[Art work by Arif Haq, The Daily Star.]
Kabita Changma, the former President of Hill Women’s Federation (HWF), writes about her comrade Kalpana Chakma, and the Jumma women’s struggle for self-determination
I started working as an activist because of our fight for self determination rights in the CHT through the Pahari Chattra Parishad (Hill Students’ Association), Hill Women Federation and Pahari Gono Parishad (Hill Majority Assembly). They were all working for democratic rights, especially in terms of the CHT. This meant all the political problems, the struggle and movement for self-determination. This is how we got involved with the movement to fight for our rights to self determination. This is why and how we started working and getting involved. From the very beginning, we got into Hill Women’s Federation (HWF) and our work began in the Khagrachari district. I become an activist there. We were very concerned by the fact that the media failed to show the true situation of the hill women – how they were being tortured, abducted, raped, discriminated and killed. None of this information were being shared in the media such as the newspapers, television etc. We demanded our rights – hence we started to protest. We carried out our campaigns not just in the villages but also in all the three districts. Khagrachari remained our main area for activism.
At that time I had probably just passed my Intermediate [grade 12] examinations and got admission into degree college. But I really have to say that behind our activism there was great contribution from our brothers and our friends. Our fight, our movement, was strengthened by this camaraderie.
In Khagrachari there is a place called Swanirvar where there used to be a library called Huang-Boi-o-Ba (which is still there). The military destroyed the library several times. It used to be the practice ground for our campaigning – not just for our right to self determination but we used to discuss all kinds of issues going on in the world. There used to be discussions on issues ranging from those written about in the newspapers to those we were facing in the CHT. It started from five in the evening and continued till eight at night. We used to hang out there. Books, all kinds of issues, worldwide events were read out and discussed there. Books of a wide spectrum of political issues were discussed there. Books from Mao Tse-tung to those on feminism were all very important there. This is how I became an activist.
I started out by going to all the rallies and protests when the protests initially started. I was Khagrachari district’s general secretary and then in 1995, I remember, we decided to start protesting. The Hill Women’s Federation started in Chittagong University in 1988, before the Pahari Chattra Parishad. We were not that active from the very beginning though. Some of the seniors at the HWF (Shila Chakma, Gori Chakma, Sucharita Chakma and Sharonika Chakma etc.) started it and they continued to be very supportive. They helped us to get faith in ourselves. I clearly remember that at that time in 1995 Sumita Chakma, a student of class five was sexually harassed by a military constable posted at the Guimara Camp of Khagrachari. That was the very first time we the women from Hill Women’s Federation protested on the streets against the army. We gave a memorandum to the Deputy Commissioner and the news about this spread very fast throughout Khagrachari.
A lot of protests followed, it became a big issue and the pressure was so high that the DC was compelled to take action by setting up an investigation commission. I was the general secretary at that time and a member of our group was taken on board to become a part of the three-member committee. They started the investigation and the culprit was brought and witnesses produced. There was a lot of evidence against him. But after some time we began to see that they were not really clear about what they were doing and they were not valuing our views. We rejected their investigation because our findings were not being included in the report and it basically said that the military officer was not responsible for the sexual harassment. This is what happens in all of these cases anyway.
None of the journalists reported about this at that time. They were journalists but they were not active about these issues at that time, the way they are now. They would report whatever the army version of the story was. The army would intimidate the journalists at that time to report things the way they wanted. They never bothered to investigate the matters. Now the media is much more open. The situation was very different back then. Some human rights activists and journalists did go from Dhaka at that time too. They came to investigate but afterwards never reported on it. We went to the remote area. We went to a very remote location in Mahalchari to interview Sumita. It was through this case that we first gained the strength and courage to work on our campaign in the CHT.
How I met Kalpana Chakma
But it was much before that when Kalpana and a lot of us used to do meetings in different villages to do campaigns. It was during those publicity campaigns when I first got to know Kalpana Chakma. It was probably at the end of 1994 or the beginning of 1995. There was a huge gathering at Bagaichari College where I got introduced to Kalpana. From then on we were involved in many campaigns together. That evening after the gathering I sat together with Kalpana and other members of the Hill Women Federation and had talks with her.
I think she was studying at Baghaichari College at that time. After the big gathering, we got together and sat at someone’s house with some women and some of our elder brothers. They were very enthusiastic to continue the work, so I formed a convening committee right there. PCP was there from earlier but we formed the Baghaichari convening committee that day and Kalpana was appointed as the convener.
Everyone at the Baghaichari camp was very active but I especially remember the hard work of Kalpana ,Sumita and Lipi Chakma. They firmly believed in our right to self-determination and were ready to everything to protest and resist. She was very active in motivating the students and members of the society to take up the issues of self-determination. Then, because they were so active there, the Hill Women’s Federation decided to form the first full central committee there. This took place at the town hall in Khagrachari. It was a huge gathering and many women came from all three districts. We were very impressed with her leadership qualities there and that day Kalpana speech was very powerful more than others. She had those qualities from much before that.
