Assam Eviction Violence: Under Sarma Rule, Muslims Face a Double Attack
While Assamese nationalism fires local sentiments, the state-backed Hindutva project alienates them further.
At least two people were killed and nine were injured during the Assam government's eviction drive in the state’s Darrang district on Thursday, 23 September. In one of the videos that went viral on social media, police officers can be seen chasing a local and thrashing him with wooden sticks. Another man carrying a video camera is seen pouncing on an unconscious local.
In June, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had promised to clear encroachments from over 77,000 'bighas' (25,455 acres) of government-owned land for the employment of youth in agricultural purposes. Over 800 families have been evicted from the Darrang area alone since 20 September.
Bulldozed evictions have become very frequent in Assam, and they usually target Muslims. The Hindutva project makes them a double target now, with the support base of Hindutva growing over the years.
Bulldozed Eviction and 'Locked Out' Eviction
Eviction is often associated with the urban poor and rent. Being “locked out” signifies an inability to pay the rent. This intimate relationship with rent shows how eviction is related to poverty, the social underclass, the weak and the minority in any given society. Once evicted, people are rendered homeless, forced to live in streets or overcrowded places, and enter into a more exploitative relationship with other tenants or employers. Many sociological studies have shown how eviction is both a cause and a condition of poverty.
Matthew Desmond’s work is an inspiration to think of the discourse of eviction.
The type of eviction I want us to think about and visualise is not where one is "locked out", but where one's home and the village is bulldozed and turned into a pile of dust and rubble. Both kinds — bulldozed eviction and "locked out" eviction — are utterly violent.
We see that most of the evicted people are from the Muslim community living in the riverine areas known as 'char-chaporis'. The ‘encroached land’, now ‘free’, will be given to indigenous youth of the area to practice community farming, as per Sarma’s "dream project", notes Dilip Saikia in a tweet. These ‘dreams’ are indeed selective, targeted and violent. It also becomes clear that even in this so-called “dream”, the hierarchy of acceptance is publicly announced, wherein the “indigenous youth” are given space by evicting hundreds of families.
Be it in , or , the minorities in the state have often found themselves bulldozed out of their homes. This sentiment and the actions of the state are neither novel nor disconnected. They are tied to a history of immigration from East Bengal.
How Immigrants Turned Wastelands into Cultivating Zones
The migrant Muslim Bengali peasant from erstwhile East Bengal in the early 20th century could harvest three crops in a year (when people in Assam managed one) in the char-chapori areas of the Brahmaputra valley. This caught the eye of the Assamese literati and middle class.
The immigrants were able to produce more and increase the state's total productivity, writes historian Jayeeta Sharma in her book Empire's Garden. However, the settlement of these peasants was also accompanied by the Line System that sought to contain the flow and segregate the incoming migrants from the existing population of Assam. This demarcation was operational from 1916, mainly in the lower and central districts of Assam, and by 1920, it received provisional sanction.
Residing in these riverine areas, albeit being segregated, the Bengali peasants earned the title of ‘charua’ (a farmer/dweller in the char) and turned these wastelands into a permanent cultivating zone. Segregation of the immigrants was not restricted to settlement alone. In 1935, the Bengali language was removed from government schools and separate schools were proposed where Bengali children could study.
The Line system was a failure, notes historian Sharma, because locals entered into speculative land trading and sold lands to migrants outside the demarcated line system. Bishnu Bora, a 'mauzadar' (a person who collected land tax) and member of the Legislative Assembly, in a speech in 1927, held the local administration responsible for tampering and corruption. Though they could buy land from the government, it was at a very high rate of 25 rupees per bigha. Additionally, Jagannath Bujar-Baruah noted that land was sold to immigrants at a "good price" and new lands were cleared to sell.
These testimonies make it clear that the immigrants did not "grab" land but, in fact, were forced to buy land at exorbitant prices and the local landed people and the colonial state was hand in glove in this whole process.
