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Caught in the Land-grabber's Grasp

Caught in the Land-grabber's Grasp

Author: Mominul Islam Shuruz
Publication: Star Weekend Magazine
Date: December 10, 2004

Translated by Mustafa Zaman

Encounter with the Victims
"I am happy that you all have come to see us. Please help us live our lives ... and look after us ... entreats an elderly woman, whose name is Prya Dasi, a villager let me know. Prya Dasi has lost her sight and her hearing too has diminished. She pleads for the "safety" of her people.

Twenty-six days after the incident, the community that was subjected to merciless beating, humiliation and continuos persecution by a group of miscreants out to grab their land, saw no signs of empathy from the local authorities. As she allows me to take a snapshot of her, I ask her how old she is. "Four kuri and five," a villager chips in. This means four into twenty, plus five; which makes her 85. At this age she has enough reason to worry over the safety of her community. The land the usurpers are out to grab is the sacred cremation ground that has been a part of this village for as long as she remembers.

Prya Dasi lost her husband "eight years after the war of independence in 1971". "Where will we be if they take this land away from us. My husband is lying in that land and I too deserves a place in that shoshan (cremation ground)", Prya Dasi intones.

The land-grabbers are oblivious to such emotional attachment of people to their land. They are even disrespectful to the traditional life-style of a minority, which has been the part of the demographic landscape since time immemorial. The usurpers have often threatened the people with eviction from their households.

On the fateful day, during the atrocious attack, the whole community found itself at the receiving end of a premeditated aggression. Some received severe beating and some ended up with near-fatal injuries. Gouri Das, around fifty, was brutally attacked. On the palm of her right hand, she bears the deep gash of being struck by a sharp weapon. There is another cut on the right side of her head. As she speaks it becomes clear that there is little she remembers of the mayhem, as she was knocked unconscious from the first few blows she received. She does however, remember her first attacker. "It was Kader, son of Mafizuddin, who struck me on the head with a sharp weapon," she asserts. She cannot tell "who else beat her up later". As she gained consciousness, she found her sari missing.

Hari Dasi, another 40 year-old villager, found herself in the same predicament. She was literally trampled by a bunch of men, men who knew no mercy. Hari Dasi testifies that "the pain is still there after all these days". "I had to spend a thousand taka to get well, though I have not yet recuperated," she relates.

The patch of land, the main cause of the atrocity, lies besides a pond. We went to have a look at it for ourselves. For the Hindus of this region it is a sacred ground, as it is their final resting-place. Broken earthenware is scattered all over the ground, signs of cremation punctuated by mounds of earth, under which the remains of the dear ones are buried. Who would want to usurp such a religiously significant land? But here in Gopalpur there are people who are even ready to put an end to others' lives to gain a patch of land.

At the cremation ground, we meet Bimala Rani Das, a sexagenarian. She is straightforward in her appeal, "I want peace, this land always belonged to my community, I have seen so, since my childhood. Why do they want to grab this land now, I don't know! My husband died and was cremated on this very ground. When I die I would like to be cremated here, please see to it that it happens," she continues.

Even girls of the Hindu community at Gopalpur village have stopped going out of the house in fear of these miscreants who openly harass them on the streets.

Malati Rani, a seventeen-year-old girl, had to stop going to school altogether. She had studied up to class ten at the local Jalsheen high school, and it came to a halt last year. Young men from the land grabber group used to swear at her every day on her way to school.

Faced with the question of why she stopped going to school from which she received a stipend, Malati is hesitant. Her answer to why she quit school is short: "they swear at me."

The same reason stopped Shilpi Rani, age 16, from going to school two years earlier. The list goes on. There are several others of this age group whose willingness to pursue education has been stymied by the local goons. Chandana, Kalpana, Shilpi, Niasha, Sabitri and Madhubala's dreams were dashed for the same reason.

Many parents have stopped even their smaller children from going to Jalsheen School. To avoid harassment they now send them to Ruail primary school, which is in the adjacent village Ruail.

But with daughters, parents are more cautious, as the feeling of insecurity multiplies when it comes to a girl child.

