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Tale of a forgotten dragonfly

LOOKING at the grey-blue winter sky through my large windows, I am trying to imagine how we, as middle class educated Bengali, may celebrate March 8, International Women’s Day, this year in Bangladesh. Will it be gutted by the pandemic? I do not think so. I can foresee that my news feed is flooding by the purple colour selfies. A group of fervent young bike riders are taking to the streets and waving their banners. Being oblivious of the intersectionality of women’s oppression, few privileged feminists are ‘rescuing deshi women’ by giving them ‘voice’. Reading the hidden stories of some ‘underprivileged’ girls’ success in newspapers, some ambitious parents are scolding their kids for being ‘lazy’ and not trying ‘hard enough’. Non-governmental organisations are disseminating their research on how the COVID-19 hit the poor adolescent girl and woman labourers hardest and recommending policies about what we should do about it. Celebrities, activists, scholars are blabbering in the talk shows carefully ignoring ‘sensitive’ truth for the fear of being arrested under the Digital Security Act. The government keeps showing us the seventh child of crocodile mom, the saga of development. And I am trying to figure it out, in this whole scenario where the tales of an allegedly abducted, converted, forcibly married, raped, and underaged dead mother, Lakingme Chakma, and her daughter, Atifa will fit. But are their stories supposed to square with the nation’s celebration of women’s day? These stories were never been the part of ‘nation’s women’s stories.’ Along with other indigenous girls/women, Lakingme and her daughter neither belong to ‘our imagined nation’, nor do they belong to ‘our women.’ In this Bengali Muslim-dominated country their stories are meant to be excluded and forgotten.

Most of us never heard about Lakingme Chakma. Those of us who once read about her in newspapers or in their news feeds, by this time, majority of them also have forgotten what really had happened with her. But her story is important to understand this impaired state with which many of us have traded our freedom, dignity, and rights for a ‘convenient’ life. Her story is useful to grasp that no girl gets abducted and raped only because of sexual desire. Her saga is relevant to realise that in a Muslim-dominated country perhaps not a single conversion happens only out of love for Islam. Her story is significant to perceive that in a country where at least 54 cases of violence against indigenous women were reported between January–December 2020 alone, suicide of an abducted, converted, and raped indigenous teenage girl is not just an outcome of sudden emotional eruption. Lakingme’s miseries tell us about the state and its institutions that have created the plot and the main protagonists for her tale.  

Lakingme was a Chakma Buddhist teenager, a non-Muslim indigenous girl whose identity has been denied by the state and its constitution since the beginning of independent Bangladesh. In 1972, it was claimed in our first constitution that all the citizens of Bangladesh are Bengali.  Seventeen years later, Islam was declared as the state religion in Bangladesh. In 2011, the government claimed that there is no abdibasi in Bangladesh and in the 15th amendment to the constitution it was repeated that the only ethnicity of the citizens living in this country is Bengali. However, there are about 27 non-Bengali ethnic groups living in Bangladesh, who are neither Bengali, nor Muslim and Lakingme Chakma was one of them. She spoke in a language that was not considered as ‘our’ national or official language. Following our constitution, even a child can solve the equation that Lakingme has always been invisiblised in this state and this state has never been hers.

She belonged to an indigenous community that has gradually become ‘minority’ and cheap labourers in her own lands due to the continued eviction form their ancestral land by Bengali settlers, the army, and big corporate companies. Struggling her whole life with the drabness of poverty, Lakingme lived in a bamboo made shabby and sombre Machang hut in one of the last few surviving Chakma villages in Shilkhali of Teknaf that were once dominated by Chakma and Rakhines, but now are surrounded by settler Bengali Muslims as well as the displaced Rohingyas. She was one of those indigenous girls, who have been encountering sexual violence and raising their voices against these oppressions for a long time. But their cries for justice are not only just unheard but also questioned by the law-enforcement agencies, who dare enough to intimidate the complainant, leaving the accused outside the purview of their investigation. Lakingme was from the marginalised group, whose rights and dignity have been violated for a long time. To Bangladeshi state, law-enforcement agencies, and many Bengali Muslims, national minorities are not ‘human-enough’. They are like ‘insects,’ who can be killed like mosquitoes, whose home can be razed to the ground like anthill without making any explanation. Their life and death mean nothing to the nation and its ‘people’. The oppressive, violent and coercive state apparatus, which confer the status of ‘insects’ on indigenous lives, have paved the path for Lakingme’s miseries. She was one of those girls who lived a life of insect till her death.

We would have never come to know about her story unless her father, family, and local Chakma community stood for her by taking the risk of their own lives. Following Lakingme’s abduction on January 5, 2020, her father, Lala Ong Chakma, a poor fisherman, went to a Union Parishod member. The member did not do anything except advising him to go to the police. Lala Ong then went to the local Teknaf police Station to file a complaint. However, the officer-in-charge refused to record the abduction case but suggested him to file a General Diary, which he did but no action was taken. Despite this Lala Ong did not stop.  He filed a case with the Cox’s Bazar Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal on January 27, 2020. Knowing that their lives could be in danger four neighbours, Chakma men, informed the police that they witnessed part of the abduction as they heard Lakingme’s cries for help from a three-wheeler CNG-run auto. They identified three men — Isa, Yasin, and Abuiya — who kidnapped Lakingme and took her away by an unknown CNG. On August 9, 2020 the Police Bureau Investigation submitted a report, where they did not clearly mention about the Chakma witnesses. By taking the side of the Bengali Muslim abductors, as reported in different media, the police claimed that they did not get any evidence for the crimes committed against Lakingme. Her parents had rejected the police inquiry outright expressing their no-confidence in it but the public prosecutor did not bring it to the court’s notice claiming later, ‘I did not realise it was a sensitive matter.’ Eventually, the case was closed.

