Sivasagar: In its manifesto for the assembly elections, the BJP has promised to protect Assam’s civilisation from fundamentalists and Islamic aggression. It proposes an “Assam policy for controlling fundamentalism”, which would “detect and neutralise the organisations spreading poison of communalism and separatism”.
The BJP has also taken a leaf out of its state governments’ actions in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states, and promised to introduce laws to eradicate “love jihad”, or religious conversions forced through marriage.
But a novel concept introduced in the Assam manifesto specifically is “land jihad”. While “love jihad” has been the opening line in many BJP leaders’ speeches, ‘land jihad’ might need explanation.
Assam BJP vice-president Swapnaneel Baruah explained to ThePrint: “Land jihad is a way to force people sell off their lands — it happens anywhere where there are miyas (Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam). Cases have been reported from Sorbhog, Dhubri and border immigrant-majority areas.
“They corner the land owner, making the land uninhabitable, sometimes by stealing cattle and throwing chopped heads of cattle into courtyards. Ultimately, the owner is forced to sell the land. A third party comes into play and an offer is made to the owner for purchase of the land. A broker gets involved, and the land is captured.”
Another state vice-president, Pulak Gohain, added: “To tackle the Bangladeshi Muslims’ aggression on the lands of indigenous Assamese, we will continue to issue land pattas. Already, the state government has provided land pattas to over three lakh indigenous Assamese families; this process will continue.”
Pattas are official certificates giving the indigenous people legal entitlement on the land, and enabling them to get bank loans. These pattas are expected to address people’s deep-seated insecurities about their land, given the history of immigrants coming to Assam at different points in history and settling down.
Insecurity about immigrants
Since before Independence, the Axomiyas or Assamese-speaking indigenous communities have harboured a sense of insecurity about their identity, language, culture and land. Despite the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic nature of its society, Assam’s indigenous communities never had the best of equations with immigrants from Bangladesh — whether Hindus or Muslims — historically.
In July 2012, a study by the Northeast Policy Institute said that land was encroached upon after Independence when people from the erstwhile East Pakistan, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, came across to Assam.
They occupied a large swathe of vacant khas land (government-owned land) in grazing reserves as well as forest land in lower Assam, middle Assam and the north bank of the Brahmaputra river. Although the immigrants contributed to Assam’s economy, they “adversely” impacted the social and cultural life of the Assamese people.
Removing encroachers from satra (monastery) land has been a major issue for the BJP. In 2015, according to the Asom Satra Mahasabha (ASM), an umbrella organisation of monasteries, some 7,000 bighas (2,804 acres), or 85 per cent of land, belonging to 39 satras was under encroachment upon by illegal immigrants.
Rural immigration continued from 1901 until the Assam Agitation (1979-1985), which led to the signing of the Assam Accord between the protestors led by students and the Government of India. The illegal immigrants who came in post-1971 were to be identified by updating the National Register of Citizens and then deported.
The process finally began in 2013 and came under direct supervision of the Supreme Court in 2015. But the publication of the list in 2019 copped criticism from many quarters, with some, including the BJP-led government, claiming that many post-1971 immigrants were included through false documents, and many Indians had been left out.
In December 2019, when protests against the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 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, cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that the state government will introduce two new legislations to ensure the “land of the indigenous people remains with them”.
In February 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a rally in Assam that the central government would work expeditiously to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which would provide constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the Assamese people.
But this has not happened, despite the high-powered committee appointed by the Centre in July 2019 submitting its report last year to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
In the current campaign too, BJP leaders are seeking to woo indigenous communities. Addressing rallies in eastern Assam, Sonowal spoke about how his government took steps to promote and protect the language, literature and culture of all sections of the people, and enacted policy to protect land rights of indigenous people. He also touched upon the process of distribution of land certificates to indigenous families.
‘A communal move’
Former Assam DGP Harekrishna Deka, now a political observer, called the BJP’s promise of a ‘land jihad’ law a “communal” move, and said it’s a result of the failure of the party’s central government to seal the porous India-Bangladesh border.
“This is communal. If they say it’s aggression by Bangladeshis, then they forget that securing the border is the responsibility of the Centre, which is a BJP government. Their very accusatory announcement is contradictory. Let them secure the border instead of beating about the bush by spreading communal propaganda,” said Deka.
Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of the media department of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC), questioned the BJP on what is stopping it from taking action against illegal immigrants.
“There is a BJP government at the Centre (since 2014) and in the state for the last five years. The administration is theirs, the BSF is theirs, so what stopped them from deporting illegal immigrants from Assam?” Sharma asked.
“If land has been encroached upon by illegal immigrants, why have they not been able to detect and deport them? Didn’t Modi ji declare, in 2014, that come 16 May (the day the Lok Sabha election results were declared), all illegal immigrants will have to leave bag and baggage? Are they saying that from 2014 to 2021 they have failed to make Assam illegal immigrant-free?” she added.
Vasco De Saikia, executive president of Raijor Dal, which is making its electoral debut under the leadership of by peasant rights and Right to Information activist Akhil Gogoi, called the ‘land jihad’ announcement a “political gimmick”.
“In 2016, the BJP government had promised to give land pattas to landless people if they came to power. The state has lakhs of landless families, over two lakh in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district alone. After 2016, provisions under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have not been implemented, leaving many tribal people homeless,” Saikia added.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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