Amid threats and intimidation, Hindus had to sell properties to ex-IGP Benazir

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Benazir Ahmed, RAB, ACC, US sanctions

In the quiet village of Patikelbari in Gopalganj Sadar upazila, a makeshift bamboo bridge over a roadside canal leads to a cluster of shanty-like homes. These homes belong to the Maitra family, a small Hindu community living in financial distress. The rickety structures and modest living conditions starkly contrast with the not-so-distant past when the Maitras owned over 27.5 acres of fertile farmland, enough to support them fairly well. However, their fortunes took a dramatic turn about four years ago when they were coerced into selling almost all their land to former police chief Benazir Ahmed.

Benazir Ahmed, a former inspector general of police, has been a controversial figure. His tenure as the chief of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and later as the head of the police force has been marred by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. Benazir is currently under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) for amassing significant wealth while in office. He faces a US sanctions for alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings during his time as RAB chief.

The ACC has uncovered that Benazir and his family acquired at least 613.41 bighas of land across various districts, including 605.77 bighas in Gopalganj and Madaripur, much of which previously belonged to Hindu families. The method of acquisition often involved intimidation and coercion, painting a grim picture of exploitation.

Swarup Maitra, 55, is one of the many victims of Benazir’s land acquisition spree. “If I begin to tell my story, I would not be able to fight back my tears,” he said, reflecting on the forced sale of his family’s land. Swarups, like many others, were intimidated into selling their land at prices far below market value. Inspector Taimur Islam, a key figure in these acquisitions, was instrumental in applying pressure on the villagers.

“About four years ago, Taimur asked us to sell the land. As we refused, he said that Benazir had already acquired all the surrounding land and would make sure that we cannot access our land,” Swarup recounted. Swarups eventually sold three bighas of land for Tk 3.8 lakh per bigha, nearly half the market price. The money, divided among his three brothers, was insufficient to buy new farmland.

Swarasati Roy, 60, from Borokhola village in Rajoir, Madaripur, also fell victim to Benazir’s land grab. Her 31 decimals of land, which was her only means of livelihood, were taken through coercion. Threatened that Benazir would take the land regardless, she accepted a meager Tk 2 lakh. Now, she and her day-laborer son live on their last remaining piece of land, a five-decimal homestead.

Similar stories abound in the region. Apurba Maitra from Patikelbari village experienced similar tactics. His farmland was used to lay large pipes to sand-fill Benazir’s Savanna Eco Resort project, rendering his land useless for cultivation. “We failed to grow anything for two years. At one point, we were compelled to sell the land to Benazir,” said Apurba, who now works as a day laborer.

Several hundred people in Gopalganj Sadar and Madaripur’s Rajoir upazilas shared similar fates, forced to sell their ancestral land due to the terror instilled by Benazir. During a two-day visit to these villages, we spoke to at least 20 people who confirmed they would never have sold their land if not for the fear of Benazir.

Benazir’s men used advanced tactics, including flying drones to map and target plots for acquisition. They marked various plots in white and red, presumably to identify targets. Taimur would approach landowners with veiled threats and offers of slightly better prices than the eventual forced sale would yield. If landowners refused, Benazir bought surrounding lands, effectively blocking access and forcing them to sell.

Tarun Baul of Bairagitol village described how Taimur would eventually approach targeted landowners and say, “You know Benazir and how powerful he is. If you decline to sell your land, he would surely take it anyway. You will lose both your land and the money. If you agree to sell, I will help you get a handsome price.”

Benazir’s use of law enforcement for his personal gain was blatant. Members of the police and Rab were frequently seen supervising construction work at the resort. Locals reported seeing sub-inspectors and other officials at the site, often involved in negotiating land purchases.

Taimur Islam, now an officer-in-charge at a highway police station, denied intimidating anyone. “Mr. Benazir went into retirement two years ago. The villagers did not lodge any complaints then. I do not know why they are bringing such allegations now,” he stated. However, victims like Swarup Maitra and Swarasati Roy say they never dared seek legal redress against someone as powerful as Benazir.

Built on a significant portion of the acquired land, the Savanna Eco Resort and Natural Park stands as a testament to Benazir’s exploitation. The resort features upscale cottages, a farm, ponds, a swimming pool, boat ride facilities, play zones for children, a country club, and a helipad. Despite its grandeur, the project lacks final environmental clearance. Local environmental officials confirmed the resort was built with only a temporary site clearance.

The development of the resort has also restricted local access to previously public infrastructure. A road built by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) for local transport is now gated, allowing only resort visitors to use it. “Our job is to build roads. The local administration can take steps so that people can use the road,” said SM Jahidul Islam, an LGED engineer.

Former IGP Nur Mohammad emphasized that senior police officials engaging members of the force for personal projects is an offense. Government officials can buy land, but it must be through legitimate means and income. The ACC’s ongoing investigation seeks to determine if Benazir followed these regulations and the sources of his wealth.

In a Facebook live session on April 20, Benazir refuted the allegations, calling them impractical given the project’s proximity to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s constituency. Despite his denials, the evidence of systematic intimidation and forced land acquisition paints a grim picture of exploitation and abuse of power.

The forced land acquisitions have had a devastating impact on the local Hindu community in Gopalganj and Madaripur. Many families, once self-sufficient farmers, have been reduced to day laborers or forced to migrate in search of better opportunities. The psychological toll of losing ancestral land and the constant fear of powerful individuals like Benazir has left deep scars on the community.

For instance, Biplob Baul from Bairagitol village shared how two locals left for India with their families after selling their land to Benazir. One of them, Pranshanta Baul (age 40), moved to Thakurnagar, West Bengal, with his wife and four children. “I was compelled to sell my 51 decimals of agricultural land at Tk 2 lakh after Benazir’s men filled it up with sand. What would I do back home? So I came to India,” he said over the phone.

The government’s response to the situation has been slow and inadequate. The local administration has yet to take significant steps to address the grievances of the affected families. The ACC’s investigation is ongoing, but it remains to be seen whether it will lead to meaningful justice for the victims.

Benazir’s case highlights a broader issue of land acquisition and corruption in Bangladesh. The systematic exploitation of vulnerable communities by powerful individuals poses a significant challenge to social justice and economic equality. The plight of the Maitra family and others like them underscores the need for stronger protections for landowners and more robust mechanisms to hold powerful individuals accountable.

The stories of Swarup Maitra, Swarasati Roy, Apurba Maitra, and many others highlight the devastating impact of Benazir Ahmed’s land acquisition tactics. The former police chief’s actions not only stripped these families of their ancestral land but also pushed them into financial destitution. As the ACC continues its investigation, the hope remains that justice will be served, and the affected families will find some form of redress for their losses.

The broader implications of this case extend beyond individual families. It calls into question the integrity of law enforcement and the need for systemic reforms to prevent such abuses of power. The future of communities like those in Gopalganj and Madaripur depends on the government’s ability to protect the rights of its citizens and ensure that justice prevails over corruption and exploitation.

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