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The truth behind police, cameraperson thrashing a man in Assam’s Darrang

A shocking video of policemen, including a government-appointed photographer, ganging up to mercilessly beat an unidentified individual in Assam has stirred a national outrage across social media. In the video, which was shot on September 23, during an eviction drive by the state government against alleged illegal encroachers, a man, allegedly an illegal settler, is seen charging with a stick in hand towards a group of policemen. They shoot him in the chest and then brutally thrash him. What was more shocking in the video was that a photographer, who had been engaged by the district administration, was kicking and punching the unconscious man on his chest.

At least 800 families, occupying about 4,500 bighas of land in Assam’s Darrang district, were evicted as part of the state government’s drive against “illegal encroachments”. Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed four religious structures and a private institution were also demolished.

The eviction drive has been going on since September 20 in Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages in Sipajhar area. While the status of the injured person could not be ascertained, the police reported two casualties and maintained that 11 police personnel, including a DSP, were injured in the eviction drive at Dholpur. “The moment I saw the video, I ordered the immediate arrest of the photographer. There is zero tolerance for such actions,” Assam DGP Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta told INDIA TODAY.

One of the BJP government’s major poll promises before assembly elections in 2016 and 2021 was to free government land and land belonging to temples and monasteries from “encroachers” and allot them to “indigenous landless people” of the state. Similar drives evicted 70 families in Hojai’s Lanka town and 25 families in Sonitpur’s Jamugurihat town this June.

In Sipajhar, the government plans to implement a multi-crore ‘Garukhuti Project’—announced in the state budget 2021-22—which aims to use the land freed up for afforestation and agriculture activities involving indigenous youth. Such drives have often drawn criticism from opposition parties and human rights activists over the eviction of people without a proper rehabilitation plan.

It’s widely believed in Assam that most of these “encroachers” are alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 2017, the interim report of a six-member committee for the protection of land rights of indigenous people of Assam, headed by former chief election commissioner H.S. Brahma, said that alleged illegal Bangladeshi migrants dominated in as many as 15 of the 33 districts of Assam.

“Illegal Bangladeshis descend on the land like an army of marauding invaders armed with dangerous weapons, set up illegal villages, mostly on the char lands overnight, in full view and with the tacit, if not active, connivance and encouragement of corrupt government officers, as also with abetment of communal political leaders,” read the report.

The Brahma committee report also says that the identity of as many as 18 Xatras (Vaishnavite monasteries that are cultural hubs in Assam) was under threat following large-scale encroachment by alleged illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

In July 2012, a study by the Northeast Policy Institute found 5,548 bighas of land belonging to 26 Xatras encroached upon by alleged illegal settlers. A Right to Information (RTI) application revealed encroachment of close to 4 lakh hectares of forestland, adding up to 22 per cent of the state’s forest cover.

However, the incident of September 23 has earned the administration massive flak from the public. Though the police team was attacked by the “encroachers”, the disproportionate use of force has been widely condemned. In the video, the man with a bamboo stick was overpowered by the policemen, yet he was shot in his chest. The photographer involved in the incident has been identified as Bijay Shankar Bania, who was engaged by the district commissioner’s office in Darrang.

On being asked about the Dholpur incident, Chief Minister Sarma told INDIA TODAY that he had ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident. “I condemn the episode. It was unfortunate. We will take strict action if any violation is found in the inquiry,” he said.

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