WHILE CAMPAIGNING for the Assam assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had frequently promised to free all government land of encroachers, including national parks and forests. In trying to keep that promise, the new BJP-led government has started from Kaziranga, the rhino habitat that has over the years become a symbol for the aggression of infiltrators from Bangladesh.
It has been a turbulent start. On Monday, when a dozen bulldozers and as many elephants entered three villages that encroachers had set up on government and forest land in Kaziranga — Banderdubi, Deuchur-chang and Palkhowa — police used force to quell their resistance, leading to the death of two persons including a woman. This has brought the government under attack from opposition parties and a group of intellectuals and also earned it notices from the national and state human rights commissions.
At the same time, the drive has found support from the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), conservation activists and many among those who had voted for the BJP on the plank of eviction of Bangladeshi settlers.
At Kozhikode on Sunday, BJP chief Amit Shah praised Sarbananda Sonowal for the eviction of “infiltrators”. And in Kaziranga the same day, the Congress distributed leaflets among those evicted.
The drive was backed by a Gauhati High Court order of October 9, 2015, which had directed the government to evict all encroachers from Kaziranga, adjoining forest land and animal corridors. The case had begun with a PIL registered suo moto by the court based on a news report on September 27, 2012, in The Indian Express and two other newspapers.
The order names the three villages where the eviction took place Monday, besides asking the authorities to verify the encroachers’ nationality and directing that eviction should take place “if necessary with effective police assistance.” The eviction team removed 331 houses and cleared over 2,400 bighas land.
Some groups have debated claims that the encroachers had rights over the land. The court order, however, states that Deuchur-chang was notified as a reserved forest in 1916, Banderdubi is not only social forestry land but also a tiger resort and animal corridor, and Palkhowa too is forest land.
“We have been residing in this area for decades, and all of a sudden the government told us to vacate. The security forces fired at us,” Rafiq Ali, a community leader in Banderdubi, was quoted as saying in a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The court order, in fact, notes the encroachers enjoyed various government privileges. “It is argued that the government is encouraging the encroachments and facilitating their permanent settlement,” it says.
Congress leader Tarun Gogoi, who was the chief minister when the order was issued, said he had been planning an appeal in the Supreme Court. “My government did not immediately act on the high court order as I was contemplating an appeal. There was scope for a review,” Gogoi said.
Other opposition parties accused the government of taking a communal stance. “The BJP government is particularly targeting religious minorities,” AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal said. Eight Left and allied parties issued a joint statement saying: “Taking advantage of the High Court order, it (government) has adopted a communal stance by particularly targeting people belonging to the religious minority.”
Bibhuti Lahkar, a conservation activist who was crowned Heritage Hero by IUCN last month for his work towards protecting Manas National Park, hailed the drive. “Large tracts of government land including reserved forests, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, wetlands and land belonging to Vaishnavite satras have been under encroachment for years. Even if the government can remove encroachers from the five national parks and 20 wildlife sanctuaries, it will be a great achievement,” Lahkar said.
“It was a very bold step that this government has taken,” AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi agreed. “We want encroachers evicted from all government land, particularly from reserved forests, wildlife sanctuaries and Vaishnavite satra land.”
Over 3.30 lakh hectares forest land in Assam is currently under encroachment. In Kaziranga, this has hit plans to expand from 440 sq km to 884 sq km. Rohit Choudhary, a conservation activist from Bokakhat in Kaziranga, said a three-year-old National Green Tribunal order to remove various establishments near the national highway and the National Park boundary was still pending implementation.
Following the violence, the NHRC has taken suo motu cognition of the deaths and sent a notice to the government seeking a report within four weeks, while six leading intellectuals led by writer Dr Hiren Gohain attacked the government for “brutal” force. Police said they had come under heavy stone-pelting from the violent mob. “While the police gave enough time to the people to disperse, we resorted to a lathicharge only after a magistrate had declared the assembly illegal,” said Mukesh Sahay, Assam DGP. To allegations about police firing, the DGP said, “The police used minimum force including rubber bullets. I cannot immediately say the two dead were hit by bullets.”
The government said it was only following court orders. “There has been no discrimination in carrying out the high court’s order that was long overdue. In Banderdubi, there were several Assamese families too,” said Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma. “While the Assamese families dismantled their houses and moved away, why did the others resist and turn violent?”
Finance and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma promised more eviction drives at other places. “Kaziranga is only the beginning,” he said.