The Bharatiya Janata Party evidently has its own notion of people’s power. It is supposed to function after a BJP government has done its bit according to its agenda. The statement of the chief minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, that Assam’s minority immigrants should adopt a “decent” population policy and the minority community should check population growth to reduce poverty and land encroachment transfers responsibility to one group of people. This was Mr Sarma’s response to demands that people becoming homeless because of the government’s evictions should be rehabilitated. Population control may be a good thing in regions of comparatively high birth rate and land hunger. But the situation is a delicate one in Assam with tensions between Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants and the state’s original inhabitants. The BJP promised to weed out illegal immigrants, although the National Register of Citizens did not yield the anticipated results. The evictions, which Mr Sarma defended by saying that people could not be allowed to encroach on temple and forest land, are professedly necessary to protect forests and sanctified premises and also to let the government distribute land to indigenous landless people.
The Opposition and organizations representing religious and linguistic minorities say that the evicted people are mainly from the minority community. If they are illegal immigrants they should be deported, says one demand, but if they are Indian citizens it is the duty of a democratic government to protect them. They are being rendered homeless in the middle of a pandemic. Many lost their homes because of river erosion and were forced to settle on government land. Inevitably this move is being seen as part of the BJP’s polarization strategy. Evading the point of the criticism, Mr Sarma retaliated by declaring that population control in the minority community was the solution even though data from the fifth National Family Health Survey of 2019-20 revealed that Muslims have witnessed the sharpest fall in fertility since 2005-06. There is already a two-child policy for government jobs in place; it is neutral and not cause for protest. But Mr Sarma’s comments on population control are selective. Besides, his emphasis on the need to educate women of the minority community in association with the aim of reducing population growth is patronizing and doubly discriminatory. Policies for population control may help the whole state irrespective of gender or faith, but of what use are they to people already left homeless after eviction?