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The Latest Weapon Against Assam’s Muslims: Forced Evictions

A new land rights regime in Northeast India’s Assam threatens the existence of ethno-religious minorities.

By Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi for
The Latest Weapon Against Assam’s Muslims: Forced Evictions

In this Aug. 31, 2019, file photo, a Muslim boy looks out a window as villagers wait to check names in the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at an NRC center in Buraburi village in Morigaon district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File

In December, more than 450 poor Muslim families in the Sonitpur district of Assam, the largest state in Northeast India, found themselves forcibly evicted from their homes by district authorities who barged into their village with bulldozers and paramilitary personnel. Earlier last year, 600 Muslims families were forcibly evicted by authorities in the central Assam district of Hojai, leading to the death of Kulsuma Begum, who had just delivered a baby.

Assam is not new to forced evictions. As a state ravaged by decades of conflict, seasonal floods, and generational landlessness, it hosts a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In fact, a 2015 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights claimed that the state hosts the highest number of conflict-induced IDPs in the world. Authorities routinely evict these IDPs under the pretext of clearing government-owned or “common” land from “encroachers.”

What is, however, deeply worrying is the fact that such forced evictions could soon become state policy. This would happen within a dual context — a Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is currently in power in Assam, and there are renewed attempts to fulfill the longstanding nativist demand among the state’s dominant Assamese-speaking constituencies to identify and expel “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.

This incidental combination of Hindu nationalism and Assamese ethno-nationalist nativism is creating a deeply exclusionary institutional order in Assam that threatens the existence of poor and landless Muslims, particularly those who trace their ancestry to erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and are perennially suspect in Assam as “illegal Bengalis,” “infiltrators,” “bidexis” (foreigners), and even “termites.”

At the heart of these projects lies the heavily contested idea of the “indigenous.” For decades, Assamese ethno-nationalists have tried to attach a narrow definition to the term, with the aim of protecting their own social, political, economic, and cultural interests while disenfranchising those they consider “outsiders” (read: Bengal-origin Muslims and Hindus). With the coming of the BJP, the concept of the “indigenous” is being further tapered to safeguard the interests of Hindus and disenfranchise the Muslims.

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The recent evictions must be seen within this evolving context. Two policy documents are relevant here: the 2018 Brahma Committee (BC) report and the so-called new “Land Policy 2019” (to be henceforth referred to as “the Policy”).

Both the BC report and Policy aim, among other things, to transfer land from the “nonindigenous” to the “indigenous people of Assam.” While the BC report is currently with the Assam government, the Policy has been approved by the state cabinet and is awaiting passage in the assembly. Both encourage a divisive regime of internal displacement and seek to institutionalize the violent process of forced evictions. Closer scrutiny is in order.

The Brahma Committee Report of 2018

In February 2017, the governor of Assam constituted a committee to suggest “changes or modifications in the existing land laws and the rules” so as to ensure “protection of land rights of indigenous people in the State of Assam.” The seven-member committee, headed by a former chief election commissioner of India, Hari Sankar Brahma, submitted its final report to the Assam government in January 2018.

The fundamental feature of the BC is that it is fixated on the notion of the “indigenous.” Everything else — reading of the demographic data, historical interpretations, and policy propositions — operates under this “indigenous vs. nonindigenous” overhang. To expound on the concept, it begins from a flawed premise — that the “indigenous” can be strictly defined in Assam’s context. In fact, it goes on to identify so-called enemies of the “indigenous people of Assam” in less-than-palatable words.

“[…T]he ploy of the anti-indigenous mischief doers should be exposed and the undue controversy contrived as a ploy to thwart the objective of protecting the land rights of the indigenous people of Assam should be put to an end,” the BC says.

It also sets an unsparingly nativist understanding of belongingness.

“Naturally, land being the most scarce and most treasured gift of Nature, the land rights of the native people / ‘sons of the soil’ should have the first claim over the land of Assam,” the report says under the section titled “Who is an indigenous person of Assam?”

More concerningly, the BC, while defining the “indigenous,” pushes the existing historical, legal, and cultural lines to establish the narrowest definition of the term. But before laying down its own parameters, the committee cites four specific definitional sources of “indigenous people of Assam” (or the khilonjia) — the 1951 census report, dictionaries (both English and Assamese), the United Nations, and the Sanmilita Mahasangha, an umbrella organization that claims to represent 49 indigenous groups of Assam.

