“Peace is perhaps implied by the peace accord, but there is not much peace in our lives. Who will bring peace to us? The state? In our lives we seldom find the Bangladeshi state to be sympathetic. Instead, we experience it in the form of military assaults, which show us that, as Pahari, peace is not ours.”—Shishir Marma, 17 June 2011
The above statement was made by a Pahari adivasi, as indigenous hill people1 are popularly known in Bangladesh, to Nasir Uddin during his fieldwork2 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), located in the southeast of the country, in 2011. Shishir Marma, aged 52, is the owner of a small roadside tea stall located in Bandarban, one of three hill districts, who has closely observed the processes of conflict management and peacebuilding in the CHT. His statement shows that the potential for living in peace is determined not by the people themselves but by the state. Although a peace treaty, popularly known as the CHT peace accord, was signed in 1997 to put an official end to decades of armed conflict in the CHT, the military, with its massive presence and continuous attempts to control the everyday life of local people, continues to act as the main representative of the central state. For Shishir Marma, this contributes to the absence of peace and leads him to assume that they, as Pahari adivasi, are not entitled to live in peace. But it is not only the military that represents the state, as he further explained:
The state appears in the behavior of Bengali settlers reminding us that we are not manush [human beings] but jonglee [wild people]. We live in the margins where the center, where the state is, rarely comes. Nonetheless, the state effectively exists in various forms in our everyday lives to rule, control, and dominate us. Do you really think that a state run by Bengalis can bring about peace for the Pahari?(Shishir Marma, 17 June 2011)
Thus, the state, in addition to its institutional representations, is embodied in the attitudes and behavior of so-called Bengali settlers: formerly landless Bengali peasants who were resettled in the CHT as part of the state’s policy in the late 1970s3 to counter so-called insurgency. The quote above alludes to the particular relationship between the Bangladeshi state and nationalism, which rests on the ideal image of a homogeneous national society wherein others are considered to constitute a “threat” Since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, major efforts have been made by those holding power over state institutions to emphasize the congruence of a Bengali-Muslim society and the nation. This ideological position has had severe consequences for the continuation of societal hierarchies along ethnic and religious lines, which have also become constitutive in the CHT. From the perspectives of many Bangladeshis, only Bengalispeaking Muslims are recognized as full members of the national society. The consideration of minorities—including the Pahari adivasi, who are both a religious and ethnic minority—as inferior to Bengali Muslims has become deeply entrenched in the minds of the people and thus influences and regulates daily interactions. Having experienced this kind of marginalization throughout recent decades (see Gerharz 2012), and having seen several ultimately unsuccessful attempts to create peace, many Pahari adivasi claim, as Shishir Marma did, that “the state run by Bengalis” cannot bring about peace.
Taking the CHT as an empirical example, this article concerns the dialectic relations between the state and its margins. The tendency of dominant historical works to depict the “state” as an organized, centralized political and bureaucratic institution, and to refer to the legacy of Western scholarship and a European style of practice, has been repeatedly criticized (see Dyson 1980; Scott 2009; Taylor 1994). Reconsidering recent anthropological interest in studying the state, we attempt to understand it in its local societal dynamics. In particular, we conceptualize the “state” not as a single governing entity, but instead attempt to define it using understandings of how people imagine the state (Sharma and Gupta 2006). We follow Veena Das and Deborah Poole’s suggestion of studying the varied manifestations of the state at the margins by distinguishing three dimensions of marginality: (1) as the peripheries or territories that the state has yet to penetrate; (2) as spaces, forms, and practices through which the state is continually both experienced and undone through the illegibility of its own practices, documents, and words; and (3) as spaces between bodies, laws, and discipline (2004b: 9–10). In an attempt to build on their arguments and develop them further, we investigate the various ways in which people encounter the state as a multilayered configuration in their everyday lives along at least two dimensions. First is a territorial dimension, which encompasses the notion that adherence to state practices is proportional to proximity to the center of power. This line of thought is related to the notion of borderlands, or “zones of limited statehood,” also described as peripheries (Scott 2009). Second, state governance encapsulates institutions that seek to govern locales within the national territory. As we are interested in capturing the many ways in which people imagine and experience the state in everyday life, we adopt the notion of the “local state”
We have two central motivations behind the writing of this article. The first is to understand how people at the margins experience the state in everyday life and what this reveals about the conditions of peace and conflict in the CHT. The second is to examine how people construct and imagine the “state” in their everyday experiences. We start by discussing some approaches that have made significant contributions to the “anthropology of the state,” in order to sketch out the concepts with which we seek to analyze the ways in which “stateness” becomes relevant in people’s everyday lives. Next, we detail the analytical framework needed to capture the “many faces of the local state” by discussing how Bangladesh’s recent history has shaped present political conditions in the region. Methodologically, we tackle the social figuration by taking an in-depth look at the interactions between local people and representatives of the state. We focus on the intricate politics of language, the sense of statehood, and the politics of representation. Based on our empirical findings, we argue that the state is manifested in its various forms at the margins, where people construct notions of “state” and reproduce a sense of “stateness” amid their everyday interactions with state institutions.
Foundations of the Ethnography of the State
In classical anthropology, political organizations and political systems in stateless societies constitute the major fields of investigation, rather than the idea of the state (see Radcliffe-Brown 1940). Classical British social anthropology in particular pays attention to how political organizations and political systems function in African society without even referring to the concept of what we now call the state (see Fortes and Evans-Pritchard  1970). Later on, modern anthropologists were inspired from social theorists who focused on state-society relations: Michel Foucault’s (1991) notion of governmentality, Philip Abrams’s ( 1988) perspective on the state as a collective misrepresentation of capitalist societies, and Bourdieu’s (1994) focus on the state as an institution that is (re)produced by the idea of categorization in the interface of state-society relations.
