As day broke on November 1, elephant safaris for tourists in the Kaziranga National Park resumed after a long pandemic-induced break. Many local residents heaved a sigh of relief, hoping the vacationers would finally start flocking in.

But a few kilometres away from where the elephant safaris started, Jaya Dutta woke up to a sight that made her break down: her coconut trees, which had just started flowering, lay on the ground, probably felled in a nocturnal onslaught by a hungry pachyderm.

This was the second loss of property in a month. In October, Dutta’s family and three of their neighbours were told in October that they were living inside the premises of the national park. The choice was theirs, an official from the district administration reportedly told them: dismantle your homes voluntarily or face eviction. The former, the official told them, would be less messy for everyone – it would let them preserve valuables they possessed and claiming compensation would be easier. Soon, the district administration followed up with a formal eviction notice.

So sometime in the second week of October, as the rains let up, they hammered down their hearths, built several decades ago. “That was the only home my husband had ever known,” said Dutta. “He was born in that house, his father died in it. Now it is gone.”

The Duttas, the poorest among the four families facing eviction, shifted to a primary school building a few metres away. But each day, Dutta would go back to where their old home stood, pluck fruits from the trees she had grown over the years and sell them in the nearby market by the highway further south. Her family lived on these earnings as her husband was sick and unable to work. “The other day, I sold the gooseberries and brought rice,” she said. “The coconuts had started flowering. I was pinning my hopes on the coconuts, but now they are gone, too.”

Jaya Dutta's family has been living in the local lower primary school. But they have to move soon with schools starting to reopen in Assam.

A quiet prelude to the storm?

Evictions in Kaziranga usually attract a lot of media attention in Assam, but there was scant coverage of the events of October in the local press. This is perhaps because only a few families were displaced and no force was used – the Duttas and their neighbours “voluntarily” tore down their homes.

But the displacement is not isolated. It flows from a Gauhati High Court order in 2015, directing evictions to clear land for the reserve forest, that could affect nearly 700 families, their homes and their fields. So far, the administration has dragged its feet on the evictions. But the court has now demanded a status report by November 23.

The Kaziranga National Park is now more than twice the size that it was in January 1974, when it was first notified as a park. From 430 square kilometres, it has swelled to 914 square kilometres, courtesy nine “additions” to the park area over the decades. The latest three additions, amounting to 30 square kilometres, were notified in September by the state government.

These additions have often been sources of conflict between the authorities and the local population. “Although the idea of the park has been more or less accepted, this has not been the case of its additions,” notes researcher Joëlle Smadja.

As Kaziranga became a focal point for Assamese pride, the tussles around the park – from the periodic additions to who got evicted and who was allowed to stay within reserve limits – became political. The politics of eviction was shaped by the larger anxiety in Assam, of “foreigners” taking over “indigenous” lands, .

The authorities have moved cautiously, and some allege, selectively. Before September this year, the last addition had been made in 1999. But large parts of these notified areas were not handed over to the park authorities until very recently. Some are still to be handed over, despite the court order.

‘Illegal migrants’ as ‘encroachers’

The petition that was partly responsible for the court order for evictions was driven by the intention to remove “illegal migrants” from the additions and adjoining animal corridors. It was filed in 2012 by Mrinal Saikia, a Bharatiya Janata Party politician who is now a state legislator. Saikia alleged that some of those living in areas earmarked for the reserve were undocumented migrants from Bangladesh and part of the poaching racket operating in the park.

Saikia’s petition was clubbed with a suo motu petition by the Gauhati High Court. Alarmed by news reports it had taken up the matter of “illegal poaching of rhinoceros and other wild animals” in Kaziranga.

In 2013, when the court ordered evictions from the additions to the park within three months, it was challenged. Local residents in the additions, backed by the peasants’ rights group, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, moved the court. They were made party to the case.

They argued that the additions amounted to altering the park’s borders – and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 did not allow such an exercise when the 2nd, 3rd and 5th additions were notified in 1985. Besides, while such a provision was inserted in the Act in 1992, the additions could only be made on the recommendation of the National Wildlife Board. The board’s recommendations, they pointed out, had not been sought before notifying the 6th addition in 1999.

They also invoked the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which empowers forest-dwelling communities, lamenting that it had amounted to very little in Assam. In 2009, Gauhati High Court had adjudicated that state had no forest-dwelling communities – a judgement that experts say was based on a poor reading of the historical and environmental complexities of the state.

But the court stuck to its original position. In November 2015, the court dismissed the local residents’ petitions, directing the civil administration “to take expeditious steps to evict the inhabitants” from these areas. “The concept of national park in the Wildlife Act contemplates that there should be no human habitation,” the court declared.

Local residents' fields on the fringes of the park

A forest becomes a political arena

Outside the courtroom, Assam was undergoing a political churn at the time – and Kaziranga was made a somewhat unlikely party to it.

