1,200 families evicted, thousands homeless, two dead . . .
Last week, the government of the northeastern Indian state of Assam evicted thousands of immigrant families from the town of Sipajhar, ostensibly to remove “illegal encroachers” from government land and return it to landless Indigenous communities. These eviction drives are nothing new and are rooted in the ethnic conflict between the Assamese and migrant Bengali population. However, last week violence broke out between state authorities and the evicted when the latter sought proper rehabilitation. Also, a horrifying video showed an evicted man being shot, killed, and brutalized by police and a civilian photographer. In a separate incident, a 12-year-old Bengali-Muslim boy accused of being an illegal immigrant was shot and killed. He had just received his identity document proving his Indian citizenship.
The backstory . . .
Many of Assam’s “illegal” immigrants identify as Bengali Muslims. They migrated to Assam decades ago to work in tea gardens and escape the 1971 Bangladesh War. In Sipajhar, many evicted families claim they bought their land from locals, but without formal paperwork, they are considered encroachers. The Assamese government is led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its divisive rhetoric has arguably increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the region. At the national level, the BJP government has also targeted immigrants, particularly Muslims, using provisions under the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) and creating a National Register of Citizens.
Assam’s Indigenous people . . .
Assam has a bustling agricultural economy, rich water resources, and is one of India’s largest petroleum and natural gas producers. It also has one of the largest concentrations of Indigenous and tribal populations. While the Assam government claims the eviction drives will help return the land to their rightful Indigenous owners, experts suggest that the government’s plan lacks an understanding of the Indigenous and tribal groups. Many such communities are not rooted to a piece of land because they are shifting cultivators – that is, they don’t cultivate the same plot of land every year. Some don’t have any land-ownership documents and may also get caught up in eviction drives to remove “illegal encroachers.”