COVER STORY: ASSAM

Assam discord

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Villagers protest against an eviction drive in Assam’s Darrang district on September 23. The administration reportedly caried out the drive to remove encroachers from government land. Photo: PTI

Jaban Ali, whose face was smashed in police brutality in Dhalpur village on September 23. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

The remains of a demolished village. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

A village struggles amidst ruins. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

After the demolition of houses during an eviction drive in Darrang district, on September 24. Photo: PTI

The site of the police firing. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

Shorif Uddin, a victim of police violence. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

The widow and children of Moinul Haque, who was gunned down by the police. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

Moinul Haque’s parents. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

Rebuilding their lives after the demolition. Photo: Courtesy cjp.org.in

The BJP-led government’s latest eviction of ‘encroachers’ exposes its ominous intention of targeting Muslims with systematic violence as a precursor to disenfranchising and excluding them.

THE GLEEFUL STOMPING OF THE BODY OF 28-year-old Moinul (Maynal) Haque, who had already fallen to police bullets, by photographer Bijoy Bania, epitomises the depth of hate and violence unleashed, yet again, in Assam. Bania had accompanied a heavily armed police and administrative force to Dhalpur village in Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district on September 23, where villagers, who had cultivated the fields there for over four decades, had been served “eviction” notices at 10 p.m. the previous night, that too by WhatsApp.

Hate-driven targeted violence is politically widespread and not new to a State where sections of people use racial slurs like Geda or Ali, or Miyan [for Muslims], Coolie [for Biharis], Bongal [for Bengalis], and ‘naak sepeta’ [blunt-nosed] for Nepalis. However, rational voices from the citizenry always speak out against such verbal affronts. Time, place and context determine which slur rises in the political popularity stakes. In this context, the singling out of the Muslim is politically all-pervasive and therefore, much more effective.

The most recent assault was with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma himself at the forefront. He has also made brazen attempts to communalise the situation. The subtext of the overall eviction drive narrative of “clearing land around a Shiva temple” (interview with the wife of the late temple priest, Parbati Das on page 17) was built up by Himanta Biswa Sarma and his fellow Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders against the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Darrang, probably because the regime failed, despite its relentless efforts, to exclude enough number of Muslims from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Also read: Migrants and beyond in Assam

The regime brazenly flouted standard operating procedures (SOPs) and laws in controlling crowds and handling protests. As a result, beleaguered populations were violently thrown out of their homes, brutally attacked and gunned down, with bullets hitting the stomach and chest of some of the victims. In the case of the evictions that began on September 20, people were not given proper prior notice, which would have allowed them to at least gather their belongings and vacate their homes with dignity. WhatsApp messages sent at midnight were followed by the arrival of a demolition crew of the district administration the next day, along with armed police personnel, to evict the families.

Despite the national and international outrage over the killings, the Chief Minister remains unrepentant. Moreover, he has said that as part of a rehabilitation package, the government will give each evicted family six bighas of land (a bigha is 14,400 square feet), but only to ‘eligible’ families, creating an insidious divide, with people being labelled as either “encroachers” or “indigenous”.

Nellie massacre

It was in the late 1970s that a political movement that began in the name of language created special words within that language to connote racial and ethnic profiling. Not many in the rest of the nation may remember post-Independent India’s first full-blown state-inflicted carnage at Nellie in Assam.

Born in the late 1970s as a mobilisation of students from the more dominant sections of society, it morphed into an articulation, often brutal and violent, against “outsiders”.

That large sections of these “outsiders” were also toilers and cultivators of three generations, who were brought in by the colonial government to promote cultivation, and who had deep roots in the soil of modern-day Assam, could not be rationally discussed or debated as the monotone of popular street-level politics has no space for nuances or even history. The period also coincided with post-Emergency India and the emergence, as a ‘respectable’ political force, of the Jana Sangh, backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was also making its presence and ideology felt in the region. No wonder then that the ‘outsider’ turned into ‘foreigner’ and then further into ‘illegal immigrant’, and now ‘ghuspetia’ (infiltrator).

On February 18, 1983, with elections around the corner, which were opposed by a significant chunk of the dominant section of Assamese society, and as allegations of “false voter lists” were building into a hysterical crescendo, a full-blown massacre of at least 2,200 Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants in Nellie and 14 surrounding villages took place within a span of six hours.

