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Protest, political terror and personal life

by Bina D’Costa, 12 June 2011

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New Age (Bangladesh)

A Candle is burning softly. Instead of lighting up the room, it changes the atmosphere. There is an eerie feeling everywhere. The room looks almost like a shrine, with Kalpana’s photographs, some prayer scrolls and some of her belongings next to the bamboo partition. Kalpana is nowhere. She is not dead, she is not alive, she has simply disappeared.

The room is in New Lallyaghona village in the Rangamati district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. June 12, 1996—it was the day of the national election in Bangladesh, an occasion marking/celebrating democracy. Yet, the CHT was under occupation. In some ways, it still is. Democracy is not the rule of the game here. People pay terrible price here for speaking up, for resisting tyranny, and for simply struggling for their right to exist.

Kalpana Chakma, the organising secretary of the CHT Hill Women’s Federation, was abducted from her home. We are familiar with some scattered recollections forming a patchwork of Kalpana’s last moments. Let us remember that Kalpana, along with her two brothers, Khudiram and Kalicharan, were forcibly taken from their home, from in front of their terrified mother, Badhuni Chakma. They were blindfolded and their hands were tied. Ain O Salish Kendra and Amnesty International documented how the brothers were shot at but how they managed to escape. Kalpana’s screams, Dah Dah Mare Baja (brother, brother save me…), still haunt Kalicharan. The leader of the plainclothes security personnel was identified as Lieutenant Ferdous, commander of the Kojoichari army camp, last we have heard of him, he was promoted as major and posted at the Karengatoli army camp, which is close to New Lallyaghona. Where is he now? Where are the other perpetrators?

Let us take a step back and look at this from a comparative perspective. The term ‘dirty war’ is used to articulate state-sponsored terror campaigns and repression in order to suppress suspected civilian resistance (Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, 1987). The military junta itself described the repression as dirty war in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 when many activists had ‘disappeared’ and children forcibly removed from their parents. Various regimes in different parts of the globe have routinely used forced disappearances, torture, executions as techniques of dirty war. These violent techniques were employed to maintain fear and state control over communities that are considered threats.

State violence against political activists also has a gender dimension. Through arrest and forced disappearance; abuse; forced marriages; sexual violence and rape as punishment for their own political activities women experience various forms of torture. In her description of torture by the military regimes in Latin America, Ximena Bunster (1993) suggests that one of the most terrorising kinds of arrest takes place when the woman is at home with her family. She writes, ‘the violent military operation, envisioned only for the most dangerous criminals in countries with stable democracies, is carried out by … a large group of soldiers who come in two or three vehicles and surround the house…They carry… weapons. If any resistance is offered, there is an official housebreaking and search of the home, accompanied by the destruction of furniture, the ripping of mattresses, and the armed intimidation of all the people who are in the house at the moment. This inhuman and cowardly action takes place at night- all reports place such action between midnight and 3.00am.’ Kalpana was abducted around 1:30am.

Women have also been tortured for political activities of the male members of their families and punished to communicate messages of fear to their communities. Through culturally defined messages of humiliation, women political activists have been characterised as ‘crazy’, ‘whores’, ‘immoral’ and ‘devious’. They are condemned for stepping outside their homes unlike the ‘good mothers’ and demanding their rights. The Bangladeshi state attempted to manipulate public opinion through the portrayal of a ‘deceitful’ Kalpana. There were claims that she staged her own abduction; she was having a relationship with Ferdous and left with him voluntarily; or that she was happily settled in India.

Another common tactic of dirty war is to break political activists (both women and men) by threatening them with abuse of their children and other family members. Forced marriages of young girls from the CHT who belong to the families of activists have been widely documented by human rights organisations. Ordinary men and women are repeatedly harassed and beaten in front of their children in various check points, in public places and in the familiar /private spaces such as their homes, tearing down the norms of social, familial structures. All that exists after these kinds of manipulations is a thick fog of humiliation and fear.

In the case of Latin America, human rights groups began to form resistance around the issue of political disappearances. During the Seventies and Eighties, many people who disappeared in the region were representatives of political parties, trade unionists, teachers, students, leaders of cultural groups and members of the minority communities. While individual actions or filing complaints proved to be ineffective, families of the disappeared united through networks. The Chilean Association of the Detained/Disappeared, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Comadres of El Salvador and the Group for Mutual Support in Guatemala are some of the well-known state-based groups. The Latin American Federation of the Detained-Disappeared (FEDEFAM) was formed in 1981 to collectively respond to the illegal abductions carried out by twelve Latin American governments.

While no such strong uniformed networks exist in the CHT (or in the South Asian region for that matter) to protest disappearances and kidnappings, political parties from the CHT, and human rights and women’s networks have become the Bangladeshi government’s most outspoken and visible critics. For more than a decade now, cultural, political and religious events commemorate Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance and demand that the state takes action against the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, sex disaggregated data on disappearances and abduction is unavailable from Bangladesh. Also, while data is available on sexual and gender based violence, most of the international human rights bodies such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do not offer sex disaggregated data on kidnappings, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Women’s political activism often is unrecognised and undervalued. It is generally assumed that men are usually targeted for their political views and leadership, affiliations and gender while women and girls are abducted to punish the male family members or to perpetrate sexual and gender based violence against them. One of the consequences of such assumptions is manifested in women’s exclusion from official peace negotiations. No woman leader from the CHT participated in a formal capacity in the dialogues that culminated in the 1997 Accord. The gender-blind accord did not even recognise the physical threats faced by women and by children in the CHT.

However, we must also note that Kalpana now occupies a place beyond a gendered space in the society. Her political activism, personal life and ultimate disappearance are more than a narrative of just one female political activist. She has now become the face of resistance in the CHT.

Kalpana had once written in her diary, ‘When a lone caged bird wants to fly away, does it mean that she longs just for her own freedom? Do those who already know the freedom of the skies have to be caged? If she realises that she is trapped in this cage, it would be natural for her to express her anger towards those who have confined her. She doesn’t belong here, she has every right to reach for the limitless freedom of the skies’ (Kalpana Chakma’r Diary, Hill Women’s Federation edited, Dhaka: Srabon, 2001, p 20, translated by the author).

I wonder if she is writing about her life as a woman in a patriarchal society, as a refugee who had to cross a border or as a political activist whose struggle was against the state. Perhaps, she is talking about all different kinds of oppression. She represents many histories, countless faces and many different resistance movements.

There are so many unresolved questions. And the horrifying reality remains, for Kalpana, her family, community and for Bangladesh. Kalpana was subjected to state terror and was forcibly disappeared. Instead of teaching a lesson to others who dared to speak up against the oppression of the state, carried out by the army, the terror tactic backfired. Kalpana became a symbol of resistance. She has disappeared but her voice is still loud and clear. We can hear her call for freedom.

Bina D’Costa is a security analyst, at the Australian National University.