Killed in Assam eviction drive, boy who went to collect Aadhaar card
Sheikh Farid wasn’t supposed to be there.
The 12-year-old was on his way back home from the local post office on Thursday after collecting his Aadhaar card. He had left home in the morning, happy at the prospect of receiving his first identity card.
The youngest of four siblings, Farid lived 2km from where government evictions had begun on Monday. The family hadn’t been served any eviction notice.
By evening, his lifeless body laid outside the family’s house in Assam’s Darrang district, the Aadhaar card peeking out of his pocket. “My son was excited about getting his Aadhaar card. I have no idea how he got killed,” said Khalek Ali, his father.
Farid was caught in the violence that broke out during a drive to evict allegedly illegal settlers near the Brahmaputra banks on Thursday afternoon, and was one of two people felled allegedly by police bullets. “When his body was brought home, there was a bullet injury on his right chest,” added Ali.
Another 20 people, including 11 policemen, were injured in the clashes.
Hasna Banu was one of them. The 15-year-old, whose family had also not received an eviction notice, heard the commotion on Thursday and went to see what was happening. In the evening, she was brought home unconscious with a broken left arm.
“I went to see what was happening. Suddenly there was panic and people were fleeing. Someone hit my arm from behind and I fell unconscious. I was picked up some locals and brought home,” said the student of Class 7.
Banu’s father, Sayeed Ali, a farmer, said they didn’t take her to the local hospital because they were afraid of the district administration. Instead, they wrapped the injured hand with cloth and applied some herbs and traditional medicine.
The deaths of Farid and Mainul Haque – a 35-year-old resident who was seen chasing policemen before being apparently shot and collapsing to the ground – triggered widespread condemnation on Thursday and forced the government to set up a judicial probe.
Visuals of the incident showed a government photographer repeatedly jumping and kicking the apparently lifeless body of Haque. The photographer, Bijay Shankar Baniya, was arrested on Thursday night.
The eviction drive started on Monday in a remote region roughly spread over 25,595 acres – roughly five times the size of state capital Guwahati –a massive sandbar with the Brahmaputra on one side and several small distributaries crisscrossing the area. In the area, roads are scarce and so is electricity supply.
Many of the residents are Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are mainly farmers and use motorcycles, horse-drawn carts or bullock carts, or ferry their produce to nearby markets. To reach Dholpur-3, where the violence occurred on Thursday, one has to cross a stream and walk for nearly an hour or hitch a hike on a motorbike to reach the area.
On Friday, many evicted residents --- who took shelter in makeshift houses made of tin sheets, jute and bamboo -- contested the government’s claim that they were given adequate warning.
Thirty-one-year old Ful Chand said he got the eviction notices on Wednesday evening – less than 24 hours before the government drive began. The vegetable vendor’s family collected their belongings and moved to a new location located nearly a kilometer away, across a small stream. They are now living in a cramped temporary shed made of tin-sheets.
“We got the notice on Wednesday evening and by Thursday morning police and district officials had arrived to evict us. We managed to collect most of our belonging and shift to this new place. We haven’t cook any meals and are eating whatever is being provided by generous relatives living on other parts of Dholpur who haven’t been served eviction notices yet,” said Chand.
The evictions started on Monday – when 800 families were removed – under the Assam government’s Garukhuti Project, which aims to remove encroachers from 25,595 acres of land on a massive sandbar close to the Brahmaputra river and start agricultural and other allied activities for indigenous people.
But local residents said they had lived in the area for decades.
Seventy -year-old Kot Banu’s family was among those evicted on Thursday. The family said it had lived in the village since 1985 but had no land documents.
She said they had three plots at different locations in Dholpur-3. Many residents of the area have had to shift house several times as the rising waters of Brahmaputra and its distributaries erode their agriculture plots and houses.
“Instead of forcing us to leave our houses at such short notice and resorting to violence, the government should have first allotted us some alternate land where we could have shifted. What was the hurry to remove us from a place that we have called home for decades?” questioned Sattar Ali, a smalltime businessman.
The government, for its part, blamed a large mob for attacking the policemen with sticks and stones. A senior police official present at the scene said on condition of anonymity that there were nearly 4,000 people present at the eviction site and suddenly attacked the police party.
“There was discussion with the residents and after assurances of alternate measures for those evicted, the crowd had started dispersing. But suddenly hundreds of them rushed at us with spears, sticks and machetes. We fired tear gas shells and rubber bullets, but when it didn’t deter them we had to start shooting to protect ourselves,” he said.
Constable Apurba Ronghang, 35, who sustained head injuries, said a mob of 700-800 people attacked the police team. “I was hit on my head with a bamboo stick or wood from behind as I was trying to flee from the mob. My helmet got removed and I fell on the ground. But they kept on hitting me. Luckily, my colleagues were able to rescue me,” he said.