Ashraf Nagar: The Courageous Struggle of Peasants against the Forcible Land Acquisition in Ampara District
Ashraf Nagar’s inhabitants can trace back their history to 1952 when it consisted of the following small villages – Aalim Nagar, Vilankadu, Kasangkeni, Muthiriyadiwattai, Pallak Kadu, Sinna Pallakkadu, Kattu Vattai, Ali Mudakadu and Aalim Chennai. Ashraf Nagar’s name was changed in the year 2006 to Oluvil first division and even though it consisted of Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils the majority of inhabitants were Muslims. Around 156 Muslim families are said to have lived there around this period. By 1972 this number had increased to 272 families and to accommodate the growing need, a Jumma Mosque was established in Aalim Chennai.
Over several decades the people in Ashraf Nagar have faced obstacles for their development and in creating a life of peace due to the intervention of several state and non -state actors. It is reflective of the plight of many such villages across the country especially with people who lack economic or political power. In 1983 due to ethnic tensions many from Ashraf Nagar were displaced and those remaining lived closer to the Mosque. In 1990, 16 Muslims were killed by unidentified persons, which induced further displacement. In 1996 people began resettling, however the challenges that they faced were many. They were constantly attacked by wild elephants and had to resettle without any government support. In 1998 the military, government officials and few Buddhist Monks claimed that there was archeological artifacts important to the Buddhist and several acres of land was taken away from the people. However M.H.M Ashraf engaged in discussion with the government of that time and was able to return some parts of the land that was appropriated by the State. In 2010 there was an elephant fence that was built ghettoizing 69 families that were living in Kasangkeni even though to date the fence has not been given electricity. The said fence curtailed freedom of movement of the residents of Kasangkeni even though the elephants continue to roam freely and attack the residents and destroy their crops.
In 2011 people from Ashraf Nagar were forced to be temporarily displaced due to the Grease Yaka attacks. Using this opportunity the military entered Kasangkeni and began occupying the village around 2011.11.05. Initially the military had claimed that their presence was temporary, however subsequently they set up permanent camps and have used the material from the Elephant fence to provide themselves electricity. They have also replaced the Elephant fence with a barbed wire fence around their military camp turning the entire Kasangkeni village into a high security zone and forced the 65 families to flee. Military also destroyed their cultivation and huts. However 04 courageous families under the leadership an elderly woman decided to stay in their huts that now fallen within the boundaries of the new military base. Elephant fencing, archeological findings and now national security have been used as a tool to occupy the land belonging to the Ashraf Nagar peasants. It is to be noted that there are several such cases of land occupation and acquisition by the government using elephant fencing, national security and archeological findings in the North and the East under the pretext of nation building and rapid post war development.
People of Ashraf Nagar came together and collectively protested against this military occupation of Kasangkeni village and many of them were met with threats to leave the area and were also prevented by the military from engaging in their livelihood activities. Seeing this injustice two affected individuals who refused to move from their Kasangkeni land filed a Fundamental Rights application in the Supreme Court on behalf of the affected families who have valid permits. The two petitioners’ families and their kith and kin about 20 of them mostly women and children to date live in their huts in Kasangkeni village which is now a high security zone. Rest of the families due to the military takeover vacated their homes and sought refuge in neighboring villages. The Supreme Court issued an interim order restraining further infrastructure development until the final determination of that application. The military has held that due to National Security it is unable to leave Kasangkeni village. The two petitioners have demanded the return of their land or to be compensated with land equivalent to that which has been appropriated. They have also demanded that the families should be able to inspect and decide on alternate land and that their livelihood activities not be hindered. The petitioners have also demanded aid to build alternate housing and basic infrastructural development in case they are to be relocated.
Even while the case is pending the petitioners and their family members continue to face harassment by the military personal. For example on the 29th of December 2012 the military men installed four loudspeakers close to the houses of the petitioners and played loud music and Buddhist prayers (Bana) from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and in some cases this torture continued till 2 in the morning. A woman recounting the incident states “the music is so loud and they play it deliberately just before the call for our prayers (Azaan) is about to start. The children are unable to study and sleep at night. When I told a military person to change the position of the loudspeaker he told me to go away in an angry tone and another one said we will fix bigger speakers soon. This is our land, where will we go? Our families are divided by this fence and we have to stand across and greet each other as people from outside are not allowed come into Kasangkeni (now turned into army people’s land).”
The military has used the interim order of the Supreme Court as a tool to harass the people of Kasangkeni by preventing them from even fixing their roofs or making small repairs in the houses and have also prevented people from having home gardens on which they depend for their sustenance. They have erected fence and blocked their access to the well nearby and forced people to take different and long route to their well. They have also prevented any relations visiting the 4 families that now live in Kasangkeni village. The relations talk to these families standing on the other side of the military fence. Even during the recent rains the military refused to let them fix their leaking roofs.
Another inhabitant of Kasangkeni states “even when we have to go out we need to write down our names in the military register. We are constantly questioned and harassed. Those who got evicted from the village are not allowed to come back, not even for a visit to see us. Even brothers and sisters and parents and children have been separated and I can’t even invite my son for a meal. I give him meal standing on one side of the fence. We are actually living in a prison like condition in our own village. We have no livelihood, no aid from the government and the politicians are not interested in helping us. Politicians are making this a political issue not one of humanitarian concern. Only during elections will they show any concern. We received a well through a nongovernmental organization that worked with the Divisional Secretariat and the military has cordoned that well too and the military is using the water for their cultivation. Irrespective of the order of the Supreme Court they are building concrete structures while torturing us on day today basis. ”
Even though there has been much attention to the developmental activities taking place in the post-war North, people’s land and resources continued to be appropriated by the military and other State actors. Mullikulam, Vedatheevu, Illangai Pattinam, Sampoor, Mullivaikal, Kangesanthurai, Silavathurai and Ashraf Nagar are but a few examples of areas where people have been denied access to their own land in the north and the east. Their request to return to their land has fallen on deaf ears. People from these areas have lived there for generations, building communities and enjoying their religious and cultural practices. When people are evicted not only do they lose their identity they also face emotional trauma. There are several people who continue to face such trauma on a daily basis in our country. That communities who are in poverty are forced into abject poverty is to be condemned. As resources and livelihoods options are taken over by the military, women are forced to go to the Middle East and other countries to earn a living and support their families. Rizana Nafeek who was executed in Saudi Arabia is one such girl child who left the country to earn a living for her family and end their poverty. The State is not only denying women their access to resources and livelihood but indirectly forcing women to leave the country and find work in the Middle East under dangerous and inhuman conditions. Through this the government is creating many more Rizana Nafeeks. The rule of law is in disarray currently. The courts and various wings of government and state functions are trapped in-between the president’s dictatorial power, his cabinet and the military. Recent incidents show us that all decisions are in the hands of the president, his cabinet and the military. Petitioners from Kasangkeni village have placed their faith in the Supreme Court to get justice. Currently there is confusion and concern amidst the crisis surrounding the judiciary and the collapse of rule of law. These women who petitioned Supreme Court are in doubt as to whether they will receive justice.
What would be their plight? Will they get a fair deal? When will they get? How long have they to endure all sorts of harassments and unfair treatment? There are several such questions and the questions keep growing.
The answers however continue to be evaded and trivialized.