It speaks volumes that nearly 70 years after the country became free, a government in Assam has found the need to set up a committee for ‘Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People’. The HS Brahma-led panel, constituted in February this year, has been tasked with suggesting modification of land laws including the archaic Assam Land Revenue Regulation of 1886 and finding available land in the State along with level of encroachment. The idea is that the committee’s report will provide the Assam government a basis to help draw up a proper land policy for indigenous people, issue them pattas and ensure protection of their land rights. The panel’s interim report submitted recently offers a glimpse about how intractable the problem of alietion of indigenous people from their land has grown over the years. The colonial administration in its census report of 1931 had blown the whistle on how land-hungry Mymensinghias from East Bengal had fanned into vacant areas in Assam Valley since 1911 like an army of ants ‘without fuss, without tumult, without undue trouble to the district revenue staffs’. That report had then predicted: “... it is sad but by no means improbable that in another thirty years, Sivasagar district will be the only part of Assam in which an Assamese will find himself at home”. But what the Britishers saw as a silent invasion, the political parties of Assam in independent India saw an organised, monolithic votebank. Successive State governments saw no urgency to protect indigenous people from getting uprooted, in dropping or changing the land laws drafted during colonial times. Bangladeshi migrants kept grabbing their agricultural lands after crop sharing, part possession, mortgage or outright sale agreements. The encroachment grew wider and more rampant by the settling of government vacant waste land, grazing reserves, riverside reserved land, reserved forests, tribal belts and blocks, xatra lands and char areas. And yet, the powers-be in Dispur saw no need to carry out a land survey for over half a century in this volatile State, the last survey carried out way back in 1964.
Without regular land settlement in a State beset by shrinking net landmass due to encroachment by foreigners, year-round erosion by rivers, siltation of croplands during floods and land grab at the borders by neighbouring states, it has been the indigenous people bearing the brunt of it all. Their systematic deprivation has been aggravated by a section of politicians and corrupt bureaucrats conspiring to transfer agricultural land of indigenous people to traders and industrialists. Taking advantage of the archaic, messy land regulations in the State, these commercial houses have either bought out poor landowners or got Dispur to allot or settle the land directly in their favour. “Transfer of land in various forms as defined in the Transfer of property Act, 1906 has been taking place silently and systematically, much at the behest of political rulers and the corrupt bureaucrats, which is a dangerous combition against public interests,” the Brahma panel’s interim report notes. The outcome of this systemic negligence, if not betrayal, is that indigenous and particularly tribal people are becoming landless in large numbers. However, the report points out that the State has no mechanism to precisely ascertain whether a person is landless or not, so it apprehends a major challenge for the administration “while taking any decision on allotment/settlement of land to the landless indigenous people of Assam”. The ground situation for sons of the soil has not changed one bit, in fact it has worsened despite the Assam Agitation and signing of Assam Accord, and stern rulings and observations made by the apex court in various complicated cases including the striking down of the IMDT Act of 1983. And after the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam gets updated, it will regularize by birth all those born of foreigners in Assam up to December 3, 2004, as the Prabrajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) has been pointing out. Though constitution of the Committee for Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People has come far too late in the day, with successive regimes in the State ensuring legitimisation of illegal Bangladeshi settlement as fait accompli, strong action must still be taken to put right some historical wrongs. The present State government must carry out land survey and settlement on priority basis, ensure pattas to indigenous people, complete the digitalization of land records, bring to book corrupt revenue officials and carry out a massive drive to educate sons of the soil about their land rights. It is hoped that the HS Brahma panel will cast more light on this life and death issue of protecting indigenous identity by the time its fil report comes up.