Hundreds of ethnic Santals take to the streets in the Gobindaganj area of Gaibandha district on Aug. 29 to demand cancellation of a government plan for a special economic zone on their ancestral land. (Photo supplied)
About 200 mostly Christian ethnic Santals marched on the streets in northern Bangladesh to oppose a government plan to establish a special economic zone, terming it a ploy to evict them from their ancestral land.
During the rally on Aug. 29, Santal villagers from the Gobindaganj area of Gaibandha district said they have been living in fear of eviction and demanded the government return their land.
A day before, 42 prominent citizens from dozens of civil society groups issued a statement denouncing the government plan for the proposed export processing zone (EPZ) in the area.
The statement said the signatories are aggrieved as they have been informed the government is moving ahead with the plan and recently the executive chairman of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), the government body under the Prime Minister’s Office, has visited the area for the purpose.
“Many years ago, the government requisitioned the land from Santal people on condition of sugarcane farming and promised to return the land to the original owners if the purpose was not met. As the land is not used for sugarcane farming anymore, it should be returned to their owners. There is no legitimate cause to set up an EPZ on the land,” the citizens said in their Aug. 28 statement.
Sufol Humbrom, 65, a Santal villager, said he will lose 40 acres (16 hectares) of land if the EPZ is set up.
We will not allow the EPZ to be on our ancestral land. We are also ready to sacrifice our lives if needed
“We don't want resettlement, we want our ancestral land. We want to see long-running injustice done toward us come to an end,” Hembrom told UCA News.
Philemon Baskey, a Santal Catholic and land rights activist, said that if the EPZ is established about 2,500 families, about 70 percent from the tribal Santal community, would lose their ancestral land. His family would lose about 33 acres.
“We will lose the ancestral property of our grandparents,” Baskey told UCA News. “We will continue our movement. We will not allow the EPZ to be on our ancestral land. We are also ready to sacrifice our lives if needed.”
Baskey is the head of the Land Rescue Committee that has been fighting for the land rights of villagers including Muslims in the Bagda Farm area of Gobindaganj for years.
On Nov. 6-7, 2016, a deadly clash erupted between villagers, police and workers from a sugar mill over the disputed land, leaving three Santals shot dead and dozens injured on both sides.
Hundreds of shanties belonging to Santal villagers were later set on fire, forcing hundreds of panicked villagers to flee their homes. Video footage released by Al Jazeera showed that policemen joined local thugs allegedly sent by the mill authority to set Santal houses ablaze.
The attacks and eviction triggered public outrage and made headlines locally and internationally. The outcry prompted the government to transfer the district police chief and top government officer, while a local politician from the ruling party was denied a candidacy during the 2018 parliamentary election, allegedly for his role in the violence.
The Santals filed two cases over the attacks and in 2019 police filed charges against 90 people. The cases are still pending in court.
The land dispute has its origins in 1950s when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan.
According to a Bangladeshi advocacy group, the Association of Land Reform and Development (ALRD), the state-run Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation requisitioned 1,842 acres of land from villagers through an agreement in 1954-55.
A condition was that the land would be used for sugarcane cultivation by state-run Rangpur Sugar Mill and, if the condition was violated, the land would be returned to the previous owners. An additional 600 acres of land were later acquired for the purpose.
The Church has moral backing for the people, but it is unable to do anything from the front because the matter has been fully politicized after the 2016 violence
Due to years of losses, the sugar mill stopped production about 17 years ago and the mill authority started leasing out the land for paddy, wheat, vegetable cultivation and even fish farming by digging ponds. The violation of the agreement angered villagers and they started demanding their land back, leading to the deadly clashes in 2016, the ALRD said.
In their statement, the prominent citizens alleged that leaders of the ruling Awami League party had joined hands with the local district administration and law enforcement to deny the return of the land to villagers.
While calling for immediate cancellation of the EPZ plan, they also demanded justice and compensation for the 2016 attacks along with the return of the land to villagers.
Deputy commissioner Abdul Matin, the chief government officer in Gaibandha district, said the EPZ plan was at an initial stage and they always aim for “development of the people.”
“It is certain that the region will develop if the EPZ is here. There will be discussions with the locals. They will be rehabilitated and they will get priority for work in the EPZ,” Matin told UCA News.
The land belongs to indigenous people and they must get back their land, said Father Anthoy Sen, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dinajpur Diocese that covers the area.
“The Church has moral backing for the people, but it is unable to do anything from the front because the matter has been fully politicized after the 2016 violence. However, if they come to us we can help with advice,” the priest told UCA News.