An eviction drive in India’s northeastern state of Assam of residents living on government-owned land has heightened insecurities among the state’s Muslim population according to rights activists.
The evictions being carried out in the remote state came into national spotlight after two people were killed in September during one of the drives to evict 800 mostly Muslim families from Dhalpur in Assam’s Darrang district.
The violence caused outrage after a video that went viral on social media showed a policeman shooting a young man who was running toward him with a stick — he was among residents protesting the evictions and demanding rehabilitation. Seconds later, the video shows him lying motionless on the ground and a government-appointed photographer kicking the victim’s body. The young man, Moninul Haque, and a 12-year-old boy who got caught in the violence were killed.
Many of those displaced told local media that they had been farming the land for decades since moving to the area after losing their own land to river erosion.
The eviction drive resumed this month as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that rules the state vowed to press on with its campaign to clear people settled on government land.
More than 500 families, who had been growing crops like ginger and turmeric, were evicted last week, from Lumding. Officials said the drive, for which hundreds of police and paramilitary soldiers were deployed, was peaceful.
Critics and activists charge that the campaigns to clear government land are being carried out in areas populated predominantly by Muslims.
The government denies this and says the drive is not targeted at any community but at people who are squatting on forest and government land. It says the land will be used for farming projects that will create jobs for “indigenous” people.
Suhas Chakma, Director of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group told VOA the evictions aim to satisfy the sentiment of Assamese-speaking people in the state.
“It is very clear the action is selective. Otherwise, the state government should carry out a survey of such encroachments throughout the state, and not just conduct evictions in areas where mostly Muslims have settled,” points out Chakma. “If that is done, they would find thousands of people from all communities who have been cultivating government land for decades.”
Assam’s population of 33 million includes Hindus, Muslims and several indigenous tribes. Among the residents are Bengali-speaking people, who came over the decades from Bangladesh with which the state shares a border.
A spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam state, Rupam Goswami told VOA that majority of those evicted are Bengali-speaking Muslims because they account for most people settled on government land.
“The drive is not targeting any one section but only encroachers, a majority of whom happen to be Muslims. Some Hindu people settled on forest land were also evicted,” says Goswami. “People cannot be allowed to destroy forests and settle on it. The eviction was an ongoing process since 2016. It is nothing new.”
However, analysts point out that the eviction campaign has been fast tracked by the BJP since it won a second term in control in Assam earlier this year. In the runup to the polls, it had promised to free government land from “encroachers” and distribute it among “indigenous” people who are landless.
Critics say the BJP is tapping into the state’s history of tensions between ethnic Assamese who have long complained of losing lands and jobs to Bengali-speaking people.
“A divide has existed for many decades between the local Assamese and anyone who come from outside, irrespective of their religion. But with eviction drives like this, the BJP is deepening a wedge more specifically between the Bengali Muslims and the indigenous population,” says Niranjan Sahoo, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Now, it is boiling down to religion.”
The evictions have revived worries among the Muslims in Assam, especially those who were among about 1.9 million people left off a controversial citizenship register drawn up in the state in 2019 when people were asked to show documentary evidence that they or their ancestors had resided in India before 1971. The exercise aimed to identify illegal immigrants in Assam.
Those not in the register are believed to include both Hindus and Muslims. But Muslims in Assam are more fearful because a controversial citizenship law passed in December 2019 will allow citizenship for migrants from nearby countries who are either Hindu or from one of five other religions, but not for Muslims.
Analysts like Sahoo say the Assam evictions are another example of the fracturing of inter-community relations witnessed in India since the BJP came to power. “If you connect the dots, it is part of the BJP’s agenda to rally the Hindu base and create a divide between the majority community and the Muslims not just in Assam but other places also.”
For the time being, the people evicted in Assam are living in cramped shanties without basic facilities. A body that represents minority communities, the All Assam Minorities Students Union, said the displaced are facing shortages of food, drinking water and medicine and demanded proper rehabilitation for them.
The state government has said it will provide compensation and resettlement for families if they are citizens. “The government will give land to those who are landless,” said BJP’S spokesman Goswami.
Activist Chakma counters by saying that “You cannot say I have evicted you and now you come and prove your citizenship. Many of them have proper identity papers. How many times will they have to prove that they are citizens?”