Darrang, Assam: On the day Moinul Haque, 28, was shot in the abdomen and killed by an AK-47 bullet fired by a policeman in this district in the central part of the state, his family moved from their 30-year-old tin-walled home that was dismantled in a government eviction drive on the day of his killing to the 1,000 bighas (330 acres) of land allotted temporarily to their village, across a shallow stream.
In the low-lying khas (wasteland), a hastily erected tin roof was now the Haques’ home. Children dipped in the water to cool off from the scorching heat, as farmers washed their cattle and tractors a few metres away.
The Haques are among 1,300 families of illegal immigrants encroaching government land in the villages Dhalpur 1 and 3, located in Darrang district in the Sipajhar revenue circle, according to the state government. The villages stand on southern Assam’s chars or sand bars, shifting islands of fertile land formed by the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra, whose average discharge is the fifth largest among rivers worldwide.
The eviction drive of 20 and 23 September was conducted to free 4,500 bighas (the size of 2,113 football fields) of land in Dhalpur 1 and 3 of encroachments, the government said.
Haque’s family, like the majority of evictees from their village, contested their representation as illegal immigrants.
They showed Article 14 two receipts issued to his maternal grandfather in 1952 for land tax paid to the Assam state revenue office (then based in Shillong, the erstwhile capital before the formation of the state of Meghalaya) for Dharmapur, located in Barpeta district of lower Assam.
Barpeta is 367 km south of Dhalpur 3. At the time the receipts were issued, Assam bordered the erstwhile East Pakistan, two decades before the nation of Bangladesh came into existence, which meant no one could be accused of being an encroacher.
The latest eviction drive from the sand bars in the Sipajhar region may be couched in revenue department legalese—the land is ostensibly required for a state-led project to employ indigenous Assamese youth in agricultural activities—but for the mostly Bengali-speaking Muslim families on these and other char lands of the region, the evictions are a familiar exercise, recurring over five decades of Assamese nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Govt Collected Taxes For Decades
Article 14 reviewed land records, government responses to applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 and conducted interviews with residents of Dhalpur 3 and their Assamese neighbours in the Garukhuti and Maroi areas of the Sipajhar revenue circle.
While the allegations of land grabbing are unsubstantiated, the settlers have paid land taxes for decades. The communal slant of the eviction drive is barely veiled—the land freed through the evictions, currently cultivated by Bengali Muslim settlers, already shows high agricultural productivity, but according to the government will now be tilled by indigenous youth who, research showed (here and here) have a shrinking interest in farming.
Many indigenous youngsters have migrated to towns and cities for jobs. In January, BJP MLA Pijush Hazarika called on Assamese youth in Lakhimpur district to ‘surpass Bangladeshi immigrants in the state’s agro-economy’.
“There is no drinking water here. We’ve been drawing water from this stream,” said Maqbool Ali, Haque’s father, who is hard of hearing, about their new home.
Ali told Article 14 that his dead son had been the sole breadwinner—his two other sons do not support the family. Ali, in his 50s, said he was worried how the family would survive.
“It has been almost a week since we have fed the children properly,” he said.
Other displaced families of Dhalpur 3 echoed similar concerns, unaware if they will be settled here on the wasteland temporarily allotted to them or if they will be relocated elsewhere with land title deeds to their name.
Saddam Hussain, a local community activist, said that discussions with the district administration had taken place prior to and during the eviction. He said panchayat leaders asked for a survey of evicted residents and a formal notification about where they will be relocated.
“The government doesn’t actually want to resettle us,” Hussain told Article 14. The government has discussed a proposal to allot six bighas (approximately 2 acres) to each evicted family.
“If they really wanted to do this, what was the need to displace families from Dhalpur who didn’t occupy more than five bighas in the first place?” said Hussain.
Clearing Squatters, Freeing Assam From ‘Conspirators’
On 23 September 2021, Mumtaz Begum was helping her family dismantle their home when Haque suddenly left.
