A Preliminary Report on the Killing of Innocent Protestors in Tinsukia district (Assam) in February 2006.
Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS)
On the February 10, 2006, eight people were killed by bullets of the armed forces and Assam Police at Kakopathar in Tinsukia district of Assam. Six of them were protesters and two were residents of Kakopathar hit by stray bullets from the indiscriminate firing. The protesters were among the thousands of residents that poured out from villages in and around Kakopathar and took to the streets demanding justice for the custodial death of Ajit Mahanta, a 37 years old resident of Dirak Goxaingaon in Kakopathar.
Ajit Mahanta was picked up by personnel of the 13th Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army stationed in the area. The incident took place on February 4, 2006. At about six in the evening, seven people came to Mahanta's bamboo and thatched house where he lived with his mother, wife and two children. Five of the people were in uniform and the other two wore civilian clothes. They asked for Mahanta and his wife replied that he had gone to a neighbour's. The military personnel went searching for him and picked him up from the way. The Army later took his body to the Assam Medical College and Hospital claiming that he died in a fall. This happened on February 6, 2006.
Following the incident on February 7, 2006, the residents of the area and other neighbouring villages came out in protest. Thousands of people blocked the National Highway 52 in protest against the killing. They demanded the guilty to be punished at once. However, no action was taken against the military personnel responsible for the death of Mahanta. This led to the increase in protests and number of protesters. People started protesting at various other places like Chabua, Pengeri and Doomdooma. However, the administration turned a blind eye to the situation and did not take the case seriously even after increasing protests.
On February 10, 2006, people gathered at Dirak Chariali and started marching towards Kakopathar. Police tried to stop them, but the protesters edged on. Then the police started firing tear shells and bullets in the air. When the protesters showed no signs of fear, the police and armed forces started indiscriminate firing resulting in the death of the following persons:
1. Kunjalata Moran (Female - 19), protester, of No. 1 Tejigaon village, Kakopathar. She was a student of Higher Secondary 1st year.
2. Anandita Munda (Female - 23), protester, Kalakhua village in Tangana. She was ill and had come to Dirak to visit her sister and get medical treatment.
3. Beauti Gohain (Female - 20), protester, No. 2 Dirak village, Kakopathar.
4. Madhurjya Gohain (Male - 25), protester, No. 2 Dirak village, Kakopathar.
5. Dipon Moran (Male - 20), protester, Bordirak village, Gosraguri, Kakopathar.
6. Pokhili Bora (Female - 45), protester, Dirak Goxaingaon village, Kakopathar.
7. Gopal Bailung (Male - 75), Kakopathar resident hit by stray bullets.
8. Wahida Ahmed (Female - 30) Kakopathar resident, mother of 6 and a half years old daughter. She was hit by stray bullets.
9. Mandira Moran (Female - NK) Khukhani suk under Kakopathar PS.
The firing also resulted in serious injuries. Some of the injured are:
1. Prashanta Gohain Male-34
2. Sumi Baruah, Female-27
3. Pabitra Baruah, Male-11: 5th standard student. Sustained critical bullet injuries in right leg, right arm and right eye.
