Few of you heard of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Commission. As the only Bengali ever to make it to the National Parliament from any constituency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), I deeply care about anything that relates to the place where I was born and raised.
A recent amendment approved by the cabinet in the CHT Land Commission Act is a matter that affects thousands of my fellow citizens and residents in the CHT. I categorically oppose the amendment and the very structure of the commission, in the first place, for reasons given below:
- The commission composes of nine members, according to the CHT Accord. Among them, none represents the Bengali community, who accounts for nearly half the population in the CHT. Seven members of the commission hail from the tribal communities. The remaining ones include a former justice of the highest court of the land and a government-appointed bureaucrat. According to the amended act, the commission will take vital decisions on land affairs of the region based on the majority votes, the Bengali community in the CHT is on the verge of being the victim of injustice and losing the very land they have been living in for decades. The votes of tribal members–who form the overwhelming majority in the commission–will automatically go against Bengali community.
- At least three members of the commission do not have any sort of legal mandate, whatsoever. They are the three ‘circle chiefs’ whose designations are, legally and constitutionally, null. In no legal framework in a modern democracy, such ambiguous title holders belong to.
- At least four other members of the commission do not have any democratic mandates. While it is required as per the CHT Accord that the members – the chairman of the CHT regional council and the chairmen of the three separate hill districts – would be elected by tribal voters directly, none of them was ever elected. The government sought an o take opportunity of an ambiguity in the law to select the members without having followed any procedure. Even had they been elected as per the law, they would not have represented the Bengali community, a shareholder in the entire process.
- The amendment strips the Chairman of the commission, a retired justice in the appellate division of the Supreme Court, of the power to exercise a veto if the situation demands. While it is beyond any doubt that all members except one or two are politically and ethnically biased, the amendment makes an honorable judge and the political appointees equal. Therefore, the amendment does not value the justice’s wisdom, impartiality and neutrality.
- The commission’s decision is final and cannot be challenged in any court of law, according to the amended act. That made the commission sort of sovereign, a fundamental flaw in the law. No commission should be and, perhaps, cannot be sovereign, because it blocks the path of ensuring accountability and justice. It blocks any legal avenue for those who may not be satisfied with the commission’s ruling. The provision in the law hinders justice and risks further deterioration in an already complicated CHT region.
- In the past, several members, also leaders of ethno-political organizations, publicly endorsed an ambiguous idea of ‘traditional land rights’, which is in no legal means defined or described. We fear that the members will abuse their power by giving the so-called ‘traditional land rights’ precedence over established law.
- Since an important member of the commission previously claimed that there were “no public lands” in the CHT. If there were no public lands, the lands given to the Bengali community, and to other tribal communities on different occasions, by the government would have no legal recognition.
I demand the Government of Bangladesh make sure that every member accepts the legality of the fact that the government has legal rights in acquiring lands in all over the country including CHT. Otherwise, all the efforts to resolve the long-standing dispute will go in vain.