed by civil rights activists. But critics say it is a token gesture that does not go far enough.
Can you explain the concept of land grabbing?
Land grabbing shows that you have the ability and the power to be able to act beyond the law and with impunity. If you are vulnerable - for example because you may be a woman or from a religious or ethnic minority community - then it is very easy for powerful people to take away your land. Usually the administration works in favour of the land grabber. The administration and the police who are supposed to protect all citizens turn a blind eye when it comes to influential people grabbing land. A lot of Hindu land is falsely marked as vested property, that means that it gets taken away from the family and considered as government land. Land grabbing goes on unabated, and though there may be very clear laws and very clear rules, unfortunately the land record system in this country is very archaic and complicated. We are not able to get information about the status of land and who the land actually belongs to, or to whom it has been distributed to. And it is very easy to pay money to get the documents tampered so we do not know what the actual status of the land is.
What are their chances of getting the land back?
There are chances, but then they have to be organized and aware of their rights as citizens, because there are many constitutional guarantees and legal instruments in place. If they go individually they are not going to be listened to or heard. But if they are aware of their rights and if people around them are an organised force collectively they can fight back either through the court, the administration or support groups with journalists and lawyers taking up the issue. We have seen many cases where the land is returned. It may sometimes get violent and it is often very difficult. Some of my colleagues have faced false cases and also been victims of severe physical violence.
What do you hope for the future of Bangladesh?
I really and sincerely believe that if people are aware of their rights, they are willing to stand up. Then regardless of which government we have, the government will be forced to listen to them, the people. Hopefully, they would then vote for the government which would be sensitive to respond to their needs, rather than just stating empty promises. Holding governments accountable is not only about voting but also holding governments accountable to the people - and changing the mindsets of the administrators in that they are supposed to be serving everybody equally as equal citizens. That is what I dream about!