4. Monica Moran, Female-19: Sustained four critical bullet injuries in her body including one in the chest.
5. Loknath Handique, Male-22
6. Dibya Moran, Male-18
7. Phuleshwer Chetia, Male-17
8. Diganta Gohain, Male-23
9. Sanjay Dutta, Male-23
10. Hemanta Moran, Male-19
11. Bhanu Moran, Female-25
12. Jitamoni Moran, Female-25
13. Murgeshwer Moran, Male-35
14. Hemalata Moran, Female: Both legs are riddled by bullets.
15. Tuleshwer Chetia, Male-25
16. Nijara Kakati, Female-19
On the same day, police resorted to lathi charge on protesters in Chabua. Curfew was imposed immediately after the incidents in Kakopathar and Chabua and other adjoining areas as well as those considered sensitive. The Army was called in. Military forces started flag march barring any resident to venture outside. This created major obstacles for families of the deceased and the other protesters in getting information about their loved ones. The district administration and the police had taken custody of the bodies of the deceased. It was only on February 12, 2006 that organisations like Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) and Moran Students' Union could receive the bodies of the deceased and handed them over to their families. While three of the dead were cremated at Kakopathar, the rest were taken by their families to be cremated in their villages. An old man, whose wife was missing until the late evening approached MASS activists asking them if they had seen his spouse of many years among the unclaimed bodies. On being told that there was a dead body of a middle-aged woman, he rushed to the spot and called the MASS team back from the site to say that it indeed was his wife. "I have been married to her a long time," he cried when asked if he was ready to cremate her. "I will wait for my sons to arrive tomorrow (for the cremation)…that way I get to stay with her for the last time," he added.
The ordeals for the people are not over yet. Several people, including two schoolgirls, are still missing. Apart from the two girls, there have not been any confirmed reports yet. The curfew and movements of armed forces have also hampered search and rescue operations.
This incident is just a tragic culmination of a recent spate of State violence. Despite the continuing talks between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Government of India, the Indian Army has been committing atrocities on villagers in and around Tinsukia district in the name of combing operations for the organisation's members. Areas like Jeraigaon, Pengeri, Chabua, Kakopathar and other adjoining areas have been virtually taken over by the armed forces. They had also blockaded several villages in January severely restricting movements of the residents. During this period, harassment and atrocities of the villagers in the hands of the armed forces reached barbaric proportions. While some alleged ULFA members were killed, the period also witnessed the death of innocent villagers, including Ajit Mahanta, whose death triggered the avalanche of protests.
The Games People Play
For the national media it was just another unfortunate incident that highlighted the Indian army's problems with their counter-insurgency strategy in the Northeast, especially in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The Telegraph front page headlines (for its special Northeast edition only - the daily was savvy enough to relegate this bit to another less prominent page inside its national edition - after all, this was a typical Northeast story) said: "Five die in police firing on mob" . Other English dailies from Assam were more circumspect and the numbers they quoted were a bit higher. The Telegraph's choice of words to describe the victims sums up the mainstream view of deaths in the Northeast. The victims were part of a "mob" that had to sustain fire from the friendly neighbourhood police force. Perhaps there was another story that the paper was keen on subduing, as was evident in its editorial the next day. It claimed that the death of those protesting should not be used in a political play by members of civil society, political parties or representatives of the Peoples Consultative Group (PCG) that was constituted by the ULFA in September 2005.
This report does not wish to appear as a diatribe against the headlines and editorial policy of one newspaper. The Telegraph and most other national English dailies (with a few honourable exceptions) have seriously racist overtones when it comes to reporting crimes committed by the state apparatus in Northeast India. As long as those dead are not members of a caste-elite from the Hindi-speaking heartland; pitiable Adivasis from mainland India's favourite exploitable regions; or even impoverished and suicidal peasants, they are deemed expendable. What does a death or two matter in the racially, culturally and historically differently constituted frontiers in Northeast India? For that matter, who cares if the entire state of Manipur cried and raged against the murder of Th. Manorama in 2004? Who cares if Nagaland mourns the death of innocent Naga youth who are gunned down by the Meghalaya police, while on their way to a concert? What does it matter that schoolchildren are gunned down at a peaceful protest in Tura and Williamnagar? How, indeed, can one find space for reporting the gang rape of three peasant women, by Assam Rifles personnel in Dhalai district of Twipra (Tripura) in February 2006? Why should India's national media make space for recording the rage of the people of Kakopathar, protesting against the barbaric acts of the Indian army, when there was a cricket match to report? Of course, there are always better, more newsworthy events to cover. Especially when the news from the Northeast involves the loyal-masculine-hearty-incorruptible security personnel on one hand and somewhat-suspect-Mongoloid-featured victim on the other, there is probably more reason for the national media to dole out convoluted platitudes and carry on with the sports page.
