Friday, December 8, 2023

Eviction order issued: 210 families, mosque in remote Assam village forced to vacate or face consequences

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38-year-old Safik Ali is living in constant worry and fear in Nanke Daranga village, located in Baksa district of Assam. For nearly 60 years, his family has called this place home, but now they face an uncertain future. The source of Safik’s distress is a notice from the district’s forest department, ordering them to vacate their homes within a mere 15 days. The impending deadline has left them grappling with the daunting task of uprooting their lives from the village they hold dear.

Starting from 22 July, 210 families of the Nanke Daranga or Daranga Mela or NK Daranga village began receiving notifications from the forest department, accusing the villagers of encroaching upon the land of Daranga forest. The notices sent to the residents read, “…you are illegally occupying the land of Daranga forest area by naming it as Moinahali village. Therefore, you are ordered to vacate the occupied land within 15 days of this notice. Otherwise, appropriate action will be taken as per the forest laws.”

Ali runs a scrap collection and motor vehicle parts shop at Daranga Bazar, supporting his family of 7 members. However, the notice, which essentially implies eviction if the residents fail to vacate the area voluntarily, has left him filled with fear and anxiety.

“My family survives on the money I earn from selling scrap and doing some mechanical work. If they (the forest authority) force me out of this place, my whole life will go to waste. I will be a living dead because I will have to become either a laborer in Assam or migrate to another state,” Ali said to Maktoob, expressing his fear of eviction.

In the context of the village, Nonke or NK indicates that it is a non-cadastral village or non-surveyed land, meaning the residents do not possess land deeds. However, despite the lack of official land deeds, the people who reside there are considered the first party to the land due to their settlement on the non-surveyed land. Until the government conducts a survey and provides formal settlement, the land remains classified as public property.

The directive to evacuate the land came shortly after the village head and the Lot Mandal (land enumerating official) visited the village to gather details about each family. Jahuruddin Ahmed, a resident of the village, stated, “Around 10-15 days ago, they (the duo) came to survey our village. They assured us of obtaining land deeds and collected information from every family. Now we have received the notice to vacate the village.”

Ahmed, 40 years old, informed Maktoob that the settlement in the village dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. “The people living here are in extreme poverty, relying on daily wages for survival. Some gather firewood from the forest along the Bhutan border and sell it to earn a meager income, while others travel to Bhutan to work as day laborers. This village is all we have; we have nowhere else to turn to, as we have been calling this place home for decades.”

The land right issue in BTR

Around 90 km north of Guwahati, Nonke Daranga village is located near the Indo-Bhutan border crossing at the Samdrup Jongkhar area. It falls under the administration of Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), which is an autonomous administrative region under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

Formed in 2003 as Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) before the signing of the third Bodo Peace Accord in 2020, BTR administers four districts— Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, and Udalguri— and grapples with the issue of land rights for non-tribal communities in the region.

Assam-based human rights activist Jamsher Ali, who has been advocating for the land rights of non-Bodo residents of BTR, asserts that all people living in the region before 2003, regardless of their communities, should be granted land rights.

“BTR was formed in 2003 to secure land rights among other progressive measures for the benefit of the Bodo people. However, this should not be used to deny land rights to other communities who have been living here prior to the creation of this autonomous self-governing body. The administration should ensure the preservation and protection of land rights for all communities in BTR.”

Among the 3079 villages in the four districts of BTR, 2890 are revenue villages, while the remaining 189 are forest villages. In these non-revenue or non-cadastral villages, people from the Bodo community as well as Muslims, Assamese, Gorkha, Santhali, and other backward communities lack land deeds.

Another land right-related problem for the non-tribal population residing in BTR is a legal issue involving the Gauhati High Court. In 2019, the High Court had ordered the eviction of non-tribal and other individuals residing in the tribal belts and blocks. The court directed the removal of people who are not eligible to hold possession of land in these areas.

BTR comprises a total of 2272 tribal belt and block villages.

Erroneous notice?

The forest department of the district has also sent a notice to the 38-year-old mosque, alleging that it has been situated in the Daranga forest area and naming the area as Moinahali.

However, the villagers who received the notice strongly assert that their village’s name is Nonke Daranga, not Moinahali. “Our documents like voter card, AADHAR card say that our village is Daranga, not Moinahali. But we have been served with an eviction notice,” said Safik Ali.

Maktoob attempted to reach out to the district forest officer over the phone, but he was unavailable for comment.

Moreover, activist Jamsher Ali states that the village is not a forest area. “The forest department, in the notice, has claimed it to be a forest area. This is incorrect. These people have not encroached upon the forest land but have been living in this area since the 1950s,” he said.

As the residents have been living in the area for more than 50 years, “they are also eligible to have land rights under the Forest Rights Act,” he added.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognizes the land, livelihood, and socio-cultural rights of tribal and other forest-dwelling communities in India.

Taison Hussain, the general secretary of the All BTC Minority Student Union, who has been leading the protests since the issuance of the notices to villagers, condemned the order. “Section 4.3.A of the BTC explicitly states that the right to the land of every family residing before the signing of the accord will remain intact. So, people from Daranga as well as other parts of the BTR who have been living in the region before 2003 should get land rights,” he said.

The student activist also claimed that “in the present BTR region, no land survey has been conducted since independence. They should carry out the survey to determine how long non-tribal people have been settled here and subsequently provide land rights to everyone.”

The Forest Rights Act protects the land rights of non-tribals in the BTR.

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