When sugar means blood

Pavel Partha | Updated at 05:43pm on December 18, 2017

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Some members of the law enforcement agencies set fire to Santal houses at Gobindaganj on November 6, 2016. — Al-jazeera

EVERY harvest in this country bore the mark of injustice and violence of the state. Indigo, tobacco, tea, rubber, hybrid corn, cotton and sugar cane carries the worst of this wounded history. In early nineteenth century, when indigo trade was in its prime and global demand for it was on the rise, local zamindars were forcing poor farmers to cultivate indigo. Slowly, farm fields normally used to grow paddy, jute, cotton or other crops were transformed into indigo field. Farmers could make no profit producing it, yet they were forced to cultivate indigo. There were other political economic concerns that complicated the history of indigo in Bengal. The financing agencies investing capital in indigo production were in crisis. In 1847, the Union Bank of Calcutta was declared bankrupt. Besides, in 1850s, the installation of railroads on farmlands raised wage of labourers in rural areas.  But, indigo trading zamindars exploited indigo farmers, paid them bare minimum as wage. In this situation, organised indigo farmers rebelled against the brutally exploitative zamindars. That was the beginning of historic indigo mutiny — nil bidroha.  In the indigo farming areas, late 1850s to early 1860s, mutineer, rebel peasants’ encounter with the zamindars and the colonial state turned brutal. In this struggle against indigo tax (nil kar) and zamindars, many indigo farmers embraced martyrdom. During the mutiny, Dinbandhu Mitra through his iconic literary contribution, Nildarpan; Kishori Chand and Harishchandra Mukherjee’s magazine advocated for the cause of indigo farmers. Through their writings they tried to mobilise public opinion. In 1860, the constitution of the Indigo Commission by the colonial administrators finally prohibited forced cultivation of indigo.

Similar history of oppression and insufferable exploitation prevailed in British colonial tea gardens. They introduced tea trading through exploiting workers. Vanishing natural Sal forest, rain forest of Sylhet areas, and hill forest of Chittagong Hill Tracts began the commercial rubber plantations. Destroying farmlands and killing the rivers started tobacco cultivation. The salt making and shrimp farming continued ruining the social lives and livelihood of the communities in coastal areas. Along the same line, to ensure the profit of mega corporate companies started the farming of hybrid corns. This essay is not about indigo, tea, tobacco, rubber, salt, shrimp or corn. This essay is about sugar cane farming — about the farmers who remaining in contract with the sugar mills produce sugar cane.

 

Bullet for sugar

SUGAR cane farming too witnessed the same violent exploitative history that happened in the case of large-scale commercial production of indigo farming and tea plantations. However, it did not happen under British colonial or intercolonial Pakistani regime. The colonial history of exploitation was repeated in the independent Bangladesh. For the sugar industry, people were murdered and injured in Rangpur (Mahimaganj) Sugar Mills.  On November 6, 2016, the sugar mill authority, local nadministration and hired thugs attacked the landless Santal and Bengali people of Gobindaganj, Sapmara Union. Police and the sugar mill authorities say, they evicted illegal inhabitants while collecting harvest. In this violent attack, Mangal Mardy, Shaymol Hembrom, and Ramesh Tudu were martyred. Dijen Tudu lost his eye sight to rubber bullet. Injured were many. The state needs to comprehend the hidden wound of this sugar mill. It has to judiciously investigate this violence on Santal people of Bagda farm and ensure justice for them. Who are these people whom the sugar mill authorities and local administration of Gobindaganj are repeatedly attacking, calling them ‘illegal occupants’?  On what historical ground is the sugar mill authority evicting real inheritor of this land? Injuring and murdering them? Whose interest are they serving? Who is provoking them? To protect the sugar industry, the government surely hasn’t ordered such fatal brutalities? Then, why hasn’t the state put an end to this long history of violence. Perhaps, behind this bloody violence at work are the conspiracy and interest of the vested quarters affiliated with the sugar mill authority. At work, is also the inheritance of arrogance of colonial power and corporate ruthlessness. Perhaps, all of them together are trying to put the government in an awkward situation and mobilising rural subaltern people against the government.     

