Emergency and Humanitarian Issue
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After battling for life for five days at a hospital in Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Kulsuma Begum succumbed to her injuries on March 11.
Her mother-in-law alleged police and paramilitary forces barged into her house to physically remove Kulsuma – who had given birth to a baby boy just two hours ago – during an eviction drive at Sarkebasti village in central Assam’s Hojai district, about 150km east of Guwahati.
Authorities in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) forcibly evicted more than 600 Muslim families from their land in Hojai, saying the families, including Kulsuma’s, had encroached upon government land.
“Seven to eight policemen entered the house and started ransacking it. I could take some stuff out. When I came back I saw Kulsuma was lying on the floor and couldn’t move,” Ramisa Khatun told Al Jazeera.
“I took up the baby as I feared they might kill him,” said Ramisa, 50. As Kulsuma was being ushered out of the house she collapsed, said Ramisa.
The 22-year-old was rushed to Guwahati after a local hospital in Hojai referred her to Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, where a doctor said she had “suffered shock”.
Following public outrage, a formal police complaint (First Information Report) was filed against several KAAC officials as well as a local police officer.
“A case has been registered and the investigation is going on,” Hojai Deputy Commissioner (DC) Tanmoy Borgohain told Al Jazeera.
|A court in Guwahati has put a stop on the evictions [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]|
Tuliram Ronghang, chief executive member of the KAAC and leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, alleged that undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh had encroached upon the land, which belonged to Karbi Anglong.
However, the evictees refuted Ronghang’s allegations, saying they are genuine Indian citizens. Some activists questioned the legality of the entire operation, saying Sarkebasti village fell under Hojai district and not under KAAC jurisdiction.
“The Karbi Anglong district doesn’t have any locus standi to evict the people here,” Saidur Rahman, president of Hojai district committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasant movement, told Al Jazeera.
A letter by a top Hojai official to Assam’s chief secretary corroborated their claims. The letter written on February 28 rejected the allegation that people had encroached upon forestland and warned against any eviction drive.
Despite concerns of human rights violations and legal complications, the Karbi Anglong administration still went ahead with its operation to uproot hundreds of families weeks before the general elections scheduled in April and May.
A court in Guwahati finally put a stop on the evictions asking the administrations in Hojai and Karbi Anglong to settle the border dispute.
Under the BJP government in Assam, which came to power in 2016 on an anti-immigrant plank, eviction drives have escalated.
Less than six months after coming to power in Assam, the BJP government – the first in the northeastern states – launched eviction campaign near the famous Kaziranga National Park against what it called “illegal encroachment”.
In February 2017, the government informed the Assam assembly that about 3,481 families were evicted from 13 districts. While most of them were Muslims, they also included other marginalised social groups such as the tribal people.
However, government records reveal hundreds of people were evicted from the lands they officially owned.
Indrajit Bezbaruah, an associate professor at Assam’s Lumding College, said those evicted were either internally displaced persons (IDPs) from flood-affected areas, IDPs from ethnic conflict-ridden Bodoland districts, or the local landless peasants belonging to the indigenous Kachari Muslim community settled in the area since the 1970s.
Experts say that recurring ethnic strife and floods in Assam have resulted in the state having one of the highest numbers of IDPs in the country. In 2015, Assam hosted an astounding 74.4 percent of all the IDPs in the country.
Assam has 362,450 landless families spread across 31 of its 33 districts, Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told the state assembly in February last year.
Peasant organisations in the area have been demanding the government to provide them with land ownership for more than two decades.
However, neither the central nor the state government has laid down any policy to rehabilitate Assam’s IDPs. With little institutional support, many of them have settled on government land over the decades.
Suprakash Talukdar, a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), alleged that Assam government has not conducted any land settlement survey since 1965, which has denied land to the landless and kept them vulnerable to forced evictions.
Bhabesh Kalita, Minister of State for Revenue and Disaster Management in Assam, however, said his government was working to rehabilitate those displaced by erosion.
“We have a policy for rehabilitation for erosion affected families only for those people who are displaced from patta [documented] land and we are rehabilitating them,” Kalita said.
“Our government has taken a target to provide land patta to one lakh [100,000] people this year. No government has taken such target based initiative so far.”
Muslim IDPs in Assam carry an additional risk of being stripped of their citizenship rights, according to Guwahati-based activist Hafiz Ahmed.
