What Assam Needs To Do To Meet The Demographic Challenge Posed By Land-Grabbing Infiltrators

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Oct 2, 2021 04:54 PM +05:30 IST
What Assam Needs To Do To Meet The Demographic Challenge Posed By Land-Grabbing Infiltrators
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma
  • Land holds the key to a lasting solution to the demographic catastrophe that Assam is staring at.

    Not only should the infiltrators be evicted from land they have illegally occupied but the government's actions should make them realise that Assam is no longer welcoming of illegal infiltration.

Assam is reluctant host to an estimated one crore Bangladesh-origin Muslims who have infiltrated into the state through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border over the decades. Most of these illegal infiltrators have grabbed government (including forest) land and land belonging to xatras (Vaishnavite monasteries) and mandirs.

A conservative estimate by the Assam government puts the measure of the encroached-upon lands at 49 lakh bighas, or 665 square kilometers. That’s about nine percent of the total geographical area of Assam.

The Bangladesh-origin infiltrators have altered the demography of the state and are in a majority in eleven of the state’s 29 districts. The infiltrators form a significant percentage of the population in at least five other districts.

Land is the most valuable commodity for them, and something that they will fight fiercely for. Last week’s violent resistance to the state government’s drive to evict them from the lands they had illegally occupied in Darrang district provided ample demonstration of that.

Having been landless peasants in Bangladesh (and East Bengal during the British rule, East Pakistan from 1947 till 1971) and, thus, desperately poor, the infiltrators have always put a premium on land. In fact, it is the hunger for owning land, even if illegally, that has driven infiltration into Assam. Unlike Bangladesh-origin Hindus who crossed over into Assam due to religious persecution, many Bangladesh-origin Muslims have always made it a point to grab land, often forcibly, to settle down. The vast chars (islands and sandbars formed due to alluvial deposits by rivers) of Assam have been the prime targets of such infiltrators.

But it is not only the chars where they settled down and started farming. They have also taken over government lands, encroached on and deforested about 3,172 square kilometers of forests to convert them into farmlands, and forcibly occupied land belonging to xatras and mandirs.

To the Bangladesh-origin Muslim thus, land is the most valuable possession and dispossession of their lands is their worst nightmare.

Successive Congress regimes in the past had not only encouraged entry of Bengali-speaking Muslims into Assam in many cases, but had also looked the other way when these infiltrators squatted on government and forest land and land belonging to Hindu religious institutions. All because these infiltrators formed a valuable vote bank for the Congress.

The political and state patronage and the virtual immunity from eviction that came with it, only encouraged more infiltration and grabbing of land belonging to the government and Hindu religious institutions by the infiltrators. They could never have imagined that any government would evict them from the land that they illegally occupied.

But that is exactly what has been happening since the BJP-led alliance came to power in Assam in 2016.

In its first term (2016 to 2021), the alliance government led by Sarbananda Sonowal concentrated on evicting the illegal infiltrators from forest land.

The BJP made this issue--evicting the settlers from all government land and land belonging to Hindu religious institutions--a poll promise. And ever since Himanta Biswa Sarma became the chief minister, the state authorities have launched drives to evict the Bangladesh-origin Muslim squatters from all the lands they have illegally occupied.

But evictions are a long-drawn process and fraught with upsets. Eviction drives, as last week’s violence at Darrang has shown, can often go wrong. Also, as per express directives of the Supreme Court, all the evicted (even from government land) have to be rehabilitated.

That’s why the Bengali-speaking Muslims who were evicted from government and mandir land in Dholpur village near Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district were promised six bighas of land (one bigha=1340 square metre).

But that defeats the very purpose of evicting an illegal infiltrator from Bangladesh from land he has illegally occupied. The mandatory rehabilitation of the evicted that the courts, including the Supreme Court, decreed was meant only for Indian citizens. There is no reason why an illegal infiltrator who has occupied land belonging to the government or Hindu institutions should be offered more land as compensation for being evicted from land that he had illegally occupied.

The solution, thus, is not simple eviction from land. Even if the evicted infiltrators are not rehabilitated, they will move away to some other char area or forest land. Many of the encroachers evicted from Kaziranga National Park over the past few years have reportedly occupied newly-formed chars which are government lands.

