A Brief Report on State Repression in Assam

(March 2000) 

In a growing display of abdication of all responsibility, vis-à-vis its duties, the state government in Assam has unleashed a wave of terror upon its striking workers. The following compilation of events wishes to highlight the plight of the struggling masses in Assam. It also seeks to bring into focus the violations being endured by every section of society in their struggle against State brutality.  The State and Government Employees

The workers employed in state department offices have been trying to exercise their rights for some time now. Their workers association, Sadao Asom Karamchari Parishad, represents them. On Thursday, March 9, 2000 hundreds of SAKP activists were arrested by the police while they attempted to cordon off the precincts of the Assam Assembly near the Ganesh Mandir area of the state capital Dispur. The employees of the state government controlled offices and concerns had earlier made their intention of staging protests against government misrule clear. The leader of the association and four other members were then arrested and taken into custody by the police. They were produced before an additional Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) on March 10, 2000 and a case, 225/ 2000 under sections 188/121A/352/506 of the Indian Penal Code was registered against them. Their bail plea was rejected by the CJM on the grounds that section 121A and 356 of the IPC relate to serious offences like waging war against the country and criminal intention. The irony that employees of one the largest recruiting agents in Assam, namely- the State Government, can be construed as enemies of the state for merely trying to exercise their rights as members of an employees association, has to be considered given the political and economic environment in Assam.

The Assam government employs roughly 500,000 people in its administrative structure that includes state run education institutions, public distribution system, health care and other departments. Some teachers employed in state run schools and colleges have not received their salaries for over 24 months at a stretch! A recent communiqué issued by STATFED (the state government's public distribution agency) says that their employees have not received salaries for the past 11 to 25 months, even after the assurance of the Minister for Cooperatives and the Chief Minister of Assam. The employees association has now said that they will begin a non-cooperation strike from March 22. 2000 [19 March 2000, Asomiya Pratidin]. On the day the Assembly met for its Budget Session on March 8, 2000 several associations representing employees in different state run departments/ sectors, sat in protest outside the precincts of the assembly. They were demanding regular salaries and redressal of circumstances that have led to severe impoverishment in the state. It has to be mentioned here that three teachers in Goalpara and Nalbari districts were forced to take their own lives both out of desperation and as a form of ultimate protest. The large turnout at the protest outside the Assembly has to be seen against the light of these circumstances and the fact that for the past year, SAKP have been raising these issues with the government and the government has turned a blind eye to their demands. None of the demands seem unreasonable in a democratic context. They call for (a) pay revision on par with Central Government (b) extension of retirement age by two years (c) time-scale promotion (d) regular payment of salary (e) payment of Dearness Allowance and Arrears.

The state government's inability to pay its employees their wages and fulfil its administrative role lies in the fact that for the past 5 years the government has embarked upon a level of militarisation at the expense of social development. Along with this, the rampant corruption that characterises bureaucracy in the state has left the coffers of the finance ministry empty. The state government has further exacerbated the problem by refusing to pay heed to democratic protests that are articulated against its misrule.

What is even more alarming however is the response of the elected representatives in power and their administration. After the SAKP protests and the subsequent arrest of the secretary general Charan Deka, the Chief Minister wasted no time in making wild, unfounded allegations stating that Citizen Deka was "hobnobbing with certain leaders of a banned political outfit" [13 March 2000, The Telegraph]. The allegation drew widespread criticism from all quarters including drawing the ire of the opposition parties in the Assembly. The SAKP continued its protests and Deka along with S.D Sharma, B. Medhi and M. Barman (other arrested SAKP members) were released on bail on March 13, 2000. On the same day, his employer (the Government of Assam) suspended Citizen Deka from work for having spent more than 48 hours in police custody!

