After unrest across BTAD in the past fortnight over the Bodoland Territorial Council’s new land policy, BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary has been at pains to reassure various ethnic groups that all their anxieties will be addressed. He has responded positively to the AASU’s proposal that land rights of all groups inhabiting BTAD should be safeguarded, while special rights should be ensured for tribal people inhabiting tribal belts and blocks. The problems tribal people face in mutation of ancestral plots to their mes and obtaining land deeds were discussed. The BTC chief reportedly informed that guidelines to this effect will be issued during a cabinet meet and a team of land revenue officials has been specially trained up to conduct a thorough land survey in BTAD. Mohilary had earlier told mediapersons that all land rights of protected class of people as defined in Chapter X of Assam Land Revenue Regulation, 1886 would be applicable in BTC area as in other parts of the State. The trouble had begun with the BTC executive council’s decision on January 12 last to bar tribals and non-tribals from selling their land to any non-tribal in BTAD without permission from the BTC authority. It had also decided that State laws being ipplicable in BTAD, the ‘protected class of people’ as defined in Chapter X of Assam Land Revenue Regulation, 1886, such as Santhals, Koch Rajbongshis, Gorkhas and th Yogis, would all be considered as non-tribals in BTAD. This practically meant that these ethnic groups could no longer purchase land in BTAD, while they could sell their land only to Bodos. Not surprisingly, the misgivings of around 70 per cent population of BTAD over an issue as sensitive and vital for survival as land rights, was bound to have repercussions in the entire area. What is more, the issue acquired political overtones because as many as 30 seats of BTC are reserved for tribals, which meant that the five ethnic groups stood to lose political representation in BTC.
With the BPF-administered BTC authority thus perceived to have a hidden agenda against non-Bodos, the protests spearheaded by the United Organization Coordition Committee comprising various non-Bodo organizations threatened to spiral out of control with sporadic violence during bandhs across BTAD. Later, while meeting representatives of agitating ethnic groups, Mohilary reportedly admitted that the draft new land policy was wrong and would be duly rectified. It remains to be seen whether and how soon the BTC authority keeps its promise. An amicable and forward-looking solution must be found to defuse the crisis, or else the very basis of BTC will be jeopardized. While the BPF leadership has been insisting that no non-tribal can purchase land in BTAD as per the BTC Accord, it does contain safeguards for settlement rights, transfer and inheritance of property of non-tribals as well, considering the mixed population of the area under BTC. In particular, any law made by the BTC authority cannot extinguish the rights and privileges enjoyed by any Indian citizen in respect of their land at the commencement of BTC, land, or bar any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement or by way of transfer (if such citizens were eligible for such bofide acquisition of land within the BTC area). Mohilary has sought to justify the BTC executive council’s decision that it is an “existing rule” that no non-tribal or general people can buy land in protected tribal belts and block snot only in BTC but in entire Assam. While the BTC Accord has to be followed in letter and spirit, the Assam government also needs to consider the status of all tribal land in the State. The systematic and massive encroachment of land in tribal belts and blocks has been studied in depth by the Hari Shankar Brahma-led committee for protection of land rights of indigenous peoples. There has to be some forward movement on its report submitted on December 30 last, or else the very purpose for constituting this panel by the Sarbanda Sonowal government will be defeated. It can happen only in Assam that land regulations drawn up by the British colonists in 1886 still continue to be in force; some districts follow different land rules and measurements. With an ineffective, if not corrupt, land revenue department stymieing all reforms, successive State governments have not only failed to safeguard tribal land, they have also been uble to keep forest, xatra and wakf lands free of encroachment, or to resettle people rendered landless by floods and erosion. Lacking a proper and up-to-date land policy has cost Assam dear, allowing all sorts of mischief to fester. The time has come to put a full stop to this drift, or else the State may be saddled with more complications like irregular conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, with the corporate sector distinctly perceived to be taking the upper hand.