The Land Problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts: A Human Rights Anatomy
Sadeka Halim Ph.D., Professor
Department of Sociology
University of Dhaka
Khairul Chowdhury Ph.D., Lecturer
Department of Anthropology
University of Dhaka
(Published in JAMAKON YEAR BOOK 2015, by National Human Rights
Commission (JAMAKON), Bangladesh, June 2016, Dhaka)
There exists an international citizenship that has its rights and its duties, and that obliges
one to speak out against every abuse of power, whoever its author, and whoever its
victims. After all, we are all members of the community of the governed, and thereby
obliged to show mutual solidarity. [...] Because they claimed to be concerned with the
welfare of societies, governments arrogates to themselves the rights to pass off as profit
or loss the human unhappiness that their decisions provoke or their negligence permits. It
is a duty of this international citizenship to always bring the testimony of people’s
suffering to the eyes and ears of governments, sufferings for which it’s untrue that they
are not responsible. The suffering of [human] must never be a silent residue of policy. It
grounds an absolute right to stand up and speak to those who hold power - Michel
Over the last three decades, there has been increasing mobilization of indigenous groups for
political recognition and rights over land and other resources in both developed and developing
countries (Barnes et. al 1995). As a result, public awareness of the plight of the world’s
indigenous population has grown, but dispossession of the indigenous peoples from the land
they occupy has remained unabated (see, e.g., Erin 2008). The case of the Chittagong Hill
Tracts, Bangladesh is one example of that (Arens 1997; JSS 2011).
Located in the south-east of Bangladesh bordering India and Myanmar, the region, the
Chittagong Hill Tracts (hereafter CHT), contains an area of 5093 square miles (13,295 square
kilometers) or about 10 percent of the land in Bangladesh (see Map 1). Inhabited by a number
of indigenous groups (so-called “tribes”1), the region is a forest region within Bangladesh
considered vital to security and economic interests of Bangladesh (Ibrahim 1991). At present,
almost one-third of CHT is “Reserved Forests”, and the remaining is “open forest”, known as
“Unclassed State Forest” (hereafter USF) (Chowdhury 2014). In complete contrast to low-
lying alluvial plains within Bangladesh, the land in CHT primarily comprises chains of hill
ranges interspersed by valleys and river drainage which are locally known as the Feni,
1It is important to note the fact that the British invented the term tribe for the hill peoples of South Asia in the 1840s
as part of a race and caste classification system (Skaria 1997). The term lacks a clear definition and continues to be
contested (Beteille 1992). Therefore, we use quotation marks when referring to so-called “tribes.”
Karnaphuli, Sangu and Matamuhuri (Ishaq 1971; Lewin 1869). Because of the topography of
the region, there is a lack of suitable land for intensive agriculture: only 4 percent of the USF
land located around the valleys is cultivable plain lands, which are locally known as plough-
land (Forestal 1966a).
Map: The Location of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh
© Khairul Chowdhury (Chowdhury 2014).
As in many parts of the world, the indigenous peoples of CHT have been subject to
violent land dispossession (CHT Commission 1991; Adnan and Dastidar 2011). Notably, these
indigenous peoples of CHT (hereafter “the hill peoples”2) have experienced wars and armed
conflict over a very long period. In 1971, the Bangladesh liberation war began in what was
then East Pakistan against the West Pakistani military regime, and the nation of Bangladesh
was born. The hill peoples were indifferent or divided over the East-West Pakistan conflict. In
1972, a regional political movement emerged, led by the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati
Samiti (JSS), whose leaders demanded cultural recognition of the hill peoples and political
autonomy for CHT, which led to armed resistance against the Bangladesh security forces and
lasted for almost twenty-five years.3
Although there are number of studies on the ethnic conflicts in CHT (Schendel 1995;
Mohsin 1997, Chowdhury 2002, Ali 1993), the land question in CHT – the ownership and
tenancy rights – has largely been understudied (see CHT Commission 1991; Adnan and
Dastidar 2011). The commonly available scholarly literatures on land problems and issues in
CHT represent activist perspectives and are mostly written by Raja Devasish Roy and Chandra
Roy (see Roy, C. 2000; Roy, D. 1994; 2000, 2002, 2004). In this study, we therefore intend to
fill this gap and examine land problem and land conflict in CHT as critical academic scholars
and activists. We will examine the origins of the land rights in CHT and explore the processes
and practices of land alienation of the indigenous peoples of CHT. We also suggest policies to
be taken by the state, national and international human rights organizations to protect
indigenous people’s rights to land and their human rights.
In so doing, we build our approach to the land problem and the land conflicts on national
and international human rights perspectives, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights of 1948 and the constitution of Bangladesh. According to the Article 17 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, we read: “1) everyone has the rights to own property alone as well
2Some indigenous groups of CHT collectively refer to themselves as “Jumma” as a political identity and at times as
“Pahari,” meaning hill people (Schendel 1995; Chowdhury 2002). Instead of hill people (singular), we use “hill
peoples” (plural) to refer to the Jumma/ Pahari groups, recognizing ethnic and cultural diversities and differences
among the hill peoples themselves. In so doing, we neither intend nor wish to imply political differences among the
hill peoples along ethnic lines.
3The term Bangladesh Security Forces refers to all the military, paramilitary and voluntary forces in CHT engaging
in counterinsurgency war and includes the army, Bangladesh Boarder Guards (previously Bangladesh Rifles), Air
Force, the Police and the Ansar (Ibrahim 1991).
as in association with others. 2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property” (quoted in
Roy, C. 2000:136).We submit Articles 13 and 42 of the constitution of Bangladesh clearly agree
with Article 17 of the United Nations universal human rights provisions. Whereas the Article 13
declares private ownership of “the instruments and means of production and distribution” is one
of three principal forms ownership and control of resources, the Article 42 (1) guarantees the
rights to the security of the private property and ownership. We read: “Subject to any restrictions
imposed by law, every citizen shall have the rights to acquire, hold, transfer or otherwise dispose
of property, and no property shall be compulsorily acquired, nationalized or requisitioned save
by authority of law” (GOBD 1993:29).
As such, we follow these national and international human rights propositions and define
the land problem in CHT as a problem of security of private ownership and tenancy rights of the
hill peoples to their land within the territorial jurisdiction of Bangladesh. We discuss the land
problems in terms of the problem of ownership, land crisis, and land conflicts and organized our
discussion around the political regimes of British, Pakistan and Bangladesh to help explain
chronological history of the problem. We argue that the land problem in CHT is primarily rooted
in British colonial forest policies and the policies of control of the land by the state, shaped by
the ecologies and economies of the region. We will show that the British rule denied the hill
peoples not only private property in land but also access to one fourth of land area of CHT as
they were made reserved forests. Thus, the rights of the hill peoples over land in CHT were only
to extend a land area known as USF which was in most part common property of the hill peoples
for Jhum cultivation, and were formalized through the Regulation of1900. However, the
contemporary land conflicts are the direct results of counterinsurgency programs in CHT that
went from1976 to up until 1999, alienating both common land as well as individual land of the
hill peoples for Bengali immigrants, business and the Forest Department.