The BJP had emerged as the most successful party in the 2014 Parliamentary elections, and was campaigning to dislodge the incumbent Congress in the 2016 state elections.

The party had liberally drawn on Kaziranga and its most famous inhabitant, the one-horned rhino, during its Lok Sabha election campaign, riding on increasing concerns about poaching, an emotive issue with the Assamese middle class. The rhino was Assam’s state animal, after all, and had become an enduring symbol of Assamese nationalism. “The BJP left no stone unturned to make the poaching of rhinos in KNP into a highly-charged election issue,” writes historian Arupjyoti Saikia in a recent essay.

For example, at a rally in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, accused the Congress-led state government of promoting the poaching of Kaziranga’s rhinos – “the pride of Assam” – to make space for “illegal migrants”.

It was the first time in the history of the state, observers say, that the issue of poaching was so explicitly fused with the contentious subject of undocumented migration to seek votes.

Commenting on the prime minister’s speech, social scientist Sanjoy Barbora writes: “For people who were about to vote for new representatives in the state’s legislative assembly, references to settlers and outsiders evoked memories of violence that had become a regular feature of political mobilisation in the state since the 1980s.”

Not surprisingly, the BJP swept the Assam elections of 2016, riding largely on an anti-immigrant campaign that often invoked the rhino.

The politics of eviction

Not too long after, the government started its first eviction drive in Kaziranga, ostensibly to implement the 2015 court’s order. The previous Congress government had not acted on it before it was voted out of power. But its target was not any of the additions, but the villages of Banderdubi, Deuchur-chang and Palkhowa.

In its order, the court had also asked for these villages to be cleared – although they were not part of the national park or its additions at the time.

Banderdubi and Deuchur-chang were recorded as revenue villages in government records – most inhabitants had permanent land titles. Yet the court said that the villages stood on what was once forest land and insisted that such land could not “be de-reserved and converted to revenue village” as the state government had done.

It is perhaps not so difficult to understand why the government chose these villages first: they were home largely to Muslims of immigrant origin, whom the BJP had branded as “infiltrators” in its high-pitched election campaign.

The eviction was an ugly affair – two people died and several were injured as the police opened fire to disperse protesters resisting the demolition drive. But, cheered on by Assamese nationalist groups and the BJP high command, the state government maintained that eviction drives would continue.

They did not. In Kaziranga, things soon quietened down. The 2nd, 3rd, and 5th additions remained largely untouched (most of the 6th addition is the Brahmaputra river, barring some grazing fields with few human settlements, and the 4th addition is also largely uninhabited). District officials said eviction notices were issued in the 2nd addition, but they decided not to follow up on them, given the public sentiment at the time.

Although officials would not admit it in public, the reason behind the government’s retreat is general knowledge in the area: the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th additions are inhabited largely by communities considered indigenous to Assam and tea tribes.

The entrance to the park's central range

But just as the matter seemed to be slipping out off public consciousness, the high court took it up again in August, writing a letter to the forest department, asking for a status report.

On November 5, the Eastern Assam Wildlife Division issued a press statement saying the “civil administration of Bokakhat sub-division under Golaghat district has handed over the 3rd and 5th addition areas to the Eastern Assam Wildlife Division of Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve.”

The Duttas’ home was in the 5th addition.

According to the official records, a total of 32 eviction notices have been issued so far – all in the 3rd and 5th additions. The more heavily populated 2nd addition, home to around 600 families, most of them belonging to the Mising tribe, has been spared as of now. “We are starting with the 3rd and 5th additions – it will happen in a phased manner,” said Shagufta Suheliy, circle officer of Bokakhat under which the additions fall. “We have to consider multiple factors… the 3rd and 5th additions amount to a significant amount of land.”

Suheliy said discussions with those who stand to be evicted and those who have voluntarily retreated had been “positive”. “They were sceptical initially, but now they have understood,” said the official. “We have told them they would receive fair compensation and it will be disbursed soon.”

‘Land for land’

Many feel they have little choice but to move. The brute force of the 2016 evictions seems to have had a chilling effect. “You can’t fight with the government,” said Niru Dutta, whose family also razed their home in October after an eviction notice. “We saw what happened in Banderdubi – we just hope that the government gives us compensation as they have promised soon.”

For communities considered indigenous, the question of compensation is far from settled. In Halodhibari, an Adivasi dominated village that is partly located in the 5th addition, the demand is land in lieu of land. Here, the village commons where people farm are under threat – people have been told their fields fall in the 5th addition.

“What use is monetary compensation if we don’t get land to farm?” asked Ajay Karmakar, a farmer from the village. “How will we survive without our farms? If the government agrees to give us fertile land somewhere else, we will talk.”

Karmakar added: “We want a village exactly like what we have – the same people, the school, everything. It can’t be that only people with land titles get compensation or land.”