The next she saw her husband was in a video that went viral online the following evening. In the video, Haque, armed with a bamboo cane, charges two police constables and a photographer. As he swings the cane, a policeman shoots him in the abdomen with an AK-47 rifle.
He falls to the ground instantly. Several policemen continue to beat him with lathis. Government photographer Bijoy Kumar Bania—arrested later after a public outcry—stomps, kicks and punches the body as a patch of blood spreads slowly on Haque’s chest.
A later report said Haque charged at the armed police with a cane after seeing them beat a young girl with a baton.
Haque's family members saw the video that night. The following day, they repeatedly recounted the sequence of events to journalists.
“They shot him in the chest and leg, then dragged him,” his mother Moimona told Article 14, as she wept.
Days after Haque’s killing, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told the media that out of 10,000 evicted people in Garukhuti (which includes Dhalpur), 6,000 were not in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list of Indian citizens prepared in Assam ostensibly to identify “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh.
Illegal settlers had a “blueprint” to wrest control of the government a few decades later by becoming the majority community in some constituencies of Assam, the chief minister said.
But Haque’s name is included in the NRC, along with five others in his family. The family showed his NRC printout, voter ID and Aadhaar card as proof of his citizenship.
NRC In Limbo, BJP Govt’s Renewed Anti-Immigrant Push
Darrang district had the least number of people included in the 2018 NRC draft list, according to government data released prior to the final list in 2019. More than 4 million applicants in Assam were excluded in the draft list, deemed as having settled here after 24 March 1971.
The cut-off date was set in clause 5 of the Assam Accord of 1985, a tripartite agreement signed between the union and state governments and the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The agreement ended a six-year agitation to protect local socio-cultural and political interests from an influx of migrants.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre and in Assam have both rejected the final NRC list on the grounds that a great number of applicants from the Muslim-dominated border districts—Dhubri, Karimganj and South Salmara—had made it to the list.
Their demand to verfiy 20% of those on the list in the border districts (and 10% in interior districts) was rejected in 2019 by the Supreme Court, which monitored the five-year NRC exercise in Assam.
The final list, which excluded 1.9 million applicants, is yet to be approved by the Registrar General of India.
Eviction Rationale Contradicts Govt’s Own Data
Meanwhile, the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 caused an uproar among Assamese ethnic communities and civil society, who disapprove the naturalising of ‘illegal immigrants’ regardless of religion. At least five died in Guwahati in police firing during the anti-CAA protests.
Despite the widespread protests against the CAA, the BJP won a second term by a comfortable majority in the state assembly election in the summer of 2021.
The NRC currently hangs in a limbo, and the rules under the CAA are yet to be implemented.
After handing out more than 100,000 land titles to ‘indigenous’ communities in the run-up to the assembly election, the BJP government promised to ‘remove encroachers from more than 77,420 bighas of land’ as an ‘experiment’ in the Garukhuti area in Darrang’s Sipajhar block for an agriculture project.
This assessment of land under encroachment contradicted the government’s own data. According to a reply in the state assembly on 16 July by revenue and disaster management minister Jogen Mohan, the Sipajhar revenue circle comprises only 25,929 bighas (8,572 acres) of land. Of this, Mohan said, 16,878 bighas (5,580 acres) were cultivable and 9,051 bighas (2,292 acres) ‘suitable for residence’. The reply also said that no comprehensive land survey has been carried out so far.
In the absence of a final NRC and the impending CAA, which would be applicable in Assam despite exemption requests, the dubious claim of ‘encroachments’ by ‘illegal’ Bengali Muslims appears to be aimed at placating the majority of Assamese voters.
Bengali Muslims: Internal Climate Migrants
Mainstream narratives in Assam portrayed char dwellers as ‘Bangladeshis’ who grabbed land from ‘indigenous’ communities, but like the Haques, other Dhalpur residents too produced land tax receipts dating back to 1994. Some continued paying these taxes even in 2021, only months before the eviction drive was planned.
