‘To dehumanise, terrorise us’: Muslims evicted in India’s Assam – Amina Khatoon is nine months pregnant and due to give birth any minute. For the past week, she has found herself needing to use the toilet a lot more frequently.
But Amina has no access to a toilet in the camp where she lives.
More than 1,000 families live crowded together in the camp, located in Dhalpur in Assam’s Darrang district, after being forcibly evicted by the government last month.
Amina, like the rest of the women and girls in the camp, is scared to go to the makeshift toilets. “Even those are not enough in numbers and once you go inside, the stench is unbearable. So we prefer going in the open,” she told Al Jazeera.
But there are people everywhere. “So, most of us defecate in the open at night,” explained her mother, Hunuba Khatoon.
A fortnight after the Assam government’s forceful eviction of Muslim villagers allegedly living on government land, the displaced people of Dhalpur – a cluster of villages on a Brahmaputra sandbar in the Sipajhar area – find themselves in cramped shanties propped up with whatever was left of their homes.
The deadly eviction drive
The villages are being cleared to make space for a farming project by the Assam government over 77,000 bighas (25,600 acres) of land, which the evicted families say they have been living on for more than 40 years. The Gorukhuti Agriculture Project aims to set up “modern farming” and hand them over to the state’s Indigenous youths.
The first round of evictions took place on September 20 in Dhalpur 1. “A notice was issued at midnight on September 18 and by September 20 morning, police and administration started clearing the houses,” Sohabuddin Ahmed, a 28-year-old displaced resident, told Al Jazeera.
But things spun out of control during the second round, on September 23 in Dhalpur 3. The eviction notices had been served late the previous night and the villagers were protesting, asking for more time. Policemen in riot gear, armed with sticks and guns, clashed with the protesting villagers – all of them Muslims of Bengali origin.
Two people, including a teenaged boy, were killed and many others injured, including policemen. A 72-second video of photographer Bijoy Baniya jumping on the body of one of the Muslims shot by the police went viral, triggering outrage across the nation. Houses were razed to the ground, some set on fire.
The evicted families have been pushed to a patch of land in Dhalpur 3 and left to fend for themselves without any medical aid, drinking water and other basic amenities.
Anowara Begum, 41, lost her home, shop and belongings to roaring bulldozers and screaming officials. Now a 7.5-metre-square (10 by 8 feet) space covered with a tin roof salvaged from the eviction site and bamboo walls on three sides is both her home and shop. She and her family of eight, which includes her son’s family as well, are forced to share the cramped space.
When it rained a few days ago, what few belongings they had were soaked. They, like most others, have to cook under the sky, adjusting their routine as per the whims of nature.
But Anowara has a bigger worry. “My daughter can’t go to school. How will she pass her exams?” Josna Bhanu, a student in Grade 10, lost her books during the eviction and her school was demolished.
They can no longer go back either. “No one is allowed to go there. They don’t want our children to study, they don’t want us to work, they don’t want to see us alive,” Josna’s brother Hanif Ali told Al Jazeera.
A little further on, in another shanty, Momtaz Begum wants to talk but chokes on memories from the viral video clip that captured the killing of her husband, Maynal Hoque.
“Had it not been for that video, no one would have seen the real face of Assam police and Assamese ‘jatiyatabadis’ (nationalists) like Bijoy Baniya,” said Khalilur Rehman, 38, whose house was also demolished on September 20.
‘To dehumanise, terrorise and harass us’
The brutality of the eviction drive has many in the area believing the intent was not limited to clearing government land alone.
“The evicted families have not been given any alternative place to settle so far. There is no clarity about this patch of land [camp site] as well since nothing has been said by the government in writing,” Abjalur Mehdi, general secretary of the Sipajhar unit of the All Assam Minority Students Union, told Al Jazeera.
“Also, the area is prone to flooding. The families fear they will be swept by the river water sooner than later.”
Most of the families said they were informally told by the administration to move towards the river.
Ethnic Assamese nationalists argue that “their land” and “culture” are under threat from “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, putting every Bengali-speaking community in the state under suspicion.
