October 17, 2021

Assam: Darrang's Farmers' Despair

Vijoo Krishnan

THE viral images and videos of a photographer jumping on the body of a farmer who was shot dead by the police epitomise the politics of hate the RSS-BJP have systematically injected in Assam. It looked as if mere killing of the farmers could not satiate the hatred indoctrinated among the RSS-BJP followers over the years. 

In the viral video, Moinul Haque was advancing towards the heavily armed police force with a stick as one last attempt to ward off forcible eviction from his land, destruction of his humble dwelling and crops that were a result of sweat and toil of his family. He was shot dead by the police and photographer Bijoy Bania is seen jumping and stomping on the lifeless body of Moinul Haque. Bijoy was seen returning even after the police dragged him away to repeat the abominable act, almost dancing in reckless abandon. The police personnel also could not hold back raining their batons on the body of Moinul after they shot him dead in cold blood. The gory incident shocked the conscience of all right-thinking human beings and resulted in widespread outcry in India and abroad. 

The HimantaBiswaSarma-led BJP government in Assam is on an eviction spree. In the pretext of removing illegal encroachers, they are using force to uproot farmers cultivating land for decades. The eviction drive took place even as a case was pending with the Guwahati High Court on the matter, without even giving enough notice to the people. 

The Constitutional guarantee of equality and security for all citizens has been grossly violated here. About 5,000 bighas of land has been cleared of farmers but the BJP government claims that it plans to establish community farming in 77,000 bighas employing indigenous unemployed youth. The chief minister also put on a façade of progress and asked how merely a thousand families could be allowed to hold 77,000 bighas and emphasised the need for its redistribution among the landless. He claimed that the ‘village grazing reserve’, ‘professional grazing reserve’ and ‘forest reserves’ have been encroached upon. 

In reality, however, the land is not 77,000 bighas because more than 40,000 bighas of it were already submerged in the river Brahmaputra due to river erosion long ago. This is just a ruse to communally polarise and evict small cultivators by portraying them as usurpers of humongous quantities of land by denying other landless communities.

I was part of a team comprising V Sivadasan MP, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya MP, Gajen Barman, Masaddar Hussein, A R Sikdar, that visited Dhalpur-Gorukhuti area of Sipajhar in Darrang district of Assam. We travelled by car from Guwahati, crossed Khandajan and reached the Nuanadi/Nanoi rivulet, a tributary of the Brahmaputra at SanowaKhuwar Ghat, Kharjaanpaar after travelling for about an hour. The team travelled the three-kilometre-stretch through fields as the usual roads were all cordoned off by the police. At yet another place we had to cross water bodies on bikes to reach the place where thousands of men, women and children were forced to live as refugees in their own land.

The absence of sanitation and health facilities in the times of the pandemic also accentuates the possibility of communicable diseases. The absolute apathy of the BJP government and the chief minister’s repeated assertion that he does not require ‘Miya’ votes is appalling. Displaying extreme insensitivity, he justified the eviction of the farmers in the region. He expressed happiness and complimented the district administration and Assam police “for having cleared about 4,500 bigha, by evicting 800 households, demolishing four illegal religious structures and a private institution”. How can an elected representative be happy that thousands of people are forcibly evicted without any mutually agreed upon rehabilitation and resettlement plan? The entire eviction drive in the name of ‘illegal migrants’ was carried with an ulterior motive of communally polarising the state by pitting communities against one another. An elected representative sworn to the Constitution of India has no moral authority to continue with such a position.

Nearly 1,170 families living and earning their livelihood in the region from agriculture and allied activities have now been forcibly evicted. Many settlers are reported to have come from lower Assam after being displaced due to erosion of land especially in Barpeta and Kamrup districts. Many poor peasant households had settled here after displacement due to floods in the Brahmaputra; their lands in the riverine area Kirakara near the Darrang district headquarters Mangaldoi had been washed away. 

