Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Assam in 2016 and the centre in 2014, there has been a rally of evictions of fringe forest villages, populated by Muslims in most cases, in the state. So far the eviction drive had been confined to the Brahmaputra Valley, of which the infamous Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary eviction led to 2 people being killed in police firing and many injured. This time, however, the eviction drive, allegedly driven by a communal agenda, has reached Assam's Bengali zone Barak valley as well. On June 7, 82 families comprising more than 1,000 people — all Muslims — have been evicted from the Rajanikhal forest village under the Haiwaithang range, which interestingly falls inside Assam's Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya's home constituency Dholai. Suklabaidya apparently was instrumental behind the Rajanikhal eviction as he had reportedly assured eviction of the village after the murder of a local auto driver, in which some Rajanikhal residents had been allegedly involved.
People Awaited Eviction Amid Covert Threats
When the entire country's Muslims were celebrating Eid on June 5, the 82 families of Rajanikhal were awaiting to leave their houses permanently after having stayed there for more than 50 years. On the night of June 5, Bhargav Borbora, the Dholai police station officer-in-charge (OC), had reportedly visited the village at around 10 PM, telling people to collect their belongings and vacate their houses by the next day, a day before the eviction so "nobody gets hurt during the drive”. Interestingly, the cop had no duty or authority to warn the people before the eviction. The next day, villagers were seen evicting the village, breaking their own houses, carrying whatever they can — quilts, pillows, galvanised tins, wooden doors, windows, beds and chests — anything and everything they could grab to create at least a makeshift home. On being asked why they were leaving before the eviction, a villager said, "The OC sir came and told each of us to take out our belongings. They were threatening us. The BJP people too, the local Zila Parishad Constituency (ZPC) member, Shashanka Paul, he called us the day before (June 4) and told us to take away all our belongings as the eviction is sure to happen on the 7th."
"The OC sir also told us to take away all our belongings and go away from the village as they would come tomorrow (7th) and demolish everything here. That's why the people got worried, and now they are taking out anything that can be carried away," added the villager.
'Encroachers' have Voter, PAN, Ration Cards, Electricity, Govt-allotted Houses
The villagers had been served a notice on May 21, to evict the village, which was later extended, and the final date was fixed on June 7. On the fateful day, amid heavy rain, the eviction drive continued for about 9 hours, from 6 AM to 3 PM. Dholai Forest Ranger Mujubir Rahman Choudhury reportedly told the media that 11 elephants and 3 excavators were used to demolish the village, while they did not face any resistance from the "encroachers," which makes the eviction interesting — because they, reportedly in connivance with the cops and local BJP politicians — had already ensured the village to be empty when they started their demolition drive.
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Another interesting facet of the Rajanikhal eviction drive was that even though the villagers were being called "encroachers," they had received almost every government benefits so far — including Voter ID and ration cards, electricity, houses under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Awas Yojana, previously known as Indira Awas Yojana. A video following the eviction became viral on the social media where an old man with a loudspeaker could be heard saying that the forest minister had told them to sow seeds and grow trees, which they had done, and despite that they were being evicted from the lands where they have been living for generations.
Demolition Drive and a Hindu Man Giving Shelter to Muslims
Krishna Prasad Koiri, who is the only person living on a legal patta land in the village, seemed very upset over the entire issue. On June 6, when the Rajanikhal residents were vacating their houses, Koiri, showing his home next to the to-be-demolished houses, said, "There stands my house, and here are theirs. We have lived together for a long time. Now when these people are in trouble, should I leave them alone?"
On the eviction day, many people were seen taking shelter at Koiri's house, while another nearby house was being demolished by an elephant. People were crying, especially women and children. Saleha Begum, whose house was already demolished by the time this correspondent reached the spot, said while crying, "We do not have any home left now. That’s why we are standing on the patta land (Koiri's land). We have been living on this land for 50 years. They gave us cards, provided electricity. The government gave us everything, but now we are stranded here with the children since morning without having anything to eat ourselves or to feed the kids." Begum's 5-year-old boy was also crying, while the rain washed away their tears.
The demolition of the empty village destroyed everything the 82 families had acquired over the last five decades. Some forest workers were seen cutting betel-nut trees with electric-saws. The eviction also destroyed the only mosque in the area and a primary school building. People were crying aloud, saying, "They did not spare even our mosque. Allah is watching this." Asking why they were crying over the mosque when nobody was going to remain in the village, an agitated village woman said, "Today is Friday. Our people, children were supposed to offer the Friday prayers at the mosque today. They could have spared the mosque at least."
