THE GAROS OF THE MADHUPUR FOREST IN BANGLADESH
For centuries the Aboriginal Tribals (Garo) of Madhupur Jungle in the Tangail District of Bangladesh have lived in this "Sal" forest with their own religion, culture, and way of life. This culture and way of life is distinct from the majority community of Muslim/Hindu Bengali. Garo music and religion is pre-Buddhist and originated in southwest China and Western Tibet. The Garo language contains many Mandarin and Burmese words. Their system of cultivation was the shifting ‘slash & burn’ method, which allowed the forest to regenerate after three years of cultivation. Their cropping patterns and crops are those common to the hill people of SE Asia. ‘Slash & burn’ cultivation stopped with the takeover of the private forests by the British Colonial Government of India in 1927.
When the British granted land holdings to the Zamindars, the Madhupur Tract and its people came under the Raja of Natore and other Rajas who dedicated the forest to the god Gobinda under the title Debittor or a "gift to the gods". The Garos were allowed to live in the fertile lowlands under registered homestead plots, paying a yearly rent or tax. These lowlands were registered in individual tenants’ names, usually the woman of the family. This area was registered in 1892 and again in the Cadastral survey of 1914-1918. By an exception of the law, certain Aboriginal Tribes enumerated in the Bengal Tenancy Act were exempt from the Succession Act of 1865, No.940. This exemption recognizes the Garo Law of Succession and Inheritance. This law was updated as an Act of Law in 1925 and again in modern Indian law. Further, by an Act of Law, Bangladesh recognized all previous laws in 1972, at independence. One point to remember is that the Garo Tribe is matrilineal and Mongolian. All real property belongs to the women’s lineage and not to individuals. The men in the Tribe can act as administrators with permission of the wife or her lineage. There is no such thing as personal property and all property belongs to the machong or "motherhood".
In 1878 the Garos recorded their lowlands, along with some of the high land in the Madhupur Jungle. Much of their land is still recorded under the Bengal Tenancy Act during the time of the Zamindars. In 1984, by Gazette Notification, much of this land was put into Government Forest Land category without notification to the tenants. When this was challenged in the Courts and the Land Settlement Office, no opportunity was given to produce the existing documents. The Bangladesh Government refused to recognize tenancy rights and refuses to accept taxes on this land, saying that all documentation is false. Successive governments have issued eviction notices for the Tribals and posed false cases under the Revised Forest Act. These cases have been started with the purpose of evicting the Garos from their traditional lands. The Tribals are invisible when it comes to their land rights. Over the years their lands have been listed as government lands for the purpose of planting rubber, woodlot for firewood, bombing sites, and at one time the Tea Board wanted to remove the entire Garo population to the Tea Gardens and make coolies of them.
Today, the majority of Garos in the Madhupur Jungle are Christians. The first conversion work was done by the Australian Baptists in 1893. They celebrated the Centenary of the Malajani Circuit in 1993. Today, the Catholics number around 14,000 with the parishes of Jalchatra and Pirgacha. St. Paul’s Church/Pirgacha is situated in the heart of the jungle and was separated from Jalchatra by Bishop Francis Gomes in 1993. This is under the Diocese of Mymensingh now, but was originally under the Archdiocese of Dhaka. The first baptism to Catholicism took place under Bishop Crawley, CSC and Fr. Switalski, CSC in 1928. The present Primary School in Pirgacha was established in 1928 on the banks of the Mogul Pond; the mud foundation can still be seen there. I established the present Corpus Christi Parish in Jalchatra under Archbishop Garner, CSC in 1960 during the superiorship of Fr. Robert McKee, CSC, breaking away from Mymensingh Parish. The Catholic population grew rapidly due to conversions and a high birth rate of about 3.5%. Lay catechists and Integral Human Development with all Garos (they prefer the name Mandi or "the people") and the Hindu Koch explains the high conversion rate. They are marginalized in society and under constant pressure from the government to get out of both the Madhupur Forest and the country. As recent as October 29, 1996, the Government tried to take all Garo land and put 16,000 residents in Cluster villages. Money came from the World Bank to establish 13 National Parks, this being one of them. Dr. Emilio Rozario, a Filipino, came with the Forest Officers to announce the take over. I wrote Kaiser Chowdhury (MP) and put a stop to the planning.
