Monastery land-grab row snowballs into an election issue in Assam

  • Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times, Bordowa, Assam
  • Updated: Apr 08, 2016 09:27 IST
Bordowa Satra is one of many monasteries in Assam that is said to have lost land to encroachment. (Rahul Karmakar/HT Photo)

Srimanta Sankaradeva, the 16th century saint-reformer, made much of Assam turn to Vaishnavism. But his brand of spiritualism is losing space in Bordowa, his birthplace in central Assam’s Nagaon district.

Bordowa, 130km east of Assam’s principal city Guwahati, is to Vaishnavites what Vatican City is to Roman Catholics. The place is built around Bordowa Satra, a monastery that stands like an island in a sea of migrant Muslims.

The Assam Satra Mahasabha (ASM, apex body of satra administrators) says the migrants are closing in, grabbing satra land inch by inch, and that some of 913 other satras across the northeast and West Bengal too are similarly under siege.

Almost all such monasteries are in central and western Assam districts that go to polls in the second phase on April 11.

The BJP has made satra land-grab a major issue in its electoral battle against Bangladeshis and their alleged patrons – Congress and AIUDF, which termed it a non-issue designed to stir anti-Muslim sentiments.

“The Assam Accord (of 1985 that ended a six-year agitation against illegal migrants) seeks protection of satras but no government is interested in removing land-grabbers from our satra area,” Jatin Barua, a Bordowa monastery functionary, told HT.

Bordowa, though, has lost less than Kobaikota Satra, 4km south. Only the 1,200 sq ft prayer hall now remains of this satra that owned 35.5 acres of land, the ASM says.

Bharat Chandra Saikia, the custodian of Kobaikota Satra, is virtually the last man standing.

“My father stayed put when some 100 Hindu families shifted to safer places after the 1983 Nellie massacre triggered communal tension. I took over from him to be the caretaker of this satra,” Saikia, 42, said.

The ASM said intimidation, theft and other crimes forced most Hindus to relocate from satra land. But 75-year-old Moslemuddin, whose house adjoins Kobaikota Satra, said he bought his piece of land.

“Encroachment is a myth used against Muslims. Truth is, the satras sold off their land to the minorities who made them highly productive,” Rezaul Karim Sarkar, general secretary of All Assam Minority Students’ Union, said.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi too believes satra land-grab is a tall story, used by the BJP to whip up religious sentiments.

But ASM secretary Kusum Mahanta said the Congress government put things on record in the assembly last year. “The government slashed the encroached area 21.07 acres, but at least it admitted.”

Satra land-grab has been a touchy issue since former Assam governor SK Sinha, in his 1998 report to the President, said 39 satras lost 1,945.56 acres to migrant encroachers. A 2012 survey by Northeast Policy Institute revised the figures to 1,641.42 acres under 36 satras.

“The Gauhati High Court had in 1997 ruled that people of other religion cannot occupy satra land and sought action-taken reports from the government, which is yet to act,” Mahanta said.

“We will cooperate with any administrative action. But we challenge anyone to find out if even an acre of land is encroached upon,” Sarkar said.

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