Ashraful Haque, 12, was hit by a bullet in his right shoulder during the Sipajhar eviction on 23 September. Photo: Anupam Chakravartty,

GAUHATI, Assam — Sahor Ali buckled as a bullet pierced through his right thigh on that fateful Thursday afternoon on September 23 when two people died during the violence surrounding an eviction drive conducted by the Assam Government in Dhalpur village in Darrang district. Ali, now undergoing treatment along with eight others including two women and a 12-year-old boy, said that he had left the meeting between the district administration and the evictees, along with slain Maynal Haque, and four others, to help pack and move the belongings of the residents.

On Friday, the local volunteers from the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and several village residents said that 30-odd people were missing. Later, around 14 were found to be injured with nine being brought to the Gauhati Medical College Hospital. Ali said they reached GMCH on their own. It was only on Tuesday (September 28) police officials from Darrang district came to the hospital to take their statement.

“We heard phat phat sounds and saw smoke coming from the area where people had assembled. I did not know that those were gunshots. We saw some huts on fire,” Ali recalled. “We were standing in one single file when suddenly I felt a piercing pain on my leg. I fell down. Then I realized that I had been hit by a bullet. I remained blacked out for a few moments and then I tried limping out of the line of fire and went behind my house which was standing still,” he said.

Ali said that he received the eviction notice via a Whatsapp message from a zilla parishad member at 11 PM on September 22.

“The notice was dated September 15. We told everyone in the neighbourhood that it would be better if we ourselves started packing up the houses. Some of us did not want to go to the land which was allotted in another char (river island) because our petition against the eviction was already pending in the Gauhati High Court. I am one of the petitioners,” explained Ali.

While Ali’s house is still standing, several others pulled their own houses down.

“People here do not know where to go next. We suggested that they should cross the river and go somewhere but many feared that they would be evicted from these areas. On the day when I was shot, my father and brothers had gone to work in Chaygaon in South Kamrup,” Ali said. With less than two bighas (0.26 hectares) of land that his father had brought from Assamese and Gorkha families, the 37-year-old supports his wife and three children.

On June 7, Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma announced “Project Gorukhuti ” identifying over 602 hectares in Dhalpur, a cluster of riverine islands situated along the North bank of the Brahmaputra river. Named after Gorukhuti (Grazing land) in Dhalpur under Sipajhar Revenue Circle of Darrang, the project aims to create a community farm, where local youths would be employed. Curiously, the area has been riddled with land-related conflicts for several decades as a section of villagers allege that close to 10,350 hectares have been encroached by “illegal settlers.” Most of these “illegal settlers,” by their own accounts, claim that they were flood and erosion affected people from Barpeta, Goalpara, and South Kamrup, situated downstream along the course of Brahmaputra rivers, living in these riverine islands for several decades.

Since September 15, the Assam government started the process of eviction in the Dhalpur area, home to around 800 families, mostly belonging to a marginalized Muslim community. On September 23 afternoon, when government officials including the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang district and senior police officials visited the eviction site, local representatives called for a meeting. According to the locals, the meeting was peaceful after locals demonstrated before the government officials who later discussed their relocation to a new site.

However, soon, witnesses say that Assam Police along with paramilitary forces started the eviction process, burnt several houses, damaged granaries, and household items. As locals started gathering and resisting the eviction, police started firing on the protestors in which two persons, including a teenager, were killed. According to Sipajhar Police, nine of the policemen were badly wounded during the violence that followed. Sarma, the Chief Minister said that the eviction turned violent due to the presence of a “third force” and alleged that the Popular Front of India, a radical Muslim organization was behind the violence. In a press conference, he said that the All Assam Muslim Students Union (AAMSU) had agreed to the eviction and later created chaos. Sarma said that the government is in the process of resettling landless farmers while maintaining that the evictees in Dhalpur owned land in other districts of the state. As of now, 70 percent of the land of the 602 hectares has been evicted while locals have moved to Gauhati High Court challenging the eviction.

Rejia Khatun (26), the mother of three, however, was struggling with a bullet still lodged in her abdomen. “I did not even attend the meeting. I was at my brother’s house and was trying to avoid the large meeting. Suddenly there was firing. People started running. I collapsed with a sharp pain in my abdomen,” Khatun recalled.

On Wednesday, doctors at GMCH would be operating on her to retrieve the bullet from an assault rifle.

Khatun had about half a bigha of land (0.06 hectares) and her house, which was demolished. “We are not sure if we want to stay in Dhalpur,” she said.

Khatun could not speak much as doctors wanted her to be stabilized for Wednesday’s surgery.

Ashraful Haque (12) was helping his sister move when he was walking down the village road close to the meeting. “Suddenly police came charging at the people who had gathered at the road. Next thing I know a bullet hit my right shoulder and I fell down,” said Haque, who had attended school till the fifth standard.

Ashraful Haque, Moinul Haque’s father, was attending the meeting when his son was shot.

“For the last two years, there was no school so he helped me look after the fields. We are helpless in front of this kind of might. Hope God has mercy on us,” he said.

Along with Sahor Ali, Rejia Khatun and Ashraful Haque, Fakoruddin Ali, Hamed Ali, Sarifuddin Ali, Jalil Mandol, Johiruddin Ahmed and Joban Ali are undergoing treatment at GMCH. AAMSU volunteers said that other missing persons were traced back as many of them sought refuge in neighbouring riverine islands.

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