Early last Saturday (April 10) Aswini Kumar, leading a seven-member team of Bihar police, came to arrest alleged motorcycle thieves hiding in the nearby Pantapara village in the Goalpokhar police station area of Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. The team came under attack by an armed mob. Confusion gripped the outstation policemen who faced a bomb attack along with heavy stones being thrown at them from all directions in the dark.
Caught in an unfamiliar territory against an obviously well-prepared mob, the team received no help from their local Bengal counterparts. Outnumbered, they broke ranks and fled in all directions, but Kumar was trapped and killed as the mob pounced on him. The others survived, only to be later reprimanded and suspended for their ignominious flight.
The matter went under-reported in West Bengal. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the tragic death of the policeman in one of his speeches, castigating the alleged breakdown of law and order in West Bengal.
Kumar’s mutilated body was returned to the Bihar police authorities a day after the incident. Mrityunjay Singh, spokesman for the Bihar Police Association, told the media that Kumar had been beaten up and strangulated.
The suffering of Kumar’s family continued: his mother Urmila Devi could not bear the shock of her son’s killing and died. Mother and son were cremated together in the presence of a large number of locals and state policemen. Ashwini Kumar was the station house officer of Kishanganj station in Bihar.
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The Bengal police version is that they had already informed the Bihar team of their inability to provide logistical support as the police force was busy with election-relation work. Bengal police sources said the Bihar team entered the village in the middle of the night in three vehicles and was attacked almost immediately. “As our men were already deployed on election duty, we had requested them to reschedule the raid. We didn’t know they went ahead with the raid. We have arrested three persons. It was a very tragic incident,” said Sachin Makkar, superintendent of Islampur police district in West Bengal.
The incident happened during campaigning for the fourth phase of the Bengal assembly polls. The voting for this phase, which took place in north Bengal, was the most violent – at least four people were killed by central forces in Cooch Behar. So the official follow-up of the events in Bengal remained casual.
The lynching has raised questions about the apparent lack of professionalism among policemen and strengthens suspicion of a cover-up.
The big question is if the Bihar authorities had kept the Bengal police in loop about the raid. The village where the incident took place is barely 12 kilometres from Bihar’s Kishanganj, the nearest town and railway station. In a brief statement made to the electronic media, Bengal officials claimed they had received no such information.
However, information from Bihar contradicts this version. According to Suresh Prasad, inspector general of police (Purnea), the duty officer at the nearest police station in Bengal near Pantapara village had been duly informed about the raid to be conducted by the Bihar policemen, who were tracking the movements of the bike thieves from April 8.
A Bihar Police Association statement said that well before the raid at Goalpokhar got underway, their Bengal counterparts were duly informed. Bengal authorities had even promised to send a supporting team to help the Bihar team in an unfamiliar terrain. Surprisingly, no one turned up.
On the Bengal side of the state border, it was learnt that the attacking mob comprised 300 people. The villagers had been told to gather at the spot through loudspeakers installed at the local mosque. Kishanganj and adjacent areas in Dinajpur in Bengal are Muslim-dominated.
It is common knowledge that the area is known for the presence of a large number of suspected Bangladeshis who have settled there in the last three decades. On both sides of the Bengal-Bihar border, the law and order situation is grim as human trafficking, drugs/arms smuggling and other crimes are reported almost regularly. Some prominent politicians belonging to both Bihar and Bengal have been accused of supporting such elements.
Kolkata-based intelligence circles, for different reasons, do not dismiss the Bengal police version about non-sharing of information between the forces. For some years state police forces don’t share prior information about any raids/arrests they need to make from West Bengal at the official level. Reason: there is a general apprehension that confidential information is compromised.
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In the last few years, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh police too have made arrests and conducted raids involving suspected criminals/militants in encounters at Tiljala and central Kolkata without bringing the local police into picture. The Bangladesh police had arrested one of the killers of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Bedford Lane, central Kolkata, without any fanfare only last year. The professional reputation of the state police suffered a major setback since the escape of Mujib killer Mohammad Mosleuddin from Murshidabad some years ago after the Bangladeshi authorities had provided a tip-off.
It is also intriguing that a section of Bengal police had informed a few local journalists that there was a rumour about armed miscreants crossing over from Bihar dressed as policemen to attack and intimidate innocent voters in Bengal. This led to tension among locals, media reports said.
If this is true, then Kumar’s death can be seen as an unfortunate collateral damage caused by the Trinamool Congress’ political campaign. None other than Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly claimed that such incidents are planned by the BJP to defame and defeat her party and that voters must prepare to fight off such raiders.
Therefore, there is a possibility that the Bihar police played it safe by not informing the Bengal police about the raid in advance. The issue has snowballed into a major controversy in Bihar and joint raids by Bihar and Bengal policemen have followed. Altogether 21 people have been named as prime conspirators for the attack on the policemen, of whom five have been arrested. A search is on for at least 150 more. Key suspects, Feroze and Abuzar Alam, are currently in police custody along with a woman, S Khatun.
Kumar’s family, not satisfied with the ongoing police probe, has appealed to the prime minister to order a CBI investigation.
(With inputs from Samir Purkayastha)