‘To dehumanise, terrorise us’: Muslims evicted in India’s Assam

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.

‘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.

‘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.

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