Since the late 1990s, anthropological understanding of the state has increasingly developed into a specialized field of study providing perspectives from the margins of society. Seminal works have embraced theoretical analyses on relations between the central state and its margins (see Das and Poole 2004a; Fuller and Bénéï 2001; Hansen and Stepputat 2001), and empirical cases, exploring how the state manifests itself locally in state institutions and public discourses, have been undertaken in different geographical regions around the world (see Brass 1997; Brown 1995; Ferguson 1994; Gupta 1995; Gupta and Sharma 2006; Harriss-White 2003; Shah 2007; Still 2011; Vandekerckhove 2011). With a focus “on the local manifestations of the state and ordinary people’s everyday experiences of it” (Still 2011: 315), the state is now experienced from “the bottom up” instead of being seen as an organized and formal bureaucratic machine. Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta suggest that studying representations and everyday practices, conceived as “multi-layered, contradictory, [and] translocal” (2006: 6), offers new perspectives on the boundary between the state and society, which they argue is contested and deconstructed through these everyday practices. Timothy Mitchell sees the state as a result of representation discourses and everyday practices, explaining that “the public imagery of the state as an ideological construct is more coherent” (1999: 76). James Ferguson discusses the expansion of the central state to local state agents, arguing that the “expansion of bureaucratic state power then does not necessarily mean that ‘the masses’ can be centrally coordinated or ordered around more efficiently; it only means that more power relations are referred through state channels” (1994: 274). Thus, anthropology tends to look at the state through everyday discourses on how people experience the local agents of a central bureaucratic state.
The regulatory power of the state at the local level (see Shah 2007) is structured by historically embedded state-society relations, in which nation building plays an important role. Our empirical data show that, in framing notions of the state, the position of institutions or persons is determined by their power to decide on publicly relevant issues assigned to them: who has access to the power to influence decision-making processes, and who immediately takes up a position as a broker, an intermediary, or a gatekeeper? This is a highly ambiguous process, as Talal Asad notes, “the state dominates and defends the community, orders and nurtures its civil life … the state’s abstract character is precisely what enables it to define [itself]” (2004: 281).
Our aim is to contribute to existing scholarship on the anthropology of the state by providing an ethnographically informed analysis, with a focus on the local state that ordinary people define and redefine amid their everyday lived experiences. At the same time, we break new ground by investigating the matrix of peace and conflict in local societal dynamics, a perspective that has scarcely been explored elsewhere. Based on existing approaches, we develop three analytical entry points. First, states may constitute distant powers, or they may become relevant in concrete situations of interaction. Second, the state may be represented by different actors—it is much more than just law enforcement or bureaucracy. The case explored here illustrates that nationalism constitutes a powerful imaginary that binds (particular sections of) the population to the state. Minorities may, in this way, regard the homogenized ethnic “other,” the majority that the state seeks to project in its nationalist imaginary, as representatives of the state. Our empirical analysis of shaping state-society relations in the CHT shows how the constructed congruence of the state and the national majority leads to national disintegration. Third, we argue that individual and collective attempts to gain access to state power at both the local and the national level put ethnic homogeneity—in the sense of indigenous people of the CHT as an ethnically homogenous population under a common umbrella concept Pahari adivasi or jumma—at risk. In the CHT in particular it is apparent that the window of opportunity for political elites has complicated the idea of homogeneity among the Pahari adivasi and led to rather conflict-prone renegotiations of political leadership.
The State in Everyday Life: Toward an Analytical Framework
Our research finds that the “local state,” which people construct and imagine through interactions with social entities, based on an understanding of statehood and stateness at a local level, determines the state of peace and conflict in the CHT. In contrast to the popular perception of the state of Bangladesh—that is, one that is exclusively embedded in the centralized political institutions and structure of organized bureaucracy, and which obscures the boundary between rastra (state) and sarkar (government)—we pay particular attention to the local form of state that people experience in their everyday life. By conceptualizing the social space that is constituted through daily interaction as an “interface,” we particularly highlight the contested and sometimes contradictory nature of these interactions and try to illuminate the different ways in which social structure is constituted in these processes.4 Relying on the assumption that interactions between knowledgeable and capable actors are constitutive of the structuration of society (Giddens 1984), power relations are of central significance. They become manifest in the politics of language and representation by means of ethnicization, and the politics of nationalism pursued by the state. At the same time, interactions in everyday life reinforce and seldom alter existing inequalities with regard to access to economic resources, but also with regard to decision-making processes, social rights, and the recognition of ethnic differences. In this article, thus, we adopt a fourfold approach, which is outlined below.
Our first methodological step in investigating state-society relations is the politics of language and representation. Taking a social configuration in which the military and the Bengali settlers constitute majority representatives of the state as a starting point, the question arises as to how the dominance of this majority, which is taken for granted, is reproduced in rhetorical ways. We will show that the everyday politics of naming is realized through rhetorical devices of degradation and depreciation—and that these are important indicators for understanding the ways in which state-society relations shape people’s everyday lives. Public discourse, reflected in the use of language centered on identity politics and exclusionary state policy, manifests itself in language (Das and Poole 2004b: 3) in two forms. First, it projects the Pahari adivasi as a lower-ranked people, and second, it creates a dichotomized structure in which the state and its margins are positioned as opposites, and in which the Pahari adivasi belong to the margins. Because the language used in the CHT forms a matrix of domination and subordination, it creates space for the marginalized population to imagine the state from the margin.
