Catholic ‘Santals’ defend themselves in courts after Bangladesh police shootings
After almost 1000 Santal tribal families, mostly Catholic Christians, in Bangladesh were attacked by the local
administration and radicals, earlier this month, the High Court has ordered the authorities to submit a report on the attack on the Santal Tribals by 30 November 2016. The High Court has also allowed the displaced Santals to harvest paddy at their land at the Bagda Farm in the Rangpur Sugar Mill area of Gobindganj Upazila (Sub Unit of Districts) from where they were forcibly evicted.
The attack on Santal Tribals
The attack on the Santal Tribals who are mostly Catholic Christian took place on 6 November 2016. According to the Tribals, around 1000 Santal families were evicted and chased away from their homes as a result of an eviction drive conducted by the police. Armed members of the Awami League and workers from the Rangpur Sugar Mill backed the eviction drive that also saw the police open fire on the Tribals. Makeshift houses of Santals were set on fire after being ransacked and looted of valuables and livestock. At least two people were killed as a result of the attack and many were wounded.
Media reported that the police had arrest warrants for 300 Santals, who fled the scene in order to avoid jail. Others defended themselves with bows and arrows injuring some of the attackers.
The Santal community, who have had a running dispute with the authorities over land ownership, were not sure if they would be able to harvest the paddy after the Sugar mill workers fenced 135 acres of land with barbed wire in area where the Santals have cultivated their paddy for years.
The Santals had claimed they had planted paddy in 100 acres and pulse, mustard and jute in another 800 acres in the Gobindaganj Upazila of Gaibandha district when they were forcibly evicted. Although their homes were ransacked and burnt, their fields were not.
On 17 November following a preliminary hearing on the petition filed in the High Court, a bench comprising of Justice Obaidul Hassan and Justice Krishna Debnath passed an order to allow the Santals to harvest paddy at the Bagda Farm in the Rangpur Sugar Mill area of Gobindaganj.
The Court also asked the authorities concerned to submit a report by 30 November on the attacks on the Tribals asking them as to why their inaction over protecting the Santal ethnic community should not be declared illegal.
The petition was filed in the High Court on 16 November 2016, jointly by Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) – a legal aid and human rights organisation, Association for Land Reforms and Development and the Brotee Samaj Kallyan Sangstha. The petition demanded that the High Court order the government for an explanation on the alleged shooting on Santal Tribals as well as details about compensation given so far to the victims.
Eleven respondents were named in the petition including the Home Secretary, Gaibandha District Collector and Superintendent of Police, and the Deputy Inspector General of Rangpur.
Plight of the displaced families
The evicted families who took shelter in three neighboring villages after their houses were burnt and looted, families are starving for food.
Emmanuel Baskey, a father of three, told ucanews.com that Nuns from the Missionaries of Charity handed out food and clothes to almost 200 people on 9 November. “We are trying to survive on a few kilograms of rice, oil, lentils and few scraps of clothing.”
Church groups are still trying to intervene but because the issue is also political in nature the local Church has faced difficulty in distributing aid said Father Samson Marandy, parish priest from Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Dinajpur, which covers the affected area.
“These people have been living in absolute fear since the attacks; they don’t have food, can’t get medical treatment and don’t have an income,” he said.
“We condemn the attacks on tribal people and call on the government to ensure justice and the realization of their rights,” said Nirmol Rozario, President of the Bangladesh Christian Association.
The reason reported behind the dispute is that “After 1962, the government bought 774,000 hectares of land that belonged to the Santal Tribals, where they grow sugar cane.
“The agreement provided that the land would be used only for this type of crop. If another crop were introduced, the land would go back to the original owners. In 2003, the local government suspended sugarcane production and so the local Tribals asked for their land.”
“We saw police attack minority Christians,” said Rozario. “Since they are tribal, police thought they were weak and struck them hard. We condemn this indecent act and demand an investigation.”