In India’s Assam, Muslim families evicted weeks before elections

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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”.

In one corner of the Guwahati hospital corridor, the newborn baby was sleeping next to Ramisa on a visibly dirty blanket. The baby has now been handed over to the family.

FIR filed

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.

Eviction drives

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.

Muslim IDPs

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.

Kalita, the Assam minister, however, denied the government was targeting a particular group.

“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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Akhil Gogoi’s decision to support BJP in Election Faces Wide Speared Criticism from Muslims of Assam

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President of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti Akhil Gogoi after getting bail from 29 days police and judicial custody brought out a list of non-Congress candidate from various political parties including BJP, AIUDF, AGP and left parties and described them as potential candidate to defeat Congress. Mr. Gogoi extended his support to those candidates including the six BJP candidates and instructed its cadres to mobilise voters in favour of them.

This move of KMSS to oust the Congress has been facing a wide speared criticism from various conscious citizens to various organizations and some of its own cadres as well. Especially the cadres from Muslim community have perceived the decision as a self destructive move for the organization among the Muslims of the state. Ashraful Islam, a doctoral research scholar at Gauhati University and an active activist of KMSS says “What KMSS did, will be definitely identified as a historic mistake”. He added “I have forwarded my views to him (Akhil Gogoi)”. He fears that this decision has merit to destroy the future prospect of inclusive and alternative politics in Assam. He also gave a hint to rethink on their movement and politics.

Another research scholar at Gauhati University and an active cadre of KMSS Mr. Abdullah Khandakar, who was brutally assaulted by the police in a protest demonstration against Akhil Gogoi’s arrest last month. Khandakar opines that welcoming a communal force like BJP to defeat Congress is a historical mistake which sounds like welcoming the British to take over Maan. To defeat the invaders from Myanmar, British rule was invited to Assam and thus Assam became British colony in 1826 through a pact called “Yandaboo Treaty”. Mr. Khandakar asks “If we were to vote for Badaruddin Ajmal, why we were fighting for a change?” Another young freelance journalist and activist, who was also been arrested by police during agitation against Akhil’s arrest, emotional Ashraful Islam discovers that he (Akhil) has made them fool.

Akhil Gogoi’s statement supporting communal BJP has not only disappointed the Muslim cadres of KMSS but it has ringed the alarm across the community. Mustafa A Barbhuiya, a Post Doctoral Research Scholar at The Johns Hopkins University, USA observes “….however, he (Akhil Gogoi) took wrong track as of now- perhaps being naive. We have people’s right activists in India of the stature of Aruna Roy, Binayek Sen, Medha Patkar, Soni Sori and Iron Lady of Jharkhand Dayamani, so I wish Akhil Gogoi learns from their life and work.” Another bright IAS officer from Muslim community writes in a facebook post “Akhil Gogoi by supporting BJP and AIUDF has shown his true colour. So the fight is now against a particular party and not for ideologies? I saw him as General Secretary of Cotton College Student Union, he was impulsive and whimsical at that time, but after so many years he has not matured as a leader, still the same vapid sloganeering leader. No doubt he is a man of words, but unfortunately only words.”

Abdul Kalam Azad, a post graduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences perceives the present development in a chronological order. He said that though Akhil Gogoi talks about peasant’s right and often opines that wearing skull cap and lungi do not make someone Bangladeshi. But his long term vision has never adopted the Muslims whole heartedly. Quoting Akhil Gogoi’s book “Bidexi Somsya Aaru Jatiyo Andolonor Path” Mr. Azad said that Akhil Gogoi wants Muslims of Assam to be remained as second class citizen even after the deportation of illegal migrants. Akhil Gogoi endorsed the suggestions of Prasanta Rajguru, a journalist known to be very close to Hindutva ideology in the said book. The suggestion proposed to reserve the entire assembly constituencies having less than 50% religious minority (read as Muslim) for the indigenous people, the suggestion also says that same rule will be applicable to all local bodies within the assembly constituency irrespective of the percentage Muslim voters. The second suggestion says that Muslims shouldn’t allow purchasing land beyond their Gram Panchayat or Municipality area. Mr. Azad thinks that by endorsing BJP, Akhil Gogoi is taking a calculated risk and eying state assembly election 2016.

The result of the general election will only make it clear how the people of Assam perceive Akhil Gogoi’s endorsement of BJP and other political parties.

[News article on TCN]

Nagabanda Massacre and the other side of Assamese Intelligentsia

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Nagabanda High School is one of the oldest educational institutes of Morigaon district of Assam. The school is situated near the Nagabanda Bazar, about 15 KMs from the district headquarter. The healthy rural market, the nicely planted trees at Nagabanda Junior College, huge playground with pavilion and the green agricultural fields surrounding the area make it scenic and beautiful. But who knows Nagabanda is carrying a huge amount of pain and agony?

On 16th February’1983 (31st Anniversary), 109 helpless people were brutally killed in a relief camp at Nagabanda High School. The villagers of the adjoining villages were instructed by the peace committee of civil administration and police administration to take shelter in the relief camp on 16th Feb’1983 to escape from the violent attacks of the agitators of Assam Movement. A large numbers of people from neighboring villages  took shelter in the school including women and children. At around 10’o clock morning; a huge mob leaded by police personals attacked the people taking shelter in the school. The police indiscriminately fired fire on the relief camp. The frightened people closed the doors and windows of the school. Then the agitators set school on fire. Some of the people tried to escape through the windows of back side of the school; some of them climbed the trees nearby the school. But they didn’t get escape. The agitators killed them on the bunch of tree by sharp and long weapons. Total one hundred and nine dead bodies were recovered and another few hundred got injured.