In our second step, we investigate interaction in everyday encounters. Unlike Gupta (2012), whose fascinating study focused on bureaucracy in India, our major focus is on the interaction of the local population with security forces. We do not only consider security forces as “classical” representatives of the state’s monopoly of violence, particularly important in the highly militarized CHT, but also conceptualize them as the representative of the ethnic other, the majority population. As in other contexts where nation-building processes have fostered the ideal of a homogeneous national society, nationalism in Bangladesh has reinforced not only boundarydrawing processes but also a process of accumulation of state resources by the more powerful (ethnic) group (see Wimmer 1997). In addition, settlement programs have been initiated with the intention of bringing about a demographic shift in a particular territory—the idea behind such actions being that claims for autonomy or self-determination of the CHT become obsolete.
Third, because Bengali settlers represent the ethnic other, that is, the ethnicized state and the often close-knit alliances between the military and settlers, we investigate interactions between local Pahari adivasi and Bengali settlers as another interface at which power relations are negotiated. Our empirical findings emphasize the more dramatic ways in which the two groups interact, but we should not forget that coexistence and conviviality also occur in conflict-prone areas. However, the manifestation of unequal power relations and structural inequalities are more the norm.
In our final step, we look at the politics of representation—local manifestations of stateness or bureaucracy, where local politicians take on a special importance. At this point, the state is represented by individuals who originate from the Pahari adivasi population—broaching the boundaries of ethnic belonging. As members of central political parties and representatives of the local state, they do not always fulfill the expectations of ethnic belonging. Encounters are laden with mistrust and treachery, and tend to reinforce the unequal power relations between state and ethnic community, rather than helping to integrate the ethnic community into state structures.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Peace Accord
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are located on a borderland that connects Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. It is home to distinct groups of people who are linguistically and ethnically diverse, and themselves distinct from Bengalis. The British colonial rulers (1860–1947) attempted to shield these groups from outside influences in the name of “protection,” and attempts by post- colonial states (Pakistan between 1947 and 1971, and Bangladesh from 1971 to the present) to build homogenous nation-states have seen them become gradually further marginalized. This has triggered the construction of dichotomous identity categories (Pahari adivasi versus Bengali) and spaces (the CHT versus the state). While Pakistani national identity was based primarily on religious belonging, the central motivation behind the fight for an independent state of Bangladesh was to create a nation that was not based on Islam. Soon after independence in 1971, representatives of people from the CHT demanded constitutional recognition of their separate ethnic identities, but their demands were categorically rejected as national leaders attempted to form a nationalism based on the cultural and linguistic unity of the Bengali population.
The firm resistance from the Bangladeshi state to these demands for recognition led to the formation of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (Chittagong Hill Tracts United People’s Party—PCJSS, or JSS for short). Initially a political platform seeking to defend the rights of the indigenous inhabitants of the CHT, the movement quickly turned toward “militancy” and formed an armed wing called Shanti Bahini (Peace Troops). The government interpreted this as an insurgency movement and countered it with heavy militarization of the region. Civilians were severely affected, with human rights violations occurring in various forms. People were forced to leave their homes in large numbers, and many took refuge in neighboring Indian states. Besides militarization, the state sponsored the migration of landless Bengalis (around 400,000 people) to the CHT, resulting in the demographic marginalization of the Pahari adivasi. This exacerbated an already existent land shortage, originally aggravated by the construction of a large hydropower dam in Kaptai in the 1960s, while under Pakistani rule. With the settlement of Bengalis in the CHT many Pahari adivasi lost their access to land, because of the nonrecognition of their traditional land rights system, which functions on the basis of communal ownership (Roy 2009). Thus, in addition to the bloody conflict with military troops, there have been frequent conflicts between Bengalis and Pahari adivasi arising from land disputes.
The armed conflict and its nationalist underpinnings prevented the integration of the CHT into the national space in various ways. Apart from being marginal in a territorial sense, access to the CHT remained restricted by government decree, and up until the late 1990s, only a few development programs with international assistance were implemented in the region (Gerharz 2002). Literature about this period also reveals that Bengali settlers received preferential treatment in the form of food rations and other benefits provided by the central state (Arens 1997; CHT Commission 2009). With the Bengali settlers, the civilian administration, and the military—representing state power—increasingly dominating the local power configuration, the Pahari adivasi population was pushed further to the margins of state and nation.