In sum, we agree with indigenous scholars and activists that the hill peoples are not
only indigenous peoples to their land but also the original inhabitant of the CHT. As in many
parts of the world, the hill peoples are the most disadvantaged segment of the rural population
in Bangladesh; their lives and livelihood are still primarily dependent on access and rights to
land and other natural resources. We hold that the CHT Treaty of 1997 (hereafter Peace
Treaty) which brought an end to the ethnic insurgency and counterinsurgency in CHT is way
forward to the land problem in CHT but falls short to resolve the land conflict. We will
demonstrate that given the extent and the nature of land rights and ownership in CHT, the
Land Dispute Settlement Commission can only partially address the land conflict. Thus, we
strongly recommend a land reform commission in CHT to suggest policy on land ownership,
land distribution, and land ceiling. We hope our discussion of the land problems will provide
with a deeper understanding of the land problem and land issues but also contribute to solve
the land conflict in CHT as well as to the promotion of human rights, peace and social justice
Aim of the Study
The aim of this study is to analyse and examine the land problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
from human rights perspective. The specific objectives are as follows:
- Examine the origins, development and contemporary practice of land management,
ownership and tenancy system;
- Explore the customary land rights and practices of the hill peoples;
- Evaluate the legal processes of land alienation and dispossession of the hill peoples
through land settlement, lease, sell, and state acquisition of land from human rights
- Identify the nature and extent of land conflict and land grabbing;
- Review the CHT Land Dispute Settlement Act 2001 as a mechanism of land
conflict resolution; and,
- Provide policy recommendations for the resolution of the land conflict and peace.
This study is primarily based on archival and secondary sources. The archival research was
conducted in the National Archives, Dhaka, and the documents read and consulted included, for
example, the Regulation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts 1900, and the District Gazetteers of
Chittagong and CHT. Primary data were collected through fieldwork research, unstructured
interviews, and focus group discussions with human rights activists, non-government
organizations, government officials and traditional leaders in CHT, and members of the hill
people communities both in Dhaka and CHT. Secondary sources were based on namely
government reports, legal documents, scholarly articles, ethnographic studies, socio-economic
surveys, non-government organizations’ reports, and the publications of the JSS, the political
party of the CHT. In addition, the study used resources of several Indigenous focused non-
government organizations including Kapaeeng Foundation, Research and Development
Collective, and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Foundation. The study also accessed to
personal collections of several academics to read printed archival and library documents such as
the selections of the land revenue administration of the CHT as well as the annual administrative
reports of CHT.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Peoples and Economy
For centuries, a number of ethnic groups have inhabited CHT who are considered as “tribes”
by the governing regimes and Bengali since the British rule in South Asia.4 Of these groups,
eleven ethnic groups who now call themselves “Jumma” and collectively have also known as
Pahari (the hill peoples) are considered to be the “original” inhabitants of CHT.
Among these hill people groups, the Chakma are the largest; the other include the
Bawm, the Khyang , the Khumi, the Lushai, the Marma, the Mro, the Pankhu, the Sak, the
Tripura, and the Tanchangya (Table 1). With the exception of the Tripura, all the hill people
groups are undeniably of Burmese-Arakanese origins and are mainly Buddhist, and at times
Christian. With regards to religious faith, the Tripura in the north of CHT follow Hinduism and
the Tripura in the south, known as Usui, follow Christianity. These characteristics, along with
their traditional method of swidden cultivation (slash and burn) locally known as Jhum,
distinguish them clearly from Bengali “plainsmen”, who are predominantly Muslims.
4The nomenclature of the hill peoples’ “tribal” identity is primarily political and bears no significance in the daily
lives of the communities. In fact, village-based affiliations as well as other conventional and territorial institutions
concerning civil and criminal laws, forests, and revenue were and still are more important units of social and
political organization in CHT than the “tribe” per se (see Lewin 1869; Bessaignet 1958).
Table 1: Ethnic Divisions of the Hill peoples by Religion and Language
Buddhism and Community religion
Buddhism and Christianity
Buddhism and Christianity
Buddhism, Christianity and Krama
Hinduism and Christianity
Source: Tripura (1994), Sopher (1964); and Chowdhury (2014).
Besides the hill peoples, there are a number of ethnic groups who have lived in CHT
since the British rule, namely the Santal, Rakhain, Ghurkha, Burua, Bengali and Ahomia.Of
these groups, the Santal, Gurkha, and Ahomia were brought into CHT by the British during the
mid-nineteenth century for government work;5 the Ghurkha worked as the frontier police, and
the Santal and Ahomia were employed as coolies of the British government. The Rakhain found
in CHT were the Arakanese refugees of the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824 who have
remained in CHT; however, the overwhelming majority of the Rakhain refugees left CHT to
inhabit the Cox’s Bazar and Potuakhali districts. The Barua mainly inhabit Cox’s Bazar district,
a neighboring district of CHT and are also found in CHT; they identify themselves and are
identified by others as Bengali.
Bengalis had never inhabited the region before the British occupation of CHT; they
mainly began to inhabit the region during the Pakistan regime as they took up administrative
positions left by the British and filled the ranks of industrial labourers and commercial posts
created by industrial development in the 1950s. After Bangladesh’s independence, Bengalis
again began to settle in CHT as part of state-sponsored settlement projects. At present, the hill
peoples constitute a majority, albeit diminishing, population in the region, totalling 845,541 or
only 0.5 percent of the nation’s total population of 149 million in 2011; whereas the Bengali
population in CHT has increased to the extent they now comprise almost half of the total
population of CHT region (see Table 2 below).
Most of the hill peoples still depend primarily on Jhum cultivation, or at times wet rice
cultivation, in conjunction with hunting, fishing, trapping, herding, and gathering. This is
definitely the case with the Bawm, Sak, Pankhu, Khumi, and Mro. However, with a growing
urban population, a significant number of the hill peoples (particularly from the Chakma, Marma
and Tanchangya and Tripura communities) are involved in non-traditional occupations (Roy, D.
2000; Tripura and Harun 2003).6
5 Until recently, these groups have been overlooked by both the government and the political movements of the hill
peoples, and they are generally put together as “others” in government representation of the communities in the
Chittagong Hill Tracts.
6 Non-traditional occupations include cash crop agriculture, market oriented fruit and tree plantations, trading,
commercial fishing, and jobs in both private and government offices.
Table 2: Bengali and Hill peoples Population of the CHT from 1872 to 2011
Source: Chowdhury (2014).
The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Administration
A number of overlapping national, local, regional and traditional institutions exits in CHT. The
jurisdictions, functions and authorities of various government institutions are confusing,
conflicting, and not clear. In terms of political administration, CHT is currently divided into
three administrative districts: Bandarban in the south, Khagrachhari in the north, and Rangamati
in the centre (see Map 1)7. CHT is also conventionally divided into 25 Upazilas8 (sub-districts),
which are further divided into 110 union councils for local government. As elsewhere in
Bangladesh, CHT districts fall under Deputy Commissioners’ (DCs) oversight for civil, criminal
and police administration. However, unlike the rest of the country, the Deputy Commissioners of
CHT are provided with unrestrained power over the USF land by the Regulation of 1900.
In addition, CHT has a unique and exceptional traditional administration and revenue
system called “circles” in the USF land that have existed since the 1880s, excluding the regions
of the four compact Reserved Forests under the authority of the Forest Department since 1871.
Coinciding slightly with the territories of CHT districts of Bandarban, Khagrachhari and
Rangamati, these administrative and revenue circles are known by the ethnicity of the traditional
chiefs of Bohmong, Mong, and Chakma respectively. A circle chief or ‘Raja’ heads each circle,
which is further divided into Mouzas (government revenue units) under headmen or Mouza
headmen. Mouzas are conventionally comprised of several villages with a Karbari or village
headman for each. Chiefs and headmen exercise specific duties and powers in collection of taxes
on lands and households of Jhum cultivators. They are further empowered to settle family and
civil disputes including land titles and petty crimes other than crimes against the state. The
British invented this traditional administration and revenue system following the annexation of
the region as a district in colonial Bengal in 1860, but it was only formalized by the regulation
of 1900 (Lewin 1869; Hutchinson 1909). All positions of chiefs, headmen, and village headmen
are in principle hereditary but chiefs of the circle are currently government appointed; the chiefs
appoint the headmen in consultation with Deputy Commissioners (DCs), and the chiefs also
appoint village headmen in consultation with the headman and village residents. The position of
Karbari appeared to be a conventional practice of the chiefs and headmen and is certainly not
part of the Regulation of 1900.
