Assam: Police Open Fire at Locals Protesting Eviction Drive, Two Killed

The police claimed they had to respond in force after locals attacked them with stones.

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New Delhi: Horrific visuals of police brutality have emerged from an eviction drive in the Sipajhar area of Darrang district of Assam on Thursday, showing policemen opening fire at a man and thrashing him. A photographer, identified by news agency PTI as Bijay Shankar Baniya, is also seen assaulting the man, who appears to have a bullet wound in his chest. Baniya is a professional photographer who was hired by the district administration to document the situation and has been arrested, according to reports.

The video shows hundreds of policemen firing at unseen targets from behind the trees.

While police initially told NDTV that there were no casualties, two people died in the police action. At least 20 people, including policemen, have been injured.

These scenes were witnessed during a drive to evict ‘illegal encroachers’ from land which the state government wants to repossess for a state farming project. The Wire has seen a video of the police opening fire at a man and then thrashing him, but is not sharing it due to its graphic nature.

The photographer, Baniya, is seen kicking the person, who is presumably dead. Baniya was led away from the body by a policeman, but returns to attack again. He has been arrested, said PTI.

According to Scroll, the administration served an eviction notice to residents of Kirakota Char late on Wednesday night. There was a protest on Thursday morning, after which the administration reportedly “promised that the villagers will be rehabilitated before the eviction”. But when the activists left the area, the police opened fire on the protestors, residents told Scroll.

According to NDTV, the police said that locals attacked them with stones and that they had to use force. “Nine of our policemen were injured. Two civilians were also injured. They have been shifted to hospital. Now things are normal,” superintendent of police Sushanta Biswa Sarma – who is chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s brother – said.

Sarma was at the site of the clash and said the eviction drive could not be completed. He claimed ignorance about the police opening fire, saying, “The area is big. I was on another side. I will find out and assess the situation.”

Himanta Biswa Sarma was quoted by Hindustan Times as saying that he had received information, that locals “attacked the police with machetes, spears and other things”.

“Eviction has restarted (after violence) and will continue tomorrow as well,” he told journalists in Guwahati, according to the newspaper.

Thursday’s eviction drive is the latest in a series carried out in the last three months at Dhalpur, a village that is populated mostly by Muslims of East Bengal origin. In a massive exercise conducted on Monday, the Assam government claimed to have ‘reclaimed’ 8000 bighas of land, leaving at least 800 families homeless.

The first round of eviction was conducted in June, after which Himanta Biswa Sarma’s cabinet approved the formation of a committee to “utilise 77,000 bighas of government land, freed from encroachers at Gorukhuti, Sipajhar in Darrang, for agricultural purposes.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi condemned the police brutality, tweeting, “Assam is on state-sponsored fire”.

“I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state – no children of India deserve this,” he added.

State Congress leaders also said that conducting an eviction drive during the pandemic is “inhuman and a violation of Supreme Court directives”.

Assam Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah told Hindustan Times that the Assam government is “behaving in an autocratic manner to evict the residents of Dholpur who have been living in the area since the 1970s”.

“Before eviction government should have arranged for rehabilitation and alternative housing… These residents are mostly cultivators and their source of sustenance is being attacked. A government’s job is to work for welfare of people and not create problems for people by making them homeless. Congress warns the BJP government not to indulge in actions that will turn Assam into a police state,” he added.

Note: This article has been updated with the identity of the photographer who was seen in the video.