Six years after Ovidio Marandy died in an apparent road accident, evidence has emerged against powerful figures in Bangladesh
By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
Within a minute of taking a phone call, Zerald Murmu’s mother started crying as the phone dropped from her hand on the evening of Jan. 11, 2014.
“The caller informed her that her beloved younger brother Ovidio Marandy was found dead near a road in Gobindaganj of Gaibandha district. She broke down completely as the news was so heartbreaking,” Zerald recalled.
He died on the spot with a big wound to his head. It looked like a road accident, but surprisingly his motorbike sustained little damage, he said.
Ovidio, 34, was an ethnic Santal Catholic and assistant commissioner of land in Gobindaganj. On the day of his death he was returning to his workplace by motorbike from his village home in Beneedwar of Naogaon district in northern Bangladesh.
He had gone home following an arson attack on his house by unknown miscreants on the eve of the national election on Jan. 5. He left behind a young wife and one-year-old son.
Ovidio’s death was so shocking to his family, relatives and colleagues that they didn’t think about any other cause of death at the time. His body was quickly buried without a post-mortem and police concluded it was a road traffic accident.
However, at the request of the family, a court ordered the exhumation of his body for a post-mortem after six months. However, six years on, the report has not been made public by the police.
“It was a murder case in the guise of a road accident. The plot was hatched by powerful people,” Zerald alleged.
A murder case
Ovidio was the youngest of four sons and three daughters in his family. His elder brother Father Samson Marandy, 65, is a senior priest in Dinajpur Diocese.
His excellent academic track record led to his entry to Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) as a first-class officer in 2008 and he was posted to Gobindaganj in 2013.
He soon became a much-loved officer to the poor and downtrodden people in Gobindaganj. He attempted to eliminate corruption in land management services and hit out at the nexus of local land grabbers, politicians and officials involved in illegal leasing and dealing of government land and water bodies.
Gobindaganj has a significant concentration of ethnic indigenous communities, including Santal and Oraon who lost vast areas of land due to force and forgery by mostly Muslim land grabbers with political and financial clout. Ovidio helped dozens of ethnic people to reclaim their land.
“Ovidio was a man of honesty and justice. He visited people to know the real causes of their troubles. Because of him, I got back 38 decimals of land forcibly occupied by land grabbers,” Dilip Baskey, 38, a Santal Catholic from Gobindaganj, told UCA News.
Baskey is facing a legal case over the land and he lamented that if Ovidio was alive he could be safe.
“I don’t know if Ovidio died in an accident or was murdered, but I want to see an impartial probe to find out the real truth,” he added.
Ovidio was also looking into a long-running land dispute between ethnic Santal people and the authority of a sugar mill. The dispute led to deadly violence on Nov. 6-7, 2016, that left three Santals dead, dozens injured and thousands evicted.
Most of his land interventions including the sugar mill case clashed with the interests of Abul Kalam Azad, a two-time ruling Awami League parliamentarian from Gobindaganj.
Azad is a top leader of the local unit of the Awami League and was a member of the parliamentary standing committee of the Home Ministry for two terms. But he was denied Awami League candidacy in the 2018 election, presumably due to a series of allegations over corruption and crime against him.
Five years later, Father Samson Marandy filed a case against Azad and 12 others in the district court of Gaibandha on April 9, 2019, accusing them of murdering his brother.
The court ordered the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), a special police unit, to conduct a probe.
“The main accused exploited his influence to stop registering a murder case when he was in power and people were afraid to speak up. Now, we have seven witnesses including two eye-witnesses to prove it was a planned murder,” Father Samson told UCA News.
“Even if the PBI probe does not come in our favor, we will request the court for a judicial investigation.”
Denial of allegations
Abul Kalam Azad dismissed the murder allegations as a conspiracy.“Ovidio died in a road accident and everyone knows about it. Yet five years later a case was filed against me, and I think it is a politically motivated conspiracy to tarnish my reputation,” he told UCA News.
Mehedi Hasan, officer in-charge of Gobindaganj police station, declined to give details about the probe’s progress. “The probe is ongoing and we are making our best efforts to find out the truth,” he told UCA News.
About 150 ethnic indigenous people have been killed, dozens of women raped and thousands evicted, mostly due to land disputes with Muslims, in recent decades, but justice was never meted out, according to the National Adivasi Council, an indigenous rights forum covering northern Bangladesh.
There are about three million ethnic minorities in Bengali Muslim-majority Bangladesh of more than 160 million people. About half of Bangladesh’s estimated 600,000 Christians, mostly Catholics, hail from ethnic minority communities.
Call for justice
A Muslim friend and colleague of Ovidio, speaking on condition of anonymity, lamented the delay in finding justice.
“A man like Ovidio who always stood for truth and justice was a target for unscrupulous people. Moreover, he was a minority Santal and Christian, making him easy prey,” he told UCA News.
“He was a state official, so the state and the government must take responsibility to ensure justice for his murder.”
Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur said the Catholic Church has provided moral backing for the murder investigation.
“The Church is not directly involved but supports the plea for justice,” he told UCA News. “However, I have doubts about justice given that a culture of impunity exists in the country and the case filing was delayed.”
Meanwhile, Father Samson Marandy has vowed not to back off under any pressure.
“I have been threatened since filing the case, but I am not afraid and won’t give up. Even if the court verdict goes against us, at least we would be able to say that we have tried but justice was denied,” the priest said.