7 CHT had been a colonial district and remained a single district until 1981 when, as part of the counter insurgency,
it was split into Rangamati Hill District and Bandarban Hill District. The former was further split into Rangamati
Hill District and Khagrachhari Hill District in 1983.
8As this Bengali term is used in this report, it will not be italicized in subsequent uses. Furthermore, when the term is
plural, we will add an 's' to assist the reader's comprehension according to English grammar, although this is not how
the plural is actually formed in the Bengali language. We will follow the same practice for use of other Bengali
terms such as Mouza and Karbari.
In addition to the chief’s circle, CHT has an overlapping local government system for
each district known as Local Government Council, later renamed Hill District Council (HDC),9
which were established with a two-thirds majority of hill peoples as part of CHT Accord of
1988 and which provide limited authority over small industries, health, primary education,
agriculture and some other matters.10The Peace Treaty of 1997 reorganized HDCs and added
two new institutions to supplement and coordinate the district councils at national and regional
levels respectively: the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MOCHTA) and CHT
Regional Council. However, the political and administrative roles of these bodies have not yet
been fully clarified (CHT Commission 2000; JSS 2011). The Upazilas and union councils have
remained under the control of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-
operatives, whereas the Hill District Councils and Regional Council are under the Ministry of
Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs.
As of 2015, the government had transferred seventeen government “subjects” to HDCs
and most recently another five subjects, but the Regional Council is yet to be made effective
(JSS 2015; see also Mohsin 2003).11
Indigenous Customs and Land Rights prior to the British Rule
So how was CHT like before the British rule? Historical accounts suggest that the area to the east
of Chittagong plain (i.e. Chittagong district) which was to be marked off as the CHT in 1860 had
been beyond any formal chieftainship or state administration — a frontier land of the traditional
states of Hill Tripura, Arakan and Bengal (Schendel et. al 2001).
9 The Hill District Council consists of one Chairman, twenty Councillors from the hill peoples’ communities, and
ten Councillors from the Bengali community in the respective districts of CHT region (see MOCHTA n. d.).
10 The government and a beleaguered faction of the JSS signed CHT Accord in 1988 leading to the establishment of
three local government councils in the districts of CHT through the Local Government Council Acts 19, 20, and 21
of 1989. On the basis of the Peace Treaty of 1997 the Local Government Councils were renamed as Hill District
Councils on September 2000, and by the amendment of the Local Government Council Acts 19, 20, and 21 of 1989,
68 functions of 33 government subjects (and/or departments) were agreed to be transferred to the Local Government
Councils Hill Development Council (see CHT Commission n. d., for the full text of the Peace Treaty).
11 The departments/subjects include: Agriculture, Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industry Corporation, Bazaar Fund,
Cooperative, Family Planning, Fisheries, Games, Health, Livestock, Primary Education, Public Health, Public
Library, Shilpakola Academy (that is, Performing Arts Academy), Social Welfare, Tribal Cultural Institute, and
The hill peoples and other groups then living in CHT and beyond had arrived in the
region in different waves, the result of war and conflict with the traditional states Hill Tripura,
Arakan and Bengal (Lewin 1869:21-23; Schendel 1992: xv). Among these hill peoples’ groups,
the Chakma and the Marma were the most prominent and numerous and lived closely along the
Chittagong plains. The Chakma occupied most of the central and northern portion of the region
on the banks of the Feni and Karnaphuli rivers, and their territories included Rangunia areas of
the Chittagong plain (Hunter 1973). The Marma occupied the southern part of the Karnaphuli
river on the banks of the Matamuhuri and Sangu rivers, including the areas of Sitakund hills and
Cox’s Bazar of the southern Chittagong plain. The Tripura lived in the north of the region,
bordering the Hill Tripura (Tripura, India), and also in adjoin localities such as Chittagong plain,
Noakhali, Comilla, and Sylhet, whereas Tanchangya were to the east of CHT, close to the
Chakmas. The Khumi, the Khyang, the Bawm and the Pankhu lived in the hills of the remote
southern and southeastern part, at times with and around the Marma, whereas the Lushai, and the
Shendu (a Mizo people group which now disappeared completely from the CHT) inhabited the
land in and around the Lushai and Arakan Hills, the remotest eastern portion of the CHT. Each
group had a chief or chiefs, and each was independent of the others, internally uniform in
tradition and customs.
The economy was based on relatively self-sufficient village communities, practising
slash-and-burn cultivation, locally known as Jhum, and all Jhum land and other resources belong
to the community that occupied them.
As the Mughals conquered Chittagong in 1666, their rule only extended to Chittagong
plain. The CHT was not fully conquered, nor was the region brought under direct control of the
Mughals. This was because, Andre Beteille explains, “[t]he Hindu kingdom- and to a large
extent its Muslism successor- did not seek to eliminate tribes but allow or even encourage them
on its margin” (Beteille 1992:29). Nevertheless, the Mughals’ relations to the hill peoples vis-a-
vis CHT were the chiefs of the Chakma and the Marma; they made to pay tribute in kind through
cotton to the Mughals for access to trade with Bengalis of the Chittagong plain (Hutchinson
1909: 24). In addition, the Chakma chief also held a Zamindari in Rangunia and paid separate
revenue to the Mughals (Serajuddin 1971). Partly because of this relation between and the
Mughals and the Chakma and Marma chiefs, by some account both chiefs were considered to be
pre-colonial “rulers” of CHT (Hunter 1973; but compare Chandra Roy 2002). Significantly, both
the Chakma’s and Marma’s chiefs had many subordinate officials such as Dewan and Rowaza,
who respectively oversaw their village communities, collected what can be termed household or
“Jhum tax” from their kinsmen and meted out justice. Therefore, there was no land revenue
settlement. Partly because of this when Mughals rule gave way to the East India Company that
ruled South Asia from 1765 to1857, the CHT’s relation with the state did not change much.
Much like their Mughals predecessor, the British under the East India Company left the
political system in CHT unchanged and collected “tributes” in the form of cotton from the
prominent hill chiefs through Bengali middle man (Sirajuddin 1971; Hutchinson 1909:12).In
fact, the East India Company directed their attention only to govern Chittagong plain and the
CHT had remained frontier land to the British Empire in South Asia up until 1860 (Chowdhury,
2014). In 1829, Mr. Halhed, the Commissioner of Chittagong, stated that “the hill tribes are not
British subjects, but merely tributaries. I do not recognize any rights on our part to interfere with
their internal arrangements. We have no authority in the hills” (Lewin 1869:22).
Notwithstanding Halhed’s statement, the British claimed territorial jurisdictions over the
hills and brought about a number of changes in the mode of the collection of revenue from CHT
before 1860, while recognizing the hill chief’s rights to Jhum tax from their kinsmen. They were:
i) the collection of revenue from the hill chiefs rather than through a third party, namely Bengali
merchants; ii) the introduction to money as the form of revenue in 1789; and iii) the installation
Mong chief in 1784 from the Arakanese Marma refugees, known as Palangsa Marma following
the Burmese occupation of Arakan in 1784. Although these changes did not alter the political
system in CHT, they marked an important beginning of new relationship for the hill people with
the colonial state that was to be emerged only after the mid nineteenth century.
