Clashes broke out in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district Thursday as thousands protested against the government’s ongoing eviction drive against “illegal encroachers”, leaving at least two people dead and several injured on both sides. In one video that surfaced on social media, a protester armed with a lathi was shot at from close quarters, and was later beaten up and jumped upon as he lay motionless on the ground.
Special DGP G P Singh confirmed the civilian deaths, adding that nine policemen were injured. “One policeman is critical,” he said. Darrang Superintendent of Police Susanta Biswa Sarma told The Indian Express that police “did what they had to do” in “self-defence”.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has instituted an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deaths and injuries, led by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court. Late Thursday evening, the man who jumped on the protester as he lay injured, identified as a photographer employed with the district administration, was arrested.
Speaking to the press Thursday afternoon, before the violence took a turn for the worse, the CM said police have been given the “responsibility to carry out an eviction and free up the land”. “They will do their duty. As per information with me, people attacked police using sticks, daos etc. The eviction will go as per plan till 4 pm.” The Darrang SP incidentally is Sarma’s brother.
While the CM also said the drive will continue into Friday, police said they had no plans for the same till Thursday night.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Assam is on state-sponsored fire. I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state — no children of India deserve this.”
The drive followed Monday’s eviction of 800 families in Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages of Sipajhar, who were said to have been occupying about 4,500 bighas of land. The Opposition had accused the government of going ahead with the drive despite not having a “proper rehabilitation plan”.
On Thursday, thousands of locals protesting against the eviction, in an area largely inhabited by Bengali-speaking Muslims like Monday’s drive, clashed with police.
According to the authorities, the violence began around 12.30 pm. “We had gone to carry out the eviction in the morning. While it went according to plan in the first three zones, we faced some resistance in the last zone,” said SP Sarma. “In the first instance, we managed to control it. But after that, they started attacking us with stones, baahor jung (pointed edges of bamboo). One policeman was critically injured in the head.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a top Assam Police officer said that in the beginning most people had agreed to go to the allotted land without any resistance. “However, we feel some ‘outside elements’ got involved… They are the ones who gave it a violent colour. Drone images with us show this was a planned resistance and it was done tactically.”
Ainuddin Ahmed, a resident of Mangaldai, close to Sipajhar, and a member of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), said several residents of Dholpur 3 got eviction notices on Wednesday night, between 10 pm and midnight. “They were asked to clear out by 6 am the next day,” he said, adding that those served the notices have a case pending against the eviction in the Gauhati High Court.
In August end, 200 families from Dholpur 3 had moved the High Court against being the eviction. In response, the government had filed an affidavit saying the settlers were on government land. The evictions Thursday came even as the petitioners were yet to file a reply. “Propriety demands that they should wait for the final outcome of the case,” said Santanu Borthakur, an advocate representing the families.
On Thursday morning, Ahmed said, thousands, including AAMSU members, formed a human chain to stop the eviction. “It was a peaceful protest, and we held a discussion with the administration. We told them that the rehabilitation plans were not sufficient, the place they had directed the locals to was especially low-lying, and flood prone. We also asked for provisions for latrines. They agreed,” said Ahmed.
He claimed that after that, things were “peaceful”. “Later, as people were trying to dismantle their homes themselves and take away parts such as tin sheds, the authorities started razing them with JCBs. All they (the locals) wanted to do was take along parts of their home so they could rebuild it,” Ahmed said. He claimed that is when the clashes began.
The evictions in Sipajhar follow a promise made by CM Sarma during a visit to the area in June. After Monday’s drive, he had tweeted that he was “happy” and had complimented the district administration and police for “clearing 4,500 bighas, evicting 800 households, demolishing 4 illegal religious structures and a private instn at Sipajhar, Darrang”.
One of the BJP’s poll promises in the May Assembly elections was to free government lands from “encroachers”, and allot them to “indigenous landless people”. Similar drives evicted 70 families in Hojai’s Lanka and 25 families in Sonitpur’s Jamugurihat in June. In Sipajhar, the government plans to implement a multi-crore ‘Garukhuti Project’, under which freed-up land is to be used for afforestation and agriculture activities, involving indigenous youth.
Sipajhar had earlier seen similar drives in December 2016 and November 2017, with organisations such as the “anti-immigrant” Prabhajan Virodhi Manch highlighting the issue of “illegal encroachers” here.
The area incidentally is part of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat, from where the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched its anti-infiltration movement of 1979-85. This was following a revision of electoral rolls, which had a large number of new names — the immediate trigger for the agitation.