Chakma Raja: A Buddhist King in Pakistan

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    In September 1972, the United Nations General Assembly was discussing Bangladesh’s application for membership to the organisation. To oppose this, Pakistan sent a special 21-member delegation to New York. The head of the delegation, Raja Tridev Roy, was a man with the most fascinating background. He was a Buddhist King of the Chakma tribe, who had given up his throne and his people, for Pakistan.

    Even more interestingly, opposing him was his very own mother, Rajmata Benita Roy, who was heading the Bangladeshi delegation!

    As the UN member-states debated Bangladesh’s application, one can only wonder what must have transpired between son and mother. But their relationship is not the only thing that raises eyebrows. What were two Chakma royals from the Chittagong Hills of North East India, both devout Buddhists, doing heading important delegations from two countries that were overwhelmingly Muslim? Two years later, on 17th September 1974, the UN admitted Bangladesh as a member-state. Let’s take a trip back in time to understand how these two royals had become the negotiators.

    Who Were the Chakmas?

    In the highlands of Bangladesh, in the Chittagong Hill tracts that border the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram, live a number of tribes collectively referred to as the ‘Jumma’ people by the majority Bangla population. Their name comes from the term ‘jhum’ cultivation, also known as ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation that they follow. This is a process where a tract of jungle is cleared by slashing and burning and then re-cultivated. The main tribes in the region are the Chakma, Arakanese (Rakhine), Marma, Tripuri, Tanchangya, Chak, Pankho, Mru, Bawm, Lushai, Khyang, Gurkha, indigenous Assamese, Keot (Kaibarta), Santal and Khumi.

    The most dominant among these tribes are the Chakmas, who are Theravada Buddhists with some degree of old animist beliefs. According to their oral traditions, they claim descent from the Sakya clan of Gautama Buddha and believe their ancestors migrated to the Chittagong Hill tracts from Magadha in Bihar, in antiquity. Interestingly, the Chakma language is an Indo-Aryan language, closer to languages spoken in the Indo-Gangetic plain than in North-East India.

    The name ‘Chakma’ is supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sakthimaha’, which means ‘powerful’. Chakmas served as warriors and ministers in the Kingdom of Rakhine (in Burma) from the 15th to 17th centuries.

    The Chakmas themselves are divided into various clans, and reigning over all the clans is the powerful Chakma Raja, who was recognised as a tribal chief in British-India and subsequently by the Government of East Pakistan.

    The 17th-century Spanish cartographer, Diego de Astor, created a map of Bengal (Descripção do Reino de Bengalla) published in 1615 CE. It shows a place near Chittagong in Bangladesh called ‘Chacomas’, suggesting that the Chakmas inhabited this area during this time. In 1713, the Mughals and Chakmas signed a peace treaty, in which the Mughals recognised Chakma independence in return of an annual tribute.

    Following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company took control of Bengal. This also brought them into conflict with the Chakmas. A protracted war between the two raged for 10 years, from 1777 CE and finally, in 1787, the Chakmas accepted the sovereignty of the Company and agreed to pay 20,000 kg of cotton annually. A treaty was signed between the Chakmas and Lord Cornwallis to this effect and the Chakmas continued to be the masters of their own dominion.

    In 1829, Nathaniel Halhed, then Commissioner of Chittagong, reaffirmed that:

    “The hill tribes were not British subjects but merely tributaries and we recognized no right on our part to interfere with their internal arrangements. The near neighbourhood of a powerful and stable government naturally brought the chiefs by degree under control and every leading chief paid to the Chittagong collector a certain tribute or yearly gifts. These sums were at first fluctuating in amount but gradually were brought to a specific and fixed limit, eventually taking the shape not of tribute but of revenue to the state.”

    Fallout of Partition

    The autonomous status of the Chakmas continued till India’s independence in 1947. During the Partition of India into India and Pakistan, a Boundary Commission under Sir Cyril Radcliffe was formed to demarcate the Hindu and Muslim majority areas. But for some inexplicable reason, the Chittagong Hill tracts, with 97 percent non-Muslim population, was awarded to Pakistan. Though the Congress and Jawaharlal Nehru vehemently protested this decision, nothing could be done about it.

    The Raja of the Chakmas at the time was Raja Nalinaksha Roy, who had assumed power in 1935 and had ruled for 12 years before independence. He accepted Pakistani sovereignty as there was little else he could do. He was also promised autonomy by the Pakistani Government, to make it easier to win him over. He was married to Benita Sen, granddaughter of the famous social reformer and Brahmo Samaj founder, Keshub Chandra Sen. The Raja passed away in 1951 and after some time, as in Chakma tradition, his eldest son Raja Tridev Roy was anointed as the 50th Chakma Raja in 1953.

    But the position of the Chakmas in East Pakistan was not very strong and from the 1950s, waves of Chakma refugees kept pouring into India. In the wake of the building of the Kaptai Dam in 1962 over the Karnaphuli River, many Chakmas were displaced as their villages were submerged in the artificial lake formed as a result of the dam. Thousands of Chakmas crossed over to India. The recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 by the Indian Parliament, seeks to give legal citizenship to the Chakma refugees living in India, which has generated a lot of resentment among the locals of North East.

