Clashes broke out as thousands protested against the Assam government’s ongoing eviction drive against “illegal encroachers” in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district Thursday, leaving at least two people dead and several injured on both sides.
Special DGP G P Singh confirmed the civilian deaths adding that nine policemen were injured. “One policeman is critical,” he said. Darrang Superintendent of Police Susanta Biswa Sarma told The Indian Express that police “did what they had to do” in “self defence”.
Speaking to the press in the afternoon Thursday, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said police were given the “responsibility to carry out an eviction and free up the land”. “They will do their duty. As per information with me, people attacked the police using sticks, daos etc.” he said.
The Chief Minister has instituted an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deaths and injuries. A notification from the Political (A) department said that the inquiry would be conducted “under the chairmanship of a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.”
The drive followed days after Monday’s eviction of 800 families, said to have been occupying about 4,500 bighas of land in Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages of Sipajhar. The Opposition had accused the government of going ahead with the eviction despite not having a “proper rehabilitation plan”.
On Thursday, thousands of locals protesting against the eviction, in an area largely inhabited by Bengali-speaking Muslims like Monday’s drive, clashed with police. In one of the videos that emerged on social media, and was shared by an AIUDF MLA, a man with a stick running towards police was fired upon. As he fell to the ground, policemen kept raining lathis on him. A civilian, holding a camera, then repeatedly jumped on his motionless body, till police stopped him. A police officer could later be seen hugging the man to contain him.
Some reports identified the attacker as an official photographer hired by the Darrang District Administration. Repeated calls to Darrang DC Prabhati Thaosen to confirm the same went unanswered. SP Sarma said: “Who did what… that is under process. I have not seen the video myself.”
Special DGP Singh said that he could not confirm the identity of the person. “That is all being reported on social media and unless I get it from the police, I would not like to comment on it. Only thing I can say is that having seen the video, we will take action against him — whosoever he is,” said Singh, adding that “wherever there were violations of SOPs and protocols,” the police would take action.
Later, Singh confirmed that the camera person was arrested. “Reference video of incident at Gorukhuti, Darrang – the said cameraman has been arrested in a case registered with @AssamCid in connection with the incident. @mygovassam @CMOfficeAssam @assampolice,” he tweeted on Thursday night.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Assam is on state-sponsored fire. I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state — no children of India deserve this.”
According to the authorities, the violence began around 12.30 pm. “We had gone to carry out the eviction drive in the morning. While it went according to plan in the first three zones, we faced some resistance in the last zone,” said SP Sarma. “In the first instance, we managed to control it. But after that, they started attacking us with stones, baahor jung (pointed edges of bamboo trees) etc. One of our policemen was critically injured in the head.”
Ainuddin Ahmed, from Mangaldai, close to Sipajhar, and a member of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), said several residents of Dholpur 3 got eviction notices only on Wednesday night, between 10 pm and midnight. “They were asked to clear out by 6 am the next day. These particular people have a pending case regarding the eviction in the Gauhati High Court,” he said.
Ahmed said that on Thursday morning, thousands — including local AAMSU members — formed a human chain to stop the eviction, which was led by the district administration and police officials. “It was a peaceful protest, and we held a discussion with the administration. We told them that the rehabilitation plans were not sufficient, the place they had directed the locals to was especially low-lying, and flood prone. We also asked for provisions for latrines. They agreed,” said Ahmed.
He claimed that after that, things were “peaceful”. “Later, as people were trying to dismantle their homes themselves and take away parts such as tin sheds with them, the authorities started razing them with JCBs. All they (the locals) wanted to do was take along parts of their home so they could rebuild it,” Ahmed said. He claimed that is when the clashes began.
The Darrang SP said though the situation was “normal” now, “We are not sure about tomorrow’s plan.”
Tweeting the video showing purportedly a civilian being shot, AIUDF MLA Ashraful Hussain, wrote, “Terror Force’ of fascist, communal & bigoted Govt shooting at its own citizens. Also, who is the person with camera? Someone from our ‘Great Media’ orgs? The appeal of these villagers, against eviction, is pending in the High Court. Couldn’t the Govt wait till court order?”
In August end, 200 families from Dholpur 3 — where the eviction took place on Thursday — had filed a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court challenging the eviction. Following that, the High Court sought instructions from the government on the matter. In response, the government then filed an affidavit saying that it was government land, and the settlers had no right over it. However, the evictions were carried out before the petitioners could file a reply to the affidavit. “Propriety demands that they should wait for the final outcome of the case,” said Santanu Borthakur, advocate representing the case.
The eviction drive in Sipajhar had been announced following CM Sarma’s visit to it in June. He had said that the area falling near Dholpur Shiva Mandir was “encroached by illegal settlers”, and assured the local people and temple management that it would be “freed”.
After Monday’s drive, he had tweeted that he was “happy” and complimented the district administration and Assam Police for “clearing 4,500 bighas, evicting 800 households, demolishing 4 illegal religious structures and a private instn at Sipajhar, Darrang”. “Today’s eviction is aimed at starting community farming by removing encroachment,” he wrote.
One of the BJP’s poll promises in the May Assembly elections was to free government lands from “encroachers”, and allot them to “indigenous landless people” of the state. Similar drives evicted 70 families in Hojai’s Lanka and 25 families in Sonitpur’s Jamugurihat in June. In Sipajhar, the government plans to implement a multi-crore ‘Garukhuti Project’ (part of the state budget 2021-22), where freed-up land is to be used for afforestation and agriculture activities, involving indigenous youth.
Sipajhar is no stranger to eviction drives and ethnic contestations over land. The government had carried out similar drives in December 2016 and November 2017.
The area incidentally is part of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat, from where the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched its anti-infiltration movement of 1979-85. This was following a revision of electoral rolls, which had a large number of new names — the immediate trigger for the agitation.