The Subornogram Foundation and the River Gypsies of Bangladesh

The Subornogram Foundation was founded in 2003 by Bangladesh activist Shahed Kayes to work with the marginalized communities that live along the Meghna River in Bangladesh and indigenous people in Bandarban, Chittagong. The Foundation seeks to build a knowledge-based society in Bangladesh and defend the rights of women, children, and marginalized communities. It also promotes environmental awareness, in Bangladesh and across the globe.

Like many AP partners, Subornogram mixes services with advocacy. Its most important service is education. The Foundation has opened several schools for the children of River Gypsies and cobblers, who are often barred from government schools. The program has an exotic feel, in that many classes take place on boats. But the program itself is down to earth and follows the government curriculum. AP is appealing for funds to support school meals and will be developing long-term goals for the partnership later in 2014. To contribute to the school meals click on the button at the top of this page.

River gypsy children – under threat, along with their environment.

Shahed is also a skilled communicator and natural advocate. He started a letter-writing campaign in 2007 to secure voting rights for the river gypsies. (This was introduced the following year). Shahed has also been increasingly active in confronting local corporations that are stealing sand. This has become extremely violent and dangerous, and is described below. In all of his advocacy, Shahed makes effective use of the media.

Subornogram’s network of contacts has also expanded as its advocacy has grown more sophisticated. The Foundation has reached out to the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) based in Hong Kong.

Subornogram first reached out to AP in 2011. The following year, we sent a first Peace Fellow, Matt Becker from New York University to work alongside Shahed. In spite of their proximity to Dhaka, many of the river gypsies had never encountered someone from the West, and Matt was particularly popular with their children. As with many new partnerships, Matt opened the way by describing the threats facing the gypsies, and much of the material in these pages was drawn  from his strong blogs.

Chris Pinderhughes, also from NYU, followed Matt in 2013 and was present when sand dredgers kidnapped Shahed – an event that is described in detail below. Chris also worked with artists from the area to produce a series of embroidered squares for an advocacy quilt on the gypsies. The quilt has been assembled by quilters from the Sisters Choice Guild in Arlington, near Washington, and was unveiled in April 2014.

Because of the threatening attitude of the dredgers, and the unwillingness of the authorities to intervene, AP and Subornogram have decided to focus for the time being on the group’s highly effective schools program, which needs financial support.

Keep These Kids in School for $1!

The best way to keep gypsy and cobbler children in the Subornogram schools is to provide school meals. For $2,300, Subornogram can provide three meals a day for all students. To help, donate at the top right of this page.


Peace Fellow Mathew Becker (2012) produced the following short description of the different communities that are supported by Subornogram, and the pressure they are under:

River Gypsies

River Gypsies are known as Bede in Bengali. They are Muslim but do not mix with the more privileged communities. Gypsies used to be nomadic but have settled in boats on a small stretch of the Meghna River between Sahapur and Vati Bandar Village in Sonargaon. They are despised by other Bangladeshis simply because they are (or used to be) gypsies. Discrimination often begins in schools, and children from privileged families talk down to gypsy children. Subornogram tries to spread the message that this intolerance is not acceptable.


Fishermen are called Jele in Bengali. They too are predominantly Muslim and live along the river or on the Mayadip island in the Meghna River. Most Jele live on government land, but some also own their own land. They live on less than one dollar per day.

Dalit cobblers

Dalit cobblers are known as Rishi or Muchi in Bengali. Being Hindu and Dalits (the lowest caste in the Hindu religion), means that they belong to two minorities in largely Muslim Bangladesh. They are very poor and live in a small shanty towns made of wood with tin roofs. Cobblers are looked down upon not only by other Hindus but by Muslims, even though there is no caste in Islam. This may be because the cobbler profession is not considered prestigious and brings a small income. Still, many cobblers accept this as their lot in life. This is what they were handed by their gods and this they must accept. It wasn’t until 2008 that the river gypsy community was even able to vote in national elections.

Illiteracy reinforces the social exclusion of these communities. The children of cobblers and river gypsies are bullied and shunned by other children in Sonargaon, even when they attend local schools. But most do not even get the chance of a public education – even though all children enjoy the right to a primary education under Bangladesh law. As a result, Subornogram has made education a priority, as described below.

Illegal Sand Extraction

The river gypsies face a growing threat from the illegal extraction of sand, which is undermining the foundations of their houses, reducing their fish catch and causing hunger. Sand-dredging almost cost Shahed Kayes his life in the summer of 2013 and seems likely to remain a major challenge for Subornogram in the next few years. The problem is not limited to Bangladesh alone. Sand extraction may be replacing deforestation as the principal threat to the environment in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India, which has the world’s third largest construction industry.

