Analysis by Muktasree Chakma
This essay is part of a series titled, ‘Challenging Visual Depiction of Women and Sexual Violence in Southasia’ published by The Southasia Trust. Editorial support was provided by Laxmi Murthy, Director and Pawas Manandhar, Program Manager, Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, an initiative of The Southasia Trust, Kathmandu. This article is available for free download and reproduction for educational and other non-commercial purposes. For any commercial reproduction, permission must be obtained from The South Asia Trust
In this series, research fellow Muktasree Chakma analyses and discusses the portrayal of indigenous women and indigeneity in Bangladesh through the works of Bangladeshi artists Tufan Chakma, Jayatu Chakma, and Joydeb Roaza.
Along with sharing this artwork the artist shares his thoughts on people’s fantasy , interest related to the indigenous peoples. The artist shares his own observation how such “apparent- interest -with good intention” pose a burden on the indigenous people. He shares that often people reach out to him sharing they are interested or and working on indigenous peoples and want to know more about their culture, livelihood, history etc . He shares what irritates him is most of these people do not have the decency to conduct the ground research. He also points out that while much of the information is available on the internet, still for some reason non indigenous peoples tend to believe that it is indigenous peoples duty to educate them.
He calls upon such people to come and live in Chittagong Hill Tracts with an open mind. He also points out that many works on indigenous peoples are often half-hearted as the researcher, writer do not visit CHT rather write based on the few interviews that they have taken. The photo title “Right to Relief” speaks tons. Often relief is related to the notion of donating while the caption indicates that where the inequity prevails relief is a right. The non-indigenous peoples who work on indigenous issues often also look in to their work as a “relief towards the indigenous peoples”. Very few works on indigenous peoples hence often fail to portray the reality of such people.
The artist drew the artwork in February , 2022 as Russia invades Ukraine. The artist shares his own fear , experience of war, militarisation. He shares one of his many experiences with Bangladesh Military in Chittagong Hill Tracts. He was a school going student at that time. One of his friends came to visit him after many years and they had a nice day reminiscing old memories. At morning time they had a call of nature. Both of them went to a nearby makeshift toilet which was not covered with walls.
Suddenly they saw some figures moving nearby. Due to the fog at first they couldn’t understand what’s moving in the bush. Soon, they understood 4/5 army personnel were looking at them and their guns were pointed directly towards them . They started running without thinking about anything and without finishing their business. He recalls his friend could run and hide faster than him as he was wearing Gamcha only ( a cloth wrapped around waist ) . It was difficult for the artist as he was wearing pants which were down . He fell down several times but kept on running as long as they could hear the army personnel’s shouting at them –“ stop , hands up, hands up “.
Both of them hid themselves in a paddy field for more than two hours in that cold season and later came back home.Indigenous peoples fear related to the army personnel performing their duty is normal and a day to day incident. Most of the toddlers in remote areas of CHT are hushed by their moms saying – “if you keep on throwing tantrums , the army will take you away .” The fear , hatred and disrespect towards the Bangladesh Military force did not form in one day and is not irrational at all. CHT has witnessed more than 15 genocides against indigenous peoples in the liberated Bangladesh . Many of the communal attack, genocides often carried out allegedly by the support of Bangladesh Military and other Law Enforcement agencies.
Mro community is one of the smallest indigenous populations living in Bandarban, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. They have been constantly subjected to land grabbing, intimidation and under the risk of being refugee and Internally Displaced People. The land grabbers range from national to international companies , from individual to state and social organization. Indigenous peoples have been raising their voice against – Lama Rubber Company, Meridian Company , Quantum Foundation, the Bangladesh Army, the Army Welfare Trust and R&R Holdings Limited (a subsidiary of Sikder Group) in collaboration with Marriott International. Such grabbing denies them access to their traditional lands for grazing and access to their water resources.
