On September 23, 2021, a horrifying video of a government-deputed photographer Bijay Bania stomping on the body of a dead, Muslim man in the strife-torn Dhalpur village, a Muslim-populated area of Assam, went viral.
Moynul Haque was killed during the police attack on the people of Dhalpur village who were returning to their home after staging a demonstration against the eviction notice issued to them by the BJP-led Assam government. Two persons were killed in police firing. As many as 43 civilians and 14 policemen were injured in the incident.
The incident brought to light the eviction drive that was carried out on 20 and 23 September on very short notices, leaving the villagers in the lurch without any promise of rehabilitation. As per the government, 960 families have been evicted from Dhalpur village following allegations that they are "suspected Bangladeshis" and that they have "illegally grabbed lands of the indigenous people of Assam" or "transformed grazing land into their habitation."
The homeless families of Dhalpur have been living in shelter camps with inadequate amenities since then.
A group of 14 youths led by senior journalist and human rights activist Zamser Ali, on behalf of the Centre for Minority Studies, Research and Development, Assam, camped in Dhalpur for 15 days, starting from 24 September, in order to investigate the truth behind the allegations made against the Muslim community of Dhalpur by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his government.
The team released its survey report on 23rd December, dissecting along with supporting documents, the claims of the chief minister and juxtaposing it with their findings on the ground.
The independent fact-finding team found out that the people who were "forcefully" evicted from Assam's Dhalpur were not illegal migrants and had legacy documents dated before 1971.
"We hope that the report helps the people understand the reality of Dhalpur village and its evicted residents. We also hope to expose the propaganda against the Muslim community of Dhalpur village," Zamser Ali told BOOM.
BOOM went through the 67-page report — here are some of the claims and what the team found.
Claim 1: Following the incident, Assam's Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma alleged that "only 60 families had to be evicted but 10,000 people swarmed to the site to put up a resistance."
"When the place where the eviction drive was proposed on 23 September 2021 had only 300 people, should there be a huge crowd of about 10,000 people staging a demonstration at Dhalpur?," he said.
What was found: As per the fact-finding team of Centre for Minority Studies, Research and Development, Assam, the number "10,000" quoted by the government is misleading. The report states that the number was contradicted not just by the villagers but also by the government officials. According to the FIR lodged at Sipajhar police station by Olindita Gogoi, APS, Addl SP (Security), Nalbari, who had been deputed as Special Security Officer, Law and Order, for the eviction, there was a gathering of 2,000-2,500 people at the demonstration site. The same number has been recorded in the primary charge sheet submitted by the same officer to the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Darrang, on 27 September 2021. Meanwhile, locals who took part in the protest told the team that there were not more than 1,000 people at the site.
Claim 2: The chief minister claimed that the population of Dhalpur is only 300.
What was found: "Dhalpur village had been divided into three separate villages—Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2 and Dhalpur No 3—in 1991. As per the Census of India report 1991, the total number of people at Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2 and Dhalpur No 3 was 867, 1,151 and 959 respectively. Whereas, the Census of India report 2011 states the total population of Dhalpur No 1 as 2,514, Dhalpur No 2 as 278 and Dhalpur No 3 as 6,115. Hence, the claim of the chief minister that the population of Dhalpur is 300 is baseless," notes the fact-finding report.
Claim 3: The protest demonstration at Dhalpur was not of the people of Dhalpur, rather it was organised by outsiders with a political conspiracy. The outsiders instigated the local people, and they attacked the police first. The police had to fire in self-defence.
What was found: As per the report, on 22 September 2021, more than 600 notices were served to the residents of Dhalpur No 2 and Dhalpur No 3 from 10 p.m. that day to 9 a.m. the next day. The scheduled time for eviction was 10 a.m. onwards on 23 September 2021. The villagers were unnerved not knowing how to dismantle or shift their houses in such a short time. Besides, the victims panicked thinking endlessly where to go with their families, as there was no land for them to live. They were not shown any alternative place as shown to the people who were evicted on 20 September for a temporary settlement. Therefore, they decided to stage a demonstration demanding some additional time to dismantle their houses, with an appeal to demarcate an area where they would live for the period until provided with an alternative rehabilitation.