These peasants hailed from Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Dongabori, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Muladhari, Mati Parbat no. 8, Silbheta, Borburi, and Nellie of central Assam in Nagaon district. Unofficial figures of the number of massacre victims are three times higher.
Also read: Northeast India and the unfinished business of Partition

The report of the officially appointed Tiwari Commission, which was presented to the Congress government led by Hiteshwar Saikia in 1984, has never been made public. Although “news” of the killings was shunned by the government-owned All India Radio, people in Assam and the rest of India learned of what was being done to Bengali-speaking Muslims from the reports of the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) and the Bengali service of the Voice of America. Later, photographs were released in the print media of dead children lying in rows awaiting a death count.The families of the dead were paid as little as Rs.5,000 each in compensation. The victims did not get any justice as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), formed after the All Assam Students’ Union and the Government of India signed the historic Assam Accord, “dropped” 310 of the 688 cases in which charge sheets were filed.

Attacks all around

Assam has, over decades, seen serial bouts of intra-ethnic violence, often ferociously ranged against some smaller ethnic groups which may also be equally dispossessed. The 1993 Bodo accord, opposed by many progressive sections at the time, gave the Bodos autonomous control over regions where their population was in a majority. The critiques of the accord were proved right when Bengali Muslims were driven out of their settlements through violent attacks and torching of their homes in 1993. Three years later, the Santhal and Munda tribals (called Adivasis), many of whom are descendants of tea garden labourers brought in by the British two centuries ago, faced the same ethnic cleansing. Years later, many continue to languish in camps, still terrified to return home.

Assam has also seen attacks on Bihari migrant labour and Jharkhandi agitators in Guwahati, with explosive echoes of the Bodo-Bengali Muslim violence revisiting the region again and again.

The Nellie massacre brought the Assam movement to a halt close to three decades ago. Will the state-inflicted brutality of forced evictions unleashed on September 23 in Darrang also come to a stop? Put differently, or more fundamentally, can forced evictions be conducted as per the whims, fancies or even political agendas of those in power? The official data on internal displacement and migration within Assam is telling. According to the 2011 Census data, 54 per cent of people have migrated internally within the State since their birth. Until 2001, the government of India maintained data on ‘environmentally motivated migrations’ as the reason for population movement. However, this category was not included in the 2011 migration data.

Many academics working in the region consider flood disasters, livelihood insecurity, and land erosion to be the primary reason for internal migrations. Their studies, especially on river-bank erosion, which put the total land erosion at 7-8 per cent since 1951, are in sync with the livelihood security studies carried out by the National Disaster Management Authority.

Assam is also frequently affected by floods. The Economic Survey 2011-12 of Assam said that around 2,034 villages have borne the brunt of river erosion, which, as per independent estimates, had left more than 25 lakh people internally displaced. Most of these people settled down on sand banks and make a living as small cultivators and daily wage labourers. They cannot be expected to produce land documents.

Fragility of existence marks the life of large sections of the population, especially those living in the char riverine areas, who now run the risk of denial of citizenship (statelessness) and enforced displacement and penury.
Also read: Subverting an Accord

Today, the exclusivist and ominous political narrative in force puts everyone migrating for survival at the risk of being labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ and seeks to disenfranchise at-risk communities from the social safety net. Once politically disenfranchised, those displaced by floods and erosion will no longer be able to assert their right to either compensation or rehabilitation.

Assam is a State where at a least a third of the people have been reeling under the burden of the citizenship test for several decades. It is also one among two of the seven States in the northeastern region that is not predominantly tribal Christian and one that has suffered from a unique brand of internal conflict and targeted violence going back decades. This violence has typically followed years or decades of publicly spawned hate and derogatory imagery, especially against the Bengali-speaking toiling Muslim, although the Hindu who speaks that language is not much liked either.

History of migration

Assam, like Punjab and Bengal, was also partitioned in 1947, when, after a referendum, Sylhet district was transferred from Assam to Pakistan. Before that, for two centuries, colonial migration had taken place from Bengal to Assam fuelled by a hunger for land. Thereafter, in 1947 and again in 1971, fresh migrations did take place—from an area that later became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. However, migration started from the wider Bengal presidency area to present-day Assam in the mid-19th century.

The British encouraged Bengali Muslim farmers to migrate to uncultivated stretches of the Brahmaputra Valley, after several districts of East Bengal reached the limits of cultivation. From 1836 to 1872, the colonial government imposed Bengali on Assam as the state language, when Assam was part of the Bengal Presidency, once the largest subdivision of British-ruled India. It was a colonial manoeuvre for administrative ease, but the Bengalis were thereafter blamed for what was seen as ‘cultural hegemony’. That sentiment has festered and has been palpable ever since.

