A government initiative to set up a community farming project in Assam by removing “encroachers” has ironically threatened the life and livelihood of over 1,000 farmer families living in the area.
The eviction drive in the greater Dhalpur area in Assam’s Darrang district, backed by heavy security arrangements, was peaceful on the first day on September 20, leaving over 800 families homeless. The people, apart from losing their homes and farm land, also lost three mosques and a madrasa. But all hell broke loose on the second day of the drive on September 23 when the affected decided to resist till they were assured of proper rehabilitation as they had nowhere to go.
The resistance erupted into a confrontation with a well-equipped police contingent, leaving two dead – a 12-year-old boy (Shakh Farid) from a village adjoining Dhalpur and a distraught 28-year-old (Maynal Hoque) who chased a couple of policemen with a bamboo stick in hand only to run into a posse of police waiting to bring him down.
A viral video which captured Maynal’s last moments – and also the attention of the nation towards the eviction drive – showed the father of three beaten by the police, a photographer (Bijay Shankar Bania) engaged by the district administration to document the eviction drive stomped and kicked and kneed the motionless man in front of the police, nine of whom were injured in the face-off with the villagers.
Photographer Bania was later arrested by the police after the video went viral condemning the inhuman behaviour of the official cameraperson. He was sent to judicial custody for 14 days on September 24.
After the incident, the eviction drive has been kept in abeyance for a few days but the government asserted that it will not be stopped. It also ordered a judicial probe by a retired high court judge into the violence that rocked the drive but the confrontation once again exposed the fault lines created by pressure on land and a perceived threat to one’s identity. These have been the source of past discords. This was the source this time round.
The BJP-led state government, which had made freeing government land from “encroachers” and distributing it among indigenous landless a key poll plank, had taken up the farming project in line with its commitment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in Assam’s Sivasagar district distributed over 1 lakh land pattas (land allotment certificates) to families from indigenous communities across the state in January this year, before the state assembly elections.
Dhalpur – A minority-dominated area
That the project as well as the eviction drive was taken up in a minority-dominated area, a move which would help gain political points since the alleged encroachers are Bengali-speaking Muslims, widely seen by a section of people as “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh who have allegedly usurped the land of the natives.
However, those affected are erosion and flood-hit, having made Dhalpur, a riverine area on the banks of the Brahmaputra, their homes since the 70s. Almost all households are dependent on agriculture and allied activities. Life is tough with little facilities – no electricity, no motorised road – but they have adjusted well.
The char (riverine) area is home to the 30,000 people that live in the greater Dhalpur area despite the shortcomings. For peace, they were ready to move out to a place allotted by the government suitable to grow vegetables, paddy, maize, and jute as they do now for a living.
The government, despite fanning the local-illegal migrant narrative at the drop of the hat, has revealed post-violence that it had agreed to allot land to the landless. However, that assurance, the affected people said, have not been communicated to them earlier. Even the eviction notice was served just hours before the drive.
Sahar Ali (31) of Dhalpur 3 village got hit by a bullet on September 23 after the protest turned volatile. He said: “We received the eviction notice at 11 pm on September 22 asking us to move out by next morning. The notice was served despite our case pending against the eviction before the Gauhati high court.”
However, their lawyer Santanu Borthakur said there was no bar on the administration from carrying out the eviction but they should have waited for the outcome of the case.
The locals alleged they were not given even an extra day to move out despite most willingly dismantling their tin houses. They said they were neither offered a suitable plot of land to shift.
Around 7 am on September 23, there was an announcement that there will be a meeting at Muluwa Pathar, around 500 metres from Ali’s home, when he and his family members were dismantling their homes.
Thousands formed a human chain to stop the eviction while demanding immediate rehabilitation.
“I attended the peaceful protest like others. Around 11.30 am, we held a discussion with the administration and informed them that the proposed rehabilitation plans were not sufficient. We have been given a place which is low-lying, and flood prone, not fit for human habitation. The administration even agreed to our demands and most of us returned home only to hear gunshots around 1.30 pm. I rushed out only to get hit in my leg. My life has turned upside down.”
Ali has been living in Dhalpur since many decades. He used to grow vegetables, jute and paddy over a 20 bigha plot. “My family members, including my three minor children, are now taking a shelter on a road living in a makeshift camp set up on a plot shown by the administration. It is close to the Brahmaputra,” he said.
All Assam Minority Students’ Union (Aamsu) leader Ainuddin Ahmed, who was present at the protest site, blamed the administration for the untoward incident and condemned various quarters. The Opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called the police action “state-sponsored fire”.
Darrang district police chief Sushanta Biswa Sarma, who is the brother of state chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, said the police retailed in self-defence only when they were attacked by the protestors.
