By Muktasree Chakma Sathi
December 16, 2013
Celebrating the unsung Adivasi heroes of 1971
Indigenous communities march for ‘Justice for the Victims of 1971’ at Shahbagh in Dhaka
Once again, we celebrate our Independence Day, remembering the martyrs and war women who lost their lives and sacrificed so much for their dream of having a just and equal non-communal country.
How far have we travelled along the path to a just, equal and non-communal state? Let’s see. Do you know that there were freedom fighters who were not from the Bangali community? Can you name some of them? Can you name just one? Did you even know that many indigenous people fought side by side with other freedom fighters for this beloved country?
Whatever your answer may be, I am pretty sure that these answers will help you to understand how far we have come towards being just, equal and non-communal as we – as individuals and as a state – celebrate 42 years of independence.
Being born into an indigenous family with a Bangali mother, even I did not hear much about indigenous freedom fighters! Why?
Because there is not a single book in the school curriculum that mentions that there were indigenous freedom fighters. Lucky for me, as I started to grow older, my parents began mentioning, here and there, the names of a few of these golden sons and daughters of the indigenous community.
When I first heard Kakon Bibi’s name I was both astonished and overjoyed. With Kakon Bibi’s name, I came to know that there ARE non-Bangali freedom fighters.
I was puzzled. “So, we fought too! But, why weren’t they mentioned in one single book in school?”
Freedom fighter Kakat Heinchita, widely known as Kakon Bibi, and locally known as Khasi Mukti Bekti (the freedom girl of Khasi), is a member of the Khasi community and lives in Sunamganj, Sylhet. She lost her husband and many other family members during the Liberation War. In an interview with photographer Elizabeth Herman, she said: “I have lived with wounds in both of my legs for my whole life. I got them while I was fighting with Sector 9 in 1971. But the government does not pay me the Freedom Fighter Stipend that they pay the men.”
Since I heard Kakon Bibi’s name, I have been trying to make a list of non-Bangali freedom fighters such as her. But, I must say, this has been a somewhat difficult task.
First of all, there is no government list of these freedom fighters.
Secondly, very few books have actually mentioned these freedom fighters’ role in 1971. Thirdly, most of them live in such remote areas that finding them is really tough.
Lastly, and in my mind, most importantly, freedom fighters from the non-Bangali community do not tend to share their stories of the liberation war as most of the Bangali freedom fighters and their families tend to do.
I came to know about Euke Ching Marma after a report was published in the media a few years ago. The report quoted Euke Ching, who was awarded the Bir Bikram gallantry award, as saying: “I don’t want to talk about this.” The immediate question that popped into my mind was: Why are these freedom fighters reluctant to talk about their involvement?
I am not sure to what extent this has impacted them, but I believe the government and the majority community’s behaviour towards such people has played a role in their reluctance.
Did the government do anything to prevent citizens from becoming more ignorant day by day regarding these freedom fighters? Has the government taken necessary steps to recognise these non-Bangali freedom fighters? Didn’t they fight and suffer just as their Bangali peers did in 1971?
A book titled “Mukhtijuddhe Adivasi” (The Adivasis in the Liberation War) talks about indigenous freedom fighters who actively participated in the armed struggle for liberation. These people were from 45 different indigenous groups. The book says that hundreds of people from these groups embraced martyrdom.
Very few of these freedom fighters were honoured with awards or were listed by the state.
In 2006 however, two platforms, the Bangladesh Adivasi Adhikar Andolan and the Research and Development Collective, honoured seven indigenous freedom fighters, as well as Kakon Bibi, at the National Press Club in Dhaka. The freedom fighters named were: Karuna Mohan Chakma of the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Suresh Chandra Barman and Jatin Chandra Barman of Gazipur; John Tudu of Dinajpur; Buda Munda of Jaipurhat; Mistri Hansda of Chapai Nawabganj; and Michael Sujay Rema of Netrokona.
