Guwahati, Assam: An eerie silence engrossed the riverine (char) areas of Gorukhuti in Darrang district on Friday, a day after at least two villagers from the area were shot dead by police during a violent clash amidst an eviction drive in the area.
On Thursday, a disturbing, graphic video that appeared on social media timelines and as WhatsApp forwards showed-- policemen in riot gear, armed with guns and sticks chasing and attacking villagers. At some point, one of the villagers is shot.
In more horrifying visuals from the same video, a government cameraman who was filming the clash is seen attacking the villager, who is seen lying motionless after been beaten and shot at by the policemen. The police have arrested the cameraman.
On Friday, the eviction drive was halted and section 144 of CrPC has been clamped indefinitely in the area.
'Govt Wants To Start Agricultural Project- Why Not Make Us A Part?'
The BJP lead Assam government aims to clear around 77,000 bighas of land for its ambitious plan of 'Garukhuti Project' in the Darrang district of Assam. The plan is to remove 'encroachers' and start agricultural initiatives for the youth.
Dholpur, the epicentre of the violence that was witnessed on camera, is an area situated around 60 km from Guwahati, encompasses six villages and is inhabited by Bengali-speaking Muslims who were suspected as illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.
It takes a road trip and a boat journey to reach there. Dholpur and its neighbouring villages have been witnessing violence for many years.
Jainal, a local from the area told BOOM, "We are living here for years and our children have been born here. We were asked to leave this land. But where will we go? If the government wants to start an agricultural project then why not making us a part? We are also farming here."
The plan to clear the land happened after Kobad Ali, president of Dakhsin Mangaldai Gowala Santha, an organisation of milk producers in Darrang district filed a case under Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, 2010, in 2015. Ali was seeking court intervention to evict illegal encroachers from government Village Grazing Reserve (VGR) and Professional Grazing Reserve (PGR).
This includes land comprising of villages of Phuhuratoli, Dholpur, Kuruwa, Kholihoi, and Baznapathar under Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district.
Following a cabinet meeting earlier this year in June 5, the agriculture department constituted a committee for "development of land" for "agriculture and allied purposes" in this area. The state government has also proposed over Rs 9 crore for the project in its last budget.
'A History Of Eviction Attempts And Violence'
The was not the first time that the state government had tried to clear this area off. There were similar attempts, many of which allegedly failed, taken out by the state government earlier also.
The convenor of Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM), an anti influx body of the state, and Supreme Court lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika told BOOM, "History of eviction attempts and violence is linked to Gorukhuti, Sipajhar area since the 1980s when illegal settlers suspected to be Bangladeshis started to live in the area."
"This area also has also seen the killing of at least seven indigenous people by the suspected settlers in 1983 during Assam agitation. Later, around 199 families were evicted from the area in 1994," he said, adding that the issue 'has never ended'.
On Monday, a similar eviction drive was carried out in two villages in the Garukhuti area of Dholpur in which nearly 800 families who were settled on nearly 4500 'bighas' of government land were evicted.
The issue of illegal settlement in the Garukhuti and neighbouring areas came to light in 2013 when an RTI report revealed that around 77,000 bighas of government land in the area remained encroached for years. In 2014, the issue of clearing this land became a prime topic during the state assembly polls campaigns. The BJP promised to clear this area-- and thereafter, came to power.
The eviction process started on September 20. On that day, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted, "Continuing our drive against illegal encroachments, I am happy and compliment district administration of Darrang and Assam Police for having cleared about 4500 bigha, by evicting 800 households, demolishing 4 illegal religious structures and a private institution at Sipajhar, Darrang. Today's eviction is aimed at starting community farming by removing encroachment."
Earlier in June 7, Sarma, while inspecting the riverine areas "encroached by illegal settlers" near Dholpur Shiva Mandir, assured temple management and local people to set up a Manikut-- build a guest house and boundary wall.
Based on the RTI report of 2013, Hazarika also moved the court against illegal encroachment in the area in 2014. "We also moved a local court in Mangaldoi against encroachment in the area under the Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, 2010. Then we also launched public campaigns after which the state government had assured us almost four times that they would take steps to clear this land."
Dilip Saikia, Lok Sabha MP from Mangaldoi which covers the conflicted area and the national General Secretary of BJP said, "The large chunk of land has encroached since ages. In 2017, one Anand Das was killed by the illegal encroachers when he went there to graze his cattle. After that incident also, the then Sarbananda Sonowal led BJP government evicted some of the parts but they again re-encroached."
Saikia said that this "encroachment" is not limited to land, it is "religious as well as population aggression by these illegal encroachers". "The Gorukhuti project is one of the vital components of an 'Atmanirbhar Assam' by which we can become independent in our agricultural production," Saikia added.
Meanwhile, locals claimed that at least nine of their villagers were missing since the violence broke out on Thursday. The state government has already constituted a judicial probe into the entire matter.
The Assam Chief Minister said, "I have assured each villager that I'll give them land as rehabilitation policy. But we can't allow the villagers to encroach 100-200 bighas of government land each. The victim's family will also be taken care of."
The author is an independent journalist based out of Assam, covering North-East India. He tweets at @Pranjal_khabri.