Jungle JusticeA spate of clandestine killings strengthens public fears that the state has adopted a new strategy to terrorise suspected ULFA sympathisers.
By Avirook Sen
There are two scars on either side of Ananta Kalita's face which could have the word "miracle" inscribed on them. One, as his medical report says, is an "entry wound". The other an exit wound. Kalita, 28, was shot through the face on the night of September 18 by "unidentified gunmen" and thrown off a hillside near Jorabat on the Assam-Meghalaya border. He survived because his 150-ft fall was broken by some trees. He managed to climb to the Guwahati-Shillong road, hail a vehicle to be taken to hospital. And live to tell the tale.
Kalita's sworn statement to a judicial magistrate is now a matter of record. He was a member of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), an organisation that is looked upon with suspicion by the state because of its alleged links with the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). There were statewide protests against Kalita's attempted murder and the Assam Government promised a judicial inquiry. But to date a notification ordering the inquiry hasn't been issued.
Around April this year, contract labourers working on an embankment on the Brahmaputra at Hudumpur Dokhola near Guwahati came to a firm decision. They were not going to work there anymore as they were scared. Each day at about midnight two or three Maruti Gypsies would take the dirt road to the edge of the embankment. A dozen or so heavily armed men would alight and scare the workers out of their shanties. The armed men would then go to an isolated hut at the brink of the river. When the labourers returned to the hut the next morning they would almost always see fresh blood stains.
By June, the labourers had fled. On June 21, a local fisherman caught a bloated human leg in his net. Two days later another recovery: a headless body with the head bobbing up a few hours later. It belonged to Parameshwar Das, a resident of Hajo area. The body had been swept back by the river into a canal where the locals fished. But what the Brahmaputra had really washed ashore were pieces of Assam's worst kept secret: clandestine executions allegedly conducted by Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA) militants in collusion with the police. From Sibsagar, way to the east, to Guwahati there are many other spots where the remains of scores of people have been thrown after the extra-judicial murders which now have a name: "gupta hoitya" or "secret killings". Human rights organisations claim the toll is huge. "Since 1998 more than 110 people have been victims of these secret killings," says Lachit Bordoloi of Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity.
When insurgent groups kill, they proffer justification. When security forces strike during anti-insurgency operations, they too are quick to claim credit. The single strain that runs through the "secret killings" is they are insurgency-related, yet nobody has taken responsibility. Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta's response: "All killings are secret killings."
The Government's direct approach to tackling insurgency has apparently failed: ULFA camps in Bhutan are out of reach. So targeting their families and suspected sympathisers seems to be the new tactic. It's a strategy the state cannot adopt openly, hence the use of the SULFA. The impact has been scary for those affected. "We've never been so insecure," says Kailash, Kalita's brother. "Everyone is wondering who is next."
September 16. Kalita had retired for the night in his house in Kalitakuchi when the knocks came. Ten men, with pistols, dragged him into their waiting vehicles. Blindfolded, Kalita was driven off to meet his destiny. From the stray conversation of his captors, he knew he was headed towards Guwahati. On the way was the Singhimari checkpost, where the vehicles would surely be stopped. They were. Kalita felt a torch on his face. A jawan said: "Murga mil gaya." There was muffled laughter.
Finding Parameshwar Das' house is easy in Hajo. Just ask for "the house of the man who was killed by the secret killers". It's an address. The family plays a macabre game with Kalita's one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. They ask her how her father was killed. "Dhoom, dhoom, katiche (they shot him and cut him up),"comes the reply. The description is remarkably accurate.
On the night of June 22, four men whisked Das away from his house. Having read about the recovery of a headless body in Hudumpur, his wife Malati suspected the worst. At Guwahati Medical College Hospital she identified his body. At one time Das was a member of the ULFA. But two years ago, when his wife was expecting, he quit the organisation. The police would come around to his house frequently to see what he was up to. He made his living off his fields. "The only motive for the murder," says Malati, "could be that Das was not able to give information about ULFA activists."
