Murder in Madhupur: the bigger issue
The Daily Star, Dhaka Sunday May 13, 2001
In Bangladesh, forests can be found in the coastal areas (Mangrove), in the Hill region (Sylhet and CHT) in the plains (Dhaka, Tangail, Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Rangpur and Dinajpur) and small forests are even found in the villages, surrounding homesteads, However, deforestation is damaging the ecology of the country at an alarming rate. Despite the popular campaign of "cut one tree plant two to replace it" and strict laws against violators of forest land, the black Market is still doing a roaring trade in illegal logging.
The Madhupur forest in the districts of Tangail and Mymensingh is, to date, the largest surviving forest of the plains. It used to occupy 250 square miles, but deforestation has reduced it to more than half its original area. This has been the cause of a lot of resentment from the Koch and Mandi (also known as Garo) tribes who live in the area today. The mandi people have been living in the Madhupur forests for several hundred years, cultivating rice, fruits mainly pineapples and vegetables and conserving the produce of the forest. According to the British Zamindari system, the forest and the inhabitants came under the Zamindari of the Rajah of Natore who, in turn, dedicated the area to the god Gobinda as a gift (debottor). Throughout the British Raj, the Mandi people cultivated the high land under lease and could register the lowland in their own name.
In 1978, the Mandi recorded their lowlands under the Indian Tenancy Act. 1878. In 1956, a forest settlement Officer tried to repeal this act and a notice of eviction was gazetted, but not served on the Mandi people. Since the Partition in 1947, the land claims of the Mandi people have been under increasing jeopardy.
In 1962, the government of Pakistan established a 500-acre farm in Kakraid under Madhupur Thana, and resettled displaced Bangali farmers on Mandi prescription lands in Aronkhola.
In 1968 and 1969, eviction notices were sent, to the Mandi of Chunia village by the Divisional Forest Officer of Mymensingh.
There was no mention of resettlement or compensation for the evicted families. This sort of forced displacement by the Bangali settlers, often with false documents, and the authority continued throughout the years and in 1977, President Ziaur Rahman suggested that the tribals form a Tribal Welfare Association (TWA) to protect their own interests. This came into being on 15 June 1977. The Association produces a 15-point demand regarding land, security, education and the power and authority to decide their own development. The demand petition was never answered. In 1978 Divisional Forest Officer and District commissioner of Tangail issued eviction notices to 200 homesteads comprising of about 800 families, in order for the government to create a national park. As compensation they were offered 1000 taka per homestead and also one acre of land. Ironically, the 200 acres of land offered as compensation was already registered and occupied by poor Bangali refugees.
In 1980, the Rasulpur Range Officer was ordered by the Government to occupy 100 acres of Mandi land in Joynagacha, Bondoriachala and Kedjai. Some of the Mandi people there had land-owing documentation dating back 130 years. About 200 non tribals (Bangalis) were brought in to settle there, set up a sub office and plant mulberry trees. In May 1981, the Forest Department hired local thugs to try and occupy land by force. After the Proclamation of Martial law in 1982, a martial law Order was sent to the Union Chairman and village government head to evict those forcibly occupying government forest.
Land grabbing still exists and the classic pattern is that investigations are carried out, commissioners are set up and promises are given. After the initial excitement and anger has worn away, the matter is quietly dropped and forgotten. Even the media forget the issue and do not follow up on such matters. In 1984, over 42,000 acres in the Madhupur forest were classified as forest land meaning land belonging to the state Forest department but the Mandi were not consulted in this matter. In 1986, Rubber plantations began threatening the forest ecology. The first plantation was 15,000 acres big and established in the Madhupur forest. Private entrepreneurs took over the Mandi land without compensation and in January 1990, the government announced that 25,000 acres of Madhupur forest were now planted with rubber trees. With another 40,000 acres to be developed with funding from the Asian Development Bank. Faced with pressure from human rights groups, the ADB withdrew funding. Much of the forest has been destroyed and the rich sal and teak trees uprooted and other plants and wildlife wiped out.
Land grabbing is one of he major problems faced by tribal people all over the country. Land is taken by force, fraud or bribery and it is difficult for the tribal people to establish their rights. One of the causes for this is the sad lack of education and ignorance of the law. Another reason is discrimination. While the constitution advocated every person equal right under the law, in various occasions, tribals are considered to be second-class citizens. These are the reasons why access to legal recourse is not found and why many prefer to keep quite about injustices, done to them. Some fear violence and retribution from local Bangalis, while others are exasperated by the fact that the law enforcing agencies in the locality do nothing to protect them from wrongful acts. such as land grabbing, forced eviction and even crimes such as rape and murder.