“In today’s Assam, every Bengali-speaking person is labelled a foreigner without any proof. All these people have identity proofs and their names are in the NRC. Yet they are called illegal Bangladeshis,” said Mehdi of the All Assam Minority Students Union.
The 2019 NRC (National Register of Citizens) was an exercise in which residents of Assam were to provide documentation “proving” their Indian citizenship. The nature of the documents required excluded many families who did not have these records, and some 1.9 million people found their names excluded from the final list published in August 2019.
Assam’s right-wing BJP-led (Bharatiya Janata Party) government announced earlier this year the NRC would be “reverified”, claiming the 1.9 million number the list found was “too less”.
Shortly after being sworn in earlier this year, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s government filed a petition in the Supreme Court for a reverification of the NRC. The demand was backed by several civil society groups which claim around 8 million “foreigners” were “illegally” included in the NRC.
Critics say the state government is concerned because a majority of those excluded from the NRC are said to be Assamese Hindus, indigenous Assamese and Bengali-origin Hindus. The official breakdown is not publicly available.
“The NRC revelations didn’t fit the narrative pushed by the BJP and the anti-immigrant lobby in Assam that millions of Bangladeshis had infiltrated the state. That is why the BJP is not accepting the NRC data prepared by its own government and monitored by the Supreme Court,” social worker Shahjahan Talukdar told Al Jazeera.
The NRC exercise had been monitored by India’s Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, an Assamese.
In the aftermath of the violence during the Dhalpur eviction, rising popular sentiment in Assam holds that government land should be freed of “illegal immigrants”.
Sohabuddin Ahmed sees the eviction drive as a clear move to further ghettoise the Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam. “They have pushed us to one corner and closed all paths. This was not done to clear government land but to dehumanise, terrorise and harass us.”
This was not the first time the Dhalpur villagers had been displaced. Ever since the BJP came to power in Assam in 2016, the families have been evicted at least three times – in November 2016, January 2021 and June 2021 – before the September drive.
In June, they were informed a day ahead of the eviction that their homes would be demolished for allegedly encroaching onto land meant for a Hindu temple.
In August, about 200 families from Dhalpur 3 petitioned the Guwahati High Court against the eviction. In response, the state administration said the settlers were on government land.
The September evictions came before the petitioners could file a reply, according to Santanu Borthakur, an advocate representing the displaced families. “Propriety demands that they should wait for the final outcome of the case,” Borthakur told Al Jazeera.
Allegations that the government was targeting Bengali-origin Muslims – who make up the majority of the 12 million Muslim Assamese out of a total state population of 32 million – gathered pace after an inflammatory tweet by Chief Minister Sarma.
After the first evictions on September 20, Sarma expressed his happiness and complimented the police and district administration on Twitter.
Continuing our drive against illegal encroachments, I am happy and compliment district administration of Darrang and @assampolice for having cleared about 4500 bigha, by evicting 800 households, demolishing 4 illegal religious structures and a private instn at Sipajhar, Darrang. pic.twitter.com/eXG6XBNH6j
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) September 20, 2021
He uploaded photographs of the eviction drive, including one showing the demolition of a mosque.
Sarma’s government has been in the news for loaded remarks laced with religious overtones.
In June, he seemed to blame the Muslim community in the state for poverty and social problems. “I think we can put an end to lot of social problems in Assam if the Muslim community adopts decent family planning norms,” Sarma said at a press conference marking the first month of his government.
‘Who is an Indigenous Assamese?’
Following the September violence, the Assam government set up an eight-member committee to prepare a framework for the implementation of the Assam Accord, signed between the Indian government and Assam in 1985. The committee will focus on the clause that protects the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Indigenous people.
Several committees with the same objectives have been set up in the past but in order to suggest measures to protect Indigenous interests, it is important to define who is an Assamese in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious state. None of the panels so far has been able to settle the question.
Strangely, the recommendations by the last committee – set up by the federal home ministry in early 2019 – were never made public. A few panel members later independently made the contents public, creating a huge furore.
“It has yet to be defined who is an Assamese. So, without knowing the answer to that, how did the state decide who is not an Assamese? The claim that the agricultural project is meant for Indigenous youths holds little ground in absence of any concrete definition,” said Mehdi.
