Tension brews in CHT over land dispute resolutionAbdullah Juberee
Tension brewed afresh among the hill people after the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission had announced that it might hear cases by way of ‘special measures’ in the face of repeated quorum crisis for its meetings. Regional political parties are reported to be preparing to resist the commission move.
Commission members from hill communities have been boycotting the commission proceedings since February 2011, demanding an amendment to the 2001 act that set up the commission.
The commission has since then failed to make any decision for a quorum crisis and the commission chair, retired Supreme Court judge Khademul Islam, spoke of an alternative move ‘in accordance with the existing act’ to hear the cases.
‘Law will take its own course. If there is a quorum crisis, the commission act has its resolution. We will be resolving the cases filed with the commission through special measures laid out in the act. We cannot sit idle. People have come here for justice,’ Khademul said.
The three political parties in the region, the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, the United People’s Democratic Front and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (MN Larma) said they would not accept any such move and the commission’s continuing with such moves would result in dire consequences in the hills.
Commission member Devashish Roy, the Chakma circle chief and also member on UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said, ‘What the commission chair is doing is unilateral. I am not aware of any “special measure” laid out in the commission act and the commission cannot make any decision without having a quorum. It will not be legal.’
He also questioned such an attitude of the commission chair when the government was working on amending the 2001 act regarding the commission.
The CHT regional council chairman, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, also the PCJSS president, expressed his annoyance at the activities of the commission and declined comments.
Several members on the central committee of the PCJSS, the party that signed 1997 CHT accord ending decade-long insurgency, saw the commission’s activities as part of the government’s unwillingness to implement the accord. They said that hill people would not let the commission legitimise Bengali settlers in the hills in the name of hearing.
The UPDF president, Prasit Bikash Khisha, saw the activities of the incumbent commission to be aimed at legalising the settlements to Bengali settlers awarded during the Ershad regime. He said that the controversial clauses of the 2001 act must be amended and traditional land rights of the hill people must be recognised before any hearing.
Prasit termed the land commission chair a ‘puppet’ of a certain quarter. ‘His biased, autocratic, unilateral, controversial acts are making the problems more complicated instead of reaching a resolution,’ he added.
Resolution of land disputes in hill districts remains a far cry as the government continues to buy time in amending the ‘controversial clauses’ of the 2001 act. And the commission chair is vowing to continue with the current act prompting its members from hill communities to ‘boycott’ its proceedings.
Although four commissions have been formed to settle the land disputes since the signing of the CHT accord in December 1997, the first three commissions served out their tenures doing nothing and the current commission invited strong opposition from hill communities as it initially favoured a cadastral survey and then moved for hearing cases not heeding the demand for the 2001 act amendment.
When the commission invited applications for resolving disputes and initiated moves for hearing in 2010, widespread protests brewed up among the people of the three hill districts as they feared that they would be denied of justice if the commission continued working under the 2001 act which, the hill people say, was contradictory to the 1997 accord in 13 points.
Around 5,000 applications were filed with the commission and the commission primarily sorted out 3,000 of them for hearing. It initially finalised 48 cases for hearing.
In the face of severe protests from people, the National Committee for the Implementation of CHT Accord on December 26, 2010 announced that the commission activities would be suspended till the 2001 act was amended and assured that a bill would be placed in the first parliament session of 2011 but remained unimplemented till date.
Although the committee announced suspension of the commission activities, the commission chair also said that no such decision had been taken by the committee and neither the committee nor the government had any authority to suspend activities of a commission.
A year after, on January 22, 2012, the committee accepted all the 13 proposals worked out by the CHT regional council and the CHT affairs ministry for amendment to the act and sent them to the land ministry.
Two months later, on March 28, an meeting between the land and the CHT affairs ministry reviewed the draft and agreed on 10 proposals and sent it back to the committee for ‘more clarification’ on the remaining three proposals.
Land ministry officials objected to the proposal for replacing Section 6(1)(a) with ‘In addition to quick settlement of the disputes of land of the rehabilitated tribal refugees, to settle all disputes related to land, which have been illegally given in settlement and occupied in accordance with the existing laws, customs and usages of Chittagong Hill Tracts.’ The text of the section in the current act reads: ‘To settle land-related dispute of the rehabilitated refugees in accordance with the existing laws and customs in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.’
They sought a clarification on the proposal to replace Section 6(1)(c) with ‘Any land that has been given in settlement in violation of the existing laws, custom and usages of the CHT shall be cancelled and if the land of any lawful owner has been illegally occupied on account of such settlement shall be restored.’ and to omit ‘Provided that this sub-section shall not be applicable to the case of Reserved Forests, Kaptai Hydroelectricity Project area, Betbunia Earth Satellite Station, state-owned industries and land recorded with the government or local authorities.’ The current text reads: ‘Any land that has been given in settlement in violation of the existing laws of CHT shall be cancelled and if the land of any lawful owner has been illegally occupied on account of such settlement shall be restored.’
They also sought a clarification on proposal for adding a section called Section 21, stipulating: ‘Inclusion of functions of the Land Commission into the CHT Affairs Ministry and it will be enforced soon after enactment of this law.’
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