This area of the Mandi population is called Abima or ‘motherland’ and no one knows when the Mandis came here. In their migration from Tibet and southern China, they have wandered all over the face of the earth and their language and culture have traces of Mandarin, Burmese, Bodo-Kachari, Khmer, Hindi or Sanskrit, Persian, etc. Needless to say, the Mandis as a race are very adoptive to new situations, religions, cultures, and environments. According to some theories they are Atharbascan, the same people as can be found in Alaska, Western Canada, and the American Southwest, known as the Dene, Apachi, and Navajo tribes. Closer to home we find them listed as Bodo-Kachari and belonging to 240 different Tibeto-Burmese tribal groups. These tribes have different but related languages, cultures, primitive religions, and are mostly pre-Buddhist. The tribes in question are mostly patriarchal, Mongolian, and have slash and burn agriculture. The Mandis are matrilineal and mostly Hill people. Their culture and traditional way of life is very different from lowland cultivators. At one time the Thai empire extended from Bangkok to Gowhati, so the mixture of races and cultures is amazing. We are not talking about political boundaries but cultural differences when we analyze the Tribals in SW China, Bhutan, Sikkhim, NE India, Nepal, Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh.
The Mandis of Madhupur Jungle are mostly ‘Abeng’ or ‘Kochu’. There are also Koch Hindus. All together there are 12 distinct sub tribes among the Mandis. All are Tibeto-Burmese except the Migam or Lingam who are Mon-Khmer and related to the Khasis of Meghalaya in India. In Bangladesh we find the Atong, Kochu, Abeng, Chibok, Brack, Ruga, Megam, Matchi, Dual, Chisak, Metabeng, and various combinations of these sub tribes. The common language in Bangladesh is Abeng but most of the people along the border of India understand ‘Acchik’ which is the literate language in India and the language of TV.
Mandi culture is very ancient based on customary laws and religion. Every rite of passage is codified and understood by the society from conception to the reincarnation of the "mi-mang" or disembodied soul after a hazardous trip to Balpakra (valley of death) and to Chipmang (the sacred mountain) in Meghalaya. After cremation, the crematory area is smoothed out with wet clay. The next morning the spot is divined to see what the soul has become by any marks found there. The best reincarnation is to return to your own machong or "motherhood". The Mandi religion is very pervasive and affects all rites of passage. It is a beautiful religion with high moral codes of conduct. ‘Saljong’, the Sun god, is the Creator and the harvest feast or "Wangala" is in his honor in October, or after the hill rice is harvested. ‘Susime’ the moon goddess is like Luxsmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and sacrifices always include placating them along with Goera, Churabdi, Tatara, Nok Miti, etc.
Pirgacha Parish is large and the Parish Plan is based on Integral Human Development. This covers the actual and felt needs of our Christian life in the Madhupur Jungle of Bangladesh.
At present, Pirgacha has 32 villages and Jalchatra, 25. Pirgacha Mission has over 8,813 Catholics and 1500 Garos who practice their traditional religion or belong to other Christian denominations. We have 18 Primary Schools educating 1700 Tribal children. Two of these schools are BRAC model schools with non-formal education. Kindergarten, "American style", is started from the age of four and the High School has 650 students. Computer science has been introduced to Class Nine. The students go from bamboo age to the computer age in Class Nine without any mental shock.
Fifty lay teacher-catechists, mostly women, run the primary schools and village churches. Twelve teachers staff the High School. The Parish is really run by the laity. The teacher-catechists are highly motivated in running the Catholic Church and their own lives. All the teachers have PTI Certificates from training in the National Training Center run by the Xavierian Fathers in Jessore. Integral Human Development based on education in all aspects of man’s needs has transformed a traditional Mandi society into a Christian society based on the justice and faith closely integrated into Mandi society. The real charisma of Holy Cross Mission work has been education, not brick and mortar missionary activity. When I came to Jalchatra the highest qualified teacher was class 5. Today, the literacy rate is over 90% with many college graduates.
