A TRIBUTE TO INDIGENOUS FEMINIST KALPANA CHAKMA ON 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF HER DISAPPEARANCE
THE keyword of my search was ‘national election in Bangladesh’. The top line of Google results, in response to my search, appeared as “Bangladeshi general election, June 1996. The Seventh National Parliamentary Elections 1996 (Bengali: সপ্তম জাতীয় সংসদ নির্বাচন ১৯৯৬) were held in Bangladesh on 12 June 1996. The result was a victory for the Bangladesh Awami League, which won 146 of the 300 seats. Voter turnout was 75.6%, the highest to date.”
Information and description of the success of general election held on June 12, 1996 continued in the following pages. What is striking is that the line that I was searching for, a missing woman who was abducted by state security force on the night of the general election, has been totally missing from the page of General Election 1996. Confused I went to search again with a keyword ‘Bangladesh profile’, but found nothing on the very incident of a missing woman whose outrageous abduction and disappearance, on the night of a historical general election, has turned me into an academic from an activist. Stubborn I continued the search on the profile of my homeland, for hours, and realised, at the end of the day, that the lines about uncompromising Chakma feminist does not ‘virtually’ exist. The crucial lines about Kalpana Chakma are meant to be missing from the profile of the whole of Bangladesh.
This is not a shocking or new fixation. It is a reality, instead. In the context of a world secured by various peace-forces after the armed conflicts, this is the commonly accepted reality across the world. Iraqi peace activist and feminist-sociologist at SOAS, Professor Nadje Al-Ali, would call it a ‘truth’ to be abolished in order to reinstate democracy and gender equality. But doubtful I sit and try to rethink would it be ever possible to regain democracy in a state that began its journey with a constitution which disregards the rights of the ethnic minority populations? Many more questions arise. How was it made possible to remove the whole tragic phenomenon so harshly from the general profile of Bangladesh? Who was behind a stretched dark event on a landmark night in the history of the nation? How could the nation accept this brutal reality when an election was held to strengthen democracy?
Despite the significance of the General Election 1996 as a historical momentum, to those who thought that democracy was necessary and democracy in Bangladesh would be possible, June 12 has marked important to the whole heart of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As an undergraduate student and a feminist activist at that time, I was personally committed to help the Election Commission in counting votes, delivering a prompt service and neutral result of the election to which the whole nation awaited. That night I was serving the nation of Bangladesh as a loyal volunteer of Dhaka University Scouts. After a sleepless and hard-working long evening when I returned home at nine o’clock in the morning, the daily newspapers have already reached out to the nationals, across the nation, that were eager to read news of election. The incident of the notorious abduction of an uncompromising female activist with her two living bothers from her own home was, as it appeared, less important to the majority of the nation. Only a small segment of progressive activists expressed willingness to discuss the matter. Others remained silent and did not want to know more — let alone speak.
Two decades have passed since. So many stories have gone around the gendered phenomenon over the past years which cruelly ruled out the topic of a crucial investigation as relevant. Instead of conducting investigation more lives were taken away as they protested at the outrageous disappearance of a fearless Hill woman activist. The problem is not merely military. It is actually that of the misogynist approach of the civic nation that cannot see how Kalpana’s disappearance can be a national shame.
As I write this piece, the phrase that June 12 marks the 20th anniversary of Kalpana Chakma’s abduction sounds ostracised to a nation that fought against the culture of impunity before my birth in 1971. Unfortunately, since the day of the independence all we have seen is an ongoing process of reinstating the same culture of impunity that the nation was meant to fight. The process has been strengthened over the course of democratic fights as misogyny of a civic nation was juxtaposed, heinously, with impunity.
Instead of undertaking investigation into the gendered phenomenon, the continuum of gendered violence in the region, under peace-force, has been aggravated through gang rapes and sexual abuse of women at daylight. During my fieldwork of a completed doctoral research on ‘gender and armed conflict’ in the CHT, I was told by the additional district commissioner in Khagrachari that there have been some ‘isolated incidents on militarised violence against women’. He would not comment on these or Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance because, in his words, ‘these are matters to be dealt by peace-force’. Nevertheless, he ruled out the chances for Kalpana’s return.
What he implied is that he was out of power as he was made up to chair an administrative body who would sit and listen to how brutal the sounds of militarised violence are. I was even prohibited to speak to Kalpana’s family and was forced to return from Khagrachari with incomplete data. The research is still open to add more data and further research on gender and armed conflict in Bangladesh.
Whilst some may find it obsessive of a researcher to bring back unpleasant stories in national life, the story needs to be told and revisited as long as the misogyny of the nation exists. We may not be able to bring back Kalpana but we ought to continue the discussion that is so crucial for minority rights, for women’s rights, for democracy and justice within the nation. The nation ought to revisit the failing and chauvinism that stood as a national shame and that prohibits social justice in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and elsewhere. It is time to both reveal and overcome the misogyny of the so-called civic nation that submits to, instead of recognising, the culture of impunity.