Although the Bangladeshi government and the JSS signed a peace accord in December 1997, state-society relations continued to be laden with a deep sense of mistrust. The accord was widely hailed both in Bangladesh and overseas as containing far-reaching provisions with the potential to alter the existing causes of the conflict. The accord included (1) the declaration of the CHT as a “tribal populated region”; (2) the demilitarization of the CHT; (3) the rehabilitation of returnee refugees, including internally displaced families; (4) a general amnesty for all JSS guerrilla fighters; (5) the full empowerment of a regional council; (6) the formation of a land commission to settle land disputes; and (7) the formation of an implementation committee to observe the implementation of the accord (MoCHTA 2015). The provisions in the accord were implemented at various paces. The disarming of the Shanti Bahini along with general amnesty for the fighters took place immediately. The institutionalization of the regional council was completed in the first two years after the signing of the accord, with the JSS leader Shantu Larma appointed as its chairman. However, when Eva Gerharz interviewed the chairman and some other members of the council in 1999, they made serious complaints concerning the transfer of power and resources. Despite some initial positive signs, most provisions still have not been implemented, and many regard the frequent references made by the government to more concessions as mere lip service. In August 2012, for example, jurisdiction over some local government departments, including education, agriculture, unreserved forests, primary education, agriculture, and youth development, were handed over to three local CHT hill district councils, but this was dismissed as “powerless and meaningless eye-wash” by JSS leaders speaking to Uddin in October 2012. Hardly any progress has been made in settling land disputes; instead, incidents of land grabbing continue to be the norm. Additionally, a recent split in the JSS has complicated the situation and weakened their bargaining power. This has added further to a rift that resulted from opposing views concerning the peace accord of 1997, when a group of young Pahari adivasi formed the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF) and accused the JSS leadership of selling the “jumma movement” to the government. The UPDF continues to be one of the main local political forces and opposes not only the government but also the JSS on several issues. With violent outbreaks having again become more frequent, these internal fractions hinder the reconciliation process—and weaken the political bargaining power of the indigenous political representatives. In addition, Bengali settlers have taken an explicit stance against the accord.
Although the CHT has received more scholarly attention since the signing of the accord (e.g., Chakma 2008; Chowdhury 2002; Guhathakurta 2004; Jamil and Panday 2008; Mohsin 2003), there has been a lack of analysis focusing on state-society relations at the local level except Uddin’s (2017) recent piece that focuses on “living with the state.” Like elsewhere, the ever- increasing competition for land and natural resources in Bangladesh has not only led to an “alienation of the lands of the indigenous peoples” (Adnan and Dastidar 2011), but also affected the potential success of the peace process. Based on the assumption that the success of peace processes depends on what Mary Anderson (1999) refers to as “local capacities of peace,” we argue that peacemaking requires taking into account people’s state of mind and local perceptions of ethnic divides, as these factors influence unequal interethnic relationships, land disputes, and problems of ethnic integration. Our analysis shows that the non-implementation of most of the accord’s provisions in the CHT is not only the result of a lack of political will, but also related to how the institutionalization of highly unequal relations between the Pahari adivasi and those representing the state reinforces the Pahari adivasi‘s position at the margins.
Public Discourse: The Politics of Language and Categorization
Language plays a very significant role in subjugation, as the language used is a lens through which the nature of the state can be better understood (see Das and Poole 2004b). How one addresses another person and what kind of terminology one uses reflects the structure of relations between individuals, whether they are equal or unequal, as well as whether the tone is supportive or dominant. Many Pahari adivasi regularly experience the hegemony of the state in the form of phrases and terms of reference used by Bengalis, based on which public discourses have been formed in the CHT. Pahari adivasi are considered a “third-class people,” in terms of a sociopolitical category, who belong to the margins of society. Pahari adivasi are generally identified as moigga, a Bengali word meaning, roughly, “ferocious robber” or “jungle dweller.”5 In the CHT, moigga means a group of people who are regarded as “primitive” in their behavior, “ferocious” by nature, “uncivilized” in appearance, and jonglee by home location. When Uddin stayed in a residential hotel in Bandarban town, his research assistant and interpreter visited him at the hotel. The hotel manager, a Bengali, phoned Uddin’s room and told him, “Ugga moigga-r fua” (A moigga boy has come to visit you). The assistant, Peylung Khumi, aged 18, is a college student who wears clothing that we would describe as “modern,” like other Bengalis do, but is still identified as a moigga. From a Bengali perspective, even the Pahari adivasi elites6 belong to this category, as a moigga leader, moigga doctor, or moigga teacher.
Aside from names, the Bengali language has three pronouns used to address people: apni (to a respectable person, such as a teacher, guardian, elderly, or unknown person), tumi (to a familiar and friendly person, such as brother, sister, family member, friend, or known person), and tui (to a lower category of person).7 With a few exceptions, it is quite common among Bengalis to address Pahari adivasi as tui—irrespective of age and sex, and especially when addressing the more disadvantaged groups such as the Khumi, the Mru, the Chak, the Kheyang, the Pangkowa, and the Lushai, which reminds these groups that they belong to the category of a “third-class people” Language forms public discourse through the modes of approach of Bengalis toward the Pahari adivasi, and therefore operates as a tool of domination and marginalization. Such public discourse furthers the idea among the Pahari adivasi that the Bengalis themselves represent the central state in the CHT.
One final categorization reinforces the discourse of the “third-class people” category. In Bangladesh, people are assigned one of three categories, based on where they live: they are shohure (urban people who live in urban-metropolitan areas), grammo (rural people who live in villages), or pahari (people who live in the hills). Shohure are represented as modern, educated professionals and “civilized,” while grammo are cast as nonmodern, less educated, agricultural farmers and nonurbanized. However, pahari are ranked below rural people because they are “tribal” and so, as Willem van Schendel explained, are regarded as “savage,” “primitive,” “pre-literate,” and “uncivilized” (2011: 20–25). Even those Pahari adivasi people who live in metropolitan cities, and who are sophisticated, well recognized professionally, highly educated, and financially well off, are still identified as pahari. This highlights that pahari is an identity determined more by their ethnicity rather than the locale where they live. This form of categorization is also omnipresent in the language construction of Bengalis when dealing with Pahari adivasi in the CHT. The Bangladeshi central state has supported this politics of language through the generation of terminological disputes, resulting from a constitutional amendment regarding the identity of Pahari adivasi people, which used terms such as upajatee (subnation), khudra nrigosti (small ethnic group), and “tribal” (see Gerharz 2014a, 2015; Uddin 2014). Within such an unequal structure of relations, language plays a significant role in shaping the stratified relationship between the Pahari adivasi and Bengalis. Bengalis who uphold the dominant notions of stateness express this position through language as a representative of the state when dealing with the Pahari adivasi in the CHT.
