Brutal eviction drive in Assam, two killed

Police said a mob of nearly 2,000 people attacked personnel during the eviction drive at Dholpur village in Sipajhar, forcing security men to lathi charge the crowd and open fire, resulting in the deaths and injuries.
Police try to disperse protestors during an agitation against an eviction drive, in Darrang district.(Pitamber Newar)
Police try to disperse protestors during an agitation against an eviction drive, in Darrang district.(Pitamber Newar)
Updated on Sep 24, 2021 12:31 AM IST
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ByUtpal Parashar, Guwahati

Police bullets allegedly killed two people, and at least nine policemen were injured in clashes during a controversial drive to evict “illegal settlers” in Assam’s Darrang district on Thursday, sparking condemnation and prompting the government to set up a probe.

Police said a mob of nearly 2,000 people attacked personnel during the eviction drive at Dholpur village in Sipajhar, forcing security men to lathi charge the crowd and open fire, resulting in the deaths and injuries.

But visuals of the incident showed scores of policemen firing at unseen targets behind a mass of trees, huts and chaff, and a man in vest and lungi chasing a policeman and a photographer -- a man employed with the district administration -- down a dusty slope.

Groups of policemen are then seen surrounding the local resident, who suddenly collapses to the ground due to an apparent gunshot, raining him with blows of the stick, with gunfire in the background.

When the melee clears, the man is seen lying motionless on the ground with an apparent gunshot wound on his chest even as the photographer, later identified by police as Bijay Shankar Baniya, repeatedly kicks and jumps on the apparently lifeless body. Gunfire rings in the background. Later, visuals show policemen trying to pull Baniya back and carrying the body away.

The visuals were tweeted by some state lawmakers and local residents, but their origin was not clear. HT couldn’t independently verify the visuals.

The eviction drive was being conducted in a region largely inhabited by Bengali-speaking Muslims. Baniya was arrested late in the evening, said police.

Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma appeared to back the police. “Police are doing their duty. As per my information, people attacked police with machetes, spears and other things,” he said, making it clear that the eviction drive will continue on Friday.

Later in the evening, the government instituted an inquiry by a retired Gauhati high court judge. A formal notification detailing terms of reference of the inquiry would be issued later, officials said.

Darrang district superintendent of police, Sushanta Biswa Sarma, identified the two dead men as Saddam Hussain and Sheikh Forid. He said that two policemen sustained serious injuries and were shifted to Guwahati while the others were getting treatment at Mangaldai, the district headquarters. The SP is the brother of chief minister Sarma.

The killings triggered a political war with the Congress and other Opposition parties pushing for a judicial probe. “Assam is on state-sponsored fire. I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state- no children of India deserve this,” tweeted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

The controversial eviction was first mooted when Sarma visited the area on June 7 and instructed the district administration to clear the area occupied by “illegal settlers” for a community farming project for young people hailing from the state’s indigenous communities.

The evictions began at four places in Dholpur on Monday, and nearly 800 families – most of whom were Bengali-speaking Muslims – were removed from 4,500 bighas of land the government claimed ownership. The district administration cleared 602.04 hectares and demolished four “illegally” constructed religious structures at Sipajhar, officials said.

But local residents said they were living in the area since the 1970s and had valid government documents to prove their ownership of the plots.

Darrang SP Sushanta Biswa Sarma said nearly 1,500-2,000 persons gathered when the eviction drive began on Thursday. “At first there was no issue, but when police started removing encroachments using JCB vehicles, the mob started pelting stones and attacking the police with machetes, spears and other things,” he said.

“One police officer was hit with a machete on his head and sustained serious injuries. We had to resort to firing to disperse the crowd and protect our personnel. As per our information, two civilians have been killed and 9 policemen were injured. Additional force was deployed in the area and the situation is under control now,” he added.

Local activists contested this version and blamed the government for the violence and deaths. “A total of 246 persons from the area where evictions took place on Thursday had filed a petition in [Gauahati] HC seeking a stay. A hearing was slated today, but it has been deferred. There are nearly 10,000 families in the area who have been residing there for the past 40-50 years,” said Saddam Hussain, a social activist and resident of the area.

“Residents were served a notice late on Wednesday night and the evictions started on Thursday. At first, people were protesting peacefully. But when police forcibly destroyed huts the residents turned hostile and the situation turned violent,” he added.

State Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah said the eviction was in violation of the Supreme Court directive not to evict anyone during the pandemic. “Yet the Assam government is behaving in an autocratic manner to evict the residents of Dholpur who have been living in the area since the 1970s. Before eviction government should have arranged for rehabilitation and alternative housing,” he said.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021