Abdul Goni (46) sits quietly amidst his ravaged home. He recounts slowly that it was his father Yakub Ali who moved from Barpeta’s Jonia constituency in the 1970s to escape a poverty ridden life. His family then moved to Puthimari village in Mongoldoi. But in 2004 they lost their home and land to river erosion. Later, they moved to Kuruwa where Goni bought 3.5 bighas of land in Gandhia Pathar from one Madan Das. But today Goni’s home along with his harvested agricultural land has been completely destroyed. Abdul Goni’s story is similar to many others who lost their homes in the latest eviction drive in Sipajhar.
This time the drive followed the murder of Ananda Das. On 21st November, Ananda Das disappeared. And his dead body was found by the police under suspicious circumstances on 23rd November in Kuruwa village. While police arrested two suspicious persons for interrogation, public went into a rampage and burnt a few homes in the village. That very night miscreants started rumor mongering that suspicious immigrants living in Gondhia Pathar are responsible for the murder and they should be immediately evicted. The police also made announcements and the very next day, i.e on 24th November, almost 60 homes were destroyed.
One thing should be kept in mind – the problem started with the murder of Ananda Das. But soon enough nobody waited for due process of law to find the real culprit who murdered Ananda Das. Instead an entire village was held responsible for the murder. Very soon the issue was no more the murder of a person but the need to remove illegal encroachers who as certain news channels declared are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This latest drive left a large number of people without a roof on their head.
Eviction which started last year and left a trail of homeless people without any compensation and rehabilitation did not end with Sipajhar. Three days later, eviction for the second time was carried out in the Amchang reserve forest which witnessed the displacement of indigenous tribal population who was forced to move to this place because of river erosion. Most of the settlers here are from the Bodo and Mising community who moved from flood prone districts like Lakhimpur, Dhemaji and Majuli after losing their lands to erosion.
Witnessing the demolition of their homes, many settlers got into a skirmish with the officials of forest department. To control the situation, officials used tear gas shells. This left around five people injured. The entire episode unfolded tragic events of young men lamenting the absence of land and livelihood and threatening to join underground outfits if government don’t provide an alternative, school children coming back from writing exams to demolished homes. The eviction in Sipajhar and Amchang left a large number of people helpless against the cold winter.
There is a narrative being constructed around the entire eviction process. Illegal immigrants are taking over land of the indigenous people and hence torching their homes somehow stands justified. Government has conveniently turned a blind eye to such gross violation of law and order. People are going scot free even after burning down houses of people. But indigenous tribes being evicted for allegedly disturbing wild life do not fit into this narrative. Also as many have pointed out technicalities of a reserved forest area has been sidelined by allowing cement factories, resorts, army firing range to be constructed in the area. However these constructions were not seen as encroaching forest land. It was the tribal population who has peacefully cohabited with nature for ages and sustained the environment seen as encroachers and threats.
Coming to Sipajhar, the bogey of illegal Bangladeshi was used as a stick against the inhabitants of Kuruwa village who were mostly Muslims of East Bengal origin or Miya Muslims. However a household survey carried out by some social activists showed that all these people have voters’ card and other documents to prove their citizenship. They also have documents to show that they have bought their land from local people. These people were cheated and exploited on multiple levels. After losing land to river erosion, they moved to a newer place. But here also local people illegally sold government land to them. Left with no other option, they paid their hard earned money for land which legally cannot be bought and sold!!
But government seems hell bent to only evict these poor people to satisfy the chauvinism of certain groups. There is no attempt to nab at this illegal business of selling and buying government land. All these people have been forced to settle on government land because of erosion. But government is yet to declare any compensation for these people – even declarations of compensation which were made under public pressure are mired in communal tones.
Evictions carried out like this raises certain questions. While the government gave large tracts of land on lease to corporate houses like Patanjali and other industries, why cannot government resettle the evicted families? Guwahati is no doubt coming up as an industrial hub. But it remains a reality that the state loses large tracts of land on an annual basis. As such there is already a scarcity of land. The inhuman eviction being carried out should be seen in the light of the government’s larger policies. Is it a ploy to easily grab land and make it available to corporate sectors while the common people go landless?
These are questions that must be put forth in front of a government which came to power in the name of Jati, Mati and Bheti. Land reforms have not been completely implemented in India. There was no land redistribution. As such a large number of landless people continue to struggle for sustenance. Others have lost land to flood and river erosion. In such a scenario while government should have stepped in to provide relief to the victims of natural calamities, they are seen selectively stripping people of their right to a dignified life in the garb of legality and technicalities. In a democracy, popular power rests in the hands of the people. But in Assam right now it is these people languishing in the margins because of some anti people policies.
(With inputs from Ashraful Hussain)