Not words, they want their land back

Evicted Gaibandha Santals tell visiting AL team, rights activists

It was long after sundown. Amid a shroud of darkness, a Santal family lit a fire to cook their first meal of the day.

Gulping down only rice, served on banana leaves, they knew this was the reality chasing them all along, as central and local political leaders and rights activists throughout yesterday extended their support and words of sympathy and made promises of food, rehabilitation and healthcare.

Like these 10-12 Santals, most of those who were evicted a week ago from the disputed land of Shahebganj Sugar Mill in Gobindaganj of Gaibandha didn’t seem pleased with the assurances.

Meeting central Awami League leaders at a church in Madarpur village, they said the land belonged to their forefathers and that they wanted it back.

The AL leaders, led by ABM Mozammel Haque and ABM Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, conveyed the prime minister’s message that the Santal community need not fear anything and anyone, and that they would be rehabilitated.

But Adivasis said they would not receive any help unless their demand was met.

They alleged that local representatives and administration had played an active role in the eviction drive.

Local lawmaker Abul Kalam Azad and Sapmara Union Parishad Chairman Shakil Akhand Bulbul, accused of deceiving the indigenous people, didn’t go to the church to accompany the central AL leaders.

Jatiya Adivasi Parishad Founding President Anil Marandi said local MP Azad had taken a huge amount of money from Adivasis who wanted to take out a lease on the land.

But instead of helping them get what they wanted, Azad hatched a conspiracy to drive Santals out from the land, he said.

Anil also said police filed a case against 442 Santals over the November 6 incident that led to the killing of two Santals and injuries to another 15-20 but refused to register any case from Santal people when they went to Sundarganj Police Station.

More than a hundred Santal families have been passing their nights in the open since the attack on the indigenous community by mill labourers along with police.

Meanwhile, the mill authorities have installed 300 pillars and set barbed-wire fence around the land the Adivasis were evicted from, said a mill labourer.

Barnabas Tudu, one of those evicted, said Adivasis do not want politics of killing, politics of deceits.

Without naming anyone, he said three to four people of his community had been killed.

“We saw who killed them,” Barnabas said while speaking in front of the AL central leaders.

Talking to The Daily Star later, he said 32 acres of land of his grandfather had been acquired by the sugar mill authorities.

Like him many others gave money to local UP Chairman Bulbul who assured them of helping to get the land back, Barnabas said.

Indigenous people paid Tk 300 to 500 a week to Bulbul, he said, adding that the chairman in total received Tk 5-5.5 lakh from them.

“He just used us as a vote bank,” Mamata Hebrum, a relative of Barnabas, said.

Bulbul, however, refuted the allegations of taking bribe.

He said he was initially with the indigenous people but later he changed his stance learning that the land belonged to the sugar mill.

Indigenous people said local ruling party activists had warned them not to speak against the UP chairman.

At the meeting, the AL leaders said those involved in the conspiracy would be punished.

The government assured Adivasis of all possible help including rehabilitation, employment, food, health and education.

The five-member inquiry team from the ruling party’s central committee, led by Organising Secretary Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, visited Santal villages and talked to the distressed families.

The government will do everything for the Santal families and so they need not be afraid, Khalid Mahmud said, adding that people “who instigated the Santal community” would be found out and tried.

A group of civil society group also visited the affected areas yesterday.

Rights workers, including Pankaj Bhattachariya, Prof Abul Barakat, Sanjeeb Drong, Khusi Kabir, Kajal Devnath and Dipayan Khisa were among those who met indigenous people at the church after their meeting with the AL leaders.

They demanded that the government rehabilitate the evicted Santal people and punish the culprits who planned and executed the eviction of some 1,500 families of Santals, Hindus and Muslims.

Workers Party Gaibandha district unit held demonstrations protesting the eviction, looting and killing of innocent Santal people.

Meanwhile, the district administration allocated six tonnes of food grains and Tk 50,000 for the distressed Santal families, said Abdus Samad, deputy commissioner of Gaibandha.

Report: The Daily Star