Media: The Independent
There is a king in Bangladesh who has now completed 40 years of his reign. He has ruled the country’s largest tribal community with majesty and glamour since his coronation in 1977.
Devasish Roy, aged 58, is the 51st hereditary Chakma Raja (king) and chief of Chakma Circle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of south-eastern Bangladesh. There are over 400,000 residents in his tributary kingdom of Rangamati and Khargachari hill districts.
The king was born on April 9, 1959 and assumed the office of Chakma chief when he turned 18. His accession to the kingship was celebrated at an investiture held in Rangamati on November 25, 1977.
In 1974, when Devasish was 14, he was declared king through a gazette notification of the Government of Bangladesh as his father, King Tridiv Roy, had left the country. His uncle, Kumar Samit Roy, a teacher of Rangamati College, acted as regent until 1977. Devasish’s eldest son, Rajkumar Tribhuvan Aryadev Roy, was made Yuvraj (crown prince) in 2003.
Raja Devasish Roy is a barrister by profession and a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He helped facilitate the final negotiations between the government and the tribal political party, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, which led to the signing of the CHT peace accord in 1997 that ended two decades of conflict in the hill region.
The Chakma king still collects land taxes from local landowners. He has 1,834 karbaris, or traditional heads of villages (paras), under him. There are also 186 heads of mouzas, which are administrative units comprising of 5 to15 paras.
The karbaris maintain law and order, resolve disputes, manage land and other resources, collect revenue, and also play social, cultural and spiritual roles. The headmen are responsible for district and upazila, as well as circle administrations. They also collect revenue and manage the natural resources of a mouza, including land used for jhum (shifting) cultivation, grasslands and grazing lands.
“We collect two types of revenue _ one for jhum cultivation which is collected per family, and the second is for land settlement, which is collected per acre. In rural areas, we collect Tk 1 per acre as revenue. However, in urban areas, the rate is higher,” the king told this correspondent at his home in Rangamati recently.
Raja Devasish Roy is trying to empower women in the hill tracts. He believes women’s participation is essential for the development of his community, which is why the king started appointing women as karbaris and heads of mouzas. So far, he has appointed 282 women as village heads and eight women as mouza heads.
“I do not think empowering women is in conflict with our tradition. Promotion of women’s leadership is an internationally and nationally prescribed principle. So, I am trying to empower women, politically, socially and economically” said the king.
Raja Devasish Roy is also seeking to attain a hundred percent literacy rate for his people with the help of the government and non-government organisations (NGOs). He is motivating his people to become self-reliant for development.
“I have worked with the people living in the remote areas. I work for our communities, keeping in mind the importance of self-development in all spheres, as they should not depend solely on the government or other external actors. Many of them are already doing development work by themselves, they are building small embankments, constructing roads _ they made a 10km jeepable road, and they are creating arable lands from the hills. Besides this, I am involved with some NGOs working on education and development,” he said.
Rajpunyah is a traditional festival where people gather to pay taxes or tribute to the king. Though it used to be held every year, Rajpunyah is nowadays held every five or six years, said the king. The pompous event requires large sums of money, detailed planning, security and other arrangements. The biggest festival of the Chakma is Bizu, which is celebrated for three days in mid-April, coinciding with the last two days of the Bengali month of Choitro and the first day of Boishakh.
The annual income of the king from revenue collected from his circle is about Tk350,000, from which he has to pay Tk 15,000 to the government. However, he needs Tk 1.8 million to 2 million annually for his office management, which he has to bear from his personal income.
“As king or circle chief, we administer justice, preserve our culture, customs, norms and traditions. We advise the government on development. We work on land-revenue administration. For our role, we do not get any financial support. There is no allocation for our staff, logistics and other expenses from the government, except for a meagre Tk 10,000 per month,” he said.
The king is also worried that the Chakma people, particularly the men, rarely wear their traditional clothes these days. He urged his people to keep alive their own customs and tradition, at least during weddings, Bizu festival and other ceremonial occasions.
The writer is In-charge, Chittagong bureau of The Independent newspaper.