In a two-part series, Prof APURBA K. BARUAH contextualizes the major factors that led to the shameful violence that took place in Dholpur, Assam a fortnight back. In this part, he explains how the Assam police has turned into a rogue force ever since Himanta Biswa Sarma took over as the Chief Minister of Assam in May.
THE gory incident that took place in Dholpur of Sipajhar revenue circle in Darrang district of Assam, during an eviction drive on September 23 sent shock waves through the civil society of Assam, and has drawn considerable attention even outside the state.
A video of a group of armed police personnel encircling and shooting a lone protester, a 32 year old Muslim man, in the chest at point blank range, and a photographer hired by the civil administration stomping on the body of the man fallen to police bullet went viral. During the eviction drive, a 12 year old Muslim boy who was on his way home from the post office after collecting his UID card was also killed in police firing. A large number of civilians and policemen were also injured.
The state government claims that there were two deaths, but local people are claiming that a third person, a 22-year old Muslim man, was also killed in the firing, and some 27 more are still missing.
Though the police, the civil administration and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians, led by the present Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, have been saying that police did what they had to do in self-defence because thousands of “illegal” encroachers attacked the eviction party with stones and sharp weapons, yet, there has been no evidence of this furnished so far.
Certain questions remain unanswered. Why was a sole protester armed with only a bamboo stick beaten mercilessly by a posse of armed police? Why was he not captured and detained? Why was the injured protestor lying on the ground shot in the chest? What led to a 12 year old unarmed boy with a UID card in his pocket, returning home from a post office, being fired at?
No magistrate appeared to be at the spot when the police opened fired. It is interesting that when Darrang’s Superintendent of Police Susanta Biswa Sarma, who is the brother of the CM, was quizzed by journalists about the killing of the 12 year old boy, he avoided the question and said that everything will come out in the inquiry.
Also read: Eviction or resettlement: permanent dilemma in Assam
A rouge arm of the State
These are a plethora of serious issues involving the conduct of the police in India. All over the world, police have become an instrument of violence against ordinary citizens. Police violence usually takes two forms – physical brutality, which includes assault, torture and even murder, and mental cruelty, which includes the use of verbal abuse and intimidation. Both these forms are common in most countries.
India is no exception. We all have experiences of the average police personnel in India behaving like bullies with common citizens, particularly those from socio-economically weaker sections of the society, but behaving sycophantically with the political and economic elite, including the mega rich and powerful outlaws. It is common knowledge that the police, at times, are in cahoots with criminals.
The observation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2017, quoting the decades old words of Justice A.N. Mulla, that there is not a single lawless group in the whole of the country whose record of crime comes anywhere close to that of the single organised unit which is known as the Indian police force, is reaffirmed every day.
However, the killing spree in Assam is particularly disturbing because it is also communal. I would postpone the discussion on the communal angle for the next part, and concentrate here on the brutal and violent attitude that is reflected in the Assam Police’s actions in the recent past.
For quite some time now the police in Assam have been behaving like an unruly rogue force. Several videos of police mercilessly beating ordinary people in the name of enforcing COVID norms were in circulation during the lockdown period. Verbal abuse has seemingly become a part of our common police vocabulary.
After the formation of the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led state government in May 2021, police brutality has suddenly increased.
Also read: A government which keeps its promise: eviction, impunity and displacement in Assam
Escalation in violence after H.B. Sarma became CM
On July 10, The Assam Tribune reported that advocate Arif Jwadder lodged a complaint with the NHRC alleging fake encounters orchestrated by Assam Police. In his letter to the NHRC chairperson, he gave 10 instances of police firing at people who were under arrest. He argued that it was unlikely that all those individuals held by trained policemen, could actually snatch revolvers from the police, as claimed by the latter, because police personnel always heavily outnumbered the single accused on each such occasion. Moreover, such arrested persons are generally in hand cuffs. There is no doubt that the police uses a false claim of attempted arm snatching from policemen on duty to shoot the accused in custody.
Encouraged by a tip given by the CM, the police have gone on a shooting spree. From when the new government took over in May till September 27, the Assam Police was involved in 50 encounters, with 27 people killed and 40 injured.
Pratidin.com reported on September 6 that till September since the formation of the new government led by Himanta Biswa Sarma in May, Assam police has embarked on an encounter spree, wounding around 35 suspected criminals and killing at least 21, as they allegedly tried to snatch service weapons or attempted to escape from custody. The report said that many of those who were shot by police ostensibly because the former tried to snatch the latter’s weapons, were in handcuffs. It is evident that the state police have taken a rogue nature.
In a recent episode, even the Director General of Police was accused of insulting all legislators and, in turn, the public that elected them when, in a media interaction, he said something to the effect of “I am a policeman. I don’t know about MLAs”. This statement created a furore, and the opposition parties demanded that the Legislative Assembly Speaker take notice of the statement and order an inquiry.
In an unbelievable display of what for want of better words could be called ‘rouge mentality’, Sarma has given a license to police to use guns indiscriminately. On September 6, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights published a report titled Eviction, State Violence and Hate. The report cited a well-publicised statement of Sarma from July 2021 to the effect that his government will create a “population army” to “curb the birth rate in Muslim-dominated districts”.
In the same statement, he infamously declared that shooting at criminals ‘should be the pattern’ if they attempt to escape from custody or try to snatch arms from the police to open fire. He went on to suggest to the police, “If an accused tries to snatch the service gun and run away, or even simply flee, and on top of it he is, say, a rapist, law allows shooting at such a person on the leg, but not on the chest,” he said.
Also read: Custodial violence unabated year after shocking Sathankulam deaths
It is only natural that in such a climate, the police will be trigger happy, particularly if the target happens to be from a community that is declared by the CM as the enemy. It is of course too much of a coincidence that the majority of the victims of police violence in contemporary Assam happens to be from the Miya (Bengali speaking Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal) community.
(Apurba K. Baruah is a retired professor of North Eastern Hill University and a social activist based in Guwahati. The views expressed are personal.)