their Own Land
Photographs by Philip Gain
Garos of Pirgacha are a vibrant community, celebrating their
traditional festivals and struggling to keep their culture
alive. However, in spite of their impressive record of educating
themselves and giving women the economic freedom absent in
most communities, they are an indigenous people under immense
threat. Over the decades, this peaceful community has been
cheated out of their most precious possession--their land.
very early morning of October 31, hundreds of Garo or Mandi
men, women and children, in an amazing display of colourful
traditional outfits, started converging at the Pirgacha High
School, in Madhupur under Tangail district, about 150 kilometres
from Dhaka. As they entered the festooned playground, young
Garo girls standing at the entrances blessed each individual,
imprinting the forehead with white rice colour. Many brought
with them offerings to the church from their harvest of vegetables
and grains and lined them up in small buckets before the dais.
The visitors listened carefully to the prayers sitting under
a large overhead covering. The leaders of the Saint Paul's
Church conducted the prayers while young Garo men and women
sang devotional songs in the background.
the October sun rolled towards the afternoon, the prayers
were over and the party began with traditional dances, songs
and short plays. In the evening, villages woke up to celebrate.
Every family cooked traditional dishes and every Garo wore
their best dress. Men and women sipped chu, a home
made rice beer, until some started singing and dancing in
the neat courtyards of the village homes.
the 10,325 members of the Catholic Garo community living under
the Pirgacha mission, it was the day of wangala or
thanksgiving. In Garo culture wangala is celebrated
every year in honour of the sun god, Saljong, after rice is
harvested in the hills. There are other reasons for such an
overwhelming participation in wangala in the 32 villages
the literacy rate of the entire population of Bangladesh is
recorded as 32 percent, in Pirgacha more than 98 percent of
the Garo population are listed as literate, many of them with
higher education. The mission runs 24 primary schools educating
1,700 children with 50 qualified teachers, most of whom are
female. The high school in Pirgacha has 12 teachers and 550
students, who are automatically introduced to computer education
in class 9.
to the development activities of the church and a host of
famous national and international NGOs, including World Vision,
CARE, CARITAS, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC)
and the United States Peace Corps, every Garo household in
the 32 villages represents a model way of living. Every household
in the villages has an efficient sanitary system that has
over the years almost totally wiped out attacks of diseases
caused by worms. Every family has a tubewell system that ensures
pure drinking water. Hygiene in the traditional tin-roofed,
earthen houses is rigorously maintained. The small open space
in front of each house is adorned with flower plants. Animal
breeding is very common with villagers rearing poultry, pigs,
goats and even turtles. The transportation system too, is
efficient enough to allow bananas and pineapples, the two
principal produces of the area, to be carried to the market
of the most remarkable things in the Garo community is the
level of empowerment of women. The Garo tribe gives all rights
of property to the women. It is the groom who moves into the
bride's house and lives with her and only with the permission
of the wife can he act as a mere administrator of the real
estate. All real property and possessions automatically belong
to the woman. Garo law does not allow men to own property
and so they cannot sell anything without the permission of
the wife's side of the family. According to US-born Reverend
Eugene E Homerich of the Pirgacha church, who has been officially
adopted in the Mandi tribe for his 50 years of services, "
This is an avuncular society where the mother's brother has
more power over the child than the father. The British, Pakistani
and now the Bangladeshi governments have recognised the customary
this is just one side of the story. The Mandis have their
problems too. Although for centuries the tribe, originating
from Southwest China and Tibet, has lived in the 'Sal' forest
with their own religion, culture and way of life, their right
to land till date remains uncertain. The first onslaught on
the Garo tribe probably came when the British Colonial Government
of India granted the entire Madhupur Tract to the Raja of
Natore in 1927. The Raja dedicated the forest to the god Govinda
under the title "Debittor" or "a gift to the
gods". The Garos were allowed to live on homestead plots
paying a yearly tax. Garo women tenants were also granted
permission to register low-lying land in their names. The
registration started from 1892 and incorporated again in the
Cadastral Survey of 1914-1918. By an exception of the law,
certain Aboriginal Tribes enumerated in the Bengal Tenancy
Act were exempt from the Succession Act of 1865. This exemption
recognises the Garo Law of Succession and Inheritance. Again,
by an Act of Law in 1972, Bangladesh recognised all previous
laws. This established the registration of land under the
Bengal Tenancy Act.
bad news for the unsuspecting Garos came in 1984 when the
government in a gazette notification placed much of the Modhupur
tract under the category of the Government Forest Land. The
whole procedure was completed without any notification to
the tenants (Garos). When the government move was challenged
in the court of justice and in the land settlement office,
the authorities allegedly refused to give any opportunity
to the Garos to produce their documents. The government then
refused to recognise the tenancy rights and barred Garos from
paying any land tax, terming their land documents as "bogus".
of 1984 sealed the fate of the famous Madhupur Tract and made
the Garos defenseless against reckless government decisions
of indiscriminate Asian Development Bank-funded tree plantation
projects. Successive governments have served eviction notices
to the Garos, while depleting the local Sal forests and sometimes
replacing them with totally unknown species of imported trees,
highly detrimental to environment and local inhabitants. Interestingly,
once the Bangladesh Tea Board proposed to remove the entire
Garo population to the tea gardens elsewhere under a scheme
of 'creating job opportunities' for the tribal population
to work as coolies. The government failed to sell the scheme.
in October 1996, the government had a new idea about Madhupur
Tract, and this time it was the World Bank providing the funds.
The scheme envisaged creating 13 national parks and deporting
the 16,000 Garos into cluster villages. A high official of
the World Bank, Emilio Rozario flew in from the Philippines
to launch the project through the Forest Department under
the Ministry of Environment and Forest. An outcry from the
public representatives and the public put a stop to the planning.
recently the Forest Department started enacting a wall around
3,000 acres of Madhupur forest insisting that they were trying
to create an eco-park for safeguard of tree species and wildlife.
The move to encircle the forest at a cost of Tk 9.7 crore
and with a 10-foot-high wall outraged both the tribal and
non-tribal residents of the area. On January 3, 2004, 22-year-old
Piren Snal was killed and over 25 others were injured when
forest guards opened fire on the demonstrators.
Amree, Convenor of the Committee for Indigenous People's Land
Rights and Environment Preservation, says that the whole government
scheme is not only destroying the Garo culture but also threatening
have appealed to the Prime Minister to create a permanent
settlement for us and to abandon the scheme for a national
park," Amree added that the committee was also demanding
the withdrawal of false cases lodged by the forest department
and its contractors.
say that more than 3,000 cases have been lodged with the Madhupur
police station under the Revised Forest Act in which hundreds
of Garo men and women have been implicated. Most of those
accused now live under constant fear of persecution.
a former teacher is implicated in eight cases, which he described
as "totally false and fabricated". He says he has
just served 45 days in prison.
are Garo people against whom the forest department and its
contractors have lodged more than 50 cases and I can tell
you all these are totally fabricated cases," says Dalgot.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004