Tribal revolts had shown political changes in accommodating Adibashis. The historic Santal Hool rebellion from 1855-1857 led by Santal-brothers Sidhu Kanhu against the British government for excessive land rents and forced dislocation of Santals and other Adivasis from their ancestral lands led to a new legislation restricting the sale of land from Adibashis to non- Adibashis. Santal Parganas was also created as an administrative district in order to supervise the special protective area policy effectively.
It shall be recalled that the British East India Company acquired in 1765 the right to collect tax on behalf of the emperor. The British colonialists, pursuing formidable tax income introduced a new land tenure regime through the Permanent Settlement Act. They also invited into the region a host of moneylenders, merchants, scribes tax collectors from Greater Bengal to act as intermediaries. Many of them ruthlessly exploited the host Adibashi population by a mounting tax load which made many Adibashis trapped by moneylenders. Subjected to alien taxation, land ownership and legal systems, unmanageable debt and harassment by powerful landlords, many Adibashis were evicted or forced as a result of debt and trickery to give up their ancestral lands and forests. (Bleie 2005)
The Santal Hool revolt followed through with the Tebhaga (three parts) Movement of the 1940s in Nachal, Rajshahi. Sharecroppers were getting only 1/5 of the share. Farmers demanded that 1/5 was not sufficient and that the tiller will get 2/3 of the produce.
It is interesting to note here that the bloody Tebhaga movement in the 1940s came from the Bengal Peasant Association, a front political organization of the Communist Party of India. After partition in 1947, the Muslim League and the new government of East Bengal tried to quell the movement by banning the Communist Party and its front organization and branding them enemies of the State (Bleie 2005).
It was in this volatile situation that Ila Mitra and her zamindar husband Ramen Mitra agitated and educated the Santal dominated populace. Along with Santal and Pahariah leaders Sibu Koramudi, Matal Manji, Tudu Hembrom and Chitor Manji raised tenants’ demands for two thirds share of the produce and an improved share of husked rice. Santal Adivasis were very active in this reform and have to take the brunt of the brutal retaliation meted out by a well- equipped police and army called in by the landowners. In one incident in Nachole Police Station in Rajshahi, at least 50 to 100 Santals including Ila Mitra who was detained, tortured and raped along with other Santal women.
The Tebhaga system of sharecropping called for one third of the crop as share of the landowner, one third for the one who provides production inputs, and the third of crop produce to the share cropper. This system also exists in Comilla district which saw the birth of the Cooperative Movement in East Bengal in the 1940s.
The second uprising occurred following the assassinations of the first president, Sheik Mujibut Rahman in 1975. One of his loyal followers and a hero of liberation struggle, Kadar (Tiger) Siddiqui, fled to India and started an insurrection along the northern border. He persuaded disaffected Mandi to join him on the promise of establishing a Mandi homeland.
The rebellion was short-lived but it brought pressure on the government of Ziaur Rahman to give more attention to the Mandi tribal. A Tribal Cultural Academy was established at Birisiri, weaving centers were set up at upazilla level, seats were reserved for Adibashi students at the Bangladesh agricultural University and Mymensingh medical college and Adibashis taken into the border Guards (Bangladesh Rifles). Only the last measure has been properly implemented. For example the Birisiri Academy is largely staffed by Bengalis and promotes a bastardized Bengali culture as “tribal”. (Minority Rights Group, December 1991).
Bloody rebellions however mellowed down with peaceful means of claiming for IP rights in the beginning of 1990s following the declaration of the Decade of World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993.
1993 accounts followed with the leadership of a northwest-based peoples organization, Jatiyo Adivasi Parishad , as narrated by JAP president, Anil Marandy. At Babuldang, Tanore, Anil along with other JAP leaders led some 3000 Adibashi Santals and Oraos to pressure government to issue deeds of permanent settlement to 37 Adibashi families as some land grabbers with the aid of the Thana officers were trying to evict the Adibashis our of their land. Due to a three-day peaceful protest, deeds of permanent settlement was finally issued to the Adibashis.
A similar event recently happened in Kazipara, Naogaon, last November 5, 2007 when 17 families were physically threatened to leave their land by local land grabbers assisted by two Union Parishad officials. Jatiyo Adivashi Parishad with Dhaka-based Bangladesh Adivasi Ohdikar Andolon assisted the villagers claim for deeds of permanent settlement at the office of the District Commissioner.
Meantime, the most that NGOs can do is to provide legal assistance to Adibashis affected with land grabbing and eviction and conduct land rights related trainings and workshops. Some IP-led organizations conduct open dialogues with the government where in most cases end up to promises assured by government officials to include Adibashi concerns in their programs. These assurances remain as unfulfilled promises. Though Dinajpur-based Gram Bikash Kendra (GBK) publicly signified its participation in a 20 point demand to the government along with Jatiyo Adivasi Parishad late last year.
It is now a question as to why Santal Adivasis are not taking arms against human rights violations of a repressive State and against influential land grabbers . The question is relevant in view of the Santals’ legacy of mass movements and their collective memory of their own ancestors’ struggle in the Tebhaga movement and in earlier mass uprisings such as the Santal Hool in 1855.
Yet, the search for meaningful reforms is on along with trends of uniting with Bengali intellectuals and the wider Bengali populace, and finding relevant dimensions and strategies in truly enacting changes in the government’s policy framework.
Source: Discourses on Policy Perspectives on Land Rights of Adivasis of Northwest Bangladesh, by Gina Dizon, Published by VSOB, April 2008