By this time, abductors forged Lakingme’s birth certificate and forced her to convert to Islam. On a Tk 100 notarised document it was claimed that Lakingme did not like the rituals of her own religion — Buddhism. She was attracted to Islam by reading Bengali version of the holy Quran and hadith and attending different religious gathering. It was also written on the document that to achieve the peace in this world and akherat as a Sati woman, Lakingme wanted to be converted. I kept thinking about the blind spot of the Muslim lawyer, who certified her conversion, that prevented him from asking the obvious — why on earth a Buddhist Chakma teenage girl suddenly wanted to be a Sati Muslim woman. As a result, following the conversion on January 21, 2020, Ata Ullah forcibly married Lakingme, claiming that it was their love marriage though on a separate occasion his mother Rahima Khatun claimed that ‘Ata Ullah married Lakingme not out of love but because she wanted to be a Muslim’. However, this child marriage was possible because Ata Ullah knew that in this Bengali Muslim dominated country he could get away with his crime of abduction of an indigenous girl. He knew that in this corrupted state he could easily forge birth certificate and even he could force a teenage Chakma girl to marry him inside a state institution. Ata Ullah was aware of his privileges as a Bengali Muslim man and it was this power given by this state that suddenly transforms a Buddhist teenage girl Lakingme Chakma into an 18-year-old Muslim married woman, Halimatus Sadia. At the very bottom of her conversion and marriage certificate, a salutary advice was written down with large font ‘Deshpremer Shopoth Nin, Durnitike Biday Din’ (Take the oath to love your country and demolish corruption) that no one bothered to follow on that day.

After 11 months and six days of abduction, on December 9, 2020, Lala Ong, Lakingme’s father, finally got a call from the police. But the police asked him to visit Cox’s Bazar hospital morgue. Lala Ong went there only to confirm that it was his darling Lakingme who was lying on the cold bed of the morgue. Though her in-laws claimed that, being a very emotional girl, she had committed ‘suicide’ by drinking poison. A civil society-led fact-finding team investigated the case from 27–29 December and found evidence that she was instigated to commit suicide. Surely if Lakingme had had any other option she would not have committed suicide. May be for her committing suicide was the only gateway to relief from this inhuman situation and the only means to let us know about the crimes committed against her.

However, her story and miseries did not end here. The body of Lackingme Chakma had been lying in the morgue for 26 days following a row between her parents and the family of her Muslim abductor-turned-husband over who should receive her body. Her family fought again with their all means, but this time they fought to get back her dead body. Local activists had extended their active support and protested in Cox’s Bazar and hold a candlelit vigil in front of the national parliament in memory of and seeking justice for Lakingme Chakma.On December 15, 2020, a court in Cox’s Bazar ordered RAB-15 to reopen the investigation. Though both of her officially authenticated birth certificate and primary education completion examination certificate showed that she was 14 years and 10 months old on the day of her abduction, it took the RAB 26 days for proving that she was a child, and her marriage was illegal.

Through this whole time Lakingme’s body was exposed in a coldly forensic setting. The refrigerator just slowed the process of decomposing her body but failed to stop it. Her skin colour took on a bluish hue. Her muscles became rigid and locked the joints leaving the whole body stone-cold. On January 4, 2021, 26 days after her mysterious death Lakingme’s body was finally handed over to her family. The family had fought and waited for a long time for returning of their lovely daughter, adorable sister, and darling granddaughter, but all they got was her cold, bluish, stiff dead body. What they felt when they hugged an ice-cold Lakingme? What they saw when they looked at her bluish face? What they lost when they cremated Lakingme in Ramu Buddhist crematorium? Only Lakingme’s dear ones will bear the burden of the answers to these questions.  

They also have been bearing another burden, the burden of the news that Lakingme had given birth to a girl, exactly 13 days before she died. The three and a half months toddler is now living with Lakingme’s abductor/‘in-law’ family, who named her after an Arabic Muslim name Atifa, meaning kindness, righteous. But the question is whether society will be kind and righteous enough with Atifa, whose parents’ marriage was termed illegal by the RAB? Her birth will always be clouded with the legally ‘unresolved’ question of her mother’s abduction, forced religious conversion and marriage. What kind of life Atifa will live? How will she deal with her identity question? What will she feel when she will look at her abductor, rapist father? What will she think about this state that failed her and her mother? Will her tale be also a tale of ‘insect’?

How many more ‘insects’ stories you need before you will confront these questions and speak out? You have a choice to make. You can raise your voice against this state that made a girl to live in extreme poverty and hostile environment, paved the path for her abduction, made it institutionally possible to forge birth certificate, forcefully converted a person, conducted child marriage, allowed an abductor to rape her and force her to give birth a baby girl, and instigated her to commit suicide. You can break your silence that allowed this state to confer its citizens the status of insects and get away with oppression. Or you can go back to your la-la land with your shameless sycophancy and let this tyranny repeat again and again.

Jibanananda Das, the poet of solitude, once wrote ‘Je jibon Doyeler, Foringer, manusher sathey tar hoy nako dekha’ (the bird’s life, or the insect’s, never meets with human). You can remain silent knowing that your inaction will let this state to give birth, repress and slaughter hundreds of thousands more dragonflies who will die like ‘insects’ without knowing what it means to live a human life.

Aanmona Priyadarshini is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh

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