There was also large-scale migration after the Partition of Bengal in 1905. In the 1931 Census, the Census Superintendent recorded that more than half a million people had migrated. Radhakamal Mukherjee, the social scientist, wrote in his book, The Changing Face of Bengal, that between 1900 and 1930, at least one million Bengali peasants moved to Assam and brought new land under cultivation.

A study of the economic history of the period tells us that these peasants, many of them Muslim, worked very hard and brought previously uncultivated lands under cultivation. The British adopted the ‘Line System’ in 1920 in the districts of Kamrup and Nowgong to stop Bengali Muslim immigrants from acquiring certain areas. In 1928, the regime came out with a ‘colonisation scheme’ that allowed immigrants to settle in large areas of Nowgong district. These are proof of the scale of immigration, pre-Partition.
Also read: Assam's anxiety

Post-Partition politics and the sentiment that accompanied the vivisection engulfed India across the North and the West in particular, but Assam was also affected by echoes of this sentiment. However, the resentment against migrants was prevalent in Assam years before that. India’s first President Rajendra Prasad, who toured upper Assam immediately after the 41st session of the Congress held in Guwahati in 1926, noted in his autobiography that the resentment against migrants from Mymensingh (later East Pakistan) to Nowgong was strong, despite their being successful cultivators, because of their being Muslim, a sentiment not harboured against, say, Biharis. (Autobiography, Rajendra Prasad, Penguin India, pages 252-253). The itinerant population influx or increase fed into both the insecurities and the parochialisms in the region. Assam was not free of the communalism that afflicted large parts of the sub-continent.

Rendering citizens stateless

With significant sections of the population still reeling under the potential threat of statelessness, recent moves by the State government to unleash a series of forced evictions are clearly one more attempt to use state policy—however fundamentally unconstitutional and unlawful it is—to render, potentially, close to 1.3 crore Assamese citizens displaced, homeless and without livelihood.

The basis for this forced eviction drive is a Central government committee report (Brahma Committee, 2018) and the Assam Land Policy, 2019; the former uses extrapolations without statistics, again, to fan the fear and hysteria around the “influx of terrorist-minded illegal Bangladeshis”.

Despite 1.2 crore Assamese being excluded from the draft list of the NRC of December 2018, only 19 lakh have been excluded after the Claims and Objections process from the final NRC of August 2019. They still await ‘reasons for their rejection’, after which a tortuous process of legal challenge, onerous and expensive, will begin.

But even before that has begun, 27 lakh persons have been denied the all-important Aadhaar card by the Narendra Modi- led Central government, rendering their everyday existence a nightmare.

Besides those Assamese excluded from the NRC, another 1,13,000 and 1,17,000 people respectively have been labelled as ‘Doubtful Voters’ (D-Voters) or ‘Declared Foreigners’ by lower-level officials of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Assam Border Police respectively.

Assam, whose total population is estimated to be 3.4 crore as of 2021, has, through state policy and targeting, already rendered a significant section of its population and their families stateless and with a sword hanging over their heads. Dissatisfied with the relatively ‘smaller’ number of NRC exclusions, which put a dampener on the histrionics behind the ‘millions of illegal immigrants’ propaganda, the powers that be will decide on who is eligible for access to and ownership of land using the controversial labelling of who or who is not indigenous, possibly leading to mass displacement if not genocide.
Also read: Assam's anger

Evictions disproportionately target Bengali-speaking population (both Hindus and Muslims). Is this an attempt at ethnic cleansing via forced displacement?

After two people, including a 12-year-old boy, were shot dead in police firing on people protesting forced evictions in Dholpur (Dhalpur) in Darrang district on September 23, it is time to take a hard look at how many such evictions have been carried out (see box), who has been displaced and how many evicted families, if any, have been relocated or rehabilitated. The government intends to start a massive agro project named Gorukhuti on these lands.

Land policy

If the Assam Accord resulted in the skewed process of enumeration of the NRC, a process that, due to judicial indifference and bureaucratic corruption and callousness, has perverted whatever noble intentions it began with, today it is the 2018 Brahma Committee report followed by the 2019 Assam Land Policy that have become the tools that enable a government, police and administration to literally turn upon their own people.