Assam's state government employees are not the only section of society to be faced with State repression in the course of gross violations of human rights. Various Civil Rights organisations, youth and students' associations as well as journalists and other professionals have come under siege. Their only "crime" has been speaking against the policies of the coalition government at Dispur. The State, media and Human Rights workers

In the period between 1997 and 1999, as many as 28 journalists were detained by the state administration under trumped up charges. The erstwhile editor of Asomiya Pratidin, Mr. Ajit Kumar Bhuyan was arrested from his residence on October 1, 1997 under the National Security Act. The NSA Board, which is the apex, cell for detainees under the Act advised the Assam government to release Citizen Bhuyan. Having done so, the administration wasted no time and re-arrested him under a fake case No. 853/97 of Nagaon Police Station on November 21, 1997. In another case, Mr. Bubumoni Goswami a journalist with Asomiya Protidin, was arrested under fake case 104/97 as he was returning home (Morigaon) from Guwahati. His detention in police custody was charged under section365/120 (b)/ 120 (a) of the IPC, to be read with 10/13 ULA (P). Similarly Mr. Prakash Mahanta, Mr. Asish Gupta were also arrested during this period. Both persons are responsible media professionals who were targeted and detained like those before them, under NSA and sundry sections of IPC and ULA (P). Citizen Mahanta was picked up from his house by a special task force of Assam Police and physically abused. The officer in charge of the operation said that the beating was to teach him a lesson for publishing articles against the Chief Minister. His personal property was destroyed and even though he suffered severe physical torture in custody, he was not allowed medical aid. Citizen Gupta was detained first in 1997 and then again in 1999. Although the government has yet to show cause for his first detention, in 1999 he was re-arrested under NSA for "publishing articles against the Kargil conflict", amongst a host of other ridiculous charges. It has to be mentioned that all the individuals mentioned here are also human rights workers. In the course of their dual duty, as journalists and as defenders of civil liberties, they were targeted and abused by the State for exposing its blatant criminal underbelly. Today they continue to be under severe threat from state agencies and special "clandestine killers" under government payroll. In 1997 itself, two journalists, Naresh Kalita and Jitumoni Bora of Dainik Agradoot, were arrested by the City Police in Guwahati. The newspaper that they worked for had been and continues to be a vocal critic of the ruling coalition government in Dispur. Later the Police claimed that they had "found guns and other armament" in their possession. Both were released on bail later for want of proof against the charges filed by the police. The State and other sections of Civil Society

Similarly, the state administration has not hesitated to use its might against every section of society, be they students, workers or peasants. A farmer, Nabin Kalita was brutally tortured on August 27, 1999 for daring to file Public Interest Litigation against the Chief Minister. He was challenging the Governor's refusal to allow the CBI to prosecute the Chief Minister for the Letter of Credit Scam. Citizen Kalita felt as did the Central Bureau of Investigation, that the elected representative could be taken to task for his role in the financial misappropriation. The Governor in the meanwhile had denied the CBI request to interrogate the Chief Minister, Prafulla Mahanta. Citizen Kalita was first threatened and on the night of August 27, 1999 his house ad personal belongings were ransacked by the police, who were searching for the file of legal documents he had in his possession. The police after having arrested him obtained signatures from the Gaonburah (Village Chief) and two other members of ruling AGP, on a blank sheet of paper. Later, they alleged that an AK 47 was recovered from Citizen Kalita and that this "seizure" was "attested to by the witnesses". The "witnesses" were not as enthusiastic as the police and denied the police version of events, in front of visiting journalists. Citizen Kalita was detained for a period of 10 days in police custody where he was tortured. He was detained under NSA on September 29, 1999 just before the hearing on his bail petition.
These are but a few glaring instances that highlight the present lawlessness of the state administration. In every instance the state has resorted to the classic counter insurgency logic of terrorising the common people. The government hopes that by deflecting the focus from social and political issues, to one where everything is viewed as a "threat to National Security", it can reduce the people into a state of permanent silence. While all sections of civil society and democratic opinion, in Assam, calls for a political solution to the issues at hand, the government continues with an outdated and repressive policy of violent subjugation. The issues are real as they affect the very democratic fabric of society. They range from the Right to self-determination to wages and under the present circumstances, MASS feels that the State's attitude will only worsen the situation. Catch and Kill

