From far-flung hamlets they arrive early on buses, minivans, trucks, and even bicycles. The morning chill fails to dampen their spirits as they rush to reach the protest site to hear their leaders speak. Most of them are daily wage earners sacrificing a day’s pay to turn up for the rally. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) is demanding 12 bighas and 1.5 kothas of land be allocated to the landless in rural and urban areas respectively. This is a revolution for them, a revolution that gives voice to their aspirations for land ownership. Uncomfortable questions, however, cannot be avoided.
Never before has the clamour for land been so intense in Assam. On 29 January, more than 10 people lost their lives in fighting at the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border at Behali reserve forest in Sonitpur. Violence on 7 January between the Karbi and Rengma Naga tribes that left 16 dead illustrates the depth of ethnic animosity in the region while the self-immolation and subsequent death of a KMSS protestor on 24 February outside the Assam Secretariat speaks volumes about the intensity of the struggle for land. The Tarun Gogoi-led government was busy distributing land pattas on the same day as the immolation, though only to a select few.
Both the government of Nagaland and its inhabitants have been at constant loggerheads with Assam over land issues. While the government of Assam is accusing the Naga administration of aiding land theft, it is lobbying the Centre to demand the return of territory that has been encroached upon. As the Assam police carry out indiscriminate reprisals on villagers, clashes have become a regular affair in the bordering hamlets of Sibsagar and Jorhat. Tea gardens dominate the region, which means labourers often bear the brunt of violence.
Although the adjacent conflict with Arunachal Pradesh is nothing new, its seriousness has been underscored by recent deaths, capturing the attention of the public as well as the authorities. Claims emerging from the intelligence agencies that Maoists are setting up footholds in the border areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are cause for concern. The Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi asserted that recent land-based conflict with Arunachal Pradesh was aggravated by Maoists attempting to implicate locals in an active confrontation with armed encroachers. That corruption and ineffective governance in the handling of land titles was instrumental in the Maoists establishing a presence in Orissa provides an ominous precedent for current events.
Meanwhile, xenophobia among the Assamese middle class is rising, with widespread concern over the rate at which land is being sold to non-Assamese outsiders. The upward aspirations of Assam’s middle class have resulted in the sale of generations-old land to facilitate their joining the elite in Guwahati. While the abandonment of spacious houses in surrounding towns in favour of migrating to cramped high-rise apartments is perplexing, it is part of a more insidious problem. High-rise buildings are often constructed by companies who illegally occupy land in Adivasi belts, or purchase it from the government at inordinately low prices, giving weight to accusations of corruption. The hand-in-glove relationship between the land mafia and the authorities has culminated in Guwahati becoming a high-rise city. Most of the land in small towns is now owned by this vigilante merchant class, resulting in the declining land share of the indigenous Assamese.
Within Assam, the KMSS has led protests and dharnas throughout the state demanding land pattas for peasants. As these demands increase, the question of citizenship cannot be avoided: in Assam, both are intricately related, with citizenship often treated as a fluid issue. Clauses within the Assam Accord, which asserts 1971 as the ‘deciding year’ upon which citizenship is based, are yet to be implemented. With the KMSS demanding the immediate allocation of land pattas to landless peasants throughout the state, anxiety concerning undocumented immigrants profiting at the cost of the indigenous people of Assam has been an unfortunate byproduct. Issues related to undocumented immigrants have, however, persisted since Independence. In 1964 the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee adopted a resolution to expel ‘illegal’ immigrants in accordance with the 1951 National Register of Citizens. The agreement failed to be enforced due primarily to intra-party tensions, with many suspecting the pernicious influence of vote bank politics. In the absence of effective governance via systemic corruption and opportunism, class tensions have once again manifested themselves in potentially explosive citizenship-based grievances.
