Of Massacres, Conspiracies and Political Cynicism

Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti

Two massacres have shattered the already fragile political situation in Assam, in the month of October alone. The timing of both massacres is important, as is the fact that in both instances the victims belonged to predominantly Hindi-speaking communities. In all, twenty-five people have been butchered and despite a cynical game of pinning the blame on the most convenient scapegoats, the administration has done nothing to determine the cause and effect of the cold-blooded murders. This provisional report is an attempt to dissect the tragic events themselves, as well as analyse the response on the State and non-State actors. Our organisation reiterates that this report is more than circumstantial evidence, to try and pin the blame or absolve any one party in the massacres. It is the result of a long-drawn engagement with the ground realities and history of counter-insurgency tactics in Assam. It is also an attempt to engage the State apparatus (yet again) in a process of democratic reconsideration of its militarisation policies. Due to certain restraints, we have had to rely mainly on media reports of the massacres. An independent fact-finding, by any civil rights organisation, seems impossible at this stage, given the deployment of armed personnel. Moreover, this report does not wish to contend the veracity of the reports in the press. Our intention is to relate disparate elements as they appeared in the local and national press, to the larger history of counter-insurgency and militarisation in Assam. As such, these massacres need some plausible explanations. The ones provided by the dominant political forces, one feels, are too simplistic and very misleading.

The Events: On October 22, 2000 a group of armed men dressed in jungle fatigues entered Kakojan village, fifteen kilometres from Doomdooma town, in Tinsukia district. They were all riding motorcycles. Once in the village, they went up to Keshab Kanu’s (a local grocer) shop and ordered the assembled to line up there. They spoke in Hindi, all the while asking people to assemble there and wait for the ‘sahib’. Once the people were lined up, the armed assailants opened fire killing and injuring many of the people. Amongst the dead were- Keshab Kanu (35), Shankar Kanu (20), Binoy Kanu (17), Subhash Gupta (50), Raju Gupta (20), Parshuram Prasad (36), Sheikh Hazrat (56), Sheikh Mushtaq (35), Pawan Singh (20) and Manoj Singh (18). Three others, Ashraf Ali, Krishna Gupta and Rajen Prasad were injured and taken to a nearby hospital. As a result of the firing, a thatched house and cowshed caught fire. The assailants escaped from the spot soon after [As reported in Assam Tribune; October 24, 2000].

A few hours before the Kakojan incident, three armed youth barged into a shop in Naoholia market, under Jeypore Police Station in Dibrugarh district and opened fire. They shot dead the owner of the shop- Radheshyam Agarwal (39). As they were trying to make a getaway they also shot Talbi Mian (55), Harendra Shaha (30) and a child Jitendra Rai (3). Five people who were injured in the incident were identified as Sushil Rai, Sahadev Paswan, Sudama Thakur, Nathan Shah and Surji Devi [As reported in The Telegraph; October 24, 2000].

On October 27, 2000 a group of armed men inside a Tata Sumo vehicle, got off and began opening indiscriminate fire near the Hari Mandir area of Nalbari town, at around 6.30 p.m. Six persons were killed on the spot and three of the injured succumbed to their injuries later in hospital. In this case as well, the victims belonged to the Hindi-speaking community of the town. The deceased were Biswanath Bajaj (55), Dharamchand Jain (51), Laxmi Narayan Bajaj (52) Godavari Bajaj (45), Sawarlal Sharma (50), Jaikumar Jain (52). The identity of the three other deceased were not immediately ascertained, though the names of the injured were- Inder Singh, Dinanath Rai, Umang Bajaj and Nandan Jain. The police recovered a lot of handbills bearing the name of ‘Assam Tiger Force’ from the area.

The Round of Inevitable Allegations: In both instances, the local English and national press was quick to lay the blame for these killings squarely on the United Liberation Front of Assam. All the major English dailies carried headlines that were not exactly designed to leave room for doubt. A brief survey of a sample of headlines is in order to determine the knee-jerk reaction of the media and the authorities: '15 die in twin strikes as Ulfa ends lull' [The Telegraph, October 24, 2000]; 'Migrants bear brunt of ULFA terror' [The Indian Express, October 24, 2000]; 'ULFA strikes at Doomdooma' [North East Times, October 24, 2000]; 'Suspected ULFA ultras mow down 10 in Nalbari' [The Sentinel, October 28, 2000]; '10 butchered in Ulfa ethnic cleansing' [The Telegraph, October 28, 2000].

