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Bangladesh: Police Filmed Burning Homes of Santal Tribespeople

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Shahriar Sharif
Dhaka
2016-12-13
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This screen grab from a video shows two police officers allegedly setting fire to huts belonging to indigenous Santal tribespeople in Gobindaganj, a sub-district of Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh, Nov. 6, 2016.
This screen grab from a video shows two police officers allegedly setting fire to huts belonging to indigenous Santal tribespeople in Gobindaganj, a sub-district of Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh, Nov. 6, 2016.
Star Mail

A video showing police officers allegedly burning down homes of people from an indigenous tribe in northern Bangladesh as they were being evicted amid a dispute over land rights has gone viral online.

On Tuesday, Bangladesh’s human rights commission leader told BenarNews his group would examine the video, include it as evidence in its probe into the land dispute, and recommend that any officers who committed or abetted acts of arson against Santal tribespeople be prosecuted.

The incident occurred in Gobindaganj, a sub-district of Gaibandha district, on Nov. 6 when violence broke out as police carried out an order to remove Santal residents forcibly from their homes.

That day, clashes erupted among Santals, police officers and locals who were helping police enforce an eviction order. Three Santals reportedly were shot and killed by police as they resisted eviction from land claimed by the tribe as their ancestral property. Hundreds of Santal families were evicted and hundreds of huts were burned, according to news reports and witness accounts.

“Most of the families have fled the area, fearing reprisals from the police and local influential people. Now, around 1,800 people have been living under open sky,” Abu Zafar, a 35-year-old resident, told BenarNews.

On Monday a 10-member delegation consisting of representatives of the National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous body, as well as a parliamentary caucus on indigenous affairs and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) visited the local villages of Madarpur and Jogparpura and found evidence that Santal people had been “illegally” evicted on Nov. 6.

“The eviction of the Santals was carried out in violation of the law and it violated the constitutional rights of the Santals,” commission chairman Kazi Reazul Haque said.

“The police are the protector of the people. But I am saddened by the video, which shows police setting the Santals’ homes on fire. We will examine the video and include the findings in our report on the attacks on the Santals in Gaibandha district,” Haque told BenarNews.

Police: Looking into video

Al Jazeera broadcast the footage of the alleged arson by police, which was shot by a local videographer, Zahidul Islam.

The moving images that show men in police uniforms allegedly setting fires to huts or watching as others burned the wood and thatch structures drew more than 113,000 views within eight hours after being posted Tuesday on the Facebook page of Maher Sattar, a Bangladeshi correspondent for the Middle East-based news network. The video has gone viral on other social media.

“Yes, I have seen the video. We are examining the video; so I cannot say right now whether any of my forces set houses on fire. We will let you know whether the video was genuine,” Md Ashraful Islam, the district’s superintendent of police, told BenarNews on Tuesday.

Subrata Kumar Sarker, the officer-in-charge of the police station in Gobindaganj upazila sub-district, denied allegations that officers set the huts on fire, telling BenarNews that police seen in the video were dousing out flames.

“You cannot always be sure about police involvement [by] watching a video,” he said.

Bitter battle

Last month, local police carried out the eviction order on the grounds that the Santals – an indigenous people whose population numbers about a 500,000 in Bangladesh, according to census figures – were illegally occupying land owned by the a local company, the Rangpur Sugar Mills.

Santosh Hemrom, a researcher on minority rights – who himself is Santal – said the indigenous tribe has been living in Shahebganj, remote areas of the district for decades.

In 1956, when the district was part of East Pakistan, the government took 1,850 acres belonging to the Santals and set it aside for sugarcane cultivation by the state-owned Rangur Sugar Mills firm. This was done on condition that the government returned ownership of the land to the tribespeople if sugarcane was not cultivated there, Hemrom said.

“Sugarcane cultivation on the land was stopped much earlier. Instead of returning the lands to the Santals, the mills’ authorities leased those to other people,” he told BenarNews, adding that a dispute over the land arose among the Santals, the authorities and local power brokers

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