In Sildubi-2, part of the 2nd addition, there are similar conversations. The village came into being in 1972, when the state government settled people from the Mising community whose land had been swallowed by the Brahmaputra further east. “If the animals have rights, so do we as the indigenous people of the land,” said Mithun Pasang, a young man from the village. “But for the sake of Kaziranga, we are willing to make sacrifices if the government gives us land somewhere else – Guwahati, Delhi, Bokakhat we don’t care, but it has to be fertile land where we can farm.”

Just monetary compensation, though, Pasang specified, was not good enough.

Sunil Das, the headman of Sildubi-1, who challenged the additions with seven others in the high court, took a similar line. “Land for land – that is it,” he said. “We have given enough of our ancestral lands to Kaziranga already. You can’t just draw a line in the map, call it an addition and ask us to leave. Where will we go?”

Ajay Karmakar wants land in lieu of land.

Waning resistance

Others have recalibrated their demands over time. Darsingh Hanse, the headman of a village largely inhabited by the Karbi community, was also one of the petitioners in the high court case challenging the additions. The Karbis stand to lose acres and acres of farmland that falls in the 3rd addition.

Now, the community is willing to give up the land for the right price, said Hanse. “We are tired of fighting – as it is our crops get destroyed by the animals all the time,” he explained. “We know we will become landless after that, but so be it. For the sake of Kaziranga, we will give up our land, but there’s one thing people should know: we are not encroachers; we belong here.”

Local land rights activists predict that most people who seem to be adamant about land in lieu of land will ultimately agree if given fair monetary compensation. “People know that new land is not possible,” said Deep Gogoi, a Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader from the area. “They will move, but the compensation has to be right.”

Indeed, Birsa Orang, the headman of Halodhibari, who had moved court along with Das and Hanse, was also more non-committal than younger men in the village. “We will have to discuss with everyone – our people, the forest officials,” he said when asked about the plan of action.

Birsa Orang who had moved the court against the additions in unsure the future course of action.

Observers of the conflict over the years say it is not surprising that resistance is wearing off. “Media, largely urban based, portray them as ‘encroachers’ and unhealthy neighbours to a heritage site,” said Biswajit Sarma, a researcher from the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati who works on Kaziranga. “Obviously, nobody wants to live with such fears and slurs.”

But how willingly people move would depend on the range and nature of compensation, he added. “If compensation is solely determined by possession of permanent titles, several hundred families do not have it,” said Sarma. People living in and around the park had settled there over the years under a variety of circumstances – many of them were victims of erosion and rehabilitated by the government in those areas, explained Sarma.

“Such historical and ecological factors behind village settlement are important in determining compensation and alternate livelihood opportunities,” Sarma said. “Evidence suggests that brutal dispossession leaves an intergenerational public memory. A hostile segment of population is inimical to the interest of the park and wildlife in the longer run.”

Gogoi spoke along similar lines. “The Misings of Sildubi don’t have land titles,” he said. “But how can you call them encroachers – each Mising person is akin to a land title themselves.”

Mithun Pasang, a Mising youth, asks: "What about our rights as indigenous people?"

‘Do you want to save Kaziranga or not?’

Conservationists and forest officials, however, say that time is running out and “sentiments” need to be kept aside. “They went to court and lost,” said Uttam Saikia, a local journalist and resident, and currently Kaziranga’s Honorary Wildlife Warden. “Now they have no logic but only emotional pitches of indigenous, etc. What is illegal is illegal.”

Saikia said if the additions were not cleared of human settlements quickly, trouble lay ahead. “They are blocking corridors, forcing the animals to take other routes – and that will inevitably lead to new human-animal conflicts,” he said. “My point is simple – do you want to save Kaziranga or not?”

Robin Sharma, research officer at the park, spoke of disappearing forest cover because of human settlements – and the pressure it was putting on animal habitat. “The rhino, even if it wants to, cannot just go anywhere else,” he said. “But people can definitely go to another town or village.”

P Sivakumar, the park’s director, said it was imperative that land additions be made to maintain the “success story” of rhino conservation in Kaziranga. “There’s an upper limit on how many animals can sustain in a fixed area,” he said. “After that, we cannot have a healthy population.”

With the current area at its disposal, the park cannot sustain more than 3,000 rhinos, said Sivakumar. It is currently home to around 2,400.

But local residents say that “the rhino can’t be saved at the expense of people”. “It is simply not possible,” said Gogoi. “From poaching to floods, we have always given protection to the rhinos. So if they think rhinos will thrive if they throw all humans out, they are wrong.”

Observers say that the debate between contrasting views of conservation can only be settled through a “long- term and comprehensive ecological study”, which Kaziranga has never seen. “We don’t know the entire gamut of challenges the park faces and how far the current measures form logical solutions,” said Sarma.

In India, he said, conservation was “still subjected to the paradigm that only a complete separation of human and wildlife habitat will protect the wildlife”. This was misguided, he felt: “only a paradigm that assures inclusion and mutual trust can produce sustainable results in conservation.”