NRC: Shifting Sands of Time For Assam’s Nomadic ‘Char-Dwellers’ | Land Portal

2.4 million people who live mostly on the 2,251 sand bars that dot the entire river system in Assam, are living at the mercy of nature for long, and are now fighting another battle to keep their Indian identity alive.

Kamal Khan’s life is as fragile as the char (sandbar) on which he lives. Unlike many char-dwellers, who shift to the riverbank or beyond when the river Brahmaputra erodes their land, Kamal moved to Balartari from Chenimari char along the river bank.

“In Chenimari, land erosion had started in the early 1980s, and by 1996, the whole char was eroded. Many families had been shifted to Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Darrang district since late 1990s. A few families settled in Barpeta road area but had no option to go further away after losing ten bighas (1.6 hectares) of agricultural land,” he recalls.

Around 3,000 people belonging to 760 families currently live in Balartari village, but they still identify themselves as villagers of Chenimari.

Char-dwellers like Kamal are living a nomadic life in Assam, shifting from one eroded char to another that could possibly submerge in the near future. Since independence, around 75 chars have been eroded by the might of Brahmaputra in south-east part of Assam’s Barpeta district.

Land Tax, But No Land

Even worse is faced by the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers of these chars. They have been paying the annual taxes regularly for their lands that have been eroded by the violent tides. Mainul Khan, another displaced char-dweller of Chenimari said: “For the past 30 years, we have not been able to grow a single grain on our land, but have kept paying the khajna (land revenue) regularly as the land documents and the updated tax receipts are the most important proofs of our Indian citizenship.”

During the mid-eighteenth century, the colonial British government encouraged Muslim cultivators from East Bengal to migrate and cultivate these chars in an attempt to extract revenues from the wastelands of Assam. Cultivators from East Bengal’s districts of Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra and, Rangpur began to migrate in small numbers. But as the century progressed, the migration took the form of a large-scale influx into the Brahmaputra valley.


(Photo: Tanmoy Bhaduri)

The generations that have grown up there speak a Bengali dialect as well as Assamese. Ashraful Hossain, a social activist from Barpeta, alleged that the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers have been targeted for a long time, while being treated as “outsiders” in Assam.

“Government is arbitrarily striking off our names from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). On one hand, we are fighting with land erosion and floods, and on the other, the government questions our citizenship without considering the socio-economic background of the community.”

Ashraful Hossain, a social activist from Barpeta to The Quint

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