All the papers mentioned actually carried the news reports that were the police versions of who were responsible for this heinous crime. This of course was a fact that was understated and the brutality of the event made it so much easier to ‘accept’ the newspapers reportage. But the local Assamese dailies tried to investigate and convey to the reader the complexity of the events. Papers like Aji, also hinted at the possible complicity of Intelligence Agencies like Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) [Aji, October 28, 2000]. The sub-text in the narration of both these events leave a lot of loopholes that need to be plugged. However, the fact remains that civil society at large has been forced to uncritically accept the police version of the events, both in upper Assam and in Nalbari. Not once did any of the reports mention the basis upon which the police claimed to have ‘solved the case’. No investigation, either departmental or judicial was undertaken before the police issued its ‘official’ line. In line with the official policy of pushing the dirt under the carpet, all the circumstantial evidence that could point to a larger, more complex web of violence, was downplayed. No details about the so-called 'Assam Tiger Force' were forthcoming. They were there merely to pull the triggers and leave behind pamphlets. It is not the first time that such an organisation has reared its head, claiming this dastardly deed on behalf of itself and whoever it represents. There is a definite pattern to this. Six years ago, very few people had heard of the 'Bodo Liberation Tiger Force'. It wasn’t until the Bodo-Santhal clashes and the ill-fated train bomb that people took notice. Today, they are a force that can claim some amount of dubious legitimacy as they bargain for scraps from the Central government. People have seemingly forgotten their violent acts or the fact that on many an instance, they were reported to have been backed by the Indian army and intelligence agencies, such as RAW.

Even though the preliminary round of accusations by the State apparatus seeks to hold ULFA responsible, there is enough evidence to prove that this is not a ‘cut-and-dry’ case. Political organisations like Congress (I) have condemned the massacres and sought to distance themselves from it by demanding President’s Rule in the state. CPI (M-L) have issued a statement saying that these massacres are an ‘attempt by the ruling class’ strategy to divide people along communal lines and to demolish the democratic movement surrounding the burning issues in the state [As reported in Dainik Agradoot; October 29, 2000]. The United Minority Front has claimed that ‘massacres of such a scale cannot be carried out by an extremist group without the active support of a political party’; as such an event has never been carried out by any militant organisation before. The CPI (M) has said that this a political conspiracy that is designed to create clashes along communal lines, between different communities and the need of the hour is to identify the forces that endorse such trends [As reported in Dainik Asom; October 29, 2000]. It seems evident that most political groupings are falling all over themselves, to try and either distance themselves from this or pin it on someone else. The Chief Minister himself thinks that ‘this is a conspiracy to dislodge him from power’ [As reported in North East Times; October 29, 2000]. Instead of scouring the land for the killers, the police officials, like G.M Srivastava (the man responsible for implementing the counter-insurgency tactics of the police in Assam) have questioned the 'fact' that human rights organisations have not said anything against these encounters. This is as far from the truth as possible. MASS’ statements condemning the massacres were published, as was NECOHR’s immediately after both the heinous incidents. What MASS and NECOHR failed to do however, was to accept the ‘official view’. There is reason to be sceptical of any claim made by the administration on issues surrounding any form of violence in Assam, unless these claims are backed by infallible proof and endorsed by independent bodies. In the meantime, the administration and a section of the media, have decided that there is only one set of possibilities in a tragedy of this scale. Find a scapegoat, paint it black and hope the persistent questions that remain will disappear.

Why We Ought to be Sceptical: For one, the ULFA itself has claimed that it did not carry out these killings. Its commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua, issued a statement immediately when the events came to be known on October 24, 2000, saying that the proscribed organisation did not endorse such kind of violence. While it may be prudent not to accept any statement at face value, one needs to apply the same logic to statements of the police and other members of the administration. However, if one goes by past experience, ULFA’s stand on communal and ethnic conflicts has been rather consistent. In 1992, following the Babri Masjid demolition, there were strong indications that its effects would be felt in Assam too. The ruling Congress (I) and minority political leaders tried to ignite the flame of communal passion in Nagaon, the most sensitive area in terms of communal conflict. ULFA intervened in all the sensitive areas, cautioning people against sinister political designs. Their efforts averted a potential bloodbath in Nagaon in particular and the rest of the region in general.

Secondly, ULFA has suffered tremendous losses, according to the State’s own admission. In upper Assam, the use of vehicles and the manner in which the details of the massacre were operationalised leaves room for serious inquiry into the police’s version. In the Kakojan massacre, the assailants used seven motorcycles, which normally would also mean that they could be traced. However, far from offering details about the bikes, the inexplicable is being sought to be passed off as ‘truth’. In Nalbari, the assailants were aboard a Tata Sumo and in the middle of town. Such a conspicuous luxury, in times of great difficulty beats political and military logic of any group that is supposed to be 'on the run'. According to newspaper sources, the people of Nalbari are aggrieved with the authorities for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Sanjay Bajaj, the son of late Biswanath Bajaj, informed newspaper sources that even though he had informed the police within five minutes of the incident, it took the police forty-five minutes to arrive at the spot, which is but a five minute drive from the police station [As reported in North East Times; October 29, 2000]. The police’s claim that the attacks were part of a long drawn strategy of coercing people into paying money, by ULFA also seems to fall flat as Manoj Jain, son of the late Jaikumar Jain, said that no such demand was made on them by any organisation [North East Times; October 29, 2000]. According to another eyewitness, a small posse of CRPF personnel was present in the area minutes before the heinous event at Nalbari. However, a police official came and asked them to leave the place [As reported in The Telegraph; October 29, 2000]. While such evidence may be attributed to coincidence by the cynical observer and die-hard believer in the administration’s version, the lack of conclusive proof makes it impossible to rule out the existence of a larger conspiracy. The ‘ULFA angle’ is far too simplistic and repetitive.

