Vote for land: Politics of shuttling migrants on Assam’s sandbars | assembly-elections$assam-2016 | Hindustan Times
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Vote for land: Politics of shuttling migrants on Assam’s sandbars

Assam 2016 Updated: Mar 21, 2016 18:37 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times
Assam

A ferry nears a sandbar ghat in Assam, India. (Rahul Karmarkar/ Hindustan Times)

 

Periodic floods and erosion change the shape of Assam’s river islands, often forcing their mainly migrant Muslim dwellers – perceived as Bangladeshis – to relocate.

But the shifting from an eroded island to a habitable one isn’t always dictated by nature. It is at times encouraged by the promise of patta (land deed) to loyal landless voters, many living along riverbanks.

This unnatural migration impacted past elections across the erosion-prone constituencies of central and western Assam. The two-phase polls on April 4 and 11 appear to be no different.

Patronised by local legislators, political relocation is most apparent in river islands that straddle multiple assembly constituencies. The movement usually is from the domain of the stronger MLA to that of the weaker.

Assam has more than 3,000 river islands or sandbars, locally called chars, in the Brahmaputra river system. The official count, according to the last census by the state’s Char Areas Development Authority 12 years ago, is 2,089.

Of the 126 assembly constituencies in the state, at least 50 are along the Brahmaputra. Only Majuli, where BJP’s projected chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is contesting, is a standalone island constituency.

Each of the others is a part of a mainland assembly constituency. A group of interlinked islands off Bijoynagar town 32km west of Assam capital Guwahati is divided among three such constituencies – Barkhetry, Palasbari and Hajo.

This island-group used to touch a fourth constituency, Chhaygaon, but the Brahmaputra washed that part away a few years ago.

For some 220,000 dwellers of this 320 sq km island-group, the Brahmaputra used to be the only threat to existence until waves of strangers, also migrant Muslims, began occupying land around theirs five years ago.

The local administration had to step in several times to stop resultant conflicts.

“We are sympathetic to the erosion-displaced because, as inhabitants of islands at the mercy of a turbulent river, we know we might have to move somewhere someday. But something was not right with these settlers,” said Muzammil Haque, the headman of five island villages including Kalapani.

Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), an NGO, stepped in to stop this ‘forced migration’ of people from Barkhetry constituency to Palasbari constituency.

“Our local members have put an end to the conflicts and ensured the older settlers do not suffer because of the newcomers,” KMSS leader Kamal Medhi said.

Haque said some 1,000 people from Barkhetry area occupying land in the villages under his jurisdiction. “But we are tolerating them for now.”

Local KMSS leaders accused former chief minister Bhumidhar Barman, the Congress MLA from Barkhetry, of pushing voters of his constituency to Palasbari. “This is what legislators do when they cannot provide land in their own constituencies,” an activist said.

Barman’s supports denied the allegation.

Palasbari’s independent MLA Jatin Mali said inter-island or mainland-to-island migration, whatever the cause, was a grim reality.

“The boundaries of the constituencies keep moving back and forth with the shifting of the chars. But this necessarily does not impact the electoral rolls,” he told Hindustan Times.

A smaller portion of the island-group falling in Hajo constituency – represented by Dwipen Pathak, an independent – has been free from encroachment so far.

Wajed Ali, a teacher in Bhatkhowadia Char, said such land-related conflicts often divert attention from the real issues – poverty, lack of education, health, electricity, and irrigation facilities – char dwellers want solved.

These issues helped the pro-migrants All India United Democratic Front prevail across these chars in the 2013 panchayat polls. The party is eying the assembly constituencies this time.

The local administration had to step in several times to stop resultant conflicts.

“We are sympathetic to the erosion-displaced because, as inhabitants of islands at the mercy of a turbulent river, we know we might have to move somewhere someday. But something was not right with these settlers,” said Muzammil Haque, the headman of five island villages including Kalapani.

Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), an NGO, stepped in to stop this ‘forced migration’ of people from Barkhetry constituency to Palasbari constituency.

“Our local members have put an end to the conflicts and ensured the older settlers do not suffer because of the newcomers,” KMSS leader Kamal Medhi said.

Haque said some 1,000 people from Barkhetry area occupying land in the villages under his jurisdiction. “But we are tolerating them for now.”

Local KMSS leaders accused former chief minister Bhumidhar Barman, the Congress MLA from Barkhetry, of pushing voters of his constituency to Palasbari. “This is what legislators do when they cannot provide land in their own constituencies,” an activist said.

Barman’s supports denied the allegation.

Palasbari’s independent MLA Jatin Mali said inter-island or mainland-to-island migration, whatever the cause, was a grim reality.

“The boundaries of the constituencies keep moving back and forth with the shifting of the chars. But this necessarily does not impact the electoral rolls,” he told Hindustan Times.

A smaller portion of the island-group falling in Hajo constituency – represented by Dwipen Pathak, an independent – has been free from encroachment so far.

Wajed Ali, a teacher in Bhatkhowadia Char, said such land-related conflicts often divert attention from the real issues – poverty, lack of education, health, electricity, and irrigation facilities – char dwellers want solved.

These issues helped the pro-migrants All India United Democratic Front prevail across these chars in the 2013 panchayat polls. The party is eying the assembly constituencies this time.