Assam's eviction of illegal settlers could stir ethnic cauldron

#Bangladeshi immigrants, #Eviction, #Gauhati High Court, #illegal immigrants

(Representational image) Clashes broke out in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district on Thursday (September 23) as thousands protested the government’s ongoing eviction drive against ‘illegal encroachers’, leaving at least two people dead and several injured.

In Assam, when poll promises of freeing government lands from ‘encroachers’ and allotting them to ‘indigenous landless people’ is made, it can only mean one thing: the intent to evict alleged illegal Bangladesh immigrants from government lands.

In the ethnic cauldron that Assam is, such a pledge is fraught with difficulties.

So, it was no surprise that clashes broke out in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district on Thursday as thousands protested the government’s ongoing eviction drive against ‘illegal encroachers’, leaving at least two people dead and several injured.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters that before the violence took a turn for the worse, the police had been given the “responsibility to carry out an eviction and free up the land”, which had been faithfully executed.

Darrang SP Susanta Biswa Sarma – brother of the state chief minister – told reporters that police ‘did what they had to do’ in ‘self-defence’.

The incident on September 23 revealed how ticklish the problem of illegal migration in Assam is. “The incident has acquired political colour, but the fact is that the eviction is legitimate. Of the 30,285 sq miles of the total land area of Assam, close to 20 percent is encroached by illegal Bangladeshi settlers, who now claim they are Indians,” says Shyamkanu Mahanta, a cultural and social activist from the state.

It also reveals how difficult it is to remove people who have been living on the land for generations. In the case of the latest outrage, in August-end, 200 families had moved the Gauhati High Court after receiving eviction notices. In response, the government had filed an affidavit saying the settlers were on government land. The evictions on Thursday came even as the petitioners were yet to file a reply.

The drive followed the ejection of 800 families earlier in the week in Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages of Sipajhar, who were said to have been occupying about 4,500 bighas of land.

On Thursday, thousands of locals began protesting the expulsion, in an area largely inhabited by Bengali-speaking Muslims.

The state government has instituted an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deaths and injuries, led by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.

In June this year, similar drives threw out 70 families in Hojai’s Lanka and 25 families in Sonitpur’s Jamugurihat. Sipajhar had earlier seen similar drives in December 2016 and November 2017, with organisations such as the ‘anti-immigrant’ Prabhajan Virodhi Manch highlighting the issue of ‘illegal encroachers’ here.

It also revealed that the state government is serious about pursuing its poll promise, with whatever it entails.

Former DG Border Security Force (BSF) and one of India’s most reputed policemen, Prakash Singh, told Moneycontrol: “What does the government do? It either abdicates its responsibilities and allows whoever to come and take over land or defend the rule of law. Any sovereign government will ensure law and order, and I don’t see anything wrong with what was done. Should the police have just stood around and got lynched?”

The land freed from illegal settlers, who would be provided alternatives as per the government plan, would be turned into economic zones.

At the site of the latest fracas, for instance, the Assam government plans to implement a multi-crore ‘Garukhuti Project’, under which freed-up land is to be used for afforestation and agriculture activities, involving indigenous youth.

“I support such a plan,” says Shyamkanu Mahanta, who says there is no problem with Assamese Muslims as they are legitimate residents of the state as opposed to Bangladeshi settlers, who are foreigners.

Ainuddin Ahmed, adviser to the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), told reporters that the democratically elected state government was callous to the needs of poor, landless people. “After the eviction, they have no option but to live under the open sky,” he told reporters.

What has repulsed social media is a video where a stick wielding protester was shot at from close quarters and later beaten up and trampled upon allegedly by a person identified as a photographer.

The area incidentally is part of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat, from where the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched its anti-infiltration movement of 1979-85. This was following a revision of electoral rolls, which had many new names—the immediate trigger for the agitation.

Given that this eviction is barely touching the tip of a gigantic iceberg and the state government is set to pursue the centrepiece of its politics of vacating illegally held land, it could well be the beginning of a bigger tussle.

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