By Sukanya Roy, 

Assam: Earlier this week, protests by local Muslim communities of Jamugurihat in Sonitpur district of Assam against forced eviction turned into a violent clash between locals and BJP MLA of Sootea constituency, Padma Hazarika’s men.

As per the locals, the BJA MLA’s men were trying to intimidate the locals into evicting them. When the locals raised questions about their rehabilitation and compensation, one of the men slapped a local. When Hazarika arrived at the spot with the police, he was carrying a gun, threatened people and reportedly assaulted a local woman. The police arrested two local boys. The assaulted woman have registered an FIR against Hazarika.

Locals accuse BJP MLA’s men of plundering the livestock of the residents and fleeing.

In the recent past, a number of eviction drives have been carried out in areas housing Assamese Muslim populations. There has been growing pressure from the majority indigenous community, who elected a BJP state government in the hope of having their “jati-mati-bheti” (community-land-roots) promise fulfilled, to remove “illegal encroachers” from the state, people they suspect have infiltrated from Bangladesh.

Only last month, farming was ‘facilitated’ and a gau-shala inaugurated in Chokighat, by Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal. The groundwork of driving away ‘illegal encroachers’ from these 700 bighas of land was done by Padma Hazarika.

Chokighat and Jamugurihat are two among eleven villages along the Jiabhorali river, which flows through the Sonitpur district. Over the past 20 to 30 years, people of Nagaon, Rangapara, Tezpur, and other areas have settled in these chars (riverine islands) as their erstwhile lands were eroded by the river, and they became homeless. Some of the land was owned by the government and some belonged to landowners. The displaced people bought the land with whatever assets they had managed to save.

For the past year, ongoing construction of a four-lane highway through this area has raised the estimated value of the land to about 1 crore rupees.

Eyeing this prospect for profit-making, Padma Hazarika has been forcibly evicting people who live within a 600-metre stretch of land next to the highway. The plots recovered through eviction may be sold off at competitive market rates by the government for building residences, industries of all sizes, petrol pumps and so on. This hasty integration of the river islands with the mainland has ruined the livelihoods of local communities who are intricately connected with the riverine ecosystem. They are engaged in fishing and farming paddy, jute and vegetables.

Kazi Alam, a long-time resident of Bihagaon, told that, “Houses in Gotaimari and Balipukhuri have broken down. A mosque has also been torn down by Hazarika’s men in Gotaimari. I have lived here since 1917, even my grandfather and father were born here. We have our documents, pay our taxes and bills. How are we suddenly illegal Bangladeshis? The previous governments have made schools and roads for us, given us electricity. What will we do if we are displaced?”

In Assam, there are around 2251 river islands with a population of around 30 lakhs. Most of these people belong to the East Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim community, whose forefathers were brought to Assam from Bangladesh, during the British colonial rule. Ashraful Hussain, a social activist belonging from this community, says, “The East Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims or the Miya people occupy the lowest strata of society.” The term ‘Miya’ has been historically weaponized by indigenous, mostly Hindu Assamese people, as an abuse denoting the descendants of East Bengal Muslims.

Hussain alleges, “In all the places where eviction has taken place, the strategy of BJP has been to term the Miya community as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ and drive us out of our homes. We have had to face repeated brutality at the hands of police and the majority community based on these false accusations.”

Azizur Rahman, president of All Assam Minority Student Union (AAMSU) told, “I challenge Padma Hazarika to show me one person amongst them who is a Bangladeshi or illegal immigrant. All of them shifted to Sonitpur at a time when their lands were lost, and have been living here with documents ever since. He has to take responsibility for his baseless accusations.”

It is important to note the connections between the New Land Policy adopted by the Assam government in 2019, and the onslaught of these evictions in Muslim dominated areas. The Land Policy states that preference while allotting land will be given to those who have been displaced due to floods, erosion, or other natural calamities. The reality seems contrary to the promise on paper. Under the ‘Encroachment and Eviction’ section, it specifies that appropriate measures will be taken to evict encroachers on government land and reserved land. It conveniently ignores that people decided to settle in these areas as no timely facilities of rehabilitation were offered to them by the government.

There are two aspects of these eviction attacks which must be comprehended: its effect, and its method of implementation. Without adequate resettlement and compensation, the displaced people will be stripped of their conventional means of livelihood, and their social unity will be affected.

Abdul Kalam, 57 year-old resident of Balipukhuri said, “The Jiabhorali river is ancient, and so is the history of people living around it. We have built our modest homes and lives here through struggle. From floods to lack of roads, we have seen it all. We have fought against the furies of nature and man and cannot imagine living a life away from the river.”

“We are people of the roots, not illegal immigrants. They break our houses but give us no land, or money”, he adds.

Concerning its implementation, the method of justifying any extent of impunity and oppression against the targets of eviction, the “encroachers”, has been to falsely frame them as outsiders who have failed the arbitrary litmus test of an aggrandized, illusory nationalism.

The historical reality of Assamese Muslims has been a chain of alienations. First, they have been ridiculed for their ‘Miya’ identity and been portrayed as ‘un-Assamese’. Now ‘Bangladeshi’ seems to be the irredeemable nail in the coffin, shaping their already strained image as ‘un-Indian’. This is a tag that sticks and instantly encourages hateful mobilisation amongst religious bigots on a much larger level.

In response to injustices that have impoverished the lives of the Miya community, a cultural movement was started by Hafiz Ahmed in 2016, in the form of Miya poetry.

Ashraful, who is also a self-proclaimed Miya poet, says, “Whenever people see a lungi, they are quick to call him a Bangladeshi, a doubtful citizen. So I have started a protest on social media where I too take on the label of “doubtful citizen” and encourage all other such people to come forth. We discuss issues of citizenship and nationalism. We also share our own poetry.” This exchange stands as a deliberate act of confronting social bias, by claiming an identity that has been persecuted and forcefully rendered ‘disputed’. He chimes in, “Sometimes, we post photos of ourselves wearing a lungi too.”


[Note: Actual names have been changed due to the unwillingness of local residents to disclose their real identities.]

This story first appeared on August 9, 2020 on ‘Two Circles’ here.