Assam's indigenous communities could become 'landless people' without constitutional safeguards, warns report

A committee appointed by the Assam government last year to suggest measures for the protection of land rights has warned that the indigenous communities in the state would be reduced to a "landless class of people" if effective constitutional, legal and administrative measures are not implemented soon.

"Protection of land rights of the indigenous people of Assam is, in fact, inextricably linked to protection of their identity and the solution to the problem of the foreign nationals' issue gripping Assam over the last seven decades of Independence," said one of the two reports submitted by the committee which is replete with data showing encroachment of land in the state over the past several decades.

Assam. Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The seven-member committee was headed by former Chief Election Commissioner HS Brahma and included retired bureaucrats, lawyers, academics and social activists.

The report has also raised an alarm over the transfer of land from the farmers to the trading community, encroachment by neighbouring states and river bank erosion. While making a case for the "full implementation" of the Assam Accord, the committee has underscored the importance of: sealing the India-Bangladesh border, detection and deportation of foreign nationals from the state after a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, deletion of the names of illegal migrants from the voter's list, an eviction drive against encroachers, a new land policy and a complete ban on the sale of agricultural land to "non-agriculturists and non-indigenous persons."

The 184-page report offers several recommendations to the government to check the deteriorating situation in the state which witnessed large-scale demonstrations only last week against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which seeks to offer citizenship to certain sections of migrants from the neighbouring countries.

Report submitted by post

Serious differences had emerged among the committee members after the first report was submitted by HS Brahma and Srikumar Dohutia. The other members were peeved with the report since they were expecting a detailed note on the encroachment of land by illegal migrants, neighbouring states, private institutes and the despicable role played by a section of the bureaucracy in facilitating the transfer of land from the indigenous communities. Subsequently, four members of the committee led by former education secretary Rohini Baruah decided to compile a separate report for the government.

However, in an unexpected turn of events, Baruah and his colleagues were never given an appointment by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal despite several reminders. Following the established norm, the report was mailed to an official who was expected to produce hard copies for the members who would have formally handed over the report to the chief minister. Since there was no response, the members decided to send the report by post to Sonowal last week.

"We felt humiliated by the attitude of the chief minister who was informed that we wanted to meet him for delivering the report. We decided to make our stand clear since we had accomplished the task given to us. This is a very serious issue that raises many questions about the future of the indigenous communities and the country as a whole. Surprisingly, we have heard that the report has not yet reached him," said Baruah.

Assam government's vague stance

On 25 April, Sonowal directed the state revenue department to implement the recommendations of the committee, which essentially means the first report (the second report was sent by post early this month).

The 147-page report has several similarities with the second report on the issue of illegal migrants and the encroachment of land. It mentions the earlier report submitted two decades ago by former Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha to the President of India, which was replete with suggestions on preventive measures but surprisingly put on the backburner by the ministry of home affairs.

Civil society organisations have asked the government to make its stand clear on the reports and have demanded that they be made public. Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer and convener of the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, wanted to know the differences between the two reports and the government strategy to implement the recommendations.

The issue has also become the focus of local news channels and dailies. So far, the government has not yet given any reply to either of the reports. An earlier statement issued by the chief minister's office only said that one of the priorities of the new government was to "ensure land rights of the indigenous people and enable them to enjoy the dignity of life in their own land."

The author is a senior journalist in Assam and wrote 'Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey To Meet India’s Most Wanted Men'.

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Updated Date: May 12, 2018 11:44:55 IST

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