A community in search of security
In the face of the worst attack on the Hindu community by the group of land-grabbers and their henchmen, not much has been done by the authority to mitigate the victims. Our encounter with the authority took place while we were on our way to the Gopalpur village. We met a constable who suddenly blocked our way with a "salute" and inquired about our mission. He introduced himself as being a constable of the Dhamrai thana. His name was Imdadul Haq. The two men he was accompanying to the thana were Lackshan Chandro Mondal and Subhash Sarkar. They were on their way to the thana along with "relevant papers" -- the deeds of their land.

We inspect the summons notice from the thana that these two men received but found that there was no mention of who they were suppose to report to or meet. No officer's name was mentioned in the notice. As we ask constable Haq about this, he has only one thing to say, "I was ordered to take them to the thana and I am just following orders."

Meanwhile, as we lock ourselves in conversation with Subhash, one of the plaintiffs, he with disappointment, "We have been to every possible source, we urged them to help us and to give us shelter, but to no avail," "We went to the chairman Matiur Rahman. He advised us to remain under the umbrella of the law. We have been so for last few years, still we are finding ourselves at the receiving end of merciless beating every year," Subhash continues. He also adds that, "The main goal of these people (land-grabbers) is to evict us from our own land and households. We have been subjected to atrocities since as long as I can remember. You will not find a single man in this community who was not beaten up at least once."

Lakhshan recalls the previous year's incident. "When they scooped out all the fishes out of the pond beside the cremation ground and the temple, a case was filed. Even the newspapers took it up. At first the law enforcing agency seemed very active, but soon everything died down," laments Lakhshan.

The most disturbing aspect is that the community has been kept at its tether's end for the last couple of years, and the lip service meted out by the investigating officer in charge has amounted to little and the attacks, harassment and other forms of abuses continues unabated. As usual the hands of the law, as usual, fail to reach out to these people when they are in such dire situations.

Lakhshan's desperation is evident. "The same group has committed these crimes this year and with greater brutality than last year's attack. In the past women were spared. This time they were not; many were even forcefully disrobed."

It was Lakhshan who filed the case on behalf of his community. So, he and his companion are supposed to go to the thana. As the duo leave us behind, what happens at the thana that day, on November 28, we are eager to know. We go back to the village the following day to find out.

As we look for Lakhshan on November 29, we fail to track him. He is nowhere to be found. Luckily, we catch hold of his companion of the previous day. Subhash tells us that as they went to the thana, they were "made to wait for the OC for the whole day." "As the daroga (OC) arrived, after prevaricating for sometime, he said 'I am happy that you have come' and then cautioned us not to 'babble' in front of the journalists. The OC's resolve was firm, as Subhash's words testify. He said, "It is the police who will bring justice, it is the police who will catch the criminals. So be careful what you say in front of others."

An Eye-Witness Account
Subhash is an eye-witness to what took place on November 2. He helps us reconstruct the scene.

It was around ten thirty in the morning when a group of people installed a water pump to siphon out the water from the pond next to the cremation ground. The ground is only 27 acres, but it has been a source of a lot troubles since the day the land grabbers targetted it as the next piece of land for usurpation. The miscreants consisting of Lal Miah (35), Ibrahim (38), Jahangir (28), Kader (30), Mojibor (37), Zohurul (25), Ziaur (19), Malek (25), Hashem (20) and a few others were there to obstruct anyone from the Hindu community who would intervene. There was a string of women who stood in a circle, guarding the water pump. When the people of the community rushed to put a stop to the siphoning, one of the men said, "charaler po (son of a commoner), don't cross the limit, if you do, we will file a case for repression against women and will throw you out of this country."

Subhash and his fellow men were not to be deterred as their livelihoods were at stake. They waved off the threats and "forced the group of people from keeping the water-pump running." He has a clear explanation for their action, "If we cannot protect our own religion what's the use in keeping on living. This small patch of land has been our cremation ground, it has been so since the time of our ancestors."

"We ignored their threats and made them stop the water pump. But, we did not realise the consequence of that would be so devastating," Subhash hastens to add.