Then we formed central committees in all three districts of the CHT and even some which were village-based. This is how we started our activism. In 1995 Bartika Chakma and I went to Beijing to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women. Kalpana was supposed to go but unfortunately her passport did not come through in time and she couldn’t go. She was very interested in going and I think she would have done very well if she could have gone.
When in 1995 we had our central committee, we saw that she had special skills and so we brought Kalpana Chakma to head the committee so that she could do her publicity work better. I was the president and she was the organizational secretary at that time. From then on I was on very good terms with her. We were always writing to each other. Our letters have been published in the book, Kalpana Chakma’s Diary.
If she needed to come to Khagrachari for meetings she would stay at my house. She used to think of me as an elder sister. I also used to encourage her with her work all the time. A particular memory of her still haunts me to this day. In 1995 I was the one who was more marked and the military carried out all kinds of propaganda against me at that time. One day I had just come to Khagrachari from Dhaka. I had already informed Kalpana through a letter that I would be coming (we didn’t have phones at that time). That night Kalpana came over to my house too. I received a secret message that night that I would be arrested that night by the military. We were together in our house at the time and we were supposed to discuss some organizational matters. When this news came Kalpana was very supportive and she in turn spoke to me and tried to give me courage. That night Kalpana decided to stay at my house and I went off to stay at someone else’s house in order to save myself. She was from Bagaichari, so nobody would recognize her.
I came back to my place in the morning but we could not really talk anymore. This memory gives me a lot of pain, especially in 1996, when she got abducted. The person who was so worried about me ended up being abducted herself. When I think about this, it gives me cold shivers. I was the one who was supposed to be arrested. It was us in Khagrachari who were more marked by the military, both the men and the women. But she ended up being abducted. Since Kalpana’s abduction I had been in constant touch with her mother. I was involved all the time with bringing her mother to Dhaka and back and during the investigations. All this took place from my house. She stayed at my house. I will never forget the tears in Kalpana’s mom’s eyes.
I was doing a Masters in Eden College in Dhaka at the time when I first learned about the abduction of Kalpana Chakma. At that time we had situated the Khagrachari central committee’s office in Dhaka. It was active in Khagrachari but because a lot of the senior members were studying here in Dhaka we set up our office here. Even in Dhaka we used to communicate through letters.
I first got the news of her abduction officially from our organization on my land phone in Dhaka. Bijoy Ketan Chakma and others were in Rangamati at that time. That day she had finished her campaigning work (for Bijoy Ketan) and went off home. We did not have any clue that she had become a target of the army. The fact that I was targeted was publicly known. At that time the military had set up the Mukhosh Bahini (Masked Forces). The military would do all kinds of things to stop our political activities. Some uneducated Paharis were appointed to carry out these kinds of activities against us. The military knew that the activists were very strong in Khagrachari, hence they wanted to stop our activities in any way. But we had no way of knowing that Kalpana had been targeted was beyond our imagination.
Kalpana Chakma’s Abduction
We were astonished. We were shocked. Right after we heard the news. We started protesting in CHT and Dhaka right away. Not just protest, we carried out a huge campaign. We went to practically all the places we could think of to get signatures. We took signatures from all the intellectuals in Bangladesh. This we did through Hill Women Federation. Lima, from the Chattra Federation Front (Students Federation) helped us a lot for this. I will never forget what they did for us. We campaigned at Dhaka University, in Eden College and we even went from one student hostel to another to collect signatures for this campaign. We did protests, held meetings and went to everyone. This is how Kalpana Chakma’s abduction came to international focus. It’s true though that at that time the NGOs and the feminists of Bangladesh helped us a lot. Because of them and their help and our work, the issue got international attention. We have had to work very hard, we had to face many threats whilst doing that work but we never backed down. We could never have imagined Kalpana Chakma would be abducted. After a few days we heard the story from Kalpana’s brother. When her mother saw me first she had cried incessantly.
It was also during that time that certain things happened which made me realize once again why our hairs stand on when we see Bengali settlers. As part of the investigation committee both Bengalis and Paharis went. A number of Bengali activists were part of this committee. At that time there was a lot of water all over. It was June. There was so much water that we had to go on a boat. At that time my experience made me cry out loudly. The investigation group was scheduled to meet the UNO (Union Nirbahi Officer). It was quite late, about 7PM, but because there was no electricity there most of the time, we had to use a torch light to navigate. We situated ourselves in a place called Babuchara in Baghaichari and we were prepared to spend the night there. To meet the UNO, we need to take a boat. We were in the middle of the lake and people from the UNO office flashed their lights on us and began to ask us all kinds of questions, like what we wanted, who we wanted to talk to and why etc. Khaleda Apa and Morshed Ali Khan (Daily Star journalist) were speaking to them. It was a very ominous time at that time, right after her abduction. People from the UNO office shouted at us and told us that only the Bengalis would be allowed to come in and talk and the Paharis would have to stay back. So we had to stay back in the boat in the middle of the water. I was so enraged. I screamed and cried out in anguish. We had no other choice. We were living under military rule.
