Indigenous Santals in Madarpur village of northern Gainbandha district speak of their ordeal after being attacked and evicted from disputed land in this Nov. 16 photo. (ucanews.com photo)
For Andreas Murmu, 35, an indigenous Santal man, this Christmas is going to be the most joyless one of his entire life.
Murmu, a Catholic, has been living like a refugee with his wife and two sons in Joypur village, Govindaganj in the northern Gaibandha district of Bangladesh.
They are among 2,500 Santals, who were attacked and forcibly evicted from disputed land by ‘thugs’ from the Rangpur Sugar mill and police on Nov. 6-7.
About 70 percent of the evicted people are Catholic, 15 percent are Protestant and the rest are non-Christians. Most of them are living in tarpaulin tents under the open sky, while others have taken shelter with relatives and neighbors in the villages of Joypur and Madarpur.
“In our area, Christmas celebrations start from Dec. 16 and lasts until the New Year, with people participating in traditional Christmas music, dance and drama; buying new clothes, visiting people in villages and decorating houses and the Church. None of these things are happening now,” Murmu told ucanews.com.
Murmu said his family had lost all their belongings including money, valuables and livestock in the attack, putting them into a serious financial crisis. He is planning to take his family to his workplace in Ghoraghat area in the neighboring Dinajpur district during the Christmas holidays.
“The joyful mood for Christmas celebrations is missing here. People have no money and they are still gripped by panic. They have warm clothes from donors, but not enough food and medicines,” he said.
There is a small Catholic church in the village but it’s being used as a warehouse for relief materials as they trickle in from various voluntary organizations and church groups.
“We used to decorate the church every year, but it’s not possible this year. People don’t know where they will have the Mass on Christmas day,” Murmu added.
Ganesh Murmu, 40, a pastor from Lutheran Church in Joypur, said some 300 members of the church are in dire straits since the eviction, leaving them in no mood for celebrations.
“Usually, people complete Christmas preparations by Dec. 15 but not this time. None of them were able to buy new clothes as they usually do every year, and we have not able to decorate the church as people couldn’t pay donations,” Ganesh told ucanews.com.
Santal women having lunch under open sky in Madarpur village of northern Gainbandha district after they were forcibly evicted from disputed land in this Nov. 16 photo. (ucanews.com photo)
A small minority
In Bangladesh, about 90 percent of its 160 million population are Sunni Muslims, while Hindus are the largest minority group with about 9 percent. The rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity.
Christians, the majority of them Catholic, make up less than half a percent of the population and about half of an estimated 600,000 Christians hail from various indigenous ethnic groups.
Christmas is the only widely known Christian festival that people from other faiths know about, as it is a public holiday across the country.
Father Samson Marandi, parish priest of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Dinajpur, which covers the area, lamented for plight of displaced Santals.
“These people are living like prisoners in jail as they are afraid to go outside for various purposes including work,” Father Marandi, a Santal himself, told ucanews.com.
“They have lost everything in arson attack and their normal life has been brought to a halt. We are sad to see they are unable to celebrate Christmas joyfully like past years,” he said.
The priest said his church would put aside much of the traditional customs and festivities to be in solidarity with the sober mood of the evicted people.
“Traditionally, we have a novena Mass for villagers leading up to Christmas day but it’s not being held this year. Our bishop (Sebastian Tudu) will visit the affected people and offer Mass for them on Christmas day, in order to help them realize that we are with them in both good and bad times,” the priest added.
Some Santals like Ganesh Murmu see a spiritual lesson in their plight.
“This is a hard time for us, but we accept it. We offer our suffering to Jesus and to the Holy Family, who had to endure persecution but accepted it as God’s plan,” the Lutheran pastor said.
In happier times, indigenous Santals perform a traditional dance during cultural program in northern Rajshahi Diocese in this 2015 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)