ASSAM, India – Gayas-ud-din Ahmed thought his children would grow up in the same home that he was born and raised in. But in November, he was given a three-day eviction notice.
Ahmed gave his son a hammer and told him to help with the deconstruction. They’re moving parts of their house to set up a shelter at a temporary camp with thousands of other Muslims.
“They wouldn't have demolished my home had the Hindus stayed here,” Ahmed told VICE News. “They demolished it as it was Muslim property.”
Gayas-ud-din Ahmed sits in a refugee camp in Dholpur Assam, on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. Photo credit: Ahmer Khan
In the last year, the government has carried out evictions in more than a dozen Muslim villages. One settlement of about 5,000 Muslims were given less than a day’s notice to pack up and abandon their houses.
When they protested, police opened fire, killing two people, including a 12-year-old.
Authorities say they are simply reclaiming state land, and removing “illegal encroachers” irrespective of their faith, but rights activists say it’s part of the ruling party’s broader Hindu nationalist agenda of turning India into a Hindu state.
“They're poisoning the minds of others against Muslims just to get some political advantage.” Zamseer Ali, a minority rights activist working to help the evicted families, told VICE News.
Activist Zamsir Ali and Gayas-ud-din Ahmed discussing Ahmed’s citizenship documents in Dholpur. Photo credit: Ahmer Khan
More than one-third of Assam’s 31 million people are Muslim – one of the highest proportions of any Indian state – and for decades, Assamese nativists have lobbied the government to address the issue of illegal immigration from Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
After coming to power, the BJP, India’s Hindu nationalist party, passed a series of laws that have singled out Muslims.
In 2019, Assam’s government removed 1.9 million people, or 6 percent of the state, from their citizenship register. Months later, the federal government passed a citizenship law that gives anyone from neighboring countries who has lived in India since before 2015 a pathway to citizenship, so long as they are not Muslim.
Ahmed and his mother were both removed from the citizenship register, and are now declared Bangladeshis by the state, and about a third of the people living at his camp are in the same position, according to a report published by Ali, the minority rights activist.
“I’ve voted several times,” Hajera Khatun, Ahmed’s mother, said. “They just took my name off the citizenship list for no apparent reason.”
The state has promised to compensate and resettle those who’d been affected by the evictions so long as they can prove their nationality, so Muslims like Ahmed and his mom have only one option: to try and prove their citizenship in a foreigner tribunal court.
Ahmed has attended more than 10 tribunal hearings. He had to sell his only cow to pay the legal fees, which have cost him about $400 so far – months’ worth of savings for a daily wage laborer.
If he and his mom lose their case, they could wind up in a detention center being built in another part of the state.
Government officials say their policies are fair, and do not target anyone for their faith.
“Encroachers are encroachers,” said Padma Hazarika, a BJP politician from Assam, who manages the land of the evicted families.
“The eviction is required to prevent them from ruining our sociocultural identity and to protect our native people.”
At the empty lot of his ancestral home, Ahmed wonders how he can provide for his family and continue to pay for the fight to prove he is a legitimate Indian citizen.
“We Muslims are harassed wherever we go,” Ahmed said. “This sort of harassment is unbearable, it makes us want to kill ourselves.”
This segment was broadcast on VICE News Tonight, on April 20, 2022 and was produced by Ahmer Khan and edited by Victoria Lesiw.