Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s linking of the ongoing eviction drive by his government with an alleged ‘population explosion’ of Muslims in the state has raised concerns over minority victimisation.
Nearly 200 families comprising more than 500 people, almost all from the Muslim community, have been rendered homeless in a drive to clear encroachment on government land.
The victims, in a letter to the Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court, said they have been helplessly moving from one place to another for shelter in the rainy weather.
The eviction drive is being carried out in the Patharkandi area of Karimganj district. The court had earlier directed a halting of eviction processes drives during the pandemic.
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“It is also made clear that any decree for eviction/dispossession or demolition, which was passed by any court, tribunal or authority during this period, shall remain in abeyance subject to any specific orders which may be passed in a given case,” read a High Court ordered passed on May 10.
However, the government carried out the eviction drive in the three districts of Karimganj, Hojai and Darrang on June 6, and reclaimed more than 400 bighas of encroached forest and temple land.
Houses of 74 families built on 275 bighas of government-owned land in the Kakitila forest area of Hojai’s Taralangso area were demolished on June 6. The same day, around 28 houses were razed at Solmona and adjoining areas in the Patharkandi area of Karimganj district to free forest land from encroachment.
Another drive was carried out the same day to free 120 bighas of land belonging to an ancient Shiva temple at Dhalpur in Darrang district.
Similar evictions were taken up in Karaibari Forest village of Chirang district on May 21, in Runikhata forest of Udalguri district on May 27, and in Laongai Forest area in Karimaganj district on May 28 and June 1.
The Assam government claims the drives have been carried out to protect the land, identity, culture, language and heritage of Assam from ‘aggressors and illegal migrants’.
Reclaiming the forests and other government land from “encroachers” to allot them to “indigenous” landless people was one of the election promises of the BJP, which came to the power for the second consecutive term in the state on May 2.
The eviction drive started immediately after the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led government took charge, on May 10.
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The Assam government’s definition of illegal migrants remained vague as most of the evicted people are Indian citizens.
“Here, sir, it is worthwhile to bring to your kind notice that we are bona fide citizens of India having voting power and have been residing in those demolished houses for decades, many among us even for a period of 50 years or more,” said the victims of Karimaganj in the letter to the Chief Justice. The letter, dated June 8, was signed by 202 evicted people of the district.
They are now planning to move a contempt petition at the High Court against the state government for evicting them from their houses amid the pandemic in “violation of the court order.”
“They are in touch with me to move a contempt petition,” said Guwahati-based senior advocate Hafiz Rashid Choudhury.
The Assam government, however, is unfazed in the face of widespread criticism, particularly from minority organisations.
The All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) claimed that the “inhuman” eviction drives amid the pandemic were targeted at the minority community, falsely branding them as suspected foreign nationals. The BJP government led by Sarma is “acting with a vengeance” against the Muslim community, alleged AAMSU leader Kabir Ahmed.
According to the AAMSU, the “selective eviction of Muslims” is part of the BJP’s polarisation policy. “Most of these people occupy government land after losing their land and homes to periodic flood and erosion,” said Aminul Islam, general secretary of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
According to the government’s own data, Assam has lost at least 8,000 sq km of land since 1951 to river erosion, leaving around 10 lakh families landless over the years.
“If these people have been rendered landless, it’s the government’s responsibility to rehabilitate them properly. But instead of doing that the present BJP government is rendering them homeless amid the pandemic and inclement weather,” said Congress MLA from Karimganj North, Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha.
“These people cannot be branded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh just because they are Bengali-speaking Muslims. If there is any proof with the government of them being illegal migrants, it should legally deport them. Otherwise, if they are Indians, it is the responsibility of the government to rehabilitate them,” Aminul Islam told reporters.
The Communist Party of India, the Ittehad Front Assam, AAMSU and several minority outfits also demanded proper rehabilitation of the evicted people.
Sarma, however, has strongly defended the eviction drive, saying his government will not allow people to “occupy the land of our temples and forests.”
Those who had been demanding the rehabilitation of the evicted people should join hands and try to control the population, the Chief Minister said, alleging that the population explosion among the Muslims was creating pressure on the living space, which is, in turn, leading to encroachment.
Sarma said if the “population explosion” continues, one day even the Kamakhya temple’s land would be encroached on.
“The root cause of issues like poverty and land encroachment lies in uncontrolled population growth. I think we can address these social problems if the Muslim community adopts decent family planning norms,” Sarma recently told reporters in Guwahati.
Sarma’s claim, however, contradicts the findings of the Fifth National Family Health Survey of the Health Ministry released in December last year. The survey also counters the BJP’s assertion of an alleged influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh changing the demographic profile of the state.
According to the survey, Muslims in Assam have recorded the most “dramatic decline” in fertility since the third national survey, carried out in 2005-06.
As per the latest findings, the fertility rate among Muslims in Assam dropped from 3.6 in 2005-06 to 2.4 in 2019-20. This is a decline of 1.3 compared to 0.4 among Hindus for the same period.
Immediately after assuming power, Sarma’s government moved the Supreme Court seeking re-verification of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on August 31, 2019. The petition filed by the state’s NRC authority last month claimed the updated register has errors such as the inclusion of ineligible names and exclusion of eligible ones into it.
The NRC published in 2019 made over 19 lakh people stateless.
The government wants 20% re-verification of the NRC in districts bordering Bangladesh and 10% in other districts.
Many see the move as a ploy to keep the illegal-migrant pot boiling in the state.
“We wanted to be done with this NRC issue to end this stigmatization of all Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam as Bangladeshis. But the government, instead of implementing the published NRC, is now revisiting it just to lengthen the process for political gain,” said Hasina Ahmed, a lawyer and civil rights activist of Assam.
Sarma’s one-month-old government has also decided to bring a cow protection bill in the next session of the state assembly to ban the transport of cattle outside Assam.
Hardliners within the Hindutva ambit were apparently unhappy over the state’s previous BJP regime headed by Sarbananda Sonowal for failing to prevent alleged cow smuggling to Bangladesh.
As per the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, the slaughter of cattle over 14 years of age is allowed only after a ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate is given.
Several right-wing activists had staged a protest outside the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati seeking a ban on cow slaughter and an end to the practice of feeding beef to big cats in captivity at the zoo in October last year.
Sarma, who joined the BJP in August 2015 from the Congress, is not willing to miss any chances to consolidate his position within the Hindutva fold.
After stirring a hornet’s nest with his population explosion remark, Sarma rushed to RSS headquarters in Nagpur to pay his “respect” to Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat.
The meeting on Friday (June 11) came amidst murmurs in Assam that the RSS is opposed to Sarma’s selection as chief minister.
“It has been a matter of great privilege and pride to have his blessings and generous guidance,” said Sarma on Sunday (June 13), a day after the meeting.