Ethnic indigenous people take part in a protest in Chapai Nawabganj district of northern Bangladesh on July 18 to demand an end to the attempted eviction of the Rajwar community. (Photo supplied)
A church official has joined rights activists in condemning what they said were attempts to evict hundreds of ethnic indigenous people in northern Bangladesh.
Their condemnation comes after hundreds of members of the ethnic Rajwar community staged a protest in Tongpara in Chapai Nawabganj district on July 18 against "acts of intimidation" to force more than 200 people from 35 families off land they have occupied for more than a century.
“A local zamindar [landlord] brought these people here for agricultural purposes more than a century ago during the British colonial period. They were allowed to live and settle here. After the end of zamindari rule, the land became Khas [government land] and they continued living here for generations,” rights activist Hingu Murmu told UCA News.
According to Murmu, 56, an ethnic Santal and Protestant Lutheran Christian, a Muslim man called Tariqul Islam obtained forged documents to claim a large piece of land in the village in 2014 and has since then attempted to evict the minority community.
“In 2014, he sent a group of thugs to evict the community, but they failed to do so as villagers came out with their bows and arrows, forcing them to flee,” said Murmu, who is also president of North Bengal Adivasi Forum, an indigenous rights group.
Villagers filed a case in the district court against Islam for attempted eviction and to prove their claim on the land. The case is still ongoing, the activist said.
The villagers at the recent protest claim the man has stepped up efforts to force them out.
They claimed men sent by Islam chased and beat up two Rajwar men, tried to sexually assault a woman and issued death threats to several men in the community.
Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, condemned the alleged attempts to get rid of the community, saying the Rajwar had a legitimate claim to the land as they had been there before Muslims or Bengali arrived in the area.
“The Rajwar community is a minority of the minorities, and they are poor and powerless. It is frustrating that they have failed to claim the land outright despite having lived on it for over a century, and the court case to resolve the land dispute has been dragging on for years,” Father Sen told UCA News.
“This marginalized community should be protected by local administration and police, and their rightful claim on the land must be recognized.”
Ziaur Rahman, head of Chapai Nawabganj police station, said a case has been filed over the alleged assaults and threats against the Rajwar people.
“A case was registered on July 2 and we have asked the community to be patient. We are investigating the allegations and trying to identify the perpetrators,” Rahman said.
Tariqul Islam was unreachable for comment by phone despite several attempts.
The Rajwar are a small ethnic minority group among an estimated 50 ethnic indigenous communities who make up about three million people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh's population of more than 160 million.
There are about 10,000 Rajwar, mostly Hindu, concentrated mainly in northern parts of the country and their main livelihood is agriculture, according to the National Adivasi Council, which is based in northern Bangladesh.