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Garo unrest in Modhupur forest

Source - Dhaka Courier, 09 January 2004

By Philip Gain

Killing of a Garo man on January 3 has caused an uproar among the Garos of the Modhupur forest. The bullets allegedly shot by the forest guards instantly killed Piren Snal of Joynagachha, a remote village in the Modhupur forest, and seriously injured Utpal Nokrek who has survived after a surgery in Dhaka. About twenty five other Garos were also injured in the assault of the forest guards and police on a demonstration of the Garos.

A few thousand Garos from many Garo villages had assembled at Jalabadha on January 3, a remote spot in the Modhupur forest, to resist the government construction work for concrete walls and other infrastructure at Jalabadha and other spots in the northern part of the Modhupur forest. The forest guards and police stationed to suppress resistance against the government construction work at Jalabadha, went impatient with the protesters and opened fire from their guns from a close distance.

“We, a few thousand Garos were staging a peaceful demonstration. We were heading towards a spot at Jalabadha to request the authorities to stop construction of concrete walls cutting through the much despoiled forest and other infrastructure. The forest guards and the police stopped us as we went close to the construction site. As we tried to push through, the guards and the police began to shoot at us,” said George Nokrek, a Garo youth who was among the protestors.

Many a Garos who participated at the demonstration claimed that their demonstration was peaceful and they were bare handed. There was no need of gun shots to stop them.

The Garos have burst into anger after the killing of Piren. Thousands of Garos and their supporters took to the jungle paths and Mymensingh-Tangail highway on January 4 and 5 to protest the killing.

The Garos have demanded expulsion of the Minister for Forest and Environment, the DC, SP and DFO from their positions. They have also demanded for judicial inquiry, cancellation of the “eco-park”, permanent lease of the Adivasi land, fair trial and compensation for the killed and those injured. The DC of Tangail announced in a huge protest rally on January 5 that the government had already constituted a judicial enquiry committee.

About 20,000 Garos and Koch of the Modhupur forest have experienced many hurdles to retain their traditional homesteads and right to forest produces. Development activities, plantations, invasion of pineapple and banana controlled by outsiders and loss of land have already heavily curtailed their access to local resources on which they have customary rights.

The Garos of Modhupur see the construction of concrete walls and other infrastructure under the Modhupur National Park Development Project as a new threat. The stated objective of the government plan is protection of 3,500 acres of sal forest and promotion of eco-tourism. But the Garos do not believe that the walls would protect the forest. These would rather restrict their movement and limit their access to land and forest resources already severely limited. Worse, the infrastructure such as barracks, guest houses, artificial small lakes, etc. for the promotion of eco-tourism would disturb their social harmony. Moreover, the Adivasi women, who venture into the forest, would become more insecure.

The killing of January 3 is not just an isolated incident. In the past few years, the forest guards have allegedly killed a number of Garos. Rape and other physical assaults on the Garo women are often reported. Forest cases also keep the local people under constant pressure.

At one time the livelihood means, culture, traditions and knowledge of the Garos were absolutely dependent on forests.

But today statistics and evidences tell that the Mudhupur sal forest is a spoiled land. According to Tangail DFO, out of 46,000 acres in the Tangail part of the Modhupur forest, 7,800 acres have been given out for rubber cultivation, 1,000 acres to the Air Force, 25,000 acres have gone into illegal possession and the FD controls only 9,000 acres.

Most of the land that have gone into illegal possession are used mostly for production of pineapples, banana and cassava. Pineapple for cash is a cultivation of decades. But pineapple business is now dominated by the Bangali traders who come from other parts of the country. Banana plantation has expanded fast in recent years. This new cultivation for cash is also controlled by the Bangali traders. Outsiders invest in both cultivations for big cash.

The Advasis are increasingly getting confined to their villages for expansion of pineapple, banana and commercial plantations of invasive species. Now as they see concrete walls raised close to their villages and blocking their walkways, they sense more troubles.

The government had tried to ease tension among the Garos. The Minister for Forest and Environment (MoEF) Mr. Shahjahan Siraj had a meeting at the Dokhola Rest House on July 4 last year with the Adivasi leaders. The Minister consoled the Adivasis and even rebuked the forest officials. “Those who live in the forest have more rights over it than anyone else,” said the Minister.

State Minister A.K.M. Mosharraf Hossain (energy and natural resources) who accompanied Minister Shajahan Siraj went one step further and said, “The Forest Department is responsible for the destruction of the forest.”

The Minister also gave his words to dispose of the “false” cases filed to crush the resistance of the Garos. But at the end of the meeting, the Minister gave his decision that the government would go ahead constructing the walls - but not at the inconvenience of the Garos. The Garo leaders also agreed among others to form a committee to work with the government.

But when the committee was formed more than a month later, a split among the Garos became obvious. None of the Garo leaders in the front line at the meeting with the Minister was included in the committee. There is allegation that the government manipulated the formation of the committee and only those supporting the government position were included in the committee.

There is also allegation that the government put tremendous pressure on those who opposed the government manipulation. This resulted in stronger opposition against the walls.

Since then, the Garos have been organizing rallies, meetings, and showing black flags, etc. to express their rejection of the government plan of wall construction and eco-tourism. But nobody thought the forest guards and police would shoot and kill the forest people.

Families of those killed and wounded are terribly shocked. Killed Piren Snal’s wife has become dumb in shock with a two-month old daughter, Ratri Nokrek and two-year old son Utsho Nokrek.

Police took away Piren’s dead body that was returned only in the evening of the following day after post mortem in Tangail.

The OC of Modhupur Thana has filed a case against the demonstrators terming them “unruly mob”. One Habilder of the same Thana also filed a case against the forest department personnel. The OC of Modhupur Police Station who was in the forest at the time of the shootout on January 3 claimed that police did not fire any shot at the demonstrators but made some blank shots.

The Garos are also planning to file case(s). “We will surely file case(s) against the forest guards and police after discussion among ourselves,” said Ajoy Mree, a Garo leader.

The Garos are determined to continue the opposition against the construction of wall and infrastructure for eco-tourism until the government fulfills their demands. They have given a seven-day ultimatum to the government. They have announced non-stop hartal if the government does not listen to them. In the meantime, rallies in Garo villages and showing of black flags would continue.

People in general see the walls to protect the forest as a bizarre plan of the government. The forest land has been encroached for pineapple and banana plantation on a massive scale. The Forest Department is generally held responsible for the destruction of the forest land. Instead of doing anything about recovering encroached forest land, the Forest Department is allegedly constructing walls in areas where the Adivasis still have some usufractuary rights.

The Adivasis of the Modhupur are angry and terrified. In most of the killings and assaults in the past few years the perpetrators have escaped trial and the Garos evaded. They no more consider the Modhupur forest, heavily despoiled, their safe home. They hear cry of the forest all around. And the Garos themselves are crying too.