Last week, an eviction drive in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang District took a different turn, after clashes broke out between the police and the unruly protesters. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has instituted a judicial probe into the deaths, and the civilians have been arrested. In Assam, ethnic conflict over land goes back decades, and such eviction drives predate the current regime.
What was the Sipajhar drive about? The eviction drive in Dholpur (There is Dholpur district in Rajasthan too) of Sipajhar, where primarily Bengali-speaking Muslims live, who have all entered the state from Bangladesh and became a solid vote bank of the Congress Party, was aimed at removing “illegal encroachers” to free up government land for “landless indigenous communities”. According to the state authorities, the drive on Monday and Thursday evicted 1,200 – 1,300 families who had “illegally” occupied roughly 10,000 bighas (a measure of land measurement) of the government land. The drive is rooted in the CM’s visit to the area in June 2021, when he “promised” local communities that the encroached land would be recovered and that the Dholpur Shiva Mandir in the vicinity would get a manikut, a guest house and a boundary wall.
Later, the state Budget earmarked Rs 9.6 crore for an ‘agriculture project’, called the Garukhuti Project, on the cleared land. The project would promote afforestation and agriculture activities, involving indigenous youth. On the request of the Agriculture Department, the district administration declared the area “community agricultural land”. In June, a smaller drive evicted some seven families who lived near the temple.
Who were the people being evicted? Primarily Bengali-speaking Muslims, they are mostly so called peasants and daily wage earners. The government alleged that they have “illegally encroached” on the land. Many evicted claimed they had bought the land from locals at the time. However, most transactions happened without documents, and hold little legal validity. How can this happen, a land deal without any legal transactions or property papers?
CM Sarma accused the settlers of using two things like a “mantra”: floods and erosion. “The Assam government cannot cow down. We (the Assamese) are getting outnumbered every day.” he said. He said the landless among those evicted will be given 2 acres.
Sipajhar, incidentally, is part of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat, from where the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched its anti-foreigner movement of 1979-85. A revision of rolls had shown a large number of new voters, the trigger for the agitation and most of the new settlers were Muslims, who had migrated from the troubled and war torn Bangladesh of the 1971 pogrom.
What do ‘indigenous’ locals say? Portions of the land in Dholpur, as well as the larger Garukhuti area have been a site of conflict for decades, with a section of indigenous residents claiming their land has been usurped by the migrants. Conflicts from time to time have often led to spurts of eviction. Organisations such as Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) and Sangrami Satirtha Sammelan, which speak for indigenous communities, have been demanding that encroached land be freed up from foreigners.
In the year 2015, some Assam residents led by Kobad Ali, President of Dakhsin Mangaldai Gowala Santha (an organisation of milk producers), filed a case under the Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, 2010, seeking a Mangaldoi court’s intervention in evicting encroachers from Village Grazing Reserve and Professional Grazing Reserve in a number of villages in Sipajhar. In 2013, an RTI response said around 77,000 bighas of government land in the area remained encroached for years. The BJP in its election manifesto promised to clear it after it came to power after elections.
Upamanyu Hazarika, Convener of PVM, said in a press statement on September 20 that there had been five earlier eviction drives in the area, but it was the “local indigenous” who were made to suffer as their lands were acquired for the agriculture project, and the encroachers remained “undisturbed” for political reason and vote banks in the name of secularism and that settlers are from the ‘peaceful community.’
According to the activists, 200 families from Dholpur 3 moved the High Court against the eviction late last month. In response, the government had filed an affidavit saying the settlers were on government land. The evictions on Thursday came before the petitioners could file a reply. “Propriety demands that they should wait for the final outcome of the case,” said Santanu Borthakur, an advocate representing the families, which could have taken decades.
How did the eviction turn violent? Last Monday, about 800 families were evicted from the Dholpur 1 and 3 villages. While it happened without resistance, locals and activists were unhappy because it was done without a “proper rehabilitation plan”. On Thursday, organisations such as the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), along with the public, carried out a demonstration, demanding rehabilitation. Thereafter, the authorities held a discussion with them and a settlement was agreed upon.
Those evicted allege that the eviction was carried out despite the agreement, in which the authorities reportedly said they would put the eviction on hold till facilities as demanded were arranged. “This is when the situation became tense, and then spiraled into violence,” said AAMSU member Ainuddin Ahmed of Mangaldai, near Sipajhar. The authorities, on the other hand, alleged that even after the agreement, the locals “suddenly” began to attack the police with sticks, stones and spears. Darrang SP Susanta Biswa Sarma said police “did what they had to do” in “self-defence”. The usual victim card was played by the land grabbers.
On Saturday, Chief Minister Sarma claimed the involvement of the Popular Front of India (PFI), the Muslim outfit which has become a big political force in the region and fought the Assam elections in close coordination with the Congress Party. This tie up was recently got broke as it sullied the image of the Congress party’s secular credentials and was blamed for the political rout of the party.
What is the extent of encroachment of land in Assam? Land has long been at the centre of the ethnic contestations in Assam, with the common belief that the “indigenous” Assamese were losing its land to “migrants from Bangladesh”. Often, it is alleged that government lands, lands around xatras (monasteries) and forest lands around national parks and sanctuaries have been encroached upon.
The Brahma Committee, formed by the previous Sarbananda Sonowal Government to make recommendations on land rights, said in its interim report in 2017 that 63 lakh bighas of the government land was under “illegal occupation”. The same year, then Minister of State for Revenue Pallab Lochan Das (now Tezpur MP) told the Assembly that 6,652 sq km government land was encroached upon.
However, officials will agree that such figures are ambiguous. Das, the MP, expressed it correctly. “The figure keeps varying. After we evict, new areas are encroached upon. Some areas are not reported. So, it is never a static number,” he said.
What about eviction drives? Evictions are common in Assam but critics allege they have increased after BJP came to power. This is just a charge, BJP cannot be silent mute witness to wrong doings of the previous governments. Drives were carried out by the Sonowal government including in Darrang, Sonitpur, Amchang (near Guwahati) and Kaziranga. One of the BJP’s promises in the May 2021 Assembly elections was to free government land from the “encroachers”, and allot them to the “indigenous landless people”. The villages are being cleared to make space for a farming project by the Assam government over 77,000 bighas (25,600 acres) of land, which the evicted families say they have been living on for more than 40 years. The Gorukhuti Agriculture Project aims to set up “modern farming” and hand them over to the state’s Indigenous youths.
Lot of hue and cry was made of these evictions, in Al Zazeera, but the same anti India news channel did not mention the killings of Hindus during the Durga Puja carnage in Bangladesh and rapes and left and communist cabal of twitter blocked the handle of the Isakson temple, which was condemned by the US State department.
India lodged a strong protest. This is the reason why CAA Bill was passed and notified.