State Power: Military and Law Enforcement Agencies
Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies include police, Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Ansar VDP, and sometimes military forces. While the defense department does not disclose details of military numbers in the CHT for so-called security reasons, estimates are that one-third of the entire Bangladeshi army was deployed in the CHT during the conflict (Mohsin 2002). A decade later, this number has remained more or less the same, as noted in a report published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (2012: 12).
The large military force in the CHT makes itself visible in every sphere of Pahari adivasi life. Visitors notice the massive military presence immediately. Each road leading to the three hill district centers is lined with barracks and army posts; monuments to the military and soldiers are everywhere. The distinction between the police and the military is often blurred. Whereas military operations could be justified during the armed conflict in the name of counterinsurgency (Chakma 2008; Uddin 2010), military activities continued after the signing of the accord for so-called security reasons, and are justified by the prevailing danger of violent outbreaks in the region. Present-day military activities include tight restrictions on the movement of foreigners. It is well documented that the military has been involved in major human rights violations both before and after the signing of the accord (Amnesty International 2013; IWGIA 2012). In 2007, when Uddin traveled by boat to his research village, his boat was intercepted by security personnel midway through the journey and two Pahari adivasi girls were taken to an office to be searched. After half an hour, when the girls returned, Uddin noticed that they were silently crying. He later found out that both had been physically assaulted and sexually harassed by the officer in charge of the checkpoint. Uddin was informed that such incidents happened frequently, but that Pahari adivasi villagers did not dare to lodge complaints.
Security forces have committed acts of violence, and sexual violence in particular, with striking regularity. The CHT Commission generalizes these cases by stating that “indigenous peoples in the CHT continue to face human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, torture, rape, attacks, harassment, religious persecution, political harassment … A vast majority of cases remain without proper investigation, prosecution and punishment” (2009: 6). That the victims of such atrocities do not see any possibility for taking action is related to their negative experiences of dealing with the military in the past. Such experiences play an important role in shaping notions of the state. In 2007, one decade after the signing of the accord, Thewlung Khumi, 56, the head of a Khumi village, explained to Uddin:
We are Pahari. We live in the hills. We work all day long to earn our livelihood all the year round. We don’t have any leisure time, even for gossiping with other people. Nevertheless, the military thinks that we are actively engaged in JSS activities. They frequently ask us to meet them at their cantonment. It takes time, money, and energy to go there. However, we have to go. When I go there, they ask me lots of questions. I only half understand what they are asking about and I can’t properly express what I want to say because of the language barrier. Then, they harass me, accuse me of lying and sometimes beat me, accusing me of being a JSS activist. Sometimes, they ask me to bring hens and some fresh vegetables from jhum for them. Every time, I bring three or four hens and adequate fresh vegetables. Sometimes, it becomes very difficult for us, as we can’t afford even our own food for the year. If I don’t bring hens and vegetables, they become very angry and make trouble, sometimes they torture me. We had the same experiences before and even after the peace accord.(Thewlung Khumi, 14 April 2007)
Thewlung Khumi has served as karbari (village headman) for the past two decades and has wide-ranging experience of dealing with military officials. Therefore, his quote can be interpreted to relate not only to a single event but also to a pattern of events taking place on a regular basis in the CHT, and the letter he received from a military commander (Figure 1) can be taken as a typical example of communication by the military to local people. A military soldier embodies the notion of state to the Pahari adivasi, who understand the nature of state in his attitudes and dealings; this configuration is marked by highly unequal power relations. Such cases reinforce an image of the armed forces that has become deeply entrenched in the perspectives of local people throughout the ongoing conflict. With the prevalence of human rights violations committed by security personnel, life has become extremely insecure, especially for those members of the Pahari adivasi population who do not have relationships with the powerful sections of society that might help them.