Shahebganj-Bagdafarm

HISTORICALLY, Gobindaganj of Gaibandha is an important area for sugar cane farming. During British period, traditional Khedi Kushal, Som Kushal and Gendari cultivation were common in this land. Thus, sugar cane would be used to produce sugar-molasses. Rabidas, Bengali Hindu and some peasant Muslims were inhabitants of this land along with Santals. Local elderly people say, as nine colours (noi rang) of people used to live here, there was a mouja that is named as Narengabad. Allthough Santals are driven away from their lands, there are still neighbourhoods known as ‘Garo para.’ Local Santals say, outsider Bengalis identify any Santal neighbourhood as ‘Garo para.’ Gaibandha, Dinajpur, and Rangpur have many names of places that silently carry the history of the evicted, exiled communities of this land. There are villages named as ‘Garo para’ in Singra union, Ghoraghat upazila of Dinajpur and Chatra union, Pirganj upazila of Rangpur. However, no Mandi or Garo community lives there anymore.

Bagda Soren was a Santal king of Bogdah mouja in Ghorahat parganah. In Santal folk songs and tales, names of two kings appear often. ‘Rape raj’ of Ghoraghat mentioned in these tales is perhaps Bagda Soren. Zamindar Akhil Chandra Chakravarti of Ghoraghat parganah established a sugar mill in Bagda Soren’s land and he named the mill ‘Bagda Farm’ after Bagda Soren. Local people now call the Bagda Farm, ‘Mini Chinikal.’ No one made inheritance claim of the 450 acre land of this ‘Mini Kall.’ After 1940, the Bagda Farm slowly lost its business. In 1950, with the enactment of Zamindari Abolishment Act, Zamindari system came to an end. From North-eastern Assam state to Mymensingh, Gaibandha, and Noakhali landless subaltern people began to come to this area. They took over the Bagdah mouja. It is because of this historic tension over land between local Santal and `minority communities’ that they call migrants from those periods ‘refugees,’ even today. In 1955, migrated ‘refugees’ started cultivating relationship with the political elite to attain permanent proprietary rights of land in Bogdah and surrounding areas. In 1962, the then government of Pakistan granted them land papers. A place that had been populated by Santal community soon was occupied by ‘refugees.’ Today, in this mouja, there are no Santals. Once self-dependent Santals are now untouchable daily labourers for Bengali landowners.

For ethnically blind government of Pakistan, it was difficult to accept the communal bond between indigenous community and Bengalis, more importantly. That is why killing the history of communal harmony, in the name of establishing a sugar mill, the government of Pakistan later evicted Indigenous communities from 15 villages and 5 villages from Bengali communities. About 1842.30 acres of land spanning across Rampura, Sapmara, Madarpur, Narengabad, and Charahimapur of 5 No Sapmara Union, Gonbindaganj was `acquired’ by the authorities of East Pakistan to establish ‘Rangpur (Mahimaganj) Sugar mill. This area is known as Shahebganj-Bagdafarm. In reality, sugar production was not the main reason behind government acquisition of land; it was the assault on ethnically pluralist society of East Pakistan that ethnically chauvinistic Pakistani government tried to assault.

Movement for lost land

THE condition of acquisition was that the forcefully acquired land from people would be used only to cultivate sugar cane. In the case, without sugar cane any other crops were cultivated or the land was used for purposes other than the sugar mill, the state would return the land to its original owner from whom it had acquired the land. Due to the mismanagement and corruption of sugar mill authority, the sugar mill was laid off on March 31, 2004. Sugar mill authority began to lease out the land to influential outsiders. Santal and Bengalis, evicted from their birthland in the name of establishing sugar mill, brought the issue to the attention of local administration. In response to their application, the additional district commissioner (tax) of Gobindaganj went to Sahebganj-Bagdafarm area for in-site investigation. During their visit, they found hybrid corn, vegetables, tobacco and pumpkin was growing in the land. Meanwhile, on May 10, 2016, the Gaibandha district administration proposed that the land be used for establishing a special economic zone. In this context, the Santal and Bengali landless began to organise a movement to reclaim the right to the inheritance of the land. To repress the movement, they used any means at their disposal from filing legal cases to harass the organisers to threatening them of physical harm, at times even assaulting the landless organisers.

Their land was occupied in the name of industrial development. Those who were evicted began to return to the area from different places, hence began the Santal-Bengali march to reclaim their land rights. Approximately, 4000 families returned to Madarpur and Narengabad mouja. They built chapra houses by the north-south side of Kuamara pond, also around Basurmari pond. Santals built their pre-primary school, sacred grove (Manjhithan) and Bengalis their mosque. They grazed their cattle and ploughed the land for paddy, vegetables and pulses. On July 1, 2016, the sugar mill authority along with the upazila nirbahi officer and on duty police officers came for a visit to all five moujas and told the rightful reclaimants to leave the place. On July 12, mill authority, their hired thugs and police attacked the reclaimant community of Santal and Bengali. Manjhi Hembrom and Mungli Tudu of Beloa village, Michael Mardy of Bulakipur village, Soban Murmu of Gucchagram survived bullet injuries. Many others were injured.

