Assam Govt’s Temporary Ban on Cross-Religious Land Sales Raises Communalization Concerns

Aiming to “curb divisive exploitation”, the notification halts NOC issuance for three months to prevent “fraudulent land transfers” between people of different religions.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma

New Delhi: Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa, who often grabs headlines for his Hindutva hardliner approach, has brought in yet another step allegedly soaked in politics of religion. In response to perceived threats of communal discord ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, his government has taken a rather confusing step by temporarily halting the issuance of no-objection certificates (NOCs) for land transactions between individuals belonging to different religious communities.

This decision, communicated through a notification from the Revenue and Disaster Management (Registration) Department on March 7, reflects the government’s “proactive approach to maintaining social harmony and preventing potential conflicts”.

The notification emphasizes concerns raised by intelligence agencies regarding fraudulent land transfers, involving parties from disparate religious backgrounds. By suspending the granting of NOCs for a three-month period, the government aims to “thwart any attempts by vested interests to exploit such transactions for divisive purposes”.

However, the notification also includes a provision allowing district commissioners to exercise discretion in exceptional circumstances. If a district commissioner determines that issuing an NOC is crucial and unlikely to jeopardize law and order, they may do so with the prior approval of the inspector-general of registration.

Many believe that such notices represent another effort by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to divide the state on religious lines, which has been observed as a “recurring pattern”. “It is just another attempt to politicise the upcoming elections along the lines of communalism,” alleged Bondita, who is a human rights activist based in the state.

According to her, in the state, different people belonging to different faiths and cultures reside in harmony in the state. Speaking to The Mooknayak, she highlighted an alleged surge in communal sentiments within the state since 2012, following the outbreak of riots in Kokrajhar district. 

She cited ethnic tensions between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, which escalated into full-fledged violence in Kokrajhar on July 20, 2012, allegedly triggered by the killing of four Bodo youth in Joypur by Muslims.

This led to retaliatory attacks against local Muslims, resulting in the death of two individuals and multiple injuries on the morning of July 21, 2012.

Approximately 80 fatalities had occurred, with 400,000 individuals displaced due to clashes between Muslims and predominantly Hindu Bodo tribe people. The large-scale displacement was instigated by rumors, suggesting that Muslims, who represent a significant minority within predominantly Hindu India, were seeking retribution for the violence in the state.

“But it is only one of the few cases that took place in the state. There has been no tension on religious lines. Such statements are just to make people go back and think along the lines of religion during this election season,” said the activist.

“The people in the state must not pay heed to such notices because it only serves to amplify their significance. Instead, they should focus on more pressing matters, such as the recent revelations surrounding electoral bonds,” she appealed.

“It’s concerning that many people seem unaware of this issue, prompting us to question whether the recent notice was deliberately issued to distract attention away from it.”

Aman Wadud, a lawyer practicing at the Gauhati High Court, explained the constitutionality of the decision. “How can the sale of land give rights to criminal sentiment? Any division based on religion cannot be made permissible,” he added.

He questioned, “The whole process is about transactions. How can religion play a role in it?”

Recently, he said, there was settlement of land through a government programme called Basundhara 2.0. No Muslim in the state was granted any settlement under it. “Now, they are again bringing religion into this conversation,” said the lawyer.

Asked if the circular has been challenged in the High Court, Wadud said, “The circular is fairly new. In order to challenge it, you need a party who is undergoing such a transaction but is not able to do so because of their identity. So, such challenges usually take time.”

Basundhara Scheme and Communalisation of Land

This is unfortunately not the first time when the state has talked about land rights with apparent communal undertones.

According to the regulations of Mission Basundhara, the government khas land (government-owned fallow land, where nobody has property rights) can be converted to miyadi land (permanent land settlement) in rural areas only for applicants who can prove their residency in Assam for three generations and continuous occupation of the land for at least three years.

In the beginning of 2024, during a discussion, Ashraful Hussain, an MLA from the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), representing the Chenga Assembly constituency, raised concerns about the eligibility of Muslims to acquire land under this scheme.

In response, Chief Minister Sarma made an allegedly contentious statement, stating that landless Bengali-origin Muslims would not be able to apply for land under the Mission Basundhara as they are considered “non-indigenous”.

This definition of “indigenous”, introduced by Sarma, has been criticised by legislators and experts, as it allegedly diverges from both Indian law and the established rules for the Mission Basundhara since its inception in 2021.

Further examination reveals that Bengali-origin Muslims face disproportionately high rates of rejection in districts where they make up a significant portion of the population.

For example, in Muslim-majority districts like Barpeta and Dhubri, the rates of approval for land titles are significantly lower compared to Upper Assam districts. In Barpeta, only 0.23% of applicants got approval, while in Dhubri, only 2% were considered eligible.

These disparities are also evident in Karimganj in Barak Valley, where a considerable Muslim population resides, yet only a small number of applicants, including one Muslim, were granted land titles under the Mission Basundhara 2.0.

Based on the 2011 Census data, Assam is home to approximately 1.06 crore Muslims, constituting about 34.22% of the state’s total population. The majority of these Muslims are of Bengali descent.

Despite their families residing in Assam’s riverine regions long before Independence, they frequently face allegations of being illegal migrants and endure significant marginalization within the state.

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