In October 2019, the newly enacted Land Policy of the State government, which replaced the 1989 Assam Land Policy, promised to give three bighas (43,200 sq ft) of agricultural land to landless ‘indigenous’ people apart from half a bigha for constructing a house. While cleverly omitting any attempt to define the term ‘indigenous’, the new land policy document stated that it was based on the recommendations of the ‘Committee for Protection of Land Rights of the Indigenous People of Assam’ headed by former Chief Election Commissioner Harishankar Brahma, the ‘Land Policy of 1989’, and the draft ‘Land Policy of 2016’. It was prepared by officials of the Revenue and Disaster Management Department in consultation with senior officials of the office of the then Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal.

The very issue of who is and who is not indigenous is not just complicated, but highly contested. In Assam, this is particularly so, courtesy its diverse population and many waves of migration. Many parts of what is now Assam were previously part of other provinces with significantly different cultural allegiances, and even the Bengali spoken in vast expanses of the State is unique, with regional dialects and versions that cannot be understood by the bhadralok in Kolkata. On this history and foundation, enter post-2014 India and 2016 Assam realities.

Today, a brutally majoritarian and hegemonistic political force, run through the narrow supremacist lens of the RSS, impacts even more perversely this potentially explosive political situation. It is in this scenario that the Brahma Committee report and the 2019 Land Policy need to be located.

Brahma Committee report

The seven-member Brahma Committee was set up with clear terms of reference to look at the State’s land policy and “for ensuring protection of land rights of indigenous people in the State of Assam”.

Although it was not required to define who is indigenous and who is not and was only mandated to suggest changes and modifications in the State’s land policy, the panel clearly exceeded its brief by arriving at its own controversial definition.

Rejecting established, previous definitions (from the 1951 Census report and constitutional provisions), the committee said that an indigenous Assamese person had to have lived in the State for “several generations” and should belong to an “ancient tribe/ethnic clan” that “originated” in Assam.

In its report, which, it has been argued, is in contravention to the opinion of the State government’s Home and the Land and Revenue Department, the committee rejected the 1951 Census report’s definition of an ‘indigenous person’, which stated that anyone ‘belonging to the State of Assam’ and speaking any of the languages and dialects spoken in the State was to be called indigenous.

By that definition, any landless permanent resident of Assam should have the right to own land. The Constitution contains no definition of who is indigenous and who is not, although special provisions have been made under Schedules V, VI and IX to protect regions and lands where Scheduled Tribes live.
Also read: Contentious nation-wide NRC plans

The report, seemingly driven by hyperbole, said that any (indigenous) person should be “determined to save his ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity” and “believe that his culture, language and identity is different from those of others inhabiting his land”, among others.

The panel also said that any person from any other State of India who speaks the language of the “State of his origin” and has “retained his original culture cannot be called an indigenous person of Assam”.

In a clear case of policy overreach, it also said: “Mere possession by way of encroachment shall not be a criteria for entitlement to get allotment/settlement of Government land.” (Clause 1.14.)

This is not just very complicated but arguably unlawful, given evolving interpretations over the ownership, possession and cultivation rights, rights of cultivators and the tribes over their lands that are often regarded as “commons”, lands that typically governments consider that they “own”.

Finally, the committee concluded that the transfer of agricultural land should be restricted to people ‘indigenous’ to the State, for “ensuring the protection of land rights of indigenous people”.

Significantly, the Assam Home Department had, in opposition to this conclusion, actually suggested in 2017-18 that the NRC of 1951 may be considered as the basis for determining indigenous people who figured in that document irrespective of caste, community, and religion.

But no, the freshly refined tool of ‘indigenous’ is now used as the new arsenal of the administration, clearly with the aim of targeting a significant section of the population, already demonised and targeted for decades.

There is also a more specific target.

Attacking Muslims of chars

Large sections of the 184-page Brahma Committee report (that was submitted in two versions to the State government, given some differences of opinion among members) deal with the riverine area of the chars, the Bengali Muslim-dominated shifting sand bars of the Brahmaputra river.

The report said: “As has been mentioned above, all the chars—be they new or old—are in the total clutch of the land-grabbing illegal Bangladeshis wandering from place to place like the birds of passages in search of greener pastures, which includes new areas beyond the chars for encroachment.” The cleared land, it added, should be allotted to “indigenous people” or kept vacant for “environmental purposes”.

