How the BJP weaponised evictions as a tool against Assam’s Bengali Muslim residents

In September 2016, the Assam Police conducted an eviction drive near the Kaziranga National Park. Since the BJP came to power in Assam, in May 2016, evictions have become a regular phenomenon and have revealed a pattern of targeting Muslim families living on government land. Anupam Nath / AP
02 May, 2019

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.”

The BJP’s campaign for power ahead of the assembly elections rested on a promise to protect the “jati, mati aur bheti”—the identity, land and base—of the indigenous Assamese population. The Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction drive revealed that there is little that prevents the state government from this purported reclamation of land—including letters of protest by district officials. Ahead of and during the eviction drive, Tonmoy Pratim Borgohain, the deputy commissioner of Hojai, wrote multiple letters to the state’s chief secretary asking the government to delay the eviction because it was being conducted at a disputed site, claimed by both adjacent districts—Hojai and Karbi Anglong. “Any eviction drive either by Karbi Anglong or Hojai District in the disputed area may lead to legal complications, besides law & order problems,” Borgohain wrote on 28 February.

The Karbi Anglong administration claims that the border areas constitute a reserved forest, while the Hojai administration claims these are cadastral villages mapped by the district revenue department. In his 28 February letter, Borgohain wrote that according to the Hojai district’s land records, “the disputed area is comprised of 8 (eight) non-cadestal [sic] villages having a population of around 9,000 (Nine thousand) and it is not a notified forest.” He added that there were five educational institutions, two markets, and other establishments at the proposed eviction site. Borgohain also alerted the chief secretary to the significant consequences of eviction for the residents of the area in view of the upcoming elections, noting that the area comprised nine polling stations with 6,778 registered voters. Finally, he called upon the chief secretary to “intervene in the matter to defer the proposed eviction drive by Karbi Anglong till the final boundary demarcation is done by the Govt of Assam.”

Yet, Tuliram Ronghang, a BJP leader and the chief executive member of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, or KAAC—the district’s administrative body—has stated to the media that the eviction process against “illegal immigrants, Bangladeshi Muslims” residing in over 1,600 houses at the disputed site is ongoing. According to Saidur Rahman, a Hojai-based peasants-rights activist, in the first two rounds of the eviction drive, more than six hundred houses were bulldozed—some were even burnt down—government schools and polling booths were demolished, and sources of drinking water were rendered inaccessible.

On 4 March, Borgohain wrote another letter to the chief secretary informing him that the KAAC had “trespassed the provincial demarcated boundary between Hojai and Karbi Anglong district and unauthorisedly evicted some houses / shops ... which has caused serious resentment among the public in Hojai District.” Borgohain repeated, “If the eviction drive is carried out continuously for any longer period, the law & order situation not only may deteriorate but will seriously affect the forthcoming Parliamentary Election, 2019.” He also stressed that the evictions would detrimentally affect the process of claims and objections for the updation of the National Register of Citizens, which threatens to deny Indian citizenship to any person who cannot prove their Assamese credentials.

On 8 March, the KAAC officials, police officers and paramilitary personnel returned to the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction site for a third round of evictions. But the eviction was halted by the intervention of the Gauhati high court, which issued an order that day, taking note of Borgohain’s letters and instructing the chief secretary to “stop the eviction drive before final boundary demarcation is done.”

The high court’s order did not prevent police excesses at the eviction site, where a group of residents were protesting against the drive. In the afternoon, while I was visiting Kulsuma Begum at the hospital, Ain Uddin, a 29-year-old resident of the area, called me to inform me that the police was lathi charging the protestors. In the background, I could hear people screaming and praying. A short while later, he sent me several photographs of the police assault—one image showed a traumatised-looking old man with a white beard, standing with the support of two young men. Uddin had added the caption, “Police has broken his leg.”

The BJP had begun the practice of evictions soon after forming the government. On 6 February 2017, Pallab Lochan Das, the state’s revenue minister, informed the assembly that the government had evicted 3,481 families from 17 districts across Assam within the first six months of coming to power. Since then, the state government has continued to conduct large-scale eviction operations across the state, but it has not provided any data concerning the drives. Bhabesh Kalita, the minister of state in the revenue and disaster management department, told me he did not have updated data because the evictions drives were still ongoing. Though precise demographic statistics are unavailable, most of the evictions have taken place in Muslim-dominated areas, and have also led to the displacement of Adivasi communities in some cases.

My colleagues and I have been visiting the eviction sites to document as much as is possible. Over the last three years, I have visited at least ten eviction sites across Assam. A clear pattern emerges from studying these evictions—the Muslims residents of an area are described as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, an eviction drive is carried out without prior notice or compliance with such procedural requirements, and it is marked by the use of brute force and impunity for those responsible. This modus operandi was visible in the BJP-led state government’s first eviction operation, in September 2016, near Kaziranga National Park, in central Assam’s Nagaon district.

On 19 September, following an October 2015 Gauhati high court order, the state government conducted an eviction drive in three villages—Bandardubi, Deosursang and Palkhuwa—located on the periphery of the Kaziranga National Park. During the drive, the government destroyed the houses of nearly two hundred families—all but seven of these belonged to Muslims. The police shot two people dead, including a 12-year-old girl; several were injured in police firing and lathi charges. Soon after the eviction drive was conducted, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state finance minister, posted a tweet congratulating the district administration and declaring that the BJP government would “never compromise on JATI, MATI & BHETI.”

