The song a young Santal woman sings

Syed Badrul Ahsan hears hearts crack in the hills

Bangladesher Biponno Adivasi
Sanjeeb Drong
Nawroze Kitabistan
Sanjeeb Drong writes with quiet passion and with a lot of nostalgia. The loss of heritage, the disappearance of land that was home is a theme that recurs in this work of intense devotion. But, then, Drong is not alone in the way he feels. Anyone who has watched the gradual assaults that have been made on the way, or ways, of life that Bangladesh's indigenous people or adivasis have suffered through since the British colonial period will empathise with him. His is not a partisan view of conditions. That he belongs to one of the tribes which have found Bangladesh to be home for long generations is a truth that does not mar the quality of the essays he presents in this work. There is, of course, anger in him as he narrates the tale of the tribal girl from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a young woman forced by poverty to take the road to the city. It is in the putatively secure confines of domestic employment in that urban centre that her virginity is taken from her.

Yes, Drong is angry, but in a way that suggests a sense of resignation. The fate of the tribes dotting this country --- the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras and others --- concerns him as it does a whole swathe of others in Bangladesh. These accounts that the writer presents in Bangladesher Biponno Adivasi obviously range across a period of years when Drong contributed articles to some newspapers. Read them against the more recent facts of what has been happening to the nation's tribals. The crisis, a shameful affair, that erupted over plans to construct an eco park in Madhupur during the period of the BNP-led alliance government and thereby deprive the adivasis in the region of their claims to their traditional mode of living are all too well known. And if it is, should one be surprised? One need only consider the matter of the national park on the outskirts of the nation's capital, a spot of earth that today is home to thousands of eager picnic seekers in winter. The history of the park, though, is a tale of deprivation. Beginning in 1956 and continuing all the way to 1962, the government cordoned off, in blatant manner, 40 square miles of land inhabited by the Garo people to build the park. Those adivasis were of course pushed out of their homes; and the homes quickly turned into tales of what had been. Curiously, though, the authorities took care to see that the 15 square mile area where Bengalis resided did not come under the plans for a national park.

Drong narrates the long tales of repression Bangladesh's adivasis have historically seen foisted on them. The fact that no government, in that patent sense of the meaning, has moved to preserve the adivasi heritage, keeps him riveted to the job of pointing out incessantly on what needs to be done. Faced with the calamity that is national parks and eco parks and constant witness to a brazen occupation of tribal land, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are fast becoming strangers in their own habitat. Indigenous people everywhere have never subjected themselves to the quirkiness of laws where possession of land is concerned. The earth has been their home since the beginning of time. Ironically, the arrival of modern government has epitomised a gradual shrinking of that home. They do not have papers to stake their claim to land that has been theirs for generations. That makes it easy for governments to step in and claim the hills and valleys in the interest of development. The strange case of the Kaptai lake in the Ayub Khan era remains a ready reference to the continuity of injustice perpetrated on Bangladesh's adivasis. In the case of the Chakmas, the tale has been a grim one. In 1947, as the partition of India became a reality, they happily hoisted the Indian tricolour in the belief that they were to be part of the new Indian republic. A day later came the rude realisation that they had been lumped into Muslim Pakistan. That was when their long suffering took root.

There are the individual pains that Drong speaks of in his essays. Leafing through the documents of the Tribal Welfare Association, he stumbles into the disturbing episode of how conspiracy nearly undermined tribal tradition in a Netrokona village in 1986. In the matriarchal society that adivasis profess fealty to, a young Garo woman Suchitra Sangma runs into difficulties when her sibling Poritosh, in league with his Muslim friends intent on laying claims to his ancestral land, embraces the Islamic faith and demands that the rights of property be handed over to him. After all, under Muslim inheritance laws, it is men who hold sway. Poritosh convinces his parents to become Muslims as well. The result is uproar in the Garo community, endless legal wrangles and family bitterness. By the time the whole sordid episode draws to an end, Suchitra Sangma has won the battle, even getting her parents back into the tribe. But by then, a considerable part of the land that had been in the possession of the family has been lost.

A retelling of history, of the forgotten aspects of it, is what Sanjeeb Drong presents in these essays. Time and again he draws attention to the various tribal revolts that broke out in British colonial times. There were, of course, the rather well known Santal and Munda rebellions. But not many will be aware of how events were shaped by a tribal revolt along the banks of the Godavari in Madras between 1878 and 1880. Already battered by a famine, the Rumpa tribe found itself victim to new predatory activities by the colonial administration. In need of money to finance their wars in Afghanistan, the colonial authorities thought that nothing would so benefit them as an imposition of taxes on the tribals. That was the beginning. In the two years that the revolt went on, the Rumpas under the leadership of Chandria constantly harassed the British and would have continued doing so had Chandria not eventually lost his life.

Sanjeeb Drong travels through the villages and hamlets where Bangladesh's adivasis eke out a bare existence. On one of his journeys, through a Santal village named Mundumala, somewhere between Rajshahi and Nachol, he hears a young tribal woman sing a poignant song, 'What if the night ends, to tell us that Bangabandhu did not die?' The writer wonders if this young man, in the care of missionaries, comprehends the full import of her song. And then he asks if the adivasis would have felt as helpless as they do had Bangabandhu lived on.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.