Chakma Community of Bangladesh – By Willem Van Schendel

Chakmas, The the largest ethnic group of Bangladesh. They also call themselvesChangmas. They are concentrated in the central and northern parts of thechittagong hill tracts where they live amidst several other ethnic groups. Exact population figures are lacking but the most reliable estimates put their number at 140,000 in 1956 and 230,000 in 1981. According to the 1991 population census, there were about 253,000 Chakmas. More than 90 percent of them are concentrated in rangamati and khagrachhari districts. About 100,000 Chakmas also live in India, particularly in the states of Arunachal, Mizoram and Tripura. Small groups have settled in other countries as well.

The first written reference to Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts dates from about 1550 AD when the Portuguese map maker Lavanha indicated on the earliest surviving map of Bengal that Chakmas lived in a settlement on the karnafuli river.

Two main theories have been put forward about the earlier history of Chakmas. Both assume that they migrated to their present homeland. The most convincing theory links Chakmas with central Myanmar and arakan, and with groups such as the Sak (ChakThek) who live in the Chittagong hills and Arakan. The other theory, for which historical evidence is lacking, assumes that Chakmas migrated to the Chittagong hills from Champaknagar in northern India. In the late eighteenth century, Chakmas were found not only in the Chittagong Hill Tracts but also in other hilly areas of the present-day districts of chittagong and cox’s bazar.

Chakma woman in traditional Dress

It was only after the annexation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the British (1860) and the promulgation of rules, which forbade hill agriculture (jhum, shifting cultivation) in Chittagong district that these Chakma cultivators (and other hill cultivators such as themarma) moved east to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the precolonial period, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had not been part of any state, although they had long been influenced by the waxing and waning of power centres in Tripura (to the north), Arakan (to the south) and Bengal (to the west). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Mughal empire collected tribute (cotton) from the area through local intermediaries. One of the most prominent of these intermediaries was the Chakma chief residing in an elevated landmass in the Karnafuli river channel. His family had considerable landholdings in the plains of Chittagong, ie, inside Mughal territory, and resided in rangunia.

When the British took control of the plains in the mid-eighteenth century, they continued the arrangement, and when they annexed the Chittagong hills a century later, they made the Chakma chief responsible for tax collection in the central region of the new possession. Two other chiefs were made responsible for the southern part (theBohmong chief) and the northern part (the Mong chief). The Chakma chief, now a colonial grandee endowed with the personal title of raja and some of the trappings of indirect rule, moved to Rangamati, the capital of the new district which the British named Chittagong Hill Tracts. The colonial tax system also gave new powers to old functionaries at the local level (talukdardewankhisa) which came to form the Chakma gentry. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation of 1900 formalised this system and also stressed the fact that the area, though administered from calcutta, was not a regular part of Bengal.

In 1906, a hydroelectric project was proposed to be built, using the flow of the water in the Karnafuli river. But it was not until the 1950s that the plan took shape and a large hydroelectric project was commissioned at kaptai, a riverside village close to Rangamati. When the Kaptai dam was completed in 1960, a big lake formed in the Karnafuli valley, flooding many villages and leading to the great exodus (or Bara Parang, as the Chakmas call it). About 100,000 people are thought to have fled the waters, most of them Chakmas. Many settled elsewhere in the district, including reserved forest areas, but in 1964, tens of thousands sought refuge in India.

Chakmas felt that their grievances were not taken seriously by the authorities, first in Pakistan and then in Bangladesh. This led to an armed conflict between the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts) founded in 1972, and the Bangladesh armed forces. The PCJSS, led mainly by Chakmas, signed a peace agreement with the Bangladesh government in 1997.

Chakma king Bhuban Mohan Roy in ceremonial dress

Traditionally, the Chakma lifestyle was closely linked with hill agriculture or shifting cultivation (jum in Chakma and jhum in Bengali). Living in settled villages, they would cultivate plots on surrounding hills for some years, then leave them fallow to recuperate naturally. Chakmas also cultivated land in river valleys. They had a well-developed system of land rights, which differed sharply from those in the plains (see land tenure).

According to early observers, the living standard of cultivators in the Chittagong hills was relatively high. ricecotton and vegetables were important crops. The bamboowas essential as building material. The bamboo had so many other uses that the Chakma lifestyle has been described as a ‘bamboo civilisation’. In the colonial period, social differentiation grew as an elite developed, basing its lifestyle on a share of the government tax and on educational achievements. In the twentieth century, population growth made hill cultivation more problematic mainly because fallow periods had to be shortened – and more Chakmas had to find non-agricultural jobs.

Their problem was intensified by the government policy of transmigration. From the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of poor Bengali lowland cultivators were brought to the Chittagong hills under military protection. Land scarcity increased sharply, and Chakmas (and other hill people) saw their lifestyle threatened further. Many were forced into low-income wage labour (e.g. on new rubber plantations); over 50,000 fled their country and lived on doles in refugee camps in Tripura (India) from 1986 till their repatriation in 1998.

Chakmas distinguish themselves from surrounding groups by their language. Although there are indications that Chakmas used to speak a Tibeto-Burman language, their present language is Indo-European. It is closely related in structure to Chittagonian Bengali from which it differs by a distinct vocabulary. Most Chakmas are bilingual and speak Chakma and Bengali; many know other regional languages as well. The Chakma language has its own script, although today this is not commonly used and Chakma is now usually written in Bengali letters. Chakma literature runs from the oral traditions of the gengkhuli singers through literary periodicals (the first of which wasGoirika started in 1936) to modern poetry. Another modern art form in which Chakmas made their mark is painting.

The vast majority of Chakmas are Buddhists, and they form the largest Buddhist population in Bangladesh. Integrated in their Buddhist practice are older religious elements, such as worship of the powers of nature. One of their annual highlights is theBizu festival held in Chaitra, the last month of the Bengali year. Culturally, the Chakmas are in many ways more Southeast Asian than South Asian. They know neither the dietary restrictions nor the strict gender segregation of their Bengali neighbours. [Willem Van Schendel]


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