There is an ominous and unlawful observation and recommendation too. It said: “Illegal Bangladeshis who are estimated to comprise a substantial chunk should be shifted to the detention camp for their necessary deportation in due course and the lands to fall vacant should be either settled with the landless indigenous people for cultivation, well protected by security forces, in order to check re-encroachment and possible law and order problems; or should be retained vacant for environmental reasons” (page 73, Clause 1.11).

Instead of dealing with its original mandate, the committee report clearly attempted to become a justification for the regime’s illegitimate dis-housing and disenfranchisement of a legitimate local population.

Close to 35 lakh people live in the char areas, 95 per cent of whom are Muslim. They do not have land pattas (legal documents over the land) as their land often gets partially or fully submerged by the river.

There are another 35 lakh Muslims living in areas outside the riverine areas but on government lands, periodic patta land or grazier (grazing) and forest lands. The population is engaged in marginal farming and fishing and leads a hand-to-mouth existence.

Apart from Assam’s Muslims, Bengali Hindus, who have been exclusively kept out of the preview of definition of ‘indigenous peoples’ in Assam, are also acutely vulnerable today. Almost 60 lakh Bengali Hindus, living in various refugee colonies established on grazing land, the tribal belt and blocks of the State, stand to face eviction.

Two successive BJP governments in the State have, on the basis of the faulty foundation laid by the Brahma Committee report, forcibly seized cultivable land tilled for generations by the Bengali-speaking peoples, and in some cases even the Rajbongshis and other tribes in Assam. This is clearly yet another attack on the Bengali-speaking population, who are also residents of the geographical area of Assam since at least the early- to mid-1800s.

The implementation of the Brahma Committee’s recommendations, along with the controversial 2019 Land Policy, can potentially disenfranchise about 70 lakh Assamese Muslims and 60 lakh Bengali-speaking Hindus from the riverine, grazing and forest areas of the State. If the implementation of these policies continues, a staggering 1.3 crore people of the State stand to be denied basic human rights, the right to life, equality before the law and the right to live without being discriminated against. Finally, the land policy that discriminates on the basis of caste, ethnicity, and language is against Articles 15, 14, and 21. To worsen the situation, in July 2021, the newly-

anointed Chief Minister announced the creation of the new Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture to address the concerns of the State’s indigenous communities, including some and excluding others.

While referring to tribes such as the Rabha, Boro, Mising, Moran and Matak in terms of their “rich heritage”, he singled out the Moran and Matak, excluding the Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia and Tea Tribes. The issue is also linked to the unfulfilled electoral promise by the BJP (in two consecutive election manifestos) to give them Scheduled Tribe status, which will ensure certain specific social welfare benefits and also bring them under the 2006 Forest Rights Act, an entitlement to land and recognition of rights law.

Under the garb of providing protection to a section of Assam’s indigenous people (which section it is still unclear), what the 2019 Land Policy backed by the Brahma Committee report does is deliberately leave out certain specific communities.

This is being done on the basis of personal or “immutable” characteristics. The individual faith or tribe which a person is born into or located in is at the heart of individual autonomy and personal self-determination. The policy is a disadvantage to families as it acts on the basis of their personal characteristics, which they are in no position to either change or modify.
Also read: 'Assam is for Indians'

Not only does this seminally violate Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, it is ultra vires or contrary to emerging fundamental rights jurisprudence, such as the famed Navtej Johar vs Union of India (2018) case. In the case, the Supreme Court stated in paragraph 27: “….that Article 14 contains a powerful statement of values—of the substance of equality before the law and the equal protection of laws. To reduce it to a formal exercise of classification may miss the true value of equality as a safeguard against arbitrariness in state action. As our constitutional jurisprudence has evolved towards recognising the substantive content of liberty and equality, the core of Article 14 has emerged out of the shadows of classification. Article 14 has a substantive content on which, together with liberty and dignity, the edifice of the Constitution is built. Simply put, in that avatar, it reflects the quest for ensuring fair treatment of the individual in every aspect of human endeavour and in every facet of human existence.”

For the essence of this mandate to have meaning for the beleaguered and targeted sections in Assam, constitutional values and their evolving and rich essence need to permeate down through applied state policy. What we see today is a bitter contrarian policy where a 21st century avatar of the state uses brute force to first violently kill its targets, and then disenfranchise and exclude them.

Teesta Setalvad is a journalist and rights activist and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (www.cjp.org.in).

(The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of the www.cjp.org.in team of fieldworkers, legal researchers and writers, without which this work would not have been possible.)

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