While Haque’s family has preserved receipts issued in 1952 to his maternal grandfather for land taxes paid in Barpeta, residents of the chars have long faced eviction drives that predate Independence.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a doctoral candidate studying Assam’s citizenship issues at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told Article 14 that Bengali Muslims first faced evictions as far back as 1946 under the then Congress CM, Gopinath Bordoloi.
“The cut-off date then was 1938 based on a government policy. Even pre-independence, the char dwellers were considered illegal,” he said.
The Mangaldoi assembly seat, neighbouring Sipajhar revenue circle, was the hotbed from where AASU launched its six-year agitation against ‘illegal’ foreigners in 1979. An Assam Border Police Official had detected 47,658 ‘foreigners’ in the constituency voters’ list, causing public outrage. This sparked the agitation that later culminated in the Assam Accord.
While similar drives happened during the era of the Asom Gana Parishad (a political offshoot of the AASU), Azad said what stood out in the recent drive was the extent of dehumanisation.
“Today, what we’re seeing is an outright display of both communalism and dehumanisation,” he told Article 14. “And this is only the beginning”
In the 2020 India Exclusion Report, Azad detailed the historical lived reality of Muslims of Bengali origin (1.8 million), who make up a majority of the 2.4 million people living on the more than 2,000 sand bars across 14 districts, according to the Assam government’s Directorate of Char Areas Development.
These internally displaced persons (IDPs), victims of floods and land erosion in the state, are constantly on the move, most of them without land deeds or pattas for sand bars that no longer exist.
Despite the upheaval caused by the meandering course of the Brahmaputra and climate change, the Disaster Management Act 2005 doesn’t recognise ‘erosion’ as a natural calamity. It was only in 2015 that the Congress government in Assam announced the Chief Minister’s Scheme for Rehabilitation of Erosion Affected Families to provide land and monetary compensation.
However, when 30,000 IDPs applied, none of the applications was processed, wrote Azad, who filed an application in 2015 under the RTI Act to inquire about the status of the scheme.
“Within a few weeks of filing the RTI application, the scheme was modified with stricter selection criteria,” he said. From 2014-15, only those possessing myadi patta land (individual permanent land deeds) would be eligible to apply for compensation.
A year later, an official from the State Disaster Management Authority told the Hindustan Times that the cost of implementing the scheme and processing 30,500 applications received exceeded Rs 500 crore—the sum allocated for rehabilitation was Rs 5 crore.
Other Evictions Aren’t As Violent
Evictions are, however, not limited to char areas in this northeastern state, where indigenous tribes have also been displaced on account of government land clearance and restoration of forest area as per two reports by the Human Rights Law Network on forced evictions, in 2018 and 2020.
Pranab Doley, a land rights activist who has criticised the forced evictions of Karbi and Mising tribes living around the Kaziranga National Park in Golaghat district, told Article 14 that there’s a “kind of racial and casteist” lens towards tribals, who are also seen as encroachers of forest land.
“Eviction of tribals also entails violence ,and due process is not followed but Dhalpur stands out because of the outrageous amount of state violence there,” he said. “This kind of hatred for others is very dangerous.”
Moreover, he added, it was easy to legitimise the violence in places like Dhalpur, courtesy the Hindu-Muslim divide being fanned by state players.
“There’s a lot of consensus among jatiyotabadi (Assamese nationalist) organisations who have said that these people (Bengali Muslims) should be evicted,” said Doley.
A cocktail of nationalist groups in Assam such as AASU fights for the preservation of culture, language and natural resources seen as proprietary to Assamese communities and ethnic tribes. They believe that those native to the land should be the primary beneficiaries of development.