The British Rule in CHT: Origins and Development of Land Rights
Unlike the rest of the colonial Bengal (i.e., Bengal, Bihar and part of Orissa), the CHT came
under direct British rule only in 1860. As in all of South Asia, the origins of the rights and
“private ownership” in land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts were linked to the colonial British rule
in CHT, but these rights differed significantly with those of other parts of colonial Bengal and of
British India. This is in part because the British under the East India Company had several forms
of land revenue settlements in British India, of which the permanent settlement, the rawaytari
system, and the mughalzari system were the three principal forms of land revenue settlement (see
Baden-Powell 1892).Though the Permanent Settlement was the main form of land settlement in
colonial Bengal which introduced private property in land, the system had never extended to
CHT and some other parts of colonial Bengal including part of Sylhet, Hill Tripura, the
Chiefship of Peshkash (Orissa) and the Chiefship of Chotto Nagpur Division (Baden-Powell
1892: 441-448). Therefore, the CHT had no private property system, nor even any regular land
revenue system even up until 1920 (GOB 1927). This exceptionalism of British rule existed
across British India (see Baden-Powell 1892).Concerning CHT, we argue this exception of
British rule and absence of private property regime was related to three interrelated historical,
political and ecological considerations, namely the lack of intensive agriculture and property
regime; ecology and landscapes, and British forest policy.
In terms of pre-colonial ecology and landscapes, we have already noted that the CHT is
formed by a chain of hill ranges and only a small part of the valleys lying between the ranges in
there was a level field. Therefore, the economy was solely based on extensive slash-and -burn
agriculture or Jhum cultivation. T. H. Lewin, the Deputy Commissioner of CHT, writes:
“Throughout the whole of the Hill Tracts I know no single instance of a hill man
cultivating with plough; indeed, it rare to find a man earning his livelihood in any way
saved by [Jhum] culture. Near the villages of some of chiefs a few acres of plough
cultivated land may sometimes by seen; this, however, is invariably tended by [Bengali]
servants engaged for the purpose” (Lewin 1870:39).
However, throughout CHT, there were large tracts valuable forest trees. It is worth
mentioning that the forests of the CHT at that time had neither royal tree species of teak
(tectonagrandis) nor dominant tree species such sal (shorea robusta) and sissu (dalbergiasisso).
Rather they were comprised mainly of several local species such as jarul, grammar, chapalish,
toon and chikrasi which were considered to be fine timber (Lewin 1869: Appendix A; Cowan
1923a; 1923b; 1923c). In 1871, immediately after 1860 when CHT made a district, almost the
entire CHT was declared state forests following the Bengal Forest Rules in accordance with
provisions of section 2 of the Forest Act of 1865 (Hunter 1973:29). What made the CHT a forest
region vis-a-vis state property then? Compared with other forested regions in Bengal, the
absence of land settlement in CHT no doubt provided material grounds, but the main factor
contributing this action of the time was the prevalence of Jhum cultivation in the region and the
British opposition to Jhum as a mode of cultivation and a means of livelihood. For example, in
1868, the Officiating Commissioner of Chittagong Lord H. Browne wrote:
“I have always been desirous to lay in some way a slight foundation for the unseal system
of cultivation, with a view to its ultimately displacing the [Jhuming] system entirely. Had
it not been, however, for the proposals to introduce forest conservancy into the Hill
Tracts, I do not think it would been easy to have been made a beginning in that direction;
but as it is, though quite unable to recommend the immediate introduction of the forest
conservancy system proposed by Mr. Leeds, the slight restriction that I have already
imposed on [Jhuming] have, even at this early period, proved of use as a preparation for
its gradual suppression” (GOB 1929:25-35, paragraph 13).
Nevertheless, conflicts emerged between the civil and forest official in the Bengal
Government about the nature of forest control, and the timing, method, and extent to which Jhum
cultivation would be eliminated or dealt with. In 1875 Dr. W. Schlich, the Bengal Conservator
Forest, visited CHT. After a long bitter debate with local civil officials, Schlich agreed to some
degrees of forest conservation in CHT, leading to the first and the main land use classification in
CHT: Reserved Forest under the Forest Department and USF under the Deputy Commissioner
management. Accordingly, by 1884, a total 1345 square miles of CHT was gazetted as Reserved
Forests as absolute property of the state under the Forest Act of 1878; these were the Kassalong
and Maini Reserves, the Renikhyong Reserve, the Matamuhuri Reserve, the Sangu Reserve, and
Sitpahar Reserve. The rest of area of CHT, the USF, remained under the administration of the
Deputy Commissioner of CHT upon which the traditional administration was built for the
control of population and civil administration, recognizing hill chiefs’ rights to Jhum tax and an
array of rights of the hill peoples over land and forest resources.
The Regulation of 1900 that created and formalized the administration and land revenue
systems in USF had changed frequently until 1939, but recognized, expressively or implied an
array of rights over the land, which we refer to here as individual and common (customary)
rights (compare GOB 1900 and 1935; see also GOBD n. d.). Common rights refer to the generic
rights of the hill peoples through customs and practices that include entitlement to Jhum, to use
forest resources for domestic purposes, to graze cattle on village pastures and to occupy non-
urban homestead plots.12 Some of these common rights are partially acknowledged and regulated
but very few are clearly defined (GOB 1927). The individual rights are individuals’ entitlements
over clearly demarcated land whether as freehold (rights with perpetuity) or leased (rights for a
specific period), including private forests and commercial plots.
However, key aspects of individual rights were plough-lands, but there were no uniform
rules regarding plough land lease up until the 1920s. According to the Survey and Settlement
Report of 1927, there were as much as 60,000 acres of plough land which were leased out to both
hill peoples and Bengali under various terms and conditions in different periods of the
administration between 1870s and 1920s, with the exception of plough land lease made in 1784
held by the Chakma chief. All the plough-land leases were temporary settlements, varying
between 10 and 30 years’ contracts with or without any tenancy rights. For example, the leases
given between 1892 and 1920 which accounted for 75 percent of plough-land had no rights, but
as privilege of being allowed to cultivate the land. The reaming land was leased including the
rights to inheritance and to mortgage, sublet, and transfer with the permission of the Deputy
Commissioner (see GOB 1927).
In 1920, the government significantly altering previous rules to make a uniform rule to
deal with plough land settlement as well as to protect marginal peasants among the hill peoples,
while recognizing several customary rights to land and forest resources in USF. There changes
were: i) providing all tenants under leases with conditional permanent and inheritable rights in
land; ii) putting limit to plough land leases up to maximum 25 acres; ii) limiting rights to
mortgage, sublet, sell and transfers of plough land without the permission of the Deputy
Commissioner, recognizing that non-hill tribes and non-residents of CHT might take advantages
of market forces and existing rules. However, there were no restrictions for Bengalis to have
plough land lease, provided they reside in a village and leases were given in that village. The
rules also recognized the existing leases previous whatever their terms and conditions as well as
the existing sub-tenants (see GOB 1935).
12 It is important to note that when the regulation of 1900 was first published on May 7, 1900, all the common rights
were neither recognized nor denied, but implied.
In sum, the significant aspect of British land policy in CHT was that all land was owned
by the state. The land could neither be sold nor purchased, but was reserved for the hill peoples
or the government, excepting plough land. The result of the plough land rules, however, was
economic differentiation among and within the hill peoples’ communities: a small group of
landed and affluent members of a new social and economic class emerged among the Chakma
and Marma, alongside a Bengali landed class who had fragile land usage rights without
guarantee (GOB 1927: 3-11; Hutchinson 1909: 68-9). On the other hand, most common hill
peoples among the Chakma, Marma and other groups who were entirely depended on Jhum
cultivation — regulated by the traditional administration as common property of the hill
peoples— remained the “human property” of the chiefs, as Lewin called the Jhum revenue
settlement with the chiefs (GOB 1929).
Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam and Land Crises
In spite of the British policies of land and forest conservation in CHT, by the first quarter of the
21stcentury, the hill peoples had well adjusted to the ecological context of the region. However,
as CHT became part of East Pakistan (a.k.a. East Bengal, and later, Bangladesh) within the state
of Pakistanin 1947, Pakistan’s industrial policies not only altered the ecology of the region but
also the hill peoples’ relation to lands.13 This was in part because the CHT provided Pakistan not
only with untapped forests resource but also only water resource, potential for the hydro-electric
The most detrimental effect of industrialization in CHT was the construction of the
Kaptai Hydroelectric Plant (KHP). The Kaptai Plant was completed in 1961, it resulted in far
more detrimental consequences for the ecology, economy and people of the CHT than had been
planned, estimated, and anticipated (Chakma, H. et al. 1995; Chakma, G. 1991). The Kaptai dam
entirely changed the physical terrain and ecology to the north and middle of CHT. The dam
13The position of the Chittagong Hill Tracts had been the subject of a fierce debate between the national elites of
India and Pakistan, but the region was awarded to Pakistan (Mansergh 1983: 691-92, 737-740). There were protests
in CHT against Pakistan which were met with a military crackdown at the inception of Pakistani rule (Ali 1993;
Chakma, S., 1393. B.E. [1985-1986]).
14 The development and industrialization policies of Pakistan favored West Pakistan according to the interest of its
Punjabi military and salaried classes who governed the country as an alliance of a civil-military dictatorship from
1958 to 1971 (Mohsin 1997).
formed several large bays joined together by small bays surrounding Rangamati, the only town
and district headquarters of CHT as if it were an island in the middle of the district while placing
the Chakma chief’s residence under water. In particular, to the north, there formed two large
bays in the Chengri River and in the northeast there were bays at Subholong and at Kattoli
occupying the southern half of Kassalong Reserve. Along the Renikhyong River, the Kaptai dam
also formed a small bay and beside Rangamati was a very large bay (EPADC n.d.:3).
As to the loss of economy, property and displacement, it is now widely held that the
Kaptai dam submerged 256 square miles affecting 125 Mouzas, and uprooted 100,000 people of
18,000 families (that was one-fourth of the total population of the district according to the 1961
census). This included 10.5 square miles of Reserved Forests; thousands of acres of Jhum lands
in the valleys of the Karnaphuli river and all its tributaries to the north and north-east, and most
importantly54,000 acres of plough land which were 40 percent of the cultivating plough-land of
the district and were mostly held by the Chakma peasant community (EPADC n.d.:2; see also
Ishaq 1971; Ali 1993:179).15 In all, the estimated net loss of agricultural produce per year was
worth of Rs. 20 million (EPADC n.d.:2).
The hardest hit by the Kaptai dam was the Chakma chief’s circle, located in the centre
and northern part of CHT on the bank of the Karnaphuli River and its tributaries to the north and
north-east. The Chama’s chief circle, corresponding approximately to the Chakma’ settlements,
was the largest circle in CHT. The Chakma in general, the largest community of CHT, were
economically advanced compared to the other groups in CHT and became a well-settled peasant
community by the first quarter of the 20th century. There were also farmers and landlords
comprised of traditional elites among the Chakma (Jahangir 1979; GOB 1927). According to one
estimate, the Chakma represented 90 percent of the displaced hill peoples and as much as 90
percent of the total displaced plough cultivators; the others were Marma and Tangchangya
(Sopher 1963:347-8). If the 1961 population census and estimate of 100,000 affected individuals
are reliable, then more than half of the Chakma population was displaced. To put it differently,
out of a total of 125 Mouzas affected, more than 100 Mouzas were under the Chakma chief, and
the rest belonged to the Mong chief (GOP 1963; also Ishaq 1971).
15 Despite the loss of thousands of acres of the Reserved Forests to the power plant project, the total area of
Reserved Forests in CHT remained almost unchanged as the Forest Department brought new areas into reservation.
In terms of hill peoples’ rights to and access over land, an immediate effect of Kaptai
dam was an acute land crisis, that is, the lack of land for the resettlement of the displaced
population, leading to significant changes in land rights in CHT associated with the resettlement
and resettlement related development schemes.
This was due to the fact that one-fourth of CHT was then reserved forests; amongst the
reserved forests, Barkal, Kassalong, Renikhyong, Sitapahar Reserves were located to the north
and northeast of CHT and of the Karnaphuli River and its tributaries, and in most part around the
Chakma chief’s circle. Nevertheless, the government de-reserved parts of Kassalong Reserve to
provide with 26,026 acres land for resettlement programs which included as many as 10,000
acres of plough land, less than one-fifth of the lost plough land. In 1961, a total of 4,938 families
including Bengalis were resettled with 24,801 acres of land. Without exception, the Marma and
Tangchangya who moved from the lake area went to the Matamuhuri valleys closer to the border
of Chittagong district in the Bohmong Circle. Of the hill peoples, only 2300 displaced Chakma
families (of plough cultivators) were given resettlement land in the Kassalong tracts, the biggest
resettlement area with 10,000 acres of plough land made out of the de-reserved part of Kassalong
Reserve. There were 570 displaced Bengali families who also received settlement within
Kassalong; they comprised one-sixth of the households relocated in the area, to the dismay of
many Chakmas. These Bengalis were settled on the best Kassalong land near the bazaar and
administrative headquarters of Marishaya that was 2000 acres of level and cleared land, almost
ready for ploughing. Other Bengali cultivators who lost land to the Kaptai dam also received
special inducement to resettle in areas next to the coastal lowlands of Cox’s Bazar district, such
as the vicinity of Sialbukka and Faisyakhali (Sopher 1963:350).
There emerged several significant changes in land rights, associated with resettlement
policies and subsequent development schemes. A significant aspect of resettlement was the
limited access to land, a new phenomenon in CHT. This limitation was a result of the policy of
land distribution and cultural practices of land claims. The government set a policy of only
compensating plough land cultivators, not Jhum cultivators or other displaced groups; its
rationale for this policy was the paradoxical and deceitful claim of limited land availability for
resettlement. For plough land cultivators, the government policy was that every family would get
one acre of new plough land per acre of plough land the family had lost, but this was limited to a
maximum one acre per person in the family, and also to a maximum of ten acres per family. For
example, a family of six persons that lost three acres would be given three acres; a family of six
that lost ten acres would be given six acres; a family of twelve that lost twenty acres would be
given ten acres of plough land. However, in the case of a family that lost more than ten acres of
plough land, the family might be given additional “suitable hilly lands for gardening or terrace
cultivation” (GOP 1963:17). In so doing, the government not only extended individual land
rights beyond plough land over common property Jhum land, a new phenomenon in CHT, but
also brought in a new policy of land settlement. Nonetheless, in putting the policy into practice,
the government further marginalized displaced plough cultivators by their cultural capital and
legal entitlement. In other words, to claim land compensation for land in the submerged valley,
the government required written application and documentation of legal proof which is usually
considered to be a practice of “high culture.” The practices show the lack of consideration of the
cultural and social contexts of the hill peoples to whom the practices of bureaucracy and culture
of writing were very unpopular and, at times, unfamiliar.
