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AL leader blamed for eviction of Santal people

13 November 2016 bdnews24.com

The local Awami League leader, who played a key role to settle Santals on the land acquired by a sugar mill two years ago, is now believed to be involved in evicting them.
Shakil Akand Bulbul is the president of Gobindaganj Upazila unit of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the ruling party's student affiliate. Earlier this year, he had been elected as the chairman for the Shapmara Union Council in the upazila. Two years ago, the Santhals started the movement to get back the land, which was acquired by the sugar mill in early 1960s and Shakil headed the committee leading it. Shakil is known to be 'close' to local MP Abul Kalam Azad. On Nov 6, the sugar mill's employees and police clashed with the Santhals over the acquired land. Three Santhals were killed and many injured. Hundreds of Santhal houses were looted and set on fire. After that, the sugar mill management used tractors to clear the land.
The indigenous community claims that Shakil has switched sides after being elected the Union Council chairman as a renegade Awami League candidate, having won the election by getting their votes. They say it was Shakil, who had influenced them two years ago to start the movement to get back the lands acquired from their ancestors by the sugar mill before Bangladesh's independence in 1971. Shakil admitted he was present at the scene of the clash on Nov 6 as the local UP chairman, but denied involvement in the violence. Speaking to bdnews24.com, he, however, said that he was indeed involved in the movement two years ago, but that was because he was 'misinformed.'
He claimed that he had resigned as president of the body that led the movement in January this year, after realising it was a 'mistake.' Shakil's realisation came just after the Union Parishad polls. The Santhals, who are now homeless and living under the open sky, claim that they had voted for him in that election.
On Wednesday, a delegation of a civic body from Dhaka visited the spot. Supreme Court lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua was part of that team. "During our earlier visits, we found that the sugar mill authorities have leased out the land for paddy and tobacco farming, which has been corroborated by the Gaibandha district administration at its probe report. The sugar mill authority has violated its contract," he said.
In 1962, the 'Rangpur Sugar Mill' acquired 1,840 acres of land in 18 villages occupied by Santhals and Bangalees for sugar cane farming. "According to a clause in that contract, it was stipulated that lands not used for sugarcane farming would be returned to their original owners," Barua told reporters at Gobindaganj.
The Santhals claim they have been demanding return of their lands a few years ago, when it was leased out by the mill authorities for other than sugarcane farming. Shakil said he got involved with the movement soon after it was started by the Santhals. They had been holding demonstrations in the Gaibandha and Gobindganj towns over the last two years. "On Jul 1 this year, some of the Santhals built houses in an effort to occupy 100 acres of land of the sugarcane farm and they started stalking the area with local weapons, like bows and arrows," he said. Shakil blamed Shahjahan Ali, the general secretary of the body he headed, for organising the movement by 'misinterpreting' the contract. "Filiman Baske, the committee's vice chairman, was involved."
Ali and Baske were not available for comments. Local MP Abul Kalam Azad brushed off allegations that he had instigated the attacks on Santhals. The Awami League lawmaker told bdnews24.com he was not in Gobindaganj on Nov 6, when the Santhals were evicted.
Santhal houses were looted and set to fire on that day in presence of police and representatives of the local administration, but authorities deny any eviction drive. The indigenous community, however, claim that the authorities did nothing to stop the mayhem. Rangpur Sugar Mill's Managing Director Abdul Awal told bdnews24.com that the clash broke out when workers of the factory went to harvest the sugarcane crop.
"The Santhals attacked police and factory workers with bow and arrows, which left nine injured. The locals became agitated over the incident," he said. According to Awal, the Santhals, occupying the land, have been hostile towards local villagers and that explained the retaliation.
Police said they had raided the area to arrest suspects after nine people, including policeman, were injured.
"Local villagers had set fire to the Santhal houses sometime during the raid," Gobindaganj police OC Subrata Kumar Sarkar told bdnews24.com. He claimed that the police did not take part in any drive to evict the Santhals. Gobindaganj administration chief (UNO) Abdul Hannan agreed, saying police went there to arrest suspects when people from the nearby villages set fire to the Santhal houses.
Hannan told bdnews24.com that he was on the spot, but did not conduct any eviction drive.
Police have started a case against 350 persons over the clash, a day after it occurred.
But they are yet to initiate a case over the death of the three Santhal men.

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