The once verdant hills of Guwahati are now concrete eyesores and perhaps earthquake hazards too.

On the afternoon of June 22, 2011 a ‘peaceful’ protest by nearly 12,000 people protesting against arbitrary and patently ‘inhuman’ eviction from alleged encroachments on forests and wetlands in Guwahati in the middle of monsoon metamorphosed into an orgy of violence. In the mayhem that followed, three persons, including a nine year old child died in police firing. Scores of protesters, police officers and men and innocent passers by were injured as police and protesters fought a pitched battle for nearly 3 hours on a 3-4 Km stretch of the Guwahati-Shillong Road near the Assam State Assembly and Secretariat at Dispur, Guwahati. Many private and government vehicles were damaged by protesters, and some set on fire allegedly by hired goons of the Congress.

The protest was called by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS – loosely translated as Committee for Struggle for Peasants Rights), led by Akhil Gogoi, a youth leader with substantial grassroots support who has emerged as one of the most vocal and trenchant critics of the present Congress government, and Brihattar Guwahati Bhumi Pattan Dabi Samiti (loosely translated as Committee for Demand for Settlement of Land Titles in Greater Guwahati) against forcible eviction of alleged ‘encroachers’ from forest and government land around Guwahati, particularly in the surrounding hills and the numerous wetlands in the city.

Yesterday, the police arrested Akhil Gogoi along with his compatriot from the KMSS leading to a call for a statewide bandh today and outpouring of anger amongst a large section of the state’s population.

In the public debate that has ensued, mindless accusations and counter-accusations of the uninformed and the motivated appears to have claimed greater space, thus obscuring the real issues that need to be debated, pondered and acted upon.

I shall try to answer few of the moot questions and bring about some clarity.

What is the crux of the conflict?

In a span of just 90 years, Guwahati had grown from a marshy enclave of barely 16,000 people to a bustling metropolis of more than 1.2 million. Much of this growth began with the Partition of India, when the curving out of East Pakistan severed many traditional routes to India’s North East, turning the township into the only entrepôt to the region. Between 1951 and 1961, Guwahati witnessed a decadal population growth rate of 130.90 percent and crossed the 100,000 mark.

With the only Rail cum Road bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting both banks at Guwahati thrown open in 1962, further improving its connectivity by road and railways, and establishment of the Guwahati refinery the same year, accelerated the growth of the town. Its transformation into a city continued with the shifting of Assam’s capital from Shillong to its then suburb at Dispur in 1972. The Guwahati Municipality Corporation was formed in 1974 with 34 wards and as the city continued to grow, has expanded to now consist 60 wards with a population of more than 1.2 million.

As had been evident with urbanization across the developing world, the city attracted (and continues to attract) all classes of migrants who became its residents. On one end of that migration were the elite who arrived and rapaciously cornered the best residential and commercial spaces with scant regard to civic or environmental concerns, and even breaking or bending laws at will; and on the other end the impoverished whom the city enabled to eke out a living who had to find spaces to take shelter wherever they could, even encroaching on forest land.

This inevitable hunger for space has seen a transformation characterized by soaring real-estate prices which have perhaps increased by as much as 60,000 percent in a span of 40 yrs fuelling an unimaginable land grab both motivated by greed and compulsion.

Today, there are two distinct classes of ‘residents’ in Guwahati which have encroached on government land and public spaces, one compelled by need and the other compelled by greed. The former usually doesn’t have a ‘legitimate’ plot of land anywhere nearby to build a house, the later probably owns several homes and establishments in Guwahati, not to speak of other places in and outside the state.

In a city of more than 1.2 million residents, more than 200,000 would be those compelled by circumstances to encroach on the hills, forests and wetlands. And it is these people who were outraged by the demolition and eviction sought to be carried out by the state without a warning at the height of summer and monsoons. These were also the people who had gathered to protest at Dispur on June 22, 2011. They weren’t Bengali Muslims from char areas who could be conveniently dismissed as Bangladeshis but whose ancestry as indigenes of Assam could never be questioned. They were not likely to be hesitant of their claim to a piece of earth they could call their own to stand on.

The crux of the conflict lies in the fact that successive governments have ignored the need to find a just and rational means of ‘resettling’ or ‘rehabilitating’ this population and sought to render them homeless through ‘eviction’ even as it continued to patronize similar encroachments or illicit acquisition of land by the rich and the powerful.

It must be put on record that throughout the state, thousands of hectares of forest and government land remain illegally occupied by neighbouring states, illegal immigrant settlers and tea gardens owned by many transnational tea companies. There has been no effort by governments to repossess these lands.

What exactly happened on June 22?  