In 1997 the Assam government sanctioned the creation of the Unified Command structure. The events that led up to its formation are rooted in the existing counter insurgency tactics of the Indian State. The Unified Command structure paved the way for virtual military rule in the state and ran against every known democratic process of conflict resolution. At its apex was the chief Secretary of the government of Assam, who is the head of the bureaucracy. The local police and army units were to operate with a wide mandate that bypassed civil authority entirely. The only operative command to conduct search and kill operations against the common people was could be issued by local army or paramilitary units. The sanction for this military rule came from the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, working in tandem with the Indian army, the police and parliamentary parties. Approximately a thousand people were murdered in the process. The Unified Command structure was a kind of macabre nursery where the laws of the land and the rights of citizens as guaranteed by the Indian constitution, were bypassed in favour of fascist military rule. That the State was intent on the criminalisation of its law enforcing agencies was proved beyond any reasonable doubt with the creation and implementation of the Unified Command structure. The intention for unleashing such repressive measures too, is not far to seek. The repressive machinery of the Indian State can only reinvent similar anti people measures to contain the voice of the masses. In Assam, the army has been stationed on a war footing for more than a decade, ostensibly to restore "law and order". This in itself contradicts the tenets of any democratic polity. If indeed there is a law and order problem, it is the State that has to account for the growing criminalisation and militarisation of the society it governs.

Even the top army brass, as well as parliamentary politicians acknowledge the fact that the problem in Assam is a political one, which can only be resolved politically. At the risk of being repetitive, it has to be mentioned that the people of Assam have raised conscious demands, be they for fair wages or for the right of self- determination. These demands have arisen as a result of experience and practice that the people have had to face in their history. The government instead chooses to rubbish the legitimacy of democratic politics by brute force.

All the atrocities committed under the aegis of the Unified Command naturally failed to quell the voices of dissent. All the government managed to do, at the cost of innocent lives, was to further alienate the people from the State. The political and economic demands of the people remained unresolved and the protests against the Indian State's army rule gathered momentum. It was roughly at this juncture, as a combined effect of peoples' protest and the State's unwillingness to address the democratic aspirations of the masses, that the government of Assam embarked on yet another tried and tested counter insurgency tactic. This was the introduction of Clandestine Killers, or "Secret Killers" in media parlance. These "clandestine killers" were recruited from amongst a lumpen section of surrendered rebels of the United Liberation Front of Asom. These surrendered rebels were allowed to retain their arms and their services were often utilised by the army and police for combing and search operations. By the first quarter of 1998, the government picked a leaf out of any standard counter insurgency manual from Latin America, to unleash a shadowy death squad. These vigilantes were above the law and could strike at will. Their targets were carefully selected to cause maximum panic and fear amongst the people. [For details refer: Assam: Where the Peacekeepers carried out Secret Killing, 29th September 1999, MASS report]. In the last year and a half MASS has documented the murders of 155 people by these death squads. As is the rule with such killings, the victims' families have received no compensation from the State, neither were investigations into these cases carried out and the killers are still roaming the streets, alleys and paddy fields of Assam.

The first and only judicial inquiry into the activities of the death squads was appointed when an AJYCP member. Ananta Kalita narrowly escaped death. Kalita's case was widely reported in the media and public opinion against the government's open secret of using death squads against the people was condemned. In Tezpur, the people took to the streets in protest against the activities of known lumpens, who were members of a death squad, when they kidnapped two young men Rajib Koch and Rajesh Mishra. The two are still missing and the government has not done anything to secure their release. One fears the worst in such cases.

