Brief history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh is the homeland of 12 tribal hill
peoples numbering about 600,000. Covering 5,093 square miles (10 percent of the country) and rising as
high as 10,000 feet in places, the hill ranges contain limited cultivable land, most of it of low quality, in
contrast to the very fertile multi-croppable alluvial plains of Bangladesh.
The hill people differ markedly from the Muslim Bengali majority. The largest groups, the Chakma and
Marma, are Buddhist, the Tripura are Hindu, while the smaller hill peoples such as Bawm, Pankhua and
Mru are Christian or practice their traditional beliefs. They practice a mixed farming of plough cultivation in
the fertile valleys and swidden agriculture on the hill slopes, known as jhum cultivation.
The British annexed the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1860 and in 1900 passed a Regulation which kept the
area apart from the plains by limiting migration and separating the administration. In 1947 the Chittagong
Hill Tracts became part of East Pakistan.
Between 1957 and 1963 the government built a massive hydroelectric dam at Kaptai which flooded 54,000
acres of plough land taking 40 percent of the terrain available for cultivation from the tribal farmers. 100,000
hill people were affected, few received any compensation and thousands fled to India. 40,000 were moved
to Arunachal Pradesh by the Indian government. By now there are 60,000 of them living there, still
stateless, even though many of them have been born in India since.
After the Bangladesh war of liberation the hill people had hoped for political recognition and some form of
autonomy within the state of Bangladesh. However, this was denied to them. In 1972 the PCJSS
(Chittagong Hill Tracts People’s United Party, or JSS for short) was formed and in 1976 its armed wing the
Shanti Bahini started guerilla attacks against the Bangladesh army and Bengali settlers who had inundated
the hills by moving up from the plains.
Between 1979 and 1984 a government transmigration policy brought 400,000 settlers into the Hill Tracts, to
an area where there was already a scarcity of land after the construction of the Kaptai dam. Together with
the transmigration policy a huge militarisation of the area took place. The military have used counter-
insurgency against the guerillas as an excuse to oppress the tribal people. For over 20 years disturbing
accounts of killing, torture, rape, arson, forced relocation, cultural and religious oppression of the hill people
have come out.
In 1989 the Bangladesh government brought in a new District Council law. The claim was that it would
bring autonomy to the Hill Tracts under Councils led by predominantly tribal people. However the paltry
powers of the District Councils with regard to important issues such as land rights and their establishment
by force has greatly discredited their claim to be autonomous bodies.