The Communal Politics of Eviction Drives in Assam

Over the years, in Assam, there has been a disturbing denial of citizenship rights of Muslims, who are branded as Bangladeshis. In the aftermath of an eviction drive conducted by the government in Kaziranga National Park, the article focuses on the narrative that the villagers have to offer, while interrogating the nature of Assamese nationalism.


The Kaziranga National Park, a world heritage site which is home to the world famous one-horned rhinos, grabbed media headlines in September 2016. Unlike previous occasions, the park did not draw media attention due to unabated rhino poaching, but because of an eviction drive carried out by the Assam government in fringe villages of the national park.


Following the order of the Gauhati High Court, the eviction drive in three fringe villages—Banderdubi, Deosursang and Palkhowa—of the Kaziranga National Park, was carried out on 19 September 2016 by the Government of Assam. Two persons including a 12-year-old girl student, were killed in police firing during the massive protest against the eviction. This subsequently sparked off a heated debate in the print, electronic, and social media. Those evicted were mostly Muslim peasants of East Bengal origin. The supporters of the eviction drive directed suspicion to the identity of these people by using phrases like “illegal Bangladeshis,” “rhino poachers,” and “suspected citizens.” Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), an influential peasants’ organisation in the state, opposed the eviction without releasing compensation to the people of the villages, drawing flak from different quarters. The KMSS chief Akhil Gogoi was mocked on social media for his stand on the issue. 


This article focuses on the narrative that the Banderdubi villagers have to offer against the administration’s eviction drive. We made an attempt to understand the anguish of the evicted people, their deplorable state in makeshift dwellings, and the justification of their rights of rehabilitation and resettlement. 


After the eviction, people’s entitlement to democratic and human rights, rehabilitation, and resettlement was overlooked. We argue that the narrow, communal, divisive and myopic approach adopted by a section of the upper-caste Assamese Hindus to categorically exclude the migrant communities from Bangladesh, is a whip to the Assamese nationality.[1] Moreover, the eviction drive was communalised for vested political interest and along with the "caste Hindu" Assamese,[2] different tribal elites actively fuelled the communal agenda.


One of the evicted house by NH-37. 


Dubious Discourse 

In Assam, the dubious trend of branding Muslim religious minorities as “illegal Bangladeshi” is not new (Chakraborty 2012). Interestingly, the educated mainstream Assamese society and different ethnic groups of the state are following this discourse and blurring the difference between the identities of the old and the new settlers. The media’s simplistic and unidirectional portrayal of these settlers as “Bangladeshi” creates hostility towards those of a different faith and identity. 


Historically, various religious, linguistic, and cultural groups who had migrated to this region at different junctures contributed in different ways to enrich the fabric of Assamese society (Gohain 1989, Guha 1993, Sharma 2012, Sharma 2006). Cultural tolerance and secularism is thus a distinct trait of this society. The Assamese middle class being a part of the ruling class has largely been successful in projecting its own class and factional interests as the interest of Assamese nationality or the people of Assam. Because of its weak position in the production process, this class is not sure about its destiny or its future. It has been portraying its own identity crisis and apprehensions as the crisis of the Assamese nationality or of Assam. In fact, this class has become the “de facto spokesperson” of Assamese nationality during the post colonial period (Hussain 1993:93). Though the contributions of exploited and marginalised peasants have been significant in the process of Assamese nationality formation, their voices have been stifled and suppressed. The narratives of deep anguish and discrimination faced by these Bengali Muslim settlers from East Bengal continue to be excluded by the mainstream society. This trend of ostracisation by the caste Hindu Assamese in the formation of Assamese nationality is not new. 


The horrors of suspicion and bloodshed such as the Nellie massacre[3] in 1983 are testimony to the atrocities inflicted on Muslims of East Bengal origin and the hostility towards them (Kimura 2013). However, there also exists a small trend of progressive nationalism. Unfortunately, the narrow, communal and divisive prism of Assamese caste Hindus is prominent in the political and social sphere of Assam.


Report from the Field

We reached Banderdubi on 2 October, 2016 to collect first-hand data and know the experience of the evicted masses. The outrage on television and in print media merged with misguided public opinion moulded by social media which brands Bengali Muslims as illegal Bangladeshi.[4] This also encourages the erroneous notion that the illegal infiltrators are appropriating “our lands.”


