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From landowners to laborers

Santal Catholics battle to regain their ancestral land in northern Bangladesh

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From landowners to laborers

Indigenous people work on farmland in the Ghoraghat area of Dinajpur district in Bangladesh. Many have turned from landowners to laborers due to land grabbing in past decades. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

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Mungli Besra, 45, an ethnic Santal Catholic, choked in anguish as she narrated her sad life story in the yard of her mud-walled, thatched house in northern Bangladesh.

She became a widow in 2000 with a 5-year-old son. Her husband was a landless, sharecropper farmer who left no savings.

Frustrated and helpless, Besra resorted to day labor to feed herself and her son at their home in Raghunathpur village in the Ghoraghat area of Dinajpur district.

Over the past 20 years, she has been working as a farmhand for Muslim landowners in nearby villages. As her son grew up, he joined his mother in the same job.

“If I had enough money, I could send my son to school. Now he has become illiterate like me,” Besra told UCA News.

Depending on the availability of work, mother and son can earn about 500 taka (US$6) daily. But things would be better for them if Besra had inherited some of the seven acres of ancestral land she received from her father. She and her brothers have been involved in a legal battle over ownership since 2002.

“My grandfather owned 25 acres of land, but much has been grabbed by local Muslims with forged land documents they managed with the support of local politicians and government officials. I am still hopeful over winning back our land,” she said.

Sometimes, when work is scarce, she and her son are forced to work on Muslims’ land that was once owned by her forefathers.

“We feel sad that once our ancestors were owners of the land and we have become laborers,” Besra said, adding that Muslims have threatened her several times to try to make her withdraw her legal case.

Raghunathpur has 300 Santal Catholics belonging to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church of Mariampur. The parish has 50 villages and 7,344 ethnic indigenous Catholics, mostly Santals. Most are poor and landless like Besra.

The church is covered by predominantly indigenous Dinajpur Diocese, which has more than 62,000 Catholics in nine civil districts. Catholics are a tiny minority in the estimated 20 million people, mostly Muslims, in the region.

Mungli Besra has been fighting a legal battle to reclaim seven acres of ancestral land since 2002. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Land disputes and violence

Dozens of ethnic Santals under Mariampur church have lost ancestral land in the past decades and many are still fighting to save what they have, including their homesteads, says Thakur Murmu, a Santal Catholic and village leader at Raghunathpur.

Murmu, 50, himself won three acres of land including a homestead from Muslims through a legal battle. He is currently fighting another case over 13 acres of disputed land.

“My father told me that my grandfather had 200 acres of land, but most has gone by now. I have tried to save as much as I could. There was a time when I also worked on the land of Muslims that was once our ancestral land,” Murmu told UCA News.

There are both external and internal causes behind the loss of ancestral land among ethnic communities in northern Bangladesh, he says.

“Our ancestors were illiterate and ignorant, so they didn’t maintain land documents. A nexus of Muslims, backed by local politicians and the administration, exploited the weaknesses of ethnic people to grab their land with forged documents and by force. When there is a land dispute, local politicians who are mostly Muslims take the side of Muslims,” he said.

Mahfuzar Rahman, chairman of Bulakipur Union Council, a local government body, denied such allegations.

“Both Muslims and ethnic people are our voters, so there is no reason to neglect Santals. Land problems are long-running, and it is difficult to determine who is the actual owner as both the original buyer and seller are dead. Now the court only can decide about it,” Rahman told UCA News. 

For two months in summer, Murmu earns money from a mango orchard he created near his homestead. The rest of the year, he and his wife work as farmhands, while their only son drives a van to earn a living.

Land disputes are a major cause of tension and violence between Santals and Muslims in the area, he says.

In 2007 and 2012, violence flared between Santals and Muslims in Raghunathpur, leading to chases, counter-chases and beatings.

“In 2007, attackers broke my leg and then a case was filed against me. I spent several months in jail and was released with the support of the Church and Caritas,” Murmu recalled.

Thanks to church support, about 20 acres of Santals’ land have been reclaimed in Raghunathpur since 2000, he said.  

Thakur Murmu faced violence in 2007 and 2012 in his bid to reclaim ancestral land. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Church and NGO support

At one time, each Catholic family owned 5-7 acres of land, but now about 40 percent of Catholics in the diocese are landless, says Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur.

“We are sympathetic to the plight of people, but we cannot work directly on land cases. The diocese has a legal officer who supports people in tackling land problems. Also, there are year-long advocacy programs to make people aware of land retention and obtaining documents,” Bishop Tudu, a Santal himself, told UCA News.

The complexity of the justice system, bribery in land dealings and a lack of funds hinder the Church’s efforts in supporting people with land problems, the prelate noted.

“It is true that indigenous people are poor and ignorant, and on the other hand land grabbers are politically and financially connected. The Church is trying its best to ensure justice and peace,” Bishop Tudu added.

The Women Commission for Development in Bangladesh (WCDB) is among the NGOs in Dinajpur assisting ethnic communities to save their land, says executive director Sondha Malo, an ethnic Malo.

“For a long time, indigenous people were not aware of land documents and land grabbers exploited this weakness. Also, local moneylenders occupied vast areas from these people for a small amount of loans. It has gone on for years, and about 80 percent of ethnic people in the Ghoraghat area have become landless,” Malo told UCA News.

Ethnic communities have long demanded a separate land commission for them, but the government has not paid heed, she said.

“There is a lack of interest among authorities to end the plight of indigenous people because they are a poor minority and socioeconomically powerless,” she said.

A government land officer in Dinajpur, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that the existing land law and records system have loopholes that often go against indigenous people.

“The land system including the law is outdated and anti-poor. Unless the system is reformed by the government, politically powerful people will continue to exploit it and the poor will suffer,” he added.

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