The selective amnesia amongst civil society institutions in mainland India contributes to the conspiracy of silence on the role of the security forces in administration and governance within the so-called peripheries of the Indian state. While the ruling Congress indulged in much hand-wringing over what would be the correct course of action before the elections, the army displayed its characteristic lack of finesse and concern for the dignity of victims of its brutality by announcing a cash compensation for Ajit Mahanta's family, rebuild his home and adopt his children. All this is truly material for B-grade scripts in Hindi cinema. Only, it happens to be the reality for the people of upper Assam.
To add insult to injury, Assam's politicians went shopping for votes amidst the tragedy. On February 14, 2006 the state home minister, finance minister and forest minister went visiting the families of Pokhili Bora and Waheeda Ahmed in order to hand them cheques of three hundred thousand rupees. The families refused the cheques and the ministers sheepishly and surreptitiously gave the money to grieving family members saying that the envelopes "contained letters" and not blood-money. All this while, sections of the ruling Congress maintained that the violence was an effort to embarrass the party before the polls.
The shooting of the protestors was no accident, nor was it a mix up of tragic proportions. It is a known fact that the district administration was aware of the protests and the scale of discontent that was sparked off by Ajit Mahanta's death in army custody. Even though India shamelessly flouts the humanitarian laws of armed conflict and international human rights laws in dealing with democratic protests within its frontiers, it has some policing norms that are to be maintained in the course of dealing with protestors. Outright killing is not one of them. Within domestic law, which admittedly is flawed, there are certain procedures that have to be followed when dealing with protestors. Verbal warnings in the presence of a magistrate, prominent notifications of the potential illegality of the gathering, blank fire etc. precede the actual act of firing on the protestors. Then too, the firing has to take place below the waist.
In Kakopathar most of the victims were shot above the waist. This is true even in the earlier murder of people in Garo Hills, where footage has clearly shown that they were shot in the head and neck. Why are the security forces allowed to get away with such blatant violations? How can the government get away with patronising the people with paternal talk about need to develop the region and end insurgency, while they continue to empower junior non-commissioned officers to shoot and kill farmers, schoolchildren and housewives? When the law of the land can be routinely flouted by those who claim to be its custodians, why do the national media continue to preach the virtues of Indian democracy to the people of the Northeast?
If there is a moral to the whole sordid saga it is summed up in three words: "politics of shame". It is a shame that India continues to call itself a democracy. It is a shame that the people of the Northeast have to pretend to be citizens of a state that treats cattle better. It is a shame that administration of the Northeast still resonate with the display of brute, primeval power more suited for imperialist systems. It is a shame that Indian civil society loses its voice on the Northeast. It is a shame that the national media cannot see beyond the next cricket match. It is a shame that people have to die like animals even as smug bureaucrats and politicians claim to be talking peace. It is a shame that democratic institutions lead parallel lives in the Northeast. It is a shame that these parallel structures of governance cannot be checked by India's so-called vibrant democratic system and institutions. It is a shame that few people outside the Northeast know about what happens here. It is a shame that we have to be sending out this report.
(a) The guilty police, paramilitary and army personnel are given exemplary punishment for crimes against the people of the region and for wilful and pre-meditated murder of innocent protestors.
(b) The government set up a commission of inquiry with a sitting Supreme Court judge at its helm, to apportion responsibility of guilt on the different sections of the administration and armed forces that contributed to the deaths.
(c) The armed forces engaged in counter-insurgency should be removed from Assam immediately.
(d) The draconian security laws that allow impunity to the armed forces personnel should be repealed with immediate effect and those accused of committing crimes against people of the region under these acts be tried in the courts of law.
(e) The peaceful resolution of the political conflicts in the Northeast and genuine commitment to talks by the government of India.
From the office of
MASS Central Committee
For further information contact:
Mr. Lachit Bordoloi
MASS Central Office
Opposite Pub Guwahati High School
Guwahati 781 021