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
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
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
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.