On 27th November a gang descended on the Amchang neighbourhood near the Guwahati city. The gang comprised of about 2000 policemen and assorted construction workers, one dozen elephants, bulldozers. They demolished houses, mostly inhabited by poor people. In three days more than a thousand houses were demolished including schools and places of worship. About 700 families have been rendered homeless. Some inhabitants have been injured when police lathi charged and threw tear gas shells on protesting residents. Activists of the KMSS have been arrested.
Who were these people whose houses were broken by trained elephants in the colonial zamindari style? To the Gauhati High Court they are illegal squatters, who had encroached on forest land. We shall come to the issue of land later, let us first examine the people. There is not much dispute that many of them belong to tribal groups of eastern Assam. Uprooted by flood and soil erosion, they drifted in search of livelihood and found a cheap place to build their shanty on. It is anybody’s guess if the reaction against the eviction would have been as swift if the evicted people were not indigenous to the state. In local media reports the adjective “khilonzia” (son of the soil) has been frequently used to describe them. This is a regime which assumed power to protect the “Jati-Mati-Bheti” (Nation-Land-Foundation) of the indigenous people – presumably against the Muslim Bangladeshi trespassers. The eviction drive therefore drew sharp response. It also helped that the place is close to the Guwahati city. The Court has stayed the demolition as of now, until further notice.
The land, according to the Court and PIL petitioners, belongs to a protected forest. This claim has been contested. According to activists and lawyers the land where the operation has been going on belongs to “eco-sensitive zone” – it is not forest land. Measures should have been taken to rehabilitate the inhabitants of such zones. Also, there have been claims that some land belonged to revenue villages; therefore its inhabitants cannot be evicted.
But these legal-bureaucratic hair-splittings do not hide the nature of governance of the ruling dispensation. Last year, residents of three villages near the Kaziranga National Park were evicted. The people on the receiving end were poor peasants, mostly settler Bengali Muslims. Two young men were killed in police firing. Some time back in a village near Sipajhar town there has been a similar demolition and eviction drive against Bengali speaking Muslims. In both these cases, the most popular bogeyman of Assam, the Bangladeshi, was used. This time in Amchang it is the illegal encroacher who must be taught a lesson. Be it Amchag, Kaziranga or Sipajhar, the target remains the same: the poor. They could be indigenous tribal people or settler Bengali Muslims, but it is their poverty, their social otherness, which bind them together and make them such valuable targets. So, while the rich men’s big factories stand unscathed in the Amchang reserve forest it’s the huts of tribal encroachers that the sarkari elephants of the Sarba-raj must demolish.
[Photo Source: The Atlantic]