The Indian state has been a cauldron of ethnic tensions for decades and the latest round of forced expulsions of hundreds of Muslims is only making the matters worse.
ASSAM -- On September 24, dawn broke to an eerie silence in the riverine char villages of Dhalpur 1 and 3 deep inside Assam’s Darrang district, a lush green hinterland in the northeastern part of India. On the days prior, the shifting sands in the river island had soaked in the tears and blood of 800 families - Muslims of Bengal origin - displaced from their tin roofs and walls in a forced eviction drive carried out on September 20 and 23. The residents say they received the eviction notice only the night before it began.
Panic and chaos ensued as residents were forcibly driven out of their homes, shortly after which the excavators razed them to the ground. By the second instance, the evictors - Assam Police and district administration - persisted with more aggression burning down homes this time around. The authorities say the land these families were displaced from belonged to the government.
On the day before reporters descended, the evicted locals along with close neighbours (fearing they might be next in line) gathered in a human chain to protest the forceful eviction drive. Residents said that their representatives were in discussion with the district administration to negotiate a proper relocation site for them apart from the 1000 bighas (133 hectares) that had been allotted close by.
What followed next was a gruesome display of State firepower along with a heavy cocktail of ethnic and communal contempt.
"He knew he was going to die"
In a video that went viral on Thursday evening, thirty-three-year-old Moinul Haque is seen chasing police constables and a photographer wielding a cane to the reception of police forces, who gunned him down with bullets and dealt heavy baton blows to his body. Whilst still warm, the photographer - a Bijoy Bania employed by the district administration who has since been arrested - trampled on Haque’s body that lay deathly still.
At least eight people were heavily injured in police firing that the residents alleged commenced without any warning, either blank shots in the air or the use of lighter force like baton charge. Three cops were also injured in the mayhem and they are all being treated in the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.
The locals said that many family members were still missing but no one had any clue or account of just how many and where they may have been lost. Twelve-year-old Sheikh Farid, who was caught in the milieu of the day’s mayhem, shortly after he collected his Aadhaar (biometric identification) card from the local post office fell dead to live bullets.
All the residents we spoke to said their names were in the NRC, ready to produce their documents whether voter lists, Aadhaar or even land tax records that a few were in possession of. Their voices quivered as they recalled the events of the previous day, eventually turning into a soft then loud wail.
“Another team of police came out of nowhere when the deputy commissioner said the eviction will go ahead at any cost, which is when I heard the sound of gunshots,” said Ahmed Ali, who broke down in tears saying his child went missing the day before. “I went looking for my kid along with my brother, who was shot with a rubber bullet on the side of his torso".
Ali said that the police set fire to a table in which he had kept 26,000 INR and 800 kilograms of jute stored inside his house. “I’ve lost everything. How will poor people like us survive? Is this happening because we’re Muslims? Even our mosques and Qurans were not spared”.
The Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government in the state are calling these residents ‘illegal encroachers’ occupying 4500 bighas (602 hectares) of land that would be now repurposed as agricultural land for the older Assamese (Hindu and Muslim) residents living nearby. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted earlier last week that he was ‘happy’ the way the district administration had cleared the land of 800 households along with four ‘illegal religious structures’ and a private institution. He defended the police firing saying thousands had attacked the forces
The day Haque and Farid were brutally killed transforming the farmland into a killing field, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in his address at the United Nations General Assembly said that those using extremism as a political tool with regressive thinking must understand that terrorism is equally a threat to them. He was alluding to the self-elected Taliban rulers in Afghanistan.
Assam CM Sarma posted the video in a tweet saying, “PM Shri @narendramodi ji takes a strong stand against state-sponsored terrorism that has paralysed several nations across the globe #PMModiAtUNGA”.
“The police and CRP (army) were already firing shots at Haque and the other residents,” said Mohammad Ibramul, a resident we met outside Haque’s family's new makeshift home. Enraged by the high handedness of the police, Ibramul said that his neighbour didn’t care for a reason anymore when he charged at them with a mere cane in hand.
“He knew he was going to die”.