“This Bagda farmland belongs to our ancestors. Around 1842.30 acres of croplands were confiscated by the then Pakistan government for Rangpur Sugar Mills in 1955-56. About 15 ethnic and five Bengali villages were cleared to make way for the sugar mill where 70% of the land acquired belonged to different ethnic groups like the Santal, Oraon, Paharia, Malo, and Mahles.
“Many of us became landless overnight without any compensation,” said Rabindranath Saren, president of the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad while addressing a meeting in Gobindaganj, Gaibandha on August 11 to mark the completion of a decade since the adoption of the UN’s Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in 2017.
“As you all know the Rangpur Sugar Mill was closed in 2004 and it was reopened in 2007. Since then the mill has reportedly run for 14-15 days at best. But to our utter dismay, (descendants of original owners), we noticed the sugar mill authority illegally leasing the land to local influential people. It led us to mobilise the movement to reclaim our land since 2014 under the banner of “Shahebganj Bagda Farm Bhumi Uddhar Shongram Committee.”
“We began sowing wheat and vegetables in the land facing decades-long losses. But then the tragedy of November 6 unfolded,” Saren added.
It is now known to everybody how the former sugar mill authorities, in cahoots with the local MP and police, ruthlessly killed three indigenous land-rights activists, and injured many others, on November 6, 2016, and filed false cases against numerous indigenous and Bengali land rights activists as well.
Today marks one year since that gruesome day, and the victims have yet to receive any sort of compensation.
Sarah Marandi, a young Santal women’s rights activist, who has a Masters in English literature, expressed: “This land, to us, is not mere summation of arable soil, crops, and vegetation, but it bears upon the cremation grounds of our ancestors, the songs and melodies of all our rituals and festivals.
“Can you, the grabbers, take it all away from us by use of force or coercion?”
Sarah’s words echo those in article 11 (1) and (2) of the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights.
The activists and victims
We talked to the widow of a slain activist, a number of injured people, and innocent indigenous folk who are in hiding because of false cases lodged against them.
Roughly 800,000 people belonging to 38 ethnic groups in 16 districts of broader Rajshahi and Rangpur have gradually lost their land since Partition, according to Jatiya Adivasi Parishad
It was against the backdrop of a pouring sky and endless rows of sugarcane fields that we heard the stories of 70-year-old Santina Tudu, the widow of slain Santal rights activist Mongol Mardi, Dwijen Tudu and his wife Bimal, Majhi Hembrom, Sunny Saren and Shah Jahan Mian, Mungli Saren, and a 15-year-old named Sajal Kisku who was also among the injured.
We also talked to Thomas Mardi who has forsaken his job at a local Christian mission to serve this cause and is in hiding as we speak to evade a number of false cases filed against him and death threats from powerful opponents.
Stories of terror
“The day my husband was killed, I was not in the Bagda farm area. My husband was in the area to mobilise the movement,” said a tearful Santina Tudu.
“Let us explain the entire situation as she can’t speak Bangla very well. Mongal Mardi has gone missing from November 6 evening. There were too many police firings, arsons, and lootings all around, so we were unable to take notice of this incident. We, Santal and Bengali activists of the movement, got a phone call from the police on the afternoon of November 8 that a dead body of one our fellow activists was in the police morgue.
“Finally, his body was brought to his wife on November 9 and it was buried in the presence of a large number of security personnel and officials of the administration. His wife fainted seeing the body,” explained the local Santal activist.
“We are very poor. How can we survive? I wish to get our land back and demand justice for my husband’s killing,” said Santina Tudu in her broken Bangla.
Philomon Baskey, a medical practitioner by profession and vice-president of the movement, says that there has been a mammoth 50% reduction in the indigenous population in the area since 1947.
Incessant attempts at land grabbing by the mainstream Bangalis, lack of security, and the sheer lawlessness in the area are the major causes behind the exodus of the indigenous peoples of the North.
Roughly 800,000 people belonging to 38 ethnic groups in 16 districts of broader Rajshahi and Rangpur have gradually lost their land since Partition, according to Jatiya Adivasi Parishad.
According to renowned economist Professor Dr Abul Barakat: “Around 202,164 acres of land have so far been dispossessed among 10 plain-land indigenous groups in Bangladesh. These groups are Dalu, Garo, Hajong, Khasi, Mahato, Oraon, Patro, Pahan, Rakhain, and Santal.
“The current market price of the total dispossessed land from these 10 indigenous groups would be Tk6,270 crore.
“It should be noted that the monetary value of the suffering caused by dispossession and alienation have not been considered.”
We had to return to Dhaka after our two-day visit in August, but it is nearly to impossible to forget the scars and wounds of the injured, the woes of the widow of a slain activist, or the tension and insecurity of the innocent people who are passing their days in hideouts with the weight of false cases on their shoulders.
Audity Falguni works at the Translation Department of Bangla Academy.