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Bangladesh's Santals continue struggle for ancestral land

The tribal people including Catholics await justice six years after they were attacked and displaced in the Gaibandha district
Bangladesh's indigenous Santal people take out a rally to demand justice six years after being attacked and driven out of their ancestral land in Gaibandha district, on Nov. 6

Bangladesh's indigenous Santal people take out a rally to demand justice six years after being attacked and driven out of their ancestral land in Gaibandha district, on Nov. 6. (Photo supplied)

Published: November 08, 2022 11:16 AM GMT

Indigenous Santal people, including Catholics, were joined by civil society groups in remembering the deadly clashes that led to their eviction from their ancestral land six years ago.

Three Santal people were shot dead and dozens were injured on Nov. 6-7, 2016, as clashes erupted between the villagers, police and hired goons over land disputes in the Bagda farm area of the Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh.

Speakers at a protest rally held in Gobindaganj sub-district town on Nov. 6 urged the Bangladesh government to compensate for the three lost lives and return the ancestral land to the Santal people.

The homes of the Santal villagers were set on fire, forcing hundreds of panicked residents to flee. Video footage released by Al Jazeera showed how the police joined local thugs allegedly hired by the sugar mill authorities to evict the Santal people.

Six years after the incident, people are still waiting for justice, said Philemon Baskey, a Santal Catholic land rights activist.

“The government has shown extreme apathy and inhumanity when it comes to fulfilling our demands,” she said.

The Santals are determined to continue the struggle and “if necessary, we are willing to give our lives, to claim our rights,” Baskey said.

Baskey is the head of the Land Rescue Committee that has been fighting for the land rights of the Santal villagers, including some Muslims.

The Santals filed two cases related to the attacks and in 2019 police filed charges against 90 people. The cases are now pending in court.

Sirajul Islam, a lawyer representing the Santals, told UCA News that both the Police Bureau of Investigation and Crime Investigation Department has filed charges in the court but they have avoided naming 11 people, including the main suspect.

The Santals are extremely disappointed as the trial has not progressed well, Islam said.

“As a lawyer, I want to say that the owners of this land are our Santal brothers and their claim is fair. I want their ancestral property to be returned to them and demand from the government fair justice for the families of those killed in 2016. We are with the Santals in their struggles,” Islam told UCA News.

The Catholic Church supported the cause but as "the issue has got politicized over the years, the Church doesn't want to be involved in it anymore,” said Father Anthoy Sen, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dinajpur Diocese that covers the area.

“But the church continues to support the cause of the Santals and will try its best to help in its own way,” the priest told UCA News.

The land dispute has its origins in the 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 the villagers through an agreement in 1954-55.

One of the conditions was that the land would be used for sugarcane cultivation by the 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.

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.

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