Land grabbers led by bit officer chop down hundreds of betel leaf trees in Sylhet with an aim to occupy land of Khasia people

On 30 September 2013 over 350-500 betel leaf trees were chopped down by a group of miscreants consisting of 20/25 Bengalis led by the bit officer of Muruichara Forest Bit Md. Atiar Rahman with an intention to grab the Jum lands of Indigenous Khasias in Belua Pan Punji under Kulaura upazila in Moulavibazaar district. They also chopped down other 100 trees.

On the day, the incident took place at around 12:00 noon when the Bengali miscreants cut down Betel leaf trees belonging to Suvash Hagidak, Thimon Sung-o, Bakkraw Khasia and Kirid Khasia. After the trees were chopped down, villagers came to know about the incident and caught forest bit officer Md. Atiar red handed while doing this misdeed. However, other miscreants accompanying him managed to flee. After he was caught, Md. Atiar was held in the custody of the Khasia villagers until 5:30 pm of the same day. Subsequently, when Md. Abdur Rahman, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Kulaura police station went Kukijuri punji with his force, the villagers handed culprit Md. Atiar over to him. At that time, local UP member of Ward no. 3 Mr. Silvestre Pathang, member of Ward no. 2 Mr. Abdul Kadir and member of Ward no. 4 Md. Abdul Matin, the ranger of Gazipur range Mr. Balaram Karmakar, Journalist M A Hamid, the Montri (head of the pan-punji) of the punji Joseph Khongla and development worker Flora Bablee Talang were present.

However, in the evening of that day, henchmen of forest bit officer Atiar Rahman made a sudden attack on two villagers of Meghatila punji namely Mr. Angalus Khongla (45) and Juwel Snal (18) at nearing place of Muruichari bazaar. Local people rescued them and admitted them at Kulauar government hospital. However, online newspaper published report stating ‘bit officer of Kulaura range rescued after six hours of kidnapping’.

On 2 October 2013, protesting against this attack and publication of fabricated news, all walks of life of indigenous peoples formed human chain in front of central shaheed minar of Sylhet city. In this human chain, indigenous people demanded to arrest those persons who attacked on them and cut down betel leaf trees.
As of writing this report, no action was taken against Mr. Atiar Rahman and his fellow miscreants involved in this incident.

It is mentionable that the Forest Act of 1927 and the Social Forestry Rules of 2004 are most crucial in regards to land alienation of indigenous peoples in plain lands. In some parts of Sylhet division, village communities of the Khasi people have secured short-term written agreements over use of reserved forest land for cultivation of traditional betel leaf (pan jum). Indigenous peoples in Mymensigh, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar continue to live within reserved forest areas, but no written agreements are known to have been entered into with. Their existence and livelihoods in these areas is therefore quite precarious.

The Khasi indigenous people are traditionally the owner of betel field. However, they frequently face eviction from their ancestral betel leaf pujnies (villages). The land grabbers with the support of forest department often make attack upon them to evict from their traditional pan punjies.

For instances, in 2011 an influential group tried to evict Khasi indigenous peoples and cutting down the trees of betel jum belong to several Khasi punjees of Shreemangal upazila under Moulavi Bazar district. Consequently, sixty eight (68) indigenous families at Jhimai Punjee in Moulvibazar are facing eviction threat as they have said a neighbouring tea garden authorities are trying to take over the land they have been living in for nearly 80 years. A huge number of trees cut down as part of chopping down 4,000 trees in Khashia Pan Punji at Nahar Tea Garden at Srimangal and process of felling down more trees. On 16 January 2012 a notice was sent to the Maghatila Punjees by the union land administration of Kormadha union under Kulaura upazila in Moulabibazaar district ordering them to show their paperwork on their ownership of their lands by 22/01/2012. This order was issued by the administration following an appeal by a Muslim Bengali person to the District Commissioner (DC) regarding alleged unlawful residence of the Maghatila Punjees in the grave area in Kormodha union hill area in Kulaura upazila.