Background: A Murder and Eviction Demand by Hindu Jagaran Manch
While the forest department's notice obviously does not refer to any prior incident related to the eviction drive, it has been a known fact in the area that the eviction drive was actually in revenge for the murder of an auto-rickshaw driver, Rupam Paul, a resident of the nearby Pani Bhora area. Paul had been reportedly abducted on August 2, 2018, while his body was later found on August 15 in Karimganj district's Rakkrishna Nagar town-adjacent Naya Tillah area's jungle. Then Dholai OC Bhaskarjyoti Das and his team nabbed Akbar Ali, 40, and his wife Rayna Begum, along with 4 others on August 15 from Rajanikhal. Akbar Ali was reportedly hiding after killing Paul at his father-in-law's house at Rajanikhal.
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The incident rocked the area, and a splinter group called the Hindu Jagaran Manch (HJM) blocked the Silchar–Aizawl road on August 16 for about 10 hours, with more than a thousand local folks' participation. The HJM demanded death penalty for the culprits, government compensation for deceased Paul's family, and verification of the Rajanikhal villagers' documents as well as their eviction from the area. Later on the same day, Forest Minister-cum-Dholai constituency MLA Suklabaidya, Cachar District Collector S. Lakshmanan and Southern Assam Police DIG Devraj Upadhyay reportedly reached the spot and assured the agitators of taking stern actions against the killers. Finally, the agitators revoked their blockade and Paul's body was cremated. Then Dholai Police Station's OC Das and almost his entire team had been suspended and later were transferred to other stations. Das is currently reportedly posted in Barpeta District.
Rajanikhal villagers also reportedly set ablaze houses of the murderers in a bid to clear their village’s image, but eventually had to take the burden of the blame and evict their village. Finally after almost 10 months, after receiving green signal from the Forest Department, a team led by Dholai Ranger Mujibur Rahman Choudhury deployed drones to identify the 82 houses in the forest village and served them notices on March 21, 2019, under the Section 72 (C) of the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891.
Conspiracy Theories and Dangers Ahead
While it is widely known in the area that killers of Rupam Paul were all nabbed from the Rajanikhal forest village, a local person, on condition of anonymity told this correspondent that Paul already had a feud with his cousins over the ownership of a land and that, although Akbar Ali and partners in the crime killed Paul, it was actually the cousins who hired Ali to kill Paul. When this correspondent tried to trace Paul's house and reached some local BJP leaders, they said, "Why are you asking us? Why don't you ask the cops about the case?" Interestingly, then OC Bhaskarjyoti Das and his entire team were suspended immediately after the recovery of Paul's body and nabbing of the killers. The big question remains hanging: Why? They did solve the case within 14 days. Then why were suspended and transferred? Nobody has any answer yet to the question.
Another important facet of the Rajanikhal eviction was that it was a purely Muslim village. The nearby Hatimara village — which has a mixed population of Muslims, Hindus and Christians — did not receive any eviction notice. However, the Muslim residents of the Hatimara forest village are now living in constant fear that they may also get an eviction notice any day. Amid all this, a forest guard, on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent that there may be more eviction drives sooner or later. Incidentally, the Dholai constituency has more than a dozen Muslim-populated forest villages, and most villagers in which are afraid they might be the next targets.
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Meanwhile, rumours have spread to another part of the valley, Hailakandi district's southern forest areas, that two lists are being prepared by the Forest Department, categorising some forest dwellers as villagers and some as intruders or encroachers. The southern Hailakandi range also has mostly Muslim-populated forest villages, and that is why the rumours have found an easy prey in them.
While none of the conspiracy theories have any concrete basis right now, only time will tell what is in the offing for the forest dwellers in Assam's Barak Valley region, especially the Muslims living inside the forests. After a while, the evicted Muslim villagers of Rajanikhal may find a new address, but nobody can verify now whether they are going to be tagged as Bangladeshis too, as they have lost their addresses now and the National Register for Citizenship a.k.a NRC officials may serve them notices in case of a doubt, but the notices will not find any takers at Rajanikhal any more.
The writer is an independent content management consultant based in Assam.