On 20 October, the administration of Assam’s Sonitpur district demolished the houses of 64 Muslim families in Bharasingri village, rendering more than 500 people homeless amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents of Bharasingri said that Assam police, as well as various paramilitaries and the administration entered the village, evicted them from their homes and used JCBs to level their houses. The demolition was preceded by a campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party accusing the villagers of being “illegal Bangladeshis,” despite all of them featuring in the National Register of Citizens. Many locals said that the district administration was working at the behest of BJP leaders in demonising Muslims and carrying out demolitions on their behalf. Government representatives told us this was a legal eviction of those who were squatting on government land, but The Caravan is in possession of multiple land deeds that show that the land legally belonged to Muslim locals. Locals also said that the administration did not follow any of the legal processes that have to be undertaken before a demolition.
On 5 August, in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya, prime minister Narendra Modi and Ajay Singh Bisht—the chief minister of the state, commonly called Yogi Adityanath—laid the foundation stone for a temple to the Hindu deity Ram. It was laid atop the remains of the Babri Masjid, a 16-century mosque, that had been destroyed by Hindu nationalists. On the same day Hindu nationalists in several parts of the country organised celebrations of the event, some of which led to confrontations with Muslim communities. In Sonitpur district, the Ram Sena and Bajrang Dal, two Hindu-nationalist militias, carried out a motorcycle procession to the Hara-Gouri temple near Bharasingri. The route to the temple passes through a Muslim locality and that the approach road to the temple is built on land owned by Muslims. “At least for the last twenty years a large portion of the road to the mandir from here goes through my patta land,” Sikandar Ali, a ward member of Pachim Borgaon panchayat, where Bharasingri is located, told me. Pattas are land deeds.
Local residents of Bharasingri told me that the Hindu mob were unruly and confrontational as they passed through the Muslim locality. “Bajrang Dal and Ram Sena members came in anger and instigated people from our village,” Sikandar said. “They came with some plan to orchestrate some incident here and they did so. They hurled fire crackers in the mosque premises and into people’s houses. They played loud music in front of people’s houses.” A brief melee broke out between residents of the village and the right-wing Hindu group, though, Sikandar said, nobody on either side was seriously injured.
According to Sikandar, BJP leaders including several members of the legislative assembly such as Ashok Singhal, the MLA of Dhekiajuli, Shiladitya Dev, the MLA of Hojai, Padma Hazarika, the MLA of Sootea, and Satyaranjan Borah, a former BJP farmers’ wing leader, among other local right-wing leaders, then began a campaign accusing everyone in the village of being “foreigners.” “We have been made scapegoats for the August violence,” Wazkuruni, a 42-year-old Bharasingri resident, told me in reference to the confrontation on 5 August. “After the violence, they blamed us for it, but could not find any issue on our part. So, using their MLAs they manufactured an issue about how 200-300 families came here.” Wazkuruni said that several BJP leaders from the district came to Bharasingri to give speeches against its Muslim residents. “Shiladitya, Ashok Singhal, Padma Hazarika, Satyaranjan Borah came,” Wazkuruni said. “They gave instigating statements, then all their organisations came after us and declared they would evict us to show the power of Hindu society.” In a video, obtained by The Caravan, Singhal, who visited the area after the violence, could be heard saying “If Babur bhakts”—followers of Babur, the 13 century Mughal emperor, a pejorative reference to Muslims—“attacked Ram bhakts, a befitting reply will be given.” Singhal did not respond to emails or calls regarding his role in the issue. None of the BJP MLAs responded to questions either.
Hazarika claimed that similar evictions had been carried out in several districts. “It is on the prime agenda of our government that if any doubtful citizen has encroached government land then they should be evicted,” Hazarika told me. “Eviction has been carried out in Kaziranga, Chokighat, Mangaldai, Morigaon similarly eviction has been done at Thelamara. As they do not have any legal document, they have grabbed the land illegally hence the government has executed its duty.” When told that nearly all the residents of Bharasingri had citizenship and land documents, Hazarika said that it was not his responsibility to scrutinise the documents. “Whatever people say, we have nothing to answer against them. The government can say who is illegal after proper investigation, I cannot do the investigation. They will submit their documents to the administration to probe, be it their citizenship or their land possession. The government will prove that.”