Interestingly, it simply cites the definitions from all the sources, nearly in a tone of endorsement, except for the 1951 census report, on which it makes a substantive comment. This remark is worth noting.

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According to the 1951 census report, to be counted as an “indigenous” person of Assam, a person “(i) must belong to (i.e.; be born in) Assam; and (ii) he or she must ‘speak’ either Assamese language or any of the tribal dialects/languages of Assam or, in case of Cachar, the language of the region (Bengali).” This is a hard-set territorial-linguistic definition. But the BC challenges it, calling this definition “incomplete” and “twisted.”

“Going by this definition, anyone who is a non-indigenous Indian citizen living in Assam can also claim to be an indigenous person of Assam provided he or she has been living in Assam and knows how to speak one of the languages mentioned therein. To cite an instance, a Bengali or a Bihari or a Punjabi or a Marwari living for a long time in Assam and speaking or even writing one of the languages of the State as mentioned above, can be an indigenous person of Assam,” the report complains.

By this point, the committee makes its heavily restrictive understanding of indigeneity crystal clear. In its xenophobic worldview, a naturalized Assamese is not a “true Assamese.”

The definition put forward by the Sanmilita Mahasangha, which the BC cites, is also notable, because it goes beyond the March 21, 1971 cut-off date for immigration set by the 1985 Assam Accord, a memorandum of understanding signed by the federal Indian government and ethno-nationalist groups in Assam at the end of the six-year long anti-immigrant Assam Movement (1979-85), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC was updated by virtue of a 2014 Supreme Court order and left out close to 1.9 million people (mostly Bengal-origin Muslims and Hindus) in its final iteration released last year August.

According to the Mahasangha, “…indigenous persons of Assam are those who have been living in Assam continuously from 24 February, 1826, the date of Yandaboo Treaty [sic] and they alone should be termed and accepted as ‘indigenous people of Assam.’”

It further defines the term “Assamese”: “those whose mother tongue is Assamese and have used/spoken/read Assamese as an associate language or lingua franca, in addition to their own language/dialects and are preaching and practicing their own culture, should be accepted as ‘Assamese’” (taking “Assamese and “ indigenous” as interchangeable/synonymous).

This is an even narrower definition than the one propounded by the 1951 census report. It straight out ignores the language spoken in Cachar, i.e. Bengali. By simply citing the definition and not challenging it, it is evident that the BC concurs to the Mahasangha’s understanding of indigeneity.

The committee finally goes on to lay down seven specific parameters to decide indigeneity in Assam under the section “Basic Traits/ Characteristics that Make a Person Indigenous.” However, these “preconditions” are not just grossly abstract in nature, they also propagate a xenophobic idea of belongingness that is premised upon the fear of “the outsider.” Above all, the parameters do not fall under any legislative or legal framework of India, least of all the constitution.

For instance, according to the BC, a person can be considered “indigenous” only if “he believes that the ancient people of his clan have become or are poised to become minority in his own land due to migration of invasion by outsiders/ foreigners.” This is simply absurd, as it borders along thought policing. How can individual beliefs about a contested issue like migration define something so critical as “indigenous”?

The BC also imposes a totalitarian, black-and-white picture of indigeneity. In the committee’s view, “a person who is an indigenous person of any other State of India, speaks language of the State of his origin in the family and has also retained his original culture cannot be called an indigenous person of Assam.”

This is cultural chauvinism at its peak. It is precisely because of such popular motifs that ethno-religious minorities in Assam, including non-Assamese speaking “mainlanders” from the rest of India, have found themselves constantly sidelined from and directly targeted by ethno-nationalists in the state. This is also exactly why Bengal-origin Muslims who dared to write in their own “Miyah” dialect, thus maintaining a link with their “original culture,” found themselves vilified by large sections of the Assamese-speaking elite.

The BC also deploys the language of the British colonial administrators to characterize the people in Assam and drive home the point that the state is facing a threat from illegal immigrants.

It labels the “indigenous” as “indolent,” a character and psychology that was attributed by the British to its colonies. Such a complex of the “indigenous” being lazy is also a serious case of wrongly characterizing a section of people. The report is also consistent in the colonial characterization of the peasants from erstwhile East Bengal as “poor hard working peasants,” which can be found in colonial accounts written by British administrative officers, such as C.S. Mullan. Unsurprisingly, it quotes Mullan’s iconic 1931 census report, in which he says that Assam is facing an “invasion of a vast horde of land hungry Bengali immigrants; mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal […]” It, further, wastes no time in adding:

The fact is that a predominant majority of people of doubtful origin occupied the vast char areas with their explosive growth rate of population. There are a few other districts like Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Darrang, Dhubri, Goalpara, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Morigaon and Nagaon which are also most seriously affected and have contributed largely to changing the demographic pattern of Assam.

