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Bangladeshi indigenous people protest grabbing of cremation site

Land grabbing is a common problem for ethnic minorities, says Catholic priest

Bangladeshi indigenous people protest grabbing of cremation site

Ethnic Santal people are seen in a village in northern Bangladesh in this file photo. Indigenous people in Niyamotpur of Naogaon district have accused a local politician of grabbing their cremation site. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News) 

Hundreds of indigenous people have marched on the streets in northern Bangladesh to demand the return of a cremation site and graveyard allegedly grabbed by a ruling party politician.

Khalekuzzaman Tota, former chairman of Chandannagar Union Council, a local government body in Niyamotpur area of Naogaon district, was responsible for the land grab, ethnic leaders claimed.

Tota, a leader of the local unit of the ruling Awami League party, has illegally occupied the community funeral ground to extend his agricultural land and ponds, they said.

He and his supporters have allegedly prevented ethnic communities, both Hindus and animists, from using the funeral ground.

Several hundred ethnic people formed a human chain in front of Press Club in Niyamotpur town on Sept. 14, said Bishawmitra Mardy, a Santal Hindu.  

“We have been using this land for cremation of our late relatives for decades but our former chairman grabbed this land by using political clout and muscle power. He had been an elected representative of people, but it is unacceptable how he has behaved,” Mardy, 40, told UCA News.

We want justice from our government, not because we are a minority but because we are citizens of this country

Local people have been cremating and burying their relatives at the site following their own rituals, and if not restored they have no place to bury or cremate their loved ones, Mardy added.

Rabindranath Khalko, 35, an ethnic Oraon, also expressed disappointment.

“We have been using this land for years. The chairman has grabbed the graveyard and started planting paddy himself. This is objectionable. If the ground is not returned, we will have to resort to a larger movement,” Khalko told UCA News.

“We want justice from our government, not because we are a minority but because we are citizens of this country.” 

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Tota brushed off the allegations and alleged that it was a political ploy to defame him.

“This is a false accusation. There was no cemetery or cremation ground here. There was a pond next to which some people were buried, and I didn't even occupy it. The opposition leader, who is now in power, has misled local people to stage a movement against me to get their votes,” Tota told UCA News.

“I was elected chairman four times but now this false accusation is being made against me for defaming me. I strongly condemn it.” 

We have visited the spot and found the allegations of the locals to be true. We will take appropriate action

However, a top government official said they found the allegations credible after visiting the spot.

“We have visited the spot and found the allegations of the locals to be true. We will take appropriate action,” Nilufa Sarker, assistant commissioner of land in Niyamotpur, told UCA News.

Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, condemned the land grab and said ethnic communities often face illegal land occupation.

“Land grabbing of indigenous people is nothing new. Although the funeral ground was located on government land, it has been used as a graveyard and cremation site. No one can occupy it,” Father Sen told UCA News.

“Often land grabbers use political power and the administration to occupy land. This is injustice and unacceptable.” 

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