Photos: Star File
"We were mercilessly flogged; our houses were burnt and bulldozed over. They looted everything - our last valuables and also our food. We were shot from point blank range. Many of our people died and my husband who was wounded critically was taken in as a prisoner. My bullet-hit-husband has been admitted to the hospital but still he is handcuffed to a rope which is tied to the bed,” cries Pani Murmu, wife of Choron Soren who was taken under police custody after defending his homestead from attackers. However, according to the other injured and destitute Santals, his protest went in vain. The attackers forced the 52-year-old out of his home with all his neighbours, looted everything and torched their houses in the presence of police. (The Daily Star November 13, 2016).
On November 6, clashes between Santal families and the labourers of Shahebganj Sugar Mill sparked when the labourers tried to evict the adivasis claiming the land for the sugar mill authority. On the other hand, the adivasi Santal families claimed that these are the lands of their forefathers and they had no idea how and when the Sugar Mill authority acquired their inherited property. Nonetheless, the Santal families were forcefully evicted from their ancestral village and all of their belongings were either looted or destroyed.
Ironically, the police filed a case against 442 Santals over the November 6 incident that led to the killing of two Santals and injuries to another 15-20. Ruling party leaders have visited the area only to promise fair investigation and justice about the incident, however, their flowery promises made little impression among the victims as the law enforcers blatantly refused to register any case from Santals when they went to Sundarganj Police station ( The Daily Star, November 14, 2016).
Several hundred kilometres away from Gaibandha, Hindus of Brahmanbaria district's Nasirnagar Upazila, faced similar consequences. Houses and properties of hundreds of Hindus and temples were set on fire centring a facebook image that showed a statue of a Hindu god placed on the Kaaba, the pilgrimage site of Muslims worldwide. While the individual who made such a hate post on social media is still at large, the innocent Hindus had to pay the price when the violent riot broke out on October 30 and the law enforcers completely failed to control the situation. Hundreds of their houses were plundered and at least seventeen temples were demolished. The situation is still restive and tense. Even on November 13, fifteen days after the riot another Hindu residence was set on fire despite additional deployment of police and round the clock patrol by RAB and BGB (The Daily Star, November 13, 2016).
Four years ago, in September 2012, local mobs attacked Buddhist monasteries, shrines and houses of Buddhist inhabitants and burnt them to the ground. After the deadly violence, around 300 people were arrested under a blanket raid. However, it took four years to arrest the prime suspect, the Upazila chairman of Naikkhongchhari and many of his associates are still at large. It is quite possible that the investigation, trial and justice for the incident will procrastinate so much that many people will forget the incident by then. It is a faulty system that encourages the troublemakers and opportunists to benefit from causing agitation in the society.
Attacks on religious and ethnic minorities are not uncommon in Bangladesh. However, many of these attacks are committed on the pretext of religion to gain economic or political supremacy. Santals are evicted to get hold of their lands; investigations revealed that three leaders of the ruling party Awami League were involved in initiating the violence in Nasirnagar who have now been temporarily expelled from the party for their connection to the occurrence. The Ramu violence in 2012 was also brewed up by the political leaders with heinous political intentions.
It is up to the state to ensure safety and security of its every citizen regardless of ethnicity, creed and caste. When such large scale incidents of violence over religion and ethnicity, committed by known perpetrators, go untried and unpunished, the essence of Bangladesh's own emancipation comes under questioning. Because, it seems that now the Bangladeshi political leaders are treating the ethnic and religious minorities just like they had been treated by their former West Pakistani rulers — as a political tool and not as fellow citizens.