In the last week of December 2021, the Centre for Minority Studies, Research, and Development, Assam, released a report contesting claims of the Assam Government and Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on the Dhalpur eviction that left 43 people and 14 police officers injured. The report rebuts the Chief Minister and government's position on the incident. The report has put a spotlight on the organisation and its founder Zamseer Ali who has since been under the radar of 'government authorities'. Questions have been raised on Ali's intention behind publishing the report as well as about the source of the organization's funding
What happened in Dhalpur?
The eviction drive in Dhalpur became a national sensation after a grotesque video of a government delegated photographer Bijay Bania stomping on the dead body of Moinul Haque, a resident of the village, took the internet by storm on September 23, 2021. Haque was killed when Police opened fire on residents coming home after protesting against the government's eviction notice. The authorities claimed that the village residents were suspected Bangladeshis who had illegally acquired lands of the indigenous people of Assam and did not have their names included in the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).
Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a certified list of Indian citizens who live in the state. The registry was established to identify foreign nationals and deport them. In Assam, he list was compiled after a five-year process of gathering information and published two years ago on August 31, 2019. Since then, many cases questioning the legitimacy of NRC have been filed in the Supreme Court of India.
What did the Centre for Minority Studies, Research and Development report find?
The fact-finding report states that all those "forcefully" evacuated from Dhalpur, Assam, were not illegal migrants and had legacy documentation dating back to before 1971. According to the authorities, 960 families were evicted from Dhalpur. Speaking to Outlook, Zamseer Ali said that the reason behind carrying out this extensive fact-finding was to 'bust' the myths and misinformation propagated about Muslims living in Assam.
"We hope that the report helps people understand the reality of Dhalpur village and its evicted residents. We also hope to expose the propaganda against the Muslim community of Assam by the Hindutva ecosystem," Zameer Ali said.
On being asked if the authorities have contested the report, Zamseer replied, "They cannot contest the report since all the data we have used is from the government records. However, they have been coming to us informally to know the source of our funding for the ground research and intentions behind carrying out the fact-finding".
"I do not know who these people are, but they approached me on several occasions from the time we were carrying out our ground research work to post-publication of the fact-finding report," he added.
Outlook went through the 67-page report — here are some of the claims made by the government and what the fact-finding team found.
The fact-finding report states: "Following the incident, Assam's Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma alleged that only 60 families had to be evicted, but 10,000 people swarmed to the site to put up a resistance. The number was disputed not just by the peasants but also by government authorities. According to an FIR filed by Olindita Gogoi, APS, at the Sipajhar police station, 2,000-2,500 persons were present at the demonstration site. The exact number has been recorded in the primary charge sheet submitted by the same officer to the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Darrang, on September 27, 2021.
Meanwhile, locals who took part in the protest told the team that there were not more than 1,000 people at the site. The Chief Minister further claimed that Dhalpur has barely 300 people. However, the fact-finding team discovered that in 1991, Dhalpur village was separated into three distinct villages: Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2, and Dhalpur No 3. According to the 1991 Census of India report, Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2, and Dhalpur, No 3 were 867, 1,151, and 959 persons. Also, according to the 2011 Census of India report, Dhalpur No 1 has a population of 2,514, Dhalpur No 2 has a population of 278 people, and Dhalpur No 3 has a population of 6,115 people. As a result, the chief minister's claim that Dhalpur has 300 people is false."
Responding to the allegation that the protest demonstration at Dhalpur was not of the people of Dhalpur; instead, it was organized by outsiders with a political conspiracy. The report states, "On September 22, 2021, more than 600 notices were served to the residents of Dhalpur No 2 and Dhalpur No 3 from 10 pm that day to 9 am the next day. The scheduled time for eviction was 10 am. on September 23, 2021. The villagers were unnerved, not knowing how to dismantle or shift their houses in such a short time. Furthermore, the villagers were terrified, unable to find a place to live with their families because there was no property available. They were not shown an alternate location for a temporary settlement, like the folks who were evicted on September 20 were. As a result, they decided to mount a protest, seeking more time to vacate and an appeal to demarcate an area where they would dwell for the time being until an alternative rehabilitation was offered."
According to the report, All Assam Minority Student Union (AAMSU) leader Joyful Abedin, a local resident who was involved in the protest said, “It was our moral duty to be present when people were resolved to stage a demonstration. Around 10 am, the demonstration began. A meeting between the protesting villagers and the district administration was also convened, with the latter sticking to its position that no further time for eviction would be provided. The Darrang district deputy commissioner said she would alert higher government officials about land allotment to evicted persons for rehabilitation. We proceeded to Bhetibazaar, about 2 kilometers from the demonstration location after the demonstration was over and most of the people had left. We heard shouts and cries from the spot where the eviction drive was to take place as soon as we arrived. We spotted smoke at the location and heard gunshots a few minutes later."
The demonstration ended after it became evident that the eviction drive would begin without delay." Joyful Abedin added. Ahmed Ali, a resident of Dhalpur No 3, told the fact-finding team, "When I arrived at my house, I witnessed the cops setting fire to it. I cried uncontrollably and begged them not to put fire on my home. Instead, they ignored me and set fire to my house, destroying eight quintals of jute, paddy, utensils, beds, and all other goods and chattels. They even murdered and stole away my hens and ducks. My burning house and helpless sobbing were streamed on a web portal, which I subsequently discovered."
