Moments after obtaining his ID, 12-year-old was shot by Assam police during an eviction
On Friday afternoon, Hasina Bano sat in the narrow courtyard outside her house, her legs stretched out in front of her, and cried. A woman hugged her from behind. Another sat down next to her and waved a fan in a gentle circular motion to shake off the damp September heat and perhaps Bano’s immense grief. The same few words punctuated Bano’s sobs: “Amar baba mare dilo”. They killed my son.
Her youngest son, Sheikh Farid, 12, had died the day before. He was shot by police during an eviction not far from their home, in a village called Dholpur-3 on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the Sipajhar region of Darrang district (Assam).
According to the police, residents threatened with eviction launched an attack, forcing them to retaliate with bullets. Residents of Dholpur-3 blamed police for charging them with batons even as they were dismantling their own homes, leading to an escalation.
Much of Thursday’s events are still shrouded in a cloud of confusion: when police opened fire, how many people were hit, how many died, who was in which hospital in which city.
But the death of 12-year-old Farid was one of the first confirmed news to emerge of the day. The reason: In his pocket was his brand new Aadhaar card, bearing his unique 12-digit ID number and date of birth. He had picked it up from the local post office just before it was swept away by the frenzy, local residents said.
Police have yet to acknowledge the death of a child in Thursday’s violence. He has yet to release a statement naming those who died on that day.
Evictions are rife in Assam and enjoy massive public support – they are seen as exercises to wrest control of “native” lands from “invaders,” usually Muslims of Bengali descent. In the state’s majority discourse, community members were presented as âillegal Bangladeshisâ. But here is a 12-year-old who was killed by police in another community deportation campaign, just moments after being certified Indian. In Assam, only those with irrefutable citizenship titles receive new Aadhaar cards.
The expulsion exercise that resulted in Farid’s death was the second in a week in Sipajhar. On September 20, the government cleared 4,500 bighas (1,488 acres) of land in the region. In the process, he expelled 800 families, all Muslims of Bengali origin, and demolished four mosques. All this, ostensibly, to make room for organic farming by people considered indigenous to the state.
The first wave of evictions seems to have taken place without resistance from the displaced families, without any promise of rehabilitation. The September 23 expulsion campaign turned violent.
A death in front of the camera
Perhaps the most lasting images of Thursday’s violence were of a photographer attached to the district administration stomping on the body of a man who had just been shot and killed by police. Earlier in the video, the man was seen running towards the police armed with a stick.
It was Moinul Haque, a 33-year-old day laborer.
On Friday, Haque’s parents, wife and three children were huddled together in a tent-like structure made of two sheets held together by wooden beams. After the police killed Haque, they razed the family’s house.
âI have lived in this place all my life,â said Maqbool Ali, 70, Haque’s father, who has yet to see his son’s body.
How does it feel to be called an “invader”, a suspected Bangladeshi, in a place where you have lived all your life? Akina Khatun, who had been a neighbor of Haque’s family, was furious. Two years ago, all families in the region had gone through the painstaking process of proving their citizenship for the National Registry of Citizens. Updated after nearly seven decades, Assam’s NRC is believed to be a list of Indian citizens living in the state, compiled after scrutinizing so-called illegal immigrants. Muslims of Bengali descent were forced to overcome numerous obstacles, summoned for several rounds of verification.
âFirst, they said to prove your citizenship – we did it by going to one hearing after another,â Akina Khatun said. “Now even that is not enough, it seems.”
Chased by the river and the government
If you live on the constantly eroding banks of the Brahmaputra or on one of the shifting sandbanks in the middle of the river, proving legitimate claims on the land becomes difficult. The floods along with the constant ebb and flow of the river have forced frequent migrations, which means that a large percentage of the state’s rural population does not have land titles to their name.
In 2019, the government sought to rectify the situation, at least in areas considered government land. He has actively issued permanent land titles to people who have lived on particular government land for more than three years in a row. But there was a catch: only ânativeâ families were eligible.
Since then, the government has granted land titles to more than 2,000,000 of these families, said MS Manivannan, commissioner and secretary of the state’s revenue and disaster management department.
However, there is no legal definition of exactly who is âindigenousâ in Assam. Committee after committee failed to reach consensus – understandable, observers say, as Assam’s demographics are made up of multiple waves of migration from different places.
So on what basis are the beneficiaries selected? Each district, Manivannan said, had a committee headed by the deputy commissioner. âThey decide who is indigenous,â he said. Local legislators are also part of these committees.
So how do committees decide who is Indigenous in the absence of a legal definition? âWell, you’re indigenous if you have an Assamese-sounding last name,â said the deputy state commissioner who declined to be named.
As a result, people who do not pass this rather vague indigeneity test can be deported at the will of the government.
The ongoing evictions in Dholpur are one example. Most of those driven from their homes have lived in the region for several decades. Their parents or grandparents had settled there after being displaced by the river. However, they have little institutional recourse because the state expels them from their homes because, technically, the ownership of the land belongs to a government which will not grant them titles because it does not consider them as âindigenousâ.
After the September 23 killings became all the rage, Assam’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma promised that the evictions would continue, but that the “poor” and “landless” who had been displaced would get six. bighas (two acres) of land. as compensation. It is not yet clear who the government considers landless and poor enough to obtain compensation.
So far, those evicted have been told to move to an adjoining government plot. “When the government feels like it, it will throw us out of here too,” said Nur Islam, a local activist in the area. âOur only flaw is belonging to a certain community.
But the people have little choice but to settle where the government has asked them to. âWe will go where the river pursues us and where the government sends us,â said Jaminum Nessa, as she and her husband, Kadam Ali, set up their new home with everything they could salvage from their old one before. ‘it is not bulldozed.
As one of their neighbors, Matlab Ali said, âTo the south, west and east is the Brahmaputra; from the north, an oppressive government is there to get us. Where are we going?”