In what appears to be a consistent way of harassing ethnic tribals in Bangladesh, non tribals destroy cash crops and encroach on traditionally held homesteads.
Recently, the ethnic Khasi people in northeast Bangladesh have made a police complaint against the management of a tea estate for allegedly destroying a betel leaf plantation, the mainstay of the community, with the ostensible aim of evicting at least 60 families.
Some 3,000 betel leaf plants and 60 areca nut trees were cut down in the early hours of March 8. The same day, 65 year old Olmi Potam, the head of Berenga Khasi Punjee (forested village) filed a written complaint against 10-15 people including Siraj Uddin, manager of the Alladat Tea Garden in Moulvibazar district, according to a news report by Stephan Uttom Rozario, a Dhaka based journalist.
“Our 3,000 koi plants and 60 betel nut trees bearing fruit were cut down by a gang led by the manager of the Alladat Tea Garden in the morning on May 8, with sharp handmade weapons,” Potam claims. (Koi or betel (areca nut) are an important cash crop.)
The Khasi are a matrilineal Mongoloid ethnic group mostly living in Bangladesh and northeast India. The Khasi have their tribal and land rights recognized in India’s Meghalaya state. Not so in Bangladesh.There are an estimated 40,000 Khasi in Bangladesh, mostly Christians, inhabiting forested villages and relying largely on betel leaf plantations for their livelihood. Around 85 thousand Khasis are living in Bangladesh’s Sylhet Division specially in Jaflong.
Struggle for Justice
Potam, a protestian Christian, said the Khasi people were living in fear since the attackers had threatened to set fire to their houses to evict them.
He said they want justice for the attack and police protection. Alladat Tea Garden manager Siraj Uddin denied the allegations against him and the tea-garden.
Such clashes are not new in the area. The Khasi people say that many in their community have been falsely accused of cutting down trees, while tea estate operators have destroyed their betel leaf plantations and natural forests.
In November last year, Bangladeshi rights activists and civil society representatives in Dhaka (Bangladesh’s Capital) called for an immediate halt on an alleged attempt by the Forest department to evict dozens of Christian tribal Khasi villagers through the filing of false cases of encroachment on government land. Doluchhara and Muroichhara have a total of 150 Khasi villagers and the forest department has filed fabricated charges against 15 villagers to evict them, activists alleged.
“The government should take immediate steps to establish legal and equitable rights of tribal Khasi people, proper protection of their livelihood, and prevention of conspiracies to grab their rightful land in the name of artificial forestry, prosecution of attacks on them and assurance of peaceful life,” rights activist and university profession Farha Tanzim said. Tanzim was among the activists who visited the Khasi villages. She said they are aware of a nexus of local businessmen and government officials attempting to evict people for economic dividends.
Last August, an unidentified group allegedly cut down around 2,800 betel leaf plants in a Khasi village and beat up some of the villagers.
Series of attacks
Bably Talang, secretary of KUBORAJ, an inter-Khasi village organization, told UCA News that a series of attacks on the Khasi people and the destruction of their livelihoods prove that the attackers were trying to dislodge them.
“If the state does not provide ownership of the tribal lands and allow us to be tortured like this, it is certain that at some point the tribals will not be able to live in these areas and the country, they may have to migrate,” said Talang, a Catholic
Yardous Hasan, officer in-charge of Baralekha police station which covers the area, confirmed receiving the complaint regarding the cutting of betel leaf plants and betel nut trees in Berenga Punjee, and said that the matter would be investigated and legal action will be taken
Police officer Hasan said a written complaint is not a criminal case, but it will turn into one if investigations find the allegations credible.
The complaint said that a total of 500 Khasi people belonging to 60 families have been living in the Punjee village for generations and that the damage done was aimed at forcing them out to make way for tea plantations.
The Khasi people have suffered a loss of around 1.5 million taka (Indian Rupees 11,47,459), it said.
Though the Khasi people have been living in their close-knit villages for generations, the operators of various tea estates and the state-run Forest Department have accused them of occupying land illegally, triggering a slew of eviction attempts and court cases over the last few decades.
Observers said that small ethnic groups like the Khasi suffer due to a lack of special laws to protect their identity and rights, such as customary and community land ownership.
Father Kajol Linus Gomes and the Catholic parish priest of the Church of Divine Mercy said the government’s failure to recognize the rights of tribal people continues to haunt them.
“It is inhuman that the state does not recognize these people as an indigenous community, so there is no solution. As we have done over the years, we will continue to support the Khasi in their fight for rights morally and financially,” he said.
PREPARED BY SIMON MARBANIANG FROM AVAILABLE NEWS REPORTS AND SOURCES