After eviction violence, fear of unknown in Assam village

As the rain poured down in Dholpur 3 village on Thursday evening, Ainuddin and his family huddled together inside their makeshift shelter, doing what they could to keep dry
The eviction drive at Assam’s Dholpur was carried out following a state government plan to start an ambitious agriculture project on nearly 77,000 ‘bighas’ of government land. (PTI PHOTO.)
The eviction drive at Assam’s Dholpur was carried out following a state government plan to start an ambitious agriculture project on nearly 77,000 ‘bighas’ of government land. (PTI PHOTO.)
Updated on Oct 23, 2021 04:30 AM IST
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ByUtpal Parashar, Guwahati

As the rain poured down in Dholpur 3 village on Thursday evening, Ainuddin and his family huddled together inside their makeshift shelter, doing what they could to keep dry. It was difficult. There were 26 of them — Ainuddin and his parents; his four brothers and two sisters, and their families; the wife of his elder brother, and their three children, aged between 3 and 14. There was one person missing. His elder brother, Moinul Haque.

On September 23, Moinul became the face of a controversial eviction drive in Dholpur by the Assam government when a video of him charging a police posse with a stick, falling backwards ostensibly due to a gunshot, and a government photographer repeatedly stomping his prone body went viral. Within hours, Moinul was dead. A month has passed, but Ainuddin says they have received no succour. “We are yet to get any support from the government or district administration.”

All 26 of the extended family live in four makeshift structures — constructed of tin sheets, completely open from one side, with bamboo and wood holding the roof up precariously. All the material has come from salvage runs to the wreckage of their once semi-pukka homes. Like the others evicted in Dholpur, Moinul’s family once farmed on seven bighas (roughly 2.3 acres)of land on the Dholpur sandbar. “Now everything is gone. Moinul’s three minor children and our entire family live like this, completely vulnerable to the wind and the rain. We survive on food provided by others,” Ainuddin said.

Four weeks ago, less than half a kilometre away, their homes were turned to rubble. Clashes between police personnel involved in the eviction drive, and thousands of residents opposed to the action, led to the deaths of two civilians on September 23, and left nearly 20 others, including 11 policemen, injured. It set off a cycle of allegations and counter allegations, with the Darrang district administration claiming that while the eviction drive started peacefully a day earlier, nearly 20,000 people, “mostly outsiders” gathered at the site and started attacking police personnel with stones and sticks, leading to retaliatory action.

Local residents maintain that they were served eviction notices just a day ahead of the drive, and that they agreed to relocate to a new site with their belongings after the administration said it would provide them alternative plots. However, they allege, police started attacking residents without provocation, which led to the deaths and the injuries.

Following the eviction, the Darrang Police arrested three people — Sarifuddin, Chand Mahmud, and Asmat Ali Ahmed — for allegedly instigating the violence, booking them under sections of attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy. Sarifuddin is a daily wage labourer who lived in Dholpur 1, and Mahmud and Ahmed are members of local panchayat bodies in Dholpur.

Darrang superintendent of police Sushanta Biswa Sarma told HT that the case has been forwarded to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which is probing the incident. Sarma, who was the SP in charge of the eviction drive, is Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s brother.

Four decades in the making

Spread over 77,420 bighas (25,595 acre), the entire Dholpur area where the eviction drive took place is a giant sandbar with the Brahmaputra on one side and several of its small distributaries crisscrossing the area. It doesn’t have a proper road, and doesn’t get electricity.

The residents, around 1,500 families, are engaged in agriculture on the fertile soil, and use motorcycles, horse-drawn carts and bullock carts to move around or ferry produce. They farm seasonal vegetables, pulses and rice, and these are transported to the nearest distributary, and from there on dinghies to the closest markets. With people gradually settling on government land over four decades, there are no clear records on the exact number of residents in Dholpur.

In August, around 200 families from Dholpur 3 moved Gauhati high court seeking a stay in the proposed eviction drive. “In response to the petition, the government filed an affidavit stating that the petitioners had settled on government land. But before the petitioners could file a reply, the state government carried out the eviction,” said advocate Santanu Borthakur, who represented the residents. The argument that the residents made in court was not a challenge to the status of the land as government land but that the state revenue board previously agreed on settling these residents somewhere else, and that no eviction should be carried out before that.

Two kilometres away from the site of the eviction drive, the family of 12-year-old Shaikh Farid, the second person to die in the clashes, lives in a rare cluster of permanent huts. They have not been served a notice to move so far, but that is no solace. Farid, a Class 7 student, had gone to collect his Aadhaar card from the local post office. He got caught in the violence, and died from a bullet wound from police firing. His new glossy Aadhaar card peeked out from his pocket as he lay prone on the ground.

