DhakaTribune
Wednesday January 17, 2018 01:45 PM

Under the open sky

  • Published at 06:00 PM January 05, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:38 PM January 05, 2017
Under the open sky
Santals deserve the same rights as all Bangladeshis/MEHEDI HASAN

The curtains closed on a devastating year with the normalisation of Santal cleansing. Violence against the Santal community must end

The year 2016, counting the month of victory, December, ends with dimness, resentment, and cynicism in Bangladesh as unrelenting ominous incidents continue to face the nation-state for months throughout the year. The list of ill-omened incidents in Bangladesh is too long to be described in a short essay.

From the rape of a five-year old girl to the murder of young women after being raped, from the hacking of non-believers to mass-killings of innocent nationals and international citizens, from the abuse of environmentalists resisting destruction of the world’s largest mangrove forest to murders of protesters, and from appalling attacks on religious minorities to forced displacement, destruction and killings of Santal citizens, and coercion to impede garment workers’ protests for democratic rights and fair wages — all forms of crimes and violence occurred in 2016.

The spate of violence and scale of human rights violations broke previous records making it hard to begin to talk about things — let alone analyse. Dramatic events of brutal violence against women, indigenous people, religious minorities, non-believers, and political opponents have been normalised in an independent state under the aegis of a pro-liberation and secular government. And a year ends with the process of normalisation of Santal eviction and minority cleansing in a nation-state that has a secular constitution.

The news of atrocities in Santal villages, following recurring attacks on Hindu temples, idolatries, and houses across the country, was a shock to many only a few months ago.

But it has gradually become normalised and people seemed to have accepted the brutal attacks on the Santal people, which has taken a form of ethnic cleansing.

The so-called miscreants who set fire in Santal villages and Hindu homes are committing violence with endorsement of an administration that is untouchable.

Media reports showed that the attacks on Hindu minorities in late October, and the brutal violence and rapes in Santal villages throughout November, were committed by identifiable perpetrators who were allegedly encouraged and supported by certain members of parliament and local authorities who turned a blind eye to violence against minorities.

There had initially been plenty of criticism of the ongoing violence against minorities in Bangladesh.

The debates and discussions on atrocities against Santal and Hindu citizens have been superseded by a festive feel that was embraced by the nation as a so-called spirit of victory of “Bengalism” in month of victory.

People seemed to have overlooked that Hindu Bengalis who should have celebrated Victory Day have been persecuted even in the month of victory, while thousands of Santal citizens including Hindu priests in Bangladesh are being attacked, by sharp weapons, over and over. Hindu minorities were persecuted across Bangladesh — from Nasirnagar to Chattak, at Goplaganj in Chittagong, at Sunamganj, at Netrokona, and at Dinajpur.

The month of victory had commenced with the news of 20 more Hindu houses torched, making 65 more people homeless in Dinajpur. Then idols and temples were vandalised and ransacked in Netrokona by unidentified miscreants on December 4.

Atrocities against Hindu citizens continued for days while authorities appeared ineffective — in a supposedly secular state. The organised atrocities in 2016 are similar to 2012 when 2,5000 Muslim rioters burned Buddhist temples.

According to media reports, the attacks on Hindu temples in October and November 2016 have seen over 20 temples destroyed while 300 homes were burned across the country.

Most shocking was the news that violence against Hindus allegedly committed with the support of a local MP who remains “out of touch” with the law enforcement team.

There is a debate as to whether the attacks could be called “communal” or non-communal “political violence.” Some human rights defenders, including advocate Sultana Kamal, have defined these phenomena as “communal” and religious violence.

However, any critical political analyst should agree that this is an over-generalised approach to politically motivated attacks on certain groups of minorities by Muslim hardliners endorsed by local administration.

Atrocities against Hindu citizens continued for days while authorities appeared ineffective — in a supposedly secular state

The endorsement of administration was so obvious that even the prime minister found it difficult to place the blame on the opposition for these atrocities against minorities.

This was the first time in the past several years that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has retained her moral high ground while expressing her sympathy to the victims of hatred and bigotry.

Nevertheless, there was hardly any proven step to ensure justice for those hundreds of innocent men and women in Nasirnagar, while government inaction encouraged further violence in other parts of the country, making hundreds homeless during winter.

Moreover, when the Hindu victims were overwhelmed with their loss and wounds in villages in Brahmanbaria, Chittagong, Gopalganj, and Sunamganj —  some gangs of a radical Muslim-Bangladeshi background, allegedly sponsored by local administration, attacked, ransacked, and carried out organised violence against indigenous people in Santal villages, leaving three Christian-Santals dead at Gobindapur in Gaibandha.

