Northeast Diary: How significant is Assam’s new tribal land policy?

Northeast Diary: How significant is Assam’s new tribal land policy?

The encroachment of land has been a major issue in the state.

Come October 2, Assam will roll out a new land policy that will enable tribal communities to hold up to 50 bighas of land from the existing ceiling of eight bighas.

The move is very significant for the state where vast swathes of land have been encroached upon by suspected illegal migrants, the prime reason, which triggered a clash in Darrang district’s Dhalpur-Garukhuti last year resulting in the death of two persons.

“This is in line with our budget proposal to secure rights of tribal people over their hereditary land,” chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said earlier this week.

The government will discuss with tribal organisations to see if tribal people can be settled in village gazing grounds. “Even if tribal people settled on government lands are evicted they will receive compensation from the government,” Sarma added.

The encroachment of land has been a major issue in the state. Back in 2017, an Assam government-constituted committee highlighted in its report that 63 lakh bighas (20.83 lakh acres) of government land, including forest land, grazing ground and others, were occupied by encroachers across the state.

The panel, headed by former chief election commissioner of India (CEC) Hari Shankar Brahma had submitted the report to then-chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, recommending measures to ensure protection of land rights of the state’s indigenous people.

Northeast Diary: How significant is Assam’s new tribal land policy?
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Last October, the state government ordered a drive to evict illegal settlers from 77,420 bighas of land in northern Assam’s Darrang district. The move was aimed at allowing indigenous youth to carry out farming and afforestation under a Rs 9.6-crore project.

The police personnel involved in the drive at Dhalpur-Garukhuti were allegedly attacked by a large group of encroachers, many of whom were suspected to be illegal Bangladeshi migrants. In fact, the Assamese Muslim population living in the area and civil society organisations had long highlighted this problem of encroachment.

The incident sparked a huge uproar because of a macabre and the most reprehensible conduct of a photographer who was seen jumping near the body of a person who died in the clashes with police. People with vested interests tried to hijack the real issue by distorting facts and projecting civil society groups and local media who highlighted the problem as anti-Muslim.

Be that as it may, the new land policy, if implemented properly, could help address the encroachment problem to some extent. Allowing more community or cooperative farming by involving indigenous unemployed youth in areas susceptible to encroachment should also be explored.

The CAA cauldron

The North East Students' Organisation (NESO), the apex body of various student outfits, has announced a three-hour protest in all state capitals in the region on August 17, demanding the repeal of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA besides other issues.

Union home minister Amit Shah recently said that rules regarding the implementation of the CAA will be framed after the Covid precaution dose vaccination exercise is over.

The CAA seeks to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries -- Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan -- who had come to India by December 31, 2014. There is a view that the government is treading cautiously on the matter after the Act drew saw protests in different parts of the country.

In the Northeast, civil society organisations and student outfits have been opposing this law since its passage in December 2019 fearing this would create a demographic imbalance in the region. They have cited the example of Tripura where indigenous population has been reduced to minority due to the influx of Bangladeshi Hindu migrants.

Notwithstanding such protest, the BJP-led Centre is unlikely to repeal this law due to its political and ideological compulsions. At the same time, it would certainly not want to ruffle feathers of influential local groups by allowing settlement of migrants in the region, which is already bursting at the seams.

Some experts suggest that the best way to roll out CAA would be to settle Hindu Bengali migrants in BJP-ruled states outside the region. West Bengal BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari recently urged Amit Shah to implement the law soon, which according to him, would benefit “the people” in his state.

Of course, this would mean BJP waging a fresh war with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which vehemently opposes the CAA. Whatever the case may be, the Northeast should not be used as a “dumping ground” for migrants, according to the local groups.

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