Thirdly, the deployment of troops in the areas where the massacres took place is another disturbing factor that needs more explanation. In upper Assam there is hardly any scope for ULFA, or any proscribed group, to carry out an operation of such a scale without the knowledge and connivance of the police, paramilitary, army and SULFA renegades. To imagine that an organisation like ULFA would then negotiate with all the existing State forces is very far-fetched. Equally implausible, is the theory that massacres of such a scale could be carried out and the perpetrators slip away like ghosts, given the tight security surveillance. Upper Assam, which is fertile ground for ULFA, an event like this would reduce the organisation’s credibility and that itself defies political logic. In Nalbari, which was once an area where they were very active, subsequent military, paramilitary, police and SULFA deployment have made it almost impossible for any ULFA cadre to move around there. The joint activities of the former forces have created a wave of terror there. Even families and sympathisers of the proscribed organisation have been targeted and killed. Moreover, there were additional security forces deployed in Nalbari on that day, in preparation of the Chief Minister and Governor’s visit that was scheduled for October 28, 2000 (i.e. the very next day of the massacre). In any event of this scope and brutality there are always telltale signs that point out to the bits that don’t fit.

Fourthly, the history of the State’s intervention in the ongoing low-intensity conflict has evolved in a manner that implicates it in events such as these tragic massacres. The conventional military strategy to combat ULFA head-on, which proved futile in the early 1990s, transformed itself into a kind of traditional counter-insurgency theatre. However, in this period the State also made use of underlying tensions within civil society in order to criminalise the struggles. One needs only to refer back to the Bodo-Santhal clashes of 1995, which started with the discovery of three dead women, whom both communities claimed belonged to them. Instead of immediately assuaging their doubts, a situation was allowed to arise, whereby an obscure group, trained by Indian intelligence agencies and the army, called the BLTF was allowed to play upon communal tension and widen its own reach. Ironically, the three unfortunate women were neither Bodo or Santhal, but Nepali, as was ‘discovered’ earlier. By the middle of the decade the State had begun to utilise roving bands of surrendered ULFA (SULFA) renegades in its attempt to contain the armed movement for self-determination. This occurred with the parallel development of the police as a force that operated outside the framework of law. The militarisation process has been instrumental in the rise of the number of fake encounters and custodial deaths. The use of renegades in counter-insurgency is standard tactic. It subverts the normal process of justice and given the fact that the legal structure is barely capable of dealing with normal rule of law, such a development renders it impotent. The number of crimes committed by SULFA renegades in connivance with the police/ paramilitary/ army, have never seen the light of day in a civilian court, despite all evidence of such a nexus being conclusive. In a sense, the new strategy of containing insurgency has given the State apparatus a literal monopoly to enact violence. Even the symbolic ‘crackdown’ on SULFA renegades seems empty in the light of the fact that those whose links with security personnel have been proved beyond reasonable doubt have been let off. The capacity to terrorise civil society in Assam today, rests solely with the State apparatus. This is not a statement that can be repudiated outright, even by apologists of the administration. On the other hand, given the fact that ULFA is not considered a ‘belligerent force’ in an area where rule of International Humanitarian Law may be applicable, make it impossible for citizens to have access to their plans. What we get is what we receive from the authorities that treat the armed struggle as a law and order problem. The ground reality however suggests that there is a definite low-intensity conflict that is being played out in Assam. The dual policy of the State, which on the one hand seeks to project this as an ‘internal law and order problem’ to the outside world, while on the other hand endorses extra-constitutional use of force, leaves us a little sick. The predictable response of the administration needs to be seen in light of this history.

What is to be done: In our haste to find the culprits of the dastardly acts of violence, one ought to be cautious in passing judgement. If justice has to be done someone has to take responsibility for the following events in the history of violence in modern Assam:

(a) The process of systematic militarisation of the polity in Assam and the North East has to be questioned. The apportioning of guilt can happen only after the rule of International Humanitarian Law is made applicable and independent authorities allowed to independent the issue.

(b) The details of the use of renegades in counter-insurgency have to be made public by the authorities. The cases that for so long have been kept under wraps, as Assam’s worst kept secrets, have to be tried by impartial bodies.

(c) Civil, Democratic and Human Rights organisations have to be allowed to work without fear of reprisal by the State.

While these steps may seem too huge a task, the absence of any will to realize them would be disastrous. With Assembly elections around the corner, this pattern of seemingly ‘random’ violence will only increase. Even as this happens, the administration will seek to fob the blame on non-State actors. In such a situation it becomes important for all democratic opinion to unite and unravel the sinister designs of the State apparatus in Assam. Their attempt is to discredit all voices of dissent, be it from proscribed organisations or from civil society organisations. The death of innocent civilians ought to shake us from our complacency and strongly articulate the need for realizing justice and applicability of rule of law for the people of the region.

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