By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: An inquiry report into forced eviction and state violence inflicted on people of Dholpur village in Darrang district of Assam by ‘Janhastakshep’ underlined that it was a deceptive ploy of the BJP-led Himanta Biswa Sarma government in the state.
The inquiry report stated that it need be stated that “the most brutalizing aspect of the events that happened on the 20th and 23rd of September 2021 has been sheer contempt on part of the government for the safety of the lives and livelihoods of the people. Though over the past few years, Muslim minority, and especially the Bangla speaking Muslims, in the state have been afflicted by a sense of insecurity, but as reported by the people, they were surprised by the sudden brazenness with which the police evicted them from their homes. In the run up to the eviction, no government officer or government agency made any attempt to speak with the people for explaining the reasons for which their land was required, even less to discuss any form of rehabilitation or compensation”.
An inquiry team of Janhastakshep visited the violence affected villages of Dhalpur one, two, and three villages in Gorukhuti, in the Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district on the 1st of November 2021. The team comprised Dr Vikas Bajpai, faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof Biswajeet Mohanty, Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi, and Sh Sudhir Pattnaik, independent journalist and anti-displacement activist from Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.
As citizens concerned for the wellbeing of the people of India our intent was to get a first person account of the suffering being entailed by the people of Dholpur and explore the underlying causes of the entire sequence of events, they stated.
The inquiry team alleged that the district police administration deliberately exercised deception to catch the people unawares becomes evident by way of an eviction notice dated 10 September 2021 in miscellaneous case no. 20/2021, served upon Zaheerul Islam.
The notice was served upon him at 12 pm on the night of 19 September, and the next morning the police and administration descended upon his house to demolish it. The words stating that he needed to evict from his place within three months of receiving the notice had been erased with white ink (Annexure 1b). This clearly illustrates that the intent of the administration clearly was to catch the people unawares such that they can offer least resistance. Such an attitude on part of the administration and the police is clearly reflective of the criminal mindset that has beset the State machinery. It is then least surprising that the police were caught firing upon the corpse of Moinul who died because of police brutality while resisting their assault on the women of his village. The suddenness of the act of eviction was attested to by most of the people we spoke with in Dholpur.
“There seems little if any intent on part of the state government to provide appropriate compensation or rehabilitation for the uprooted families. This becomes clear from the manner in which the eviction was effected, and the subsequent dilatory tactics being resorted to by the state government in the Guwahati High Court in the matter of the civil writ petition filed before it challenging the illegal eviction of the people. The government is post facto imposing conditions for giving any compensation to the people such as those whose names appear in the NRC, or incumbent upon people being able to prove that they were not illegally occupying any land. The utter farce of such undertakings by the government before the court is inherent in the fact that rather than giving an opportunity to the evicted people to be able to prove that they were the rightful owners of the land they tilled, the government moved unilaterally to change the situation on the ground, with the express intent to impose conditions on the people’, they added.
In a report dated 24 September 2021, published in ‘The New Indian Express’ the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma is reported to have said that – Only 60 families had to be evicted but 10,000 people swarmed to the site to put up a resistance. Where did they come from? Who brought them?” The same report attributes to him the allegation that ‘some families were occupying land measuring up to 300 bighas’, and that ‘the land of even a Shiva temple was also under encroachment.’ Another statement that had been propagated by the state government officials was that it needed to clear 77,000 bighas, about 25,454 acres, illegally occupied by the illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in the area, to make room for an organic farming project.
The team said such statements of the Chief Minister amount to nothing but brazen sophistry to mislead the people. As against the claimed 60 families as they found that a total of 966 families amounting to about seven thousand people have been evicted. It was reported by the evicted people that more than half of the claimed 77,000 bighas had already been eroded by the Brahmaputra River.
Removing illegal encroachment or land grabbing to serve the vested interests?
It is interesting to note that freeing 77,000 bighas of land from encroachers, which was the objective of the eviction drive effected by the state on the 20th and 23rd of September, 2021, had apparently already been achieved in June 2021. A report published in ‘The Assam Tribune’ on 9 June 2021 states:
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while chairing the meeting of the Council of Ministers here today further directed to utilise 77,000 bighas of government land freed from encroachers at Gorukhuti, Sipajhar in Darrang district for agricultural purposes for which a committee has been formed under the chairmanship of Padma Hazarika.
Additionally, the land from which the villagers have been evicted was already under cultivation, and need hardly be diverted for agriculture.