After Kalpana’s abduction, her family was completely destroyed. Kalpana was abducted by the Lieutenant Ferdous from the military but everyday her brothers, especially Kalindi Kumar Chakma (Kalicharan) continued to face physical and mental torture. They would give rounds at her village and then they would go to her house and conduct mental torture on him and threaten his family. After Kalpana was abducted we even saw the bullet belt that belonged to the VDP that they left behind that day. It was handed over to the police. But now the police do not admit having it. It was a green belt belonging to the VDP. They carried out such unspeakable mental torture on Kalpana’s mother and brother at that time. Kalindi and the other brother Lal Bihari were finally forced by the military to leave their village and move somewhere else. Kalindi stayed in a place called Dhojor for eight to 10 years. Kalindi was a very strong person. Their mother was devastated and died from all this that happened in her family.
We were out of touch with her brother for all those years but he still has not given up hope over this. He used to work as a day laborer during that time in Dhojor. They destroyed him emotionally, physically, economically and in every other way possible. They did this to Kalpana and now they did this to her family. Even Lieutenant Ferdous would go out into the public quite openly and fearlessly. He would go and threaten the family and come back.
Hill Women Federation at that time became very strong and active in their work, especially in Dhaka. We did the signature campaign at the universities and colleges. We also later published the book – Kalpana Chakma’s Diary at around 2001. We also published Paharer Ruddhokontho (The silenced voices from the hills) before that. Meghna Guhathakurta was very active in the campaign. We worked with all the human rights organizations and NGOs in Bangladesh regarding the Kalpana issue. We maintained our communication with them and we went to them again and again from all the three hill organizations.
The caretaker government was in operation at that time under President Habibur Rahman and after that Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1997. We gave memorandum to the president. We went to the universities, the students and we set up one program after another in the CHT. Shukesh and Mohotosh died while doing campaign work for us. The Bengali settlers along with the army attacked our people. In order to get international attention, we did all we could. We started working on Kalpana Chakma’s diary from a long time ago but at that time we had to work on it very secretly. We only published it much later. It was all a part of the campaign. It’s true though that because we from the Hill Women’s Federation were so active in Dhaka at that time, Kalpana Chakma’s case was taken up by the newspapers here. It came out in all the newspapers. We even did some plays on Kalpana Chakma and they were performed in all the universities. Our Bengali comrades were very helpful during this time.
The government formed a three-member committee to investigate the abduction case of Kalpana Chakma. Because of the activism of the HWF, NGOs and the women rights organizations the government was forced to form this committee. It was only an investigation by name.
Whenever there were different programs, I talked to Kalpana’s brother. We still feel and we still want justice and we will never say that she is dead. We have not seen her dead body. She has been abducted and we want to know what happened to her. When both of Kalpana’s brothers witnessed everything – the way Lieutenant Ferdous and the two VDPs abducted her, since there are so many evidences and the witnesses, why won’t there be justice? No matter what happens, no matter how long it takes, it has been 17 years, perhaps it will take 50 years – we will still want justice. Lieutenant Ferdous must be punished.
There has been no justice for Kalpana Chakma because we are Paharis, we are minorities, we are inferior. In the Bangladesh context we the marginalized people do not get the rightful justice. All throughout the 17 years when we have remember Kalpana’s abduction anniversary I have said this thing. In Bangladesh we are minorities, marginalized and not Bengali Muslims. So we are being categorically deprived from getting justice for Kalpana Chakma’s abduction. If Kalpana was a Bengali things would have been different. Let me give you an example. Right after Kalpana’s abduction, Yasmin was raped and killed by the police. The court gave and implemented the capital punishment against the perpetrators very quickly. If there can be justice for Yasmin’s case then why can there not be justice for Kalpana Chakma? This has been publicized internationally and still they have not been able to give a report on the investigation. The only reason is because they cannot see us with their eyes. Because Kalpana was a Pahari woman. Because she was a Chakma. It is racism. And because of this racism, even though we got initial support from the NGOs, later they too withdrew their support for us. Even someone like Farida Akhter from Shommilito Nari Shamaj (Combined Women’s Society) on International Women’s Day asked us to take down our banner when we had a banner asking for our rights for sovereignty. We refused to back down. The other reason for the lack of justice is the military and even at the civil level. We have worked with all these people and we have experienced this first hand.
We are hopeful. Whatever happens we want to see the investigation till our dying day. Kalpana didn’t just disappear. She worked with us as a general secretary. There is enough proof. Her brothers had seen Lieutenant Ferdous. If there is even more international advocacy about this it will be very good. No matter which government comes we should continue to put pressure on them. They will be forced to do something when there is enough pressure on them.
[An abridged version of this blog-post was published on Amnesty International’s global human rights blog as part of their campaign for Kalpana Chakma (http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/12/02/we-will-never-say-that-she-is-dead-2/).]
Translated by Audrey Mrittica Chisim and Hana Shams Ahmed