Under the British, the Hill Tracts gained special status and only Adivasis could own land there, but the Pakistani government abolished the special status of the Hill Tracts as a ‘tribal area’ in 1964. The construction of the Kaptai Lake for hydroelectricity in 1960 was an earlier blow, submerging 40% of the land used by the Adivasis for cultivation, and displacing 100,000 people. The land provided for resettlement was not sufficient and many tribal people became refugees in neighbouring northeastern India.
During the Liberation War, the then Chakma king sided with the Pakistanis, so when independence came, the Adivasis’ plea for special status fell on deaf ears. The Chakma king left for Pakistan and later became that country’s ambassador to Argentina.
Meanwhile, more and more Bengalis were migrating into the area, usurping the land. In 1973 the Adivasis initiated an insurgency. To counter it, the government, in 1979, started issuing permits to landless Bengalis to settle there, with title to tribal land. This practice continued for six years and resulted in a mass migration of approximately 400,000 people into the area – almost as many as all the tribal groups combined. Countless human-rights abuses occurred as the army tried to put down the revolt.
From 1973 until 1997 the Hill Tracts area was the scene of a guerrilla war between the Bangladeshi army and the Shanti Bahini rebels. The troubles stemmed from the cultural clash between the tribal groups and the plains people.
Sheikh Hasina’s government cemented an internationally acclaimed peace accord in December 1997 with tribal leader Jyotirindriyo Bodhipriya (Shantu) Larma. Rebel fighters were given land, Tk 50,000 and a range of other benefits in return for handing in their weapons. The peace deal handed much of the administration of Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban districts to a regional council. The struggle to have the accord fully honoured continues today.