The BC also pulls up the 1997 report on illegal immigration written by former Assam Governor Lt. Gen. SK Sinha to the president to prove the same point, i.e. Assam is facing an “external aggression” due to continuous cross-border migration from Bangladesh. One of these authors has previously argued, through an extensive analysis of the primary material, that Sinha’s 1997 memo is ridden with serious contradictions, inconsistencies, factual errors, and extrapolative data interpretations.

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It is imperative that one looks at the recent evictions carried out in Assam against the backdrop of the BC report, which appears to have been a backbone for the new land policy. The report is also politically significant for Assam, as it strictly draws the boundary around who is “indigenous” and at once marks out a section of committee as nonindigenous.

A Divisive New Land Policy

Assam has had four land policies so far, starting from the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation 1886. But the new Policy, prepared by the Revenue and Disaster Management Department of the government of Assam, is the first to employ the contested “indigneous vs. nonindigenous” binary. Thus, once passed in the assembly, it would become the most far-reaching law of its kind in the state.

Although far more sanitized in language, the Policy borrows heavily from the BC report. But unlike the BC report, the policy directly jumps the gun to propose allotment of land to “indigenous landless cultivators” without even defining “indigenous.” The government can easily weaponize this conceptual ambiguity to disenfranchise and displace some of the most marginalized people in Assam, such as the Bengal-origin Muslims who live in the char (impermanent riverine islands) areas along the Brahmaputra river.

This is particularly because the Policy seeks to carry out cadastral surveys of permanent char areas and also grant cultivation rights for semi-permanent chars. It makes clear that such rights in chars will be given only to “indigenous people.”

If the executing authority of the Policy, such as those carrying out evictions (in this case district commissioners), decides to follow the definitions of the “indigenous” set by the BC, then we are going to witness sweeping forced displacement across the char areas. The people living in these peripheral areas of Assam are already reeling under extreme distress due to the NRC. The Policy will only come as a devastating aftershock.

Oddly, the Policy’s concerns about affirmative protection of the land rights of the “indigenous” has little adherence to its own premise. In the introduction, it identifies five factors behind shrinking land for agricultural, residential, and commercial purposes in Assam. “Illegal immigration” isn’t one of them. Natural calamities, rapid urbanization and industrialization, selling of land by “ignorant and unorganized” agriculturalists to non-agriculturalists, and unauthorized encroachment are blamed for the problem. Yet, for some reason, the drafters of the Policy veer into the “indigenous” categorization to resolve what the BC calls a “crisis.”

Given the context, it is amply evident that the drafters of the Policy relied heavily on the normative grounding provided by the BC report.

“This crisis stems from the perennial infiltration and organized encroachment of their lands by ceaseless swarms of a land-hungry people from across the Indo-Bangladesh Borders,” the report states. This problematic premise is conspicuous in the Policy.

In many ways, the Policy is designed to operate outside of the NRC framework so as to create an alternate system of citizenship determination, based on one of the core pillars of the “Assamese” identity i.e. maati (land). In that sense, it directly speaks to the ethnonationalist agenda of preserving the “Axomiya identity” by sidelining the so-called bidexis (foreigners). By doing so, it embeds the xenophobia and cultural supremacy of the Axomiya elite within state policy.

The Policy takes on an even more menacing character when located within the context of the current BJP regime in the state. Since it came to power in Assam in 2016, the party has tried to Hinduize the Assamese identity and play up the dominant consensus against Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam, who are pejoratively deemed as illegals by Assamese nationalists. India’s current home minister, Amit Shah, has previously called the Muslims “termites,” carefully distinguishing them from the so-called “refugees,” i.e. the Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh.

In this context, the new land policy could become the regime’s go-to instrument to rob Bengali Muslims of their land and thus, permanently displace them. Such an approach augurs well with the dominant segment of Assamese nationalists who were dissatisfied with the final NRC exclusion figure of 1.9 million. The Policy, thus, is a bypass to achieve the same end — to sanitize Assam’s “native” demography of the bidexis (foreigners). For Assam’s ethno-religious minorities, many of whom are already battling the state’s torturous citizenship determination regime, this is a ghoulish prospect.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral scholar in sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS).