Guwahati: Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Assam’s “mool niwasi” or original inhabitants every four minute on an average in his 28-minute speech Saturday as he launched a special initiative to distribute land pattas or allotment certificates to over a lakh of them.
He had a lot to talk about the indigenous Assamese communities — their self-respect, freedom and security, legal protection of their land rights, their language and culture. But what was conspicuous was the absence of any reference to what has been agitating poll-bound Assam for a long time — the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). BJP leaders aren’t tired of talking about the CAA in neighbouring West Bengal though. Therein lies the politics of land pattas and special concerns for Assam’s ‘mool niwasi’.
Unlike in West Bengal where the BJP is wooing Matuas, Hindus who came from Bangladesh, the party has to do a tightrope walk in multi-lingual and multi-ethnic Assam where indigenous communities haven’t had the best of equations with immigrants from Bangladesh — whether Hindus or Muslims — historically.
Since pre-Independence times, Axomiyas or Assamese-speaking indigenous communities have harboured a sense of insecurity about their identity, language, culture and land. The CAA made that sense of insecurity more acute. It’s this backdrop that explains the PM’s outreach to indigenous Assamese.
Land pattas or certificates are not just an official document giving them legal entitlements and enabling them to get even bank loans. These pattas are expected to address their deep-seated insecurities about their land, given the history of immigrants coming to Assam in droves at different points in history and settling down.
The anti-CAA stir has led to the formation of at least four regional parties, including the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dol, among others. The AJP was jointly formed by student organisations — All Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad. The Raijor Dol has been floated by 70 organisations, led by the peasant group Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. It is in this backdrop that the BJP is seeking to woo indigenous communities.
‘Land pattas not related to CAA’
The distribution of pattas is a part of Assam’s Land Policy of 2019, which is a rehash of the previous land policy of 1989 that outlines land reforms and allotment of land to indigenous landless persons including Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families. The state government had distributed 2.28 lakh land pattas since May 2016 and plans to continue the initiative in future as well.
“At a time when BJP was thought of failing to protect the Assamese community, they have aimed to connect with the indigenous population. Modi’s visit will create a positive swing already seen in Upper Assam where BJP and AGP alliance will have victory. The BJP is far ahead of any party in organisation and poll preparedness. They have gone deep inside villages. PM Modi’s visit is in sync with their preparation for Assam election. They have worked on beneficiary economy and have succeeded,” said political analyst Shyamkanu Mahanta.
The Congress, however, said distribution of land pattas is the BJP government’s attempt to distract people from important issues, and that the government should define the term ‘indigenous’.
“Why should PM be involved in a state subject? All they want is to showcase BJP, but what about other pending schemes? Allotting land pattas is a continuous process – along with pattas, the government should also ensure possession of land. Otherwise, it’s meaningless,” said Assam Congress Legislature Party leader Debabrata Saikia, while also asking the state government to define the term “indigenous”.
“What will be the definition of ‘indigenous’ – because various people had come to Assam at various times. Muslims entered Assam from 12th century AD, the Ahoms came to Assam in 1226, the Bodo, Mishing and Miri among other tribes have been living here since ages, the tea-tribes came to Assam in 1850, and since 1905 – people from East Bengal have entered Assam. So, who among these will be identified as ‘indigenous’?” asked Saikia, alleging that the state government is distracting people from important issues including the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985.
The executive president of Raijor Dal, Vasco De Saikia said, “In 2016, BJP government had promised to give land pattas to landless people if they came to power. The state has lakhs of landless families, over 2 lakh in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district alone.”
“Now they want to garner praise by giving pattas to only one lakh people. Moreover, they have not made public the names and addresses of these people – will it be a token ceremony for just a few? After 2016, provisions under the Forest Rights Act 2006 have not been implemented, leaving many tribal people homeless,” he added.
Earlier in December 2019, when anti-CAA protests engulfed every part of Assam, the state government announced its commitment to safeguard the language and land rights of the indigenous people. Citing the need for strong land rights, Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that the state government will introduce two new legislations to ensure “land of the indigenous people remain with the indigenous population”.
Keshab Mahanta, water resources minister, however, said the allotment of land pattas is a continuous process, and has “nothing to do with CAA.”
“Our alliance government has taken up this scheme to ensure land rights for the sons of soil – the original inhabitants. It indigenous people have land, they will have a foundation, which will ensure protection for the Assamese community. Our culture and heritage will remain intact with this move,” said Mahanta.
Land policies under Assam government
As per recent data by state government, there are 3,47,822 landless families in Assam, and a total of 77,727 families were allotted land during the five-year tenure of the present government.
Since Independence, Assam government has adopted five land policies — first one in 1958, followed by 1968, 1972, 1989, and the last one in 2019, after 30 years since the Land Policy of 1989. The recommendations of the Hari Shankar Brahma Committee for Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People of Assam were also considered in shaping the latest policy.
In December 2017, the Brahma Committee submitted the final report, 10 months after it was constituted by the Assam government under former chief election commissioner H.S. Brahma. It was primarily constituted to suggest if any changes or modifications are necessary in the existing land laws and the rules made thereunder.
In its report, the committee said, “the threats to the land rights of the indigenous people of Assam are real and their sources of origin are both external and internal. The gravest menace that can be undoubtedly rated as the first and foremost and, therefore, needs to be solved with topmost priority on a rather emergency footing, is the ceaseless streams of infiltration of the illegal Bangladeshis poised to eclipse the very identity of Assam, let alone that of the Assamese or the indigenous people of Assam.”