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Land grabbing drives lawlessness and deaths in Bangladesh

Majority of country's court cases relate to land disputes

Land grabbing drives lawlessness and deaths in Bangladesh

Tribal communities and the poor suffer most in land grabbing incidents. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario)

Published: August 12, 2014 07:35 AM GMT

Updated: August 11, 2014 09:36 PM GMT

In separate incidents last week, a tribal Santal man was murdered, and an Oraon woman was gang raped by Muslim men in northern Bangladesh. A local member of the ruling Awami League Party was charged and arrested for the rape.

In Rangpur district, 10 policemen guard Christ the Savior Catholic Church after an armed attack on priests and nuns, allegedly by a Muslim mob, on July 7.

Asaduzzaman Saja Fakir, a member of the opposition Jatiya Party, known for his anti-tribal and anti-Church activities, is thought to be behind the attack. For years, the Church has resisted Fakir’s attempts to illegally occupy a piece of land owned by a Church-run school.

On July 24, police in Naogaon district exhumed the body of Ovidio Marandy, a top government official and tribal Santal Catholic, for a post-mortem.

Marandy, 32, was a vocal opponent of land grabs. Prior to his death on January 11, he had clashed with Abul Kalam Azad, an Awami League parliamentarian from Govindaganj in Gaibandha district accused of grabbing some 40 hectares of land from local tribal people since the 1980s.

Before he was buried, Marandy’s family noted that neither his injuries nor the damage to his vehicle matched the “road accident” story. It took more than six months for them to secure a post-mortem.

Meanhwile, seven tribal Oraon Catholic men are languishing in jail after they were falsely charged with the murder of a Muslim man in Bolakipur area in Dinajpur district in June last year.

Azizur Prodhan and his cousin Mofazzal Prodhan, also a member of the Awami League, have been in dispute with tribals in the area over land that they say they purchased legally nearly 40 years ago, and allegedly instigated an attack on local tribal Catholic villagers.

The man whom they say was murdered died of a heart attack during the counter-attack. Franciscan Father Jerome Rozario, assistant pastor at Mariampur Catholic Church, claims the Prodhans bribed police and doctors to get a medical certificate claiming that it was murder.

Five different cases, but all have one common cause – battles over land. Police made arrests in each case, but justice is likely to be elusive.

The victims are Christian and non-Christian tribal people, from predominantly tribal areas. In at least four out of the five cases, the aggressors wield considerable political clout.

Denial of justice

Hunger for land is inevitable in Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people crammed into just 147,570 square kilometers.

A population boom has fueled the hunger. This largely agricultural, Muslim-majority nation has lost vast areas of land due to the demands of housing, urbanization and industrialization.

“About three million civil and criminal court cases are rolling in Bangladesh judiciary, and 75 percent are related to land disputes,” said Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Association for Land Reform and Development, a Dhaka-based advocacy group.

In this low lying river delta country, the shifting of rivers, an outdated land record system, forgery and corruption are blamed for many of the land disputes. With the legal system still too expensive and with little government incentive, the poor and marginalized are often denied justice.

“Our legal system is discriminatory, anti-poor and anti-indigenous people,” Huda said. “It always favors the rich and powerful. They can go to police and bribe them and they can even influence the judiciary. But the poor can do nothing. In 99 percent of cases true justice is never done.”

Christians, the majority of them Catholics, make up less than half a percent of the population, and nearly half of them belong to ethnic tribal groups.

Most tribals migrated from various Indian states during British rule to work as agricultural and day workers. The British gave them land to live on and cultivate, mostly with verbal permission. This paperless allocation has contributed to many of the current conflicts with Muslims.

“In the past, there have been dozens of attacks from land grabbers on tribals, and at least 10 Christians have been killed. No case has seen justice yet,” said Nirmol Rozario, secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association. “This culture of impunity encourages more attacks.”

Rabindranath Soren, president of the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad tribal rights group, says about 140 tribal people have been killed and more than a dozen tribal women raped for their land in the past four decades. It has forced some 10,000 tribal people to migrate to India.

“Tribal people face systematic violence for land, but the government and local administration are apathetic towards them,” Soren said. “Our constitutional right to live as equal citizens of the country is being violated but no one seems to bother.”

Rights activist Rosaline Costa from Hotline Human Rights Trust says that for the most part, political parties lose nothing by neglecting tribal people.

“It is easy to make them a scapegoat,” she said. “They are a double minority because they are poor and tribal. They don’t have power and money to fight land grabbers who are often backed by political parties.”

More than a century ago European missionairies purchased huge amounts of land for each parish they set up in Dinajpur and neighboring Rajshahi. This makes the Church a target of land grabbers as well.

Sonatan Das, a junior lawyer and secretary of the Land Commission in Dinajpur diocese, says there are currently 52 court cases regarding land disputes between the Church and Muslims in Dinajpur.

Initially, the local government and administration show sympathy to tribal people when they face violence, but the situation changes when attackers wield their political and financial influence.

Outdated land records and discriminatory legal system

In 1950, the government fixed the ceiling for individual land ownership at 13.48 hectares. In 1984, a Land Reform Act reduced the ceiling to 8.1 hectares in an effort to carry out agrarian reform and divide the country’s land more evenly.

But the country’s elites never followed the rule and never returned excess land to the state. Moreover, there has never been a ceiling system for urban areas.

“Rich people can own 20 apartments or 20 multi-storied complexes in a city like Dhaka, and there is no law to restrict them,” said Huda.

About 1.3 million hectares of government owned lands are currently held by influential elites, according to the Land Ministry.  

Bangladesh’s land records registration system is still paper-based and outdated; it makes corruption and forgery easy. Often, landowners find that their property has been sold to others without their knowledge and they are forced to go to court to get the land back.

Cases linger for years and families are often forced to spend huge sums to recover property. Often this requires selling other property, ultimately leaving them landless.

In 2000 the government passed a legal aid act to help poor people in legal cases, but beneficiaries are very few. “Less than five percent of people get this sort of legal aid,” said Huda. “In most cases, they often hesitate to go to court, fearing further troubles.”

While Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith recently said the land records system is being computerized and modernized, activists are skeptical about real progress.

“Updating the land records system won’t in itself change anything,” said Huda. “The whole system should be changed, including the law and trial system.

“The land law must be changed to make it eligible to favor rich and poor equally. There should be land tribunals in each district of the country and also in the Supreme Court. The land cases should be resolved quickly and no case should take more than two to three years,” said Huda.

“Once it is done, 75 percent of the court cases will be gone within 10 or 15 years. But this will require lots of effort from the government, and they must do it for good.”

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