187 people from Habiganj tried to cross Tripura border
Fearing torture and harassment allegedly by forest officials, around 187 Bangladeshi indigenous men, women and children of five villages under Kalenga Reserve Forest in Habiganj tried to cross into India on Saturday early morning.
Stopped by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), the villagers were brought back to Bangladesh after a four-hour-long meeting between BSF and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) members Saturday night.
The BSF found the villagers near the Indian Gumsibari border gate-50 Saturday morning, reported our Kolkata correspondent, quoting Indian media.
The place is in Khowai district, about 70km east of Indian state of Tripura’s capital Agartala.
“The 187 people belong to Tripura community of Sanbari, Gungsimbari, Debrapara, Mongoliabari and Puranbari villages under Kalenga Reserve Forest in Chunarughat upazila of Habiganj,” BGB 55 Battalion Commander Lt Col Sazzad Hossain told our Moulvibazar correspondent.
The villagers alleged that they left their homes in the face of torture and harassment by forest officials of the reserve forest.
Manish Chandra Debbarma, headman of Debrapara village, said that around 600 indigenous people live in the five villages only half a kilometre away from the Bangladesh-India border.
“Most of us work as day labourers inside the forest, but we are often harassed by forest officials,” he said, adding that the harassment had increased since the discovery of a large cache of arms and ammunition in Satchhari National Park in Habiganj in 2014.
The location where the arms were recovered is about half a kilometre away from the villages.
“Since that incident, forest officials often threaten us with eviction and tell us to go away from the forest land,” Manish claimed.
He alleged that forest guards had destroyed some of their homes about four months ago and evicted some of their community members from the forest land in Chunarughat.
Abdul Wadud, beat officer of Sanbari beat under Kalenga forest, refuted the allegation of torture.
He said that on Friday he sacked a number of Tripura community men who were working as forest guard.
“Infuriated, the Tripura men attacked a forest bungalow. As a result, we detained four people,” he claimed.
They were released later, he added.
RFM Monirul Islam, divisional forest officer (DFO) of the Sylhet Forest Division, claimed that the villagers were rehabilitated there in the early 1970s and were given agricultural land inside the forest area under the condition that they would in return guard the jungle along with forest employees.
“However, the men were not performing their duties for the last 10-15 days. When the beat officer of Sanbari forest met some of them on Friday on his way to Asr prayer, he had an argument with them about the matter,” he claimed.
“Later, these men attacked the Sanbari forest office. They also waited with sticks to beat up the officer but were stopped by other community people…” he alleged, adding that four men, who attacked the office were detained but later released to the headman of a Tripura village.
The villagers told the BSF that around five people went missing from the Tripura villages in the last one week, while their women and children were being harassed every day, reported our Kolkata correspondent.
Following the tension between forest officials and the Tripura community men, members of Tripura and Kharia indigenous communities are now living amid utter insecurity in the hilly jungles, villagers said.
Pushpo Rani Debbarma, 65, wife of headman Chitto Debbarma, said “We feel unsafe as forest officials can evict us anytime. We are passing our days in panic.”
Khemyti Debborma, 60, mother of two, said that after the men lost their jobs in the forest, cooking at many houses in the villages had stopped, as they could not buy anything.
Shamim Ahmed, chairman of Paikpara Union Parishad, said, “The indigenous Tripura community people are peaceful. They do not engage in any violence. But some forest officials disturb them.”
Jonok Debbarma, former general secretary of Bangladesh Tripura Kollyan Sangsad, said, “Indigenous people are peaceful, yet we face harassment regarding our land rights.”
Lt Col Sazzad Hossain said when BSF informed them about the attempt by the Bangladeshi indigenous people to cross the border, BGB along with a forest range official and four local UP members went there, held a flag meeting and brought them back.
“Indigenous people had been living in the Kalenga Reserve Forest and sought shelter from the BSF following problems with forest department workers,” he added.
Nirmalendu Chakrabatry, officer-in-charge of Chunarughat Police Station, told The Daily Star that 187 indigenous people sought shelter in India.
Forest department people often harass Tripura community men, so they sought shelter there (India) for safety, he said.
Yesterday, law enforcers along with union parishad chairmen and forest officials went to the Tripura villages to discuss the situation with the villagers.
“We assured the villagers that steps will be taken against any forest official or beat officer if the villagers were harassed again,” Lt Col Sazzad told The Daily Star after the meeting.
The villagers were also asked to talk to the BGB about their problems, instead of going to BSF for shelter, he said.
Despite the assurance, the villagers were still apprehensive about their future.
Shakti Panda Tripura, organising secretary of Bangladesh Adibashi Forum, termed the incident inhumane.
“Indigenous people have ancestral rights to the land and this right is recognised by the United Nations. The forest department is violating international norms and standards,” he said.
“I urge the government to give them shelter immediately,” he added.