Even though the Mandis are Christian, their cultural values are still distinctive. Cultural values include community, joy, peace, celebration of life, honesty, and living in the presence of God. They have a super-Conscience which is symbolized by the eye of God symbol on women’s clothing, their baskets, drums, and gongs. The conscience is called dakmalja and they live in the presence of God who sees all and rewards or punishes us according to the way we obey the Tribal Laws. Their beautiful drums are the gods speaking to us. The beat varies according to the occasion for announcing birth, marriage, death and cremation, planting, harvesting, house building and blessing a new house, or the coming of a guest when all drink the mi chu or rice wine. The Mandis celebrate often and at the drop of a hat. The ancestors are remembered and invited to each celebration. Every house has the Kima or memorial post to remember the ancestors. Close bonds of lineage are the determining factors in all relations in the tribe. Asking your machong or lineage establishes immediate relationships. Storytelling relates oral history and useful knowledge of the ancestors and history of the tribe, as well as providing good entertainment.
In 1959 I was officially adopted into the Mandi Tribe by the Nokrek machong. As a member of the "Waksu" Nokrek machong, our story goes like this:
A Nokrek village was attacked by an enemy. Only one pregnant Nokrek woman was saved by hiding in a pig sty. Therefore her descendants are known as "Waksu Nokrek". I have many relatives who are concerned with my life and regulation of my existence prior to my birth, education, marriage, and punishment if I do not follow the Tribal laws. My "sisters" look after me and determine my wealth and health and even see to the death rituals which help determine my future existence. This is an avuncular society where the mother’s brother has more power over the child than the father. Even the British, Pakistani, and now Bangladesh Government recognize these customary laws.
State of Affairs
This brings us to the precarious situation of the Madhupur Mandis. Bangladesh took loans from the Asia Development Bank (ADB) to reforest the denuded jungle. By Gazette Notification, most of the Tribal lands have been put into the ‘Forest Land’ category. Recently the Forest Department started planting trees in Mandi rice fields that are registered under the Revenue Department in Pirgacha and Arunkhola areas. When the people objected the local Range Officer said that the Forest Department does not recognize the Revenue Department’s registration. ADB has explicitly stated that no cultivated Garo lands are to be reforested and all reforestation must be participatory. The lands have been taken by force, both legal and physical. Instead of agro forestry, the Forest Dept. is planting "woodlots" for firewood with exotic Australian species. Eucalyptus Camaldalensus grows quickly and destroys the soil and environment, according to forest experts. Native species of flora and fauna are all but wiped out along with a huge variety of medicinal and useful plants. Forceful use of occupied and cultivated tribal lands has been condemned by the ADB according to terms of the agreement. Still, crops have been destroyed, false cases crushing the poor are started, guns, tear gas, and the new Revised Forest Act has been misused to destroy the rights of the people. Open corruption of the Forest Department and high officials goes unpunished. No appeal for justice is possible under the present system.
A whole ecosystem has been destroyed in the name of reforestation. Rare species of medicinal plants, leopard, golden langur, birds, both local and migratory are gone or endangered. Agro-forestry so badly needed in Bangladesh has created a corrupt system that is destroying the forest and its inhabitants. Participatory reforestation by the public is necessary but no one wants to suffer more at the hands of the Forest Department or courts.
The society is changing. They have the Christian faith and are willing to fight for justice by non-violent means. Justice and Peace efforts by the Church have protected the Mandis against the constant pressure of the government to abandon the forest lands. The Christian faith has liberated them from these unjust structures. Education and training is needed so they can be truly free. The Christian faith has united them, but urbanization, materialism, and secularism are destroying cultural values and changing their society. For the Tribal, every person has value and dignity. This freedom makes for genuine growth in the Christian life. It is time for us to analyze and suggest some possible solutions to the problems we face in the Abima or "motherland" area of the Mandis. Why are we being absorbed and our cultural values destroyed by the majority community? Our cultural values are precious to us and are a gift to the Churches. In God’s garden there are many beautiful flowers.