Frequent floods and changing of course of the Brahmaputra have caused the land to erode and many villages bear the brunt of it on a regular basis. Several thousand farmers have been cultivating the land for over five decades now under different quasi-legal arrangements like Ekchona (annual cultivation rights or periodic patta on payment of a fine), Touji(ongoing process of granting permanent patta with payment of fine) and a small section under Myadi (with proper land rights documents). Small cultivators, agricultural labourers, daily wage earners, fishers and artisans who had settled in the region were living in complete harmony with people of nearby localities. The region is a riverine area or a river island called Char areas and is reported to be inhabited by 35 lakh people, predominantly Muslims. Lakhs also live outside the riverine areas on government lands or forests as per the quasi-legal arrangements mentioned above. 

Ainul Haque (50 years) was educated in the region explained the situation and lamented that they were branded illegal encroachers or as illegal Bangladeshis. He pointed out that the regime had flouted all standard operating procedures and laws to be followed in such cases. The armed police dealt with the protests by the residents violently and fired to kill, shooting above the waist. The injuries suffered by the dead as well as many others were all above the waist; with bullet injuries on the stomach, chest, shoulder of some victims. 

Hasna Banu, a 12-year-old girl, showed her fractured hand injured in the police attack. The hand was yet to be plastered a week after the incident. A bullet grazed Saddam aged 26 years, a little below his chest and a 13-year-old Ashraful showed his swollen shoulder with two injuries caused by bullets. Many people were injured and some were in hospital. 

The team met the families of the two people killed in the police firing, Moinul Haque aged about 32 years and Sheikh Farid a 12-year-old child and expressed their condolences. Moinul’s widow Mumtaz Begum is with three little kids and his aged mother, with no other source of income. Sheikh Farid’s parents were inconsolable, and claimed that he was shot when he was on way to submit details for his Aadhar card at an office. A lakh each was given on behalf of AIKS to the families of the deceased. Assistance was also given to the families of the deceased and injured people by AILU. 

The Assam police force did not even spare crops or trees and also left a trail of destruction. The hapless people witnessed their dwellings being bulldozed, their vehicles, water pumps being burnt and even food grains being destroyed. People claimed that all the tube wells were also uprooted so that people cannot use them to collect water. Amir Sheikh, a senior citizen living in the region since 1975 pointed out that they were not given proper notice, no time even to gather their belongings and just forced to leave without any guarantee of rehabilitation or resettlement. A few received eviction notices by WhatsApp and he himself received the notice a full 45 minutes after his home was destroyed. The evicted people showed land documents, Aadhar cards, treasury payment receipts, ration cards which prove beyond doubt that they are all Indian citizens staying in the area for more than 50 years. 

There are 38 anganwadis, 42 sarvashiksha lower primary schools, high schools, one 30-bedded primary health centre (PHC) and two sub centres in the region to cater to their needs. They pointed out that all schools of the area are having Assamese as the medium of instruction. The administration set up a camp for paramilitary forces and Assam police in the lone 30 bedded PHC and one LP school of the area. Local people are deprived of health facilities as the police set up their camp in the local PHC. 

The administration ploughed the area with tractors immediately after the eviction and closed all roads to the area where the evicted people are now staying. They even forcibly ploughed the land which falls outside of the boundary of the proposed project area. 

The humanitarian concern not to brand the farmers as encroachers and allow them to earn their livelihood by ensuring mutually agreed upon resettlement as well as rehabilitation including provision of cultivable land clearly was lacking in the present Assam government’s drive. The right of the Muslim peasantry to peacefully earn their livelihood in their own land is being denied. 

The earlier governments led by the Congress and the AsomGana Parishad which allowed them to stay did not ensure land rights and proper housing for them. Some of the victims pointed out this as a lacuna that was exploited by the present BJP government to the hilt to execute their plan. There seems to be a sinister attempt to create communal polarisation in the region as specifically lands being cultivated by Muslim farmers have been targeted. In other parts, tribal people are also being evicted. This is part of a larger conspiracy to hand over farmers' land to corporate companies.

The state has clearly abandoned its own citizens even as the rains continue and the people are staring at the onset of a bitter winter. It is the need of the hour for all democratic sections to stand with the peasantry in distress and provide relief. It is time to send a loud and clear message that the politics of hate will not be allowed to succeed. The struggle should continue till justice is done to those who have been uprooted from their own land. Darrang has the historic tradition of resistance to British imperialism and martyrdom of over 140 unarmed peasants in 1894 at Patharughat against the increase in land tax. This legacy shall be taken forward to protect land rights of the peasantry.