Evicted for an agricultural project in September 2021, thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslim farmers survive in squalid shelters today.
“What does the government want? Does it want to kill us or save us? The government said that it would give us land. Years have passed, but we have nothing,” said 60-year-old Azirun Nesa, breaking down as she narrated her struggle. Hers is one of the nearly 700 Bengali-speaking Muslim families that were forcibly evicted by authorities at Dhalpur in Assam’s Darrang district on September 20 and 23, 2021. They were all promised land in return.
On the second day of the eviction, the situation turned tense and the police opened fire on the protesters, killing two villagers and injuring 20 others. A cameraperson with the district office was filmed stomping on the bullet-ridden, lifeless body of 33-year-old Moinal Haque, a disturbing image that shocked the nation.
The BJP-led Assam government forcibly cleared 607 hectares of khas mati (government land) in the riverine char areas in order to set up the Gorukhuti Multipurpose Agricultural Project, a government farming project. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said then that the project would be an “example of Assamese pride”. Two years later, the project appears to have failed and thousands of homeless people continue to languish in squalid temporary shelters.
Did Assam government lie in court?
Located on the banks of the Brahmaputra, the land in question in Dhalpur is criss-crossed by rivers and rivulets, making it fertile and ideal for cultivation of paddy and vegetables, and a lot else. This is where, as per the official survey, at least 2,051 families lived and farmed. Some of them left voluntarily, trusting the government’s promise of compensatory land, while some 700 families resisted.
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Soon after the eviction, when student bodies like the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU) and political parties such as the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Congress demanded justice for the evictees, the government promised to give the displaced families compensation. After a meeting in January 2022, officials said that the families would be compensated with land.
In a letter dated February 14, 2022, Circle Officer of Sipajhar Revenue Circle wrote to Circle Officer of Dalgaon Revenue Circle stating that 2,051 families “who are encroaching in the Govt land in and around Dhalpur area under Sipajhar Revenue Circle” would be moved to a designated area under Dalgaon Revenue Circle. It was to be done in a phased manner from the next day, February 15. “1 bigha of Govt land per family may be allotted as per Govt rule in due course of time,” the letter said. (1 bigha = 0.25 hectare.)
This number, of 2,051 families being rehabilitated on 1 bigha of land, finds no mention in all the orders of Gauhati High Court in connection to the case filed after the firing. In its January 2023 judgment, the court observed that 600 families had been “already rehabilitated out of the approximately 700 families who were evicted”.
This was apparently what the Assam government told the court. Its claim of having rehabilitated 600 families can be contested on two grounds: those evicted in September 2021—around 800 families—still live in temporary shelters near the project area; and those who were resettled were part of the larger count of 2,051 families that left on the promise of land allotment by the district authorities.
On August 24 and 25, this writer spoke with the families of Haque and Sheikh Farid, the 12-year-old who was also killed in the firing. Sheikh Farid’s family was not evicted as they were residing nearly 500 metres from the eviction area. However, Haque’s evicted family have not received the promised compensatory land. Like many others, Haque’s wife and children live in tin and bamboo sheds along a nearly 3 km stretch that borders the Gorukhuti project area. As part of the greater riverine char area of the Brahmaputra, these shelters get flooded in the monsoon.
There are some like Subur Uddin, 33, who did receive land but only half a bigha. His family is among those the administration claims to have “rehabilitated” in Darrang’s Arimari. He has put up a house made of tin sheets and grows chillies in the portion that’s left over.
At this time of the year, Subur would usually be busy sowing kharif crops and vegetables. Now, with not enough land to till, he awaits the rest of the land as promised. As proof of his “resettlement” Subur has nothing but a paper with some basic details: land serial no, office serial no, name, signature of lat Mandal, and date.
“They have not given any documents for the land allotment; we only have tokens that bear our names,” he said. At least 10 families showed similar tokens but had no land. Counted as identified, they hold on to these tokens.
The Circle Officer of Sipajhar Revenue, Kamaljit Sarma, admits that the tokens do not have legal validity. “The token will only be helpful for the Dalgaon Circle Officer to identify the people who have been given a plot of land and if they are from the evicted area,” he said. He added that formal land registration would be done once the land was given to all the rehabilitated people.
An activist, who was part of the January 2022 meeting with district officials in which the decision to give land to the 2,051 families was taken, speaking on condition of anonymity, says: “The families [more than 1000 families] evicted on September 20 and 23 are still there,” and that data produced in court is “false” and the court is being “misled”.
Official figures of rehabilitation vary from office to office. Dalgaon Circle Officer Sameer Choudhury claimed that “859 families” were rehabilitated, with 168 families getting one bigha of land and the others half a bigha. Asked why some got only half a bigha, Choudhury said: “Due to shortage of land… so many families are there, we have to rehabilitate all. We cannot accommodate so many families.”
