Ngamreila Haokip was despondent. On November 23, the authorities in Assam’s Kamrup district tore down her house, declaring it to be an encroachment on government land.

“We spent Rs 15 lakh to build the house,” said Ngamreila Haokip. “All our savings are gone.”

Haokip and her husband Thanglal Haokip belong to the Kuki community and are originally from Manipur, a place they left around 20 years ago to build a new life for themselves in Guwahati, which houses the capital of Assam.

For nearly two decades, they moved from one rented home to another in the city, the largest in India’s North East. In 2020, as the pandemic uprooted lives across the world, the Haokips made a new beginning: they moved into a house they thought they could finally call their own. It was located in Mairapur, a village along the Assam-Meghalaya border, roughly an hour’s drive from Guwahati.

Little of the three-room concrete structure is left now – the bulldozers reduced it to rubble.

Politics of eviction

Evictions and encroachments are often sharply political in Assam – land is closely intertwined with identity in the state. At the receiving end of most of the government’s anti-encroachment drives are Muslims of Bengali origin, often vilified as foreigners in the state.

None of the three families whose homes were demolished in Mairapur on November 23 belong to the historically persecuted community. Yet, they claim they were targeted because of their ethnicity.

“Only our Kuki people’s homes were targetted,” said Ngamreila Haokip, adding that the houses of their neighbours that also stood on government land were left alone.

A Scroll investigation into the sequence of events that led to the demolitions suggests that the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Kuki and the Meitei community in Manipur had a bearing on the events of November 23.

Ngamreila Haokip's home was reduced to rubble. Photo credit: Rokibuz Zaman

A village on government land

The village of Mairapur is home to around 4,000 people. While most of them belong to tribal communities such as Garos, Rabhas, and Bodos, there are a smattering of caste-Hindu Assamese and Bengali-origin Muslims. Also part of the village are five Kuki families.

According to local revenue officials, the village came into existence around half a century ago, and “around 80%” of the village stood on government land.

Headman Hardis Marak corroborated that. Few people in the village, he said, had formal land titles.

According to Marak, the three Kuki families whose houses were demolished had settled in the village in 2020. The other two families, Marak, had been living in the village for the last 10 years. The latter lived on the campus of a private school that they ran, said Marak.

The Haokip family is now taking shelter in the neighbouring school. Photo credit: Rokibuz Zaman

Sale and purchase of land

The Haokips said they bought the land on which they built their home for Rs 95,000 from a women’s self-help group based in the village. Khaijameng Vaiphei, whose home was also demolished in the same drive, had bought his land from another resident of the village.

These transactions, though, had little legal standing since the sellers did not have any legal claim over the land – it was government land that they simply happened to occupy.

Nonetheless, such exchanges are routine in Assam where land is scarce and mercilessly gobbled up by the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries. People routinely buy occupied government land in the hope that it will be regularised in the future.

Ngamreila Haokip and her husband, too, had earlier in the year applied for land titles under a state government scheme that allowed landless “indigenous” people to be given legal ownership of government land they were occupying.

There is no legal definition of who qualifies to be “indigenous” in Assam. In practice, only ethnic Assamese communities make the cut.

‘Occupying land’

The trouble started for the Kuki families – unbeknownst to them – in October when some residents of nearby villages such as Majpara Patgaon and Batabar complained to the local legislator, Ramendra Narayan Kalita.

Kalita, who is from the Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Parishad, represents the constituency of West Guwahati.

Scroll accessed a video recording of the meeting where the complainants aired their disaffection about “tribals from Manipur” getting land “registered” in the area. This was particularly unfair, one of the complainants could be heard saying, because non-tribal “sons of the soil” like them were ineligible to legally own land in the area as it was part of a protected “tribal belt” where only people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes were eligible to land titles.

The Kukis are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Assam.

In response to the complaints, Kalita is heard calling an official and telling them that “Kukis from Manipur” who had migrated because of the conflict were “occupying land” in Mairapur. “There should be an immediate investigation,” Kalita is heard instructing.

Screengrab of a video of local legislator Ramendra Narayan Kalita instructing an investigation following some local residents raising objection to 'tribals from Manipur' occupying land. Video credit: Special arrangement

An investigation begins

Soon after, on November 12, a team of government officials including Kamrup police chief Hitesh Ray and local circle officer Himadri Borah visited Mairapur.

According to the residents of Mairapur, the officials made enquiries about the “settlement [of] and construction of houses” by people displaced from Manipur.

While 12 families from Manipur had come seeking shelter in the homes of the village’s Kuki residents in May, they returned soon after, according to Thanglal Haokip. “We are not displaced people,” said Thanglal Haokip. “We are local residents and voters of this area.”

On November 15, officials from the local police outpost in Rani paid another visit to the village. This time, they collected the identity cards of the five Kuki families and the staff members of the private school two of them ran, said Thanglal Haokip.

Three days later, on November 18, another team of officials led by circle officer Borah came to the doorsteps of the Kuki families, asking them to vacate their homes “at the earliest”, claimed Thanglal Haokip.

No formal notice was delivered, though, according to him.

Following the verbal order by Bora, the Kuki families wrote to the Kamrup district commissioner asking for a “reconsideration” of the “verbal warning given for vacation of land and buildings”. They argued that they were not recent migrants from Manipur – in fact, there were no such people in the village, they added – and had already applied for formal land titles.

The village of Mairapur lies along the Assam-Meghalaya border. Photo credit: Rokibuz Zaman

The bulldozers arrive

Things only got worse for the Kuki families following the letter.

On November 22, they said they were served with a notice, asking them to vacate their homes overnight.

Following up on the notice, the police and officials arrived at 8 am the next day, excavators in tow. While the houses inside the school campus were spared, the other three houses were quickly flattened.

The authorities threatened to demolish the school too, said Lempu Vaiphei, one of its trustees of the school. “We are living under fear and uncertainty,” Vaiphei said. “The whole village is on government land and we bought the land from the local people. Why were we selectively asked to vacate?”

Who is an ‘illegal settler’?

Scroll contacted Kamrup deputy commissioner Keerthi Jalli and Palashbari circle officer Boarh, seeking their response to the allegations of selective action. Both declined comment.

A senior official of the Palashbari circle said the eviction was carried out based on the complaint received by the Kamrup district administration. The Kuki families, the official said, had “illegally settled” on government land. “One cannot build houses and buildings on government land,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

When it was pointed out that almost all residents of Mairapur had built houses on government land, the official said those people had been living there for “more than 75 years”. “These are original tribal people [from the area],” said the official. “But the evicted people are encroachers from Manipur who came two years ago.”