Around two weeks later, I went to the eviction site as part of a fact-finding team of academicians and activists. At the office of a farmers’ collective near Kaziranga, one of the farmers showed me his land documents and said, “We are neither encroachers nor illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, we were evicted from our patta land”—referring to the official land-holding document. Even government records reveal that Bandardubi and Deosursang villages were given the patta in 1961, whereas Kaziranga was declared a national park only in 1974. In fact, Abdul Hamid, one of the victims of the eviction violence, gave me certified copies of land records that clearly stated that the land does not fall within the national park’s demarcated area. He also gave me a copy of a six-month old revenue receipt and said, “I have been paying the revenue regularly, how could the government evict me without resettlement?”

None of the mainstream Assamese media houses reported on the apparent illegality of the eviction. Instead, the media largely portrayed the victims as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who encroached upon the land of the indigenous Assamese. After the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction too, the media continued the same narrative. I spoke to a journalist who covered the eviction for one of the oldest and most widely circulated English dailies in Assam, whose story framed the victims as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” When I asked him how he was certain that they were Bangladeshi nationals, he argued that he has to call them “Bangladeshi” because the politicians and the people in position of power have identified them as such. The journalist requested not to be identified out of fear for his safety.

The next morning, I experienced the reach and might of the Assam government first-hand, during my attempt to carry out a fact-finding mission at the eviction site. Upon reaching Lanka railway station in Hojai district, I got a call from a police officer summoning me to the Lanka police station. I informed the police officer that I was waiting for a colleague and that we would come to the station together. But over the next ten minutes, the police called me not less than ten times. At the police station, at least five officers, including a deputy and additional superintendent of police as well as an officer of the special branch, questioned us for almost seven hours.

The officers were polite and served us snacks, but they were relentless. They asked me why I was interested in knowing about the situation, about my background, about where I work and for whom I write, and about the international news organisations for which I have written or given an interview. The police officers were particularly suspicious about my connection with Al Jazeera, the news website for which I was reporting on the evictions at the time, treating it not as an international media platform, but almost as an outlawed organisation.

Eventually, the police refused to let us visit the eviction site or meet the deputy commissioner Borgohain. The deputy commissioner later told me over phone that the police had prevented us from visiting the site “in fear that our visit would escalate tensions in the area.” He evaded questions about why the state administration had proceeded with the eviction drive despite his letters. I tried contacting Alok Kumar, the chief secretary of Assam, and Mahananda Hazarika, the principal secretary of the KAAC, to ask why they did not take heed of the deputy commissioners concerns about the eviction. Hazarika asked me to visit the KAAC office, but did not respond to messages or calls seeking a phone interview. Kumar did not respond to multiple calls and messages.

Over the last few months, the BJP’s popularity in Assam has been on a downward spiral. The disaffection with the party began with the BJP’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in 2016, which sought to give citizenship to all the immigrants except Muslims, whereas even the BJP’s Assamese allies are opposed to the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. While the BJP appears to have brokered peace with its allies ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Assam’s tribal areas such as the Karbi Anglong, the disillusionment is compounded by allegations of rampant corruption in handling the funds allocated to the autonomous council and the KAAC’s proposal to allot land in the area for a Patanjali herbal and food park to the business tycoon Ramdev. The Hojai-based activist Rahman, who is the president of the Hojai unit of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti—a peasants-rights organisation in Assam—said that the BJP was losing ground in the Diphu Lok Sabha constituency, which consists of the autonomous districts Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong.

“The BJP was in desperate need of a situation through which they could consolidate the tribal vote before the general election,” Rahman said. “What could be more appropriate than orchestrating an eviction drive against the Muslims, that too, through which the BJP can claim that they got back the council’s land, which was never under their possession.” Prafulla Nath, an assistant professor with the centre for tribal studies at Assam University’s Diphu campus, said that the BJP government could exploit the situation by portraying the situation as an encroachment of tribal land by the Muslims residents. “The government knew that if the eviction is done by the Hojai district, there would be lots of hue and cry,” Nath said. “As it is done by Karbi Anglong administration, they can use the tribal card.”

In the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Bill protests, ministers in the Assam government resorted to spreading communal and polarising rhetoric, terming the state’s Muslims as illegal immigrants who snatched land and resources from the indigenous Assamese people. For instance, in 2016, the finance minister Sarma began spreading misinformation that Muslim residents had encroached upon the land belonging to a satra—socio-religious monasteries established by Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society.

For the Assamese, the satras are an emotive part of their state and culture, and Sarma sought to invoke their pride in order to exploit it and target the Muslims. “Does secularism mean that the satras have to move out of their original places?” Sarma asked in a November 2016 press conference. “Does secularism mean some people will snatch away land belonging to Batadrava satra? Does secularism mean some people will encroach upon land in Kaziranga and Pobitora?” But Sarma’s inflammatory rhetoric was defeated when Kalita placed government records before the state assembly, which revealed that the satra land was not encroached by the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims, but that it was eroded by the Brahmaputra river, and that the government had failed to protect it.

In present-day Assam, no one questions the government—not even the human-rights organisations. Once in January 2017, when I was talking to a senior officer of an international child-rights organisation, my friend sent me a photograph of the dead body of a three-day-old infant, who had died in a resettlement camp a few days after an eviction drive in Sipajhar town, in Assam’s Darrang district. I showed him the photograph and requested to do something for the evicted children. “Officially I cannot do anything, Abdul,” he replied. “This is a different government. But if you ask me personally, I would be happy to donate something.”

During the Kaziranga fact-finding mission, one experience was particularly telling of the fearful conditions prevailing at the resettlement camps. At one of the camps, I saw a young boy curiously looking at us. When I opened the lens of my camera to take a picture of him, the boy cried out loud and his mother rushed out from her shelter and immediately took him into her lap. The mother explained that since the eviction, her son lives in fears of the “khaki dress and anything that resembles a gun.” The incident brought to mind a disturbing parallel—the viral photo of a Syrian girl who surrendered to a camera, mistaking it to be a gun.