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The Communal Politics of Evictions in Assam: Looking back at Dhalpur

As more people shift from Dhalpur to Shyampur, the newly settled families are being allotted even less than one bigha land, while the rehabilitation sites lack basic infrastructure such as access roads, electricity and toilets.
Women in Assam's Dhalpur returning home from Hajira (work as day labourers) Photo: Aditi Mukherjee

Dhalpur: A cluster of villages known as Dhalpur in the Darrang district of Assam, captured the attention of the national media in September 2021 in the wake of an exceptionally brutal eviction drive by the state government.

A video clip started circulating on social media, of a photographer stomping over the lifeless body of a resident, Moinul Haque who was killed in police firing. The image came to symbolise a ruthless eviction drive.

More than two years later, on May 21, 2024 the Assam government orchestrated another round of evictions in the same village. Eviction of Bengali Muslim or Miya Muslim peasants in Assam on unfounded allegations of being ‘Bangladeshis’ have increased in intensity in the past few years. These evictions are often communally motivated and lead to violation of basic human rights of the displaced.

Bengali Muslims are pejoratively called Miya in Assam. In recent years, leaders of the Bengali Muslim community have developed a genre of poetry called Miya poetry through which they have protested against the all-pervasive discrimination they face in Assam.

These poems document the injustice experienced by the Bengali Muslims. They have owned the term Miya as a positive mark of identification. Here I will use the term Miya Muslims to indicate Bengali Muslims in Assam, following the preference of the leaders of this radical poetry movement.

Communally charged evictions in Assam since BJP’s ascent to power

As a researcher conducting research on displacement and citizenship in Assam, I lived in Dhalpur and Shyampur for three weeks in January-February 2023, interacting with the evicted Bengali Muslim peasants. My time was split between Dhalpur, the ground zero of the eviction and Shyampur, a proposed government rehabilitation site in Assam’s Darrang district.

A Guwahati based journalist and friend Parveez Maruf Sufi brought me to Dhalpur and Shyampur for the first time, introduced me to camp inhabitants and accompanied me during interactions in the initial days. The following is a personal recollection of my experience of living with the displaced families.

Dhalpur is just one example of a series of recent evictions in Assam. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in India (2014), demolitions of Muslim homes and religious shrines have been carried out on the pretext of clearing ‘illegal’ encroachment. The bulldozer has emerged as a symbol of swift justice of the new right-wing government and has been selectively deployed to target Muslim homes and property.

Muslim neighbourhoods, shops and land have been targeted for evictions in different parts of Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi, Uttarakhand among other places. In Assam, the Miya Muslim community have borne the brunt of the eviction drives.

Evictions at the Kaziranga National Park in Nagaon (September 2016), at Mayong in Morigaon (November 2016), at Baghbar in Barpeta (December 2022), Batadrava in Nagaon (December 2022) and Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary in Sonitpur (February 2023) are among the numerous examples of displacement of Miya Muslim peasants and induce chilling ethno-nationalist fervour in Assam’s mainstream media and public sphere.

For decades, Assam has been afflicted by a divisive narrative that the Miya Muslims migrate from erstwhile East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) and settle ‘illegally’ by ousting the original inhabitants of the state. The BJP government has pledged to rescue Assam’s land and identity from alleged foreigners and protect the jati-mati-bheti (community, land, hearth) of its ‘indigenous’ people.

Darrang district where Dhalpur is located, was at the centre of Assam’s anti-foreigners’ agitation (1979-1984) on the dubious allegation of having a large number of ‘Bangladeshis’.

In Assam a six-year-long agitation started in 1979 with the primary demand for identification and deportation of ‘Bangladeshi’ who have allegedly migrated from Bangladesh to Assam illegally. The anti-foreigners’ agitation was led by organisations such as the All Assam Students’ Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad.

They demanded that the names of ‘illegal migrants’ be removed from Assam’s electoral rolls. The presence of ‘Bangladeshis’ was seen to adversely impact the state’s economy, culture and politics, and threaten to make Assam’s indigenous people a minority in their own homeland. It ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord between the agitators and the central and state governments.

This narrative of presence of ‘Bangladeshi’ led to communal polarisation against the state’s Miya Muslims. One of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms during the Assam movement took place in the village Chaulkhowa in 1983, located close to Dhalpur, leading to massacres of Bengali Muslims. The dubious narrative of the presence of ‘Bangladeshis’ has remained potent since.

At the turn of the millennium, the Prabrajan Virodhi Mancha (Anti-influx Forum), a local organisation allied to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) played a prominent role in circulating this false discourse of ‘illegal’ infiltration.

Their allegation, also echoed in Assam’s official circles, is that Dhalpur and its adjacent areas are a grazing area comprising 77,420 bighas of land which has been forcibly occupied by suspected ‘Bangladeshis’. It is wrongfully alleged that they have occupied the land by uprooting ‘indigenous’ people.