The protest on June 22 was triggered by a sudden eviction drive unleashed by the Forest Department on the encroachments on Guwahati’s hills earlier this month. Following such a drive in an area called “Garchuk” in Guwahati on June 10, clash erupted between the Forest Department personal who went there on the demolition drive and the residents. Not only was the ‘demolition team’ accompanied by two elephants driven away, for hours the protesters blocked NH 37 running through Guwahati. Only after senior administrative and police officials gave ‘written’ assurances that all such arbitrary demolition drives shall be suspended till the government held talks with various organisations and individuals representing the affected, the protesters withdrew. Akhil Gogoi had rushed to the blockade and expressed solidarity with the protesters and announced the June 22 protest in Dispur to prod the government to adopt some sensible measures to resolve the crisis.

Even though the senior district officials had given reassurances that eviction drives would remain suspended and a negotiated settlement would be arrived at, such drives continued in several areas in the city.

It must be noted that the eviction drives violated the Government of Assam’s own Land Policy 1989 which laid down that any family of indigene in occupation of government land for more than 15 years shall be eligible for freehold title of the land. The evictions were also in violation of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.

These were the issues that were discussed over phone by Akhil Gogoi with the Principal Secretaries of the relevant departments as well as Chief Secretary, Government of Assam on June 20 and 21 on the eve of the protest on June 22. All that the protestors wanted was a complete halt to the demolition and eviction, a thorough survey of the encroached land and identification of those eligible to be settled, and then completion of the process in a definite time frame. All that the government needed to do was to send a senior official of the government as representatives to accept the memorandum of the protesters and perhaps set a date for negotiations to begin.

But in spite of knowing this, no senior official representing the government felt it was honour bound to go and accept the memorandum of the protesters till late afternoon. Repeated requests to the Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup Metro fell on deaf ears. A restive and growing crowd of protestors then got on its feet to leave the protest ground and lay siege to the state secretariat just down the road. That is when the police, in a bid to stop them, fired tear gas shells and unleashed a baton charge. The sheer number of protesters present and their determined charge overwhelmed the police. Some among them enraged by the police assault retaliated with whatever they could lay their hands on. Unfortunately, in an indiscriminate manner, some of them even assaulted innocent by standers who were caught in the melee as traffic on the road came to a standstill.

Akhil Gogoi has in his statement to the media published by Asomiya Pratidin on June 24 have clearly stated that it was the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Dispur Division who had opened fire from his service pistol killing the nine year child instantly. Two more persons fell victim to the indiscriminate firing by this trigger happy officer. Outrageously, there is not even a statement from the government regarding this let alone his suspension pending enquiry. Did the firing provoke the violence to intensify? There are also enough reasons to believe that at least some of the arson where several public transport vehicles were set on fire were done by hired goons to enable framing of Akhil Gogoi in false charges.

The other very important aspect to what happened even amidst the violence was that while most senior police officials either failed to arrive at the scene or deserted it injured, neither Akhil Gogoi nor many of the protestors who tried to prevent the violence run away. All sat down on the road and continued their protest. Neither bullets nor pouring monsoon rain could drive them away. Towards 6:00 pm senior police officials and the Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup (Metro) and Commissioner, Lower Assam Division finally persuaded the protesters to end the siege on the promise that no indiscriminate eviction would be carried out and a high powered committee would be constituted expeditiously to facilitate formulation of due policy to ensure titles to the land under occupation.

As expected, Akhil Gogoi was arrested under various non-bailable charges yesterday and predictably the state has once again plunged into a needless political confrontation largely provoked by the government itself. Before blaming Akhil Gogoi and KMSS solely for the violence or insinuating that it was their premeditated act, one must remember that there had been several massive rallies by KMSS in Guwahati, all led by Akhil Gogoi, and not a single unpleasant incident had taken place ever.

How had the government failed, leading to June22?

Since 1972, when the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Guwahati, Congress governments had been in power at Dispur for 23 of those 40 years. The Congress Government led by Tarun Gogoi had ruled for 10 of those 23 years.

Why wasn’t a clear policy of Land Resettlement for Guwahati evolved in all these years?

Wasn’t such a policy and its proper implementation essential and integral to a Master Plan for Guwahati Metropolitan Area 2025, where there are even provisions for golf courses but no mention of resettlement of more than 200,000 residents who find themselves in possession of land which remain classified as belonging to the government when all other government agencies provided them holding numbers, collected property taxes, provided them electricity connections and roads?

Following the mayhem of June 22 and the public outcry, the government scurried to form a committee headed by the former Revenue Minister and composed of three other cabinet ministers, two MLAs and three eminent citizens to look into the matter of land resettlement of Guwahati and issuing titles to the deserving. Will the government care to clarify why it took 10 years and a violent agitation to compel it do so?