According to oral history sources, the Karbi and the Assamese people used to inhabit the Banderdubi area before the Muslim settlement started. In the 1950s, Bengali Muslims from the neighbouring Nagaon district migrated to Banderdubi. The annual flood of Brahmaputra deposits silt, making the land highly fertile for agriculture. The original dwellers of the village later migrated to Kaliabor, Nagaon, Bokakhat and nearby hills after selling off their land to the agrarian Muslim community. The cultivation of paddy and cash crops yielded profit to the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Banderdubi. These people who are now above 60 years of age, in fact belong to the second generation and in some cases to the third generation. The mosque in Banderdubi was built in 1951 and the primary school was provincialised in 1966.[5] There were 205 families (including 7 caste Hindu Assamese families) in Banderdubi when the eviction was carried out. The Bengali Muslim families of this village claimed to have government documents, land records, land patta,[6] and voter identity cards, which meant that terming them as “illegal infiltrators” was fallacious.


Khagen Kalita, an evicted victim belonging to the caste Hindu Assamese community, said that his forefathers had resided in this village for over 100 years. He claimed that each person residing in Banderdubi is a legal Indian citizen. Another person, Idrish Ali (aged 54), lamented, “everyone labels us as Bangladeshi. Yes, we are Bangladeshis.” He then handed us a land revenue receipt from 1929 and the land ownership records of his forefathers. It was disheartening to see legal citizens called illegal infiltrators by misguided populism. If the evicted masses were Bangladeshis or suspected citizens, then why were they not sent to detention camps? Why did the government announce a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the families of the two persons killed in the police firing during eviction?


Nabir Hussain (aged 37) owned around 12 bighas[7] of myadi patta[8] land and occupied a few patches of government land and sustained his family through agriculture. His face was wrenched in anguish which later gave way to tears. On being asked he shared,

“We are not humans. If we were, then the democratic government would not have done this against us. We are now camping on roads. The people were also unaware about whether their compensation would be in terms of cash or land. Social organisations like All Assam Muslim Student Union (AAMSU) and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) have been providing us relief, but for how long?”


Temporary camp by the National highway. 


Afazuddin, a panchayat member of Banderdubi village, maintained that the sentiment of "jati, mati, bheti"[9] (community, land and existence) is being manipulated for political gains. He says, 

“The brutality of the government in Banderdubi eviction was mainly because of two reasons—firstly, we are poor and uneducated and secondly, we are Muslims.” 


A map of Banderdubi village prepared by the revenue department in 1964 was shown to us. The voters list of 1965 is already doing the rounds on social media.

Kaziranga was declared a National Park in 1974.[10] The arbitrary demarcation and inclusion of areas into the Park did not take into cognisance the human settlements that existed in the area prior to the creation of the Park. Banderdubi was one such village. It has been a revenue village of the Assam government for the last 50–60 years and the land revenue receipts available with the villagers bear testimony to this fact. The village has a total of about 2,245 bighas of land. Around 500 bighas are myadi, some eksoniya and some are tarju land. They pay regular land revenue to the government. However, there are instances of eviction of people from the eksoniya and tarju land by the government from time to time.


Abdul Hasim (aged 55) added, 

“Shoot us, if you find a single Bangladeshi in Banderdubi. I was born here.” 


He earns his livelihood by cultivating paddy and mustard. But, for the sake of Kaziranga and its pride—the one–horned rhinoceros—he was willing to let go of his land. In return, he wanted an assurance of compensation and rehabilitation from the government. 

“We wanted compensation prior to the eviction drive. Is not it my right? We are now staying in the camps, but for how long? Where do we go from here?” 


High Court Order and Banderdubi’s Opinion

Following the Gauhati High Court’s order, the state government carried out the eviction drive. One such notice for eviction was issued last year as well. This time also, they anticipated eviction only from the government land. But their nightmare came true when it dawned on them that all of Banderdubi was to be evicted. 


Irrespective of religious faith, the Hindus and Muslims of the village stood together and protested against the high court’s order. Later, Akhil Gogoi was called upon to give a face and course to the protest. Prior to the eviction, on 15 September 2016, the villagers (both men and women) marched to the Kaliabor Circuit House, overcoming the scorching heat. They went with the hope that Himanta Biswa Sarma (a cabinet minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government) and the state Water Resource Keshab Mahanta would understand their deplorable state. Few representatives from among the villagers were called for discussion, and verbal promise of compensation within 40 days was made to the bearers of patta land.


Interestingly, the Hindu families were called for discussion separately and compensation that was four times the value of their land was promised, because their land was on the side of the national highway. It was outrageous to see democratic politics dividing people on communal grounds for vested political interest. The evicted people who were taking shelter in four camps said in unison that KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi requested the people to go in a for non-violent protest. Gogoi had said that non-violent protest would compel the government to withdraw the decision of the eviction drive.


Camp of the villagers after eviction. 