District Commissioner Munindra Nath Ngatey said the same thing. “Where to get land, how to get land to rehabilitate them,” he asked, claiming to have rehabilitated nearly 1,100 families, a count higher than Choudhury’s. Ngatey said that of those who were inside the Gorukhuti area, most of them have been rehabiliated. “But some of them, due to fear of eviction, they went to the other side of the river; there’s a small river connected to the Brahmaputra. So those people are yet to be rehabilitated. We even had a meeting with the Chief Minister and the MLA, and we are ready to rehabilitate them in this winter season,” said Ngatey. His claims do not match the government’s submission in court that 600 families were rehabilitated and only 100 families now remain.
Losing land to river erosion
Asir Uddin, a 65-year-old evicted farmer, stays in the temporary shelters in Dhalpur. Like many others, he too waits for the land he was promised. Asir’s family arrived in Dhalpur in 1985 from Barpeta district’s Solmari area, nearly 150 km from Dhalpur. He claimed that they had lost their entire 7.5 bighas of land to the river and had lived on government land in Dhalpur for the past 40 years before being evicted. During this time, Asir said, he had paid all taxes for the land and cultivation.
Several other families in the shelters also said they had paid taxes until 2014, but after that, the local revenue office stopped collecting the “khajna” tax (land revenue tax), according to another farmer, Abdul Malik.
Like Asir Uddin, at least 20 people this writer spoke to were either landless or had lost their land to river erosion. In his public interest litigation (PIL) petition, Congress leader Debabrata Saikia told the Gauhati High Court that the “people evicted from Dhalpur belong to marginalised and socio-economically backward sections who had migrated due to frequent floods and erosion”.
The Assam government has, in fact, accepted that the State has seen a major loss of land due to river erosion. The State government’s report, published on its Water Resources website, states that “bank erosion by the rivers has been a serious issue since last six decades as more than 4.27 lakh hectares of land was already eroded away by the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries since 1950, which is 7.4% of area of the State”. The report said the annual average loss of land was nearly 8,000 hectares and the width of the Brahmaputra was 15 km at places due to bank erosion.
The 15th Finance Commission’s report for 2020-21 included coastal and river erosion as a natural calamity in the government relief manual and recommended rehabilitation and resettlement. This has not been implemented yet. As with the Darrang evictees, other victims of eviction drives in different districts such as Hojai, Sonitpur, and Barpeta are those who lost their land to river erosion and have not been compensated so far.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher and postdoctoral scholar at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, alleged that the government is not doing its duty. “The government doesn’t take appropriate action to rehabilitate them [victims of erosion] when they get displaced. They are forced to settle on government land. Then the government uses hostile policies to evict them,” said Azad. According to Azad, rehabilitation happens only through sustained legal and political activism, which the Miya [Bengali-speaking Muslim community] pursues.
The failed Gorukhuti project
Questions have been raised about the viability of Gorukhuti Multipurpose Agriculture Project, which was projected as a model farming project.
In March 2023, Assam’s Agriculture Minister Atul Bora informed the State Assembly that the earnings from the project were Rs. 1.51 crore. An allocation of Rs. 16.1 crore was made into it over two years. In the 2021-22 budget, the State had allocated Rs. 9.6 crore. Its aim was to implement modern farming techniques and scientific animal-rearing practices in the 77,420 bighas of land at Gorukhuti. The project saw cows and calves being flown down from Gir in Gujarat. “Gorukhuti is a dream project of the Chief Minister,” Bora told the Assembly.
When Aminul Islam, the AIUDF MLA from Dhing constituency, asked for details of investment, production and earnings, Sarma informed the Assembly that “over 5,000 bighas of land at Gorukhuti was turned into agricultural fields, of which 2,731 bighas were used for mustard cultivation.”
But, as Islam pointed out, “their own data show that nearly Rs.10 crore was invested and it could not even earn Rs.2 crore. It is a complete failure.”
In contrast, the Miya community had the experience of farming in harsh conditions, of fighting floods and producing crops. They produced vegetables in substantial amounts and ran a thriving business. According to Islam, for over six decades the vegetable markets in the greater Guwahati region used to be full of vegetables grown by the farmers in Dhalpur and nearby areas.
Abdul Malik, 62, one of the evictees, used to grow vegetables on 10 bighas of land. He used to save somewhere between Rs.20,000-50,000 each year. “Now things are the reverse,” said Malik. “Some of us buy vegetables from Kharupetia [a nearby town] and sell them here. We are sitting idle.”
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Given the failure of the project, Islam sees a communal agenda at work. “The government evicted the families for religious reasons,” he said. Shahjahan Ali, 38, said that the evictees were told they could work in the new government farm, but none of them was hired. “They evicted us and did not include us in the project either. Even Darrang ADC Pankaj [Deka] had said we would work on the project,” said Ali. He said that the land where they once grew vegetables lies “unused” and is “full of grass and jungle”.
Asked if there was a communal motive behind the eviction and the subsequent failure to employ the evicted Muslims in the project, Ngatey declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Mamata Begum, the wife of Moinal Haque, still awaits justice for her husband’s killing, as she struggles to feed her three children. And Amir Hussain, brother of the 12-year-old boy who was killed in the police firing, has not even been given his brother’s post-mortem report.
Mahmodul Hassan is a journalist based in Assam who writes on human rights, social justice, and policy issues. This article was supported by Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.