Bengali Settlers and Collective Violence
The presence of Bengali settlers is seen as a consequence of state action against the local Pahari adivasi population, as the state arbitrarily stands by Bengalis as they discriminate against the Pahari adivasi, as depicted in Figure 2. In turn, the quest for national integration based on cultural homogeneity has become an important narrative among the Bengali settlers, who claim the right to occupy lands in the CHT as a part of the Bangladesh nation. A Bengali small trader who migrated to the CHT in the late 1970s, settled there permanently, and has since been employed in a wooden furniture business explained to Uddin:
We are Bengalis and Bangladesh is our country. The Pahari are not Bengalis and Bangladesh is not their country, but they dominate the CHT and all its affairs as if they own it as their private property. Why? Is the CHT outside of Bangladesh? Here, the Pahari enjoy undue privilege in all respects; in jobs, services, business, education and administration, for instance, there are special quotas for the number of Pahari to be recruited. Why should we be deprived in our own country? There will be no peace if Bengalis are not given due authority over the CHT.(Shamsul Alam, 11 March 2010)
This quote reveals how deeply the idea of a Pahari adivasi threat to national homogeneity is entrenched in the Bengali settlers’ self-concept, which has continued to reflect ethnic relations since the late 1970s, when the state-sponsored migration of huge numbers of Bengalis8 altered the demographic configuration of the region (Uddin 2010). It is often overlooked that landless Bengalis were not the only “settlers” who were brought in to the CHT by state-sponsored transmigration programs, but that security personnel, government and corporate officials, private traders and businessmen, plantation operators, and professionals from various sectors also came. Furthermore, Bengalis had been living in the CHT even before this transmigration took place. What is new, however, is the increase in local conflicts between the new Bengali settlers and the Pahari adivasi, where the former receive overt support from Bengalis who hold important positions in the administration and law enforcement agencies. At the core of these local conflicts between settlers and the Pahari adivasi are disputes over access and rights to land. For the government, the transmigration program initiated in the late 1970s served as a counterinsurgency measure and a means to integrate the CHT into the national space, by outnumbering the Pahari adivasi population (Adnan 2004: 48). This provoked the Shanti Bahini to regard the settlers as suitable targets. Many Bengali migrants settled close to the military camps for protection, and this reinforced their alliance against the Pahari adivasi insurgency. In turn, the military and the settlers suspected the local Pahari adivasi population as being complicit with the Shanti Bahini, resulting in violent outbreaks against Pahari adivasi civilians. Villages were looted and people killed, often in retaliation for atrocities committed by the Shanti Bahini. Thus, the boundaries between military actors and civilians were blurred on both sides, and both Bengalis and the Pahari adivasi were stereotyped into ethnic categories, influencing the local perception of the state.
The signing of the accord did not allow any scope for altering these dominant images or the ethnic divide that emerged from decades of bilateral conflict in the CHT. Human rights activists have repeatedly alluded to frequent instances of sexual violence. Rape constitutes a humiliating strategy of marginalization. Subjecting women to such acts not only targets them as individuals but also has a substantial sociopolitical significance. Violence against women needs to be understood as a symbolic act of collective subjugation (Enloe 1983; Haque 2011). In the case of rape, the boundaries between the private and public sphere become blurred. Between January 2007 and December 2012, “at least 122 indigenous women and children faced violence in the CHT of which at least 89 per cent were cases of sexual violence. No perpetrators were prosecuted through the formal justice system till to date” (Barman and Neo 2013: 119).
Collective violence shapes people’s everyday life in various ways. The following case, which happened in 2011, shows how a single event in one location spills into other parts of the CHT:
After a violent clash spread across the hill-town between hill people and Bengali settlers that left at least 60 persons injured, dozens of vehicles and households damaged and torched on September 22, 2012. The violence was caused by a trifling altercation between Bengali and hill students at Rangamati Government College and soon turned into a violent clash as outsiders from both the sides joined the melee. The clash immediately spread across the town and almost became a sectarian riot.… Both the Bengalis and hill people attacked each other in all the major neighborhoods in the small town.… Among the injured around 40 people were taken to [the local] … hospital. Ten critically injured persons were shifted to the Chittagong Medical College Hospital.… Bengalis also attacked the upazila complex where the local government representatives of the hill districts were holding a conference. At least ten chairmen of union councils were injured in the attack and one of them … went missing.(Juberee and Sumi 2012)
Uddin interviewed many of the victims, who complained that the law enforcement agencies either sided with the Bengali settlers or did not intervene at all. Such one-sided support from state institutions obscures the boundary between the formal representatives of the state and the Bengali settlers. This support in turn reaffirms the settlers’ claims to be the rightful occupants of the CHT, an important aspect of their collective self-image, promoted by organizations like Somo Adhikar Andolon, which campaigns for equal rights for the settlers. The settlers’ claims are also reaffirmed through policies of the Bangladeshi government, who explicitly refrain from acknowledging the special status of indigenous people (Gerharz 2014b). At the local level, the fact that impunity is a regular practice in cases where Pahari adivasi victims are involved confirms a close-knit alliance between the state and certain people (in this case Bengali settlers) based on ethnic belonging. The difficulties relating to access to justice are shown in the case of a Bengali settler who raped a 13-year-old Chakma girl in Rangamati in June 2011, while Uddin was visiting for fieldwork. Responding to strong public protests, the police arrested the perpetrator, who was then immediately released on bail without punishment. After his release, he started threatening the victim to make her withdraw the case. In May 2012, he raped and killed another 11-year-old Pahari adivasi girl (Barman and Neo 2013: 119).
