By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi
Assam, the northeastern state of India with one-third Muslims in the state population, has nearly 3.62 lakh landless families in 31 of its 33 districts. They are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in their own land. This has been mainly because of land erosion and devastation caused by the mighty Brahmaputra river. These IDPs are indigenous people of Assam with required documents with them and living there for centuries. Majority of them are poor peasants and Bengali speaking Muslims – this identity of theirs, might have been a major cause of their misfortune for years and years on.
The Allotment/ Settlement of Government Land under the Land Policy 1989 of Government of Assam, Section 1.1. reads:
“The land at the disposal of the government for ordinary cultivation may initially be given by way of allotment to indigenous landless cultivators. After three years of continuous physical possession by cultivating the land, the land may be settled with the allottees provided the land is found to have been used for the purpose for which it was allotted… “. This process is popularly known in Assam as providing “Land Patta” to the landless people or IDPs in the State which had never benefited this Bengali speaking Muslim peasantry group – called Miyah in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. Political leaders from within the minority community are till date utterly failed to capitalise from the previously enacted piece of Law and provide the poor people with some ease and dignified living. There have been only hotly debated politics on the issue of resettlement and Land Patta for the flood victims and landless people in Assam but without desired result for the last 40 odd years!
During the previous BJP-led Sarbananda Sonowal government in Assam, the Land Policy 1989 was revised in 2019. According to a news report in the English daily – The Sentinel, published from Guwahati, after initial reduction in the total allotment of 7 bighas and 1 bigha of land for farming and home, respectively, the Chief Minister had re-ordered to allot the same amount of land as was in the 1989 Land Policy due to pressure from MLAs in the Assembly: The newspaper reads: “The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) has instructed the Revenue and Disaster Management (R&DM) Department to increase the maximum limit for settlement of land to landless individuals to seven bighas for agriculture purpose and one bigha for homestead purpose in rural areas in the State…The new Land Policy-2019 came into effect from November 2019 replacing the 30-year-old Land Policy-1989. The State government has taken the decision to increase the maximum limit for allotment of arable and homestead lands to landless people keeping an eye on the difficulties being faced by the indigenous people of the State.”
[The Sentinel, 22 Feb. 2020]
मुसलमान होने की वजह से सरकार अत्याचार कर रही है|Ashraful Hussian MLA AIUDF https://t.co/TCLBo1qEtt
— Millat Times (@Millat_Times) September 24, 2021
“The Deputy Commissioners (DCs) of the respective districts have been granted the authority to allot the land under the provision,” to the applicants following due process. If there already have been provisions for allotment of lands to indigenous landless people, then why at all this forceful eviction of 800 families in Darrang district of Assam is done, where they have been living for decades? Even if there was a need of land acquisition by the State Government, for any reason, whatsoever, why then these people were not provided with adequate alternative resettlement measures before suddenly hammering their abodes with demolishing squad?
The State Government of Assam has also reportedly demolished masjids, madrasas and a mandir during this inhuman eviction drive in Darrang without apparently following due process of the Law set out by the Supreme Court of India in its order dated 29 September 2009 —in the Union of India Vs the State of Gujarat & Ors., Special Leave Appeal (Civil) No (s).8519/2006, where the SC had made a clear distinction between the unauthorised religious structures constructed before the date of 29th of September 2009 and those which would come after that date over the Government or Public land. The SC order reads:
“(ii) In respect of unauthorized constructions of any religious nature which has taken place in the past (before 29-09-2009), the State Governments would review the same on a case by case basis and take appropriate steps.” In the follow-up judgment the SC has categorised all unauthorized religious structures which existed before 29 September 2009 into A, B, and C and directed the concerned enforcement authorities to either legalize the religious structure in the same place, relocate it or to demolish it but only following the due process of Law. The SC further emphasized in the same order stating:
“In order to ensure compliance of our directions, we direct all the District Collectors and Magistrates/Deputy Commissioners in charge of the Districts to ensure that there is total compliance of the order passed by us.” I am afraid that Ms Prabhati Thaosen (IAS), the DC and Mr. Sushanta Biswa Sarma, (APS), the SP of Darrang district were aware of this SC order about the religious structures, even they have been illegal, and they have taken all guidelines into consideration before hammering people’s faith into dust in Assam.
The short-noticed eviction drive began on 20 September 2021 at several villages under the Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district in Assam which went extremely violent on 23rd of Sept. following a protest by the victim villagers where the police fired live bullets on chest almost without warning or use of standard SOPs for crowd control which led to the killing of at least two people and injuring many. The local police administration said to media that “a mob of nearly 2,000 people attacked personnel during the eviction drive at Dholpur village in Sipajhar, forcing security men to lathi charge the crowd and open fire, resulting in the deaths and injuries.” However, a horrific and extremely appalling scene was recorded in a video clip where a man is seen lying motionless on the ground with an apparent gunshot wound on his chest, a whole battalion of police men were raining him with blows of their sticks, with gunfire in the background, and a cameraman, later identified as Bijay Shankar Baniya, repeatedly kicking and jumping on the apparently lifeless body!
Reacting to the brutal incidence and the uncalled for eviction, the present BJP-led Government of Assam has, according to the ANI report on 24 Sept. 2021, stated: “The eviction drive was initiated with an agreed principle…that landless will be provided 2 acres each as per Land Policy, representatives agreed. We expected no resistance but about 10,000 people gheraoed Assam Police, used violence, then police retaliated“, said Assam Chief Minister – Himanta Biswa Sarma. There is a huge difference between ‘will be provided’ and ‘provided’ — Mr Sarma. These people have been lured, promised and used by governments after governments. They only wanted lands for their homes and cultivation as per the Land Policy 1989 — during Congress and the Land Policy 2019 – during BJP Government in the State, not promises, anymore. Was it too much to demand or get killed and left under scorching sun in open sky condition? What has been observed in Assam is a clear human right violation by all standards and against the Land Policy of the Government of Assam.
The author M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is a Mumbai based Assamese native and the Editor of Eastern Crescent.