Ahmed alleged the government has built an anti-Muslim sentiment to marginalise the community.
“BJP came to power in the state on the premise of hatred against the Muslims. They want to keep the momentum of hatred on till the general election,” he said, referring to the national elections.
“Eviction policy doesn’t discriminate against people based on caste, creed or religion,” he told Al Jazeera.
Syed Burhanur Rahman, a lawyer at Gauhati High Court, said the eviction could result in the affected Muslims being declared stateless.
Last July, nearly four million people, mostly Muslims, were excluded from a draft citizenship list, effectively stripping them of their citizenship. A Supreme Court-monitored body National Register of Citizens (NRC) is working to publish its final list that aims to identify undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants.
“Despite the warning from the highest authority of the district administration that it will affect the NRC process, how the government could go ahead with the eviction drive,” asked Rahman.
Meanwhile, Mafijul Islam, Kulsuma’s brother-in-law who works as a construction worker in Guwahati, told Al Jazeera that they were asked to attend the NRC hearing in Nagaon district, about 50km from Hojai, three days after their house was demolished.
|Nearly 3,000 people have been rendered homeless [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]|
As Kulsuma fought for her life at the Guwahati hospital, her family members travelled over 120km to Nagaon to meet the NRC official, who refused to meet them since they had reached the venue after the 4pm deadline.
Back in Hojai, hundreds of families have been rendered homeless.
Hojai Deputy Commissioner Borgohain said on “humanitarian grounds we have sent a medical team and trying to provide drinking water”.
Activists have raised concerns at the timings of the evictions as elections are barely a couple of weeks away.
But Borgohain assured his administration has taken steps to address the concerns regarding the conduct of the elections (among the displaced people).
In Guwahati, Talukdar’s CPM party and other civil society groups organised a protest march to seek justice for Kulsuma.
Assam’s Muslims are more vulnerable as certain political forces treat them as “second class citizens because of their identity”, Talukdar said.
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This is election time in Assam and political parties are not leaving any stone unturned to get as much vote as possible. If someone is promising to create 2.5 million jobs in next five years, other one is promising to protect civil and human rights of the persecuted minorities. In reality, all these hollow promises will be going to the cold storage of politicians’ conscience without a second thought. However, one such hollow promise and great deal of hypocrisy paining me since 29th of March, 2016. Deputy Chief of Bodoland Territorial Council Khampha Borgayari conducted an election meeting at a newly encroached forest village called Laimuti on 19th of March, 2016. Mr. Borgoyari promised to provide land patta along with other services to the forest dwellers who settled in the forest most recently. But to know more about his hypocrisy and political gimmick, let me take you through the village.
Three of my colleagues along with our local resource person Dan Narzary, we crossed the bamboo bridge over river Chapma a beautiful place around 10 kilometers from Runikhata under Chirang district of BTAD in Assam. River Champa is a narrow but powerful river as its water follows fast and during monsoon it becomes ferocious. A middle age man was hurling his fishing net near the bamboo bridge. The big trees in the upstream of the river made the scenario picturesque.
Soon after crossing the bridge, we found a small hut on the bank of river Champa. I talked to Dhaneswar Basumatary – the owner of the hut. His family members were busy in planting tapioca tree. His son was cutting the tapioca tree into equal pieces to plants. The plant was new to me; our local resource person Dan Narzary who did his masters in Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences introduced the tapioca plant as a “poverty resilient food”. The hut itself was enough to correspond to the level of poverty faced by the family. But the story of tapioca escalated the brutality of poverty and hunger. Dhaneswar Basumatary’s family was forced to move into the forest in 2005 to live such a miserable life when his 8 bighas (over a hector) of agricultural land was eroded by river Champa. Dhaneswar Basumatary is not the only victims of river erosion, many of the forest dwellers of the area were uprooted by river erosion.