The grabbing of traditional lands of the Mro indigenous peoples is catastrophic . The Mro derive their subsistence from their lands, territories and resources and depend on it for their traditional cultivation and activities. The grabbed land also holds key elements to their identity, unique culture and spirituality, including orchards, temples, sacred cremation grounds, and holy stones. Not to mention Mro indigenous women and girls are facing the biggest risk as they have very little power , access to information and often subjected to violence against women . In this artwork the artist hopes that the Mro women who play a vital role in protecting their identity, culture , nature will have the rights to live their life with rights and dignity.
These two artworks made by the artist depict snippets of the past and future of the indigenous women and girls. In the first artwork we can see a normal day of indigenous women doing the household chores , contributing in processing the harvest from Jum cultivation ( Traditional way of agriculture widely known as slash and burn cultivation). The woman in the first artwork is also wearing her traditional attire without any modification imposed by the islamization, development , globalization. She is strong and comfortable on her own body and minding her own business surrounded by other living beings and mother earth.
The second photo however, indicates the rise of militarism and religious extremism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The art shows indigeneous woman in an attire which is not theirs and widely known as “ Islamic “. Indigenous peoples in CHT have been subjected to conversion and many lost their traditional practices related to their indigenous identity due to such conversion. Christian missionaries , Islamic preachers are active in Chittagong Hill Tracts and often target indigenous women from remote areas in exchange for financial support, protection from attack , education for their children etc.
The artwork was a part of a series of artwork that Tufan has done depicting true stories of Chittagong Hill Tracts . This particular series of art was depicting a story of an indigenous girl whose mother was killed allegedly by the Settler Bengalis ( Bengalis who settled in Chittagong Hill Tracts with government support). The indigenous woman shares her story of the day her mother was killed allegedly by the Bengali settlers, on March 29, 2010 . She also shares consequent experience with the police station and the tension in the village after her mother’s body was recovered.
The indigenous woman was a class eight student at that time . Her mother went to the forest to collect wood and didn’t come back in the evening . Villagers started searching for her and found her blood covered body in a jhiri ( small running waterbody formed from a waterfall). They filed a case as they suspected three settler Bengalis with whom her mom had several arguments as they tried to grab their land . One person was arrested but later was released. She also recalls, that a senior police officer who was investigating her mother’s murder case, told her – “Dear , you keep on studying hard. If you study hard , one day you can become a judicial magistrate and could do justice to your mother.”
She expresses that she understands now why the police official advised her in that way. More than 10 years have passed on , they are still waiting for justice. All the alleged perpetrators that they name in the murder case are roaming free. This is just one of the many Violence Against Women cases that took place in Chittagong Hill Tracts . According to home ministry statistics given to human rights organisation Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), from 2010 to 2011 not a single verdict was given punishing alleged perpetrators in the 57 cases filed by indigenous women. All of these cases were filed in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals of Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The poster with the illustration was done in 2021 observing the International Women’s Day.The inspiration of this art was drawn from an American World War II wartime poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 titled “We Can Do It!”. The original poster was for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost female worker morale.
The thought behind doing the poster was to bring the inclusive element in the poster. Every year many women rights organizations, rights organizations , corporations, states make posters , content observing women’s day. Unfortunately , almost in no poster indigenous women are portrayed as the lead . SPaRC is a Chittagong Hill Tracts based feminist organisation . This photo contains two indigenous women – one representing the Chakma Indigenous community ( the largest indigenous community in Bangladesh), while the other represents Mro women (the smallest indigenous community in Bangladesh).
Muktasree is passionate about human rights, particularly minority rights including women and children, indigenous peoples, religious minorities and the LGBTQI community. Being born and raised in a cosmopolitan culture by a Bengali mother and a father from the indigenous Chakma community, has given her a nuanced perspective on issues of indigeneity and nationalism in her native Bangladesh. Muktasree has a law and a journalism background and currently works as a Senior Indigenous Fellow at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and has worked as a core member of SANGAT, a South Asian feminist network.