'Carcass' and 'Vultures'
If the slum is a "moneymaker", the char-chaporis is a site of "stuckedness" for the Assamese middle class. Stuckness, as anthropologist Ghassan Hage notes, is a condition where the development or minor well-being of a "foreigner" or "migrant" becomes a site of envy, leading to anti-migrant rhetoric that fuels xenophobia and supremacist tendencies.
The agricultural progress made by the immigrants in Assam turned them into a figure of suspicion, envy, and hatred in the eyes of the Assamese. This stuckedness felt by the locals (where they see the migrants doing well in cultivation and they themselves being stuck in the same condition) can be potentially seen as one of the reasons that fuelled the anti-immigrant consciousness among the masses aided by the ruling class, who played a prominent role in spreading such logic.
It is fascinating how exploited labour and land transactions faced by the immigrants were turned against them to portray them as "land-hungry" and “land grabbers” by the caste Assamese ruling class. Colonial administrators such as C.S. Mullan also helped fuel this discourse, and his 1931 Census Report became a signpost of bureaucratic and legal reference for the caste Assamese to erect this discourse of "land-hungry".
Mullan equated ‘wasteland’ with dead ‘carcass’ and immigrants as the ‘vultures’ that flock to such land. In private speeches, press, and reports, the migrants were often described as quarrelsome and criminal men.
Symbolic Eviction Runs Deep
Physical eviction shatters one's reality and the person loses their hearth and home, but symbolic eviction is pushed through everyday social actions that can potentially turn minorities against each other and make them hate their own past and their community. They are forever stuck in a way that they will never be integrated into Assamese society. The latter creates significant raptures and fissures within the minority and turns a section of them more vulnerable to the project of Assamese nationalism.
The legitimacy of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is ably aided by this rupture and, unlike how the self-proclaimed liberals and Marxists in Assam claimed, having their name in the NRC brought no material changes for the minorities or removed the discriminatory social gaze cast upon them. The minorities are forever stuck in their condition of being dominated and exploited.
Thus, eviction is not only a doing of the current government but the spirit of eviction is rooted deeply in the psychology of the caste Assamese middle class, of which stuckedness is a witness. The Assamese nationalist wants to evict and uproot the immigrants (also the tribals in the state) from their cultural mores and life-world.
Physical eviction adds to the agony of cultural distance the minorities face and are forced to maintain from their own culture and language. The Assam Repealing Act 2020, The Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021 and the debates on Miya museum are just a few examples of such eviction and uprooting that the Assamese desire.
Minorities Are Subjected to a Permanent State of Criminality
The minorities in Assam have been living with the evils and obscenity of Assamese nationalism for more than a century. Even during the start of the pandemic, the Muslims in Assam were targeted as the only carriers of COVID-19. This trope was given much fuel by Sarma, and has only intensified since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in Assam in 2016. For the Assamese and Hindu nationalists alike, the Muslim in Assam is a definite enemy who is continuously targeted through various legislation and outside of it, both complementing each other. If one carries the image of a minority as a ‘vulture’, other projects an image of a ‘termite’; in 2018, BJP president Amit Shah, while referring to the draft NRC, compared Bangladeshi migrants with “termites”.
In a cultural and social space where minorities are constantly ostracised, vilified, and targeted, eviction is not a one-off event. It is neither the beginning nor the end of violence. It is only a moment in the dream of Assamese nationalists and proof that the minorities are subjected to a permanent state of criminality. Language riots, the Nellie Massacre, the Assam Accord, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, the NRC, or evictions, all have one enemy as their primary target — the minorities.
Events such as evictions in Assam are the doing of people and institutions who are slaves to and devotees of Assamese nationalism. These are social actions that such servitude demands, and such servants are rewarded in private and public life.
The methods and minds of Sarma and Mullan are no different. They share the same kind of coloniality dedicated to self-preservation and maintain a hierarchised society that creates fertile ground to exercise the social power of the majority and the legitimate power of the state, which enables Assamese whiteness to flourish.
(Suraj Gogoi is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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