It is worthy to give a glimpse of the larger picture of erosion affected people of Assam. Study revealed that in 50 years (1950 to 2000) river Brahmaputra alone had eroded 7 percent of Assam’s total land and tens of thousands people have been displaced. Till 2015 Assam Government didn’t have any rehabilitation programme for the erosion induced IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) of the state. In March last year, Assam Government came up with a scheme called “Chief Minister Special Scheme for the Erosion Affected People”. The scheme talks about providing land as compensation for both homestead and agricultural purpose, if government land is not available cash compensation is to be offered. But the scheme remained defunct for almost a year. No effort was made by the government to disseminate the information regarding the scheme among the displaced people. We tried our best to make the affected people aware about the scheme and encouraged them to apply for compensation. But nothing happened till January 2016 and finally I filed a RTI petition seeking some crucial information like how many applications received and processed etc. Assam State Disaster Management Authority which is the nodal agency for implementation of the scheme; scandalously replied my RTI petition saying that the agency had not received any application! Later on one of my journalist friends investigated the matter and revealed that despite no promotion and advertisement, ASDMA had received a large number of applications and as the agency couldn’t deal with such huge number application. Before replying my RTI government changed the scheme through another circular. The modified scheme is equal to nothing! The government has modified it in such a way that almost no erosion induced IDP can avail any benefit under the scheme. This kind of government indifference and apathy have been pushing the erosion induced IDPs to settle generally in forest areas and to migrate into urban areas for livelihood.
We continued walking through the path recently cleared by chopping down the trees in Laimuti. Though the roots of big trees were burnt down to decompose early but are still visible thorough out the fields. Dan Narzary lamented that, being a professionally trained environmentalist he felt like crying after seeing the destruction of the forest just 10 kms away from his house. He feels that tribal people are losing their belongingness towards forest and overlooking the importance of forest conservation. He pointed out a number of factors which attributed towards this change in attitude. At one hand poor people are being uprooted by river erosion, violent conflict and they are not compensated by the state. On the other hand the government forest department is destroying the forest by partnering with smugglers. How the poor people can think about conservation of forest? Dan questions.
By the time we reached the village market in Laimuti it was late afternoon. The village headman Sukur Basumatary took us to an open school. Few fixed desk benches and a pair of wooden chair-table and a tinned roof hold up by not many concrete pillars were the only infrastructure in the school. However, name of the school Rwdwmkang which means ‘uprising’ in Bodo language actually points towards the aspiration of the villagers. More than 50 students are getting educated without any government support. The villagers collect money and other resources among themselves to pay the monthly salary of Rs. 1000/- to the teacher. Around 8000 people are living in 25 forest villages in Laimuti area without a single government school, no Anganwadi centre, no health facility, no source of drinking water or any other government services. In other words, they are still living right inside the forest, where there is no presence of government.
Three out of the 25 villages faced retaliatory attack from Adivasis on 25th of December, 2014 i.e. two days after the massacre of over 70 innocent Adivasi people by suspected NDFB (S) militant in Sonitpur district of Assam. At least 23 houses in those three villages were burnt down to ashes by the miscreants. The Bodo inhabitants were forced to set up shelter camp in Laimuti market. Hundreds of terrified Bodo men, women and children had continued to live in the camp for over two months without any support from government. Chakra Basumatary one of the victim said “forget about relief, rehabilitation or compensation, no government departments including police department didn’t visited the affected villages”. When one of the civil society organizations took the victims to government office in Kokrajhar, the victims were abused by the officials and their request for compensation was out-rightly rejected.
Mr. Khampha Borgayari who served as Deputy Chief of BTC in the previous term also never did anything to minimize their suffering, even during the toughest time of arson and forced displacement. The villagers at Laimuti said that Mr. Borgayari is now campaigning for his colleague Chandan Brahma and he has promised to provide land pattas along with other services like education, health, water etc.
If this is the fate of displaced Bodos – to protect whose right the territorial privilege was granted, then anyone can easily imagine the condition of displaced non-Bodos living in the model BTC!
An apprehension is mounting among the people of north-eastern region that the mainstream media is ignoring the flight of its people and has been working like a PR agency of the government to justify the imposition of AFSPA. Recently, it has been observed that the media was flooded with chest-thumping news and views on cross border operation on NE militants in Myanmar. All of sudden one IPS officer is being marketed as ‘face that militants fear’ even with factual errors. However, at the same time a huge portion of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was witnessing devastating flood. No media was running ‘hastag’ race for the flood victims of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
As per the official release of Assam State Disaster Management Authority dated 13th June 2015, more than six hundred villages were submersed and over three lakh people affected in the recent flood. Though officially not reported, at least three persons have died so far in this devastating flood. This is harvesting season in Assam and the flood has destroyed a huge area of ready to harvest corps, the official figure is 11041.53 hectors.
