Wanton eviction of Darrang farmers proof of state abandoning its people

The forced eviction of farmers, mostly Muslims, from Assam’s Darrang region shows that the hour is ripe for all democratic sections to stand with the peasantry in distress and send out the message that polarization and politics of hate will not be allowed to succeed

Residents allege the police razed their houses and destroyed their crops during the eviction drive. Photo: PTI

Killing could not satiate the hate created by years of indoctrination; the viral images and videos of a photographer jumping on the body of a farmer shot dead by the police at Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district during an ‘eviction’ drive epitomise the politics of hate the RSS-BJP have systematically injected into their supporters in Assam.

In a video that has gone viral since the incident, the photographer Bijoy Bania is seen repeatedly jumping on the lifeless body of Moinul Haque, and returns after the police drag him away to repeat the abominable act, almost dancing in reckless abandon. The police personnel also could not hold back raining their batons on the body after they shot him dead in cold blood.

Also read: Two killed in Assam police firing, Himanta says eviction wouldn’t stop

Moinul Haque was advancing towards the heavily armed police force with a stick in probably one last attempt to ward off forcible eviction from his land and destruction of his humble dwelling and crops that were a result of sweat and toil of his family. The gory incident shook the conscience of all right-thinking human beings and met with widespread outcry in India and abroad.


Eviction was illegal, allege residents

The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government in Assam is on an eviction spree on the pretext of removing “illegal encroachers” and using force to uproot farmers cultivating land for decades. The eviction drive took place even as a case was pending with the Gauhati High Court on the matter, and without even giving enough notice to the people. Constitutional guarantee of equality and security for all citizens has been grossly violated. About 5,000 bighas of land has been ‘cleared of’ farmers and the BJP government claims that it plans to establish community farming in 77,000 bighas, employing indigenous unemployed youth. The chief minister also put on a progressive façade, asking how merely a thousand families could be allowed to hold 77,000 bighas and emphasising the need for its redistribution among the landless. He also claimed that the Village Grazing Reserve, Professional Grazing Reserve and Forest Reserves have been encroached upon. In reality, there are not 77,000 bighas as more than 40,000 bighas of this land was already submerged in the Brahmaputra due to river erosion long ago. This is just a ruse to communally polarise and evict small cultivators by portraying them as having usurped a humongous quantity of land by denying other landless communities.

I was part of a team comprising All India Agricultural Workers’ union joint secretary and Rajya Sabha MP Dr V Sivadasan, All India Lawyers’ Union president and Rajya Sabha MP Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, Assam Krishak Sabha president Gajen Barman, treasurer Masaddar Hussein, AR Sikdar, Assam AILU Secretary and others that visited Dhalpur-Gorukhuti area of Sipajhar in Darrang district of Assam.

We travelled by car from Guwahati, crossed Khandajan and reached the Nuanadi/Nanoi rivulet, a tributary of the Brahmaputra at Sanowa Khuwar Ghat, Kharjaanpaar after travelling for about an hour. The team travelled the 3 km stretch through fields as the usual roads to access the region were all cordoned off by the police. At yet another place, we had to cross over water to reach the place where thousands of men, women and children were forced to live as refugees in their own land.

My first memories of a refugee camp go back to Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, which shows the refugee camps after partition of India and yet again in 1988 when Govind Nihalani’s adaptation of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas was serialised on national television. I have witnessed people in Odisha hit by a Super Cyclone living in camps and also Muslim victims of the Gujarat communal carnage living in camps. The conditions I witnessed in present day Assam is far worse, with thousands of people having to live in inhospitable conditions without even proper tents in make-shift accommodations made with whatever they could salvage from the state’s attack. Absence of sanitation and health facilities in the times of the pandemic also accentuates the possibility of communicable diseases.

Why target only Muslims?

The absolute apathy of the BJP government paired with the chief minister’s repeated assertion that he does not require ‘Miya’ votes is appalling. Displaying extreme insensitivity, he justified the eviction of the farmers in the region, expressed happiness as well as complimented the district administration and Assam police “for having cleared about 4500 bigha, by evicting 800 households, demolishing four illegal religious structures and a private institution”. How can an elected representative be happy over the forcible eviction of thousands of people without any mutually agreed upon rehabilitation and resettlement plan? The entire eviction drive in the name of ‘illegal migrants’ is with an ulterior motive of communally polarising the state by pitting communities against one another. An elected representative sworn to the Constitution has no moral authority to continue with such a position.

