Fact finding report by NGO on Assam violence unveils injustice and brutality inflicted upon villagers

An inquiry team constituted on the initiative of NGO Janhastakshep visited violence-affected villages of Dholpur in Gorukhuti in the Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district in Assam on November 1

Fact finding report by NGO on Assam violence unveils injustice and brutality inflicted upon villagers

NH Web Desk

An inquiry team constituted on the initiative of NGO Janhastakshep visited the violence-affected villages of Dholpur one, two, and three villages in Gorukhuti, in the Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district in Assam on November 1. The team constituted of Dr Vikas Bajpai, faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof Biswajeet Mohanty, Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi, and Sudhir Pattnaik, independent journalist and anti-displacement activist from Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.

Following the same, it has released facts, including video evidence, which attest to the injustice and brutality inflicted upon the people in Sipajhar Char area in September, 2021.

Its report is as below:

Eviction: A deceptive ploy of the Himanta Biswa Sarma government

Without entailing a repetition of already well known facts of the forceful eviction, it need be stated that the most brutalizing aspect of the events that happened on the 20th and 23rd of September 2021 has been sheer contempt on part of the government for the safety of the lives and livelihoods of the people. Though over the past few years, Muslim minority, and especially the Bangla speaking Muslims, in the state have been afflicted by a sense of insecurity, but as reported by the people, they were surprised by the sudden brazenness with which the police evicted them from their homes.

In the run up to the eviction, no government officer or government agency made any attempt to speak with the people for explaining the reasons for which their land was required, even less to discuss any form of rehabilitation or compensation.

That the district police administration deliberately exercised deception to catch the people unawares becomes evident by way of an eviction notice dated 10 September 2021 in miscellaneous case no. 20/2021, served upon Zaheerul Islam. The notice was served upon him at 12 pm on the night of 19 September, and the next morning the police and administration descended upon his house to demolish it. The words stating that he needed to evict from his place within three months of receiving the notice had been erased with white ink.

This clearly illustrates that the intent of the administration clearly was to catch the people unawares such that they can offer least resistance. Such an attitude on part of the administration and the police is clearly reflective of the criminal mindset that has beset the State machinery. It is then least surprising that the police were caught firing upon the corpse of Moinul who died because of police brutality while resisting their assault on the women of his village. The suddenness of the act of eviction was attested to by most of the people we spoke with in Dholpur.

There seems little if any intent on part of the state government to provide appropriate compensation or rehabilitation for the uprooted families. This becomes clear from the manner in which the eviction was effected, and the subsequent dilatory tactics being resorted to by the state government in the Guwahati High Court in the matter of the civil writ petition filed before it challenging the illegal eviction of the people. The government is post facto imposing conditions for giving any compensation to the people such as those whose names appear in the NRC, or incumbent upon people being able to prove that they were not illegally occupying any land.

The utter farce of such undertakings by the government before the court is inherent in the fact that rather than giving an opportunity to the evicted people to be able to prove that they were the rightful owners of the land they tilled, the government moved unilaterally to change the situation on the ground, with the express intent to impose conditions on the people.

In a report dated September 24, 2021, published in ‘The New Indian Express’, the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma is reported to have said that “Only 60 families had to be evicted but 10,000 people swarmed to the site to put up a resistance. Where did they come from? Who brought them?” The same report attributes to him the allegation that ‘some families were occupying land measuring up to 300 bighas’, and that ‘the land of even a Shiva temple was also under encroachment.’

Another statement that had been propagated by the state government officials was that it needed to clear 77,000 bighas, about 25,454 acres, illegally occupied by the illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in the area, to make room for an organic farming project.

Such statements of the Chief Minister amount to nothing but brazen sophistry to mislead the people. As against the claimed 60 families, we found that a total of 966 families amounting to about seven thousand people have been evicted.It was reported by the evicted people that more than half of the claimed 77,000 bighas had already been eroded by the Brahmaputra River.

Removing illegal encroachment or land grabbing to serve vested interests?

It is interesting to note that freeing 77,000 bighas of land from encroachers, which was the objective of the eviction drive effected by the state on the 20th and 23rd of September, 2021, had apparently already been achieved in June 2021. A report published in ‘The Assam Tribune’ on 9 June 2021 states:

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while chairing the meeting of the Council of Ministers here today further directed to utilise 77,000 bighas of government land freed from encroachers at Gorukhuti, Sipajhar in Darrang district for agricultural purposes for which a committee has been formed under the chairmanship of Padma Hazarika.

Additionally, the land from which the villagers have been evicted was already under cultivation, and need hardly be diverted for agriculture.

That there is an ulterior motive to the machinaations of the Assam government and it is acting on behalf of vested interests is further borne out by the testimony of Parvati Das who is the second wife of the mahant who established the Shiva temple in the Dhalpur 2 village, the land of which is said to have been occupied by the evicted villagers. Incidentally, Parvati Das’s house has also been demolished by the police in the eviction drive carried out in September.

Parvati Das told that the Sattra (temples of the Vaishnavite cult in Assam) in Dhalpur 2 village had been set up by her husband. Even though there were no Hindu families in the neighborhood, the Muslim households in the village had contributed to the building of the temple. After the temple was built, some Hindus belonging to the villages across the Brahmaputra started performing puja in the temple and formed a committee to manage its affairs. On temple committee’s demand the Sattra was allocated 120 bighas of land to generate revenue for its upkeep. However, this land got eroded by the river over the years, and now a fresh demand has been raised by the committee for 175 bighas of land to be allotted to the Sattra.