The fact-finding team contacted a leader of the All Assam Minority Student Union (AAMSU) and a resident of the Joynul Abedin locality who was part of the protest. He said, "When people were determined to stage a demonstration, it was our moral duty to be present there. The demonstration started at about 10 a.m. A discussion was also held between the protesting villagers and the district administration, wherein the latter stuck to its decision that no additional time would be allowed for eviction. The deputy Commissioner of Darrang district held that she would inform the higher government authority of the issue of land allotment to the evicted people for rehabilitation. As the demonstration wrapped up and when most of the people had left, we went to Bhetibazaar, which is about 2 km from the site of the demonstration. As soon we reached there, we heard hues and cries from the site where the eviction drive was to happen. We saw smoke at the site, and a few minutes later, heard sounds of firing.
Ahmed Ali, a resident of Dhalpur No 3, told the fact-finding team, "Soon as the demonstration ended after it was clear that the eviction drive would start without delay, the villagers rushed to dismantle their houses. When I reached my home, I saw the police setting fire to my house. I helplessly cried and requested them not to burn my house. They did not listen to me, and burnt my house, including 8 quintal jute, paddy, utensils, beds, and all goods and chattels. They even killed my hens and ducks and took them away. The sight of my burning house and my helpless crying were streamed on a web portal, which I saw later."
The team also spoke to Jabed Ali, an elderly resident of Dhalpur No 3, who was with Moynul Haque minutes before Haque was killed by the police.
"Reaching home, I saw a group of three to four policemen in my house. Two policemen started beating me without any reason. One of them kicked me mercilessly. Moynul Haque felt anguished and took me to the backyard of my house. However, Haque was beaten harshly by the police. I saw the police beating innocent villagers all around. I saw Haque picking up a dry bamboo and running in the opposite direction. A few moments later, I heard the sound of firing. I came to know later from a news video that he was gunned down by the police. Haque would not have been killed if he had not seen the police beating and kicking me," narrated Jabed Ali.
Another eye-witness, Paras Ali, told the fact-finding team that a minor girl was beaten by the police too.
"After Jabed Ali was pushed out of his home by Haque, he tried to run to his home. At that moment, a minor girl was being beaten by the police. The girl fell on the ground. Haque picked a dry bamboo from Jabed Ali's house and rushed to the policeman who was beating the minor girl. He then attempted to throw the bamboo at the policeman. Seeing Haque in a frantic state, the police team and their civilian aides ran down to a low-lying area where a huge number of policemen had been camping. Seeing the police flee from the spot, few others were encouraged to follow Haque. Suddenly, the police started firing. Haque fell down. I was observing the entire situation in shock from the highland," said Paras Ali.
Claim 4: It was a pre-planned attack. There was massive stone pelting from the side of the demonstration. People of Dhalpur in huge numbers attacked the administration and police with lathi (sticks), da (large knives).
What was found: Jabed Ali said that the villages of Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2, Dhalpur No 3 and even the nearby Kirakara village are free from stones. "You will not find even a single stone here in this area. It is completely a sandy land. You will not even find a single brick house here. From where will the villagers gather the stones for pelting?" the report quotes him as saying.
Claim 5: A politcal party called PFI was not only behind the screen, but they were working at Dhalpur for long to mislead the people.
What was found: The report states that the presence of any PFI member was denied by the villagers of Dhalpur.
Claim 6: Lakhs of rupees was collected by brokers from the people of Dhalpur with an assurance that they would be allotted land there.
What was found: The allegation is strongly dismissed by the villagers. At the same time, however, a few brokers collected some money from the ignorant villagers promising them allotment of land. But, the amount was not in lakhs but around Rs 2,000 to 5,000.
Claim 7: Lakhs of rupees was collected from people of Dhalpur assuring them of legal proceedings in their defence.
What was found: The villagers informed the fact-finding team that about 200 families had filed a writ petition at Gauhati High Court. The petitioners themselves contributed funds for this. The matter concerns only a few families, and not all the residents of Dhalpur are related to it.
