A few years ago, the human rights lawyer Aman Wadud was at the forefront of a battle on behalf of those whose citizenship had been questioned. He argued that if Army officers who had staked their all in Kargil could be questioned about their citizenship, and if it was difficult even for them to produce the relevant documents, how could the common man, often illiterate and poor, be expected to do the same. More recently, Wadud, who practises at the Gauhati High Court, spoke up for those evicted in the drive to clear government land of alleged encroachers in Sipajhar. He said: “In January this year, the government provided land pattas (documents) to 1.6 lakh indigenous landless people. But after being re-elected, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is evicting landless Muslims out of their homes. This is grossly partisan. The government is attacking the very foundational concepts of the Constitution.”
Wadud spoke to Frontline soon after the video of Moinul Haque being shot at in Sipajhar went viral, even as Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam vowed to continue with the eviction drive. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you look at the recent eviction drive in Sipajhar on September 23?
Firstly, these people have been on this land for a very long time. Many are there since the 1970s. So it is not a new settlement. They came here from the lower Assam districts of Barpeta and Kamrupa because they were affected by river erosion. After erosion, these people lost their land. That is why they came and settled here. They are all landless people, most are daily wage earners.
Secondly, the entire part [inhabited by the settlers] is a river island. And generally, Assamese people do not inhabit a river island. Now the government will evict these people and give land for agriculture to indigenous people. The question is, did they find only a river island to start agriculture?
Basically, it is about taking land from Muslims and giving it to indigenous people, some of whom might be Muslims, but are mostly Hindus. They [the people evicted] were not in the way of some development project. This is not forest land either. Eventually, this land will get eroded. But they [the government] wanted to evict [them] for political reasons.
When did the settlement begin here?
People started coming here in the 1970s. So there was a rise in the number of Muslim voters. That was insinuated. There are stories on online portals about the mischief done by government officials [in calculating the numbers, and how the Hindutva project in Assam dates to the 1940s, thanks to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh which established its first shakha in Assam in October 1946], and that is how the Assam movement started.
On February 14, 1983, four days before [the] Nellie [massacre], apparently 1,000 people were massacred at Chaolkhowa island, adjacent to Dholpur, although news reports put the number at around 500. I tweeted about it too. For political reasons, they want to punish these people.
But the people who were evicted in the drive were all Indians. They were not Bangladeshis…
Yes. Not one was a Bangladeshi. I have worked here for eight years, I have not found one Bangladeshi. The [news about] Bangladeshis is just a myth. People came much before that.
Many claim to be there for 50 years, have spent their entire lives there…
Fifty years only there. Their ancestors were from elsewhere in Assam.
So are they all Assamese, and not from elsewhere in India?
Initially, Bengali Muslims were accepted as Na-Axamiya, or new Assamese. Our grandparents’ generation started calling themselves Assamese and started going to Asaamese-medium school and tried best to themselves assimilated. But saffronisation of Assam has changed everything. Now we are not seen as Assamese. My great-grandfather migrated 200 kilometres in the 1870s. This is a case of linguistic and religious discrimination, and the government created this mayhem. The entire violence was started by the government, the way they claimed that 10,000 people had gathered.
But the government claims people started the violence first, attacked the police…
No. I am giving a fact. They say people attacked the police first. The police killed two persons. One of them is on camera. We have seen how he was attacked. Another is a 12-year-old boy. If the people attacked the police, do you mean the police would have killed only two persons? And 10,000 people, where did they come from? These are all lies, all government lies.
It seems to be part of a larger agenda of othering Muslims in the country…
Yes. It is part of the larger agenda. There is no doubt about it. Himanta Biswa Sarma says, why should these people come from other districts to settle here? Has India amended Article 19 (d, e) [in the Constitution] about the right to settle in any part of the country? Everybody is free to settle and earn livelihood anywhere in the country.
In the eviction drive, some reports claimed that four mosques were demolished and a temple said to be prehistoric remained untouched. Is it true?
These people [the government] claimed that people settled near the temple. The temple is quite far away.
But if the government wanted to go about eviction, rehabilitation packages needed to be worked out. Why was it not done?
There were some 50,000 people there. Once you evict them, where will they go? Now the government is saying, we will settle people and give them six bighas of land. Where? Then why did they remove them in the first place?
Don’t you think what Himanta Biswa Sarma is doing has been in the pipeline for a long time? The Assamese identity movement has become an anti-Muslim movement in recent years.
It has indeed become an anti-Muslim movement. They created the NRC [National Register of Citizens], we all participated in the NRC. What happened in the NRC? Now they are saying we will not accept the NRC; it failed to exclude more Muslims. They want revision of NRC only to exclude more Muslims because Bengali Hindus will be included through the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act]. The main agenda is to exclude Muslims from the NRC. Now they want to punish Muslims, including scrapping the NRC.
But the CAA was an emotive issue in the Assembly election.
It was an emotive issue in the sense that Himanta [Biswa Sarma] made Muslims the enemy. Basically, he said that the people have no problem with Bengali Hindus but they have a problem with Bengali Muslims. So that’s how, going by voting pattern, the Assamese people have accepted it.
But Assam was not known for its communalism. The fight was for Assamese identity. Do you think the rise of the RSS in the State has vitiated the atmosphere?
No, this movement always had communal undertones. If you could kill Muslims in Nellie, Dholpur, Choalkhowa, there was always a communal undertone.
There have been repercussions of Assam in North Bengal and Bihar now, with similar demands of a kind of NRC.
I don’t know how it will turn out. But it has always been that whatever happens in Assam today happens in the rest of the country later. I don’t quite understand how it will play out. But it is not something that can be encouraged. What they are doing through these measures is creating a public consensus that illegal migrants are there. But after the NRC [in Assam] they cannot say these things directly.
How do you react to the attitude of the Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to the eviction?
The Congress has played a very important role. They said that this eviction is not acceptable. But Ajmal’s party has not been effective. They are the main problem for Muslims. They don’t take a stand. Ajmal was projected as the enemy in the election. Without Ajmal, the BJP could not have won the election. Asaduddin Owaisi has been vocal on Muslim issues. But Ajmal keeps quiet. His brother praises Himanta Biswa Sarma as the best Chief Minister. So, this is quid pro quo. As a Muslim, I would say, there is no political leader for Muslims in Assam.
Do you think this eviction drive will have its repercussions on Assamese Muslims?
Well, Muslims are feeling insecure. I have been getting frantic calls every day. The photographer who stomped over the lifeless body [of 33-year-old landless labourer Moinul Haque] represents the hatred that has been propagated by this government. The Chief Minister and his Ministers pass anti-Muslim comments. This anti-Muslim hatred has left everyone insecure. There is normalisation of hatred.
This story first appeared on frontline.thehindu.com