One problem is language. We have our own language and it should be taught in school. Through the use of Garo evangelists, primary schools, and boardings, Christianity took hold in the hearts of the Mandis. It is estimated that there are now 500,000 Christian Mandis in India and Bangladesh. Because of education we received from the Mission, we are a dynamic force in these two countries. We need better schools and boardings. More professional and technical education is necessary.
Economic emancipation requires industrialization, social discipline, skills training, family adjustment, and integrity in the Mandi Community. Forest land will always be a source of contention in Bangladesh. Wage earners no longer depend on the forest or its support system. Cultural values natural to the Mandi clash with the major ethnic groups in Bangladesh. Because our Mandis are simple, honest, and open, they are often victims of injustice, cruelty, and cheating. We Christian Tribals are now the majority of the Christian community but do not get our share of personnel or have an equivalent share in the economic and leadership roles or development projects in either the secular or religious communities. We should have subsidized educational opportunities in the Primary, High School, and College levels. Through their reforestation project, the Government has impoverished our people with their land grabbing, false cases, and violation of human rights’.
As in Choto Nagpur and Ranchi, the Church has espoused the cause of justice, peace, and human rights’, along with Integral Human Development. ADB loans to Bangladesh are wiping out the native forests. In destroying the forests, the Government is not only destroying native species; it is destroying the culture and religious values of forest dwellers. The Bangladesh Government’s effort to take over our ancestral lands with our sacred burial places and cultivated lands is crushing a helpless people. We demand justice and peace on our ancestral lands. These demands are not unjust or unreasonable. Our Christian faith demands freedom for us and our posterity in Bangladesh. We are free and demand the freedom of the children of God…in the Madhupur Jungle…Abima or "motherland".
The Forest Department started a wall around many Mandi rice fields and told the Mandis they intend to build an ‘Ecopark’. 28 acres of rice paddy belonging to Gaira village is included in this plan. The whole Mandi community is upset by this plan to take tribal lands by force. Where will the persecution stop? The Forest Minister said the Garos in Madhupur are illegally living here. Such ignorance is a violation of international law. Recent shooting and killing in Jalabada of Piren Snal has again upset the whole Garo community. One death and 25 wounded by irresponsible forest guards on a peaceful demonstration has given Bangladesh a very bad reputation in the field of human rights. We have had four eviction notices but President Zia in Mymensingh town Hall promised that the Garos would never be evicted from the Madhupur Forest in a meeting on Feb. 14, 1975.
On October 18, 2007 Cholesh Ritchil and Protap Jambil were arrested by Major Toufiq Elahi and other BD Army personal in Kalibari Bazar. They were take to their Kakraid Farm Camp and tortured terribly. Protap was treated in Madhupur Hospital and dumped in his home village of Magontinagor at night. Cholesh was tortured terribly; his whole body had black and blue bruises, his anus was burned with a hot rod, his eyes were plucked out and he was castrated. His body was sent to the Madhupur Hospital but he was declared dead from high blood pressure and a heart attack. His body was examined in his home and washed with "chu" or rice wine before burial by his women relatives. His whole body was tortured and he died as a result of the torture by the BD Army brutality.
The Forest Department is again trying to take over Tribal lands for "Social Forestry". Many signed the contracts and watched over the trees and plantations for years. The Forest Department sold the trees at night and started false cases against the Mandis. No one wants to sign such contracts because of the terrible corruption by the Forest Department. Day and night they are selling the forest trees and starting false cases against the public. One 2 ½ year old child had a false case filed against him. Wherever there is a Forest Department there is no forest in Bangladesh and the public are real victims because of the Forest Department and false cases.
Rev. Eugene E. Homrich, CSC
Pastor, St. Paul’s Church
P.O. Pirgacha 1996
September 8, 2015