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India in Transition

Riverbank Erosion: Land and Politics of Identity in Assam

Ankur Tamuli Phukan
February 28, 2022

The eviction drive that happened in September 2021 in the Dholpur char area in the Darrang district of Assam by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government ended with the killing of two people by police. The purported illegal occupation of these lands by the so-called miyas of the erstwhile Eastern Bengal origin Muslim population comes as the perfect defense in continuing the eviction drives in various parts of Assam. In the case of the Dholpur char area, the administration claimed that the encroached upon land was classified as Professional Grazing Reserve (PGR) and Village Grazing Reserve (VGR), and that these “illegal” occupiers were, therefore, depriving the original inhabitants of livelihood opportunities. However, the government’s claim, itself, is misleading, as the char, or riverine islands of Brahmaputra, are semi or relatively permanent structures. These chars are born from the silt deposit of the Brahmaputra that usually develop within eight to ten years and are used by one or two generations before they are consumed by the river. 4.5 percent of Assam’s total population lives in these chars.

The 1950 Assam earthquake changed the course of the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries. The earthquake raised the riverbed, making way for flood and riverbank erosion. The post-colonial development projects—roads, bridges, and riverside embankments—aggravated the situation even further as they redirected the currents, triggering multiple sites of riverbank erosion. This was compounded by internal migrations as people lost their homes and livelihood to the flood and riverbank erosion. This climatic and development-induced ecological event deepened already existing ethnic conflicts and identity discourses in the state. The BJP’s recent eviction drive is part of the same identity discourses as it successfully articulates a blanket version of “land jihad” of the miyas as the underlining problem of landlessness and lack of livelihood opportunities for the so-called indigenous population of the state.

A 2018 government of Assam report suggested that since 1950, 427,000 hectors of land has been lost due to riverbank erosion; 7.4 percent of the state’s total land area, where very few have security over land. However, the government land policy is still imagining land as a fixed and unchanging commodity, including in the char areas. Age-old PGR and VGR demarcation records are kept secured in the land offices while the river continues to shape and reshape the actual landmass. Therefore, with the reality of massive erosion-induced displacement, the inhabitants of these chars have either moved in search of land or have had to become daily wage laborers, severing all ties with agricultural ownerships. When these dispossessed people travel to upper Assam (the state’s supposed bastion of indigenous people) in search of work, they are viewed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants—an idea embedded deep in Assamese political discourse. Assamese mainstream nationalist organizations like Lachit Sena, Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parisad, and All Assam Student Union subject them to humiliation, as if they have come to encroach on their land.

On the other hand, without any government mechanism, dispossessed populations would move around and eventually find places to settle on a new char or interiors of reserved forests or wildlife sanctuaries. When eviction drives follow, the populations migrate to another area. The massive internal migrations of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from the lower and upper Assam regions have been the sordid reality of contemporary Assam over the past thirty years. The indigenous displaced peasantry could still organize themselves and carry forward the process of negotiation with the government for permanent tenure security over land. However, for the peasantry originating from Eastern Bengal, the burden is twice as difficult. Therefore, their movements continue in periodic cycles, sometimes forced by the river and sometimes by the government of the day—in the process, creating grounds for political mobilizations stigmatizing them as a land-hungry nomadic community geared for an aggressive “land jihad” and instigators of ethnic conflicts. The recent enumeration of the National Register of Citizenship in Assam, which excluded over 1.9 million people from Indian citizenship, has partly originated from the demands of these realities.    

In this context, the deepening market linkages of agriculture have produced a new phase of increasing land demands and, in turn, ethnic claims and conflicts. The commons, or the community lands, which are usually used to mitigate the demands of economic and natural disasters, are increasingly getting depleted due to erosions. As it is, enormous land holdings of the tea plantations and oil companies from colonial times onward have substantially curtailed the space for maneuver. However, since the 1970s, particularly in upper Assam, the small tea garden movement has sealed the fate of these commons for the displaced and dispossessed population. With small entrepreneurs utilizing these commons for growing tea, a new realm of land scarcity in the area has developed. However, the trajectory of the char dwellers in lower Assam and their connection with the market is different. When these char dwellers arrived in the far distant chars from their local districts, they gained land holdings by purchasing from the local community and developed their piece of land for agricultural purposes. In a narrow window of four to five months before the char got flooded, they would grow mustard or jute as a cash crop along with some amount of paddy in the early summers. However, since the 1980s, they have shifted to commercially cultivable vegetables, creating a more fixed pattern of cultivation and market linkage: cabbage, cauliflower, chilly, and brinjal, along with various greens, dominated their cultivation pattern.

Recently, maize (Indian corn) has gained prominence as a cash crop since it is less labor intensive, thereby doubling profit. Despite the precarity of their living situations and instability of land and its holding, the market allows some profitability and eventual prosperity. However, this also creates antagonisms with original inhabitants from whom these new settlers bought char lands. As the agriculture for self-consumption pattern hardly provides any profitability and prosperity, these Assamese language-speaking original inhabitants to India’s metropolis began increasing migration. The people of char followed them, or vice versa, and these new networks of migration brought home some cash for agricultural investments. With available cash crop production patterns, these investments have come to be utilized more thoroughly in char areas than in the mainland.

After the recent exodus of returnee migrants during India’s COVID-19 lockdown, the anxiety of “land jihad” increasingly finds its place in popular narratives. In the 2021 Assam assembly election, the ruling BJP mobilized votes on the issue of “atmanirvarata” (self-reliance) as the presumed entrepreneurial goal for the indigenous population. Lands from where people were evicted in Dholpur were given to a government-run agricultural project in the same area to cultivate cash crops for the market. The changing rural political economy of Assam, along with new climatic threats, are laying the groundwork for a new set of ethnic conflicts and bloodshed.         

Ankur Tamuli Phukan is a Programme and Research Associate at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata.

This article is the first in a set of guest-edited IiT short series. The articles in this series seek to make sense of India’s multi-scalar response to climate crisis in four distinct ecological regions. India’s first-ever climate change assessment report, published in 2020, found that the intensity of droughts increased between 1951 to 2016 and that water stress, due to both flooding and loss of ground water, has exponentially risen over the previous decades. There is increasing pressure at the state and local municipal levels to come up with mitigation plans coupled with increasing global pressure on India to declare a zero-emission target. At the same time, on the ground-level, political, communal, and ethnic violence has increased in areas that are increasingly “disaster”-prone. This series will map how the effects of extreme weather are manifesting themselves as market-oriented transformations of the agrarian and forest economies, leading to various kinds of ethnic fissures and political violence around the question of land in the Ganga Brahmaputra region.
(Guest Editor: Debjani Bhattacharyya, History Department, University of Zürich)

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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