On 4 March, a team of Assam Forest Service officers, police officers and paramilitary personnel evicted over five hundred families living in the border area between central Assam’s Hojai and Karbi Anglong districts. In a video of the eviction, posted on Facebook by a local news group, one of the evictees, a 22-year-old woman named Kulsuma Begum, is seen lying on the ground with her infant son. She had just given birth two hours earlier. “One lady is bleeding—how you could be so insensitive?” one the reporters in the video can be heard asking an assistant conservator of forest of Karbi Anglong, who was present at the site. “You are an ACF officer, why don’t you send her to medical?” The camera panned towards the victims and the reporter asked, “Is the baby alive?”
Begum and her infant son spent two nights at the eviction site because she did not have the money to visit a hospital. The villagers eventually pooled in resources to admit her to the nearby Hojai Civil Hospital, from where she was referred to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, or GMCH. At the hospital, I met Ramisa Khatun, Begum’s 50-year-old mother-in-law, who recounted the harrowing details of the family’s eviction. The eviction drive began on 2 March without any advance notice, she said. Though no evictions were supposed to take place the next day because it was a Sunday, Begum’s family had begun dismantling their house fearing the ongoing drive. Begum’s husband had removed the tin sheets that formed their roof, but left the four walls of their house in anticipation of the birth of their child. At around 8 am the next morning, she delivered their son.
Shortly afterwards, Khatun continued, around eight officials—Khatun was unable to identify whether they were police or paramilitary personnel—entered the house and started ransacking their kitchen. Immediately, she began carrying their belongings outside. “When I came back, I saw Kulsuma was on the floor,” Khatun told me. “I asked her to hide behind the trees while I picked up the baby because I feared they might kill him.” But Begum was bleeding heavily and told Khatun that she was unable move on her own because the police officers had physically abused her. Her husband took Begum outside and she fell unconscious soon afterwards. According to Khatun, no one from the government came forward to help her at the eviction site, or to visit her at the hospital. Three days after my visit, Begum succumbed to her injuries. Her son survived, but according to her brother-in-law, Foridul Islam, the child is suffering from jaundice and has been admitted to the intensive care unit of the GMCH since 24 April.
When Kulsuma was fighting for her life, she was being framed as an illegal alien, a deadly encroacher who needed to be cleared out of her home. The cry of Begum’s infant son still echoes in my ears. His only fault, it appeared, was the identity of his parents—the one that he was born with as well. In Assam today, that seems to have become a crime.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state in May 2016, evictions have become a regular phenomenon in Assam. The state’s politicians, the state machinery and powerful media houses all appear to be on a mission to alienate and suppress Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslims. The evictions reveal a pattern of targeting Muslim families living on government land. This serves a dual purpose for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections—it reinforces the BJP’s politics of exclusion by identifying the state’s Muslims as “encroachers,” and it polarises the state on communal lines at a point when there is growing disaffection against the BJP government in tribal areas. “The BJP came to power in the state on the premise of hatred against the Muslims,” Hafiz Ahmed, a Guwahati-based poet and social activist, told me. “They want to keep the momentum to gain electorally in the upcoming election and eviction is the best tool for them.”