I was getting disturbing updates from my home district Barpeta since 11th of June, 2015. Subsequently, I communicated with the district administration and got a quit relaxing response “we are monitoring the development and ready to act if any necessity arises” The concerned Circle Officer categorically informed me that the flood situation is still manageable and no need of taking rescue and relief operations. However, I was still getting SOS calls from my native district and finally decided to visit the area next day morning to have stock of the situation. While travelling from Guwahati to Barpeta, as I entered Nalbari district, I could easily see the devastation in the nearby agri-fields. The farmers has abandoned ready to harvest rice cultivation due to flood water. They have occupied half of the road for drying up the partially damaged harvested crops.
Situation in Barpeta district is more depressing; officially it is worst affected district in recent flood. Innas Ali, a marginal farmer who cultivated high yielding rice on his one hector agri-land and invested nearly sixty thousand rupees has been able to harvest only half of his total cultivation. Ali says that one fourth of the harvested crops have been damaged as it germinated due to heavy rain. Since last two/three decades, the peasants have started cultivating high yielding variety of rice replacing traditional one. They have been irrigating their paddy fields by diesel run power-pump machine incurring higher cost comparing to government provided irrigation facility. In lower Assam, irrigation facility is mostly managed by the farmers, which forces them to incur more costs and forces them to knock the door of money lenders for credit to meet the costs. A study conducted by Gorky Chakravarty of Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata revealed that nearly 67% of his respondents in Mandia, Chenga and Ruposhi block of Barpeta district are indebted and only 2.43% of them got credit from organized financial institutions. A huge chunk of people who get their credit from moneylenders often agree to repay crops instead of money. His study says that those ill-fated people are forced to pay an annual rate of interest ranging from 72% to 360%. In such a situation, any one can imagine how this flood is going to affect the lives of people like Innas Ali.
A group of young people helped me to reach riverine areas like Islampur, Rasulpur, Kadong Char, Kaimari Char under Baghbar Revenue Circle in Barpeta district. When, we crossed one stream of river Beki and entered to Islampur char (River Island) under Baghbar Revenue Circle – the scenario is heart-wrenching. It was no less than a river, it seems small huts are floating in the water, some people are crossing high current river Beki on their raft to fetch drinking water. Human being, frogs, earth-worm all are coexisting. Some of them have left their houses and took shelter in other’s place, but most of them are hazardously experiencing the flood along with their domesticated animals.
There is no presence of government machinery in all the places we visited. There is no arrangement of basic humanitarian assistance like food, drinking water, medicine etc. Even, the administration has not been in those places for any kind of assessment. It was appalling to observe that the affected people also don’t feel that government will support them in any way or other. Seeing the helplessness of the flood victims and the indifferent attitude of state machinery, as a civil society group we decided to support the victims within limited our capacity. We have started distributing general relief materials since 14th of June, 2015 and continued to update the concerned Circle Officer over telephone and keep on sending photographs to his mobile phone though WhatsApp.
On 17th of June, he informed me that as per the information he got from his official sources there is no need of providing any relief or rehabilitation grant in those chars! So, was my observation was wrong? The photographs with GPS location were fake? The heart touching narratives of the victims about their damaged crops and belonging were false and plotted stories to drain money from government treasury?
While talking to the Circle Officer over phone, I was sitting in a boat carrying relief materials with few elderly people from Tapajuli char. The elderly people were reading my body language and conversation with the Circle Officer. They completely understood what the Circle Officer was telling me! One of the elderly people’s reaction was somewhat like consoling me “Don’t feel sorry, this is happening to us for ages.
This is what written on our forehead” Citing the example of their 411 No. Alipur (Tapajuli Pathar) Lower Primary school, Abdur Razzak said that, the head teacher of the school is not attending her duty for the last two years. The assistant teacher appointed through TET (Teacher Eligibility Test) occasionally comes to school and since the arrival of monsoon; the assistant teacher has also stopped attending his duty. The char people have even brought the issue to the notice of Deputy Commissioner and other officials of education department of Barpeta district. But nothing has changed so far and the school which was established by British government in 1945 has become just a structure with four walls and a roof.
The media, the civil society, the political class or the administration, no one is bothered about the suffering of these ill-fated people. I remember the shameful incident of last year’s flood in Goalpara. The flood victims who demanded relief and rehabilitation were brutally beaten up by the police and slapped deadly criminal charges on them. Perhaps, the flood affected people of these chars have realised – it is better to be silent and suffer rather than getting beaten up!