What followed after that was something no one from Subhash's community ever anticipated. The band of men, who installed the water pump and were trying to siphon the pond, rushed toward the paddy field, where they kept their weapons hidden. Armed with machete, sticks and lances, they swooped on the community that had little protection from the authority, let alone any influential group or men.

The invading men went looking for women and children. They scrambled inside their houses. They beat them up, slashed them and plundered their homes and even went so far as to taer off the women's clothes.

Sixty-five families have categorically being victimised by this "land-grabbing clique." It is more a case of wresting properties from the weak than of religious persecution. As Hindus of the locality are the weakest, they keep losing their lands to aggressors who reign the localities with their muscle as well as social and political clout. This is the reality of Bangladesh, and the village of Gopalpur is no exception.

Here, the Hindus claim that there is a moratorium, an unofficial one though, on cremation on the sacred patch of land that they call shoshan. The perpetrators have been trying to enforce this even before the attack.

The victims got little respite from the Dhamrai thana. No officer from the police station or administration went to visit the scene of the crime. Even from the political fold, no representative showed up to console the victims, to assure their security. It was only when the news of it hit the press that the apathetic administration received a stirring.

Even the location of the Gopalpur village, as stated in the police record, is confusing. In the recent record it is ten kilometres south of the Dhamrai thana. Last year, in the FIR placed by the community it was placed at a distance of 16 kilometres. A farming village in the Nannar Union, it lacks proper communication infrastructure and is locked by the water bodies that surround it. The Hindus live on a two acre mound of earth, 65 families are squeezed together to pursue their traditional way of life.

The hour-long mayhem that went on in this village left many of the villagers seriously injured. Harilal (18), Naresh (20), Nepal Rani (50), Neel Kamal (70) were the ones who received serious blows. The septuagenarian Neel Kamal, was not at the spot. He was out in the field. The perpetrators spotted him there as they were returning after completing their 'adventure'. "Before I could make anything out of the situation I collapsed," Kamal testifies.

He is the former member of the Union. "I have been trying to compromise a lot to come to an amicable solution. However, I have been beaten up four times by this group." Neither was he spared on November 2. He was out on the field and it was Zahurul, the son of the mastermind behind the attack, who attacked him. Zahurul's father Ibrahim led the group that swooped on the families of 64 households.

The brutality continued in other forms following the atrocious attack. Josna Rani, the daughter of the aging ex-member, had been manhandled while she was coming to Gopalpur to see how her father was doing after the beating.

As she was nearing her father's house, a group of four or five men hurled abuses at her and snatched a box of sweets she had been carrying. Josna wants justice for what has been done to her father. She echoes her community's appeal: "Please make sure that these abuses stop, so that we are safe outside our house."

Into the second day of our investigation, we get the chance to meet Modhu Mondol, who sheds some light on the land-grabbing spree. "There are only eight to ten acres of land remaining. The rest have already changed hands," Mondol laments. Another villager named Santosh Mondol remembers how, after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India, "the other cremation ground was usurped by the same group at that time. Atrocities followed by grabbing of their land; it is a vicious, manmade cycle. "My own land is in the process of usurpation, the local miscreants have built their houses on my land. And the 180 decimal of the cremation ground and the pond is what they are after now," testifies Sontosh.

Knocking at the Doors of the Law
Our next destination was the police station in Dhamrai. We wanted to know how far the law-enforcing agency has advanced at bringing the culprits to justice. We met Tareq Kamal, the Officer in Charge (OC) of Dhamrai thana, at mid noon. He let us know that, he "is trying to resolve the land dispute." "We are even trying to round up the accused," he adds.

However, it is everyone's knowledge that the accused are freely roaming around the locality. The villagers, who were unwilling to divulge their names, believe that, "the accused will never be arrested, as they have political connections." When we confront the OC with this doubt expressed by the local people, Kamal's answer is curt. "Many people will say many things, they are incorrect in most occasions" he says.

Twenty-seven days after the filing of the FIR, no one was arrested. How will the villagers rely on the authority, let alone the words of the OC? The biggest sign of inaction is that while the accused are said to be absconding, there have been no attempts on the part of the police and the authority to seize the properties of the accused in their absence, which is the normal practice.

