by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, March 30, 2007]
Family members of Choles Ritchil break down after receiving his dead body
He was a brave man. He stood up for the rights of his people whenever the need came. When the Bangladesh government decided to go ahead with its proposed Eco Park project in 2000, putting the lives of thousands of indigenous people at risk and threatening the ecological balance of the area, he took a stand against it and protested. When greedy, materialistic forest officials, who had anything but the interest of the forest at heart, started felling trees in the darkness of the night and selling them off for personal profit, he jumped on them and refused to let them get away with it. He loved the Modhupur Forest, his ancestral home and he loved his people, the small minority of Garos and dedicated his life for the establishment of their rights.
And he died for it. On March 18, 2007 this courageous man Choles Ritchil, the father of five, was returning from a wedding in Mymensingh when the joint forces arrested him and three other men at Kalibari Bazar. That night his battered and bruised lifeless body was found at the premises of the Thana Health Complex. The police made up a story about how Choles lost consciousness after he fell while trying to escape from his arrestees. But there were telltale marks all over his body implying severe torture. There was very little area on his body that wasn’t black and blue. Cholesh’s three companions, Protap Jambil, Tuhin and Piren were also allegedly tortured by the joint forces. Protap, who sustained the severest of wounds was treated in Mymensingh Medical College Hospital.
Protap Jambil, was also arrested with Choles and allegedly tortured.
Different rights groups protested the killing of Choles and said at a news briefing that they would submit a memorandum to the Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government. Sultana Kamal, a former adviser and the executive director of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) agreed that it was not an accident, but rather an incident of killing and the attempts to hide the evidence indicated so. Ajay A Mri, an adibashi leader of the locality said that the administration’s attempt to hide the facts was evident from the way the body was handed over to the relatives without any inquest or autopsy report.
So what led to so much fury and wrath over a man, who was so loved and looked up to by his people? Columnist, freelance journalist and General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’
Forum, Sanjeeb Drong talks about the beginnings of a movement that ended for a hero in the most violent way. “The Modhupur forest is comprised of 21,000 acres of land,” says Drong, “the authorities wanted to make the eco-park in 3000 acres of that land. The lives of the indigenous people are either directly or indirectly involved with this land. When the movement against the eco-park started in the year 2000 and even from before, Choles was very actively involved with it. The Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum was also working for its cause, but we were based in Dhaka and he was a passionate local organiser and leader.” Choles’ popular efforts to save the Modhupur Forest earned him enemies from the very beginning.
“You don’t need to do any research to establish the fact that the forest department is responsible for the destruction of the forest,” says Drong and adds, “if you talk to the indigenous people and the poor Bangalis there it will become crystal clear to you exactly how the forests are disappearing and taking with it the livelihoods of these people.”
Choles Ritchil–a voice of the indigenous people silenced.
Ever since the forest department arrived in Modhupur to build an eco park to ‘preserve’ the forests, the insatiable forest officials have been categorically and surreptitiously selling off trees that eventually end up as the furniture we so ambitiously embellish our homes with. “People actually paid a lot of bribe to get posted at Modhupur because they know they can derive personal benefit from there,” says Drong. And being minorities they dared not speak out against the officials. The forest officers constantly intimidated the indigenous people with threats of arrest warrants. According to Sanjeeb Drong, there are 5000 false cases in Modhupur alone. Choles, being a local campaigner had no end to cases against him. “People who had vested interest in the forest under political cover (both during the AL and BNP rule) have been destroying the forest for their personal benefit,” says Drong, “and for the people of Choles’ village Magantinagar and neighbouring areas Beribaik, Telpi, Kakrait and Jalchatra, Choles was a saviour, a person they used to depend on.” And these characteristics of his popularity made him enemies everywhere. “It’s like being in the water and fighting with the crocodiles,” says Drong.
The unpopular eco park project that the government started threatened the lives of thousands of indigenous people and the ecological balance of the area. “The eco park is not actually an eco park, it is an entertainment park,” says Sanjeeb Drong, “according to the project proposal 10 picnic spots would be made in the middle of the forest which an eco park cannot have. It is supposed to include trees, the locals and all the wild animals. There are also six barracks in the proposal, which basically means six buildings!” Drong says that if the authorities wanted to make a real eco park the indigenous people would have welcomed it with open arms. But the locals had no involvement with the proposal.
The budget of the eco park declared in 2000 was 10 crore taka, a big component of which was the building of the wall. “Nobody will believe a forest can be preserved by making a boundary wall,” says Drong, “The forest officials starting from the chief conservator officer to the duty officers are all involved with cutting down the trees.” Instead of conserving the forest, which is the real point of having an eco park, the boundary wall, according to Drong would make it easier for the corrupt officials to cut down the trees. “To save the forest the forest officials will have to get rid of the corruption amongst them,” adds Drong.
The indigenous people have never looked at the forest as a profitable venture. “We never thought about selling trees or occupying land,” says Drong, “this is not our culture. We know that our very livelihood depends on the existence of the forest. We know that without trees there won’t be any rain and the streams will dry up, and if the streams and rivers dry up we won’t be able to survive. Our culture is intertwined with the forest and our environment.”
Bangladesh is the home of these indigenous people but successive governments have failed to establish the country as a non-communal state even after three decades of independence. Thirty lakh indigenous people still do not enjoy the rights that the common Bangali does. The indigenous people still do not own the land they have lived in over generations. Those who lived in the forest for centuries never registered their land. When land registration started, the indigenous people did not understand it, and the government did nothing to help. Articles 11-13 of the ILO Convention 107 states, “The right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands which these populations traditionally occupy shall be recognised” and it states quite precisely that the indigenous people cannot be removed from their habitual territories unless there are “reasons for national security or interest of national economic development or of the health of the population there”. Even then the people will have to be provided with lands “of quality at least equal to that of the lands previously occupied by them, suitable to provide for their present needs and future development.”
“The Bangladesh government has ratified the ILO Convention 107 in 1972,” says Drong, “So if they force the indigenous people to leave their lands it will be a violation of human rights and a violation of the ILO Convention.” Drong says that the indigenous people welcome the move to create an independent human rights commission. “We have been asking for this for a long time,” says Drong, “but there should be a representative of the indigenous people, at least in a sub-committee. There should be an independent and powerful body to represent the minorities and indigenous people.”
The indigenous communities are part of our national heritage. Their culture and practices are very different from Bangalis but they are very much citizens of this country. However, they have never been allowed to live with respect and dignity. Not only has the government categorically failed to ensure the basic rights of these people, but development organisations like World Bank and Asian Development Bank have continually marginalised these people in their projects. The activities by the state-run Karnaphuli Paper Mills have affected the indigenous people living close to the forests or in lands the forest department claims to be government land. In 2006 although 30,000 Rohingya refugees had been enrolled in the voter list, permanent residents of the three Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) districts were left out. Many indigenous people could not even go near the polling centres due to security concerns. Banglapedia, the national encyclopaedia of Bangladesh published distorted information about the culture and history of the indigenous people and used derogatory words to describe them.
Choles was an active voice protesting against the selfish acts of the Bangalis. The result was a brutal death and a desperate attempt by the authorities to hide the crime. The caretaker government has made some exemplary achievements in their fight against corruption. The indigenous people await with anxiety to see what steps the government will take to punish the people responsible for Choles’ death and eventually what it does to establish the respect and dignity the indigenous people of Bangladesh deserve.
Photos: Bangladesh Forum for Indigenous People