Therefore, it turned out that 8,000 displaced families lacked the necessary documentation
to have their cases considered. Of the remaining 10,000 displaced families who could claim
legitimate land rights in the submerged valley, only a fraction could fulfill documentary and
other requirements required by the government. As a result, only those of a fortunate few could
receive land compensation, as much as 10 acres as a maximum contingent upon the size of
family, which fell far short of the loss sustained by most families (Ali 1993). Furthermore, these
policies only applied in Kassalong resettlement areas, the largest and best managed resettlement.
Evidently, only a few got the maximum 10 acres of plough-lands as the average family size was
around 7 members (according to the 1961 census) (GOP n. d.).
Beyond the policies of the resettlement, the government also took several development
schemes for Jhum cultivators in order to put a limit on extensive Jhum cultivation and thus
changes land rights. Combining horticulture farming with forestry programs, the development
schemes offered Jhum cultivators’ individual land rights in common property Jhum land for their
livelihood in the exchange of their labor for state forestry program. The government claimed
these schemes to be “a new field for economic rehabilitation for better prospect” (GOP 1963)
and, in turn fundamentally altered policies of Jhum land and hill peoples’ customary rights over
One of these development schemes was the Working Schemes for the Protected Forests
of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, implemented by the Forest Department. Begun in 1962; the
Working Schemes had two schemes: “the Pilot Project for Jhum Control and Jhumia
Rehabilitation,” and “the Soft Wood Plantation in East Pakistan”. In putting this plan into a
resettlement project, the Forest Department created a new category of the forest, i.e., protected
forest in USF according to sections 29 and 30 of the Forest Act of 1927, under a newly created
forest division in CHT called Jhum Control. This protected forest took up six Mouzas entirely
and one Mouza partially, a total of 35,226.6 acres of USF in the submerged area amid the loss of
cultivable lands and displacement. The areas comprised three separate blocks known as Maini
(13,363.8 acres), Renikhyong (9,747.5 acres), and Khaskhali (12,115.3 acres). The Maini and
Renikhyong blocks are situated on the fringe of Kaptai dam near the Kassalong and Renikhyong
Reserves respectively. The third, Khaskhali block, is situated on the border of Chittagong and at
the intersection of the Chittagong and Rangamati roads (GOP 1964).
In this projecting and designing, the project aims were resettlement of Jhum cultivators
into mixed fruit cultivation as a mode of living as well as a strategy to control Jhum cultivation.
Thus, Jhum cultivation was banned in the protected forest areas of which 21, 277.7 acres were to
be planted with fast-growing softwood, and the remaining space (13, 948.9 acres) was to be
mixed fruit gardens. For the resettlement, participation and benefits were instituted and defined
in the law somewhat differently than those of the existing and past practices of taungya forestry
in the Reserved Forests: each Jhum cultivator family joining the project either by choice or by
force of the law would receive a piece of selected land for taungya cultivation to produce their
yearly food and vegetables, while planting and raising forests and mixed fruits trees under the
direction of the Forest Department. The family would also receive wages for working year-round
in the taungya plantation to supplement their income for the year, and had to work for at least
three years. The Forest Department was to keep the records of the areas of mixed fruit and forest
plantations for individual families of Jhum cultivators over the years. At the end of the project,
each Jhum cultivator family was to receive the settlement of equivalent areas of plantation in the
mixed fruit gardens for livelihood and income. Alternatively, any individual family of Jhum
cultivators who planted fruit trees in their cultivable Jhum lands and raised mixed fruit gardens
for five years would receive the land settlement of the mixed fruit gardens that had been planted
and raised (GOP 1964:16).
Nonetheless, the project did not do well in practice. It had only raised 1900 acres of forest
plantation and 2000 acres of mixed fruit plantation by 1967 when it got reframed and
programmed differently under a project called the Master Plan of Chittagong Hill Tracts
Development Project. The Master Plan project was based on a discourse know as “optimum land
use” that emerged from a state sponsored study of forests, land, soils, and water resources in
USF in 1967 for a twenty year periods (Forestal, 1966a, 1966b).The Master Plan project aimed
to bring as many as 200,000 families of Jhum cultivators under the Standard Agriculture Holding
(SAH) program, while raising half a million acres of forest by 1987; however, it only ran until
1972. During this period, it brought only 1702 families of Jhum cultivators under the SAH
program (ADB 1979: 64), and failed to begin the proposed forest plantation.16Nevertheless, as
we will show in the next section after 1975, at the conjuncture of insurgency and
counterinsurgency, that the discourse of optimum land use came to further prominence and
articulated with forest expansion through plantation programs and in turn further marginalizing
hill peoples and their customary rights to Jhum land.
Insurgency, Counter Insurgency and Land Conflicts
Notwithstanding the continuities and discontinuities of the British and Pakistan policies, what
spurred contemporary land conflicts in CHT are counter insurgency programs. As mentioned at
the outset, the counter insurgency war began in October of 1976 in response to an insurgency led
by the Shanti Bahini– an armed wing of Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS), the regional political party of
CHT (BA n. d.).Both insurgency and counterinsurgency continued up until 1997, leading not
only to militarization and violence in the region but also to mass displacement and land
16 The Master Plan project was drawn up by the East Pakistan Agricultural Development Corporation (EPADC),
which was renamed Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC). In 1974, the project was
transferred from BADC to HDB, Horticultural Development Board. Besides 6 acre plots, the SAH program
provided loans from the Agricultural Bank in cash and kind of TK. 5,500 to be repaid over 10 years with three years
of grace period at 8 percent interest. HDB was supposed to restart its program in 1974 but failed to do so, only to
begin again in late 1978 under the Development Board to be known as “Jothua Khamar” (collective farm), the very
first project of the Development Board. See ADB (1979); Mohsin (1997); and Haq (2000) for technical details of
Joutha Khamar and its critics.
alienation of the hill peoples. In the end, counter insurgency ends common property regime in
Beyond militarization and pacification, there were a number of counterinsurgency
programs (see CHT commissions 1991). In so doing, the government establish the Chittagong
Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB; hereafter, Development Board) – a regional
development authority – to plan, implement and coordinate ‘development’ in the CHT in 1976,
immediately following the formal declaration of the counterinsurgency. In terms of its
organizational link to the bureaucracy of the state, the Development Board was placed under the
control of the Cabinet Division, with the supervision of the chief executive of the government
(i.e., the Prime Minister or President, depending on the regime in power). At the regional level,
though the Development Board was initially run by civilian bureaucrats, the top executive
position was soon filled by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Chittagong Cantonment
and continued to be so until 1994. Significantly, the Development Board was granted an
unrestrained power for the acquisition of land in CHT and extra- constitutional legal immunity
for its actions (see GOBD 1976). Most importantly, in 1979 the government changed the land
law in CHT, namely the rules 34(1) of the Regulation of 1900, detailing a land distribution and
land lease policy anticipating the planned Bengali settlement and counterinsurgency
development programs (GOBD n. d.; see also Roy, D. 1998).
