On Friday morning, over 50 Bengali Muslims boarded a boat in the Dhalpur char of Garukhuti, a village in the Sipajhar tehsil in the Darrang district of Assam, located 19 km west of district headquarters Mangaldai.
The boat would cross the Na-Nadi and reach Khuwarghat, a port that connects the char (river island) of Brahmaputra to the rest of Sipajhar.
Most of the passengers were women from Dhalpur 3 village, located in the chars. These were the same people whose homes had been uprooted by the Darrang district administration as per the Assam government instructions, first on Monday, and then on Thursday this week.
Saharan Banu, a woman in her fifties, was also supposed to board the boat. But she took a few moments to look around the large sand in the hopes of finding her three-year-old grandson.
Banu has a horrific story to share.
One of Saharan Banu’s three grandchildren has been missing since Thursday, the second day of eviction. “They first shot my grandson…the bullet hit his legs. He fell, then he was burned and buried with other stuff,” she claimed.
We could not confirm her story’s veracity, but it matters little it seems: the people around Banu also believe her grandson is lying dead somewhere in pits rigged by the administration’s earthmovers to uproot their homes.
Banu’s story echoes among the villagers of Dhalpur 3. Apart from three confirmed deaths, many people from the village have been missing since the clash. No one knows the exact number of deaths and the number of people missing since Thursday.
Some people in the eviction site were seen checking inside piled up uprooted bamboo trees and newly-dug pitches in the hope of finding the missing ones: dead or alive.
“The Panchayat has a list of those who have not been seen since Thursday. It is unlikely that they have left the village. We are trying to find them,” the locals said.
Why was Maynal Hoque trying to fight armed police with a lathi?
About 200 metres from the eviction site, Hasna Banu (Sonia), a 14-year-old girl, sat in a chair outside a tin roofed-house. Her hand was wrapped with a bandage made from tearing a ‘dupatta’. Unlike the people around her, her face carried no expressions. But she had a story to tell.
On Thursday afternoon, Banu along with others was going to see what was happening on the other side of Dhalpur 3 village.
But she could not move further. Seeing security forces taking down the houses of her friends and relatives, she froze, until security personnel involved in the eviction hit her in the left hand with a baton. She tried to run but fell, unconscious. Her land was fractured.
“Maynal saw police beating the girl. His house was already taken down. He became angry, he took a lathi and tried to chase the police away,” said Noor Hussain, her cousin. The rest has since been played out millions of times across various media platforms for all to see.
The villagers protected the site where Maynal was lying dead with bamboo posts after the body was taken to a local hospital. On Friday during Jumma, the villagers organised prayer at the site.
Maynal’s three children, his mother, two sisters and wife were seen taking shelter in between two tin-roofs placed at a 45-degree angle. “First they broke the house and then killed my son. They shot at him, kicked him and dragged him. Please bring him back,” the mother begged. Maynal was the only bread earner of the family.
When Maynal was killed, his family members were busy relocating the household goods after their house had been demolished.
His father, Mokbul Ali who in his 60s, was shown the viral video footage of his son being shot at from a close distance and then lathi-charged upon the corpse before a photographer stomped on it.
“I have seen how he was killed. Now how do we look after his three kids? The eviction has left us with nothing” said Mokbul Ali.
“Tell them what you want the government to do with the photographer,” asked a fellow man to Ali.
“I don’t know. Whatever they feel right,” said the father.
“Do you want to see our papers?” asked another local standing with the family.
At the time of filing this report, the families had not got the dead bodies back.
Along with Maynal Hoque, Sheikh Farid, a 12-year-old boy, and one Saddam Hussain lost their lives. The three bodies are kept in a local hospital in Sipajhar town.
“We are scared to go to the town and bring the bodies. The police are everywhere. What if they shoot at us?” asked one of the locals.
Such is the fear of police among locals that people like Hasna Banu and those injured in the clash are no even ready to the hospital to avail treatment. For now, Banu’s fractured hand has been treated with some ‘local herbs’.
The other reason why the locals have to go far for treatment is that one month before the eviction, the Dhalpur Bhetibazar Char Primary Health centre, the only health centre in the area, was turned into a police outpost. The police vacated the centre on Thursday morning after the eviction.
Agricultural project by destroying seasonal facilities
It would not be an exaggeration to say that as of now, Dhalpur looks less like an area inhabited and more like an abandoned battleground. In the middle of a field, one finds a motorcycle burnt down to ashes. Three children are seen crossing the river carrying a hand pump uprooted during the eviction on their shoulders. Piles of baby corn are seen lying burnt in many places. Some people try to transfer some stocks of jute left unburnt to the other side of the bank in boats.
“Rice, corn, cabbage, ground nuts…these people used to supply vegetables to the market of Sipajhar, Guwahati and many other markets in Darrang etc. People here used to produce everything that the Assam government is going to produce through its project. In one bigha of land, people used to plant a variety of crops and vegetables. The families were mostly agriculture-dependent, barring one or two who are working in places like Karnataka. Families used to earn up to fifty thousand a year,” said Noor Hussain, 34.
The eviction is a double-whammy for fishermen who had been left unemployed after the ban on single-engine boats, popularly known as Bhut-bhutis in the char areas, following the tragic boat accident in Nimatighat in Jorhat district.