Hierarchies, Elites, and Regional Political Leaders
There have always been conflicts among groups and individuals living in the CHT who occupy different social standings; these often arise because those in influential positions are required to remain loyal to more powerful actors within the region. As in other parts of the British colonial empire, local leaders were incorporated into the system of governance as so-called rajas (kings). They have administrative, sociocultural, and spiritual functions, inhabiting an intermediary position between local people and the state, in the sense of Max Gluckmann (1965). Within the traditional system, headmen (heads of a taxation unit) and karbari are subordinate to the raja and responsible for local conflict resolution and the distribution of jhum fields. The postcolonial trend away from a traditional economic system, spurred by modernization and development efforts, has led to class divisions. Although mechanisms that generated poverty had already been present in traditional local society, recent patterns of exploitation have caused “fundamental shifts in the distribution of assets and incomes in the CHT, transferring these from ordinary hill peoples, to non-Pahari groups, agencies of the state, as well as members of the Pahari elite” (Adnan 2004: 161). In addition to this, political loyalties have been a decisive factor when it comes to elite formation: local leaders of political parties or associate organizations such as the Pahari Chatra Parishad (Hill Students Council—PCP) and the Hill Women Federation (HWF) have better access to a range of benefits. Depending on their support networks, some Pahari adivasi are preferred for various administrative and government official posts. Pahari adivasi intellectual elites such as writers, artists, painters, and researchers, as well as Pahari adivasi with respected professions such as medical doctors, university professors, engineers, and lawyers who live in Dhaka or Chittagong, benefit from larger contact networks with more powerful stakeholders. In recent years, a growing number of Pahari adivasi have graduated from universities at home and abroad and taken up professional roles such as NGO workers, human rights activists, consultants for donor agencies, journalists, and development workers. Emerging socioeconomic inequalities have reproduced or even deepened old cleavages and conflicts between individuals and groups (Gerharz 2012). The Chakma, for example, being the largest group among the Pahari adivasi, have consolidated a particularly advanced position in terms of access to education, accumulation of economic resources, and professional accomplishments. This has produced a state of mind of inferiority, especially with respect to members of smaller Pahari adivasi groups, who are considered to be more “backward” and less “advanced”; marginalized within a marginality (see Uddin 2008).
Some Pahari adivasi are members of one of the national political parties, and the widespread view holds that this benefits them in accessing administrative and political posts. Those inhabiting local administrative posts represent the central state at the local level and make decisions on behalf of the state. Whereas local politicians may have a certain degree of autonomy, the situation of those who hold posts at the central state level—ministers, for example—is more complicated. They are confronted with enormous expectations, but at the same time their visibility and proximity to the center of power within the state may restrict their ability to maneuver. Belonging to the Pahari adivasi, however, further complicates these positions, which already require the ability to mediate between the Pahari adivasi people and the state. The expectations of the constituencies of Pahari adivasi politicians are very high, but their limited scope for taking autonomous action means they continuously face the problem of being labeled as traitors. There is a tendency to label these individuals as not belonging to their indigenous group because they do not share the related political attitudes (see Gerharz 2014b).
As an example, a large area of land—one hundred acres—belonging to a Khumi village was acquired by the Forest Department of Bangladesh.9 The villagers considered this forest as their jhum land, and therefore they appealed to the Khumi chairperson of the Bandarban District Council to reverse the decision. In line with advice from his political party, which was the ruling party at the time, the chairman refused to take a stand against the Forest Department. Thus, local officials can find themselves caught between the interests of the state and their constituents, a configuration in which the state clearly holds the larger share of power.
As other villagers had been regularly subject to similar experiences, one day in 2010 they collectively decided not to pay any more extortion monies to Bengali political activists. They were beaten, their belongings taken from them, and their shops burned down. Law enforcement agencies took no action because the perpetrators belonged to the ruling political party. A group of villagers met with the local upazila chairman, an elected official from the Marma community, to resolve the problem. However, the chairman himself also belonged to the ruling party. In response to their request for assistance, he replied, “I can’t do anything for you because I can’t take any action against my party workers. If I do, the central leaders will be dissatisfied and angry with me” (Upendra Marma, 11 November 2010). In the end, the villagers had to reach a compromise with the Bengali extortionists. After returning from the meeting with the upazila chairman, one Khumi whom regularly visits the bazaar to sell firewood and purchase essentials explained to Uddin, “Though the chairman is a Pahari adivasi, he is a member of sarker (government). Sarker can’t serve Pahari adivasi interests, only the interest of the state” (Noisho Khumi, 11 November 2010). This sort of event leads many Pahari adivasi to perceive Pahari adivasi political elites as being in fact local agents of the central state, since they are granted their position to serve the purposes of the state. These Pahari adivasi political leaders effectively serve the central state in the form of a local state.
I brought a bundle of firewood, some bananas and papaya from jhum. I sold these for BDT 200 [$3] to buy kerosene, oil, some medicine, and one knife. But, a Bengali politician demanded BDT 100 as extortion and I had to pay. If I didn’t pay, he would not allow me to visit this bazaar again. Now, I can’t buy what I need.(Shoilen Marma, 27 November 2010)
In addition to Bengali attitudes and behavior toward Pahari adivasi ethnic groups, the unequal power relations between and among the various Pahari adivasi ethnic groups, and the role of the state in creating these inequalities, must be understood in order to comprehend peace and conflict dynamics in the CHT. Clarinda Still (2011), with her ethnographic evidence from Andhra Pradesh, explains that creating a divide among marginalized people is a state policy to better rule and exploit them, in line with the state’s wishes. In the context of the CHT, central political parties—mainly the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—co-opt some Pahari adivasi political leaders and provide them with positional powers in order to work in favor of state policy. This tactic creates divisions within the Pahari adivasi and among Pahari adivasi political leaders, which Still (2011) argues ultimately serve the Bangladeshi central state.
