Legalizing Occupation & Fighting Fundamentalism in Bangladesh

Islamism and poverty are Bangladesh’s greatests challenges in 2005.

S. Xiah Kragie
08 / 2004

The Bangladesh Krishok Federation (BKF), a group devoted to landless peasants since 1976, and the Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (BKS), a female counterpart to the Krishok Federation since 1990, have been working together for the rights of the landless in Bangladesh through occupations, demonstrations, and legal aid. In Bangladesh, 70% of the population of 150 million are considered “landless”. BKF has been working for nearly 30 years on securing right for peasants.

The major cornerstones of this struggle can be outlined as follows:

1977: The first survey of landless people by BKF, recognition of the khas, the small unrecognized islands in the river Delta, as viable option for the landless.

1980: Thousands of landless occupied the khas land however without government protection, they were ejected from the land.

1987: The landmark law “Land Administration Manual of 1987” recognizes the right of landless families to 2 acres each of this unoccupied khas land. However no government action is taken to implement distribution and the law is largely ignored.

1991: Large demonstrations and hunger strikes brought the Divisional Commissioner to make far reaching yet to date unfulfilled commitments to the landless.

1992: Thousands forcibly occupied 22,000 acres of khas land in four large islands. 8,000 families found a place to live and work the land however they faced legal battles with the local “petty landlords” who were previously illegally occupying the land and getting away with it by offering bribes.

Since 1992, these landless people have been fighting a series of false allegations and judicial harassment by petty landlords. BKF has been helping the peasants both in practical ways; to stay on the land and to fight the judicial system. The courts have largely agreed with the landless, on the basis of a law passed in 1987, however hundreds have already been heard and are continuing to be heard at all levels of the court system.

The BKF, till now in partnership with the BKS, has helped to occupy 70,000 acres of khas land: public land, which should be legally granted to the landless, for roughly 100,000 men and women. In total, the organization enjoys a network of 1.5 million people.

In 1997, they worked with the government to reach a compromise over a new manual of land administration, which lowers the acreage per family to 1.5 acres so as to distribute the land to a greater number of people.

Just recently, on November 22, 2004, thousands of peasants occupied a new type of public land (Railway abandoned land) in northern Bangladesh. So far, their efforts have been successful and both Mr. Alam and Ms. Kisku remain optimistic about the situation.

One of the most serious challenges ahead for the two allied organizations is the rising popularity of Islamic fundamentalism that has reemerged in Bangladeshi politics to an alarming extent. At present, the two organizations are particularly concerned about two members of the government cabinet that hold radically anti-woman views. Such anti women sentiments seem to be spreading to the rural areas and there is a real fear that women may lose the basic rights they have enjoyed in the past 30 years. To prevent the dreadful prospect of the return of burqahs and isolation, the BKS, in coordination with BKF and a coalition of 8-organizations, are organizing a large demonstration in the capital city, Dhaka, on March 8, 2005. They are focusing their grassroots network on empowering rural women for this change.

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