UPDATE: One year of attacks on Santals in Gobindaganj, Evacuees still remain un-rehabilitated

Kapaeeng Report: Even though a year has passed after a massive incident of violence against Santal and Bengali farmers took place at Sahebganj-Bagda Farm area in Gobindaganj upazila under Gaibandha district on 6 November 2016, the Santals who were evicted from the land of Sahebganj-Bagda sugarcane farm were yet to be rehabilitated and compensated. Rather, many of them are in fear of being arrested as cases were filed against them. It is found that most of the evicted Santals were still living in shanties they had built almost a year ago. Their children were passing idle times as the authorities of the Rangpur Sugar Mills took control of their school. Many of the injured are still suffering. The victims claimed that they did not get any promised compensation from the government.

Just one year ago, a massive incident of violence against Santal and Bengali farmers took place at Sahebganj-Bagda Farm area centering claim over 1,842.30 acres of land by indigenous and Bengali farmers. Police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and local goons hired by Rangpur Sugar Mills authority and local influential political elements reportedly made violent attacks on Santal and Bengali farmers and burnt their houses to ashes with the aim to evict them from their ancestral lands.

In 1965, the lands of Santal and Bengali villagers were taken under occupation of Rangpur Sugar Mills by the then Pakistan Government through a lease agreement. According to the agreement, the lands have to be returned to the title holders upon breach of any of its provisions. Since the sugar mill was shut down in 2004, and the lands were being used for cultivation of different crops and vegetables rather than sugarcane, which violate the provisions of the agreement, the title holders had been claiming their lands back for over a decade. As a part of their movement, Santal and Bengali farmers took over the land in 2016 and built houses, schools and places for worship. However, the officials of Rangpur Sugar Mills and local vested interest groups composed of political leaders and government officials did not take it lightly.

The clashes on November 6, 2016 broke out when local goons hired by Rangpur Sugar Mills authority and local influential political elements, along with members of police and RAB, went to the Bagda Farm area to “reclaim” the land allegedly “occupied” by the Santal and Bengali farmers. In the attack, three indigenous Santal men, Shyamal Hembrom (35), Mangal Mardi (50), and Romesh Soren (40), were shot dead and at least 30 people including 17 Santal men and 8 law enforcers were severely injured. Following the attack, the attackers looted and burned down the entire village. It left 1,200 houses and other establishments of the villagers completely gutted.

Different print and electronic media published reports on a video footage of the incident of setting ablaze of Santal houses after it became viral on social media. According to media reports, two police members and a DB police member, along with the local influential people, were involved with the arson attacks.

The victims filed two lawsuits with the High Court following the incident. Considering their appeals, the High Court issued a directive to investigate the incident. After three months, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Gaibandha district submitted a 65-page probe report to the High Court with findings on the involvement of some law enforcers with the incident.

On the other hand, police filed a case accusing more than 350 Santal and Bengali farmers. A total of 37 farmers were arrested in this connection over last year who later released on bail.

One year has passed since this atrocious incident happened. Since then more than 1,200 Santal and Bengali families have been living under the open sky and shanties built in the villages near their lands. With deplorable state of shelter, crisis of food, water and clothes, and fear of attack and arrest, the victim Santal and Bengali families have been leading an unbearable life. Still justice remains illusive to them as no perpetrator have been arrested. Following the attacks, the farmers were promised of compensation from the government. However, no such thing has reached their end.

Meanwhile, the Rangpur Sugar Mills authority have installed 300 pillars and set barbed-wire fence around the land the indigenous Santals and Bengali farmers were evicted from. Hence, the land remains virtually inaccessible to the legal land title holders – the Santal and Bengali farmers.

This incident sparked protests in Gaibandha, the capital and other parts of the country. Over the past one year, the aggrieved Santal and Bengali villagers, along with different indigenous organizations and civil society platforms, have raised the demand for return of their lands through numerous actions –protest demonstrations, rallies, press conferences and long march programs and what not. To mark 1st anniversary of the attack, Santals and Bengalis organized a protest demonstration yesterday, on November 6, 2017, in Gaibandha. Hundreds took part in this event to raise their voices for the cause of the farmers.