A Nightmare Relived
Aasha Mehreen Amin
A little-known locality called Dhamalkot is in turmoil as thousands of residents living there for generations have been evicted from land acquired by the army many decades ago. Over the last four decades these people and their forefathers have been living here with the regular fear of being thrown out of their homes. As recent as this February officials of the Cantonment Board Office had given a verbal order through microphone that all 'illegal occupants' of this 100.26 acres of land, would have to leave the next day. Fortunately the worst fear of the close-to two-lakh inhabitants did not materialise and leaders of the community resumed their decades-long legal fight to prevent future eviction. But on May 24, after an announcement by microphone the night before, the eviction operation began, dashing all hopes that they would be able to retain the homes.
Most of the residents of this community live on modest incomes from jobs in neighbouring areas, by owning the little shops or renting out part of their homes. They include schoolteachers, contractors, caddies at the Kurmitola Golf Club, retired service holders, Muktijodhas, lawyers, housewives and students. A few schools, a madrasa, an orphanage and masjids have been part of the community's resources. The local high school has a few thousand students. Around 250 took their SSC examinations this year and many are now taking their HSC exams.
Since the early sixties, the original inhabitants of the Dhamalkot-Lalashorai-Bashantek area have had to give up parts of their ancestral land in the name of state 'acquisition'. If you ask any of the older residents about from where their forefathers originally came, they will draw a blank. “I was born here, my father was born here, even my grandfather was born here; I cannot trace my origins to anywhere else”, says Forazuddin Sarker, an advocate, and one of the community leaders trying to find a legal solution.
The land was acquired in the early '60s granting only partial compensation to the aggrieved owners, even that was very sporadic. The reason given for the acquisition was to rehabilitate Bihari refugees. After '71 the aggrieved owners appealed to the Awami League government for their land to be returned; unfortunately Bangabandhu's assassination and the end of the AL government took them back to square one. During President Ziaur Rahman's tenure again they appealed but whatever hope there had been of a positive end to the story diminished with yet another assassination. During Ershad's rule the government, towards the end of 1984, announced through an advertisement that the owners would get back their land. But later the area was declared as khas land and was gazetted. According to Sarker, in 1985 the Ministry of Land gave permanent lease of the 100.26 acres to the army for 37 lakh 70 thousand which was the same value as it had been in the sixties. In 1989 the owners filed a few writs for derequisition of land. The Supreme Court's Apellate Division gave an injunction and the matter remained pending. In 1996 the Ministry of Land on an application, gave a stay order and asked the DC (Deputy Commission) to conduct an inquiry. The DC, after investigation, concluded in its report to the Ministry of Land, that the petitioners were the original affected owners.
“On May 10, 1999 we had a meeting with representatives from the army including the MEO (Military Estate Officer), Quarter Master General and government, including the Secretary for Ministry of Land,” says Sarker, also a Muktijoddha. “It was decided that 40 acres would be given on lease for 99 years at book value by the Military Estate Officer to the affected owners and their heirs on behalf of Army Headquarters. A committee was supposed to be formed headed by the Director of Military Lands and Cantonment and with myself representing the aggrieved owners, to decide who would be eligible. An inter-ministerial meeting was called in 26.9.99 with representation from Land, Law and Defense ministries. It was decided that a formal 'no objection' to the lease order would be given by the army”. In November 2000 the no objection consent was given. One of the conditions was that another meeting between the three ministries would bring about a final decision. But the AL government's tenure ended before the meeting took place. When the BNP government returned to power, the decision was reversed. This time, it was proposed that a market be built in the said land with each of the affected owners being given a shop to rehabilitate them. The owners strongly objected to this and filed a write petition in High Court in 2003 asking why the decision of the May 10, 1999 meeting had not been implemented. A rule was passed in favour of the residents. In the next two years there was no response from the government. In 12.04.2006 the rule was discharged. “The High Court Division', says Sarker, “in its judgement made an observation that the government would allot shops to the petitioners from the market that would be constructed in the said area. We went to the appellate division to file a civil misc petition as part of the process of appeal. The Supreme Court appellate divisions chamber judge conducted a hearing from both sides. Because the rule had been discharged, an order of a status quo for two months on both parties was passed by the judge. This injunction was extended from time to time up to filing of leave petition. A certified copy of judgment and order dated12.4.2006 was taken and filed a leave to appeal within the statuary 30 days period.” The aggrieved owners also submitted a stay petition for the stay for operation of judgement so that the status quo remained and no eviction attempt would be made.
But the emergency situation proclaimed on January 11 suspended basic fundamental rights and so the hearing has been on hold. But Sarker points out that since the matter is subjudice neither party can take any action. Under normal circumstances the eviction would be tantamount to violating the injunction. “They said we were illegal occupants. We are not illegal occupants. They never gave us full compensation. We do not fall under this definition. We are affected landowners. Even basti occupants have to be given 30 days. They gave us one night. Announcing by microphone one evening and then coming the next day to throw people out the next morning is illegal and inhuman” says Sarker.
Sarker adds that the affected owners should be given rehabilitation plots either through administrative or legal process. “An appeal is continuation of suit so the ultimate rules still pending” he says.
In June 2006 the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court granted an extension of the order of status quo for the next three months. The order effectively protects the residents from eviction. “Till December 2006, this official order has been continued,” says Sarkar. The order also directed the petitioner to file regular leave petition.
Copies of the injunction order and leave petition were sent to the Military Estate Officer, but the papers were not accepted on the grounds that the time for accepting them was over.
Various governments have come and gone making promises that whatever little they had was theirs to keep, that they would not be thrown out of their homes, that they would get a fraction of the land to provide them with at least basic shelter. Instead, these people have had to stand by and watch their land being taken over, sold off to various organisations, and even donated for projects to help the poor. “Even then we accepted all this”, says an elderly resident, “because what can you do if it is a state action, all we have wanted is that we get at least a fraction of our land so that we can have a roof over our heads; now even that they want to take away. Where is the justice in that?”
Since the eviction order is being executed, the residents have little alternative except leave and search for another shelter. They have no village home to go to and most cannot afford the high rents of the city. On humanitarian grounds only, the authorities must find a way to rehabilitate them. It is the right thing to do.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007