The key counter insurgency programs that have completely altered hill peoples’ land
rights and that largely contributed to the land conflict are state sponsored Bengali settlement and
development.17 Bengali settlement began in 1979 and continued up until 1985. By the time it was
ended an estimated total of 400,000 rural poor Bengalis – as many as 80, 000 families but no less
than 55,500 families – had settled across the CHT with each family receiving a land lease grant
of 11.5 acres in USF including 2.5 acres of plough land, with perpetuity of individual rights
(Chandra Roy, 114; Mohisin 1997:113; Ibrahim 2001:149). According to one estimate, this
17 The idea of development as a strategy of counter insurgency emerged as early as 1976 in a high level meeting
among the state authorities and bilateral and transnational donor agencies on the eve of full-scale insurgency (ADB
1979:1-2).This includes Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Ministry of Overseas Development (ODM) of the
U.K. Government, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the New Zealand Aid Programme,
United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund
(UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank
(WB) (see Arnes, 1997, for the roles of foreign aid in the militarization and development of CHT).
policy meant to alienate no less than half a million acres of lands and as many about a million
acres of land (Roy, C. 2000). Interestingly enough, majority of these Bengali families were
settled in and around Chakma’s chief circle in Khagrachhari and Rangamati districts,
predominantly inhabited by the Chakma. As noted in previous section, the Chakmas had already
been hit hard by Kaptai dam project, and also there had already been a crisis of plough land in
CHT, particularly in the territory of the Chakma (see also Sopher 1963; EPADC n. d.). So what
happened in ground and in practice was violent land grabbing by Bengali settlers and
dispossession of the hill peoples both from their legally owned lands as well from common Jhum
land. There were a number of ways in which the hill peoples had been dispossessed through
Bengali settlement programs. In early 1980s, it was due to random and arbitrary selection of
settlement zone by the state authority. For example, a military officer was quoted in saying the
following about Bengali settlement around the Kaptai Lake in the early 1980s:
“When the water engulfed the surrounding area then the tribals who had their lands close
to rivers, they automatically came to the shore of the lake. As for the government
documentation these lands were supposed to be government owned lands. They are not
individual properties. So when in 1979 and 1980the first settlement started then the
officials earmarked places for settlement which were not necessarily vacant. Many of
them were occupied by the tribals because after their land had gone submerged under the
water so they came close to the shore of the lake. So when this settlement took place the
tribals, they vacated the area. They went to the interior and the Bengalis came and settled
here. So from documentation on paper although the officials are right in saying that we
have settled them on our government land, in fact they are not, because it is occupied by
some other people. And I was saying that the settlement could have been organised in a
much better way had there been an understanding with the local tribal headmen and
karbaris (Sic)” (CHT Commission 1991:53).
However, the most common ways of dispossession were displacement through violence. There
were thirteen reported mass killings of hill peoples by Bangladesh security forces during the
1980s and 1990s, and all of them took place in Rangamati and Khagrachari districts leading to
displace as many as 200,000 hill peoples of which about 100,000 took refuge to India, and the
remaining other dispersed throughout CHT as internal refugees (see Levene 1999; CHT
Commission 1991). A Chakma refugee in the Indian state of Tripura is quoted as saying the
following about land dispossession and violence in 1986:“I lost my land [to Bengali settlers].
Settlers ... came with soldiers. [...] The whole village of 60 houses was burnt. After seeing this,
we ran through the jungles and eventually reached India...” (CHT Commission 1991:54). The
other important counterinsurgency program that also contributed to the land conflict and the
displacement of the hill peoples is “development.” Beyond more than a thousand of
infrastructural and community development schemes, the Development Board resettled about
6,500 families of hill peoples in order to discipline both the land and hill peoples, serving the
needs of counter insurgency for visible, ordered space (see Tables 3 and 4). As seen in Table 4,
there were 3,000 families with upland settlement projects; these schemes with industrial rubber
plantations alienated 12,000 acres of common Jhum land while providing each family between
1.5 and 2.5 acres of land for homestead and horticulture plantations. The remaining families
were resettled with Joutha Khamar Projects; each family was provided with 5 acres of land for
homestead and horticulture plantations. In contrast, the Development Board provided Bengali
private entrepreneurs with a lease of industrial land for commercial rubber production and
further alienated about 35,686 acres of USF land (as many as 1,427 plots, each plot about 25
acres) (Rasul 2009: 84-85, but compare JSS 2015). Most of these land grants of industrial rubber
plots were given to Dhaka-based businesses, civil and military officials and their kin members,
and at times, patrons (IWGIA 2012:22). Though the leases required the leaseholders to plant
rubber or other industrial crops, only a few did so until the Peace Accord of 1997; instead, they
used the land as an opportunity to acquire industrial loans from banks without developing the
lands, and at times they transferred the land to third parties (thereby violating the lease contract).
At the same time, the Forest Department in collaboration with the Development Board
and with the Bangladesh Security Forces implemented seven development schemes across the
Chittagong Hill Tracts for forest plantation and resettlement of hill peoples, alienating about
217,995 acres of common Jhum land. Nevertheless, all these resettlement schemes failed not
only to improve the economy and wealth of resettled communities but also failed to produce
permanently settled hill people villages. Within a few years of resettlement, almost all resettled
villages, particularly the Forest Department’s resettled villages were abandoned by the villagers;
the only and very partially successful resettled schemes were the Upland Resettlement Schemes
of the Development Board, which are kind of collective farms of industrial rubber production.
Table 3: Development Schemes of Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) during
the counterinsurgency, 1976- 1998 [US$ 1=TK 33.00 (1976) or TK 65.00 (1998)]
Sector of Development
Number of Schemes
Amount Spent (Taka)
Sports and Culture
514,851,000 (i.e., half a
billion in Bangladeshi
Source: CHTDB 1998.
Table 4: Resettlement Projects by Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) during
the counter insurgency, 1976- 1997(2000)
Name of the Projects
(Number of Families)
JouthaKarmar (Collective Farming) Schemes
Upland Settlement Project (Phase I)
Upland Settlement Project (Phase II)
Source: ADB 1979;CHTDB n. d.; 1999.
In turn, all these resettlement schemes, along with Bengali settlement and industrial land
lease for Bengali entrepreneurs, have wiped out Jhum land in most parts of Unclassed State
Forest (USF) areas, which had previously been the common land of hill peoples. In lands and
forests of USF, there emerged an individual property regime on the one hand, and absolute state
property regime of forest on the other, resulting in a large number of the hill peoples as internal
refugees, who were forced to live in the Reserved Forests under the military.
The CHT (Peace) Treaty and Land Conflicts
The Peace Treaty of 1997 that provides way forward to end the armed insurgency and counter
insurgency in CHT recognizes the violation of hill peoples’ land rights and land alienation during
the insurgency by the state and Bengalis. Significantly, the Peace Treaty includes a number of
provisions aimed at the protection of land rights of the indigenous peoples and measures to
address the large scales land dispossession suffered by the indigenous peoples. In so doing the
Peace Treaty reconstitutes three Hill District Local Government Councils as Hill District
Councils (HDCs) with power to supervise state acquisition of land as well as the transfer, sell,
and lease of land. The Clause A-26 of the Peace Treaty reads:
“a) Notwithstanding anything contained in law for the time being in force, no land within
the boundaries of the Hill District[s] shall be given in settlement, purchased, sold and
transferred including giving lease without prior approval of the [Hill District] Council[s],
provided that this provision shall not be applicable in [the land] areas within reserved
forests, Kapati-Hydroelectricity project, Bethbunia Earth Satellite Station, State-owned
industries and factories [as well as] land recorded in the name of [the] government;
b) Notwithstanding anything contained in law for the time being in force, no lands, hills
and forests within the boundaries of the Hill District[s] shall be acquired and transferred
by the government without consultation and consent of the Hill District Council[s];
c) The [Hill District] Council[s] may supervised and control the functions of Headman,
Chairman, Amin [chainmen], Surveyor, Kanugo and Assistant Commissioner [Upazila
d) Fringe Land in Kaptai Lake shall be given settlement ... to [the] original owner [on
In 1998, the government amended the Hill District Local Government Councils Acts and made
these provision laws, The section 64 of the Hill District Council acts reads: “no lands may be
settled, lease out, compulsorily acquisitioned, mortgaged or otherwise transferred without the
expressed concern of HDCs”. However, the government has yet to transfer the function of land
and land management to the Hill District Councils (JSS 2015). Nevertheless, we believe when
the power of land authority is transferred to the HDCs, these councils will be most powerful
institutions of the land administration in spite of their power of Deputy Commissioners in land
administration who control the land in all practical purposes.