Rhino Poachers and Animal Corridor

There was noise about two other things after the Kaziranga evictions—first that the rhino poachers belonged to the Bengali Muslim community, and second that Banderdubi was nestled in the animal corridor. The villagers had their explanations. There were also instances of two or three youths from the village being arrested and sent to jail for their alleged involvement in rhino poaching. But without credible evidence, it is fatuous to claim the entire village as rhino poachers. The villagers complained that there is a tacit nexus between the forest officials and poachers. Gopal Konwar, a youth from another village nearby, further added that during the last annual floods the villagers had rescued wild animals and handed them over to the forest department. 


Technically, from Jakhalabandha to Bokakhat, the entire area is an animal corridor. In that sense, Banderdubi too falls within the animal corridor. During the annual floods the wild animals move up to the hills, but this was not possible in Banderdubi since it is mostly inundated during the floods. So Banderdubi, being a refuge for the wild animals does not arise. 


“The Kanchanjuri tea estate in the Kuthori range of Kaziranga is within the animal corridor as it is situated on the hills,” explains Khagen Kalita. Interestingly, a signboard signifying animal corridor also stands in front of the Kanchanjuri tea garden. The people of the village told us that the tea estate belongs to a powerful and affluent minister of the state government.


Education, Health, and Food in the Camps


Children in the camp.


Banderdubi primary school had a total of 160 students. Two days prior to the eviction, the furniture was removed from the school and the students were meant to be shifted to the nearby schools. But the reality was gloomy. When these students from Banderdubi went to the nearby schools for enrollment in the aftermath of eviction, they were denied admission. The reason cited was the lack of teachers and infrastructure. It became arduous for the students to seek admission in the middle of the year which essentially meant the loss of the academic year. The education minister, who is otherwise credited for bringing about a revolutionary change in education through Teacher Eligibility Test (TET), has not paid attention to the murky future of these innocent children.


Women and children in the camp. 


“We didn’t receive any relief from the government since 19 September, even a glass of water,” claims a woman in the camp. During the eviction drive, security personnel and police included both the male and female force, but male personnel were deployed to evict the women from their village. An anganwadi worker revealed that the camps—now home to 12 pregnant women, 15 lactating mothers and 20 teenage girls—lack even basic access to safe drinking water and food. The condition of these women is pitiable.


Osman Ali (13) wounded by bullet during police firing. 


Osman Ali (13) recalled the dreadful eviction and said, “I was with my mother. Suddenly we heard bullets being fired and we ran for our lives. One bullet hit my thigh. After that, I didn’t remember anything.” On being asked about his school, he replied passionately, “I will study hard and realise my dream.” We were short of words to console Ali.


In Conclusion


This field study gave us credible evidence to be convinced that the Banderdubi villagers are bona fide citizens of this country. At the ground level, however, the Kaziranga eviction exemplified a grave truth. The BJP-led coalition state government is riding on the sentiments of “jati, mati, bheti” and creating a wedge among the people on communal lines. Being citizens of an independent nation, these evicted masses were denied basic democratic and human rights. Interestingly, though the state government announced compensation for the evicted lands within 40 days, people are yet to receive compensation in any form. The muteness of social and nationalistic organisations like Asom Sahitya Sabha (a literary organisation of Assam), ASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chaatra Parishad (AJYCP) which boast of Assamese nationalism, is quite disturbing. Branding a particular community as Bangladeshi without veridical facts is deeply problematic and antithetical to the concept of Assamese nationalism which is characterised by humane, democratic and secular society. 


After the Kaziranga eviction, the government continued evictions in different places specially in various Bengali Muslim dominated areas like Mayong, Sipajhar, Barduwa, and Manas National Park. There was a constant effort through popular media campaigns to establish the evicted masses as “illegal Bangladeshis” and encroachers. These evictions were spearheaded by the BJP after coming to power in the state and a serious repercussion was the construction of a binary on religious grounds. This policy of the government is not only communally divisive, but also an attempt to gain political mileage in the name of evicting Bangladeshis.


In various news reports, it is seen that erosion and flood have already washed away lands of most of the peasants in Assam irrespective of caste, creed, and religion.  As a result, the peasants have no option left but to either encroach on government land and grazing reserves or to live life in char (sandbars or mid channels bars in a river) areas. However, given the history of recurring flood and erosion in the state, such evictions posit some serious questions—firstly, the state government does not have a proper land policy for its people, and secondly, there is no uniform land allotment policy in practice for those who have lost their lands due to erosion.


If the state and the non-state actors jump into the manufactured discourse of “jati, mati, bheti,” all the good things of Assamese nationalism in terms of cultural tolerance and secularism would perish. 


Case Cited

Kaziranga National Park v Union of India and others (2015): Public Interest Litigation (suo motu) No 66 of 2012, Gauhati High Court judgment dated 9 October. (


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