Rupganj revisited

On Saturday, October 23, at least 50 people were injured when the local police and members of the Rapid Action Battalion (some are alleging that it was the Bangladeshi army) opened fire on some 7000 villagers who were protesting the government’s decision to acquire some 5,000 bighas of land (about 1650 acres) for an army housing project. The villagers charge that they are being pressured into selling their land by the Bangladeshi army at a fraction of the price (locals say that 1 bigha of land is worth between 7 and 8 million Takas, while they are being forced to sell for 1.4-1.5 million Takas). When land officials were asked why the sale prices of land were so low on the official documents, they said that landowners chronically underreport prices so that they don’t have to pay taxes (essentially accusing the locals of fraud and absolving the army of any meddling). Locals point to the presence of temporary Army housing camps at Purbagram, Musuri and Ichhapura as evidence that the army is in need of housing and has been using those camps as a launching ground for its coercive activities in Rupganj. New reports indicate that the army actually set up a makeshift office to monitor land sales in the area. The army claims that local brokers were responsible for the coercive land sales, though it’s likely they were told that they would be rewarded for delivering land quickly. It’s also likely that local lending agencies and banks were also being used to pressure locals, as a few papers have reported that lenders were out on the streets looking to collect on loans.

A map of the Army Housing Scheme (AHS):

What the map clearly shows is that Army’s plan will require a wholesale displacement of the people who live in the area of the proposed project. And since many people have been living in their homes for generations, it’s unlikely that they are going to sell their homes easily or cheaply. Moreover, land is scarce in Bangladesh, a country with one of the highest population densities in the world (the army is trying to set up similar housing schemes all over the country). As a result, the conflict is clearly being driven by the army’s attempt at using force to acquire land that locals are unwilling to part with. Almost every local official has said that the army has thoroughly mishandled the project.

In the aftermath of the protest, the police produced warrants for some 3000 to 4000 men (another report says that it’s closer to 8000 but I’m using the conservative figure), prompting the locals to go into hiding in the swamps nearby. Many reports concluded that all men, except for the elderly and the young, had evacuated the villages in fear of police reprisal. On Sunday and Monday, all the shops were closed and many of the roads were deserted. Widespread panic about the police and the army also meant that children were not sent to school.

Part of the reason that locals are so terrified has to do with their actions in the immediate aftermath. One protester, Mostafa Jamal Haider (another paper calls him Mustafa Jamal Uddin), who was shot by the police, was hurriedly buried, while his family was given only a few moments with him before they were prevented from witnessing the burial rites. Mostafa’s father, Rafiq, told the Daily Star: “When the funeral of my son wasn’t in my hands, how can I expect punishment to his killers? They are very influential people.” Another report indicates that the Rapid Action Battalion forced young children to wash away the blood from the scene of the protest; one young boy, Shanto, who was forced to do this at gunpoint was thoroughly traumatized. Two protesters who were shot were quickly spirited away by the RAB. A few protesters are still missing.

The Bangladeshi National Party and Awami League have been using the Rupganj issue to level attacks at one another, each accusing the other of inciting the villagers to violence. While the BNP is demanding a “fair probe” into the incident, the Awami League is arguing that Khaleda Zia is out for revenge against the Bangladeshi military because it evicted her from her home. Incidentally, what this demonstrates is the new alignment of political players in Bangladesh, with the Awami League cozying up with the military and the BNP trying to position itself as the populist force (though clumsily – it’s quite likely that local BNP players were involved in stoking up the protests, but they clearly weren’t responsible for the conflict itself). As it currently stands, Sheikh Hasina has given the army a green light to continue with its development plans, but is asking them to scale it down to a quarter of the original plan. This will only delay and transfer the fight for land to another place and time.

At the heart of the issue seems to be something different: the economic interests of the Bangladeshi army. The BBC did an extensive expose of the Bangladeshi army’s attempts at acquiring industry, land, and commercial enterprises throughout Bangladesh in an attempt to expand its influence and grow its capital. It’s using the Pakistani army as a model for its own development; and just like the Pakistani army, it’s driving its own economic enterprises through the various “welfare” organizations (these are something like pension schemes for retirees and their families) that it controls. Ayesha Siddiqa still has the best critique of the Pakistani military’s financial holdings in Military, Inc.

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