“Houses built on people’s dreams and hopes were crushed upon by elephants and reduced to rubble by the JCBs,” said Rukmini Bodo, a sufferer of the Amchang eviction in Assam’s Guwahati in 2017 with grief and anger.
Like Rukmini, several families carry the insecurity of land rights and live in anxiety of eviction. Eviction has played a dominant role in the recent political climate in Assam. The growing eviction drives in the state reveal the insecurity of land issues among different communities, holding the suffering and anxiety of landlessness. Among these, a significant section are the landless, flood, and erosion-affected indigenous and Miya communities who become a part of the politics of eviction.
Guwahati city is one of the central locations which has witnessed several eviction drives since 2010. Many cities of India have seen such eviction drives occasionally, but never before had any organisation successfully stopped them through dharna and mass protests. These protest movements, although stopping evictions, land security, and land rights, could not make a robust framework for the landless population of the state.
A careful examination of the evictions from 2010 helps to understand the trajectory of Assam’s eviction cases. Under Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti’s leadership, many organisations collectively called for Dispur Chalo (Let’s go to Dispur) on June 22, 2010. The resistance movements against the Guwahati evictions continue to have a significant role in the history of resistance organised by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti.
However, environmental activism played a crucial role in filing several public interest litigations (PIL) for the demands for conserving natural resources such as forests, wetlands, and hills from encroachments. But why people settled in these locations is a central question that the political parties in the state failed to address. Lack of land forced most displaced families to settle near forest lands, grazing lands, embankments, in the fringe of wetlands, or on the hills. It is a common scenario in a flood and erosion-affected state like Assam, where no official data is available on how many people become landless due to natural disasters and how many people are rehabilitated.
Who is indigenous?
The eviction issue in Assam is closely embedded with the indigenous identity, which has historically shaped and reshaped the question of who is indigenous. The eviction drives in Kaziranga, Dhakuakhana, Baghbor, Amchang, Sipajhar, Mayang, Mahkhuti, and Mikir Bamuni are examples of communities consistently facing silent violence regarding land rights and their political identity.
Lessons from these evictions bring back the issue of the state’s counter-insurgency to dominate specific communities from their land rights. However, the Interim Report of the Brahma Committee, 2017 complicated the definition of indigenous people in Assam. The enigmatic reference to 'Khilanjia Axomiya' (indigenous Assamese) in various definitions, such as Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, makes the identity issue more challenging.
The Brahma Committee Report’s description of “land grabbing hungry Bangladeshi” is critical to understand the land rights demands of certain communities, especially the Miya communities. The Brahma Committee Report offers no scope for discussing the solution to landlessness and polarises the eviction issue. In this way, the indigenous Axomiya and the Miya settlers are the victims of the politics of eviction in Assam, which became faster after the Interim Report of Brahma Committee, 2017.
The land policy and land rights
The Land Policy, 1989 of the Government of Assam specifically explains that flood and erosion are the primary reasons for decreasing land in the state.
Similarly, the 2019 Land Policy draws attention to the decreasing agricultural land available for cultivation. It recognises floods, soil erosion, rapid urbanisation, and industrialisation, and land degradation as the reasons for reducing agrarian lands.
Although these policies recognise the reasons for landlessness, they must deliver a permanent solution. While making provisions for who can access land rights in the state, these policies ignored why the displaced communities are forced to settle in the grazing lands, forests, or hills when floods and erosion displace them.
The current scenario
The ruling political party has not effectively addressed Assam’s land and erosion problems, although the party’s agenda delivers the protection of indigenous land rights. The construction of flyovers, toll gates, four-lane highways and bridges has been increased, but the rights of landless communities over land synchronise drastically.
More recently, the Silsako eviction on February 27 in Guwahati, just before the High School Leaving Certificate examination, raised several questions on encroachment and eviction. The Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) launched the eviction in Silsako, a protected wetland in Assam, as per the Water Bodies Act (2008). But the evictees questioned why the government has been silent since 2008 and why the authority has been waiting till 2023 to demarcate the boundary between the wetland and settlement.
The HSLC candidates belonging to the evicted families were worried about their exams. They lost their reading materials during the eviction and became terrified to observe the brutal eviction processes surrounded by bulldozers and the police force.
The slogans from the anti-eviction protests, such as “stop supporting capitalists and stop evicting the indigenous”, are a reflection of how ‘environmental conservation’ is used to benefit the big corporates through the process of gentrification by replacing the lower income residents by the higher income groups. This process upsurges the execution of eviction rates in the Assam, reducing indigenous claims over land.
Although the institutions to be evicted include Tata Group’s Ginger Hotel, the residential complex of the state assembly, Doordarshan Kendra, and apex literary body Assam Sahitya Sabha; in reality, the majority of the lower economic families had suffered from eviction. Most of these evicted families belong to indigenous communities, such as Bodo, Karbi, and Mishing tribes as well as Miya communities.
Eviction becomes a silent violence
There is a connection between the most recent evictions in Assam, although the events differ.
Firstly, most eviction victims are landless indigenous and Miya communities.
Secondly, most of them belong to the lower economic class.
Thirdly, and most importantly, several actors weaken the unity and resistance of the evicted families through polarisation. It is a significant reason why the evicted communities have failed to present their resistance together on the same platform, and their voices have been lost in a flash instead of being organised.
Furthermore, the state is increasingly suppressing the spaces of organised protest and resistance in Assam. This way, eviction becomes a silent violence amidst conservation politics and landlessness. Amid this silent violence, some voices are raising the issue of social justice. For instance, in a 19-second viral clip, a seven-year-old boy asked police to wait 10 minutes at the Silsako eviction site, saying he had not packed up his household items. How successful is today’s state in providing social justice amidst the politicisation and polarisation of evictions? It is the most sensitive question that is highly relevant in the current political turmoil in Assam.
(Juri Baruah is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and an Assistant Professor of Geography at Devi Charan Baruah Girls' College, Assam. Views expressed are personal.)