What happened on November 6?

ON NOVEMBER 6, 2016, local administration and elected members, Rangpur Sugar Mills authority and their hired thugs attacked the raclaimant community of Santal and Bengali. For the last couple of months, they started living in their mud-huts. In the nearby land, they were growing khesari kolai, rice, and other food crops. Setting fire, attackers destroyed everything and fired bullets. In the blink of an eye, little they had were stolen and ransacked.

On the fateful day, around 10am in the morning, sugar mill authority and workers along with local police, the chairman and members of Sapmara union came to the Katabari circle. Santals and Bengalis enquired them about their presence. They responded, ‘they came to cut the sugar cane.’ Santals and Bengalis present at the site said, they can take the harvest in front of media and locally elected members. Otherwise, if no credible witness is present, the sugar mill authority could falsely accuse them of stealing the sugar cane. Both parties engaged in an altercation over cutting the sugar cane from the farm field. During the altercation, Md Shahalam Sarkar, member of the 5 No Sapmara Union shot an arrow targeting police men. In retaliation, police turned to combat gear. People with sugar mill authority illegally detained Shyamol Hembrom and Dijen Tudu. Suddenly, police opened fire. Protesting public dispersed. As they were running for life, they saw three along with Shyamol Hembrom fell on the ground sustaining bullet injury. People were trying to take those who were injured to the hospital. Police and sugarmil authority left the place. The reclaimants of Madarpur mouja returned to their home. Injured Shyamol Hembrom died on his way to the hospital.

In the afternoon, women were starting fire in the wood burning stove. To make dinner, they were washing rice, chopping potato and uncultivated foods. Some children were reading their textbooks. Elderly men either stitching holes in their sleeping mat or tightening the vines of gore. Without any prior notice, a group of armed men cordoned their village. They were wearing uniforms of Bangladesh Police and BGB. People had seen the upazila nirbahi officer on the frontline. The chairman of Shahebganj-Bagda Land Recovery Committee, also the chairman of Sapmara union, Shakil Akand Bulbul announced that the police and local administration would march in first, and then sugar mill officials and their hired musclemen would follow. Twinkling of a moment, the homesteads of reclaimant Santals and Bengalis were razed to the ground. Bullets were falling like rain. Local people witnessed seven to eight injured Santal men lying still on the farmland. Everyone was evicted. Later, the sugar mill authority drove tractor over their home, their harvest. Tractor harrowed the land for the whole day to erase any traces of social lives there. Not just their homes, their sacred grove, temple, prayer rooms, schools everything was destroyed.

Day after the attack, the police returned Mangal Mardy’s (50) dead body to the community. Ramesh Tudu succumbed to his injury. Dijen Tudu with bullet injury in his eye was hospitalised in the National Eye Institute; Bimal Kisku and Charan Soren were admitted to Dhaka Community Hospital. An adolescent boy Sajal Murmu and an elderly woman Fulmani Murmu severly injured remained at home. Many Santals went missing, whether they survived or died in the attack, no one knows.

 

Sugar filled sacks or bullet injured lives

THE violent attack on the Santal and Bengali community of Madarpur mouja left them dispossessed and starved. No home, no food, not even the means to earn a meal. In the state-run sugar mills, sacks filled with sugars are rotting. Local administrators or elected member said nothing about this mismanagement. Under the aegis of advancing sugar industry and expanding sugar cane farming, the money making business of leasing and subleasing of lands continued in Shahebganj-Bagdafarm, so continued all forms of violence and exploitation of Santal communities. At the cost of people’s lives, we don’t want diamond cut-white sparkling sweet sugar beads. No one would believe that the prime minister of the country or the president approved such oppression of people just to ensure factory production of sugar. Then, who is behind such atrocities? To serve whose interest?

It is already proven in court that local members of law enforcement agencies actively took part in the arson of Santal village. Media has provided substantial evidence that a local parliamentary member and representatives of local government too were directly involved in the attack of November 6, 2016. In the time of sky rocketing price of land in Bangladesh, who can control their greed over 1842.30 acres of land? It is even easier to make profit, if the land belongs to the most oppressed, struggling Santal and Bengali communities.

The intentional management inefficiency slowly killing the sugar mill and the greed to make quick profit transformed the land reserved for sugar cane farming into a leased out property. A dying sugar mill here is a mere excuse to make profit of the land. Once again, we demand exemplary punishment for those who in the name of saving sugar mill industry murdered landless Santals and Bengali peoples in Gobindaganj.

 

Pavel Partha is a researcher and writer.