Speaking on the occasion, Buda Munda said: “Previously, I never bothered with the fact that the state is not recognising my freedom fighter status. But now I do.” Buda went on to explain that now such recognition seems to be needed nowadays.
“I was too illiterate to understand ‘company’ or ‘regiment’– all I knew was that I had to fight for the land and free it from the Punjabis,” said Buda, who has faced many bitter experiences after Bangladesh’s independence.
Buda hails from the northern part of the country, where the indigenous people are still not even allowed to have a cup of tea like other citizens in the makeshift eateries. There are always separate arrangements (benches and cups) for them.
“We participated in the war of independence to free the land from the Pakistanis, but after independence we are repeatedly reminded that it was not our soil,” added another freedom fighter, Michael Sujay, according to another media report.
Anyone who travels to the Rangamati Hill District cannot miss the wonderful monument in Manikchari, just before you enter beautiful Rangamati town, which displays the images of three martyrs. Khagendra Nath Chakma is one of those three martyrs. Ironically, his family had to bribe a senior official of Rangamati Muktijodhdha Sangsad (Rangamati Freedom Fighters’ Association) to list Khagendra’s name in the government’s freedom fighter list, despite the presence of a three-storey high monument which already included Khagendra’s name.
On May 5, 1971, Khagendra was killed by the Pakistani occupational army. Four decades later, in 2011, his family received a document recognising him as a martyr, but only after paying off an official.
One may argue that such corruption is happening everywhere. And indeed, there are other nations which are more corrupt than ours. However, when the majority oppresses the minority that cannot simply fall under the banner of simple corruption. When someone exercises power over a minority just because they are a member of the majority is part of the broader culture of not respecting minority peoples.
We know one “circle chief” from the indigenous community who supported the Pakistani government. But do we know the tale of another “circle chief” from the indigenous community who did his level best to help freedom fighters in 1971?
Mong Circle Chief Mong Prue Sein believed in the liberation war. He helped freedom fighters with money, manpower, food and medicine.
Mong Prue was also the one who sent a telegram to the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972 when indigenous people were being tortured and confined indiscriminately by a few freedom fighters in Rangamati. In February, 1972, a few freedom fighters confined non-Bangali people based on the assumption that all “indigenous” people were in favour of Pakistan.
The Rangabel blog, run by Biplob Rahman, has an image of the telegram which read: VISITED RANGAMATI ON SIXTH INSTANT STOP EXTREMELY AGGRIEVED TO FIND INNOCENT TRIBAL PEOPLE ARRESTED INDISCRIMINATELY AS ALLEGED COLLABORATORS STOP EARNESTLY REQUESTED INSTRUCT CIVIL ADMINISTRATION IMMEDIATE RELEASE OF ALL TRIBALS SO FAR ARRESTED WITHOUT PREJUDICE AND FURTHER ARREST BE CEASED STOP. MONG RAJA AND THE TRIBAL ADVISOR TO BANGLADESH.
As locals from CHT said: “Just after the liberation, hundreds of indigenous people were also killed because many of the freedom fighters held the general assumption that ‘all tribals were Razakars’.” Were you aware of this before?
Last but not least, indigenous leader Manabendra Narayan Larma (MN Larma) is also an indigenous freedom fighter who participated in the war directly. MN Larma is still close to the indigenous people’s heart, particularly in Chittagong Hill Tracts area, for his bold steps in 1972. MN Larma was the first who addressed the fact that the first constitution totally denied other nation’s existence in the newly liberated country of Bangladesh.
Forty years following his demand, Dr. Kamal Hossain, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, admitted on several occasions that denying other nation’s existence along with the Bangali nation in the newly liberated country’s constitution was a mistake.
Now, it is in our hands, the youth of Bangladesh, whether we will keep repeating the same mistake or if we will demand, as one voice, that all nations’ participation in the history of liberation war be recognised. I think that such an acknowledgement is possible. The Shahbgah movement is a shining example of such inclusion.