New Eviction Drives, Old Bogey Of Infiltration
Azad said that much of the blueprint of the eviction drives under the BJP regime since 2016 is derived from a report commissioned by the Revenue and Disaster Management department in February 2017 to ensure ‘protection of land rights of indigenous people in the State of Assam’. The committee led by former chief election commissioner Hari Sankar Brahma submitted its report in December that year.
The report, which begins with a quote from the Mahabharata, recommended that a separate directorate for eviction of various classes of encroachments should be aided by a ‘special task force’ consisting of state police and paramilitary forces with its divisions in Jorhat (upper Assam), Bongaigaon (lower Assam) and Silchar (Barak valley).
The committee concluded that “in the background of high infiltration of suspected Bangladeshis and the explosive growth of population in several districts of Assam’, allotment of government lands should be limited to only ‘indigenous people of Assam”. The definition of who is indigenous, however, was not specified in any tangible terms by the Brahma committee.
The committee also alluded to people “of doubtful origin”, “illegal Bangladeshis” or “persons of the erstwhile East Pakistan/ Bangladesh origin” inter-mingling with Assam’s indigenous people.
Samrat Chowdhury, journalist and author of The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra, said that the claim of indigeneity that is driving the eviction of 'encroached’ char areas is itself doubtful.
“If it’s a wasteland newly born of a river, then the question of who is indigenous to the land doesn’t exist,” he told Article 14.
The residents of Dhalpur 3 did not deny that the land they were living on and cultivating for decades belonged to the government.
Azad said that in many sand bars, dwellers were paying land revenue tax and had annual pattas, which offer some manner of land tenure.
“But now the government is telling them that what they were paying was not revenue but a fine for encroaching on government land,” he said.
Grazing Reserves Occupied Illegally: Assamese Groups
According to senior residents of Dhalpur 3, the land their homes stood on was under the Brahmaputra river and uninhabitable before it became a char, which is when they moved in, four to five decades ago.
Assamese civil society groups in the Sipajhar revenue circle reject this claim. Their own claim is that the char islands were erstwhile common areas classified by the colonial administration as ‘professional grazing reserves’ (PGR) and ‘village grazing reserves’ (VGR).
Several government memorandums and documents including the Assam Land Records Manual, which maintains a record of government land and encroachments, support this claim. Article 14 has seen a list of 109 ‘encroachers’ on the PGR land of Fuhuratoli village and 101 encroachers in Dhalpur 1 village, all Bengali Muslims. The lists were prepared by a revenue department official.
In 2016, an eviction notice was served to “Aynal Haque and 106 others” based on a report of the deputy commissioner that they had encroached government land in “Fuhuratoli village under PGR” (Sipajhar revenue circle).
In 2015, six petitioners who are members of Sipajhar-based nationalist groups Sangrami Satirtha Sanmelan (an ‘indigenous’ collective of mostly former AASU members fighting for land rights) and Dakhin Pascim Mangaldoi Gowal Sanstha (South West Mangaldoi Association of Milk Producers) filed a case of land grabbing in the special tribunal (district and sessions judge) in Mangaldoi.
They invoked rule 3(I) of the Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act 2010 and section 8(2) of the Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Rules, 2013. Their petition was based on responses to two RTI applications in 2013, which offer contradictory information about the Sipajhar revenue circle.
In the first response (May 2013), the Sipajhar circle office said that six char villages from Kurawa to Dhalpur were occupying 4,200 bighas (1,388 acres) of PGR and 933 bighas (307 acres) of VGR. The RTI response said no individual had been allotted land in PGR/VGR areas.
The second response (August 2013) to a second RTI application said there was no map available of the Sipajhar revenue circle prior to 1980. It said: “Although there was no land to the south of Brahmaputra under Sipajhar revenue circle, now after the river has changed its course, it was observed that a new char has emerged. That char to the south of Brahmaputra is known as Kajolibali char. Its landmass could be approximately 1500 bighas.”
