The 162 residents of the indigenous settlement of Amuli punjee in Kormodha union of Moulvibazar’s Kulaura upazila are deeply distressed following an attack by a gang of criminals who targeted the punjee’s betel leaf plantations. During the October 2, 2016, attack, miscreants cut around 3,500 betel vines.
Punjee residents believe the attack was instigated by Noldori village residents Palash Mia and Babul Mia, following an earlier altercation between residents and the duo on September 27, 2016.
On that day, according to residents, up to 15 people led by Palash and Babul entered the punjee with sharp weapons to fell trees. When the group started to cut down a large tree, punjee residents obstructed the activity. The miscreants then threatened the punjee-dwellers and took the tree anyway.
Subsequently, on September 29, local indigenous people submitted a written complaint about the incident to Khormodha union chairman MA Rahman Atiq. According to local sources, Palash and Babul regularly cut trees from the forest reserve, while out of fear locals do not protest the illegal activity.
As betel leaf cultivation is the mainstay of the Khasi and Mandi community’s economy, the loss of the vines in the latest attack is devastating.
“Betel leaf is our only income source,” says resident Polin Manda. “When the criminals cut my betel vines they destroyed my dreams. Having lost my main economic asset, I don’t know how to support my six-member family.”
“Many Khasis in our punjee have no other employment,” says neighbour Philip Khonglah. “Growing crops on surrounding land is a matter of survival. Without this land and our betel vines it’s impossible for many families to live.”
Octogenarian punjee resident Arvil Rema breaks down to remember the attack. “We live insecure lives. We live from hand to mouth. What is our fault that Babul and Palash should harass us constantly? They threaten us and tell us to get out from this land. I wish I would die to end this suffering.”
Head of the punjee, Protush Asakra, says grave fears of further attacks persist.
“Palash Mia and Babul Mia are out to evict the Khasis who have been cultivating betel leaf in the area for years,” alleges Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of Sylhet chapter of the NGO Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
Human rights defender of NGO Indigenous Peoples’ Development Services Joyanto Lawrence Raksham agrees. “Cutting betel vines is one kind of strategy to dispossess indigenous people of their land. Without the livelihood of the vines they are vulnerable, so miscreants take the opportunity to repeatedly attack. A comprehensive solution to this ongoing problem is needed.”
“Some influential people do not consider indigenous people as the integral part of society and equal citizens that they are,” says Bably Talang, general secretary of KUBORAZ Inter Punjee Development Association of Khasi people. “Such attacks violate the basic property rights of Bangladeshi citizens, and as such, security forces should be deployed, bearing in mind that the rights of indigenous people should not be further violated in the name of establishing security.”
“When Khasis are evicted from their land,” agrees central committee member of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, Father Joseph Gomes, “we Bangladeshis are effectively attacking ourselves. It’s a matter of national shame for any Bangladeshi citizen to be treated in such a way; and the state’s responsibility is to ensure the security of all, including Khasi communities. Immediate action should be taken against the perpetrators and Khasi life security guaranteed.”
President of the Moulvibazar district unit of the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission, Kishori Pada Deb Shyamal, also demands proper investigation and prosecution of all instances where indigenous communities are attacked.
Shamsuduha, officer-in-charge of Kulaura Police Station, says police investigation has found that criminals cut the betel vines, and that a case has been filed by the head of the punjee against Palash Mia, Babul Mia and 15 unnamed persons in this regard. “We are trying our best to arrest the culprits,” he says.
The Daily Star attempted to contact Palash Mia and Babul Miah several times but their mobile phones were switched off.