Thursday, June 13, 2024

Dholpur evictions: Shanties of evicted Muslim families reduced to rubbles during “relocation” drive

Mamataz Begum, the widow of Maynal Hoque – gunned down by Assam Police in September 2021 during the eviction drive in Darrang district’s riverine sandbar of Dholpur when he charged with a bamboo pole against the heavily armed forces after bursting in anger as bulldozers were mowing down house– endured the horrific scenes of JCB breaking the houses at her village once again on 20 May 2024, within just three years. 

“I saw the JCB broke down my house where I was living since the eviction”, said the now 33-year-old widow and mother of three children.

After the 2021 demolition, Muslim peasants settled on the sandbank encamped by the Brahmaputra and its tributary Nonoi River. The families were allowed by the district administration to make their makeshift homes along the stream of Nonoi River according to locals. Waiting for resettlement in government-allotted land, the eviction victims felt they were subjected to persecution.

“We had approached the Gauhati High Court for land allotment to make our homes at the new place where the administration settles us. We just wanted to see the place and ensure the administration provides us with the allotment deeds. But we are not given that chance. We are evicted again”, said 48-year-old Safer Ali whose house was being demolished again.

The Darrang district administration resumed the “relocation” drive of eviction victims, who were living in makeshift shanties, on 20 May 2024. The drive to remove the people from the area has been ongoing since Monday. According to the district officials out of 2023 families living in the settlement camp, 550 were left for relocation. 

Locals said they were looking forward to relocation as they wanted to live in a place without the fear of eviction again. “Had the administration exchanged views with us and informed us about the eviction again, we wouldn’t have gotten by surprise. They came with bulldozers and asked us to vacate our homes. We got scared. So, we did leave and then they ran the bulldozers on the houses”, said 65-year-old Muntaz Ali at the rubbled settlement area.

In January 2021, hearing the pleas of eviction victim families, the Gauhati High Court ordered the district commissioner to resettle the landless families within six months of receipt of applications for resettlement. The administration also formed a district-level committee in January 2022 to provide 1 bigha (0.25 acre) of land to the eviction-affected families within the district.

“Though the court had said that we should be resettled within six months, the administration did not relocate us. Now they are forcibly giving us coupons (relocation slips for allotment of land at designated areas) and forcibly demolishing our houses. 37 families are rotting there in Magurmari char, which is not even a shelter camp”, Safer said as he rued “The places where people are taken are only sandbars, without any probability of growing agricultural produce”.

The evicted families, mostly climate refugees, have been resilient cultivators producing various crops in the Dholpur area— which gets submerged during the flooding season— for more than 40 years. Their fear is without agricultural land, they will have no option other than being labourers either in Assam or in other states.

65-year-old Aynal Hoque says, “All we need is a document showing that the government has allotted us some land and it is arable land to feed ourselves. We approached the high court for relocation, not for settlement here. But suddenly, they started running bulldozer from Monday and destroyed everything as if a child was sleeping in the home it would have been crushed like cooking utensils were trampled on.”

On accusations of running bulldozers on the evicted peoples’ homes, Darrang district’s deputy commissioner Munindra Natha Ngatey said that the three JCBs were there to help the villagers remove their shanties.

“The people are in agreement with us on relocation. It is some unscrupulous people who want to disturb the process by misleading them”, said the deputy commissioner adding, “The people will be resettled at the Kalaichar area through which a highway will pass to connect Morigaon (district) with Kalaigaon, so they don’t have to worry about the area being backward”.

He emphasised that the relocation process was delayed because of the national polls.

While asked whether the evicted families, who are now being relocated, will get any land deed, he informed, “These are char (riverine sand islands) areas, so immediately they will not get allotment deed. But the Assam government is going to survey char areas across the state. Once the survey is done, the people will get settlement deeds.”

Assam government is vacating over 77,000 bigha (25,600 acres) of land in the Dholpur area for its agricultural project in the area. The Gorukhuti Agriculture Project— ostensibly to use modern agricultural techniques and hand over the farming sector to “indigenous” youths— is displacing Muslim skilled cultivators who have mastered navigating floods during monsoon and achieving bumper harvests. The flood-resilient cultivators have developed their expertise by tackling the floods for more than four decades in the area, which is recurringly inundated by the Brahmaputra and Nonoi rivers.

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