Saturday, 2 March 2013

Chakma Chief Tridev Roy and Bengali nationalism

I recently came across this article reviewing the life and career of Raja Tridev (or Tridiv) Roy, the Chakma leader who sided with the Pakistan regime during the 1971 war, written shortly after Roy's death in 2012. The writer, Syed Badrul Ahsan (a staunch supporter of Shahbag and what it stands for) reproaches Tridev Roy for not supporting the liberation struggle and failing to recognise the "genocide" that the Pakistani army carried out. In the words of Ahsan,

Throughout the terror-driven months of 1971, Tridiv Roy saw little reason to condemn the Pakistan army over the genocide it had launched against the Bengalis. He honestly believed that the Chakmas stood a better chance, where acquiring political rights were concerned, with Pakistan staying intact than with a soon-to-be Bangladesh. In late 1971, as General Yahya Khan went ahead (and he did not see the writing on the wall) with drafting a constitution for a Pakistan that was rapidly coming to an end in its eastern province, he reassured Tridiv Roy about a grant of autonomy to the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. The Chakma chief believed him and probably supposed that that indeed was what would happen. Surprisingly, he did not foresee Pakistan's impending doom. 

...once the Pakistan army took recourse to genocide, it became the moral responsibility of every inhabitant of Bangladesh to resist Pakistan. Tridiv Roy did not resist.

This reflects a general trend of Bangladeshi nationalist narratives of 1971; anyone who was sympathetic to the idea of attempting to maintain a unified Pakistan is seen as a quisling and morally defective, even if there may have been legitimate political motives and justifications for such a position. In the case of Tridev Roy, the motive seems to have been the expectation of greater autonomy for the tribal people of East Pakistan, as well as a mistrust of Awami League's Bengali nationalist agenda. In addition, Roy accuses the Bengali nationalists of committing atrocities against his people; the accusations are dismissed by Ahsan as 'mere hearsay' - rather ironic, given that hearsay is acceptable as evidence against alleged war criminals in the International Crimes Tribunal:

In the case of Tridiv Roy, as his memoirs make it clear, there did not appear to be a genocide at all. He says little or nothing about the conspiracy by the generals and the West Pakistani political establishment to undermine the majority party elected in December 1970. But he does go into a narration of what he calls the rampant killing of Chakmas by the Mukti Bahini in the first few days of the armed conflict. It is all based on hearsay. At a time when Bengalis all over the land were scrambling for shelter in the face of an advancing marauding army, they would have had no time to kill. Tridiv Roy disappoints on this score.

In this manner, the legitimacy of Tridiv Roy's political position is undermined - the Bengali nationalists could not have possibly massacred his people, and there is therefore no way of viewing the nationalists as morally equivalent (if not on the same scale) to the murderous West Pakistani military. Hence, it was an obligation on Tridiv Roy to support the liberation struggle, and his failure to do so is a despicable act of betrayal. One wonders whether Ahsan would make the same argument about Biharis, who had every political argument for supporting a unified Pakistan and who were massacred in large numbers by Bengali nationalists even before the Pakistani army started committing atrocities. Was it morally incumbent upon them too to support the Mukti Bahini?

As for Tridiv Roy, this is how he viewed the events of 1971 one year later:

The principle of autonomy was accepted in both wings of Pakistan after the electoral victory of the Awami League. The difference, however, arose over the quantum of autonomy demanded and its implications for the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan. This was a political and constitutional problem which could have been resolved through political accomodation and agreement. The generals failed to grasp this essential fact and instead attempted to impose a military solution. But, even a basic military analysis of the situtation should have shown the untenability of the action that was taken in East Pakistan. The province was geographically surrounded by a historically hostile and more powerful neighbour, and the crisis was too good an opporunity for it to overlook. 

(speech at meeting organised at the Pakistan Council of Asia Society, New York, 1972)

Thus Tridiv Roy blames the military regime of Yahya Khan for the failure of 1971. The generals understood no language other than force - and Tridev Roy would presumably concede that large scale atrocities were committed by the Pakistani army during the war (although he does not in this particular speech) - but the question is whether that is reason enough to have stopped supporting the idea of a unified Pakistan under civilian rule. From a Bengali nationalist point of view, the answer - especially in hindsight - is a resounding yes. From the point of view of a Chakma, the issue is a lot more complex - here are a people who would most gladly have been autonomous or independent from both Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh, but since they could not realistically achieve that aim, they had to resort to playing political games with regimes of both countries and siding with whoever they expected would best support their own interests. In the case of the Biharis (who had absolutely no reason to support Bengali nationalism) and Jamaat-e-Islaami (whose ideological principles were averse to the idea of a dismembered Pakistan), the support of a unified Pakistan was a natural political decision.

In many ways, the mistrust of Tridev Roy towards Bengali nationalism was justified. The history of the Chakma people under consecutive post-independence governments is that of repression and exploitation - a topic that deserves a separate future post. The irony of this is inescapable, given the long history of denial of rights to Bengalis of East Pakistan which ultimately led to their secession and establishment of Bangladesh. On the other hand, history is replete with many examples of multiple layers of colonialism existing in parallel. It is enough to think of the United Colonies of North America under British rule where Americans were struggling for "independence" while oppressing native Americans; or modern day Israel in which the Ashkenazi Jews stand at the top of the colonial power structure that discriminates against the Mizrahim, both of which in turn violate the rights of the "native" Palestinan below them.

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