On a September morning, Waqil Hussain sits on the bank of a small stream of the Brahmaputra river. It’s a scorcher of a day and the gentle breeze fails to bring relief to the 18-year-old who rests under a tree, consumed by the news on Assamese news channels playing on his smartphone as he tries to make sense of the events of the past week. Hussain, a carpenter’s assistant, is among the many in Dholpur village in the Sipajhar area of Assam’s Darrang district who lost their homes in an eviction drive started by the state government on September 20.
Dholpur, a sandbar sandwiched between two streams of the Brahmaputra, lies 70 km northeast of Guwahati. Hussain’s home was just 100 metres away from where he sits now. And though he and his fellow villagers are, as instructed, camping in temporary tin structures just across the stream, the teenager often crosses over to spend time near his lost “home”. There was little resistance from Dholpur’s residents at the time of eviction, which is why Hussain scours the news, desperate to understand what went wrong on September 23—the fourth day of the eviction—when the police opened fire, killing two villagers, including a 12-year-old boy.
Hussain is not alone. As a shocking video of policemen and a government-appointed photographer mercilessly thrashing a man after he was shot down went viral, the nation took to social media in outrage. The man, Moinul Haque, refusing to comply with the eviction orders, had charged at the group of policemen with a bamboo stick. The police not only shot him, but continued to kick him even while his corpse was being dragged away.
Critics have deemed it a reflection of a systemic religious persecution initiated by the chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government—the Dholpur evictees were Bangla-speaking Muslims of immigrant origin. The government, though, has alleged involvement of third parties, including the Popular Front of India (PFI), a controversial militant Muslim organisation, in instigating locals and derailing the eviction process. The truth, however, lies in the complex history of land encroachment in Assam, further complicated by illegal immigration and erosion by rivers.
A History Of Encroachment
According to the state government, 6,652 sq. km (double the size of Goa) of government land and 22 per cent or 3,878.8 sq. km (almost three times the size of Delhi) of Assam’s total forest land of 17,393 sq. km is under encroachment. Assam’s problem of land encroachment has become a political issue since it is often intertwined with the matter of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. In fact, Assam’s six-year-long agitation against illegal immigration was triggered by the detection of 45,000 illegal names in the electoral rolls of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency where Dholpur, the epicentre of the current conflict, is located. The agitation had ended in 1985 with the Assam Accord, which stated that those who had come to Assam from Bangladesh before 1971 would be considered legal Indian citizens. Though many of these Bangla-speaking immigrants have lived in Assam for generations, the widely held perception across the state is that encroachment in Assam has been driven by post-1971 immigrants. This perception got an official stamp in 2017, when an interim report of a six-member committee for the protection of land rights of Assam’s indigenous people stated that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants dominated in as many as 15 of the state’s 33 districts. ‘Illegal Bangladeshis descend on the land like an army of marauding invaders…set up illegal villages, mostly on the char lands overnight…with the tacit, if not active, connivance and encouragement of corrupt government officers as also with abetment of communal political leaders,’ read the report. It added that the identity of as many as 18 Satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) was under threat following large-scale encroachment by illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Even the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 2019 failed to resolve the issue. “That all encroachers are illegal immigrants is a flawed notion,” says Akhil Ranjan Dutta, head of the political science department at Gauhati University. “However, encroachment is a reality and all necessary action should be taken with a humanitarian and pragmatic approach.”
When INDIA TODAY visited Dholpur, several evictees flaunted their Aadhaar and voter ID cards as proof of permanent residency, but admitted that some of them had been excluded from the NRC. Others whipped out land documents claiming they had bought land and paid revenue taxes, but the papers were actually of penalties imposed by the administration for illegally using government-owned professional grazing reserves (PGR), where they have settled. “I don’t understand these official documents. All I can say is that I bought land in Dholpur for Rs 10,000 in 2005,” says Ashraf, 55. The daily wage earner claims to have migrated from Aparia, a sandbar 10 km away.
While most immigrants often settle in sandbars alongside rivers, what complicates the issue further is that they often lose their land to erosion and floods and shift elsewhere. As per government records, Assam has lost 4,200 sq. km of land to erosion since Independence.
Assam’s land encroachment has become a political issue since it is often intertwined with illegal immigration
The occupation of grazing land led several dairy cooperative societies to complain. When an RTI response found that state-owned village grazing reserve (VGR) and PGR over 77,420 bigha, located in the villages of Phuhuratoli, Dholpur, Kuruwa, Kholihoi and Baznapathar under Sipajhar revenue circle, had been encroached upon, indigenous inhabitants, mostly Assamese-speaking Hindus, Muslims and Nepalis, were enraged. Two years later, Kobad Ali, president, Dakhsin Mangaldai Gowala Santha, an organisation of milk producers, filed a case in the Mangaldai district court seeking eviction of the illegal occupants. Similarly, in 2019, the Dakshin Kamrup Siyalmara Dugdha Samabay Committee, a cooperative body of dairy farmers, complained that illegal settlers had encroached upon 900 bigha of land in Mohmardiya char, under Kamrup district’s Palashbari revenue circle. A government probe found that around 400 bigha of PGR land was under illegal cultivation by encroachers.
Locals have also complained of increased criminal activities because of encroachers. In 2017, the murder of Ananda Das of Kuruwa village near Dholpur by suspected encroachers led to the eviction of 60 families. Another person, Lalit Das, from the same village, went missing in 2020. “We lost grazing lands. They steal our buffaloes. Our daughters cannot move around freely for fear of abduction and sexual assault by encroachers,” says Jeherul Islam, 52, a dairy farmer in Sanowa village, adjacent to Dholpur.
