A sudden gust of wind swept up a bunch of worn-out papers at Firoza Khatun’s makeshift house. As the papers flew about, it was a brittle, four-square-inch paper in a blue plastic folder that Khatun and her husband Hanif Ali seemed to care about the most. Firoza ran after the yellowing, leaf-like paper and, much like a child catching a sparrow, she carefully trapped it in her palms.
The tiny piece of paper is the original National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, document that was prepared on the basis of independent India’s first census. It has Hanif’s father Altaf Ali’s name written on it in blue ink. The document states that Ali’s ancestors migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Bengal before the Partition. The NRC is being updated again now, so Firoza and Hanif must guard this paper with dear life to establish that they are indeed Indian citizens.
Such ancient documents, often illegible, are possessed in prolific numbers by Assam’s Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant families. “We are obsessed with identity and with papers,” said Ali with a smile.
The anxiety to possess proof of identity has never been greater for this community. The updated NRC will include the descendants of all those who were included in the 1951 register. But a vast majority of these immigrants have been described as ‘doubtful citizens’, and before the 2016 elections in Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had announced clearly that its key objective was to evict “doubtful citizens” from all government land and ensure the “complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border.”
Excavators, escorted by a posse of policemen and a dozen elephants, had arrived to demolish the 200-odd houses made of tin and bamboo. As the young man stepped out, a stray bullet hit him
So, the yellowing piece of paper could not stop Ali’s family from being evicted last September from Deosursang village in Nagaon district. His family now lives in lean-tos in Chikunipathar, where a dozen families were huddled together in the winter cold when we visited early this year.
In rhino land
In Banderdubi village, also on the edge of Kaziranga National Park and adjacent to Deosursang, Bimala Khatun’s son, 22-year-old Fakhruddin, stepped out of his hut to see the dozen excavators that had roared into his village. The excavators, escorted by nearly 2,000 policemen and at least a dozen elephants, had arrived to demolish the 200-odd houses made of tin and bamboo. As Fakhruddin stepped out, a stray bullet hit him in the neck. “I was cooking when I heard he was shot. I reached the spot in about five minutes, but he died almost instantaneously,” said Sufiya, his wife. When Bimala Khatun heard about her son’s death, her first thoughts were “about our identity papers,” she said.
Unofficial sources say that about 10,000 people have been evicted from roughly two dozen villages across Assam over the last six months. However, last month, the Assam government officially pegged the figure at 3,500.
In the villages around Kaziranga, the official statement is that these villages fall inside the boundaries of Kaziranga National Park. But the families dispute this. According to Ali, in the mid-90s, around 100 families had been settled in Deosursang by the then Circle Officer. The families allege that the boundary of the national park has been arbitrarily pushed south by about 500 yards and fenced in to displace them. “The police said our village was in the animal corridor, but the adjacent village of Baghmari was not razed. Why are some villages being left and others destroyed,” asked Md. Nizamuddin, a 55-year-old small farmer. He claims it is because his is a Muslim village while Baghmari is an ethnically mixed village.
Banderdubi has seen another death. Anjuma Khatun, 19, was shot dead when “she stood between the bullet and the peasant leader Akhil Gogoi,” said Ashraful Hussain, 24, a social activist. Her death has already become legend in the region.
Gogoi is widely seen by the predominantly Muslim villagers as putting up the only resistance to the administration’s eviction efforts. Anjuma’s death has convinced the villagers of Banderdubi and of the chars (islands) and chaporis (banks) along the river that Gogoi could have stopped the eviction by contesting the elections.
Gogoi, 40, belongs to the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and was mentored initially by Anna Hazare. But he refused to contest the polls, emerging instead as an opponent to the administration’s large-scale eviction plans. He was arrested soon after he staged an agitation in Banderdubi. While in prison, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal continued with the winter evictions. Gogoi was incarcerated for nearly three months. Eventually, a notice was issued to the Assam government by the National Human Rights Commission, but the evictions continued. “People must follow the law, and the State machinery must ensure maintenance of law and order so that all sections of society feel secure,” the Chief Minister said in the Assembly.
Assam’s latest eviction drama has no simple solution, as its roots lie in pre-independence India. It was in 1911 that the British Census Commissioners noted the migration from “overpopulated East Bengal” to the “labour-short, land-abundant Assam,” as mentioned by Assam’s foremost historian Amalendu Guha.
A year later, the Sylhet Division was carved out of Bengal and attached to Assam province. But the growth of the Muslim population proved threatening. “It was then that an open clash of interests began to take place,” wrote Guha in Planter Raj to Swaraj—Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 1826-1947. Eventually a ‘Line System’ was adopted in 1920 to settle immigrants in ‘segregated areas’ with 85% Muslims.
