An act of bias?
Acting further upon its 2021 poll promise of freeing the land from ‘encroachers’ and allotting the same to ‘indigenous’ people, the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government in Assam is carrying out eviction drives in Lakhimpur’s Pabha Reserve Forest (RF) area. The ongoing drive is earmarked for around 500 hectares of land out of the total encroached area of 4,500 hectares. The issue has also been mentioned in legislative addresses. Given that it is, in part, a fulfilment of a poll promise, the surfacing of political overtones is obvious. Politics thrives on contentions, and what could be a more contentious issue than land in a state like Assam that has been entangled both internally and externally on this front for decades? The rift between the ‘indigenous’ population and so-called ‘encroachers’ is becoming wider with time. The term ‘encroachers’ is now being seen by many as synonymous with the Bengali Muslim population — believed to have predominantly migrated from Bangladesh. The BJP, over years, has effectively tapped the sentiments of the ‘indigenous’ population of Assam, gaining a headroom that allows it to carry out “targeted” eviction drives with some sort of spectacle. Allegations are rife that the government is now continuing evictions in a militarised manner — preceded by mock drills and all. Of course, the Assam government, on its part, has made defensive claims that evictions are made under the ambit of the law. But one must not forget that the body of law nowadays itself can be used as the best bastion to invade the spirit of the law. The Assam government has categorically denied the allegations that the evictions are targeted towards any particular community, but data speak otherwise. Merely a week after Himanta Biswa Sarma was sworn in as the 15th Chief Minister of Assam, 25 families — mostly Muslims — were evicted from the flood-prone areas of Dighali Chapori, Laletup, Bharaki Chapori, Bhoirobi and Baitamari in Sonitpur District. Less than a month later, 74 families were evicted from Kaki in Hojai District, around 80 per cent of whom were Muslims; and 49 families were evicted from Dhalpur and Phuhurtuli in Darrang District, almost all of whom were Muslims. Similar trends continued in August and September as well. Things even took a lethal turn in September 2021 when 1,200-1,300 families were evicted from the government land in Dholpur of Sipajhar. This incident came to light a couple of months after the Chief Minister had visited the area. Even under the government led by Sarbanand Sonowal, in 2016, eviction drives were carried out in Darrang, Sonitpur, Amchang and Kaziranga. In the present case of evictions in Pabha Reserve Forest, the government claims that over the last two years, locals settled in the region filed applications under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which grants rights to forest-dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest-dwellers over forest resources. The government asserts that those who didn’t qualify were served eviction notices. If it is a coincidence that most of the unqualified families happen to be Muslim, then it is a very strange and unfortunate coincidence! It may be pertinent to note here that irrespective of which party ruled the state, eviction drives have always been an issue in Assam. However, post-2016, both the intensity and frequency of such drives have increased. And more often, it is the Muslim families that end up on the receiving end. Another valid reservation put forth by opposition parties is around the timing of the eviction drives. It sounds like a very humane appeal that families should not be forced out of their homes in this bone-chilling cold. This also brings us to yet another reported irregularity in the eviction drives. Most of the evictions are reportedly not backed up by a robust rehabilitation and compensation mechanism. For the evicted, in most cases, compensation and resettlement are hard to come by and are predicated on the caveat of citizenship. The Assam government is focused on solving the issue of encroachment — something any political party in Assam will find hard to object to, thanks to the sensitivity of the issue among ‘indigenous’ populations. But if evictions are to be carried out, they should be done impartially and systematically, and with proper rehabilitation and compensation mechanisms. In failing to do so, the Assam government may only be perpetuating the problem rather than solving it. The string of eviction drives in Assam can be challenged on Constitutional, moral, legal and humanitarian grounds.