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Ethnic Santals fear eviction, seek justice in Bangladesh

Leaders claim that Awami League MPs are behind a plot to remove them from their ancestral home

Ethnic Santals fear eviction, seek justice in Bangladesh

Santals have their midday meal under trees on Nov. 17, 2016, days after a deadly eviction attempt saw thousands of the ethnic minority displaced in Govindaganj in Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Dozens of ethnic minority Santals are living in fear of losing their ancestral home and properties amid alleged eviction attempts by politicians, while another group of Santals are seeking justice over a deadly land dispute.

Santal leaders told a press conference at the National Press Club in Dhaka that two members of parliament from the ruling Awami League were conspiring to evict about two dozen Santals from Bashbaria village in Puthia subdistrict of Rajshahi district.

Santal leaders have appealed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to intervene and stop eviction attempts.

"We have been living on our homestead for ages. Now we are facing threats of unjust eviction from our lawmakers and ruling party leaders," Shukol Tudu, a Santal Hindu and member of Santal Homestead Protection Committee, told the conference on Oct. 23.

Tudu alleged there is a conspiracy to evict Santals in the guise of setting up an organization on their land called Northern Institute led by MPs Enamul Haque and Abdul Wadud, from Rajshahi-4 and Rajshahi-5 constituencies respectively.

Ganesh Tudu, another committee member, claimed that "men of the MPs" have been threatening Santals to leave their homes. "There is a plot to force us to migrate to India. They have set up poles around several houses to demarcate them for eviction," he said.

Haque denied allegations of his role in land-grabbing attempts, United News of Bangladesh reported on Oct. 23.

In a separate press conference, Santal leaders called on the government to ensure justice and compensation for victims of deadly violence in a land dispute in 2016.

On Nov. 6, 2016, clashes broke out between mostly Christian Santals, police and Rangpur Sugar Mill workers over a move to evict the minority from a disputed area of land in Govindaganj in Gaibandha district.

The violence left three Santal men dead and dozens of other people injured, including nine policemen. Hundreds of houses were looted and set ablaze by thugs allegedly linked to the mill authority.

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The deadly violence displaced about 2,000 Santals and sparked a massive public outcry. The government later transferred the chief government officer and district police chief and suspended police officers for their alleged complicity in the violence.

Police have arrested 25 people in connection with the violence following a case filed by Santals, Abdul Hai Sarkar, the officer in charge of Govindaganj police station, told ucanews.com.

In the past two years, no action has been taken against the main perpetrators of the violence and victims were not adequately compensated, Rabindranath Soren, president of the National Adivasi Council, a forum of ethnic minorities in northern Bangladesh, told the press conference.

Andrious Murmu, a Santal Catholic and a victim of eviction, said those affected by violence have yet to recover from their losses.

"Most people have been living in temporary tents for two years, while only a few people have moved into cluster villages set up by the government. They have no jobs and not enough food. The government offers sporadic rations but these are not adequate," he said.

Murmu said people living in tents would face dire conditions without enough food and clothes during the upcoming winter. "Most Santals are reluctant to move to cluster villages — they want to get back to their own ancestral lands," he said.

Ramkrishna Barmon, chief government officer in Govindaganj, said efforts have been in place to compensate the victims.

"We have ongoing aid supply for victims and allowances for them. We have set up cluster villages where 70 families have moved in. Two more cluster villages are underway," Barmon told ucanews.com.

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