Are we all equal in the eyes of law?

2014-06-06 16.41.40

Samari Chakma

I GREW up in the hills during military rule. In those days, one of the strategies of Bengali rule was the threat of raping pahari women. This is mentioned in Kalpana Chakma’s diary; clearly, pahari women’s lives in those days were constrained by this ever-present threat. Our lives were then highly controlled; if a pahari woman was raped, there was no means of knowing about it or of reporting it in newspapers. If we, as members of the Hill Women’s Federation, received any such news, we would go and investigate, and write reports. If we heard that army personnel in a particular area had made lists of ‘young’ pahari women, we would go and talk [with the residents], and we would discuss how to resist sexual harassment. It was more the fear of being raped, rather than its actual occurrence, which gnawed at our insides.

The scenario regarding violence against women changed after the signing of the Peace Accord, particularly now, in the last couple of years, when the rape of pahari women by Bengali settlers increased dramatically. Women are now viewed differently within the pahari community. This has meant that we are now faced with a new situation. The word dharshan (rape) does not exist in the Chakma language but, now, one comes across pahari rapists as well. Changes have also occurred in how rape is viewed within the pahari community. If a Chakma woman was raped in the 1980s, lajja (shame) or the loss of reputation was not exclusively her/her family’s affair. Rape was not an individual matter, to be resolved by the woman and her family. Villagers, including the bepari, would collectively sit and mull over the possible means of preventing rape.

But now we find similarities between responses to rape in pahari and Bengali cultures. [Among the paharis] Rape is now viewed as being the raped woman’s loss of chastity. In a recent incident of rape, family members of a young rape victim quickly arranged her marriage. Even though the rape of pahari women is part of ethnic genocide, in most cases, rape has become a matter of concern for the family. Therefore, even though legal cases may be pursued in the beginning, afterwards one often finds settlements and financial recompense being negotiated between the victim and the rapist’s family. I came across this in another case of rape which occurred this year.

But one also comes across contrary instances. In February this year, a pahari woman was raped and strangled to death in Khagrachari’s Kamalchari. Under the leadership of the Hill Women’s Federation, the people of her neighbourhood mobilised to demand the trial of the Bengali rapist and killer. Later, the Durbar network also joined the movement. When the movement gained strength, the leaders of the Bengali Chhatra Parishad attempted to create communal riots, to occupy hill land belonging to the paharis. Many residents of Kamalchari were injured in the incident, and driven away from their homes. Similar responses have occurred earlier as well, united pahari resistance to rape was countered by instigating communal riots. It is noticeable that the police and other law enforcement agencies have been silent spectators on all occasions.

In the context of the terrible increase in violence towards pahari women over the last two years, many have asked me how I view the situation as a lawyer and an activist. I think if the police continue to be silent spectators, if army personnel themselves are perpetrators, if the administration sides with the rapist, then, why should one be surprised at the increase in sexual violence? According to several online news portals in the CHT, in the last five months of 2014, (a) two consecutive rapes were followed by six, the latter was followed by killing the victim (b) two attempted rapes occurred, and (c) two cases occurred where a school and a college student were lured and abducted. Paharis are involved in two of these cases, Bengali settlers and army personnel in the rest. The victims are pahari women and children. The latest incident occurred on May 3, 2014 in Kaptai upazila of Rangamati district. Such is the picture of the first five months of the year.

The situation was not very different in 2013. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts last year, 17 cases of rape and sexual harassment of women and children occurred; eight were rape cases, the remaining seven, attempted rape. In one of the rape cases, the victim was killed after being raped; in another (Matiranga), the victim committed suicide. Furthermore, in the CHT, five Bengali women and children were raped. All alleged perpetrators are Bengali.

But not all are equal in the eyes of law. We find proof of this in the research report of the Kapaeeng Foundation, a human rights organisation. The report says 245 adibashi women and children were the target of sexually violent acts from 2007 to April 2014 but none of the alleged perpetrators were brought to book.

As a lawyer practising in Khagrachari I had the opportunity of seeing several legal cases concerning rape closely in 2014. What I found most disturbing was that none of the medical reports of raped pahari women attested to the fact that they had been raped; this was despite victims, both women and children, having stated thus. We thought it urgent to explore the matter. We discovered during investigation that in those cases where pahari women and children had been raped by Bengali men, pressure is exerted on medical doctors from both the military and the civilian administration to not confirm the fact that rape had taken place. Hence, doctors always write in their reports, ‘no evidence of rape has been found.’ Government doctors are instructed to do so by the administration on the grounds that if pahari allegations of rape by Bengali settlers are found to be true, ‘communal harmony’ in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be disrupted.

The ethnic identity (Bengali) of the rapist has led the state to ensure that the rapist is above the law. Even 18 years after Kalpana Chakma was abducted, even after the abductor was identified as Lieutenant Ferdous, now a major, the state has failed to bring him and his fellow abductors to trial. The history of the CHT reveals that in cases where pahari women have been abducted, raped or killed by Bengali army and civilian personnel, no one has been brought to trial. The administration shamelessly sides with Bengali perpetrators during criminal proceedings. Regardless of what is written in the books, in the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts not all are equal in the eyes of the law. If the rapist/abductor is a Bengali and, further, if he belongs to the army, then the hope of getting justice is truly lost.

Kalpana Chakma was abducted 18 years ago today. I close this piece by paying homage to her fearless courage.

Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed. Originally published in The New Age, 12 June, 2014

Categories: প্রান্তিক জাতি প্রশ্নে, বাংলাদেশে নারীবাদ

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