On November 6, police and the sugar mill workers engaged in a violent clash with the Santals on the mill's sugarcane fields, a 1,842-acre land on which the community has a historical claim. Five months ago the community had built shanties there and settled down. Three Santals died in that fight and their homes were burned down.
A recent video released in the media shows a policeman setting fire to Santal homes.
You were on the spot during the clash on November 6. What happened that day?
I and some other officers and labourers went there to harvest sugarcane from the field in the morning. When we were getting prepared, some Santals obstructed us. We tried to talk to them, but they were not paying us any heed. Our workers had a scuffle with the Santals when they tried to vandalise our cars.
We had some policemen from Gobindaganj police station with us but soon we became very frustrated as the policemen were doing nothing. When we stepped back in the face of their resistance, the Santals started shooting arrows towards us. Some of our men and police got injured and we rushed to Katarmor.
What happened then?
We took position in Katamor. Wounded policemen were taken to the hospital. Some 1,500 local people gathered in the area within an hour and they started saying: “How dare the Santal attack police?’’ When the local people chased the Santals they started shooting arrows again and the locals retreated. The skirmish continued for hours. The local residents started to gather again around 2pm.
Why did the evening's violence take place after the chase and counter-chase of noon?
Both the parties were poised in a face-off since noon. Then they clashed again in the evening.
But it was no clash. On the video, it is seen that police and people in plain clothes setting fire to a Santal’s hut. Did you want such drive?
No. I did not have any contact with the police after the morning incident. Actually, hundreds of local people started to gather in the surrounding area and cordoned off the Santals. In that situation, the local administration deployed a large number of police to avoid massacre and bloodshed. Seeing such a huge number of people and police, the Santals fled to the adjacent villages (Madarpur and Jaypur).
In that case why the arson took place? Did you order the police for such action?
Basically the arson took place in the darkness of night. Many people were victims of atrocities by the Santals, and they had wraths against the Santals. The arson was just an expression of that.
Who set the fire? Did you watch the video? The video showed that policemen and two persons in plainclothes were setting the fire.
Actually the police would have a better explanation on why they set the fire. I did not order for such a drive or eviction. I never expected that the land (farmland under the Santals’ possession) would ever be recovered. We have been negotiating with the Santals for the last six months. We have discussed with the secretary of the Santals’ “Land Reclamation Struggle Committee”, Md Shahjahan. But they did not pay any attention.
Local public representatives along with their men got involved in the fight. What is their interest over here? Did they have any lease of the farmlands?
No, they did not take lease of the farmlands. But some of the local chairmen have their lands beside the highway. Police were afraid of eviction due to possible casualties. The Santals declared their lands as independent kingdom. They often blocked commuters from crossing over their land.
How much land did Santals provide for the farm?
As far as I heard, of the 1,842 acres of land, only 5.8 decimals were taken from the Santals. Their land will not be more than 10 decimals under any circumstances.
Will the Santals get their Land back?
Not only Santals, most of the lands are provided by the Bangalees. Land once acquired can never be regained. The Santals took over the farm land in last July. Somebody influenced them to do this. They were gathered here from different areas by making false promises of providing lands. They are innocent people. Some 150 to 200 people among them used to work in this farm every day. They were trapped here by some people. And those who are supporting the culprits are land grabbers.
Santals alleged that the Sugar Mill had broken the agreement. Other staples along with the sugarcane are cultivated here. Is this true?
There is nothing on the agreement that no other staple but sugarcane can be cultivated. It is only written that the land had been acquired for agricultural farming. But if the purpose is not fulfilled, the land has to be returned to the government.
Please elaborate how could the farm’s land be leased out?
The lands were used to be leased out under different categories when there was no sugarcane cultivation. But now the leasing is in halt.
Is there any chance of giving the Santals their land back?
The government has provided this land to the corporation. If the government wants, it can take the land back. But the Santals would never get their land through the process they are following.
There are allegations that the sugar mill’s staff also set fire to the Santal huts.
There were hundreds of people. I have not seen any staff being involved in the arson. The farm is far away from where the incident took place.
What is the way out of the conflict?
The government will settle the matter. It has already decided to build homes for the homeless Santals. A list is being made and the project is underway. But a group is trying to prevent the Santals from being on that list.