Nine dead bodies were found in this newly constructed urinal of the school

The Nagabanda massacre has a great importance of study as it manifests many questions in relation to the infamous Nellie massacre. Nagabanda massacre was carried out two days before the Nellie massacre. In the both cases some of the perpetrators and victims were from common communities.  Bengal origin Muslims (Miya) dominated Nagabanda is surrounded by the villages of Tiwa (lalung), Koch and Nath-Jogi communities. In case of Nellie, Tiwas were the main perpetrators and Muslims were the victims. Here also the Muslims were the victims and the involvements of Tiwas in the violence were apparent. In both cases Muslims were victimized by the agitators as they participated in the election.

The distance between Nagabanda is around 30 kms from Nellie. But strategically, the sub-divisional headquarter (Now district) Morigaon divides the distance into almost equal. The Nagabanda incident was a warning signal for the civil as well as police administration to avert the Nellie massacre which claim 1600 lives officially, the unofficial figure is more than five thousand.


Google map: red dots refer the distance between Nagabanda, Morigaon and Nellie

The police administration was hand in glove with the agitators. One of the victims of police brutality, a school teacher from the Nagabanda one Abdul Mazid described his painful story. He said that, after returning from election duty he found his home deserted, as owing to the incident of Nagabanda High School, people had left their houses. Abdul Mazid decided to return to the police station from where he was sent to election duty. He stopped a vehicle carrying police personals and requested them to take him to police station. On returned, the police brutally beaten him up, snatched the golden bangles of wife and Rs. 800/- from his pocket. He put off his skull cap and shows the wound mark on his head. Along with him two other commuters, the post master of the local branch post office and the peon were also beaten up. The police had broken one leg of the post master.

Thus the police and civil administration broke the law and buried  humanity hand in hand with the agitators. Sanjoy Hazarika wrote “(government officers) defied the official orders and courted arrest, demanding the ouster of the aliens. If it was not xenophobia, then it was patriotism of a very jingoistic quality”. But was the school teacher, post master or the peon a foreigner? Who have their roots in this land for generations? Or why do we try to romanticise the injustice???

Though being a student of social science and having keen interest on Assam Movement, I had very little information about the gruesome genocide until I reached Nagabanda and interacted with the survivors. Senior journalist Samudhra Gupta Kashyp’s remark on Nellie massacre suddenly reflected in my mind. He was speaking in a conversation titled “Can today’s society change the media?”  organised by Thumb Print Magazine at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. He informed the gathering that, Assam Tribune, the leading English Daily from Guwahati had had an editorial meeting and decided not to publish a single photo of Nellie massacre! Though I perceived it in a different perspective, but today, I am seeing the other side of such decision. Hundred and nine lives were brutally hacked to death during broad day light by the agitators with the active participation of government machinery but the people of the state as well as in outside remain in the dark. No doubt media played a very biased and cruel role during the agitation. The fascist characteristics of the agitation were also responsible for such gross violation of professional ethic of journalism. Sabita Goswami wrote in her autobiography that she was summoned by the then AASU leader Atul Bora. When she visited AASU office, Atul Bora showed a photocopy of her article and said “If an Assamese writes in this manner, it is equivalent to going against Assam’s interests”. Foreign journalists were also not allowed to enter Assam for a certain period of time during the movement.

This biasness still continues and has been grounded to other domains as well. If we analyse the news and views on Nellie massacre, it becomes very much clear that the academicians and researchers were not free from the ethnocentric biasness. While analysing the Nellie massacre Sanjoy Hazarika writes “They become dependent on the others. Their own shortsightedness is reflected everyday when they contemplate their former tenants as owners of this ancestral land. The rage becomes deeper, blinding those in its grip to their own follies”. Many academicians like Hazarika found land alienation as the primary cause of Nellie massacre. But when Japanese researcher Makiko Kimura asked the cause of the massacre to both attackers from Tiwa (earlier known as Lanung) and victim from Muslims of Bengal Origin (commonly known as Miya), nobody mentioned that land alienation as a reason. When I categorically asked one 78 years old Mafiz Uddin Ahmed, (who lost ten of his family members including his mother in Nellie massacre) about the issue of land alienation or land grabbing, his response was quite thought provoking. He said “When this land was allotted to us in 1942 by the colonial magistrate against the payment of rupees five, it was a jungle. Our family came to Nellie from Nogaon (Earlier Nowgong) and cleared the land for cultivation.” Ahmed’s narrative is clear enough to understand that the Muslims had not grabbed the land of Tiwas or had not alienated them from their land. But they got a jungle against payment from British government as per the policy of the colonial administration. He holds leaders of Assam Movement responsible for the massacre and says that, the AASU and the subsequent AGP government declared the attackers who died during the massacre as martyr, the so called martyr’s families were compensated with Rs. 25000/-, while the victims who lost their lives for participating in the democratic process of election were not declared as martyr and provided mere Rs. 5000/- as compensation!

Then, what is the reason of justifying riots, killing innocent human lives or gross violation of civil political and human rights? Or why do we try to cover up injustice committed upon a marginalized community? Why we can’t digest the historical fact that these so called Miyas were brought to Assam from another province of colonial India under administrative patronage?