The 11th hour striking down of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005 is testament to the government’s flawed approach to the issue. While the legislation was clearly draconian, unconstitutional and unworkable, the char areas have nonetheless suffered in the absence of regulation. Continuously appearing and disappearing due to the torrents of the mighty Brahmaputra, the chars are now a haven for the land mafia. With Bangladesh just a few kilometres away, the lack of effective land allocation has seen local goons and landlords profit at the expense of vulnerable populations from both sides of the nominal ‘border’. Maintaining land records has proved a herculean task due not only to relentless river-borne erosion, but also an ad-hoc land management system operating in a region completely lacking official oversight. These char areas have become labyrinths in which indigenous and undocumented migrants live precariously in immense poverty and devoid of basic amenities. The issuance of voter ID cards, ration cards and land pattas to these communities has been counteracted by political disputes and business interests.
Within this context, the issue of citizenship is critical: even if the government agrees to allocate the land pattas demanded, the point of reference for their allocation will be contentious. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) demands the NRC of 1951 be implemented with 1971 as the cut-off date, while minority bodies including the Assam Minority Students Union (AMSU) oppose this, demanding a fresh NRC on the basis of the 1971 voter list. The eviction and dispossession of Adivasis from traditional lands is prompting some, however well-intentioned, to posit the problem of land scarcity as an either/or scenario, giving voice to a dangerous discourse. Ongoing efforts on behalf of the KMSS to secure Adivasi land for 80,000 to 85,000 families conflicts with official census statistics that put the number of legitimate candidates at around 65,000. Accusations that the 20,000 difference is a result of interloping ‘illegal’ settlers underscores the highly charged nature of the final ruling on the NRC and what it means for those seeking land.
The age-old Assam Land and Revenue Rule (1868) is of a vintage unfit to address issues of land conflict in the region. A new, more comprehensive land policy is vital. The Assam Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act (2010), supposedly drafted to protect indigenous people from land theft, has failed miserably in achieving its stated goal. Rather, the Act inverts the equation, positing the landless as criminals while safeguarding the interests of the land mafia. With tribal and agricultural land illegally used by business groups for non-agricultural purposes, Right to Information applications highlight the consistent violation of the Land Ceiling Act, which restricts the individual possession of more than 50 bighas of land. A lack of transparency and a corresponding dearth of knowledge among landless peoples have created uncertainty over what exactly constitutes tribal land, forest land, eksonia land or myadi land. Officials agree that though formal transfers have been minimal, the temporary alienation of land is common.
Though the sixth schedule of the Constitution has adequate provisions to restrict land alienation, they are formal, individual-based and fail to understand traditional Adivasi laws which recognise community ownership. This has led to the concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy chiefs while the majority of Adivasis are landless and remain vulnerable to eviction. The non-tribals living under these council areas in the meantime complain of being discriminated against and allege that their political as well as socio-economic aspirations are endangered. Land has been one of their primary greivances as many seek a transfer or stay of the land, demanding the intervention of the revenue department in Dispur rather than the relevant local council. Meanwhile, the existing autonomous councils under the aegis of the Sixth Schedule have given birth to demands for separate states, adding to the clamour for land. Though many cite historical kingdoms to justify their demands for the demarcation of new states, the present versions of those kingdoms reflect the incongruity of the proposals.
While government reports state that over 80,000 hectares of Assamese land is being illegally encroached upon by its six neighbouring states, outrage at the possibility of a land swap deal with Bangladesh makes clear the politicisation of anything land-related. As opposition parties such as the BJP make apparent their opposition to a land swap deal, the Assom Gana Parishad has staged protests throughout the state citing the proposed ceding of land as a failure on the part of the government to protect the land rights of the indigenous Assamese. They have instead demanded a ‘repatriation treaty’ with Bangladesh that will aid in ‘cleansing’ Assam of ‘illegal’ immigrants. By now, it is clear that a land swap deal will help both sides reiterate the border in a definitive way, thereby providing a citizenship framework for thousands of stateless people to pursue their basic rights. Sensationalist discourses concerning land in general and Bangladesh in particular are largely responsible for the misrepresentation of a land swap deal as a ‘selling off’ of land to Bangladesh. The fact that this land deal can contribute in a major way to a permanent and secure border mustn’t be overlooked in the current frenzy. Until a new Act is drafted, a land swap implemented, corruption brought to an end and the land mafia made solvent, ongoing conflict between Adivasis and undocumented migrants is likely. There will be no winners.
~Anuraag Baruah is a Delhi-based writer and poet.