“Not a single person from the local administration has approached us till date. We are yet to get my brother’s death certificate,” said Amir Hussain, Farid’s elder brother. His mother, Gol Banu, lives in a permanent state of shock, even as his father Khalek Ali seems to be coming to terms with his son’s death. “My mother has been unwell since the incident. She can’t even move without support,” Hussain said.

The Darrang district administration, however, rejected allegations of lack of support to those evicted in Dholpur and said that medical aid and other basic facilities are being provided.

“Those evicted from the government land have been relocated at Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages which have been earmarked for them. We are also looking at providing plots of land to deserving residents,” said Prabhati Thaosen, deputy commissioner of Darrang. The administration did not give any details of how many would get the rehabilitation package or alternative plots of land.

None of them, it turns out, may be “deserving”.

“But we need to understand that these people are encroachers and when it comes to rehabilitation, it has to be done under provisions of Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886. And according to it, encroachers are not eligible. On humanitarian grounds, we are providing those evicted with medical and other facilities,” Thaosen added.

The administration has set up a health centre for evicted residents, and tube wells in the area.

The families of Moinul and Farid are, for now, surviving on the monetary relief provided by some of the state’s opposition parties such as the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Congress. While the AIUDF has given both families 2 lakh each, the Congress has given them 1 lakh each.

In the absence of regular government aid, organisations such as the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) have stepped in. “The state government has done nothing in the past one month. On the other hand, we have been helping the displaced residents with ration, and have set up tube wells so they can have some water,” said Ainuddin Ahmed, adviser of AAMSU.

While some leaders tried to portray those evicted in the drive as illegal migrants with doubtful citizenship, the families of Moinul and Farid said they were Indians, and had government documents to back their claim. “Our family came and settled in Dholpur nearly 45 years ago when our house in Barpeta district was destroyed during floods. Names of all our family members are included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and we possess Aadhaar cards,” said Farid’s elder brother Amir Hussain.

“Our parents came to Dholpur in the early 1980s from Hajo in Kamrup (Rural) district at a time when the Assam agitation was at its peak. All of our brothers and sisters were born in Dholpur. Except our youngest brothers, all our family members’ names are included in NRC, and have Aadhaar cards,” said Ainuddin.

HT could not independently verify this.

Garukhuti Project

Meanwhile, work on the state government’s Garukhuti Project, which aims to remove alleged encroachers from the Dholpur land and start agricultural and other allied activities for indigenous people in the area, is going ahead. In Dholpur, apart from the families living under tin sheets, the expanse is dotted by tractors and other agricultural equipment.

The 2021 Assam state budget said that the government plans to “develop this cluster as a beacon of resurgent Assam” and earmarked 9.6 crore for the project. “Nearly 500 local youth are currently engaged in tilling around 6,000 bighas of land from which encroachments have been removed. We are planning to cultivate mustard there soon,” said ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Padma Hazarika, who is also chairman of the Garukhuti Project.

“Most of the illegal settlers have already been removed from the area. Eviction of the rest will take place after hearing on a petition on the issue in Gauhati high court, which is scheduled for November 3. As for rehabilitation of those evicted, the district administration will look into it,” he added.

Following the incident, Congress legislature party leader Debabrata Saikia filed a PIL in the Gauhati high court seeking compensation for those evicted and also an inquiry into the killing of two civilians by the police. The petition alleged that on September 23 there was use of “excessive, illegal and disproportionate force and firearms by police officials, allegedly in response to the protests against the eviction drive”.

Advocate general Debajit Saikia responded in court that, on September 23, the plan was to evict 125 families, but nearly 20,000 people including outsiders and those with doubtful credentials gathered at the site and attacked the policemen, which in turn led to retaliatory action. Earlier this month, the high court directed the Assam government to file a detailed affidavit on the clashes during the eviction drive within three weeks. The next date of hearing on the petition is November 3.

The Assam government also ordered a judicial inquiry in the aftermath of the incident, and its report is awaited. The state government notification said that the inquiry would be conducted under the chairmanship of a retired judge of the Gauhati high court. Details of who will head the inquiry, and its timeline and mandate, have not been released.

“Following the eviction drive, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that if those evicted were Indian citizens they would be rehabilitated. He even promised them alternative plots within a week. But nothing has happened in the past one month,” said Mohammad Aminul Islam, legislator and organising secretary of AIUDF.

“The evicted children are bereft of education, there’s no proper food, health care, shelter, water supply or sanitation facility for those evicted till now. We condemn the government’s attitude towards those displaced,” he added.

Despite Sarma’s initial response that the eviction drive will continue even after the September 23 violence, it hasn’t resumed thus far. Officials maintain that more than 90% of the residents earmarked for eviction have already relocated themselves or have been evicted. “With most already removed from the area, we do not expect large scale protests or violence like September 23, when it does resume,” a district official said.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021