Similarly, the Peace Treaty also includes a provision for a commission to settle land
disputes. In June 3, 1999, the government formed the Land Dispute Settlement Commission
headed by a retired justice. According to Clause D- 4 of the Peace Treaty, the Commission will
have the authority to cancel ownership of the land that has been “illegally occupied and settled”.
The Commission’s decision on the dispute will be final and no one can appeal against the
decision of the Commission. However, conflicts arose between the JSS and the government as
the government unilaterally passed the law concerning the land commission in 2001 (Chittagong
Hill Tracts Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act of 2001) without consultation with the
Regional Council, violating the CHT treaty’s provisions. Since then, the commission was
reconstituted five times without any progress on the issues, as the JSS claimed the law grossly in
contradiction with the land provisions of the Peace Treaty and demanded major revisions in the
law. Nonetheless, lately, on January 9 2015, the JSS and the government agreed on 13 point
amendments in the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act of 2001
and it is highly likely the bill will be passed in the 2016 winter session of the Parliament.
In spite of these recent developments, we contend the scope and work of the Commission
cannot do justice sufficiently to the land issues and land problems in CHT, particularly to the
marginal communities of CHT such as Bawm,Chak, Khyang, Khumi, Mizo, Mro, Pankho, and
Tanchangya as well as the majority of rural communities of Chakma, Marma and Tripura who
were and still are overwhelmingly Jhum cultivating peasant communities. In part this is because
the legal mandate of the Commission is to cancel the land settlement only if the settlement is
made without due consideration of the law, customs and conventions in CHT, and to restore the
“ownership” of an evicted land owner. It is also because much of area of the CHT was common
land used by the hill peoples without legal land settlement or as customs for Jhum (slash and
burn) cultivation. Moreover, the large areas of USF land that being taken by the government, in
particular by the forest department during the counterinsurgency and various government
agencies including Bangladesh Army and other security forces is beyond the scope of the power
of the Commission.
Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
In this report, we have provided a comprehensive and critical analysis of the land problem in
Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), in particular on the origins and development of land management,
land rights and tenancy system. We have showed that pre-colonial Chittagong Hill Tracts was a
frontier space inhabited by a number of hill peoples groups who arrived there because of ethnic
conflicts and war among traditional states of Bengal, Arakan (Burma) and Tripura and had
remained as such even up until 1860 when British occupied CHT in the state of Bengal. Until
then, the region had remained a frontier space and small scale societies based on common
property and Jhum cultivation (slash and burn) of which the Chakma and Marma chiefs were
prominent local chiefs who collected some kind of “Jhum tax” from their kinsmen, but paid
tribute instead of tax to the British government of Bengal following Mughal traditions. It was
only with the British occupation of the CHT, the region came under a direct control of the state;
a civil society and the state administration were built on law and local customs.
We have argued that land problems in CHT are fundamentally rooted in the state-making
in CHT during the British rule and in British colonial policies of land, particularly in the absence
of “private property” right. This was in part because of the ecology of the region, which was
most part a terrain of hills crisscrossed by rivers and was only a few patches of plain land around
the valleys. This was also because of British interest in forests of CHT: CHT was made in its
entirety a forest land, of which one forth areas were reserved forests, an absolute of property of
the state. With the exception of plough land, the remaining areas— the Unclassified State Forests
—were also the property of the state regulated by the traditional administration under the state
bureaucracy, namely the Deputy Commissioner while recognizing the customary rights of the
hill peoples for Jhum cultivation. In plough land, the British recognized various individual
property rights and tenancy including the rights to inheritance, sell, mortgage, and transfer.
We have shown that in 1960s during the Pakistani rule, land crisis in CHT began because
of the Kaptai-Hydroelectric project inundating 40 percent of the plough-land in CHT. However,
the land conflict in CHT emerge with Bangladesh rule in CHT, in particular with
counterinsurgency programs and violence through Bengali settlements, expansion of reserved
forests and Bengali commercial interests in land.
Notwithstanding historical nature of the causes of the land problem, contemporary land
problem in CHT is the result of state policy which fundamentally suspects the loyalty of the hill
peoples to the sovereignty of the state. We wish to argue that the land problem CHT is in fact the
problem of the art of government and their rationalities that is, how to govern, by whom, to what
extent, with what rights and on what principles and ethics. Put differently, the strategies of the
Bangladesh rule in CHT are the control of land and resources through ethnic Bengali population
as well as the state bureaucracies of the Forest and the civil administration, while marginalizing
the hill peoples through militarization and violence. Therefore, what is needed the most on the
question of land problem is a policy decision of the state on the strategies of the government as
to how the state wishes to secure its territory and sovereignty: to the extent in which it be
military and violence, or the control of the resources through ethnic Bengali and /or the state
The Peace Treaty recognizes the political nature of the land problem, but shows
dilemmas on the policies of governance. We found Pakistani policies in dealing with the land
crisis through de-reservation of part of the Kassalong Reserve aftermath the Kaptai dam as a
good policy example to reconsider. A recent research finds that the Forest Department now
controls almost 30 percent of total land areas of the CHT. The old reserved forests such as
Kassalong, Renikhyong, Matamuhuri and Sangu which contains one-fourth of the CHT have
remained inaccessible since the British rule and are now in fact entirely deforested. In part, they
are in most part controlled by the Bangladesh securities forces, while occupied by are a large
number of internally displaced hill people communities (see Chowdhury 2014).
Therefore, we submit that the land problem in CHT is not simply a problem of land
conflicts between the hill peoples and Bengalis or the issues of land rights and ownership, nor is
it simply a problem of human and constitutional rights of the hill peoples. It is a complex
historical problem of policies of colonialism and governance in CHT and thus it requires a
comprehensive review of the Regulation 1900 in the light of the constitution of Bangladesh and
national and internal human rights. We have several short and long term recommendations to
solve the land problem in CHT. Considering short terms intervention, we strongly recommend
i) The full implementation of the Peace Treaty, in particular the transfer of the
function of the government related to the land to the Hill District Councils as
agreed upon in the CHT Treaty;
ii) Immediately pass the Bill of the Amended of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land
Dispute Settlement Commission Act of 2001 to make the Land Dispute
Settlement Commission a functional one; and,
iii) Amendment of the existing laws and regulations concerning land and land rights
such as the Regulation of 1900, the Forest Act of 1927, the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Land Acquisition Regulation 1958, and the District Councils Acts of 1989 in
accordance with provision of the Articles of 13, 28 and 42 of the constitution of
Bangladesh in order to provide with the security of the rights of land property.
With regards to long term policy, we recommend a policy review of colonial policy and
current rationalities of forest conservation to control 30 percent of land in CHT. We also strongly
recommend a land reform commission in CHT much like the land reform policies and the action
of plan for the plain land districts since 1970s to recommend land policy and action plan on land
ownership, Khas land distribution, and land ceiling (see Barakat et al. 2001). However, we
recognize the issue of Bengali settlers and their status in CHT are also central to any solutions to
the land problem in CHT, and there is a clear need of political and policy dialogue between the
government and JSS on the issue of Bengali settlers to determine their future status in CHT.
To conclude, we hope our discussion of the land problems brings clarity not only to the
root of the land conflict but will also show ways to solve the land conflict in CHT. We submit in
an era defined by concerns over food security, environmental sustainability, stubborn cycles of
poverty and a global rush for farmland, secure rights to land for the world’s small farmers,
particularly indigenous or tribal population is of critical not only for the survival of the
indigenous peoples themselves but also for the peace and responsibility of humanity of the
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