HANIFUDDIN AHMED, 51, has been evicted from his homestead for the second time in 20 years. He was among those driven out during the eviction of encroachers in Kaziranga two weeks ago.
“Back in 1996, when our Tunikati village became part of the first addition to Kaziranga National Park, the government asked us to move out,” Hanifuddin said. “We were asked to settle down in Deochurchang, south of the highway, with the then government putting on record that we were officially resettled after that eviction.”
It was from Deochurchang that Hanifuddin was forced out on September 19 as the authorities used bulldozers and elephants to dismantle houses. Two persons were also killed when police used force to disperse protesters who had turned violent.
Some 200 families of Deochurchang, including Hanifuddin’s, are currently taking shelter in Bordallang, Chikoni,Garubandha and other nearby villages. Some of them have put up temporary sheds on vacant government land, others on land belonging to relatives and other people. About 150 families of two other villages that were cleared that day — Bandardubi and Palkhowa — have taken shelter either on government land or on land of people in neighbouring villagers.
Encroachment in Assam is a problem serious enough to drive elections — of the 27,673 sq km forest area, 3,555 sq km is under encroachment — and the eviction from the three villages in Kaziranga was made on the basis of a Gauhati High Court order of October 9, 2015. What has not yet settled after the latest drive, however, is the debate over the nationality of those evicted. Nor has the government sought to address the question of resettling the encroachers if any of them turns out to be Indian.
Although government and police officials insist they did not discriminate among the settlers, leaders of the ruling BJP as well as many voters have linked the drive to infiltration from Bangladesh — the most potent of election issues in Assam.
“We are not Bangladeshis,” said Abdul Hamid, whose family had 24 bighas of patta land in Deochurchang. “We have been here for decades and have been voters since Independence. Most of us were allotted land by the government after our original villages of Tunikati, Gatanga, Kawoimari, No 2 Deochurchang and the adjoining areas had become part of Kaziranga extension in 1996.”
A government officer in the team that supervised the eviction dismissed the debate: “We have gone strictly by the high court order, does not differentiate between suspected illegal migrant and Indian citizens. That is why you find a number of the evicted families have typical Assamese surnames such as Bora, Saikia and Kalita.”
“It is not that all the encroachers are Bangladeshi infiltrators. A large number of indigenous people too, both tribal and non-tribal, who had lost their land and homestead to river-bank erosion, have encroached upon several reserved forests.” said Harekrishna Deka, a former director-general of police, who now heads Srimanta Foundation that is engaged in promotion of satra culture. Satra land, like forests, has suffered massive encroachment over the years.
“The government should carry out a detailed survey of these people, segregate the indigenous people from the illegal migrants, arrange for alternative rehabilitation for the indigenous people and take legal action against the illegal migrants,” Deka said.
Indeed, evicted villager Hamid is hopeful the government would rehabilitate or compensate those who had patta land. “Two ministers, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Keshab Mahanta who is also the local MLA, had assured us compensation about two weeks before the eviction,” claimed Hamid who, along with other villagers, is also talking about the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013.
Himanta, in fact, has repeatedly stressed that eviction drives will continue. “Kaziranga is only the beginning. Our government is committed to freeing all government land, forests, wildlife sanctuaries and land belonging to satras of encroachers,” he has said.
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said in Guwahati Thursday, “My government vows to continue such eviction drives in future to make all forest areas free of encroachment.” Praised recently by BJP chief Amit Shah, Sonowal also mentioned the serious challenge posed by Bangladeshi infiltrators. “Illegal migrants have to leave the state… The challenge posed by the migrants to Assamese society will have to be met by all people of the state cutting across tribe, class and creed,” he said Thursday.
On Wednesday, the BJP’s executive meeting had hailed the government’s first major drive to evict encroachers from Kaziranga. “Large tracts of government land including forests, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands are under encroachment of suspected illegal migrants,” said state BJP president in-charge Shantanu Bharali.
Against this stand is that of eight Left-democratic parties, which had issued a joint statement that “taking advantage of the High Court order, it (BJP-led government) has adopted a communal stance by particularly targeting people belonging to the religious minority.”
The Congress was in power when the high court issued the order leading to the eviction. “My government did not immediately act on the high court order as I was contemplating an appeal,” then chief minister Tarun Gogoi told The Indian Express recently.
The fact remains, however, that Gogoi’s government too had issued orders to evict encroachers from government land. One order, on March 19, 2015, asked district authorities not only to remove encroachers from government land, wetlands, village grazing reserves and other reserved land, but also to take action against erring officers. On June 15, 2015, another order had asked district officials to remove all encroachment on government land “forthwith.”