Assam recorded 26 cases of gangrape and murders in 2020 (the third highest in the country) and police sources claim that all 26 cases happened in districts with an unusually high growth rate of Muslims. Over 95 per cent of Assam’s Muslim population is of immigrant origin and most live in abject poverty and on the margins of society. “Socio-economic backwardness, coupled with external factors like political patronage, breed criminality in certain areas populated by Muslims of immigrant origin,” says Dr Joyanta Borbora, professor of sociology in Dibrugarh University, who specialises in criminology. “The solution is not just in legal action but in providing development and creating an atmosphere of assimilation.”
Dholpur falls in Darrang district, one of the nine Muslim majority districts in Assam that have shown a higher annual population growth than the state’s average 1.7 per cent. High population growth and erosion have not only trapped them in a vicious cycle of poverty but also resulted in a hunger for land, often targeting forest areas and vacant land of religious institutions. This breeds conflict with the natives. For instance, the 2012 ethnic violence in Kokrajhar, which killed nearly 100 people, was triggered by an attempt to use a reserved forest as graveyard, which the Bodo tribal people resented.
In 2012, a PIL was filed demanding the eviction of “illegal immigrants” from Kaziranga. There was also a demand to free the land belonging to the Batadrava than (Vaishnavite monastery) in Nagaon, the birthplace of Srimanta Sankardeva, the 16th century ascetic of religious, cultural and social significance to the Assamese. However, the previous governments, mostly run by the Congress, barely took any action.
The BJP, sensing the anger among the indigenous communities, made eviction of encroachers a poll promise—to protect jati (community), mati (land) and bheti (home). As the first BJP government came to power in 2016, the then chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal conducted several eviction drives at the Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park, Mayong in Morigaon district, Batadrava than, and Sipajhar. It’s a different matter that the evictions were necessitated by a Gauhati High Court order in October 9, 2015, in response to the PIL in 2012.
Since Sarma took oath in May, more than 300 families—all Bangla-speaking Muslims—have been evicted from areas like Lanka in Hojai district, Jamugurihat in Sonitpur district and Patharkandi in Karimganj district.
What Went Wrong In Dholpur?
Dholpur has been the site of the largest eviction drive, involving 77,420 bighas of land. Critics feel Dholur had just what the BJP needed to blend Assam’s anger against illegal immigration with Hindu nationalism—a Shiva temple. “The government’s intention is to persecute the Muslims and take political mileage from it,” says Ainuddin Ahmed, advisor, All Assam Minority Students’ Union.
In June, Sarma supervised the eviction of 49 families illegally settled on 180 bighas of land belonging to the Dholpur Shiva Temple. In July, the state budget earmarked Rs 9.6 crore for an “agriculture project” to promote afforestation and agriculture activities in the 77,420 bighas of the encroached land. On the request of the agriculture department, the district administration declared the area “community agricultural land”. Over 1,000 families were evicted from around 10,000 bighas of government land in Dholpur.
Critics say the evictions provided the BJP the opportunity to blend Assam’s anger against illegal immigration with Hindu nationalism
While opposition parties, including the Congress and the All-India United Democratic Front, and social groups claim the police brutalities of September 23 resulted from the BJP’s policy of persecution of Muslims, Sarma hints at the role of external forces behind the violence. “On September 22, in the name of food for evicted families, the PFI visited the site,” Sarma said. While announcing a judicial probe into the incident, he claimed a group of people raised Rs 28 lakh from the villagers promising them protection from eviction and named six individuals, including a college teacher. Two of them have been arrested.
Police officials involved in the operation claim the villagers attacked them with machetes, bricks and sticks, forming a “bow-like” constellation. When the police fired teargas shells, the villagers set heaps of jute on fire to neutralise its effects. “These actions cannot be of the villagers. They were taught by external elements,” says Sushanta Biswa Sarma, Darrang SP.
“We cut bamboos to make various things, so we often have a machete in our hand. That doesn’t mean we were attacking them,” says Rustom Ali, 26, who claims his grandfather came to Dholpur 70 years ago, but does not have any documents to substantiate the claim. While speaking to INDIA TODAY, a few villagers admitted that some of them had reacted aggressively to policemen who had assaulted a 16-year-old girl unprovoked, breaking her left arm. Some others, like Tajimuddin, 48, and Sukman Ali, 60, accepted they were asked to donate to “fight for protection of their land and home”. Many others denied paying money to anyone.
What Happens Next?
A per the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an anti-influx forum led by SC advocate Upamanyu Hazarika, eviction drives have happened before in Dholpur, but encroachers either return or grab land in other areas. Even after the recent drive, encroachers have simply been moved across the stream, an area that is part of the 77,420 bighas of government land. However, several officials say that due to erosion, the total area has shrunk to 35,000 bighas, so even though the 10,000 bighas has been cleared, 25,000 bighas remain open to encroachment.
Sarma has announced that his government will provide six bighas each to the genuinely landless evictees. “Many of them own massive tracts of land in areas such as Barpeta and Dhubri,” says Sarma. To streamline land records, introduce digital interface and rid the revenue department of illegal land dealings, his government has launched an ambitious ‘Mission Basundhara’ scheme, starting October 2. In September, more than 500 land brokers were arrested in a clean-up exercise.
While the final rehabilitation may see some procedural delay, Hussain has another question: Why can’t his father cultivate the same land where government-backed tilling began merely two days after they were thrown out? Nobody is grazing cattle there anymore.