Many Miya Muslim families have lived in Assam since more than a century

Two rounds of evictions were carried out in Dhalpur on September 20 and 23, 2021. Tentatively 1,350 families were evicted from three villages, Dhalpur 1, Dhalpur 2 and Dhalpur 3. Two persons were killed in police firing during the evictions and several sustained bullet injuries. A second round of evictions took place on May 20 2024 when tentatively 400 families were evicted. As I realised during my stay in Dhalpur in 2023, evictions also take place through indirect means.

People living in the adjoining villages are still being displaced and are often coerced into shifting to an official rehabilitation site at Shyampur, in the Dalgaon area of Darrang. The state government has launched a project called the Garukhuti Agricultural Project on the land freed by eviction, a project to conduct agriculture and other allied activities by employing the ‘indigenous’ local youth.

After the evictions in 2021, a well-known Guwahati based journalist, Jamser Ali and his research team conducted a survey of the evicted people and prepared a meticulous report on the evictions in Dhalpur, titled “Dhalpur: The Truth Behind” (2022).

Ali notes that the official claim that the entire land of the three villages Dhalpur 1, Dhalpur No 2 and Dhalpur No 3 are grazing land is not supported by the censuses of 1971, 1991, and 2011. The official narrative that the inhabitants are ‘Bangladeshis’ is also a distortion of truth.

Most of the inhabitants have lived in Assam for over a century and possess legal documents. Neither have they forcibly evicted ‘indigenous’ inhabitants. Rather many of them have purchased land informally.

The Brahmaputra river which now flows south of Dhalpur, used to flow by its northern side around 1971. It changed course with time. I learnt during interactions that most of the families living in Dhalpur have previously lost land due to river erosion. They have migrated to Dhalpur from districts like Barpeta, Dhubri and Goalpara from the late 1970s. Here land is impermanent and shifting, and ebbs and flows with the rhythm of the river.

Assamese nationalist discourse, which labels these people as ‘illegal migrants’, imagine land to be stable and fixed, with ownership secured by legal documents. It refuses to recognise local ad hoc arrangements and informal understandings of land usage and rights. After the evictions in 2021, many of the affected families have settled provisionally at a nearby area earmarked for them by the government.

The area is locally known as bhangapara, literally meaning the broken neighbourhood. Most of the families are cultivators. Before the evictions they used to make a living by growing vegetables on the fertile land beside the Brahmaputra river.

A cabbage field in the neighbourhood. Photo: Aditi Mukherjee.

The land was used to cultivate cabbage, potato, chilli, corn, tomato and other greens. These were commercially cultivated and marketed in the cities of Assam. Many of the evicted villagers told me that they had informally purchased land from local inhabitants over the years. They have paid their land revenue for some years and are in possession of revenue receipts. Their lives are fraught with problems.

Everyday violence by the police and Sangh parivar

I came to Dhalpur for the first time in January 2023. I stayed at the home of Rakib, an evicted villager in bhangapara, for eight nights. Rakib lives with his wife Ajirun and their daughter, Ayesha. I spent another five nights at a nearby village, within walking distance from bhangapara.

A narrow channel of the river (dry during winter) separates the neighbourhood from the project area and functions as a boundary. The evicted families are prohibited to go near the agricultural project land, the location of their erstwhile homes. I learnt from Ajirun, that an elderly gentleman who lives next door, Saidul, was beaten up by the project workers during the month of Ramzan in 2022.

This happened because he had accidentally gone too close to the project area. I sought out Saidul for an interview. He shared with me: “One morning, I was going to the field with two cows, the cows broke free and ran towards the project area… were caught by four RSS boys. They took me to the police camp. Two of them repeatedly slapped hard around my face and ears. Eventually around 12 people gathered. All took turns to beat me, tore out my beard, and forced me to consume meat to break my Roza fast…’.

Afterwards he was taken to the Sipajhar police station. In the evening his family secured his release from the police station by paying money. For many in Dhalpur, harassment at the hands of the project officials and the police on various pretexts is an everyday affair.

Sometimes, Meher, a local school teacher accompanied me to meet people in the neighbourhood. One afternoon, Meher and I were walking towards her home. On the way, we met a few women returning home after a day’s hajira (work as day labourers). Many of these women are widows. After losing their agricultural land and livelihood, they commute daily to the suburbs of cities like Khanua, Mangaldoi, Guwahati in search of work. The women told us that they earn roughly Rs 300 for a day’s work. Post eviction, a few police camps and the camp of the project officials have been set up at strategic locations surrounding the area.

After the evictions 2021, many of the affected families have settled provisionally at a nearby area in Bhangapara, Dhalpur, which has been earmarked for them by the government. Photo: Aditi Mukherjee.

The officials have closed the access roads that pass through the agricultural project and monitor movement in and out of Dhalpur. The inhabitants take a roundabout way to go to work. This takes up double the usual time to commute. Razia, one of the women, told us that a few days earlier she encountered a policeman at a distance as she was going to work. She started to run fearing harassment, stumbled, and fell with the load on her head. She had an injury on her leg and was walking with a limp.