The reply, however, also mentioned that 3,000 bighas (992 acres) of PGR land was ‘encroached’ in two char villages—Fuhuratoli and Dhalpur 1.
So, the circle office concluded in the second RTI that 77,420 bighas of land had been ‘encroached’ in this region, while also stating that no land was known to exist to the south of the Brahmaputra in Sipajhar until a char was formed.
Article 14 sought comment from Prabhati Thaosen, the deputy commissioner of Darrang district. This story will be updated when she responds. The deputy commissioner’s office had in 2014 instructed the Sipajhar circle office to inquire into the Sanmelan’s complaint of encroachment.
The Dying Of The Pastures
Satya Rajbangshi, assistant secretary of one of Assam’s oldest milk-producing cooperatives that is also a petitioner in the case, told Article 14 that his grandfather used to own 100-150 buffaloes in pre-Independence days when ample grazing land was available.
“Gradually, our cattle reduced,” he said, attributing the shrinking of pastures to encroachments. “My father owned 60 buffaloes, and I only own 20-30 buffaloes.”
In Garukhuti, a grazer whose family has reared cattle for four generations said he, too, had witnessed the decline of pastures. He said he saw encroachments even when he used to go with his father to graze their animals. “Back then, grazers over 300 km away from Hajo and Rangia used to bring their cattle because of the surplus land available here,” he said.
He did not want to be named for fear of reprisal from Bengali Muslims, with whom there had allegedly been several stand-offs. The residents of Dhalpur 3, however, refuted this claim.
Rajbangshi showed Article 14 permits for grazing dating back to 1928. The name of the place, Gorukhuti, literally translates to cattle post, where local peasants, including a small minority of Nepalese, once grazed cattle and cultivated winter crops, he said.
A voter list of Fuhuratoli village dated 1968 showed only Nepali/Gorkha residents. However, there appeared to be no government list of Nepali residents deemed to be ‘encroachers’.
“Slowly the village started to disappear,” Rajbangshi said, “with the arrival of one or two Bengali Muslim families in the early eighties.” He claimed that the newcomers intimidated the Nepalis into selling land at throwaway prices.
The Common Ground Of Hinduism
Asked to explain the amity between the Nepali community (not considered native to the region) and the Assamese, Rajbangshi said the common ground was Hinduism.
“Khilonjias (an indigenous Assamese community) are also Muslims but their religion and customs are different from the Miyas, who are all Bangladeshis,” Rajbangshi told Article 14.
Dhalpur’s residents dispute this telling of their history.
Kader Ali, a long-time resident of Dhalpur 3 village who has been farming his own land, said he used to pay revenue tax but stopped 10 years ago. Forty years ago, he moved to Dhalpur 3 with his family, displaced by annual floods. Here, he said he purchased a piece of land from an Assamese local living across the nau (new) river that separates the char from the mainland.
“It was a verbal agreement back then so I don’t have any papers to show for it,” he told Article 14.
For a long time, an informal practice had been in place where Assamese locals would sell land to Bengali Muslim settlers, often through moneylenders or middle men.
In his seminal book The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology and Identity, Professor Monirul Hussain (Centre of North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia University) noted that local Assamese Hindus would often claim ownership of a pam (a plot of land or wasteland) and then sell it to Bengali Muslims.
In fact, it was alleged that Rajbangshi himself made a transaction with a Muslim resident of Fuhuratoli village in 2010. Rajbangshi said the sale deed on stamp paper is forged, and the allegation a conspiracy against him.
Agriculture Project Employs Assamese Youth Who Don’t Farm
Although the land grabbing case is pending in the Gauhati High Court, the BJP government in Assam went ahead and announced the ‘Garukhuti project’ in the state budget in June 2021.
Under the project, the government promised to ‘provide livelihood options to indigenous youth living in that area, encompassing not only modern agricultural practices but also scientific animal rearing practices’.