“I used to catch fish from the river and sell it in the Uzan bazar Ghat (Guwahati). I had a Bhut-bhuti for transportation. But for the past fifteen days, I was out of work. I was supposed to get into agriculture this winter,” said Faridul Hoque, a fisherman.
“The government wants to set up an agricultural project in a place which is already producing food for a significant number of people in the state,” he added.
In July, the state budget allocated ₹ 9.60 cr for an agricultural project known as the Garukhuti project to be set up in the current site of conflict. The objective of the project is to carry out agriculture and afforestation by “involving indigenous youths” after making the area encroachment free.
A chasing river, a history of the fight for land
The mighty Brahmaputra is about half a kilometre from where Hasna Banu was sitting in Dholpur 3 village. Every year, the river inches closer to Na-Nadi, gulping houses, schools, and community prayer halls. Many villages of Ganeshbali, Oporia, Kirakara, Mohmari, Sawolkhuwa etc have vanished as a result of erosion.
“In one char, we can live for four to five years before the river takes the land away,” said Noor Hussain, a cousin of Hasna Banu.
“We are being pushed to go from here and live alongside the river but for how many days?” he asked.
According to the villagers, the protest on Thursday was not against the eviction, rather against the government giving less than 24 hours to vacate.
It is important to point out that Assam mostly has two kinds of people displaced within the state: one by river erosion and the other by ethnic violence. A section of people living in char areas is always on the move from one char to another.
Since the 1970s, at least 40,000 people started to live in the current site of land conflict earmarked as “Professional Grazing Land” belonging to the Assam government. Most of these people were Bengali Muslims who were earlier residing in Goalpara and Barpeta district before their homes and agricultural lands were washed away by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
In the early 1990s, around 200 families living in Dhalpur area were issued land pattas in the region. All these families were displaced from Goalpara and Barpeta because of flood-induced land erosion, but this decision was revoked by the High Court in 1994.
In 2013, an RTI report revealed that around 77,000 bighas of government land in the present area (that comprises at least six villages) in the Dhapur area are under encroachment for years.
Prabajan Birodhi Mancha, an anti-influx body convened by senior advocate Upamanyo Hazarika, filed a case in 2017 against the Assam government for not freeing government land from encroachers. Notably, in 2019, the Supreme Court Lawyer also fought the Assam Assembly Election 2019 by making illegal infiltration an electoral issue. Hazarika, however, lost the polls.
On September 15, barely a week before the eviction, Hazarika alleged that 77,420 bighas of land in the riverine areas of Sipajhar “remain under encroachment by people of Bangladeshi origin while encroachment-affected indigenous people continue to be deprived of their due.”
Hazarika claimed that contrary to the chief minister’s announcement in June to clear the encroached land in the riverine area, not one bigha of land has been freed from encroachment, barring 120 bighas, which are a part of the temple complex.
Assam CM asks who instigated violence
On Friday, in a makeshift hotel of Hamid Ali (name changed), the residents of Dhalpur 3 were seen gathering around those with a smartphone with internet connections to hear what Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma had to say about the eviction. Not only from Ali’s Hotel but also from makeshift stay arrangements, Sarma’s voice kept coming.
“This eviction drive was urgent. It was not done overnight. Discussions were held for 4 months,” he was heard saying.
“Eviction drive was initiated with an agreed principle that the landless will be provided 2 acres each as per land policy, and the representatives agreed. We expected no resistance but about 10,000 people gheraoed Assam Police, used violence, and then police retaliated,” the Assam CM said.
Pointing out to the viral video of Maynal Hoque’s killing by policemen and later stomped on by a government photographer on the motionless body, the CM further said that was “just 30 seconds” of the clash.
“Yes, I condemn what the cameraman did, but that is just 30 seconds of the entire episode. But what is going on for four months?” he asked.
Bijay Shankar Baniya, the man with the camera who was seen stomping on the body of Maynal Hoque, was working as an official photographer of the Darrang district administration. He was arrested a day later by CID after the video went viral on social media and drew massive criticism.
The Assam government on Friday ordered a judicial probe into the clash which also left 11 policemen reportedly injured.
Sarma, however, has blamed the Popular Front of India, an Islamist outfit, for instigating the violence.
“A day before the violence (Tuesday), the PFI visited the evicted people in the name of distributing food items. We have six names, which also include a lecturer.”
Sarma further said that the state government had an intelligence report that certain people collected Rs 28 lakh during the last three months saying there will be no eviction. When they could not resist eviction, they mobilised the public and created havoc on the day of eviction.
He also said that the Assam government has sent a dossier to the centre meaning ban on the organisation in the state.
However, the Assam chapter of PFI denied any involvement in the clash and said the encroachment “is a game plan ahead of the by-polls” in at least five seats in Assam.
“The Assam CM has said that there is a third-party involvement in the clash. By saying so they are targeting organisations like the PFI, AAMSU, AIUDF, Congress etc whose ideology is different from BJP. They have also ordered an inquiry into this. We welcome the decision,” a PFI office-bearer said.
The Islamist outfit also said that they have no organisational structure in the Sipajhar area and no one from the organisation had visited the site during the eviction. “The government should make any evidence of PFI involved in the tension public, be it photos or videos of our members visiting the site,” the office-bearer added.
The blame game will continue and the issue is unlikely to be resolved either soon or amicably, but for Saharan Banu, it is unlikely she will ever see her three-year-old grandson. And Maynal Haque’s family will forever wonder what would have happened had he not charged after a dozen cops.
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