The fight over sand-dredging in Bangladesh centers around two islands, Mayadip and Nunartek. Both lie in the Meghna River, one of three major rivers that run through Bangladesh and form the Ganges Delta. The Meghna is a source of livelihood for the entire region, particularly the River Gypsies. Mayadip has around 1,300 residents, mostly fishermen.

Several companies have contracts to dredge the river to make it more navigable, and the government has identified sand-extracting points (Balu Mahal in Bengali) where companies can take sand legally. But at least two rogue companies have violated their agreement and steal sand from the banks of the Meghna River near Mayadip, without government authorization. They use the sand to make bricks for the construction industry. The owners of these companies have considerable political influence, which makes them formidable opponents.

The villagers of Mayadip are understandably alarmed by this assault on their livelihood. They were relocated to the island during the 1980s under a rehabilitation project for victims of climate change (the Guchbogram Project) and given small plots of land. They live well below the poverty line and do not have enough land to grow food. This increases the importance of fishing.

The government has not provided the island with public services such as transportation to the mainland, safe drinking water, food aid, public health facilities, and public schools. (The Subornogram school is the only school on the island). As a result, many islanders are forced to look for work in more commercial areas, which are up to ten miles away by boat, bicycle, or on foot. Malnutrition is a major problem, especially among women and children.

Sand-dredging causes great instability in this fragile area. In the first place, the river banks are already feeling the effects of climate change, and the dredging can only lead to more flooding. Second, dredging undermines food security, as just noted.

These same problems have also caused extensive damage to two islands, Nalchar and Ram Prasadar

Victims of Dredging

Five villagers were injured by sand dredgers after villagers confronted the sand thieves at Mayadip Island in July 2012. Press  reports described the sand dredgers as “terrorists” and said they were employees of the  Trading and Constructing Co Ltd, owned by Selina Islam of Comilla district. Peace Fellow  Matt Becker visited the injured men in hospital (photo). The intimidation reached new heights in 2013, when dredgers kidnapped and stabbed Shahed Kayes. Shahed has appealed  for international pressure to force the Bangladesh government to enforce its laws.

Char, which have been almost entirely destroyed by sand extraction. Their former residents were forced to leave. Residents of Nunartek Island, adjacent to Mayadip, face the same threat as parts of the island slip into the water. Local fish breeding has also been disturbed. A 2012 article reported that local councils of Narayanganj and Comilla districts were involved in the illegal trade and that some parliamentarians of Narayanganj were protecting the private companies.

Subornogram Takes Action

Facing Down the Sand Dredgers

Shahed Kayes is founder and executive director of the Subornogram Foundation, which works for marginalized river communities. Thus far, Shahed has paid for the education program with his own money.

Subornogram discovered AP when Shahed Kayes met Corey Black, an AP Peace Fellow, during a visit to Nepal in 2011. The following year, Matthew Becker became the first Peace Fellow to work with Subornogram. Matthew, who is an accomplished photographer, focused on telling Subornogram’s story through photos and blogs.

Subornogram began campaigning against the sand-dredging in 2011. Shahed sent a letter of protest to the United Nations, and received a reply. But the authorities in Bangladesh paid little attention. In June 2012, the local police in Sunargaon confiscated two of the boats involved in the sand-dredging but within two weeks, a high-ranking politician in the district ordered the boats released and they went right back to extracting sand. Many local politicians and businessmen were involved.

There have been innumerable clashes between the river gypsies and the sand thieves. Peace Fellow Matthew Becker visited the islands with Shahed in July and picked up the story in his blogs:

“Last week Shahed and I visited Mayadip with a journalist and cameraman from Narayanganj’s Electronic Media Diganta TV. The reporters interviewed a number of Mayadip’s residents. Shahed hopes that media attention will put pressure on politicians. We learned that residents had witnessed more of the island falling into the river. A group had taken boats out to confront the criminals and plead with them to stop destroying their island. This ended in violence. The villagers were attacked with fists and weapons and five ended up in a local hospital.

The next morning we visited the victims in the hospital. While it looked pretty bad, most of their injuries were not too serious. One man had the front of his head split, and had to receive stitches. He has since been transferred to a bigger hospital in the Narayanganj district capital. Shahed has filed reports with the police and we’re hoping that at least some justice will be served. Such is the corruption in the legal system that we do not hold out much hope.

Exposing the Crime: Peace Fellow Matt Becker accompanied Shahed when he took journalists to visit the Mayadip island.

Subornogram’s campaign against the sand-dredging came to a terrifying conclusion in July 2013, when Shahed Kayes was kidnapped from a boat by a group of thugs employed by the dredgers and almost killed. Shahed was visiting Subornogram schools with Peace Fellow Chris Pinderhughes and another Bangladeshi volunteer when their boat was approached by two speedboats. The thugs ordered Shahed back to land, and seized him. They then took him off and beat him up. Chris raised the alarm and Shahed was discovered several hours later with multiple stab-wounds. He was rushed to hospital.