Formal agreements cannot ensure peace when the political and social aspects of peaceful coexistence—unequal power relations, differences in ethnic backgrounds, and the differing positions of the center and peripheries in the framework of the nation-state—are not reasonably and sensibly addressed. The relationship between state and society is instrumental in providing peace to people’s lives. However, state and society cannot be so easily disentangled, as the state interacts with people’s lives on different levels and therefore achieves significance in their lives in manifold ways. Our analysis proves that state and society are juxtaposed and intertwined in various ways. First, we have shown that the representatives of state power, such as law enforcement agencies and the military, can directly determine the scope for living in peace. As agents authorized to execute state power, they become crucial protagonists in people’s everyday lives; as Gupta (1995: 376) argues, people perceive the nature of the state from their dealings with local- level state agents. Therefore, how the military handles local conflicts is decisive for the potential success of a peace process. Second, nationalism promoted by the state shapes people’s perspectives, and this determines how “power hierarchies are descended and reproduced in everyday life in the margin” (Tsing 1994: 280). We have shown that nation-building and state-making processes built on cultural homogeneity exclude cultural minorities, which elevates Bengalis to an authoritarian position and places the Pahari adivasi at the margin. Therefore, the dominant notion of stateness is reflected in Bengali behavior, which is endorsed by the arbitrary role of the central state. This sort of practice leaves space for the Pahari adivasi to shape their notion of the state as one embedded in Bengali behavior; as Paul Brass (1997) explains, the state could be understood based on its role in supporting the privileged sections of society. Third, social categories that are framed in ethnic terms become meaningful in the everyday lives of people, as they structure how members of the majority approach and interact with those who are considered inferior. At this level, marginality becomes an embodied practice that influences both minorities and majorities. Such social categorization is reflected in public discourse: language determines the structure of relations between the privileged and marginalized positions in a society where the state supports the privileged, particularly Bengalis, who constitute the ethnic majority and are supported by both the central and local states. Our fourth argument is that the state’s nationalist imaginary is hampered by social relations and alliances that cross ethnic divides. Particularly after the accord, some Pahari adivasi politicians have become representatives of the “local state” Instead of increasing the potential to create a more solid basis for power sharing and codetermination, these individuals are squeezed between their constituencies’ expectations, orders “from above” and their own aspirations to gain and maintain powerful positions; Nel Vandekerckhove (2011) refers to this as a negotiation between various positions in the networks of power. The state has a vested interest in producing such state agents within the local dynamics of ethnic divisions.
The role of the state in local societal dynamics is crucial for ensuring a peaceful living environment. It must address the reality of how people experience the state in its local forms through the discourse of peace and conflict in their everyday lives. These everyday experiences of a local state include ethnic divides, unequal positions within society, and the different layers of social hierarchies and their interrelations, rather than the political strategies of the central state and the immediate gains of political elites from competing factions. An important aspect is to understand how people experience the operation of state institutions at the local level through their different local agents. The dominant nationalist discourse shapes Bengali attitudes and behavior, which determines how the state is experienced in Pahari adivasi life. The CHT peace accord will never succeed in its goals to bring about peace because it does not address the politics of nationalism and the dynamics of identity between Bengalis and Pahari adivasi as part of a complete process of conflict management and peacebuilding, a process in which the state has played a very arbitrary role since Bangladesh became independent. Finally, we would argue that marginal positioning is not a choice but rather a product of state making (Scott 2009), and therefore, an understanding of the state and its multilayered forms from the margins is important to form an understanding of society in times of either peace or conflict.
We acknowledge the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for its generous support. This article is a result of a George Foster Research Fellowship that the Humboldt Foundation awarded to Nasir Uddin during his stay in Germany in 2012–2013. We are grateful to Ellen Bal, Pradeep Chakkarath, Meghna Guhathakurta, and Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka for reading earlier versions of this article and providing their valuable comments. We are also thankful to the two anonymous reviewers of the journal, whose comments and suggestions helped us to improve this article.
Various terminologies are used to denote the non-Bengali population of the CHT. The term “tribal” is contentious because of its derogatory colonialist connotations, whereas adivasi and “indigenous people” are rather recent inventions, but as they are allegedly imported, the government of Bangladesh does not accept them. Local politicians suggest jumma to highlight the common practice of jhum (slash and burn) cultivation, but this has not been widely adopted. The term Pahari adivasi (indigenous hill person) is probably the least controversial, and therefore we use it to mean “indigenous hill people,” to distinguish such people from those who live on the plains in Bangladesh.
Uddin did ethnographic fieldwork for three years between 2005 and 2007 and again in various visits between 2008 and 2016 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Gerharz conducted fieldwork between 1999 and 2000 and from 2008 until 2014 during several shorter visits to Bangladesh and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
We employ the notion of “interface” from Norman Long, a development sociologist whose actor- oriented approach claims that interfaces are critical points of “intersection between life worlds, social fields or levels of social organization where social discontinuities, based upon discrepancies in values, interests, knowledge and power, are most likely to be located” (2001: 243).
Moigga is derived from Maghs, which is used for people of supposedly Tibeto-Burmese origin. It thus has a racial connotation and denotes their status as outsiders to the national Bengali society.
The politically powerful in the region, the economically well-off, traditional holders of office, and professionally well-known Pahari adivasi people are generally known as Pahari adivasi elites. This will be further detailed in the following section.
Tui is also sometimes used where there is an extremely close relationship—for example, parents and children or between two close friends—which is not applicable here.
The ratio of Pahari adivasi to Bengalis in the region has decreased from 98.26:1.74 in 1872 to 51.43:48.57 in 1991. As of 2011, the Pahari adivasi have become a minority even in the CHT (see Chakma 2008).
The Forest Department of Bangladesh has regularly acquired lands from Pahari adivasi jhum plots for decades in the name of “forestation” and the “plantation of rare plant species,” allegedly to maintain the ecological balance in the CHT (see Uddin 2008).
The Sangu River originates in the Arakan Hills of Myanmar; it then enters Bangladesh and flows through the CHT, particularly Thanchi and Rowangchhari Bandarban. The length of the river is 295 kilometers.
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