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Bangladesh Santals renew call for return of disputed land

Tribal group reignite protest on anniversary of attack that saw members killed, thousands 'evicted from ancestral lands'
Bangladesh Santals renew call for return of disputed land

An ethnic Santal woman prepares a clay oven on Nov. 17, 2016 days after her family was forcibly evicted from disputed land in Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Rights activists and Santals have renewed calls on the government to return large swathes of disputed land to the ethnic minority community in northern Bangladesh.

The call was made at a protest attended by hundreds of Santal people in the Govindaganj area of Gaibandha district on Nov. 6.

They gathered to mark the second anniversary of deadly violence between Santals and employees of a local sugar mill company with backing from local officials, politicians and police.

The violence saw three Santals shot dead and dozens including some policemen injured. It also saw 1,600 Santal families forcibly removed from what they called their ancestral land.

The violence sparked a public and media outcry, forcing the government to suspend top government officials, including the district police chief, and arrest several people involved in the forced eviction.

Santal community leaders at the anniversary protest claimed the government has not fulfilled promises made to victims.

"Today, we held a protest to press for our seven-point demands, which includes the return of our ancestral lands, justice for the killings and proper compensation for victims," Philemon Baskey, an ethnic Santal Catholic and vice-president of the local Land Reclamation Committee told ucanews.com.

Despite repeated promises the government has not compensated or rehabilitated victims, and justice has not been served, Baskey said.

"Only minimal relief reached victims, and today more than 1,000 families still live in temporary shelters. Some culprits were arrested but not the masterminds and the case is now in limbo," Baskey claimed.

Shamsul Huda, a rights activist and director of Dhaka-based Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD), said the Santal people have the right to receive justice and compensation.

"These people are citizens of Bangladesh, and they have been victims of violence and injustice. They have an equal right like any citizen of the country to demand lawful rights and justice," Huda, who attended the Nov. 6 rally, told ucanews.com.

Ethnic and religious minorities fall prey to land grabbers, who are often politically and financially influential, in many parts of the country, he alleged.

"Denial of justice for poor and powerless people like the Santals is common. In the past, many minority people faced persecution and lost their land and property, and many of the displaced victims were forced to leave the country," he added.

Father Anthony Sen, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dinajpur Diocese, which covers Gainbandha, echoed similar sentiments.

"When politics and money mix, the hope for justice becomes illusive. After an initial public outcry the government took some measures, but now the victims have been forgotten. I doubt whether the victims will ever see justice at all," Father Sen told ucanews.com.

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Ramkrishna Barmon, chief government officer in Govindaganj, recently said efforts are being made to compensate the victims.

The land dispute goes back to 1952 when the government bought 745 hectares of the Santals' ancestral land to farm sugarcane. The sale agreement said that the land would be used to cultivate sugarcane only and if this main purpose changed, then it would first have to be returned to the district administration and then to the original owners.

Over the years, the sugar farm has seen a gradual decline in production and the authorities leased out most of the land to cultivate crops including rice, wheat, maize and mustard leading the Santals to demand the return of the land, which led to the violence.

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