Historically, Assam has been a land of abundance, fertile fields and low population density. Hostile environment and thick jungles precluded settlers except those pre-historic migrants. With modernisation certain changes happened. First, hostile environment became less hostile, lack of population needed import of labour as well as skilled people. This opened the Pandora’s box of migration. Coupled with that, the ethnic population also grew in numbers. What followed next was natural. Forests and unpopulated lands got converted to homesteads and cultivable land. This went on unhindered unnoticed till two things happened.
Firstly, land started becoming scarce and secondly, socio-political changes started to surface. The first factor was compounded by loss of habitable/cultivable land to erosion and floods. The second factor brought about sudden realisation of labourers threatening to become masters. The latter lead to anti-foreigner agitation and the general tendency of branding anyone from a particular community as foreigner. The Tripura experience as well as the Barak valley experience only heightened the fears. Even in the Brahmaputra valley, the local ethnics lost out to people who have migrated from elsewhere at many places.
While discussing encroachments and evictions, this background must be kept in mind. Lets first consider Muslims of East Bengali origin. They were in riverine areas battling floods and nature, away from the eyes of most people. As education and prosperity grew, aspirations, comfort seeking and assertiveness also grew. They rich amongst them bought land at more central places, the poor occupied and created homes at better places. Moreover, the increasing population, the scarce arable land contributed to urban or even rural migration. This new scenario brought in the fear of “Bangladeshi aggression” or “Islamic domination/radicalisation” amongst the ethnic population. Unscrupulous politicians, vested interests took full advantage and fanned the fire of fear and suspicion. The lure of vote banks also made politicians settle them.
As a result, you have new settlements of people of East Bengali origins, mostly Muslims. It is also undeniable that there could be some illegal migrants in them but overall, most of them were valid Indian citizens. In this context, there are two violations of law. First, anyone occupying government land, forest land etc is a violator under law. Government or law enforcing agencies ought to have acted. For various reasons, they didn’t, leaving it to some citizens to take law onto their own hands.
When these efforts bore fruits, these embolden self-appointed guardians of ethnic identity took the next step, they started evicting even legal occupants. The government of the day seems totally oblivious to this happening and the ominous portents it bears. We have vigilantes who decide who is legal and who is not and then evict them on the plea that they are Bangladeshis. Again, the second violation is, if these settlers are foreigners, why are they allowed to roam scot-free? It is just a matter of time that there shall be repercussions and it will be hapless innocents who shall bear the brunt. The lessons of Assam agitation and BTC clashes should not be forgotten.
What is the way out? Government must take control. When voluntary organisations, social organisations point out settlements or occupations, district administration should act immediately, logically to uphold the rule of law. That way, no party will feel aggrieved. Let the law do its work, not any organisation. They can at best guide or help. Similarly, the provocative minority leaders must be reined in.
The other eviction which is drawing more attention is the one at Amchang presently and Kaziranga in the past. This involves essentially ethnic population settled in forest lands evicted under court orders. This causes more media attention with gory details of hearth and homes uprooted in minutes by bulldozers and elephants. The ones who are for environment, fully supports these evictions. Others — humanists, regionalists, socialists, opposition politicians — decry such evictions.
Who are these occupants? A good number are victims of erosion and floods. Some are victims of lack of rural earning forced to migrate to cities. They have come to attention after the hills around Guwahati got populated leading to catastrophes of landslide deaths, clogged drains downhill leading to floods. How does one tackle the problem in the second variety? The solutions are also applicable to the first type of encroachers too. Firstly, whenever, natural calamities like floods and erosions happen, we must have a system in place which accounts for the people affected. If someone has lost his legitimate home to floods or erosion – it is important for the government to see that they find – either alternate land or alternate source of income. After all, its government who is responsible for the well being of its citizens. Secondly, each village panchayat should keep a record of its members migrating to cities or other places as well as their places of stay. By this, government is pre-warned if illegal encroachments are taking place at city peripheries. Any such encroachment can be nipped in the bud until it becomes too late and manifest as a humanitarian problem.
What else should be done as a priority? The biggest hurdle to illegal encroachments is lack of civic amenities. In Amchang, it is evident that almost all who have been deemed illegal, have electricity connection. Stringent action must be taken against those who ordered connections. This shall dissuade future adventures of such electricity organisations. Roads, culverts, water connections have been found. All officers responsible for spending public funds on such acts needs to be punished before embarking on evictions. Many areas are deemed revenue villages with myadi or eksonia patta. The revenue officials involved in that act needs to be punished immediately.
The people evicted by government or vigilantes are from lower strata of society. It is natural that they feel cheated and aggrieved when resorts made in forest land are untouched. They feel cheated when they see factories and business establishments encroach and get away with impunity, a five-star hotel is allowed to be constructed right across the state secretariat using rock blasting for construction. They boil when they see gross encroachments in fancy bazar and other commercial areas with rampant use of public spaces as private car parks and storage areas. The poor Muslim peasant feel aggrieved when he is penalised for his faith and his forefather’s origin. He feels angry when he sees miles and miles of settlements left untouched only because they were migrants from Bihar or Nepal or the occupants speak Bengali but follow Hindu faith. Law must be equal for all!
(The views expressed are his own).