Jabed Ali, an old inhabitant of Dhalpur No 3 who was with Moynul Haque minutes before the Police killed him, said, "As I approached my house, I noticed a group of three to four police officers. Two cops began kicking and punching me for no apparent reason. One of them slammed the door in my face and kicked me violently. Moynul Haque was distressed and drove me to my house's backyard. Haque, on the other hand, was severely thrashed by the cops. All around me, I watched Police beating up unarmed peasants. Haque picked up a dry bamboo and ran in the opposite direction when I noticed him. I heard the sound of shooting a few moments later. Later, I learned through a TV video that Police had shot him.
Haque would not have been killed if he hadn't seen the cops kicking and punching me."
Another eyewitness, Paras Ali was quoted saying, "Police had also beaten a little girl. After being driven out of his home by Haque, Jabed Ali attempted to flee. The cops were beating a juvenile girl at that time. The girl collapsed on the ground. Haque raced to the policeman abusing the underage girl, picking up a dry bamboo from Jabed Ali's house. After that, he attempted to throw the bamboo at the cop. When the police squad and their civilian assistants saw Haque in such an agitated state, they dashed down to a low-lying region where many police officers had camped. Few others were enticed to follow the cops as they fled the scene."
The government also claimed that the attack was planned ahead of time. Stones were thrown from one side of the demonstration to the other. Residents of Dhalpur attacked the administration and Police in large numbers with lathi (sticks), daggers, and other weapons (large knives). However, Jabed Ali is cited claiming that "Dhalpur No 1, Dhalpur No 2, Dhalpur No 3, and even neighboring Kirakara are stone-free. In this location, there isn't a single stone that can be found. It's built entirely of sand. There isn't a single brick building to be found. So what would be the source of the peasants' pelting stones?" he stated.
Another claim made against the village residents was that they were suspected Bangladeshis. Their names are omitted from the final NRC. The claim was rebutted in the report citing that 516 families retain their legacy data intact, out of the 517 families that were surveyed on the ground. One family has land records dating back to 1971. The NRC authority created the legacy data under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court of India. Except for one family's legacy data, no other legacy data has been contested. The left-out family had utilized the legacy data of another family with a similar name by accident. The inaccuracy was discovered at the time of the NRC hearing. They then surrendered their incorrect legacy data and collected their own, which had been collected previously.
Another allegation against the people was that they settled at Dhalpur only to grab land from the indigenous Assamese people. However, the report mentions that According to the 1971 Census of India report, Dhalpur had a population of only 23 persons. The entire land area of Dhalpur was 13,050 acres, of which only 2000 acres were cultivable, and 1000 acres were uncultivable. The primary length of the Brahmaputra river was running north of the Dhalpur hamlet, according to the Darrang district map in that census report. This suggests that in 1971, the entire Dhalpur village was located on the river's south bank. Before 1971, the village's non-Muslim population had fled; if they had lived there at all, they wouldn't be able to survive in villages that were fully submerged.
For the same reason, at least nine Dhalpur-affiliated villages had no electricity, because of which Dhalpur's villages were completely depopulated. Seven of the nine unpopulated villages currently have non-Muslim residents, one has Goriya Muslims, and one has a mixed population of non-Muslims and Goriya Muslims.
According to the report, a claim against the villagers was that Dhalpur's residents are neither poor nor erosion victims. They have no records or paperwork to show that they were impacted by river erosion. They have not been registered as erosion victims in any of the state's circular offices.
The fact-finding report found that the 517 families examined depend on either agriculture or cultivation. There isn't a single family member that works for the government. These families' average annual income was just found to be over Rs 1,000,000. Their ground survey discovered that 90 per cent of the individuals settled in Dhalpur come from erosion-affected areas. The river Brahmaputra and its tributaries had degraded or entirely washed away their inhabited villages. All of these people have data from the past. The old data's legitimacy has previously been established. However, the fact that all of the legacy data comes from settlements that have either been completely or partially degraded is cause for concern. Their forefathers and mothers lived in those villages not merely between 1951 and 1971 when the legacy data were compiled, but many of them have land records dating back to 1928.
CM Sarma had posed the question, "If the migrated people were impacted by river erosion, why didn't they have river erosion certificates?"
The fact-finding report mentions the inhabitants of Dhalpur believe that the Chief Minister should gather their legacy data to determine their original villages and then review the revenue circles to see if these villages have been eroded at any point in time. According to their legacy data or other relevant papers, the survey team gathered the names of the villages from where the people relocated. While checking the list of their original communities on Google maps, it was discovered that at least 60% of those polled were from villages that are still entirely or partially submerged. The remaining 30% of the population comes from communities in riverine areas. Only 10% of the population comes from villages immune from river erosion. These residents explained to the team that they had moved to Dhalpur because they had run out of land in their previous communities.
Another allegation is that the Dhalpur family owns between 300 and 1000 bighas of land. They could not have occupied such a large portion of land per family if they had been poor in any way. The fact-finding team discovered that Of the 517 evicted families polled, 48.54 percent had only 0.01 to 3 bighas of land. 19.34 percent had 3.01 to 7.5 bighas. 5.8 percent had 7.51 to 15 bighas. 13.92 percent were landless. It indicates that they occupy 300, 400, or 1000 hectares of land is incorrect. In Dhalpur, not a single-family has more than 15 bighas of land.
Outlook has also sent an email to the Chief Minister of Assam, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, to respond to the fact-finding report. The story will be updated as we hear back from Chief Miniter's office.