Also watch: Why is Assam carrying out aggressive eviction drives

Nearly 1,170 families living and earning their livelihood in the region from agriculture and allied activities have now been forcibly evicted. Many settlers are reported to have come from lower Assam after being displaced due to erosion of land especially in Barpeta and Kamrup districts. Many poor peasant households had settled here after displacement due to floods in the Brahmaputra; their lands in the riverine area of Kirakara near the Darrang district Headquarters Mangaldoi had been washed away. Frequent floods and changing of course of the Brahmaputra has been a cause of erosion, the brunt of which many villages bear on a regular basis. Several thousand had been cultivating the land for over five decades now under different quasi-legal arrangements like Ekchona (annual cultivation rights or periodic patta on payment of a fine), Touji (ongoing process of granting permanent patta with payment of fine) and a small section under Myadi (with proper land rights documents). Small cultivators, agricultural labourers, daily-wage earners, fishers and artisans who have been settled in the region were living in complete harmony with people of nearby localities. The entire region where these families settled is the riverine area or a river island. In entire Assam it is reported that about 35 lakh people, predominantly Muslims live in Char areas as the river islands are called. Lakhs also live outside the riverine areas on government lands or forests as per the quasi-legal arrangements mentioned above.

Fifty-year-old Ainul Haque who has lived his entire life in the region said they were branded encroachers and illegal Bangladeshis of lands that have been living on for years together. He said the BJP regime flouted all standard operating procedures and laws to be followed in such cases. The armed police violently dealt with the protests by the residents and fired to kill, shooting above the waist. The bullet injuries on the dead as well as many others were all above the waist – including the stomach, chest and shoulder of some victims.

Hasna Banu, a 12-year-old girl, showed her hand fractured in the police attack which is yet to be plastered even a week after the incident. A bullet grazed 26-year-old Saddam a little below his chest and a 13-year-old Ashraful showed his shoulder swollen by two bullet injuries. Many of the injured are still in hospital. Our team also met the families of the two people who were killed in police firing – Moinul Haque, 32, and 12-year-old Sheikh Farid – to express our condolences. Moinul’s widow Mumtaz Begum with three little kids and his aged mother has no other source of income. Sheikh Farid’s parents were inconsolable; they claimed that he was shot dead when he was on way to complete formalities for his Aadhar card. A lakh each was given on behalf of AIKS to the families of the deceased. Some assistance was given to the families of the injured too.

Police fired to kill, destroyed houses, crops

Not only the beleaguered people were violently thrown out of their homes, their fields were rendered useless by the Assam police too, who razed their houses and crops to the ground. The hapless people witnessed their dwellings being bulldozed, their vehicles, water pumps being burnt and even food grains being destroyed. The residents alleged that all the tube wells were also uprooted so that people cannot use them to collect water.

Amir Sheikh, a senior citizen living in the region since 1975 alleged that they were not given proper notice by the government, neither even time to gather their belongings and were just forced to leave without any guarantee of rehabilitation or resettlement. A few received eviction notices by WhatsApp and he himself received the notice a full 45 minutes after his home was destroyed. The evicted people showed land documents, Aadhar cards, treasury payment receipts, ration cards which prove beyond doubt that they are all Indian citizens staying in the region for more than 50 years. People asked how the government set up 38 Anganwadis, 42 Sarva Shiksha lower primary schools, high schools, 6-bedded Char hospital, a Primary Health Centre (PHC) and two sub-centres in the region to cater to their needs if they were indeed illegal migrants. They said the medium of instruction in the schools in the area was Assamese. The administration also set up a camp for paramilitary forces and Assam police in the six-bedded Char Hospital. Due to the police camp at the Char Hospital, local people are deprived of health facilities.

The residents said the administration ploughed the area with tractors immediately after the eviction and closed all roads to the area where the evicted people are now staying. They even forcibly ploughed the land which falls outside of the boundary of proposed project area, they alleged.

Also read: 50 encounter cases in 5 months: Has Himanta taken a cue from Yogi

It is evident that the humanitarian concern to not brand farmers as encroachers and allow them to earn their livelihood by ensuring mutually agreed upon resettlement as well as rehabilitation including provision of cultivable land, was clearly lacking in the Assam government’s drive. The right of the Muslim peasantry to peacefully earn their livelihood in their own land is being denied. The earlier governments led by the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad which allowed them to stay did not ensure land rights and proper housing for them. Some of the evicted families said this was a lacuna that was exploited by the present BJP government to the hilt to execute their plan. There seems to be a sinister attempt to create communal polarisation in the region as specifically lands being cultivated by Muslim farmers have been targeted. In other tribal regions, people are also being evicted. This is part of a larger conspiracy to hand over farmers’ land to corporate companies.

The state has clearly abandoned its own citizens even as the rain still continue and residents of the area stare at a bitter winter ahead. It is the need of the hour for all democratic sections to stand with the peasantry in distress and provide relief. It is time to send a loud and clear message that the politics of hate will not be allowed to succeed. The struggle should continue till justice is done to those who have been uprooted from their own land. Darrang has the historic tradition of resistance to British imperialism and martyrdom of over 140 unarmed peasants in 1894 at Pothorughat against the increase in land tax. This legacy shall be taken forward to protect land rights of the peasantry.

(The author is a peasant activist and senior functionary of the All-India Kisan Sabha) 

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)