Friday, March 1, 2024

In Assam, a 55-year-old Muslim man dies from cold after ‘arbitrary eviction’

For two days, Boyat Ali slept under the open sky in the wrenching cold of winter nights in Panchratna NC, a riverine village in Assam’s Goalpara district, over 150 km from the state’s capital. 

On January 10, Ali’s family, including him, was among the 130 families evicted from Panchratna N.C and Panchratna in an operation by the Forest Department. The eviction drive was carried out to clear the Panchratna reserve forest from “illegal encroachment,” according to the forest authority. 

However, on January 13, two days following the eviction drive and after coping with the severe cold, Ali, a Muslim of East Bengal ancestry, was found dead in his loosely erected tarpaulin shanty, his kin said. 

“He died from the cold. It was a murder, a state-led murder. If not for the eviction, he would still be alive today,” Motibor Rahman, Ali’s kin, said.

The fifty-five-year-old Ali is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, all of whom have now huddled together in a separate makeshift shanty about three km away from their village to shield themselves against the cold. However, with Ali’s death, dejected and shaken none of them have spoken to anyone. 

Rahman told Maktoob, “They have forever gone into mourning. The death of their father has shut them off forever. They know they cannot fight the cruel government.”

Ali, a peasant, was the only one who used to provide for the family. With his death, the family is “at the crossroads between scraping for survival and finding a moment to grieve his death,” Rahman, who is 28, said.

The eviction created a ripple of fear among the people — who are mostly Muslim peasants living in impoverished conditions — and with no recourse and nowhere else to go, the people from the village, including children, now found themselves living under the open sky in the bone-chilling nights.

“The government did not think about rehabilitating us. This would not have happened if the government was just and fair,” he said, seethingly.  

‘It was an arbitrary eviction’

On December 27, the Balijan Revenue Circle, under which the villages fall, served the eviction notice to the locals. The notice cited encroachment on the government land on either side of National Highway 46 that cuts through Panchratna NC, Panchratna and Hurkakuchi as the reason for eviction. 

The people of the three villages were to “vacate the area” and “demolish their existing structures” within the next seven days, it read. 

Following this, Chafa Begum from Panchratna filed a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court to stay the eviction. 

Begum claimed that even though her family has been living in khas (Government land) for decades, they have paid Khajna (land revenue taxes) till 2015 — a year when their circle office last collected tax from them — and therefore the eviction should be stayed for now without rehabilitative measures. 

Like Begum, others Maktoob spoke to from the villages, have been living in the three villages for many generations. Maktoob has seen their land tax receipts and electricity bills.  

The court, in the meanwhile, though did not stay the eviction “because the petitioner is in occupation of a government land”, it, however, set aside the notice.  

“The notice prima facie appears to have suffered from deficiencies on three counts,” the court ruled. 

Firstly, the notice did not mention the statutory provisions under which the notice was served, the court said, adding secondly, “there is no mention in the notice of the details from which the petitioner was asked to be evicted”. Thirdly, the Assistant settlement officer cannot issue an eviction notice under rule 18 of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1886, the court observed. 

However, on the morning of January 10, Begum’s son Ariful Hussain woke up to the sound of earthmovers and forest rangers shouting at protesting people. 

Speaking to Maktoob Hussain, 28 said, “Before we could ask anything, they started flattering our houses and shops. They did not stop. Everything was flattened in a matter of an hour. We were made homeless.”

Hussain also told maktoob that their house and others which were bulldozed were at least 100 feet (30 metres) from the reserve forest and instead stood in revenue khas.

Animul Haque, Goalpara president of the All Assam Minority Students’ organisation, said that after the court’s order, the Balijan Circle officer assured the locals that the eviction would not be carried out in the revenue areas. But things took a drastic turn as the forest rangers marched on the villages with JCB machines the next day.

Haque stated, “They did not show any regard for the court order. We would not have had any issue if they had evicted people from forest land, but why were people from the revenue land who even paid land taxes since the 1970s evicted?”

He added, “The district/Divisional forest officer (DFO) carried out the eviction on his own and left these people to suffer. Boyat Ali’s death is on his hands.”

When reached for comment, DFO Tejas Mariswamy said, “Eviction was done in the Panchratna Reserve Forest area and not in the revenue area.’’

But documents seen by Maktoob also confirmed that their house stood in revenue land. “But the forest department carried out the eviction claiming we were encroaching on the forest land,” said Hussain. “It was an arbitrary eviction.”

In the meanwhile, a kilometre from Panchratna, Ali’s family is hoping for justice. 

“We want the DFO to take responsibility for the murder. We want him punished,” Rahman said, his voice agitating. 

Asked about Ali’s death, Mariswamy stopped replying to texts sent. 

Boyat Ali’s death has also conjured up recent instances of how evictions in Assam under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have caused human casualties in the Bengali Muslim community along with their displacement.

In 2021, a 12-year-old boy and a man — both Bengali Muslims — were shot dead by the district police in the state’s Sipajhar region after they protested the eviction. In 2023, a woman was killed and several others were injured after forest rangers opened fire at them in Bura Chapori Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam’s Nagaon.  

“The violence against the Miyas — a pejorative term for the Bengali origin Muslims — persists because the Miyas are not equal to the Assamese in the state’s long history of vilification of this community,” Nazimuddin Siddique, who teaches Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, said

Evictions in Goalpara 

Evictions in Goalpara have been going unabated after a Gauhati High Court order in 2022 that called to evict “illegal encroachers” from the protected Reserve Forest. A month before the recent January eviction, an eviction was carried out by the forest department in the Nalbari reserve forest. 

The eviction was carried out to reclaim the forest area so that human-animal conflicts can be reduced, Mariswamy said.  Over 1000 families, all Bengali-speaking Muslims, were ousted in the drive, according to the locals. 

The human-animal conflicts are often cited for evictions in Goalpara which observers say are a pretext to target the ethnic Muslims in the district. 

Wazed Ali, an advocate with the Goalpara Lawyers Association, said, “Only 25.67% of the forest cover in the district is under encroachment, and that too from the tribals who cultivate Rubber, Tea and Betel-Nut.”

“Not a single Muslim family is encroaching on the forest land. If there is any, they are squatting on the Proposed Reserve Forest land (PRF) and have a history of paying land taxes,” he added. The recent eviction drives, the lawyer, activists and the evictees say, are also discriminatory towards the Muslims and are politically motivated. 

Mirajul Haque, a local journalist from Goalpara, said the authority was selective in bulldozing structures during the recent spree of eviction drives. 

“A mosque and an Eidgah deemed to be illegal structures were also bulldozed in the eviction drive in the presence of heavy CRPF deployment, whereas a temple on the same land was left untouched,” Haque, the reporter, said. 

Idris Ali, 50, who was evicted from the Nalbari Reserve Forest area, said while his house was flattered, the house of a Hindu family next to his was spared. 

“I even bought my land from them 50 years ago. Their house stands on the same land as mine. Mine was demolished as an illegal structure, theirs remains a legal structure. How is this fair?” Ali said, sounding grief. 

This reporter phoned Khanindra Choudhury, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Goalapara, for comments. He refused to comment. A questionnaire was sent to his office. The story will be updated when he responds. 

In all, over 4400 families, mostly Bengali Muslims, have been evicted from different districts in Assam, Chief Minister Biswa Sarma told the assembly in 2022. 

“Evictions not only in Goalpara but across Assam are discriminatory against the Muslims,” Ali, the lawyer, said. “The death of Boyat Ali amounts to murder as the state did not protect him because of his religious identity.”

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