Photos by Saidur Rahman, Hojai
Kulsuma Begum’s son was evicted even before he was born. On 2nd, 4th and 8th March Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council carried an eviction drive at Sarkebasti at the border of East Karbi Anglong and Hojai districts. Eviction was carried out at Sarkebasti’s Bahadur Bazaar, Islampur, Choudhury School Block, Ambari etc. Almost 580 families were evicted and 2700 people rendered homeless. And Kulsuma Begum was one of them.
Heavily pregnant, Kulsuma was dragged out of her home and physically assaulted. She was left out in the open bleeding. Kulsuma Begum went into labour after being hit by police and gave birth to her son in an open field. Not a single official present took any step to make arrangements to provide any kind of medical help. When questioned, officers of ADC rank and ACF did not bother to answer. It was the local people along with some web news portal journalists who raised some money and sent Kulsuma first to the Lanka PHC. From there she was shifted to Nagaon’s Bhogeshwari Phukononi Civil Hospital and then because of her extreme critical condition, she was shifted to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH).
On 11th March Kulsuma Begum died and her newborn son was in GMCH. Kulsuma and her son must be the latest victims of the eviction drive that the state of Assam witnessed. She must have also been someone overlooked completely by this government’s large number of women centric policies. Her death which was the result of denial of medical service is a gross violation of human rights. But till date no official has been held accountable for such callousness.
Eviction in Assam
This was however not the first instance in which people were evicted without any proper compensation. The eviction drive started in 2016 in Kaziranga and was carried out in many parts of Assam left a large number of people homeless. The discourse around eviction has fitted cosily in the narrative of BJP of saving the land and rights of the khilonjiyas or the indigenous people from ‘foreigners’.
It is a fact that a large part of reserved land of government has been encroached upon. But more often than not, these are people who have lost their land to erosion. Assam till now has lost 7.4% of its land to erosion. Those displaced in erosion are often forced to take up living in such government areas. A large section of these people are from the chars or sand bars – which are again more prone to yearly flooding and erosion. Belonging to the community of Muslims of East Bengal origin, they are often targeted and doubted of being illegal immigrants.
After Kaziranga, eviction was carried out in Sipajhar, Chanderdinga, Amchang to mention a few. Most of these areas were grazing reserves and were inhabitated by people who have lost their home and hearth to the Brahmaputra. In Chanderdinga, homes of people who had patta was also demolished. Locals even accused of Forest Reserve officials charging money in the name of giving respite from eviction. But nothing saved their homes. In January of 2017, these people were forced to live in makeshift tents on the banks of the river.
The Spectre of Illegal Bangladeshis
Every act of eviction is preceded by a problematic discourse – illegal immigrants have encroached on government land and needed to be evicted. Local news channels, certain groups in social media work in tandem to conjure the illegal immigrant encroachers. In many cases like Sipajhar, civilians were also seen taking part in demolishing the homes of these encroachers. However closer investigation proved such an understanding false. In case of Kaziranga, it was proven that a large number of Assamese families were also evicted. When they proved that they were settled by the then AGP government, they were promised compensation which is yet to be handed over. Journalists reporting from the ground also proved that these areas did not belong to the Kaziranga sanctuary but have been newly acquired. When protestors came out demanding compensation, police opened fire and killed Fakhrul Islam and Anjuma Khatun.
In Sipajhar, the case was of exploitation at multiple levels. People who have been displaced by erosion moved to Sipajhar and paid hefty sums to local people for land which belonged to the government. But later these very people demanded that the settlers be evicted due to some personal feud. Local miscreants also got involved and set their homes on fire. While local news channels were busy declaring these people as doubtful citizens, not a channel wondered why they were only evicted and not detained! Also no queries were made into the act of illegally selling government land.
This myth of evicting illegal immigrants was completely busted when Amchang eviction took place. It rendered a large number of people belonging to the indigenous tribes homeless. It was only after strong protests that this eviction was stayed. The class bias of the state apparatus also became obvious when a cement factory was left out while common people were evicted.
Coming to the latest incident of eviction, the boundary of the districts Karbi Anglong and Hojai are yet to be finalised. Those who were evicted are questioning the very legality of this eviction as they claim to be within Hojai district and the eviction was carried out by Karbi Anglong administration.
Why Eviction Now?
The eviction left a trail of demolished homes burnt to ashes. The only school of that area Choudhury Para Primary School was also demolished leaving the future of almost 200 students uncertain. Books, 6 quintals of rice could not salvaged, laments the Head Master.
The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti’s Hojai Committee staged a protest on 8th March demanding that eviction be stayed till the boundary of the two districts is finalised. But even before the protest was complete police, army and paramilitary forces attacked the unarmed protestors. The lathicharge left more than 30 people injured. Videos of the lathicharge doing rounds on social media showed women with broken arms, bloodied men, unconscious students. Victims of the eviction and the brutal lathicharge claimed that civilians from Karbi Anglong district also took part in the violence and the looting that followed.
Even before the eviction was complete, an Assam web news portal InsideNe ran a news with headlines that read “Illegal Bangladeshi settlers evicted from Karbi Anglong”. It was only after much criticism that the word ‘alleged’ was included. Like every other case of eviction, here also the issue of illegal immigrants was used to render some kind of legitimacy to this inhuman practice. As of now, the eviction has been stayed till 20th March by a court order.
Local residents and protestors pointed out the inaction by Hojai administration. They said that even when negotiation was going on between the two district administrations, eviction continued. One is left wondering why such placid response from the state. One cannot deny the fact that the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 have alienated a large chunk of Assamese people from the ruling party. The government was seen as going back on its promise of safeguarding the jati, mati and bheti in Assam. The ruling party have also been accused of subverting the NRC which might have given some direction to the problem of illegal immigration. But now with the government hell bent on passing the CAB and legitimising immigrants till 2014, NRC already seems redundant. In such a scenario – is eviction being politically used to other Muslims of East Bengal origin and keep the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ thriving? Is this eviction and the invocation of the spectre of illegal immigrants encroaching the land of the khilonjiyas a last minute attempt to win over Assamese voters just before the Lok Sabha election?
(With inputs from Saidur Rahman, President, Hojai KMSS and Ashraful Islam, Working President, SMSS)