The latest strategy that the government of Assam has come up with to contain civil unrest, has been a Catch and Kill policy. To elucidate further, this policy in designed to terrorise the population into a state of perpetual fear. The anatomy of such a policy is not new in the State's own history of dealing with dissidence. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Kashmir have all witnessed such killings or fake encounters in the past. This form of State terror however is relatively new in Assam, where the security forces have traditionally enjoyed a free hand. Certain illustrative examples of what the policy of Catch and Kill entails is given below.

On 20th January 2000, Padum Sarma an ULFA activist, was picked up from Bebejia in Nagaon district. He was first taken to the Bebejia police station and later, on the same night, was shifted to Nagaon Sadar police headquarters. During the course of the night he was brutally tortured. He succumbed to his injuries sustained in police custody. The next morning his dead body was left near the railway bridge in Senchowa, five kilometres from the district headquarter. The police version was published almost immediately and it stated that Padum Sarma died in an "encounter" with the police. Primary investigation carried out by journalists, however show that the local people disclaim any story of an "encounter". Moreover Sarma's body bore marks of third degree torture, that could never have been sustained in an armed engagement. [Ajir Batori, 23rd January 2000].

Similarly, on 27th February 2000, two ULFA activists- Aditya Bora and Rituraj Bhuyan (both Central Commissars of ULFA's political wing) were picked up from Nimatighat near Jorhat town. They were taken to the police headquarters of Jorhat district. There is no record, even with the police, that the two were carrying any firearms. The next day the police published a story wherein they stated that the two were killed near Nagajan, on the Assam- Nagaland border. It further added that the two were taking the police to an ULFA hideout when the rebels fired upon them. In the ensuing ambush, the statement said, the two activists sustained bullet injuries and they later died. Surprisingly the police suffered no losses and media reports state that their vehicles showed no signs of damage. The victims on the other hand were handcuffed. [Asomiya Protidin, 29th February 2000].

On 17th March 2000, Khagen Barman was picked up by a group of policemen in Singimari Major Subba, near Hajo in Kamrup District. He was watching television in his own house when policemen burst into his house and dragged him and his friend, Madhab Barman who was with him, to the courtyard. They were beaten mercilessly and were continuously asked about the whereabouts of ULFA activists. When they could not say anything and claimed their ignorance on such matter, Khagen Barman was dragged into his own backyard where the policemen shot him. He died with eight bullets in his body. His body was put into a sack even as the police beat his family members. His neighbours were called out and threatened with dire consequences if they did not sign a blank sheet of paper. The police browbeat a few people into signing statements that claimed that Barman had died in an encounter. The "witnesses" later retracted their statements in front of reporters, saying that they had signed the blank sheets under duress. [Ajir Batori, 19 March 2000].

In yet another revealing instance of State terror, Someswar Deka of Guijan in Tinsukia district was dragged out of his house on 30th January 2000. Deka was a businessman. He was beaten in front of his house by army men who then proceeded to shoot him. They then fired indiscriminately at his house and two of his brothers; his son and sister-in-law were injured. The injured were put in a jeep by Sanjay Deka, the only family member who was not injured, and driven to Dibrugarh Medical College. On the way, at Guijan Tiniali the army stopped them and forced them to proceed to Dinjan army medical centre where Someswar Deka died. The other injured members of his family were shifted to Dibrugarh Medical College. Later the whole incident was passed off as a "misunderstanding" by the authorities. [Ajir Batori, 31st January 2000].

On 24th March 2000, Sanjib Kalita a student who also sold flowers to make ends meet, was picked up by a group of army, who were accompanied by a band of government sponsored vigilantes, from where he was staying in Panbazar area of Guwahati city. When his neighbours tried to intervene, the army threatened to shoot them. Kalita was attired in a simple lungi and vest when he was taken away. The next day his dead body was handed over by the army to the Nalbari police headquarters, some 60 km from the scene of his abduction. The official version issued by the army was that Sanjib Kalita was killed in an encounter near Barkura in Nalbari district while he was "driving down the National Highway on his scooter". The army also stated that they "recovered a hand made pistol from his possession." This young, struggling student's only "crime" in the eyes of the State was the fact that his brother is a member of the armed opposition group, ULFA. Interestingly, his death was first announced in the local media under the assumption that it was actually his brother, Dhrubajyoti Kalita who had died. It must have taken some doing, by the army's spin-doctors to correct this version once their "mistake" was "discovered".

