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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Explained: Assam’s conflict over land

A video of a protester being shot by police, then stomped on by a civilian, has thrown the spotlight on an eviction drive in Assam. But the state’s conflict over land, with ethnic faultlines, goes back decades.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: September 28, 2021 7:55:30 am
Evicted villagers inspect the remains of their homes in Dholpur. (Express photo by Sadiq Naqvi)

Last week, an eviction drive in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district took a violent turn, leaving two dead and several injured, after clashes broke out between the police and protesters. A horrifying video showed a protester armed with a lathi being shot by a policeman, then jumped on and stomped on by a civilian. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has instituted a judicial probe into the deaths, and the civilian has 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 of Sipajhar, where primarily Bengali-speaking Muslims live, was aimed at removing “illegal encroachers” to free up government land for “landless indigenous communities”. According to authorities, the drive on Monday and Thursday evicted 1,200-1,300 families who had “illegally” occupied roughly 10,000 bighas of government land. The drive is rooted in the CM’s visit to the area in June, 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 peasants and daily wage earners. While the government alleged they have “illegally encroached” on the land, most families The Indian Express met said they moved there at least 40 years ago, from districts such as Barpeta and Goalpara, after losing their homes to river erosion. Many claimed they had bought the land from locals at the time. However, most transactions happened without documents, and hold little legal validity.

On Saturday, 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.

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 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. In 2015, some Assamese 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 promised to clear it after it came to power.

Upamanyu Hazarika, convenor 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”.

Did anyone among those targeted for eviction seek legal recourse?

According to 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.

A video grab shows the photographer jumping on protester.

How did the eviction turn violent?

Last Monday, about 800 families were evicted from 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 spiralled 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”.

On Saturday, Chief Minister Sarma claimed the involvement of the Popular Front of India (PFI), the Muslim outfit.

What is the extent of encroachment of land in Assam?

Land has long been at the centre of 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 government land was under “illegal occupation”. The same year, then MoS for Revenue Pallab Lochan Das (now Tezpur MP) told the Assembly that 6,652 sq km government land was encroached upon; in 2019, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said 22% of forest land was under encroachment.

However, officials will agree such figures are ambiguous. Das, the MP, told The Indian Express: “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.

Is it limited to migrant communities?

No, not all of it. Some government land is often occupied by people considered indigenous to the state, especially in districts such as Tinsukia, Dibrugarh etc. The Brahma Committee’s report suggested that many natives do not own land documents.

“Many people – including indigenous people — have settled in these lands. Since no one has legal titles in principle they can all be evicted . But the vulnerability to eviction is largely determined by political circumstances,” said political scientist Dr Sanjib Baruah, Professor, Bard College, New York. He referred to the Assam Accord of 1985: “The first AGP government learned this lesson the hard way. One of the promises of the Assam Accord was evictions from protected public lands. Clearly when the Assam Movement leaders negotiated this they only had so-called ‘foreigners’ in mind. They ignored the fact that some of Assam’s most indigenous people like Bodos that were shifting cultivators had also found their way into these lands.”

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What about eviction drives?

Evictions are common in Assam but critics allege they have increased after BJP came to power. Drives were carried out by the Sonowal government including in Darrang, Sonitpur, Amchang (near Guwahati) and Kaziranga, where violence left two dead in 2016.

One of the BJP’s promises in the May 2021 Assembly elections was to free government land from “encroachers”, and allot them to “indigenous landless people”. Since then, drives have evicted 70 families in Hojai’s Lanka and 25 families in Sonitpur’s Jamugurihat.

According to Baruah, the eviction in Sipajhar was “planned to an unprecedented degree”. “Even the Finance Minister in her Budget speech referred to ‘one experiment of our government was to remove encroachers from more than 77,420 bighas of land in Garukhuti under Sipajhar Block in Darrang district’,” he said. “One can only infer that who would be evicted during this eviction drive had featured in the planning of the project.”

Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher, said the difference between eviction drives aimed at indigenous communities and minority communities is that in eviction in places like Sipajhar, one will see “dehumanisation” of those who are being evicted. “It had political and communal intentions,” he said.

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