But the government clearly thinks otherwise.
According to Dilip Saikia, parliamentarian and BJP’s national general secretary, the government has already hired 500 “Indigenous” youths for the agriculture project. He claimed that farming has already started, with 30 tractors ploughing land that will grow spinach, bottle gourd and peanuts – everything the previous occupants were already cultivating there.
“We will also start a ‘gaushala’ (dairy farm) there. The hired farmworkers are being given 6,000 rupees ($80) each per month from September onwards to encourage them. Besides, camps will also be constructed for the new workers on the project site,” Saikia told Al Jazeera.
But Dhalpur evictees such as Hanif Ali and Sohabuddin Ahmed are upset by the statement.
“They first evicted us from the land we were living in for more than 40 years and are now paying the Indigenous youths to cultivate the same land. This is like snatching the last morsel of food from a child’s mouth to feed another. Which mother does that?” Sohabuddin asked.
A common refrain among the Muslim villagers is that if the government wants to farm its land, it could have engaged them as well since they have been cultivating it for decades. Also, it is the Muslims of Bengali origin who have been traditionally cultivating land in Assam after the British colonisers brought them from former East Bengal, now Bangladesh, for the same purpose.
According to Noor Hussain, it is not so easy to farm in the riverine areas, locally called “chars”.
“For decades, the hardworking Bengali-origin Muslims converted these chars to cultivable lands and now they want to give it to people who are not known much for their hard work or farming on char land,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Assamese nationalists worry that Bengali-origin Muslims, already skilled cultivators, will take over all the land because they can farm it better. To back their argument, most Assamese academics, journalists and politicians extensively quote British civil servant CS Mullan who, after the 1931 census, labelled Bengali-origin Muslims as “land-hungry immigrants” who are “likely to permanently alter the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation”.
Chief Minister Sarma’s statements have often reflected Mullan’s dog-whistle. “The Assam government cannot cow down. We [the Assamese] are getting outnumbered every day,” he told reporters recently.
But are these Bengali-origin Muslims really “illegal” and “land-hungry”?
“We have all the documents to prove our citizenship, including our names in the NRC list. What else do they need?” asked Hussain.
The heart of the conflict
Parts of the eviction site have been embroiled in conflict for decades, leading to similar drives from time to time. In 2015, Kobad Ali, leader of the Graziers’ Association, filed a court plea, seeking the eviction of “encroachers” from areas reserved for grazing in Sipajhar villages.
Following the latest rounds of eviction that turned bloody, Assamese nationalists have been conveniently pushing forward Ali’s instance to claim that the “war” against “illegal immigrants” is not religious in nature.
“In (India’s) northeast and Assam, ethnic identity comes first. Religious identity doesn’t matter to us. The fight against infiltrators and illegal encroachers in Sipajhar was led by the Indigenous Muslims of Sanuwa village. Kobad Ali was president of the Graziers’ Association,” claims Upamanyu Hazarika of Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM), a local anti-immigrant group.
Sanuwa, mostly inhabited by the Assamese Muslims, is separated from Dhalpur by the Na-Nadi river. While travelling from the state’s main city of Guwahati, one has to first cross the river and then a gorge to reach the camp where the displaced families have taken refuge.
Meanwhile, nearby villages are already fearing eviction, even though they have yet to receive a notice from the local administration.
“The other day Darrang Superintendent of Police Sushanta Biswa Sarma [chief minister’s brother] came and asked us why we have not vacated the place already. When I said we haven’t got any notice, he said, ‘Better leave before the notice,’” a resident of Niz Salmara village told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity.
Villagers also claim that government tractors have already started ploughing the land around their houses.
“Their intention is to intimidate and terrorise us. We have been living in constant fear of being pushed out of our homes. What if they set our houses on fire?” 62-year-old Ilias, who did not want to be identified by his second name, told Al Jazeera.
While those who could afford to find refuge elsewhere have already left, Ilias is worried about his family’s safety but does not want to leave his home.
“How many times can a person make a new home?” he asked.