New Delhi: Two persons were killed and several others were injured in police firing in a village near Kaziranga National Park in the Nagaon district of Assam on Monday morning, eyewitnesses said. Protesters were trying to stop an eviction drive being carried out as per a Gauhati high court order, demanding compensation and rehabilitation from the state government.
While the bodies of the dead have been sent for postmortem to “ascertain the cause of death”, local police sources said, the injured have been admitted to the health centre in Jakhalabandha town.
The 2015 high court order, given in response to the park authorities’ decision to extend the buffer zone of the national park to protect the one-horned rhino from being poached, had asked the state government to evict people from those areas “within a month”. The areas named by the court were “II, III, V and VI additions of Kaziranga” along with three villages that fall under the Kaliabor sub-division of Nagaon district. The areas named in the court order spread across three districts of the state – Golaghat, Sonitpur and Nagaon.
The villages named were Bandardubi, Deo Surang and Palkhowa. As per a local panchayat member, while Bandardubi had 198 families, Deo Surang had 160 families and Pal Khowa had four-five families.
The high court order, which came in response to a PIL filed by Mrinal Hazarika, the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator from the Khumtai constituency of Golaghat district, was at once opposed by the villagers, particularly by those living in Bandardubi, as there was no mention of their rehabilitation and compensation for loss of land and livelihood even though theirs was a revenue village. While 1,735 bigha of village land was owned by the government, there was 496.4 bigha katha miyadi land (meaning land named after some persons in revenue records) and 11 bigha eksona (an annual lease document). Supported by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), the villagers have been protesting since.
On September 16, state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma met the protesting villagers at the SDC office in Koliabor along with KMSS head Akhil Gogoi. “He told those present in the meeting that as per the court orders, all the three villages have to be cleared of people by September 21. People then said that they are not opposed to the eviction order but only want the government to give them proper compensation and rehabilitation for it as they have been living in these villages for 40-50 years, and everyone has land documents. They are not recent settlers. Sarma then said the state government will announce a compensation as per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, within 30-40 days. When we all insisted on it to be done before the eviction drive, to our surprise, he played the communal card. At once, he asked the DC to give in writing to seven Assamese Hindu families that they will be given four times compensation for the loss of their land and told the rest of us, who are of Bengali Muslim origin, that he will see what he can do for us, may be those with proper documents will get compensation,” Abdul Hamid, a resident of Bandardubi village told The Wire.
Hamid said, “We were offended by his remark and asked him pointedly, if he is accusing us of being illegal Bangladeshi migrants. To it, he curtly replied, the update of National Register of Citizens (NRC) will happen soon and it will be decided then.”
He added, “On getting Sarma’s assurance, the Hindu Assamese families left Bandardubi before the authorities came on Monday morning.”
As per eyewitness reports, section 144 was imposed on Saturday night in the three villages. On Monday, more than 1,000 security personnel landed first in Bandardubi to carry out the eviction.
“They brought JCBs, elephants and fire tenders to demolish our houses, places of worship, school, etc. Naturally, people protested which led the police to open fire on them. The name of the father of the woman, Anjuma Khatun (19), who died in police firing on Monday, is at the top of the list of people from the village who own miyadi land. The family owns 12 bigha of miyadi land in the village. No notice was served to them as per rules. When the daughter asked about it, police opened fire on her,” related yet another villager who refused to give his name.
He said, “It is not that we have encroached upon Kaziranga. The park authorities decided to extend the park area to our village. The mosque in Bandardubi was built in 1951, the village school was set up by the government in 1966, all of them were razed to ground today. We never had problem giving our land to the betterment of the park but we wanted some compensation for it. After all, we are poor people, farming is our livelihood.”
Another villager from Deo Surang, who also preferred to be anonymous here “fearing police action”, said, “Our family was living in Gotonga, a revenue village which was cleared of people in 1996 after the park authorities included it within its periphery along with two other villages. The then Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government resettled us in Deo Surang, a government land but it promised to give us land documents for it, which it finally didn’t to most of them. However, everybody began paying revenue tax on their land for many years. We did it in the hope that we would get the documents one day. Today, we have been removed from this area too.” His “biggest worry is, if tomorrow we are accused of being Bangladeshis, how will we prove that we were living in Gotonga since the 1960s.”
Meanwhile, the police denied to media that the two people from Bandardubi, including one 26-year-old man named Fakaruddin, died in police firing. It said they resorted only to tear gas and denied using live bullets on protesters. As per media reports quoting Shamsher Singh, deputy commissioner of Nagaon district, stampede caused the deaths. “The people were instigated by a group. Their leaders may be arrested if a probe links them to the death of the two people,” he said.
Reacting to the firing, Sarma also told local media it was “due to instigation of some people, some inhabitants opposed the drive that led to the situation.”
KMSS workers led by Gogoi were present at the site on Monday morning. A senior worker told The Wire, “Police and the state government are coming after us suggesting we have instigated the protesters. They have been protesting from before, we have only helped them in demanding their rights. The Kaliabor police has issued an arrest warrant against Gogoi after the firing, accusing him of being responsible for it. He can be arrested and framed any time.”
Yet another KMSS leader added, “While the government is resorting to police firing on poor farmers, it has allowed Ramesh Saikia, the elder brother of the BJP legislator who filed the PIL at the high court, who runs the biggest and most luxurious resort in Kaziranga which shares its boundary with the park. Also, Himanta Biswa Sarma and his family owns a tea garden in Burhapahar which falls in the animal corridor of the park.”