Police presence gives the neighbourhood the aura of a besieged locality. Many of the dwellers have migrated outside the state to distant parts of South India, like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala to work as informal labourers.

Exploited by middlemen

One morning, Meher took me to her school. We found the students lined up at the prayer ground next to the school building. The students had assembled for the morning prayer. Several local schools have closed down after the evictions.

For example, the Majarchuba Lower Primary school now functions as a makeshift police camp. Many children of school going age have dropped out. The schools that are still operational experienced a fall in student enrolment. Parents are unable to afford an education for their children and take them to work as child labourers.

The area is informally divided into a few zones of influence under different middlemen or brokers. They function as local leaders in times of disputes, during interactions with government representatives, and other everyday requirements.

In the aftermath of the evictions, a few court cases were filed by prominent civil society figures in Guwahati with pleas of stopping further evictions and demanding rehabilitation. The Guwahati High Court has issued a consolidated judgement in late January 2023.

The judgement notes that the number of evicted families is 700. The residents of Dhalpur and civil society actors claim the real number of the evicted is much higher. According to the judgement, 600 families have already been provided rehabilitation by the government at Shyampur (also disputed by the residents of Dhalpur).

The court judgement advised the remaining families to file an appeal to the Darrang Deputy Commissioner with a plea for rehabilitation. This court judgement has led to a flurry of activities. Most of the inhabitants are illiterate and they are filing an appeal with the help of the local brokers by paying hefty sums, ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 per appeal. The middlemen are accused of extorting money from the inhabitants on various pretexts of fighting the legal battle.

A small number of the inhabitants of Dhalpur are marked as Doubtful Voters and are fighting cases at the Foreigners Tribunals. Doubtful Voters in Assam are persons whose citizenship is put under doubt during revision of electoral rolls or persons identified as suspected foreigners by the Border Police.

The Foreigners Tribunal and the Border Police are two institutions that were created in response to the migration of Bengali refugees to Assam escaping the conflict between East Bengal and West Pakistan from the late 1960s (ultimately leading to the creation of Bangladesh).

These two institutions were geared to verify the citizenship of people suspected of coming from East Bengal. It is often alleged that these institutions are systematically used to target and disenfranchise Assam’s Miya Muslims. Rehman, who lives in bhangapara, recalled during a conversation that he was identified as a D Voter, fought a court case, and lost.

After serving a sentence at the Tejpur detention centre, he has now been released, but with a stringent condition. He must report to the local police station once a week. The expenses of the case proved prohibitive for him. He was unable to pay the full fee of his lawyer and the lawyer has withheld his documents.

Rehabilitation sites lack basic infrastructure

I spent some time at Shyampur, a place earmarked by the government to provide rehabilitation to the evicted families. Shyampur is under the Dalgaon revenue circle in the Darrang district. I stayed in Shyampur for one night and undertook four day-long visits.

There are roughly seven rehabilitation sites for Dhalpur’s evicted families, spread over a large area in Shyampur. These places are in the interior and not accessible by public transport. Many of the evicted families have come here with the official assurance of receiving six bigha agricultural land and one bigha for homestead.

However, as per the latest official declaration, the evicted families are to be provided one bigha land. One bigha land is not sufficient for cultivation and the evicted peasants now work as day labourers.

As more people shift from Dhalpur to Shyampur, in effect, the newly settled families are being allotted even less than one bigha land. The rehabilitation sites lack basic infrastructure like access roads, electricity and toilets. The land is low and will submerge during monsoon.

The Shyampur rehabilitation site. Photo: Aditi Mukherjee

At No 3 Arimari rehabilitation site (in Shyampur), Amzad broke into tears as he was speaking to us. He has moved to Shyampur recently and needs Rs 30,000 (approx. $367) to elevate the plot assigned to him. This will keep his home from flooding.

He has not been able to arrange for the money, and start building his home yet. None of the resettled families at Shyampur has received patta (land title) yet. Without legal ownership of land, they will remain a floating population, captive to the whims of the administration and under the looming threat of further demolitions.

Many in Dhalpur are applying for the Mission Basundhara 2.0 scheme. It is a flagship program launched by the Assam government in October 2021. The scheme promises a fresh survey of non-cadastral villages, re-survey of some cadastral villages, allotment of land title to Assam’s ‘indigenous’ people and land rights to various categories of tenants and cultivators. Whether their applications will be processed in a fair manner is doubtful.

However, they file applications to hold the government accountable to its promises. Most of the cultivators are illiterate. But they do their utmost to fill in applications, create new documents, apply for government schemes, fight court cases all of which involve expenses and complex paperwork.

The inhabitants perceive the legal battle as central to their quest for justice and often carry it out on multiple fronts. Herein lay the resilience of a beleaguered community.

(The real names of all respondents have been changed to protect their identity)

Aditi Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of History at GITAM (Deemed to be) University, Visakhapatnam. 

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