Given the fact that land is like the proverbial Achilles heel of the infiltrators, the loss of land has to be final and permanent. There should be no legal tangles in this. And the only way to ensure this is to amend the existing land laws and pass new ones. And also strictly implement the existing laws that prohibit transfer of land to non-indigenous people.

These are some of the steps that the Assam government needs to undertake urgently to bring an end to the menace of infiltration and illegal occupation of land by these infiltrators:

One, carry out a detailed and intensive survey of all lands belonging to tribals and indigenous communities. Though such land cannot be legally transferred to non-indigenous people and cannot be occupied by the latter, the grim reality is that hundreds of thousands of acres of land belonging to tribals and indigenous communities are under the de facto possession of Muslim infiltrators.

The state government only needs to implement the existing laws and evict all those who are illegally occupying tribal lands and lands reserved for indigenous people. The courts, say legal experts, will not intervene in such evictions and decree rehabilitation of the evicted.

Two, the Assam government needs to pass fresh legislation to make encroachment of land belonging to the government or religious institutions a cognisable offence with stiff punishment. This law should make expedition trials of all encroachers within a given time frame mandatory.

At present, illegal and forcible occupation of government, or private, land is the only offence that does not invite any prosecution and carries no sentence. In fact, encroachers have to be rewarded for their illegal act by offering rehabilitation to them. This cannot be allowed any longer.

Three, the government must notify all indigenous communities of the state, including indigenous Muslims, as natives of the state and must pass laws that prohibit possession of land by non-natives.

That will, in effect, dispossess all Bengali-speaking Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh of the lands they are currently occupying.

Four, carry out a detailed survey of all chars, including the newly-created chars, and declare them as government land. The chars are fertile land, and hence should not be kept unoccupied.

Five, indigenous communities who are hit by the endemic erosion caused by the rivers of Assam, including the Brahmaputra--thousands of acres are washed away by the rivers every year--should be settled in the chars. They should be given all help, including institutional credit and technical assistance, to start cultivation of crops, rear poultry, dairy and bee-keeping etc on the chars. That will keep the Bangladesh-origin Muslim infiltrators away from the chars.

Six, the state government has to immediately update and authenticate land records. This is a massive task which has to be undertaken in a mission mode within a given time frame. This will result in weeding out the lakhs of Bangladesh-origin infiltrators who have falsified land records to illegally occupy lands. These people will thus be dispossessed of the lands they had been occupying.

Seven, the BJP-led alliance government has to take on board powerful organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and other bodies representing the indigenous people of the state to build a strong movement in favour of evicting encroachers from land belonging to the government and religious institutions.

That will take care of any negative fallout of evictions going wrong as had happened in Darrang last week. If all political parties and organisations representing the indigenous people of the state stand in unison and support evictions, that will leave no room for the any lobby to oppose evictions.

These, and many more actionable suggestions, have been made by two bodies constituted by the Assam government in the past: the ‘Committee for Protection of Land Rights Of Indigenous People’ headed by former chief election commissioner H.S.Brahma, and the ‘Committee for Implementation of Clause 6 Of the Assam Accord’ headed by Justice (Retired) Biplab Sarma.

Brahma had issued the dire warning that “if effective Constitutional, legal and administrative steps are not taken, the indigenous people (of Assam) are bound to be reduced to a landless class of people and become foreigners in their own homeland”.

The Assam government must implement all the suggestions made by the two committees.

Dispossession of the lands they had been illegally occupying will push the Bangladesh-origin infiltrators into an extremely uncertain future. With their most valued possession gone, they will have little options left. Many of them, say experts who have studied and analysed the entire infiltration issue, may then want to exfiltrate out of Assam and return to their native places in Bangladesh. This prospect holds true for all those who have infiltrated into Assam over the past two to three decades.

The ‘inhospitable and unwelcoming’ climate (for infiltrators) that will prevail in Assam if the suggestions of the two committees are implemented will also discourage more Bangladeshi Muslims from entering Assam illegally.

Land, thus, holds the key to a lasting solution to the demographic catastrophe that Assam is staring at now.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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