Palash Sheikh, a man of 32, runs a tea stall at Narkeltola Bazaar near Mongla upazila under Bagerhat district. Just a few miles south of the bazaar, lies the world's largest coastal mangrove forest, the Sundarbans.
Forest gatherers such as fishermen, wood cutters, nipa palm harvesters, honey collectors, all spend a few minutes at Palash's tea stall after returning from the forest. Over a cup of tea and a plate of cookies, they share stories about the forest's current situation with each other and predict tomorrow's weather. Regarding weather and risks in the forest, they take advice from Palash, who according to them knows the forest like the back of his hand. Thanks to Palash's knowledge about the forest, his tea stall has become a popular spot since its establishment in May this year. However, Palash's famed familiarity with the forest and its weather has a questionable source. Just six months earlier, Palash was one of the most feared pirates and poachers of the Sundarbans. He was second-in-command of the notorious “Rajon Bahini”, one of the largest groups of bandits and poachers.
They used to live by extorting forest gatherers and poaching tigers and deer. Many of them have allegedly killed forest gatherers in cold blood when they refused to pay tribute to the bandit groups. However, according to Palash, they never harmed any forest gatherers from their native villages. This might be one of the reasons behind Palash's acceptance in Narkeltola Bazaar despite his sinister past. Palash now saves forest gatherers by providing them with survival tips and has already earned respect among them.
Palash is not alone. Due to escalation of anti-piracy and anti-poaching raids in the Sundarbans, many of his comrades have surrendered their arms and are trying to restart their lives.
“My group member Mansur is now a muezzin of his village mosque (a person appointed to recite the call to prayer); another member, Horish, lends fishing equipment to the fishermen. Some of them purchased rickshaw vans and easy-bikes. We received Tk 1 lakh from the government and we have invested this fund to earn an honest livelihood,” says Palash while serving his customers with tea and cookies.
“When we were dacoits, our lives were extremely uncertain. We could not return home even once a year. One of my group members managed to return home after eight months, only to see that his wife had abandoned his children and fled the village with another man. Members of the law enforcement agencies used to shoot us on sight. If we failed to obey the orders of our godfathers (mohajons), they used to kill us or hand us over to the law enforcement agencies. It was a life full of stress, disappointment and disgrace,” describes Palash.
Nevertheless, the disgrace of Palash's past life still affects his family members who live in Narkeltola. Palash's wife, two daughters, and his elderly mother lead a miserable life with meagre income from the tea stall. His wife, Rukhsana, is known as dakater bou (wife of dacoit) in the village. His elder daughter, Selina, who studies in grade four at the village primary school, is also addressed as dakater biti (daughter of dacoit) by her classmates, and even by the teachers.
During winter harvest, village women are hired by the wealthy farmers to reap the harvest which is a means of extra income for the village women.
However, Rukhsana is never hired due to her husband's previous profession.
“I cannot deny that my husband was a dacoit. But he is leading an honest life now. Many of my neighbours who now hate us were once saved by my husband in the forest. They still buy things from my husband's shop on credit but when they reach the village from the bazaar, their attitude changes. They continue to harass me and my daughters,” shares Rukhsana.
Mansur, who is now a muezzin of Chila village mosque, has also become victim of such social stigma. In fact, he started to face newer types of threats after surrendering his arms. He states, “The day I surrendered my arms and returned to my home, I found it locked from outside. I went to a village elder and learned that my family had been ostracised and my wife along with my children were sent to my in-law's village. I was enraged because I clearly understood that my villagers were taking advantage of the situation because when I was a pirate they never would have dared to do so.”
However, with intervention from the local police station and union council, the ban against Mansur's family was relaxed. And after a few months, thanks to his Arabic knowledge, Mansur got a job as the village muezzin. “I actually applied for the post of imam. The officer in charge of Mongla police station recommended for me to the Chairman of the union council. But the villagers did not agree to offer daily prayers behind a former dacoit. So, they gave me the job of a muezzin,” utters Mansur.
According to Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)-6, 264 pirates of 26 different groups have already surrendered their arms. Every month, 20 to 25 pirates have been giving up their arms every month as the last date of surrender was just yesterday, on November 1, 2018. To rehabilitate this increasing number of former bandits, RAB has taken up a rehabilitation initiative called Shunarbaner Hashi. Under this project, every surrendered dacoit has been given a mobile phone set, Tk 20,000 in cash, which has now been increased up to Tk 1 lakh and gifts in the two Eids. During Eid festivals this year, 243 pirate families have been presented with sewing machines. However, social stigma and poverty are still impeding these rehabilitation initiatives.
“Many of the pirates are still jobless. Most of them had to spend all of the donations just to pay their debt back. Even after surrender, they are again infiltrating into the forest for catching fish and collecting firewood as they don't have any other livelihood. As a result, there are possibilities that they might return to piracy if the law and order situation deteriorates in the future,” says Rabindranath Bairagi, a member of Batiaghata union council. According to him, the union council is providing VGF cards to the rehabilitated pirate families but the donation received through this card is so meagre that it can hardly support their families.
Lack of sustainable rehabilitation initiatives and fear of social stigma might be the reasons behind persistent existence of several bandit groups despite the declaration of the deadline to surrender. At least five groups of bandits and poachers called Tayebur Bahini, Anowerul, Alamin, Sattar, and Siddique Bahini are still operating in different parts of the Sundarbans.
According to Wing Commander Hasan Emon Al Razib, Commanding Officer of RAB-6, “If the rest of the pirate groups do not return to normal life, they will face tougher actions in the near future. However, the government will provide them with legal assistance, donations, and employment opportunities if they surrender and stop their criminal activities.” RAB has demanded 12 acres of land inside the Sundarbans to establish four camps to eradicate the existing pirate groups. However, if sustainable rehabilitation initiatives cannot be implemented by ensuring employment opportunities and a decent life for the family members, chances are little that piracy and poaching in the Sundarbans can be stopped just by the exertion of crude force.
Sohag Dewan, a local journalist of Khulna, has also contributed to this report.
Dipankar Roy is the Khulna correspondent of The Daily Star.