After this incident, AP asked Chris to leave Bangladesh at once. By the time he returned on the way home, Shahed was still receiving treatment at the local hospital. He had been badly shaken by the incident – as intended.

This brazen attack on Shahed, in front of a foreigner, was extensively covered by the media in Bangladesh and internationally. Shahed has listed the news outlets and the event has been described in detailed blogs by Peace Fellow Chris Pinderhughes. AP produced a news bulletin and protested to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Geneva. The Asia Commission on Human Rights issued a long alert. The incident continues to make waves. Five months later, in December 2013, Shahed was interviewed by the BBC World Service.

Whether or not the publicity will spur the government into action or curb the dredging is unclear. The police were able to arrest two of Shahed’s attackers, but both men were released without being charged. This underscores not just the viciousness of the sand-dredgers, but also the impunity that they enjoy. Shahed has accepted an offer from the Asia Commission to study in Hong Kong in 2014. AP remains deeply committed to Subornogram, but will likely adopt a lower profile in 2014 ans focus on raising funds for the schools.

Illiteracy and Education

In 2007, Shahed began meeting with parents in the river gypsy community to address the crisis in education and illiteracy among their children. Many gypsy children were being shunned by other children at local schools. As a result, it was decided to open a school on a boat, within the gypsy community. The school was known as Bede Bahar Vashaman Pathshala (floating boat school for the gypsy children) and the first classes were given by volunteer teachers. The Asia Foundation donated books.

Shahed covers remaining costs from his own pocket, and the shortage of money means that the program is only able to offer schooling up to the second grade. But even this is an essential service in a community of such overwhelming needs. Children are encouraged to continue their education in the local government schools.

Yearning to Learn: Peace Fellow Matt Becker visited the school for cobbler children at Bagmusa, which is supported by Subornogram. AP is raising funds for a school feeding program.

Subornogram also runs an international school in the village of Sahapur for students whose parents cannot afford to pay some, but not all of the school fees. This income is then ploughed back into six other schools which offer free education to the three marginalized groups: fishermem; river gypsies; and the Dalit cobblers. Subornogram Foundation has also opened schools in the Bagmusa and Kabilganj cobbler communities of Sonargaon.

Peace Fellows have profiled the inspiring work done by Sunornogram and its teachers in blogs and videos, like the one produced by Mathew Becker, shown left. This is a program that has AP’s wholehearted support and can benefit from our added value and international contacts. We look forward to resuming the partnership when Shahed is fully recovered from his ordeal.

In the meantime, we will continue to raise funds for the school feeding program. A 2011 grant from the Asia Foundation enabled Subornogram to provide breakfast for students before class and provide a small salary to teachers, who had worked as volunteers for almost four years. But the grant ran out and Shahed has since been exploring other fund-raising options. School breakfasts offer one way ensure an attendance and motivate students, and AP will launch a fund-raising campaign to raise funds for meals in 2014. Please give generously!

Support from AP and Peace Fellows

2012: Matthew Becker
(New York University)

2013: Christopher Pinderhughes
(New York University)

2012 Fellow Matt Becker with friends.

Subornogram discovered AP when Shahed Kayes met Corey Black, an AP Peace Fellow, during a visit to Nepal in 2011.

The following year, Matthew Becker became the first Peace Fellow to work with Subornogram. Matthew, who is an accomplished photographer, focused on telling Subornogram’s story through photos and blogs. Matthew was one of the first Westerners ever seen by the river gypsies, and he was enthralled by his experience. Matthew also had a close run with a ruptured appendix, which he described in one of his blogs. He returned to his post within three weeks, and was able to look back on the experience with wry humor.

2013 Fellow Chris Pinderhughes (right) with friend.

Chris Pinderhughes, who followed Mathew as a Peace Fellow in 2013, also enjoyed his share of drama. As noted above, Chris was accompanying Shahed Kayes when they were accosted by thugs from the sand-dredging companies. After he raised the alarm, AP asked him to leave Bangladesh as soon as possible, but he returned to pay his parting respects and remains in close contact with Shahed.

Chris’s presence – in a place where foreigners rarely visit – had been a huge boost for the morale of Shahed and a cause of wonder to the river gypsies. Chris also worked with a group of seamstresses to produce 13 beautifully embroidered squares describing the sand-dredging and the life of river gypsies. Chris brought the squares back to the US, where they were assembled into an advocacy quilt by the Sisters Choice Guild in Virginia.


Photos  by 2013 Fellow Chris Pinderhughes

Photos  by 2012 Fellow Matthew Becker


Subornogram Foundation
Grand Trunk, RoadSahapur
Sonargaon 1440 Narayanganj, Bangladesh
Phone: 880 (0) 176 201 6181

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