SIPAJHAR, Assam — For the last 15 days or so, Khairunesa Begum felt uneasy about the increased police presence near her home in Dhalpur No 3, a riverine island village aligned to the North bank of the Brahmaputra in Darrang district. On June 7, Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma in a public rally in Darrang district announced Project Gorukhuti (Assamese equivalent of grazing land for cows) claiming that more than 75,000 bighas (10,000 hectares) of government land will be freed by evicting encroachers.
Locals, mostly marginalized Muslim farmers, battling heavy floods and erosion every year, have been protesting against the eviction since the government announced its plans. On Thursday, the nation witnessed the brutal killing of two villagers by security forces on camera even as Assam Police claims that they were being attacked. In this stage, the Assam government plans to evict around 800 families from 4,500 bighas (602 hectares) with officials claiming that 70 percent of the evictions have been done in Sipajhar revenue circle. Bearing the brunt of this exercise, women and children have been hurt the most, claim the residents of Dhalpur.
On Monday, the situation spiraled downwards with nearly 900 policemen and paramilitary forces starting the eviction of houses on the riverine island. On Thursday afternoon, Begum’s own house razed, her belongings were set on fire including her grandchildren’s school textbooks, her rice, and corn by the marauding policemen, she says. Since then she has not seen her three-year-old grandson. Dhalpur residents claim that 30 or more people, mostly teenagers, and children are missing. Assam Secretary of Home and Political Department, Debaprasad Mishra issued a notice of September 23 that a retired judge would be enquiring about the deaths of civilians and injured, including nine police personnel, during the eviction.
According to CM Sarma, who commended the Darrang district administration for the ongoing eviction drive on September 20, government land in Dhalpur was illegally occupied by the encroachers. BJP MLA, Padma Hazarika, who is a part of the project, told media persons that 800 families have illegally occupied 4500 bigha (602 hectares) of government land, which will be used for community farming and result in the employment of 5000 youths.
However, locals question the arbitrariness of the eviction drive. “They notified us on Wednesday night and evicted us on Thursday afternoon. We got to know that we are encroachers a day before the eviction. Is that fair?” said Razak Ali, a 34 year old from Dhalpur 3, who lost his house on Thursday and witnessed the violence.
On Friday morning, Khairunnesa Begum was on the banks of Nau Nodi (new river), one of the channels of Brahmaputra the separates these islands the bank, so that she can cross over to Khuar Ghat, about four kilometers from her house situated on another riverine island.
“Around 4 PM, they razed my home. Then we all assembled for a meeting as senior police officials were there and we were protesting against the eviction peacefully. When the meeting was over, the police started the process of eviction again. People started running in every direction, we could hear the gunshots. Since then, I have not seen my grandson,” said Khairunesa Begum.
I have not seen my grandson. Khairunesa Begum.
An Assam Police official, anonymously said, there may be injured who are receiving treatment in the local hospitals. However, he said that as of now the matter is sub judice and he could not comment on the numbers of people who have been hospitalized. Most of the locals are unable to reach the police station to file missing complaints even after 24 hours since the entire riverine area remains barricaded.
While District Administration is yet to confirm the number of injured persons, the All Assam Muslim Students Union is in the process of compiling a list of persons whose whereabouts are not known. “This is a huge area. We have got 30 such reports from parents and loved ones that their kin has not been seen since Thursday. We are compiling that list and we will share with the district administration to tell us their whereabouts,” said AAMSU coordinator, Faizur Ali.
We are compiling that list and we will share with the district administration to tell us their wherabouts…Fazur Ali, coordinator AAMSU.
Moinul Haque’s wife, Mumtaz Begum, breaking down several times before media persons said that he was wielding a stick because policemen broke the hand of a teenager when they resumed the eviction process. By Friday, she had moved close to the edge of Dhalpur 3 along with several families, near the riverbank, protected by two tin sheets, with three of her children weeping ceaselessly as they recollect in horror the videos of their father being shot by policemen and stomped upon by a cameraperson.
“This is hell for us. The man of this house has been murdered in front of us,” Mumtaz wailed.
The man of this house has been murdered in front of us. Mumtaz Begum.
Sonia Hussain, a class seven student who goes to the Government Middle School situated in the village, went along with several others when the meeting was called by the police officials.
“The situation suddenly became tense when the policemen started chasing us with sticks. A stick fell on my hand and I felt a sharp pain. I fell down when someone dragged me to the side. Later, I learned that the same man was gunned down and a photographer stomped on his dead body,” she recalled.
Her brother, Noor Hussain, said that they have not been able to take her to a doctor. “The health center on the island has not seen a doctor in days. We are not allowed to move to the town to seek treatment as police have put a large barricade,” Hussain added.
Long suspected as foreigners or doubtful citizens, many of these women offered to show their Aadhar card and their names on the final NRC list. “If we are not citizens, they should just throw a big bomb here and the land will be theirs. Why make us go through this hell?” asked Khairunnessa Begum.
Update on missing persons:
Till Friday afternoon, the whereabouts of the 30 people missing during the chaos and the violence at Dhalpur under Sipajhar Revenue Circle were not known. However, later, according to AAMSU all were accounted for including a three-year-old who was missing. AAMSU volunteer, Muzammil Hussain, the three-year-old child was found by a neighbour of Khairunessa, his grandmother, who was reunited with her the next day.
AAMSU volunteers traced 14 others who were injured during the violence to Sipajhar Community Health Centre.
“Later we learned that they have been moved to Gauhati Medical College. We did not know their whereabouts until Saturday. Since we are not leaving the village as it is barricaded, we have not been able to follow it up. Even now we are not in touch with them but we have been told by the district administration that they are receiving treatment at Gauhati Medical College,” said Hussain.
Senior police officials from Sipajhar confirmed that the injured are being treated in Gauhati Medical College which also includes nine policemen injured during the scuffle. “The mob got violent following we had to resort to lobbing tear gas shells and fire rubber bullets to take the situation under control. The injured villagers were taken to the health center by the Darrang district administration,” said the official under the condition of anonymity.
Correction: BJP MLA Padma Hazarika was erroneously mentioned in an earlier version of the story as BJP MLA Mrinal Hazarika. The error is regretted.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a response from the police and the All Assam Muslim Students Union.