New Age, Dhaka, 25 Oct 2010
Govt needs to launch credible probe into Rupganj skirmishes
THE clash between residents of four villages under Rupganj upazila in Narayanganj and members of the security forces on Saturday, which left at least one villager dead and some 50 others bullet-hit, gives rise to a number of unpleasant questions. The trouble, as reported in New Age on Sunday, centred an army housing scheme, under which villagers had allegedly been forced to sell their land much below the prevailing market rate. According to the report, the people of Nawara, Purbagram, Baraichhari and Tanmosori villages were rallying for withdrawal of army camps there and cancellation of the housing scheme, and turned violent after news broke that members of the army had shot some villagers they called in for ‘negotiated settlement’ inside the Tanmosori camp. Despite heavy deployment of members of the Rapid Action Battalion and the police to cordon off the army camp, the trouble simmered on. The angry villagers stormed in, torched the camp, and set one army jeep on fire and vandalised two others after the troops had been airlifted and the camps were withdrawn. While the situation is said to have been normal since the withdrawal of the army camps, it does provide a sorry commentary of the civilian-military relations. It is indeed shameful that the army could drag itself into such situations whereby its soldiers need to be airlifted to avoid the wrath of the people, the very people that they are supposed to protect.
Evidently, at the core of the problem was the army housing scheme, adjacent to the Purbachal project of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha. In a news release issued on Saturday, as quoted in another report front-paged in New Age on Sunday, the ISPR claimed that land purchase for the housing scheme was being carried out totally with funds of army personnel. In other words, the scheme is run by some members of the army in their individual capacity and has no link whatsoever with the army — as institution, that is. Fair enough; a member of the army certainly has the right to procure land for housing just as any other citizens of the country. The question, however, is if the army permits its serving members to run a housing project. Moreover, when the army is not behind the housing scheme as an institution, why did it allow camps to be set up at the project site? Does it not amount to institutional intimidation, if not coercion? Besides, the entire land purchase plan, under which prices much below the prevailing market rate was allegedly offered to the owners, appears eminently unjust.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is the reaction of the district administration and, by implication, the government as the trouble unfolded. There is hardly any doubt that the villagers were all along at the receiving end; not only were they made to sell their land but they were also offered unacceptable price. Still, when they protested, the authorities did not hesitate to unleash RAB, which, notably, is dominated by members of the army, and other law enforcement agencies at the protesters. Such a reaction is not quite surprising, though; after all, be it public or private housing schemes, be it land acquisition or purchase, it is the people of the marginalised sections of society who lose their land, more often than not without adequate compensation or rehabilitation. Regrettably, however, instead of addressing the inherently undemocratic character of the urbanisation plans across the country and rectifying their systemic flaws, the government finds it convenient to resort to coercive measures to suppress the genuine and legitimate grievances of the would-be displaced. Cruelly still, it does not even hesitate to brand them as ‘pawns’ of some ‘vested quarters’.
Be that as it may, the government needs to launch a competent and credible enquiry into the Rupganj skirmishes, especially the army housing scheme which appears questionable and unjust. At the same time, the prime minister, as in charge of the defence ministry, needs to summon the top brass of the army for explanation as to why and under whose command, did the army personnel stationed in the Tanmosori camp open fire, and made its explanation public.