Ethnic Khasia (read the Khasia are a Mongoloid and matriarchal ethnic group originally from the Indian State of Meghalaya, just across the border of Bangladesh) Christians in Bangladesh are still uncertain whether the land they have lived on for generations will become their own. They have been resisting eviction for nearly a decade in their ancestral land.
A report in LA CROIX international stated that about 700 ethnic Khasia from 86 families in two villages have been battling to resist eviction by Nahar Tea Estate authorities in Moulvibazar district since 2010. Most of those affected are Catholics belonging to St Joseph’s Catholic Church, under the predominantly indigenous Sylhet Catholic Diocese in northeast Bangladesh.
The report quoted Quazi Rosy, a ruling Awami League lawmaker, as saying, “The Khasias are peaceful people and they have the right to live in their ancestral land like every citizen of Bangladesh.”
Rosy was part of a delegation from the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples that visited Nahar 1 and Nahar 2 punjis (forested villages with clustered houses) on July 22 last. Research and Development Collective (RDC) activists were also part of the delegation to lend their support to the Khasia. “It does not matter if they have land documents or not, but by the virtue of ancestral heritage the land must be allocated to them for home and livelihood,” Rosy said.
She advocated that if necessary, the Government should allocate land to the Khasia separately. Khasia villagers have been locking horns with Nahar Tea Estate in Sreemangal sub-district over ownership of 450 acres of land in two punjis for years together.
Dibarmin Pohtam, village chief of Nahar 1 punji, stated that in 2010, Nahar Tea Estate secured permission from the Land Ministry to expand the estate, and it attempted to merge Khasia villages. That year, the estate used its political clout and flexed its financial muscle, convincing the district administration of Moulvibazar to cut down thousands of trees in the villages used for betel leaf plantations — a traditional livelihood for the Khasia.
“My father started living here more than 60 years ago, and it is absolutely inhumane and unacceptable if one asks me to leave,” Dibarmin said. “We are living in fear but we will do everything to stop eviction”. Khasia leaders said they have lived in the area since long before the tea estate was set up in 1964.
In 2014, several clashes broke out when armed thugs, allegedly sent by tea estate managers, raided two villages. One person died and dozens were injured on both sides. Panicked villagers assigned guards from the community to provide security day and night. Supported by the church and rights groups, the Khasia filed two petitions in the district court, and the court issued a stay order to maintain the status quo in 2016.
Ashequl Haque, Assistant Land Commissioner in Moulvibazar district, said efforts are underway to offer land ownership to Khasia people. “Khasia people have lived on the land for a long time, so we have proposed to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Land to entitle the land to the Khasia permanently. We are waiting for the court verdict,”
“Without permanent land settlement, the dispute would continue, but everything must be done through legal procedure,” he remarked. Nahar Tea Estate authorities declined to comment on the issue.