    By the late 1960s, there were long-standing differences and resentment brewing in East Pakistan over discrimination from West Pakistan. Despite strong Bangladeshi nationalism rising in East Pakistan, the Chakma Raja decided that they would remain neutral as they didn’t want to rub the Bangladeshi nationalists or the Pakistani Army the wrong way. And, as tensions escalated, Raja Tridev Roy became increasingly inclined towards the Pakistani establishment.

    In the run-up to the 1970 elections in Pakistan, Bangladeshi nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman offered Raja Tridev Roy a seat to fight on behalf of the Awami League (pro-Bangladesh political party) but Raja Tridev Roy declined and stood as an independent candidate from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the 1970 Pakistan elections, the Bangladesh Awami League won a landslide victory, and claimed 167 of the 169 seats in East Pakistan. Interestingly, one of the two seats the Awami League could not win was won by Raja Tridev Roy.

    Ignoring the popular mandate, the military regime of General Yahya Khan invited Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to become Prime Minister, instead of Mujibur Rahman. This set off a chain of events which resulted in the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971. Believing that he would be better off with Pakistan, Raja Tridev Roy pledged loyalty to Pakistan. He also refused to condemn the horrific genocide carried out by the Pakistani army and militia known as Razakars on the local Bengali population.

    Making the Wrong Move

    But the Raja had played the wrong card. A war broke out between India and Pakistan, and the tide began to turn in Bangladesh’s favour. Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan, and with this, Raja Sahib found himself in deep trouble. With his allies close to defeat, the Raja Sahib knew that life would be hard for him in an independent Bangladesh due to the stands he had taken. So he decided to abdicate.

    Raja Tridev Roy abdicated in 1971 in favor of his eldest son, the 12 year old Raja Devashish Roy but he knew that even abdication would not be enough as people would still want to settle scores with him. Also, he felt that the position of the Chakmas would become precarious in a new Bangladesh and their special rights and privileges would be taken away. In many ways, he was right. The Raja had only one option now and he crossed over to West Pakistan, or Pakistan, as it came to be known. He was welcomed very warmly on his arrival in Pakistan and conferred the status of a Federal Minister for life. But there was still more to come.

    The first task he undertook was in 1972, to head the Pakistani Mission to the UN, to oppose the admission of Bangladesh to the international body. Bangladesh’s reply to this was to get Chakma Rajmata Benita Roy, his mother, to lead their delegation to the UN.

    However, Raja Sahib wasn't done yet and he joined the Bhutto Government. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made him Minister of Minority Affairs and Tourism in his Cabinet. Bhutto also offered the Presidency of Pakistan to Raja Tridev Roy. This was a great opportunity but it came with a rider. According to the new Constitution of Pakistan, only a Muslim could become the President of Pakistan. This wasn't acceptable to the erstwhile Raja Sahib of the Chakmas. So, after giving up the kingship of the Chakmas, Raja Sahib declined the Presidency of Pakistan.

    In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq came to power in Pakistan, and Bhutto was hanged. Now, all Bhutto loyalists came under attack and none escaped the General’s wrath – all except the Raja Sahib. Bhutto knew better than to let any harm come to Raja Tridev Roy. Raja Sahib had stayed active in politics and there was little that Gen Zia could do to harm him.

    South America Sojourn

    But, after a couple of years, he decided he didn’t want him around. So a new role was found for the Raja Sahib and he was appointed Pakistani Ambassador to Argentina in 1981. So off he went to South America. At the same time, he was appointed as Ambassador to Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. It was a long way from the Himalayan foothills in the Chittagong Hills to the Andes Mountains. Still, he had no choice, really, and stayed in South America till General Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988.

    After Gen Zia’s death, the Raja Sahib was brought back to the subcontinent from South America and appointed as Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Being Buddhist, he was a good candidate as an Ambassador to a Buddhist-majority country. Finally, in 1995, Raja Sahib returned to Pakistan after his Ambassadorial assignments abroad were completed. He now turned his attention to working for the Buddhist community in Pakistan and decided to devote more of his life to religious pursuits. He also became the head of the Pakistan Buddhist Society.

    On the other side of the subcontinent, in Bangladesh, Raja Tridev Roy’s mother, Rajmata Benita Roy, served as a Minister of Land Administration and Land Reforms (1975/1976) and as a Minister of Relief and Rehabilitation 1976/1978. Tridev Roy’s son and successor, Raja Devashish Roy, also held high positions in the Bangladesh government in the 1990s.

    Raja Tridev Roy passed away in 2012 in his home in Islamabad, Pakistan. His house in E-7 bore a plaque on the outside, which said ‘Chakma House’. He was largely alone when the end came. No one in Pakistan remembered the soft-spoken King of the Chakmas, who had given up his kingdom in a faraway land to make this country his home. No one remembered the man who had declined the Presidency of Pakistan. No one really cared.


    Prashant Mathawan (Kiki) is a writer and a photographer who has spent his formative years in living amidst the Himalayas in the most beautiful Vale of Kashmir. For decades, he has explored the deepest parts of the Himalayas and is a passionate follower of the history and culture of the region.

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