The controversy over the alleged RSS bid to prevent Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi from entering a Vaishnav spiritual centre in western Assam’s Barpeta town on December 12 has put the spotlight on the encroachment of monastery land by Bangladeshi immigrants.
Insisting that the RSS had planned to block Gandhi’s entry in Barpeta Satra (monastery), Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi offered to resign if the BJP could prove even a single illegal foreigner had encroached on land belonging to any satra. Removing encroachers from satra land has been a major issue for the BJP.
But Gogoi’s government had in August 2010 directed district heads to submit a report on steps taken to free the land belonging to the satras and other religious institutions from encroachment. An official note issued by Bhumidhar Barman, the revenue minister then, emphasised the need to free the land.
The order was a follow-up of the Gauhati high court’s directive on March 27, 1997 for taking necessary steps to ensure there were no encroachers on satra land. Later, RD Choudhury, former National Museum director general, had written to the Union home secretary seeking protection of satra land in pockets dominated by immigrant Muslims.
According to the Asom Satra Mahasabha (ASM), an umbrella organisation of monasteries, some 7,000 bighas (2,804 acres) or 85% of land belonging to 39 satras is under encroachment by illegal migrants.
Barpeta Satra, in the eye of a storm, is one of the worst affected.
In July 2012, a study by the Northeast Policy Institute found 5,548 bighas of land belonging to 26 satras encroached on by illegal settlers. The report said the land was encroached upon after independence when people from the erstwhile East Pakistan, mostly Bengali speaking Muslims, came across. It added that the encroachers received government patronage, too.
“Encroachment of satra land is a fact the Congress wants to ignore. This is the attitude of the party towards institutions belonging to indigenous peoples of Assam,” Sarbananda Sonowal, Union minister and state BJP chief, said.
“Land-grabbing is a myth, typical of BJP’s brand of politics,” Gogoi said.
Pitambar Deva Goswami, former ASM head and Satradhikar of Auniati Satra in eastern Assam’s Majuli, said the RSS has no place in satra institutions. “The government knows what the reality is. It should try to honour the directive of the court and not drag the monasteries into petty politics,” he said.