Gobindaganj police were following orders when they opened fire at the indigenous Santals during the violent clash between villagers and local sugar mill workers in the upazila earlier this month, said Gobindaganj police station OC Subrata Kumar Sarker.
“There were five magistrates present on the spot that day. They gave us the order to open fire at the Santals to bring the situation under control,” the OC told the Dhaka Tribune over phone Monday evening.
When contacted, Gobindaganj Upazila Nirbahi Officer Abdul Hannan, who was one of the five magistrates present at the scene, admitted to having given the order.
The four other magistrates were Palashbari upazila Assistant Commissioner (Land) Towhidul Islam, Gobindaganj upazila Assistant Commissioner (Land) Ahmed Ali, and Rafiul Islam and Mezbah Uddin, magistrates at the office of deputy commissioner in Gaibandha.
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The clash took place on November 6 between the Santals and the workers of Rangpur Sugar Mills Ltd to evict the Santals from Shahebganj-Bagda farm land, where police later intervened and opened fire, killing three Santals.
At least 30 people from all sides were injured as well, nine of whom were police officials.
UNO Hannan told the Dhaka Tribune that the five magistrates were instructed to go to the area on the day of the incident when the district superintendent's office officially requested Gaibandha district Magistrate Md Abdus Samad for them.
“Arriving there and judging the situation, the magistrates deemed it necessary to order the police to open fire,” he added.
[caption id="attachment_30300" align="aligncenter" width="870"] Santal houses on fire in Gobindaganj, Gaibandha on November 6
The land in question was acquired by the then East Pakistan government from the local Santals and Bangalis in 1962 for the sugar factory, according to sources.
However, instead of farming sugarcanes as was agreed between the parties, the factory owners started cultivating paddy and tobacco on the land, they added.
"This is clear violation of the agreement, and the land should be returned to the original owners via the government as per the agreement," said Supreme Court lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua who visited Gobindaganj on Wednesday.
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The affected Santals said they returned to the land which was rightfully theirs on July 1, building around 600 houses at the urging of Shakil Ahmed Bulbul, president of Bangladesh Chhatra League in Gaibandha and the newly elected Union Parishad chairman in the area.
Not only the UP chairman, but local Awami League lawmaker Abul Kalam Azad also assured the Santals that he would stand beside them in their struggle for the land, they claimed.
However, on the night of November 6, a group of mill workers attacked the Santal community to remove them from the land. The Santals resisted with bows and arrows, which led to a violent clash.
All the Santal houses were looted and set to fire by the attackers in the presence of police. What remained of the houses were trampled down with a tractor machine.
The victims claimed that Bulbul and Azad, the leaders they trusted, were also involved in the attack.
Meanwhile, both Gobindaganj OC and UNO claimed that they did not conduct any drive to evict the Santals, while the sugar factory authorities, police and local administration are claiming that the Santals were attacked by other villagers.
The heinous attack has caused an uproar all over the country, and protests have been taking place demanding justice for the Santal community and punishment for the attackers.