A debate brewed within the Congress. In 1937, Jahawarlal Nehru argued that “from the point of view of developing Assam and making it wealthier… immigration (from East Bengal) is desirable.” It was challenged by the country’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, who believed in populating the Brahmaputra valley with “Hindus of Bihar than Muslims of Mymensingh.” After decades, the cut-off date to accept immigrants was marked as March 24, 1971, a couple of days before the start of the Liberation War in Bangladesh.
Soon after Independence, the Congress opted for a similar large-scale eviction of settlers. “The (Gopinath) Bordoloi government’s routine measures to evict thousands of immigrant squatters from grazing and forest reserves… looked like a counter-measure to curb the (Muslim) League,” wrote Guha. Bordoloi, however, “wisely decided to go slow with the policy and was able to keep the province (Nagaon) free from communal riots.”
This tradition to “go slow” continued until the BJP decided to reverse it now. Even though identifying individuals who arrived after March 24, 1971, is a complex exercise, large-scale eviction has started. A notification in January announced that “encroachment” on government land “shall be removed forthwith by the Deputy Commissioner”. It is this move that threatens to dispossess tens of thousands of people today.
Cops in the schools
From a distance, Fuhuratoli, a village in Darrang district, looked like a large, unkempt graveyard. As we got closer, the dust mounds got bigger; they were the remains of what were once tin-roofed huts. On the vacant lot, six or seven girls were plucking yellow flowers from the grass. Their school, Fuhuratoli Primary, had been taken over.
“The police are staying there,” said Anisha Khatun, a Class IV student. Two fractured platoons of about two dozen central paramilitary forces were stationed in the school and in the madrassa to prevent villagers from resettling in Fuhuratoli. Before the eviction, Fuhuratoli had a little over 200 families living on a verdant highland that was about two sq. km in size. The greenery had now disappeared. A strong stench permeated the air in the new settlement lying in the lowland next to Nao river, a distributary of the Brahmaputra, with its polythene shanties that offered no protection against the biting cold. The villagers defecated in holes made on the banks of the Nao. A child had died of diarrhoea and cold, dozens were sick.
Khorshed Mollah is in his 70s. He said that he had moved house three times; living on the banks of the erratic Brahmaputra forces you to do so.
“In 1995,” said Mollah, “I was on the edge of the river in Ballakheti when the river took a turn and ate up our village; that’s when we came here. Now, after 22 years, we are described as encroachers,” said Mollah. The vagaries of the river seem to have been overlooked. Surveys suggest that erosion has created hundreds of new villages in the chars and chaporis, turning settlers to refugees or foreigners, depending on the day’s politics.
This is a key problem. Some 4.27 lakh hectares (or 7.4%) of land has disappeared into the Brahmaputra since the 1950s, widening the river by around 15 km in some places. “The people who lose land to the river set up new villages in new places and are often identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ when they are actually victims of erosion,” said a senior bureaucrat.
The Assam government agreed to rehabilitate “erosion affected families” in an earlier notification but, curiously, added that the order will not extend to those affected by “other natural calamities or man-made disasters.”
The cut-off date
The man instrumental in fast-tracking evictions insists that the papers the evicted villagers possess are not authentic. Supreme Court lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika launched Prabajan Virodhi Manch (Forum Against Infiltration) in 2013. He said that their papers are an act of “forgery”.
Hazarika also heads the one-man commission appointed by the apex court to look into the issue. He said that all the people were ‘encroachers’ who did not have land rights. “Otherwise, they would have got immediate protection from the court,” he said. “These people came in through a porous border and should go back the same way.” His forum, he said, is not attached to the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Their agendas appear to overlap but as far as Hazarika is concerned, even Bangladeshi Hindus must not be allowed into Assam. “Narendra Modi said that Assam would not take immigrants—so act on that pledge,” said Hazarika.
Vijay Kumar Gupta, a BJP general secretary in Assam, differed. “Any Hindu from Bangladesh or any other country is our citizen,” he said, but Bangladeshi Muslims are “foreigners”. He insisted that the Assam Accord’s 1971 cut-off date be respected. Interestingly, Bengali-origin Muslims also say that they accept this cut-off date.
Meanwhile, the evicted people have gotten together to create a platform demanding compensation and rehabilitation and have even managed to get some recompense. But the Rs. 5 lakh she got makes little sense to Sufiya, Fakhruddin’s wife. “They can take back the money and return my husband,” she said.
As for the others, they continue to cling to blue, purple and yellow files filled with brittle documents, even though they have provided little protection so far.