After nearly a decade resisting eviction from ancestral land, ethnic Khasia Christians in Bangladesh are still uncertain whether the land they have lived on for generations will become their own. About 700 ethnic Khasia
from 86 families in two villages have been battling to resist eviction by Nahar Tea Estate in Moulvibazar district since 2010. Most of those affected are Catholics belonging to St. Joseph's Catholic Church, under the predominantly indigenous Sylhet Catholic Diocese in northeast Bangladesh. "The Khasia are peaceful people and they have the right to live in their ancestral land like every citizen of Bangladesh," Quazi Rosy, a ruling Awami League lawmaker, told ucanews.com. Rosy was part of a delegation from the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples that visited Nahar 1 and Nahar 2 punjis
(forested villages with clustered houses) on July 22. Research and Development Collective (RDC) activists were also part of the delegation to lend their support to the Khasia.
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"It does not matter if they have land documents or not, but by the virtue of ancestral heritage the land must be allocated to them for home and livelihood," Rosy said. If necessary, the government should allocate land to the Khasia separately, she added. Battle for survival
Khasia villagers have been at loggerheads with Nahar Tea Estate in Sreemangal subdistrict over ownership of 182 hectares of land in two punjis for years. In 2010, Nahar Tea secured permission from the Land Ministry to expand the estate, and it attempted to merge Khasia villages. That year, the estate flexed its political and financial muscle, convincing the district administration of Moulvibazar to cut down thousands of trees in the villages used for betel leaf plantations — a traditional livelihood for the Khasia — according to Dibarmin Pohtam, village chief of Nahar 1 punji. "My father started living here more than 60 years ago, and it is absolutely inhumane and unacceptable if one asks me to leave," Dibarmin told ucanews.com. "We are living in fear but we will do everything to stop eviction." Khasia leaders said they have lived in the area since long before the tea estate was set up in 1964. In 2014, several clashes broke out when armed thugs, allegedly sent by tea estate managers, raided two villages. One person died and dozens were injured on both sides. Panicked villagers assigned guards from the community to provide security day and night. Supported by the church and rights groups, the Khasia filed two petitions in the district court, and the court issued a stay order to maintain the status quo in 2016. On May 30 that year, Moulvibazar's district administration issued a notice to the villagers ordering them to vacate the area within seven days and said the Khasia had illegally occupied government land, sparking fear in the community. Ashequl Haque, assistant land commissioner in Moulvibazar district, said efforts are underway to offer land ownership to Khasia people. "Khasia people have lived on the land for a long time, so we have proposed to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Land to entitle the land to the Khasia permanently. We are waiting for the court ruling," Haque told ucanews.com. "Without permanent land settlement, the dispute would continue, but everything must be done through legal procedure." Nahar Tea Estate authorities declined to speak to ucanews.com. Community ownership
The Khasia are a matriarchal ethnic group originally from the Indian state of Meghalaya, just across the border with Bangladesh. Some Khasia migrated to Bengal and settled there during British rule of India and Pakistan. There are an estimated 30,000 Khasia in Bangladesh and the majority are Christians, according to Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia. Traditionally, the Khasia, like some other ethnic groups, follow customary community ownership for land and property, instead of an individual ownership system. A headman, or village chief, is the owner of a punji
and he oversees and allocates land to villagers as needed. Bangladesh land law does not recognize community ownership, leading to land disputes in many places. The British started commercial tea plantations
on the hilly slopes of Sylhet in the mid-19th century. Four districts of the Sylhet division — Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Sunamganj and Habiganj — host about 150 tea estates, most of them leased out to private companies. Tea is a major agricultural product in the impoverished Muslim-majority South Asian country. In 2017, Bangladesh produced 88 million tonnes of tea. Of that, 2.56 million tonnes were exported while the remainder was consumed domestically, according to the state-run Bangladesh Tea Board. Complex issue
Rights advocate and Oblate priest Father Joseph Gomes says the land dispute facing Khasia people is a complex issue. "It is true Bangladeshi law does not recognize traditional community ownership, but on humanitarian grounds no one can support the eviction of a community from their home where they lived for generations," Father Gomes said. "Constitutionally, Bangladesh does not recognize indigenous groups and there is no special law to protect their culture, language, heritage and customs. Not only Khasia but also many ethnic groups and individuals are facing similar struggles for survival in the absence of special rights to indigenous ethnic communities." The land problem facing ethnic groups in Bangladesh dates back to the inception of the country. In 1972, a year after gaining independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh drafted the constitution that recognized religious pluralism. But it left out an estimated three million people from 45 ethnic minority groups
, most of them non-Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. "Forgetting the ethnic minorities was ignorance if not negligence at the beginning," said Professor Mesbah Kamal, from the University of Dhaka's history department. "However, it was continued by successive governments as Bengali-majority society and the state wanted to impose cultural hegemony on ethnic groups. It means ethnic groups are deemed inferior to the Bengali majority by many in this country." Kamal, who is also chief of the RDC and a delegation member of the July 22 visit to Khasia villages, pointed out that while Bangladeshi law might not recognize community ownership, international law provisions would favor the Khasia cause. "According to international law, a person or his or her family living on land for 60 years can claim it as their own and apply for ownership," he said. "They cannot be evicted from their home."