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Bangladeshi Santals decry delayed justice over 2016 violence

Attacks by police and local thugs stemming from a land dispute left three Santals killed, scores injured and hundreds homeless
For seven years, the Santals in Bangladesh have been seeking justice for the 2016 police atrocities against them.

For seven years, the Santals in Bangladesh have been seeking justice for the 2016 police atrocities against them. (Photo: File)

Published: November 07, 2023 12:47 PM GMT
Updated: November 08, 2023 10:56 AM GMT

About 2,000 people, mostly Christian-majority ethnic Santals and some Bengali Muslims marched on a street in northern Bangladesh on Nov. 6 to mark the seventh anniversary of a violent eviction that left three tribals killed and scores injured.

During the rally at Govindaganj in Gaibandha district, Santal leaders deplored the lack of progress in the legal process to ensure justice for the victims of violence and arson attacks of Nov. 6, 2016.

The Santals filed a criminal case of murder and violence against a syndicate comprised of a local sugar mill authority, police and ruling Awami League politicians and supporters following the violence.

The police probe into the incident is nowhere near the truth, Santal leaders said, explaining their pain at being dragged into a legal battle that they can hardly afford, particularly amidst the worst inflation in more than a decade.

“We spent three years trying to explain why we want a re-investigation, but the court does not seem convinced yet,’ said Philemon Baske, a Santal Catholic, after the rally.

Baske is the president of the Committee for Struggles for Land Reclamation of Sahebganj-Bagdafarm, a platform for the Santals reclaiming their land from the state, comprising members of 2,500 families.

The Santals, one of the largest tribal groups in South Asia, migrated to present-day Bangladesh when it was part of India during British colonial rule.

Long-running land dispute

The violence in 2016 stemmed from a land dispute with a now-defunct sugar mill in Govindaganj that dates back about six decades.

Santals have been demanding the return of about 1842 acres of their ancestral land they gave up when the mill was set up in the 1960s. The original contract said the land must be returned to the original owners if not used for sugarcane cultivation.

The state-run mill reportedly ceased production in 2004, but the authorities refused to return the land to the tribal people and leased out most part of it.    

Some Santals have bullet splinters studded in the head, abdomen and even genitals, living a miserable life, leaders said.

Santals have refused to accept the first police investigation report carried out by the Criminal Investigation Department in 2020 and demanded another probe.

Santal leaders alleged the report corroborated the findings from the original investigation conducted between 2016 and 2019 by the Police Bureau of Investigation.

The investigations found no evidence of involvement of the key people accused by the Santals including the then parliamentarian Abul Kalam Azad, chief government official of Govindaganj Abdul Hannan, and Rangpur Sugar Mill managing director Abdul Awal.

The probes also did not find any wrongdoing by two policemen – Mahbubur Rahman and Sazzad Hossain – who were seen setting fire to Santal houses during the violence in a video clip.

Denial of justice takes a toll

“Santals are being denied justice,’ said Sirajul Islam Babu, a Muslim and lawyer representing Santals in the Gaibandha court.

He said the Santals rejected the police report in the court in January 2021, adding that almost three years have passed with his team explaining the reasons for opposing it.

The court saw its judge change, going into frequent leaves and adjourning their sessions.

The court’s last session was adjourned in September with the next sitting scheduled for March 2024.

“What you call it if not judicial harassment,” said Philemon Baske.

The killing of three Santals – Shyamal Hembrom, Mongol Mardy, and Romesh Tudu – left their poor families devasted, he said.

Their suffering was aggravated by the pandemic and increasing inflation.

Local Santals said wives of Shyamol and Mongol suffer from mental illness.

Shyamol’s elder son already dropped out of school due to extreme poverty.

Romesh Tudu’s daughter and her husband have become brick kiln workers to support the family.

Many of the hundreds of families evicted by police are still homeless with most living in other villages with their relatives.

Former lawmaker Azad, a key accused in the Santal case, was denied candidacy during the 2018 national election.

However, Santals alleged that Azad is set to make a comeback ahead of the national election to be held by next January, and delaying the trial is a ploy to keep his election hope alive. A conviction will bar him from contesting the poll.

Azad and the sugar mill authority were not available for comments.

“The trail is a farce, but we will not give up,” said Rabindranath Soren, president of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, a tribal rights group covering northern Bangladesh.

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