Claim 8: All the people of Dhalpur are suspected Bangladeshis; their names are left out of the final NRC.
What was found: Of the 517 families covered by this ground survey, 516 families have their legacy data intact. One family has land documents existing from a time before 1971. The legacy data was generated by the NRC authority, under direct supervision of the Supreme Court of India. Leaving aside the legacy data of only one family, no other legacy data were challenged by anyone. One family had mistakenly used the legacy data of another with a similar name. At the time of NRC hearing, the error came to their notice. They then surrendered their wrong legacy data and collected their own legacy data, which had been used by other families of their family tree.
The report states, "It is obviously true that the rate of exclusion in Dhalpur is higher among Muslims. It is not because of the documents, but the ambiguity and bias of the NRC officials."
Claim 9: People have settled at Dhalpur only to grab land from the indigenous Assamese people.
What was found: It is evident in the Census of India report 1971 that there were only 23 people living in Dhalpur. It was recorded in that census report that the total land of Dhalpur was 13,050 acres, of which only 2000 acres were cultivable and 1000 acres uncultivable. The Darrang district map in that census report shows that the main stretch of Brahmaputra river was flowing north of Dhalpur village. This means the entire Dhalpur village was situated on the south bank of the river in 1971. The non-Muslim population, if at all they had been living before, had deserted the village before 1971. They could not exist in villages that were completely underwater. For the same reason, at least nine villages attached to Dhalpur had no population at all. Of these nine unpopulated villages, seven villages at present have non-Muslim population, one is populated by Goriya Muslims and one has a mixed population of non-Muslims and Goriya Muslims. The report also mentions that the newcomers to Dhalpur had to buy their land from the absentee landowners (though they had no land documents) belonging to non-Muslims and some Goriya Muslims till 2000. The neo-Assamese Muslim families migrated to Dhalpur before 2000. Most of them have such land purchasing agreements in stamp papers.
Claim 10: The people of Dhalpur are neither poor nor victims of erosion. There are no records or documents with them to prove having been affected by river erosion. They have not registered their names as erosion victims in any of the circle offices of the state.
What was found: All the 517 families the team surveyed are based on either cultivation or agricultural labour. There is not even a single family member in government service. The average annual income of these families was found to be above Rs 1,00,000.
In their ground survey, they found that 90% of the people who have settled in Dhalpur are from erosion-affected villages. The villages they used to live in were either badly eroded or completely washed away by the river Brahmaputra or by its tributaries.
All these people have their legacy data. The validity of the legacy data has already been proved here. But, the matter of concern is that all the legacy data are mostly from the villages which have either been fully or partially eroded. Their ancestors used to live in those villages not just between 1951 and 1971, the period in which the legacy data were generated, but many of them have land documents in those areas even since 1928.
One of the questions raised by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was— if the migrated people were affected by river erosion, why did they not have river erosion certificates?
The people of Dhalpur are of the opinion that the Chief Minister should collect their legacy data to find out their original villages and then check at the revenue circles whether these villages got eroded at any point in time or not. The survey team collected names of the villages from which the people migrated as per their legacy data or other valid documents. While the list of their original villages was checked through Google maps, it was found that at least 60% people surveyed were from villages that are still completely or partially underwater. The remaining 30% are from the villages which are situated in riverine areas. Only 10% are from the villages which are safe and secure from any river erosion. These people told the team that they had migrated to Dhalpur as they had no land in the villages where they used to live before.
Claim 11: Each family of Dhalpur has occupied 300 to 1000 bighas of land. If they had been poor at all, they could not have occupied such a huge share of land per family.
What was found: The survey team found that among the 517 evicted families surveyed, 48.54% families had just 0.01 to 3 bighas of land, 19.34% families had 3.01 to 7.5 bighas, 5.8% families possessed 7.51 to 15 bighas and 13.92% families were landless. It means the assumption that they are occupying 300, 400 or 1000 bighas of land is far from the truth. There is not even a single family possessing above 15-bigha land in Dhalpur.