After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came back to power in the state of Assam, it has gone back to its communally divisive agenda. Several families of people hailing from the minority community were forcibly evicted from their homes in Dhalpur village located in the Shipajhar circle in Darang district.
The move comes a month after Himanta Biswa Sarma, the newly elected Chief Minister of Assam visited the Shiva temple in the area. Shortly afterwards he made an announcement to liberate 77 bighas of land there and use it for large scale agriculture and related activities. A committee was formed with the BJP MLA Padma Hazarika as the chairperson to the government to oversee the project. However, nearly 50,000 people live on this land. They are now being evicted.
However, this eviction is hugely problematic for the following key reasons:
- It is making people homeless in the middle of the monsoon season, when Assam receives heavy rainfall and flooding is common
- It is leaving these homeless people vulnerable amidst a raging Covid-19 pandemic, even though staying at home is the only way to check the spread of the infection.
- The evicted families are predominantly from either the minority community or Bengali Hindus. (These groups of people are often seen as illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh in a state with a complicated past when it comes to the subject of citizenship.)
- The land is near a temple that has been here for centuries (from the time of Narkasur according to the CM himself), thus adding a “temple politics” angle to the eviction.
When a team from SabrangIndia’s sister organization Citizens for justice and Peace (CJP) visited the area, we discovered that nearly 50 families had already been evicted. They are all economically weak families with breadwinners engaged in daily wage labour. Some are marginal farmers.
Even the family of a temple priest wasn’t spared. According to the people of the region, after the Assam movement, Muslims as well as three Bengali Hindu families lived together in harmony in the region. One of those three families was the family of Karna Das who founded a small Shiva temple on this hill. He married Parbati and gradually other people also started offering worship at the temple. But later two other Hindu families moved to Kalang in Morigaon District. But temple priest Karna Das and his wife Parvati Das remained in Dhalpur.
Parbati Das told us, “I was married to the priest of this Dhalpur temple when I was just a child. We both used to worship there. My husband died about 20 years ago, but I continued to worship.” Parbati and Karna Das had two sons, the elder of whom works in Guwahati now. But after her husband’s death a young Parbati faced a lot of difficulties and got married again, this time to a Muslim man. Now the temple has two other priests, one of whom joined just three months ago. But it was Parbati who was evicted. “This is the second time I was thrown out of my house. I am homeless now and don’t know what to do.”
Chober Ali, another evicted resident, told CJP, “I was born in 1977 and raised in this village. I have vivid memories from 1983 and know all about how we were ousted during the Assam movement.” He added, “We are distressed because of the eviction. But this isn’t the first time we have been thrown out of our homes. Even earlier during the pandemic, we have been evicted many times, even when a strict lockdown was in place. Now that our homes have been bulldozed, we are forced to live under bamboo and banana trees!”
Rabia Khatun, who was also evicted, broke down as she told us, “My daughter-in-law was pregnant when they evicted us. She was forced to deliver a baby in an open field, no doctor, no medicine, not even a home! She delivered amidst extreme suffering.” She prayed to the government to stop this inhuman eviction.
It is noteworthy that none of the evicted families were offered compensation or resettlement opportunities.
But this is certainly not an isolated incident of eviction without compensation. A similar drive was carried out in Kaziranga in 2016, just after the BJP came to power. And just over the course of the last year, even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown, eviction drives have taken place across Assam in the districts of Darang, Nagaon, Sonitpur, Karimganj and other places.
CJP offers hope and help
As a human rights organization, CJP has come forward to help the helpless evicted families. We have delivered rations to 49 of these families, so that even if they are shelter-less, at least they won’t go hungry. We are also helping them preserve whatever documents they can related to their citizenship.
We found a pump in the river next to the evicted area in Dhalapur. This suggests that people have been settled there for a long time. However, heavy rains and floods often force people to move in the char area, a flood prone riverine region in Assam. It is noteworthy that since independence about 4.30 hectares of the total land in Assam i.e. about 8% of the soil of Assam has been eroded away by rivers.
As a result, millions of landless people are scattered in various char areas. Many people also build temporary houses next to the highways during the rainy season. But, these people in the char areas were not even given land leases. They are also deprived of proper education facilities. And though these people came to Dhalpur around 40-42 years ago from Baghbar and Jania constituencies of Barpeta district due to flood and river erosion, a narrative was created to paint them as illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators.
Prominent social worker and writer Arup Baishwa told CJP, “This eviction is inhuman, but is a part of the government’s larger plan. There are plans to develop local real estate business and big business on this land.” He suggested, “The issue of eviction should be raised by human rights organisations. The report should be published after a public hearing with former judges and senior lawyers.”
Interestingly, the Himanta Biswa Sharma cabinet had decided that “Indigenous people living in annual patta or government-occupied lands due to natural calamities will receive housing and other benefits from the government. Natural encroachers and people living on forest land will not be able to avail this facility.” But then there is a whole other complicated debate surrounding the definition of who is to be considered “indigenous”.
Harkumar Goswami, another writer and prominent social worker said, “The government is, in fact, trying to reignite the Bangladeshi theory through this eviction process. They are trying to make a secret plan to do NRC again or reverification.” He added, “At a time when the people of the state are suffering from health and economic problems, the Government’s preoccupation with eviction, ‘divide and rule’ policy and cattle preservation bill is a dangerous signal for democracy.”