Parvati Das told that her husband been marginalized in taking decisions regarding the temple, and that after his death she has had little interest in the temple’s affairs.

Parvati Das, wife of the since deceased mahant who set up the Shiv Templein Dhalpur 2 village
Parvati Das, wife of the since deceased mahant who set up the Shiv Templein Dhalpur 2 village

If the recent pronouncements of the Chief Minister are any indication then, the incidents in Gorukhuti are not the last of their kind. As per a report published on 3 November, 2021 in ‘India Today’, the Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma reported said:

“After Gorukhuti, we need to clean Lumding reserve forest. We are talking amicably and I spoke to many minority organisations and will talk again.”

We feel that the motivation of the government stems from its desire to appropriate more and more land from the people to serve the commercial and profit motive of the big corporates. It was brought to our notice by some of the villagers that they had heard talk of the government wanting to appropriate land for commercial plantations for production of palm oil. Given the overriding imperative of corporate profit driven economic growth model, the wellbeing of the people, especially those already marginalized, hardly remains a concern.

This is what is left of the once proud villages
This is what is left of the once proud villages

The condition of the evicted people

The present condition of the evicted people in the area remains precarious. They are living in makeshift sheds made from tin, straw, and bamboo, with little hygiene, lack of safe drinking water supply, severe shortage of food, and no medical care whatsoever. It was reported that some NGOs and private bodies have reached some relief by way of food, and have installed some hand pumps for water, but given the enormity of the situation such help can only amount to less than a drop in the ocean.

It is remarkable that our team did not find any trace whatsoever of any government agency reaching out to these people to provide relief in any form, which further attests to the deliberate and nefarious intent of the government in inflicting the carnage on the people.

The underlying causes of the evident misery

Going beyond the apparent misery of the people, we feel that the present misery is but a symptom of the far more deep rooted reasons which have threatened the livelihoods of a large section of the people in Assam over the years and for handling which no systematic and scientific policy has been evolved by successive governments.

It is well recognized that river Brahmaputra and its tributaries have led to erosion of vast tracts of land in different parts of the state resulting in forced voluntary internal migration of the people within the state. This behaviour of river Brahmaputra begets a thorough scientific study to delineate the causes of riverine erosion, its social, economic and political impact, and to find out possible solutions. All of this should feed into formulation of a scientifically sound policy to provide relief to the people who are adversely affected by this phenomenon.

However, in their obsession with self-interest, the ruling classes in the state have utterly lacked any concern towards this end. As their ability to address growing economic and social distress among the people consequent to the neo-liberal economic policies becomes more and more constricted, they find themselves with little option but to deepen the fault lines prevailing in the Assamese society for furthering their agenda.

It is this context which engenders a confluence between the hard socioeconomic realities resulting from the riverine erosion phenomenon and the communal agenda of the present RSS-BJP government in the state. It is for this reason that the Bengali speaking Muslims need to be constantly painted as outsiders even though they have lived in Assam and contributed to its growth over generations.

Divisions are sought to driven deeper between not just the Hindus and the Muslims, but also between the Assamese speaking and Bengali speaking Muslims. However, it need be recognized that the river does not differentiate between people following different faiths. The problem that has befallen Bengali speaking Muslims could very well fall upon other communities following other faiths, as is indeed evident in the form of an eviction notice served on the Hindu families of the Nath cult (deriving from the Gorakhnath cult in Gorakhpur of Uttar Pradesh) in Kaitasiddhi village near the Guwahati airport.

The entire agricultural land of this village has already been taken over for the airport; however, after the airport was given over to the Adani group recently, the government now seeks to evict these villagers from their homestead land as well, perhaps to facilitate the development of the real estate by the Adani group around the airport.

Given the circumstances, nothing could be more disastrous for the wellbeing of Assam and its people than pursuing such dangerous parochialism seeking to differentiate one section of the Assamese society from the other.

No doubt every measure ought to be taken to ensure that there is no further infiltration from any quarter in to Assam that threatens to its demographic constitution; however, it is time that the Assamese people should closely reexamine the benefits Assam has derived from almost selective targeting of Bangla speaking Muslims even as the most fundamental problems of the people remain unaddressed as yet.

Peoples’ condition is what it is not for want of documents but despite possessing all kinds of documents attesting to their bonafide status
Peoples’ condition is what it is not for want of documents but despite possessing all kinds of documents attesting to their bonafide status

The Assamese nationalist forces would be better advised to take these factors as a central concern of their politics to forge an iron unity of all Assamese people against the divisive politics. The only sustainable Assamese identity can be a composite identity that has space for all its people following different religions and speaking its myraid languages and dialects that constitute the ‘taana – baana’ (the warp and the weft) of Assamese culture.

We the members of Janhastakshep led team demand that:

  • All measures – economic, legal, social and political should be undertaken by the government without much ado to ensure the safety of lives and livelihoods of the evicted people.

  • We demand that the Land Policy of 2019 of the Assam Government be withdrawn forthwith.

  • Secondly, and equally important demand is for constituting a team of scientists from various disciplines or physical and social sciences to study the phenomenon of riverine erosion and its consequences, and to formulate a long term policy to deal with these issues while ensuring widest possible public consultation

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Published: 20 Nov 2021, 9:34 AM