A senior police officer says "using former militants to gather intelligence on those who are underground is nothing new, and we do our bit to protect our sources". Protection is usually in the form of personal guards for SULFA members and a blind eye turned to the heavier ak-47s and carbines they carry. But SULFA leaders take a different line. "The police blackmails us into doing things by threatening to revive old cases," said former ULFA publicity secretary Sunil Nath at a public meeting.
In Tezpur on the night of September 29, two boys, Rajesh Mishra and Rajib Koch, had gone to arrange an ambulance for an ailing relative. They were bundled into a vehicle by armed men. No one's seen them since. The locals suspect the involvement of SULFA men because the boys had been involved in a land dispute with some of them.
The police, under pressure, "arrested" two SULFA members. But the duo managed a "miraculous escape" on the way to the police station. Sonitpur's superintendent of police and his deputy were subsequently suspended. But not before a group of enraged citizens raided the SULFA den in the Ananta Talkies area. The police had arranged the place for the surrendered militants and when the public broke in they found police uniforms and weapons.
"Whom do we turn to for justice?" asks Bhola Koch, Rajib's father. Mahanta dismisses the allegations of collusion, "Anyone can buy police uniforms off the street."
Kalita's journey had just begun. When the little convoy he was in stopped at another police checkpoint, he heard his captors say: "It is us." They moved on. He was dumped in a strange room that night. On the morning of September 17, he was woken up and asked to complete his ablutions. His blindfold removed, Kalita could now see what resembled a police battalion camp. He also saw cars passing by on the road outside, and tentatively asked a guard if this was Kahilipara. He had seen enough. The blindfold was back.
In the spate of extra-judicial killings -- which seem to have begun with the killing of Dimba Rajkonwar, the 55-year-old elder brother of ULFA chief Arabinda Rajkhowa in August 1998 -- it is the "unidentified gunmen" who have terrorised people. Yet, efforts to identify them have been suspiciously slow. Four relatives of ULFA Publicity Secretary Mithinga Daimary were killed on August 12, 1998, by a group of men who weren't hindered by the many checkpoints on the way to Nij Juluki in Nalbari district. This was followed, three days later, by the killing of Deva Kanta Gogoi, an employee of Dibrugarh University and elder brother of ULFA leader Krishna Gogoi. The list goes on.
On March 7, 1999, the ULFA retaliated by blasting a rocket at an apartment block called Usha Court, a SULFA den in Guwahati. The incident triggered another series of killings. The worst hit are ordinary civilians "suspected" of having links with the ULFA. Uma Kanta Gogoi of Kakatipara in Sibsagar district and his three daughters were killed when a bomb blew up their home on September 12. The official line was that Gogoi would offer shelter to ULFA activist Jatin Phukan who had left explosives in the house which went off. The post-mortem, however, revealed that Gogoi and his daughters had been shot before the house blew up. Locals say they even heard the rumble of vehicles that night, and gunshots before the explosion.
On the evening of September 18, Kalita had a visitor in his room at Kahilipara. The man said he was not a policeman -- but simply the law. "I have just one question for you. And there's only one answer," he told Kalita. "Where is Rupjyoti Baruah?"
Baruah was Kalita's neighbour, but had been underground for over a year and a half. Kalita said that was the last he saw of him. "Okay," said the man. "Eat your dinner well, it'll be your last."
A little while later, Kalita found himself blindfolded and in a Gypsy. The men who were with him were drunk. After a short uphill drive, one of them said: "Get it over with, while there are no trucks." Then someone stepped forward, put a pistol to Kalita's cheek. There was a single shot. Kalita keeled over the side of the hill. He was in free fall.
Organisations like ajycp which have worked closely with the ruling Asom Gana Parishad in the past say they are convinced the Assam Government is applying the same counter-insurgency doctrine that K.P.S. Gill applied to Punjab. Says AJYCP President Dilip Patgiri: "We are in no doubt that the killings have taken place with the active participation of the Government." G.M. Srivastava, IGP (operations), Assam Police, dismisses such allegations. "They surface to suit the insurgents," he says. However, human rights activists go to the extent of claiming that the killings are handled by the special operations group under Srivastava and are now gathering concrete proof.
"Proof?" asks Kalita. And then points to himself: "This is proof."
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