That there is an ulterior motive to the mechanizations of the Assam government and it is acting on behalf of vested interests is further borne out by the testimony of Parvati Das who is the second wife of the mahant who established the Shiva temple in the Dhalpur 2 village, the land of which is said to have been occupied by the evicted villagers. Incidentally, Parvati Das’s house has also been demolished by the police in the eviction drive carried out in September.
Parvati Das told that the Sattra (temples of the Vaishnavite cult in Assam) in Dhalpur 2 village had been set up by her husband. “Even though there were no Hindu families in the neighborhood, the Muslim households in the village had contributed to the building of the temple. After the temple was built, some Hindus belonging to the villages across the Brahmaputra started performing puja in the temple and formed a committee to manage its affairs. On temple committee’s demand the Sattra was allocated 120 bighas of land to generate revenue for its upkeep. However, this land got eroded by the river over the years, and now a fresh demand has been raised by the committee for 175 bighas of land to be allotted to the Sattra.”
The stage for the brutal eviction drive in Gorukhuti was set by the Assam Land Policy, 2019 passed by the Assam government. With respect to the permanent and temporary Chaar areas Clause 1.14 and 1.15 of the Policy state:
1.14 ……… Since encroachment has to be removed forthwith, system of collecting Encroachment Penalty (Bedakhali Jarimona) shall be discontinued. The system of Touzi Bahira against allotted land only however shall continue. The Revenue Officials shall be duty bound to evict the encroachers at the earliest.
1.15 Further, allotment and settlement of land shall not be considered for such lands which is reserved for any fGovernment or public purposes or declared wet lands, hills, ecological sites, forest land and land vulnerable to landslide or erosion.
If the recent pronouncements of the Chief Minister are any indication then, the incidents in Gorukhuti are not the last of their kind. As per a report published on 3 November, 2021 in ‘India Today’, the Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma reported said:
“After Gorukhuti, we need to clean Lumding reserve forest. We are talking amicably and I spoke to many minority organisations and will talk again.”
‘We feel that the motivation of the government stems from its desire to appropriate more and more land from the people to serve the commercial and profit motive of the big corporates, the team said.
The conditions of the evicted people
The report said the present condition of the evicted people in the area remains precarious. They are living in makeshift sheds made from tin, straw, and bamboo, with little hygiene, lack of safe drinking water supply, severe shortage of food, and no medical care whatsoever.
The report underlined that the present misery is but a symptom of the far more deep rooted reasons which have threatened the livelihoods of a large section of the people in Assam over the years and for handling which no systematic and scientific policy has been evolved by successive governments.
The river Brahmaputra and its tributaries have led to erosion of vast tracts of land in different parts of the state resulting in forced voluntary internal migration of the people within the state.
“This behaviour of river Brahmaputra begets a thorough scientific study to delineate the causes of riverine erosion, its social, economic and political impact, and to find out possible solutions. All of this should feed into formulation of a scientifically sound policy to provide relief to the people who are adversely affected by this phenomenon.”
It is this context which engenders a confluence between the hard socioeconomic realities resulting from the riverine erosion phenomenon and the communal agenda of the present RSS-BJP government in the state. It is for this reason that the Bengali speaking Muslims need to be constantly painted as outsiders even though they have lived in Assam and contributed to its growth over generations, the report said.
Divisions are sought to driven deeper between not just the Hindus and the Muslims, but also between the Assamese speaking and Bengali speaking Muslims. However, it need be recognized that the river does not differentiate between people following different faiths. The problem that has befallen Bengali speaking Muslims could very well fall upon other communities following other faiths, as is indeed evident in the form of an eviction notice served on the Hindu families of the Nath cult (deriving from the Gorakhnath cult in Gorakhpur of Uttar Pradesh) in Kaitasiddhi village near the Guwahati airport.
The report advised the Assamese nationalist forces to take these factors as a central concern of their politics to forge an iron unity of all Assamese people against the divisive politics..
The members of Janhastakshep led team made some demands including
- All measures – economic, legal, social and political should be undertaken by the government without much ado to ensure the safety of lives and livelihoods of the evicted people.
- We demand that the Land Policy of 2019 of the Assam Government be withdrawn forthwith.
- Secondly, and equally important demand is for constituting a team of scientists from various disciplines of physical and social sciences to study the phenomenon of riverine erosion and its consequences, and to formulate a long term policy to deal with these issues while ensuring widest possible public consultation.