The fact that Guwhati grew from a population of merely 123, 783 in 1971 to more than 1.2 million by 2011 was reason enough to initiate a thorough cadastral survey, reclassification of land and re-settlement as per clear defined policy that would be sensitive to the landless and poor. Why weren’t these ever initiated?

The government failed because rather than concentrating on what it failed to do all these years following a massive mandate it received in the recent elections, it sought to fritter away the goodwill and mandate in needless confrontations and ‘fixing’ one of its most vocal and trenchant critics.

The government failed because it sought to pass off harebrained measures for policy and following the backlash, sheer political vendetta as governance.

How had the civil administration failed on June 22?

The clash on June 10 and siege of the NH 37 by protesters were warnings enough that forcible and patently illegal evictions would trigger off massive unrest. Why did the civil administration fail to heed the warnings?

The civil administration gave permission for the protest and knew that it had to depute a senior official as representative to accept the memorandum sought to be submitted by the protesters. Why then not a single senior official, even after being repeatedly requested to come and meet the protesters, did not do so provoking the confrontation?

How could the same officials then go and plead with the protesters when all else failed end the road blockade and violence had already wrecked havoc?

Isn’t the civil administration culpable too for what had happened?

How had the police failed on June 22?

Two earlier incidents of complete failure of police left a blot on Guwahati’s image in recent years. Its inability to curb violence or control the protesters on June 22 was the third spectacular failure of the police in Guwahati.

On November 24, 2007 a clash between Adivasi protesters at Beltola and local lumpen elements led to the shameful spectacle of a young Adivasi girl being stripped completely naked and chased through the streets of Guwahati with the police standing mute witness. Only the fact that many others in Guwahati did not lose their sense of honour or humanity to intervene and stop the madness made it possible to salvage a shred of our collective dignity.

On October 30, 2008, three simultaneous bomb blasts ripped through Guwahati in perhaps the bloodiest terrorist carnage the city had ever suffered. The riot that followed the worst of the three blasts, near the same Dispur area, is still fresh in my mind as I remained caught in the mayhem for hours after narrowly escaping getting killed in the blast. The belated and feeble effort of the police to exercise its authority and decisively respond to the crisis was shocking. The visit of the site by several senior officials, including the DGP, in civvies and wearing a forlorn look hours after the incident would perhaps be one of the most demoralizing image of the city’s law enforcement establishment I shall carry in my mind.

And even after that we have a repetition on June 22 of the same shocking failures?

Furthermore, why was the firing ordered?  By whom?

Since when has firing live ammunition at a nine year old child become part of crowd control measures?

Wasn’t this a gross and criminal abuse of authority?

Apart from all of the above, a serious look into why many competent officers have failed in Guwahati on these occasions is an imperative.

Isn’t it high time police reforms was taken up as one of the most important of agendas and the decks cleared for a Police Commissionerate in Guwahati?

In conclusion  

Going by the statewide reaction to Akhil Gogoi’s arrest, it should be apparent that the government’s rash acts have precipitated a needless political confrontation which is likely to deteriorate further, if serious introspection and course-correction is not resorted to expeditiously.

Among the measures the government needs to ensure are fixing responsibility for the deaths in police firing and initiating prosecution of the guilty, finding the actual culprits of the violence and arson and setting an example by prosecuting and punishing them that mob violence doesn’t go unpunished.

The government also must ensure that sufficient relief is provided to the families of those who had lost their lives and assistance in treatment to all those who were injured seriously enough to have been hospitalsed. It would be heartening if these are actually done and not remain as empty promises made to appease a hostile public.

Unfortunately, the government appears to be more intent in silencing dissent and cunningly finding ways and means to deny anyone opportunities for even peaceful demonstrations in Guwahati on the ‘pretext’ of first verifying the ‘track record’ of organisations that seeks permission for holding protest rallies. Whiffs of undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies which always lead to unconstitutional excesses are unmistakable in the government’s tenor and stance.

Therefore, there are just two more points I would like to make in conclusion.

First, even though the civil administration and the police are subservient to the elected political leadership, their oath of allegiance is ultimately only to the Constitution of India. It is time the bureaucracy grew a spine and refused to be part of political vendetta. Because whenever it had failed to stand up to such machinations, or even worse willfully colluded, such shameful chapters such as Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 had been added to our nation’s history.

Second, the massive mandate the people of Assam gave the Gogoi government to return to power the third successive term wasn’t given to be frittered away in ‘fixing’ political opponents. There are of course many before this government who too had started believing their own hubris that a landslide election victory had given them the legitimacy to ride roughshod over those very people who voted them to power. All had bitten the dust at one time or the other. If Tarun Gogoi continues in this vein, even his hubris will come to naught. He would neither be the first, nor the last, such Chief Minister to bite the dust.