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Land disputes imperil Bangladeshi Christians

The hunger for land in an overpopulated country fuels violence and bitter family divisions

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Land disputes imperil Bangladeshi Christians

An ethnic Santal Catholic mother whose husband was sent to jail in a fabricated land case is seen at a village in Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh. (Photo: Rock Ronald Rozario/UCA News)

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For nearly a decade now, Sumon Gomes has seen how his family’s peaceful coexistence with paternal uncles and cousins has come to an end over a land dispute.

Gomes, 35, is a Catholic father and private jobholder in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. He hails from Nawabganj, about 40 kilometers from Dhaka, where his grandfather owned 20 bighas (6.66 acres) of ancestral land.

Trouble brewed between his father and three uncles as they sought to divide the land after their father’s death.

“My father wanted an equal share of land for each brother, but he found one of my uncles was occupying more land than he was entitled to. When he objected, my uncle filed a case against him. It soured our relationship,” Gomes told UCA News.

While the court case is ongoing, Gomes’ family has stopped talking to his uncle’s family.

“I feel sad when I see joint families living happily and peacefully, but our relationship has worsened over a land dispute. I am not sure we will ever have a better relationship,” he lamented.

Such cases are very common all over Bangladesh.

Dream shattered

Catholic couple Mintu N. Rozario and Ruby T. Rozario migrated to Libya in 2008 as expatriate workers. They are now based in Tajura near Libyan capital Tripoli with their four children.

Mintu is employed at the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ruby is a staff nurse in a hospital.

The couple planned to build a beautiful house in their home village in the Ulokhola area of Kaliganj in Gazipur district of central Bangladesh, where they would live peacefully after retirement.

Their dream hit the rocks in 2016 when a real estate company attempted to grab about half of their land of just under an acre.

“We refused when they wanted to buy the land because the land is partly ancestral and the rest we have bought with our hard-earned income. The company put us under tremendous pressure including regular threats,” Ruby told UCA News.

The company and its agents tricked their neighbors, bought surrounding land and encircled their homestead and land. A fabricated land forgery case was filed against the family.

From 2016 to 2018, the couple made many trips to Bangladesh to save their land. They contacted local union council members, land officials, police, Christian rights groups and a local parliamentarian to seek support.

“We had numerous meetings and had been forced to give about 5 million taka (US$59,000) as bribes to various groups in our desperate bid to save our property. But it didn’t work out as the company bought out everyone with more money,” Ruby said.

When all efforts had failed, the couple made a last-ditch attempt to reach a settlement with the company. In January 2019, they sold about a third of the land for 5.9 million taka.

“Even after selling the land, we don’t feel safe. We still live in fear that we might lose one day what is left,” Ruby added.

Violence and deaths

There is an enormous hunger for land in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country where more than 160 million people are crammed into a land mass of 147,570 square kilometers.

This desire is fueled in the largely agrarian nation by a population boom and rising demand for housing, industrialization and urbanization.

Bangladesh is a low-lying riverine country where shifting of rivers, an outdated paper-based land record system, rampant forgery and corruption are blamed for many land disputes.

Rights groups estimate that 70-80 percent of cases in the country’s judiciary are directly or indirectly related to land disputes and grabbing.

“Our legal system is expensive and complex, which offers an advantage for politically and financially strong people and groups against poor, powerless and marginalized communities,” said Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Dhaka-based Association for Land Rights and Development.

Many of the disputes can be blamed on the outdated land law, a culture of impunity for offenders and the government’s negligent attitude toward poorer sections of society, he noted.

“The land issue is sensitive as it is related to the survival of people and families. Unfair and discriminatory handling of the issue means we are not only keeping issues for violence alive but also harming the process of democratization,” Huda added.

A government land official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted follies in handling land issues.

“There are many problems in land laws and the management system that leave scope for unfair treatment. This has been going on for ages and those in power have not focused on bringing changes. Nothing will improve if lawmakers and higher authorities don’t pay adequate attention,” he told UCA News. 

Minorities and church efforts

Things can get even uglier when land disputes turn violent, especially when the victims are from religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians or from ethnic indigenous groups.

In 2014, a Santal Catholic government official, Ovidio Marandy, was allegedly murdered for his stance against land grabbing in northern Bangladesh.

In 2016, thousands of ethnic Santal Christians were evicted from their ancestral land in Gaibandha district by a sugar mill authority. The violent eviction left three Santals dead and dozens injured.

Last year the Catholic Church intervened to help a Catholic family in Dhaka get back their property after a long legal battle against a real estate company.

The Church is aware of increasing land disputes making Christians suffer, said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission (ECJP).

“Usually, Christians don’t divide their land individually and they take benefits based on verbal consensus. But things have changed and both internal and external issues are complicating lives of people through various forms of land disputes,” Father Gomes told UCA News.

The ECJP has formed special committees in predominantly Christian areas to offer support to victims of land disputes and grabbing, and it has appealed to the government to pay special attention to ethnic minorities, the priest said.

“In many places, religious and ethnic minorities are suffering badly due to land disputes, and they are facing discrimination and injustice. This cannot continue year after year as the land problem is destroying peace and harmony in society,” Father Gomes added.

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