Meanwhile, the accused were no where to be found. On November 28, we conducted a kind of door-to-door search to meet with them. Everybody was missing from their own houses. At Kader's home, his wife Sufia says outright, "He is not home, he went out to meet the local MP (Member of Parliament)."

Another absconding accused Aziz left his house in the morning. So did Ibrahim and Sona Miah. However, at Sona Miah and Ibrahim's house, Ibrahim's wife Zohra Begum informs us that he "went out with Kader in the morning."

As we press her for her opinion on the incident, she obliges, though with her own brand of truth, "They have committed the crime and now they have filed a case against us. They let their cows loose to graze on our fava-bean field and when my son Zia intervened the people of the Hindu para started beating him up. Then we all rushed to the spot to stop the beating. Later I heard that they filed a case." She is adamant about aligning us along her line of thinking. As we tell her in her face that we have been roaming around the village and had not seen any sign of fava-bean field anywhere she retorts "What is it matter if you didn't see it, aren't there people in the village who did? They have seen it all."

Although, in our two-day long investigation we have heard people utter the names of the goons of the men behind the attacks, no one has dared to even whisper the names of these patrons. "If 'they' change, the lives of our people will change," this was an opinion that many shared among themselves but dared not to say out in the open. Although no names were uttered, there was a clear hint that three land-grabbers have been trying to transgress one land after another. Many allege that these 'three' are operating "with the connivance of a powerful local BNP leader.

Although no names were uttered, the Hindu community of Gopalpur is unanimous on the malpractice of these three men. Many believe that "They are experts in making forged documents." Besides making forged papers to prove their lawful ownership to lands, they specialise in bribing the relevant authority to advance their act of usurpation. And there is an aspect to the land-ownership law, it says that those who occupy the land are the owners, this is one law that they readily take advantage of. To occupy, the land-grabbers use their thugs, who flex their muscles at the opportune moments, as they did on November 2 this year.

Political clout makes things easier for the land-grabbers. It is a common knowledge of the villagers that the local MP, Ziaur Rahman, is a mentor of sorts to Badesh Fakir, one of the accused. According to many of the villagers Fakir himself usurped 140 decimal of land that previously belonged to the Hindus.

There have been efforts to investigate the incidents of land grabbing by the government and the administration. The assistant commissioner, magistrate and at times the local OC submitted their findings, and their reports have always tilted in favour of the minority. However, things stall at the stage when it comes to taking steps. The flow of bribes keeps things at a stand still. Many even say that sometimes the government officials take bribes from both sides. But there must be steps on the part of the authorities to bring this land-grabbing spree to a halt.

A continuous and silent exodus among the Hindus is thus inevitable. "There were people like Dhonoram and Pagol Sarkar, who left in the face of repression. Now they are after Santosh Mondol and his son Haripodo Mondol, Moron Mondol, Lakhshan Chandra Ashanondo and Subhash." Who says this These are the brave people who stand in the way of the land-grabbers.

To clear their way and to cloud the situation, the land-grabbers have filed a case with counter allegations accusing the people of the Hindu community. Thirty-five of them have been made perpetrators in a crime that did not take place. The story of letting the cows lose on the fava-bean field and the attempt to murder is what they are staking on. Looting of cash and gold has also been attached to these cases and those accused Hindu villagers have been branded as the aggressors.

Thus the struggle continues.
Before we leave, one last walk around the village brings us to the Kali Mandap. We meet Phul Basana, the 55 year old woman, whose hand bears a deep gash -- a mark made by a sharp weapon. She was in her house on the fateful day. The perpetrators burst into their house and started charging on her husband. Witnessing the plight, she and her son rushed to the rescue. "During the attack while Lal Mia, one of the attackers, aimed his machete at my scull I saved myself by obstructing the blow with my hand," explains Basana. She just wanted to save her husband and son.

Unless the authorities come forward and protect the members of this community these attacks will recur year after year. Until all their land has been usurped.

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