A video clip doing the rounds since September 23 shows Sarma as saying: “We will complete the task by hook or crook even if the world is turned upside down.”
For deceased Maynal and Farid’s families, life has indeed turned upside down. Farid’s elder brother Amir had hoped he would have better life as he was good in his studies. He was in Class 7.
Maynal’s family does not know what awaits them as he was the only earning member.
Most locals supported the government mega farming plan covering an area of 77,000 bighas of “encroached land” in greater Dhalpur area, which if successful, could provide vegetables to about one crore of the state’s over 3.2 crore population. “We are not against the project. All we want is a suitable plot of land,” said Kasim Ali, a villager from the area.
Like Kasim Ali, thousand others – men, women, children along with their cattle – are spending their days at the makeshift camps along the riverside in the same area, waiting for the allotted land to be handed over to them officially.
“Just a few days ago, we had our own food, livelihood and a shelter. But that’s all gone now. What option remains is to wait for relief aide. The stress is so high that people are falling sick. It’s a humanitarian crisis at Dhalpur village,” said Motleb Ali, a local whose house was also dismantled.
“All the 800 families evicted on September 20 and September 23 are staying in a makeshift camp on road or nearby sandbar in a wetland at Dhalpur 3 village. The administration had proposed they will give 1000 bigha in the area where they are now staying. But there is no help from administration. People don’t have the material to build home as all their tins were destroyed,” Motleb said.
Dhalpur’s Sarif Uddin, 32, who received bullet in his leg and now undergoing treatment at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital in Guwahati, said the land proposed is not fit for human habitation as the allotted land is low-lying and highly flood-prone.
“My families are residing under the broken tin sheds and were not provided with basic amenities. There was no proper drinking water and they are forced to have water from the nearby river,” Sharif said.
Govt’s plan make state self-sufficient in agriculture
Though the authorities claimed that 77,000 bigha of land was encroached in Sipajhar in Darrang district of the state, over 35,000 has disappeared under the Brahmaputra (eroded) or washed away. About 10,000 bigha has been cleared out during the eviction drive.
The state government took up the plan to start multipurpose cultivation in the 77,000-bigha plot of land at Gorukhuti in the Sipajhar area. It formed a committee headed by MLA Padma Hazarika to make the project a success.
The state government contends the farmlands of Gorukhuti project in Dhalpur always belonged to the state and was illegally occupied by the encroachers.
“We have hired 500 youth, including girls, for the project. This project will make the state self-sufficient in agriculture. We have started farming in around 40 bighas of land. We have begun with cultivation, but the work got delayed a little due to the violence which was done by a third force,” Hazarika said.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that the eviction is aimed at starting community farming by removing encroachment. Sarma said he had inspected riverine areas encroached by ‘illegal’ settlers near Dhalpur Shiva Mandir on June 7.
‘Third force’ at play?
After the September 23 incident, CM Sarma also hinted about involvement of a “third force” in the violence.
“For last two months discussions were on with members of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union and they all agreed to a peaceful shifting and re-location to the land being offered by the government as per our land policy for landless. The government told them that 6 bighas of land will be given to each of the evicted landless families. They were also told that the government would build houses, schools and Anganwadi centres for them. Then, who instigated the mob? There is a third force,” the CM had said.
‘Action was part of communal agenda’
Land and human rights experts felt that the ongoing eviction drive is a “part of a communal agenda” of the ruling BJP.
“It is unacceptable what happened in Dhalpur. It has both communal dimension and human rights violation as they were evicted in a nefarious manner. The affected are Muslims who have been there for a long time. The administration should have found a way to rehabilitate them. Land is an emotive issue and have now become a communal issue,” said Walter Fernandes, a social scientist and a senior fellow at the North Eastern Social Research Centre, a think-tank in Guwahati.
Sociologist Chandan Kumar Sharma, who teaches at Tezpur University, too said the September 23 incident was the most unfortunate, adding it has the “potency to contribute to a more divisive” societal political atmosphere in the state.
“Solution to the land issue indeed needs a long-term holistic approach. Land alienation among the people of Assam has a complex history. And any effort towards a solution needs to be sensitive to this complex history. Or else, it might further complicate the matter,” professor Sharma said.
In 2019, the BJP government brought a land policy, aimed at revamping a three-decade old land law, which allocates land to landless indigenous people – without defining who is indigenous.
“It is a very discriminatory policy, as Bengali Muslims and Hindus will not be regarded as indigenous,” Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer, said.
“Landless Muslims are being evicted from their homes to make way for Agro-farm for people from ‘indigenous’ communities. This is religious and linguistics discrimination. A democratic government cannot infringe on the rights of one group of people and bestow it to another,” Wadud said.
Even as allegation and counter-allegation fly thick and fast, life for the affected will never be the same again.