Assam’s people were left haunted by the picture of a woman calmly carrying a gas stove from a heap of rubble — what used to be her home. The young woman’s set expression showed the helplessness she felt. Hers was one of the 700 families who were evicted from the Amchang reserved forest area on 27th and 28th November for allegedly encroaching government land. The scene on the site of eviction showed textbooks strewn all over, school children in uniform lamenting their impending board exams. The constant live coverage of the hardships that these people were going, being forced to live in the open, could not have left anyone unmoved.
Now lets go back three days. On 24th November, 2017 a similar eviction was carried out in the Gandhia Pathar area of Kuruwa village of Sipajhar. Close to 65 families were evicted for allegedly encroaching government land. Assamese books of primary school were strewn on grounds here too. People were forced to live in the open here as well. But none of these stories, images reached people through mainstream media. Civil society activists who visited these hapless people used alternative platforms like social media to focus the humanitarian crisis. What mainstream media managed to notice was the religious and cultural background of the evictees of Sipajhar. These were Muslims of the East Bengal origin. And hence media along with some local xenophobic groups conveniently termed them suspicious illegal immigrants.
This stark difference between the ways in which media focused on similar episodes of eviction raises crucial issues. In Sipajhar, the eviction drive carried out on 24th November followed the mysterious kidnapping and murder of one Ananda Das. Ananda Das, a native of the Kuruwa village disappeared on 21st November. His dead body was found exactly at the same place on 23rd November. Two people were arrested for interrogation, but a violent mob went on the rampage claiming that the villagers of Gandhia Pathar are illegal immigrants and they are responsible for the murder of Ananda Das. Few homes were ravaged and torched. The District administration immediately responded by announcing that an eviction will be carried out the very next day. And on 24th November, almost sixty families were evicted.
Unlike the Sipajhar eviction which was a response to a violent outburst by local people, the Amchang eviction was a response to a High Court order taking note of a PIL filed by an NGO Early Birds. The NGO complained that people encroaching on government land threatened the wild life species in the reserved forest. Responding to the complaint, the High Court directed local administration to evict the illegal encroachers. And on 27th November, it was carried out. However this led to much backlash as most people who were evicted from the area belonged to the indigenous tribes of Assam like Bodos, Mishings. These are people who lost their lands in Majuli, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji due to river erosion. Eviction was carried out without any assurance of rehabilitation.
There is gross discrepancy with the very procedure of the Amchang eviction. This eviction was carried out in response to a High Court order on a PIL for ecological conservation. Many activists including Gana Shakti leader and MP Bhuvan Pegu raised serious allegations regarding the eviction. Some of the villages which were evicted were shown as revenue villages in Central government’s notification published in the month of May, 2017. While they were marked as eco sensitive, they were not exactly part of Reserve forest. According to the government’s own admittance, encroachment happened in some parts even before the Amchang area was notified as Reserved Forest in 2004. As such these people’s rights will be safeguarded under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. However due to a 2009 High Court judgment which states that there are no forest dwelling communities in Assam, the Forest Rights Act does not help much. There was also a graded approach to displaced people vis a vis commercial resorts, cement industries and army firing range whose establishment in a reserved forest area also violated laws.
There are nonetheless similarities between the evictees in both the cases. Just like the people in Amchang, the people in Sipajhar were also victims of river erosion. Their earlier generations moved from places like Jonia in Barpeta to escape poverty and river erosion. These people were further tricked into buying government land from the locals of Kuruwa. But there was no investigation on the multiple level of exploitation that these people faced. Merely accusing them of being illegal immigrants somehow provided impunity to those who torched their homes. Not a single person was brought to book for taking law in their own hands. One must ask if these are illegal immigrants, why weren’t they sent to detention camps for gradual deportation?
The humanitarian crisis caused by such ruthless eviction, bulldozing homes, forcing people in the open, with young children’s education being jeopardized are exactly the same in both Amchang and Sipajhar. But the way media and the larger society responded to the two evictions is disturbing to say the least. The pain of losing home and hearth is the same. But while in case of Amchang the government was forced to step in and even promise compensation, the larger society and the media maintains an eerie silence around the Sipajhar evictees. So much so, that their persecution did not end with just eviction. Some news channels have in fact gone the extra mile to prove how they were rebuilding their homes in the same area. The news channel did not think twice before declaring that these people are suspected illegal immigrants. Civil society activists who carried out a door to door survey have details of how all these people have voters ID cards and their names are enlisted in voters’ list, proving their citizenship.
Such hypocrisy and double standard of media can have dangerous consequences. In an already heated situation with the NRC issue, the impunity with which people’s citizenship is questioned and dismissed violates the rights of bonafide Indian citizens. The bogey of Bangladeshis has been used since ages to serve the interests of chauvinists and advocates of narrow nationalism. Of late it is being used by the media and the state machinery to free land and hand them over to corporates. Since the 1950s Assam has lost around 7% of its land, putting tremendous pressure on this resource which is already scarce. In such a scenario instead of introducing a progressive land law to provide land rights to the landless, the government is hell bent on creating different groups of victims. Even promises of compensation seem like mired in communal tones.
Assamese electronic media have always taken a nose dip when it came to media ethics. And in case of eviction as well it took it upon itself to delegitimize victims of eviction by questioning their citizenship. There is no step being taken to address problems like flood, river erosion which causes environmental migration. This is one of the major causes behind encroachment. Not solving this will continue to have similar consequences as people have absolutely no option. Poverty, lack of opportunity pushes people to the urban areas for search of better livelihood. But a higher cost of living in the city further forces them to languish in the margins. There is a need to hold both the government and the media accountable for misleading people, for bypassing illegal land deals, for maintaining silence on convenient violation of laws by allowing resorts and industries to come up in reserved areas while constantly stigmatizing people of one community and giving a communal tone to a humanitarian crisis.