Is the government of Assam really asking for ‘farmland’ or is this an act against ‘outsiders’?

Maynal Hoque had just witnessed police beating up her 14-year-old daughter, Sonia. Enraged, he picked up a stick and ran towards the cops in riot gear and armed with automatic weapons. As one would expect in rapidly emerging ‘new’ Assam – where police officers were practically given permission to shoot first and ask questions later in the guise of self-defense – he was shot with a bullet in the chest, without any attempt. made to subdue him by the dozens of cops.

What followed in Gorukhuti village under Sipajhar revenue circle in Darrang district in central Assam on September 23 will be etched in memory, until another such incident on relegated to the trash. As Maynal lay motionless, an official photographer, Bijoy Shankar Baniya, assigned to the team of district administration officials and police officers to record the eviction of the Maynals and Sonias, stomped on him, kicking and from the knees to the lying body. Two cops also joined in, beating the inert body with batons and rifle butts. The music video went viral, sparking scorn, and Baniya landed in jail.

The incident, in which three people – Maynal, 12-year-old Sheikh Farid and Saddam Hussain – died when cops opened fire on villagers resisting eviction from the lands they had inhabited for decades, may be attributed to the recently announced decision by the BJP government to be land free from encroachment. In Sipajhar, the government has decided to start a community farming project and has earmarked about Rs 9 crore for this purpose.

By September 20, the government had evicted 800 families from Dhalpur village in the same circle. There were no problems there because not only were the evictees assured of another plot, but they were also shown the plots. This was not the case in the village of Gorukhuti. The villagers had agreed to move in principle – some had even demolished their shelters the night before – but that day they were shocked and angry when the police arrived in the morning and bulldozed the remaining houses. In retaliation, they threw stones and attacked the cops with sticks, injuring some of them, inciting others to open fire.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has accused some groups like the Islamist PFI (People’s Front of India) and some individuals including a local college professor of inciting the villagers. “There must have been 60 households. Where do 10,000 people come from? He asked. He also alleged that a certain group had collected Rs 28 lakh from the villagers, assuring them that they would not be evicted. “But when they failed, they made people attack the cops,” he said. The government has ordered an investigation into the matter by a retired Gauhati high court judge.

The incident could not have come at a more opportune time for the BJP, with polls for six assembly seats lined up in the coming days. Once again center stage is the “Bangladeshi” – an issue that political parties have been exploiting for decades. The story has already been revisited to recall how several natives were killed in this very region of Gorukhuti in 1983, at the height of the movement against “outsiders”. The Maynals and Hussains are considered “illegal immigrants” from the neighboring country, even if their names appear in the NRC, or if they have Aadhaar cards, or if they have been voting in Indian elections for years. The government now wants to take the land for “agricultural purposes” from those who have been farming it for decades. And the saga will be replayed over and over again, as the expellees reappear on another tank that emerges from the Brahmaputra as it keeps changing course, leaving them once again susceptible to being labeled “illegal immigrants”.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Blood On The Char”)

Amalia H. Mercado