By Stephan Uttom
It was a sunny morning on Friday, Aug. 18, 2000, when Alfred Soren led a rally of hundreds of indigenous people on the premises of his house. The rally in the village of Bhimpur in Naogaon district of northern Bangladesh was the latest in a series of protests against attempted grabbing of the land of 22 indigenous families by two politically connected local landlords — Hatem Ali, a Muslim, and Shitesh Chandra Bhattacharya, a Hindu.
The dispute circled over ownership of 567 acres of land in the village, including some government land on which ethnic minority people had earned livelihoods for generations. Soren’s family had a stake of 40 acres.Soren, 32, an ethnic Santal and member of the Lutheran Church, spearheaded the protests, and a plot was hatched to eliminate him.
Starting at 11am, the rally came under violent attack from dozens of armed musclemen allegedly sent by two land grabbers. They beat up protesters, vandalized and set ablaze 11 houses. Some 30 villagers were seriously injured.
That was not all. The assailants went after Alfred Soren and hunted him down.“They chased him and he hid in a vegetable garden. They pulled him out and hacked him to death by brutality chopping with axes,” his younger brother Moheshshar Soren, 39, told UCA News.
The victim was the second of five siblings and married with a daughter.
Following the murder, his wife Jotsna Soren relocated to neighboring Dinajpur district with her four-year-old daughter for safety. Now 24, Jhorna Soren is a garment worker in capital Dhaka and lives with her mother.
The violence and murder made national headlines and sparked public outrage. Civil society members and indigenous groups held protest rallies to demand justice.
Rebeca Soren, Alfred’s sister, filed two cases over the murder against 91 people including Hatem Ali and Shitesh Bhattacharya under the country’s Public Safety Act in 2000. A police camp was set up in the village for safety, but it was withdrawn in 2003.
Local police arrested most of the accused and pressed charges against them in Naogaon district court, but the suspects filed a petition in the High Court to secure bail and get out of jail. Bhattacharya, one of the two main accused, later died of natural causes.
Soren’s family filed an appeal against their release and continued to fight for justice.
Moheshshar Soren said that 19 out of 22 families have left the village in the past year due to threats from land grabbers, adding that his family faced two attacks in 2017 and 2018.
“We have lost half of our land to the grabbers, and the remaining families are unable to cultivate their land, fearing attacks from them. We fear one day there will be no Adivasi [indigenous] people in this village,” he lamented.
Mohsin Reza, a Muslim and lawyer for Soren’s family, alleged that the legal system has been manipulated to delay and deny justice.
“Twenty years on, the case is still pending in the High Court. In the meantime, victims and witnesses have relocated due to threats from attackers. Some of them have become old and their memories of violence have blurred. The process of justice has been seriously hindered due to the long delay,” Reza, a leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, told UCA News.
“Any case related to violence against indigenous people rarely sees justice due to a lack of interest from the government. It is because this state considers ethnic minorities as third-class citizens.”
There have been numerous cases of violence and dozens of deaths of indigenous people in past decades but justice remains mostly unmet, says Sobin Munda, 60, secretary of the National Adivasi Council, an indigenous rights group.
“It is the state’s responsibility to protect minority people and ensure justice when their rights are violated. Indigenous people are victims of a system that does not recognize their constitutional rights as equal citizens of the country, and thus cases of violence and murder do not see the light of day,” Munda, an ethnic Munda and Hindu, told UCA News.
The council will continue to press hard to get justice for Alfred Soren’s murder and to provide support for his family, he noted.
The denial of justice for Soren and all murdered indigenous people shows the state’s discriminatory attitude toward minority and marginalized groups in Bangladesh, said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“There is a discriminatory and biased attitude toward indigenous people that does not allow state mechanisms to operate independently, and thus a culture of impunity continues to haunt them. We must come out of this unacceptable culture of impunity,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
“The Church has been always supportive of indigenous people for their rights, including land rights, and there are more efforts in a plan to assist them to fight against all kinds of injustices.”
Muhammad Alam (not his real name), one of the accused, dismissed the case as false and fabricated and denied allegations of intimidating Soren’s family members.
“Alfred Soren was murdered by terrorists, but innocent people like us have been accused. There is propaganda against us that we have been intimidating Alfred Soren’s family and other people. The case and allegations of threats are fabricated. We hope one day we will come out clean from the court,” the man told UCA News on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, Soren’s family are still hoping for justice 20 years on.
“We nearly lost hope that we would ever see justice. Various organizations including indigenous, rights and political groups are supporting us, and it gives up some hope that the court verdict will bring justice for my elder brother,” Moheshshar Soren said.Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority South Asian nation of more than 160 million with 99 percent ethnic Banglaee (Bengali) people.
About three million people belong to dozens of ethnic minority groups who are mostly non-Muslims — Buddhist, Hindu and Christian.Christians are estimated to be less than half a percent of the population and about half of them hail from ethnic minority communities, according to church sources.