Efforts to free the Unesco-World Heritage Site Kaziranga National Park in Assam from encroachments has put the BJP-led state government on a collision course with its arch-rival Congress as the latter claims it was haphazardly done.
The Assam government was initially praised for its intent, which it displayed by choosing to go ahead with the eviction drive on Monday as ordered by the Gauhati High Court in October last year. After stiff resistance from the squatters which led to the death of two people, including a woman and leaving 19 injured, the political tension over the move is quietly brewing.
"The government of Assam is not serious about Kaziranga. They have acted against a very small portion of the area which is affected by encroachments while implementing the Gauhati High Court order. They have completely mismanaged the process of resettling the people living in these demolished villages who were actually willing to relocate against adequate compensation," Congress MP from Kaliabor Lok Sabha constituency in Assam Gaurav Gogoi told Firstpost.
"There was no notice in writing prior to the eviction. Nobody from the government has visited the evicted people. So disproportionate was the use of force that a huge police force of 1,800 was used against 300-odd families," Gogoi said.
"Despite their huge numbers, why did the police have to fire directly at the civilians? This resulted in the loss of two lives. We condemn it. The eviction was carried out in a marginal area but the government did not act against the resorts and the well-connected influential people. They acted only against the poor," he said.
However, it is worth mentioning that the encroachers in the three villages refused the compensation that was offered by the Assam government.
Significantly, the high court order that was passed on 9 October 2015 — when the Congress was in power in the state — had directed that the eviction had to happen within a month. The Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government came to power on 25 May this year.
"The Deputy Commissioners of Golaghat, Sonitpur and Nagaon are directed to take expeditious steps to evict the inhabitants in the second, third, fifth and the six additions of the Kaziranga National Park, including Deurchur Chang, Banderdubi and Palkhowa, within one month," the high court had said.
Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi tweeted, "The BJP-led State Government has failed to take necessary measures before carrying out the eviction drive at Kaziranga. Removing people from land by resorting to firing is condemnable. High Court had given a ruling but there is a process to ensure its adherence."
Pertinently, though, the former chief minister kept mum on why his government failed to prevent encroachment in its 15-year-long tenure.
Taking on the former chief minister, Assam Minister for Education, Health and Finance, Himanta Biswa Sarma rejected Gogoi's stance that they had plans to go to the Supreme Court to challenge the high court order.
"The apex court had already rejected the SLP (Single Leave Petition). Even the Gauhati High Court rejected the petition to review its order when the eviction drive was on. What Tarun Gogoi is saying is not correct. The previous government had actually not honoured both the Supreme Court and the high court. They even built a colony in the area where eviction was ordered," Sarma said in a press conference on Tuesday.
"What is shocking is that deep inside the park there was also the construction of a road going on under the PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana), an Anganwadi school was set up and even electricity was provided. The school was a voting centre in the last polls. Our government had stopped the construction of the road," the minister said.
Sarma pointed out that "demographic destabilisation is the larger plan to benefit those who want to win polls with their votes". The minister said the Congress was in the process of securing their voter base by increasing the population of a particular community right up to Upper Assam which is now a BJP stronghold.
"Vote bank politics is not a big thing. But this was in complete violation of court order," he said.
A total of 331 houses were demolished on Monday; around 35 families had pattas. Magicbricks.com explains patta as "a legal document that defines the ownership of a property".
Giving details of the eviction drive, the minister said, "Total of 175 families in Banderdubi, 115 in Deurchur Chang and 12 in Palkhowa were evicted. The swathes of land under encroachment was 2,244 bighas in Banderdubi, 126 bighas in Deurchur Chang and 42 bighas in Palkhowa."
As per the measuring system followed in Assam, one bigha is equal to 2,880 square feet.
The Congress MP, however, did not quite agree with Sarma.
"The boundary of Kaziranga National Park is periodically revived and expanded to accommodate the increasing animal population. These villages were initially outside the park before. So it is quite natural that they obviously had public infrastructure and facilities before. There are so many families who were living there for 50-60 years. And what about the infrastructure built there when Sarma was a Congress minister? Wasn't he the education and health minister?" the Kaliabor MP asked.
Although the Congress opposition to the eviction was a relatively muted one owing to the fact that it was a court order, Gaurav did raise the issue of pattas in a Facebook post.
"Kaziranga has a special place in everyone's hearts. Even in the hearts of the people who were evicted by the recent HC order. They were always willing to move even though many had legal papers dating to the old AGP government. The only request they made was that they are poor and hence needed financial aid from the government," Gaurav said.
The high court order had though dealt with the issue of patta-holders.
"The acquisition and eviction of human habitation is being done for protecting the wildlife which is exposed to rampant poaching. The authorities have complied with all the formalities.... In the face of the Constitutional obligations on the part of the State with a corresponding duty on the part of the citizens it would be highly untenable on the part of the petitioners to take technical pleas and expose the wild life to a great danger of extinction," the Gauhati High Court observed in its order.
The parliamentarian questioned Sarma's claim that it was no longer an issue of mere encroachment but something that had connection with jati (identity), maati (land) and bheti (base).
"The government's slogans of jaati, maati and bheti are questionable. When they have given away oil fields in auction where is the question of bheti? When their central government has given away land to Bangladesh then where is the question of maati?" Gaurav asked in his Facebook post.
However, it is instructive to note that the then Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi was also on board when the land swap issue had made progress. In April 2013, Gogoi had on record spoken in favour of the land swap with Bangladesh.
"As per the agreement, Bangladesh will retain possession of 267.5 hectares of the land while we will get the remaining 397.5 hectares. Assam will not lose anything. May be in map, we will lose but on the ground we will gain," Gogoi had said then.
While analysing the impediments affecting the eviction process, the CAG in a detailed report published in 2014 pointed out politicisation among others as one of the major hurdles. The reasons it cited are:
"(i) Protracted litigation due to cases filed by encroachers in various Courts, some of them are still pending; (ii) Strong resistance from the encroachers assisted by poachers and criminal elements taking shelter in the encroahed areas and chaporis; (iii) Indirect political interference during eviction drives."
The political mud-slinging or rather the blame game which has already started only adds weight to the CAG viewpoint.
"Right now the Kaziranga has gone to the background. The government is seeking publicity as it so far failed to manage the affairs in the state. This is a tactic to divert attention. Hasn't Australia and UK cautioned their citizens against travelling to Assam in an advisory over the prevailing situation?" Gaurav asked.
Questions are also being raised at some quarters that if the people evicted were of doubtful citizenship. The Gauhati High Court in a July 2015 order had directed that "The Superintendent of Police(Border), Nagaon shall also make verification of the Nationality of the encroachers in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Additions. The compliance report to be submitted by 12-08-2015."
"If the government is doubtful about the citizenship why not identify the illegal ones and deport them?" Gaurav said.
With most of the evicted families belonging to a particular community, there was an undercurrent of tenseness although Sarma said that there was "no communal issue in Kaziranga".
The Lok Sabha MP did not deny that there is an underlying concern although it was largely a political take.
"BJP is a party that is run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The fear is that the affiliate organisations of the RSS might create a communal disharmony," Gaurav said, adding, "Had we been in power we would have prepared a much smoother way to implement the order. We won't have made people refugees in their own state."