In the last few weeks the ongoing government sponsored terror has claimed many lives. [See table below]. What these killings have achieved in terms of creating an environment of terror can only be measured by the fact that the lay person in Assam is afraid to articulate her/ his demands in public. Human rights workers are regularly targeted and this has meant that neutral inquires into these incidents have been next to impossible. Objective reportage in the media is slowly being quashed, as journalists who dare to publish their facts are made to pay for doing their work. Employees, who have borne the brunt of misappropriation of funds and gross mismanagement, are being told that they are "a threat to National Security" when they demand their wages. Students have been beaten into a passive state to such an extent that they cannot participate in a meaningful education process. Democratic associations and other civil organisations are unable to articulate an opinion on a wide range of issues that affect them for fear of the lives of their members. Under such conditions, the silence of liberal opinion within the region as well as in South Asia can only be construed as tacit support for these repressive measures. MASS calls upon all democratic forces, civil liberties and human rights organisations to take stock of these measures being adopted by the Indian State. We call for a protracted struggle to expose these violations of fundamental rights of citizens.

List of Fake Encounters in the past three months. [January-March 2000]
[Courtesy MASS Documentation Cell]
 
 

3 January

Mantu Barman

Barama/Nalbari

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

4 January

Ananda Das

Digboi/Tinsukia

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

 

Samiran Maran

Nakharai/Tinsukia

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

7 January

Ankur Bora

Bamuni/Nagaon

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

14 January  

B. L. Goura

 Nizjuluki/Nalbari

NDFB 

Army

Fake-encounter

17 January    

Jaycharan Barman

Ghagrapar/Nalbari

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

21 January   

Naram Medhi 

Bajali/Barpeta

ULFA

CRPF

Fake-encounter

 

Nayan Choudhuri  

Patacharkuchi/Barpeta

ULFA 

CRPF

Fake-encounter

 

Lochan Das  

Bajali/Barpeta 

ULFA

CRPF

Fake-encounter

22 January   

Padum Sarma 

Bebejia/Nagaon

ULFA

Police

Fake-encounter

30 January 

Puspadhar Deka 

Goijan/Tinsukia 

Businessman 

Army 

Fake-encounter

10 February    

Binanda Saikia

Barpathar/Golaghat

ULFA

Police 

Fake-encounter

19 February  

Dilip Boro 

Tamulpur/Nalbari 

NDFB

Army 

Fake-encounter

19 February   

N. Dinowai 

Bihpuria/Lakhimpur

NDFB

Army 

Fake-encounter

19 February

Gopal Talukder 

Arikuchi/Nalbari 

ULFA 

Army 

Fake-encounter

4 March  

Rupjoyti Kalita 

Ranganijhar/Sonitpur

ULFA 

Police 

Fake-encounter

17 March   

Khukhreng Boro 

Simla/Bongaigaon

Civilian

Army

Fake-encounter

18 March  

Kagen Barman

Hajo/Kamrup

Farmer

Police 

Fake-encounter

19 March   

Binod Kuli 

Mohkhowa/Lakhimpur

Student 

Army

Fake-encounter

22 March   

Amulya Patowari 

Muktapur/Kamrup

ULFA

Army 

Fake-encounter

 

Mukut Deka    

Gurmou/Kamrup

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

 

Gobinda Deka    

Burka/Kamrup

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

 

Lakhikanta Rava   

Darrang 

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

 

Mihir Deka    

Salmara/Darrang

ULFA

Army

Fake-encounter

 

Rabati Kalita    

Banmajha/Kamrup

House-wife

Army

Fake-encounter

25 March    

Sanjib Kalita 

Borkura/Nalbari

Student

Army

Fake-encounter