On November 6 in 2016, thousands of Santals lost homes and their possessions. They were forced to flee their villages overnight, when UNO endorsed a local sugar-mill to forcibly evict hundreds of Santal families, who had made homes in their ancestors’ property under the existing land law 1982.

Many women and girls were raped during the forcible eviction and words cannot describe the brutality of the violence.

A previously published article in Dhaka Tribune described the atrocities against Santal population as “a crime against humanity.”

When seeking justice with the District Commissioner (DC), he refused to intervene and refered to a UNO, who totally overlooked his responsibilities to the villagers’ safety and human rights.

In fact, the DC and UNO had both made contradictory and politically ambiguous statements, showing no mercy to the thousands of victims, who have days and nights under the open sky winter.

***

Despite the prime minister’s reassuring statement that every citizen will be safeguarded, the victims of violence against minorities have been left without justice.

The incidents of setting fire to hundreds of Santal villages in Gobindaganj and at Shahebganj in Gaibanadha were apparently planned by the local administration and a ruling party MP.

The violence against Santal people was co-committed by the government deployed law enforcement personnel, who in the past have collaborated in the shooting against peasants and Santals, as they marched to defend land and environment in Phulbari in 2006.

There is clear evidence of police violence and police letting local criminals set fire to Santal houses, leaving three Santal people dead in November 2016.

But the coffins were not returned, bodies were allegedly missing, and rapes of women have been ignored.

Instead of prosecuting the criminals, police filed arbitrary cases against an estimated 300 Santal people who were defending their homes and land, and were rendered landless and homeless overnight without any jurisdiction in an independent state that is meant to belong to 45 different communities.

What is the most concerning issue in the beginning of a new year is the process of normalisation of these heinous atrocities.

A vast majority of Bangladeshi-Muslims appear reluctant to talk about indigenous rights and human rights of religious minorities in Bangladesh.

While the forced displacement of Santals from their land was made possible by reinstating a dodgy lease by a sugar mill that failed to maintain the lease for years, people seemed to believe in the political rhetoric that this was an “expropriation.” As if the state has the right to evict and brutalise people in this way.

Both the DC and UNO have claimed that this is an expropriation, because the homeless Santal villagers who made home in their ancestors’ land have breached a law — albeit the truth is mislaid.

The Bangladeshi administration should work harder to ensure everyone, including religious minorities and non-Muslims, can live with dignity

No one seem to be interested in investigating the truth.   

According to the existing land law 1982, if the land is not used for the purpose stated originally by the private owner in Bangladesh, the land would be brought under the government as public property, and would be returned to the people whose ancestors owned the piece of land.

Therefore, the homeless indigenous people and Santal villagers have the right to come back to their ancestral land under the Land Law 1982 in Bangladesh. We ask: How could a UNO assign local administration to forcibly evict thousands of people from their own land?

There is rarely an answer to the above question. Instead of enquiring into the truth, some labelled these one-sided atrocities as structural and communal violence, while other critics argue that it has nothing to do with religion.

The term “communal violence” is an over-simplification of the reality.

Religion does play its part as much as culture and nationalism in the political game of hatred and control over lives and resources.

Politicians would need to look deep into the facts and see that this is political violence against a minority, based on bigotry and prejudice of all kinds.

In order to understand this phenomenon, one needs to look into the complex interplay of nationalist, cultural, religious, linguistic, and economic power that are not only possessed by some Bengali nationals or Muslim hard-liners, but is also sponsored and promoted by the pro-liberation government that is obsessed with the supremacy of Bengali nationalism and Muslim identity.

The current nation-state of Bangladesh falls from the view that independence is the capital of a certain group of Bengalis, and some hard-liner Muslims, who could do anything they want anywhere in the state. In the start of a new year, we need to overcome this view and the chauvinism that comes with it.

The Bangladeshi administration should work harder to ensure everyone, including religious minorities and non-Muslims, can live with dignity with their own beliefs and equal rights, and in harmony.

All perpetrators of atrocities in Hindu and Santal villages must be brought under the rule of law with immediate effect.

The hope for this new year would be to see a no-nonsense and tolerant strategy to ensure the protection of all citizens, the return and rehabilitation of homeless Santals to their ancestors’ lands, to prosecute local and ruling party criminals, and to prevent violence against religious and indigenous minorities.

Rumana Hashem is a UK-based academic.

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