A committee formed under BJP MLA Padma Hazarika, who was inducted into the cabinet in 2021 to lead the agricultural project, is overseeing the scheme for which 134 ecological task forces have been deployed for afforestation activities.
Farmer groups in the area have been identified to become members of a large multi-purpose agricultural produce organisation, with plans to introduce 2,000 Gir cows and farm machinery. Farmer groups and self help groups would be trained to use the machinery for large scale cultivation of Rabi (winter) crops. An amount of Rs 9.60 crore was allocated for the scheme.
Although the Brahma committee had recommended 10% of the land to be allotted for VGR/PGR, the Garukhuti project makes no mention of it. The Garukhuti grazer told Article 14 that there was ample government land available to them for grazing, although he maintained that the project would be good for the ‘indigenous youth’ to get some employment.
Another grazer, however, told Article 14 that some of their farmland was also taken away by the government as a part of this project. Assamese Muslims living in Sanowa have reportedly said that the evictions were targeted at all Muslims, whether Assamese or Bengali.
Hazarika, the MLA in charge of the Garukhuti project, said that over 500 ‘indigenous’ youth in the Siphajhar revenue circle were being trained under the scheme.
“We are training them to farm but their families have been cultivators since before. Now we’re just doing this in an organised manner,” he told Article 14.
However, research on agricultural patterns in Assam paints a different picture of productivity and livelihood.
Bengali Muslims: Skilled Farmers
A study based in Sipajhar revenue circle on the “regionalisation of agricultural development” published in 2020 in the International Journal of Scientific and Technological Research found that three gram panchayats, Sanowa, Bazanapathar and Garukhuti, all villages with a substantial portion of char lands, already had high farm mechanisation and diversification of agricultural activities compared to the Assamese and tribal-dominated panchayats in the area.
“It is an unequivocal statement that the char dweller Muslim community is traditionally a skilled cultivator and wherever they are settled they create an environment congenial for agricultural practice,” noted the researchers, Pabitra Kumar Nath and Chinmoy Raj Saikia (Department of Geography, Mangaldoi College).
Despite floods and poor connectivity in the char areas, according to Nath and Saikia, the farming in this area was ‘progressive’.
Importantly, Nath and Saikia observed a ‘declining trend in the participation of agriculture practices among young farmers of low and medium agricultural development regions’.
Mohammad Ibramul, a resident of Dhalpur 3 who mostly works outside the char as a labourer in Guwahati and Nagaon cities, said that it was very common for landless farmers in the char to work as labourers on farmland owned by Assamese residents under a system locally known as ‘thika kuli’, an informal contract farming system.
“Assamese people are not as skilled in farming, which is why a lot of our people labour on their farms for a fixed amount of money, in addition to collecting the surplus produce,” said Ibramul.
Hazarika, however, refuted this claim saying that the reason for high productivity from the Bengali Muslim areas was because the chars have always been fertile, while little land was left for agriculture elsewhere. “We have never got the chance to cultivate in the char because of the encroachers who had grabbed the land,” he told Article 14.
Uncertain about their future in the char, Dhalpur 3 residents told Article 14 they were hopeful of continuing to farm their land, growing Ahu and Boro varieties of paddy apart from mustard, maize, jute and rabi.
Shahjahan Ali, a 24-year-old farmer who has been doing thika or contract farming work for the last seven years, said he wasn’t keen to return to work on farms across the river since the eviction drive. He has instead pinned his hopes on the precarious government promise of six bighas for each evicted family.
“Now, the new government kheti (agriculture) project is starting on our land,” he said. “But we won’t be included in it.”
Azad said local farmer cooperatives would again become middlemen or traders, while the ‘Miya’ farmers would cultivate the land, with one difference.
“The Bengali-origin Muslims who were farming for all these years,” said Azad, “will now become agricultural labourers.”
(With inputs from Prakash Bhuyan).
(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati. She covers India’s northeast for several national and international publications.)