Activists raise alarm over ‘accidental’ custodial deaths in Assam

Since bullets are not involved, the police are able to pass off the deaths as accidents rather than encounters, alleged activists

The Batadrava police station was set on fire in May by a mob after the alleged custodial death of a fish-seller. An accused in the case was 'accidentally' run over by a police vehicle while he was allegedly trying to escape from the police.

Human rights activists in Assam have raised alarm over the increase in ‘accidental’ deaths of those in police custody. Recently, an accused in the Nagaon arson case had such a sudden death, leading activists to suspect that the police may be using ‘accidents’ as a cover-up for encounters. 

Also, the activists allege that the police can easily claim that such deaths in their custody, where bullets are not involved, are not encounters. They further point to violation of Supreme Court guidelines in the police not filing the mandatory zero-FIRs after every such death. 

However, the Assam government maintains that there is no wrong-doing on its part, and that FIRs have been meticulously registered for each such case. 

The Nagaon arson case

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Asiqul Islam, the person accused of instigating the Nagaon arson case, got killed on the night of May 30 while allegedly trying to flee from police custody. He had been arrested over allegations of inciting the mob that attacked and burnt down the Batadrava police station on May 21, following the alleged custodial death of fish seller Safiqul Islam.

Superintendent of Police of Nagaon district, Leena Doley, told the media that Islam was taken in a police vehicle to disclose the location of the arms that he had earlier admitted to have stored somewhere. On returning from the search operation, he had allegedly jumped off the vehicle and accidentally got run over by another police vehicle. The incident happened around 2.30 am.

Ironically, Islam had surrendered to the police on May 29. SP Doley said that he had confessed that he had a 7.62 mm pistol, a .22 pistol, seven rounds of bullets and a mobile phone at home. 

Also read: Assam police raze houses of people who set police station on fire

Rise of accidental deaths in police custody

Islam was not the first such causality. Neeraj Das, the main accused in a mob lynching case in Jorhat district in November 2021, which led to the death of a student leader, was also killed in a similar ‘accident’.

Das was arrested on December 1, and was escorted to reveal the location of a drug consignment to be delivered that very night. However, he also allegedly jumped off the vehicle and got hit by the escort vehicle just behind. Das was later declared brought-dead at the Jorhat Medical College Hospital. The police said that incident happened around 2 am.

In yet another incident, an alleged rhino poacher, Asmat Ali alias Nalco, was said to have jumped into the Brahmaputra while trying to escape police custody. He was arrested from Kerala on February 16, and was taken to a sandbar on the river at night, after he had allegedly confessed to concealing a few rhino horns and arms in that area. His body was recovered on February 18 near Biswanath ghat.

In an affidavit filed in the Gauhati HC, the Assam government had said that 73 persons were injured in police action in 27 districts from May 10, 2021 till January 28 this year. FIRs had been registered in “each and every case”, it added.

PIL seeking enquiry into alleged fake encounters 

Advocate Arif Jwadder, who had filed a PIL in the Gauhati High Court seeking enquiry into incidents of alleged fake encounters by Assam police, told The Federal: “Assam has become a police state now under the (current) political leadership. Whether they use bullets or not these are clearly extra-judicial killings. There are over 150 such cases but apart from 2-3 cases no one has moved court for fear of repercussions. The recent incident is clearly pre-planned.”

“These kinds of ‘accidents’ without the use of bullets can easily be passed off as non-encounters. But it still is a case of extra-judicial killing. The Assam police have created a fear psychosis, whereby they are presenting that might is right and they do not give a damn for the judiciary,” added Jwadder.

Also read: “One year of BJP 2.0 rule turns Assam into a polarised police state”

Meanwhile, Harekrishna Deka, a former director general of police in Assam, told The Federal: “It would be difficult to comment without analysing the circumstances. But it is clearly visible as similar incidents are being repeated. It is natural that people’s suspicions are aroused with similar patterns in the alleged sub-judicial killings.” He also urged the Assam government and the Assam Human Rights Commission to take up a high level investigation to clear the suspicions.

Further, he said that after any such extra-judicial killing, it is important to conduct an investigation by senior police officials as well as the government. “If an accused person has tried to flee from custody, the police personnel responsible for handling him must also be investigated. And, if the same things are happening often, the Assam police department and state government should issue guidelines and rules to be stringently followed for transporting accused persons. These actions should be taken soon,” he observed. 

Assam police violates Supreme Court order

In response to Jwadder’s petition, an affidavit was filed by the Assam government in the Gauhati HC on February 7. “…FIRs have been registered in each and every case and investigations are being carried out to take the cases to their logical conclusions,” said the affidavit.

However, petitioner Jwadder told The Federal that the HC had directed him to apply to the P.I. Courts of 27 districts in Assam for copies of the FIRs. “I’ve received 41 FIRs from only 12 districts so far. Surprisingly, no investigation has been undertaken in any of the cases, which is a complete violation of the Supreme Court’s judgment,” he said.

Said Jwadder: “The SC had given 16-point guidelines whereby, after every encounter death or serious injury in police firing, a zero-FIR has to be lodged on the firing. The cause and circumstances leading to the firing are then to be investigated by a senior official of another police station. But in the Assam police’s FIRs that have been lodged, the FIRs are against the dead persons and not on the firing.”

Also, the Assam police is currently claiming self-defence in every case but that cannot be done without an FIR, said Jwadder. Only when the case is taken to court can the police claim self-defence, he added.

“Hence, there is no investigation into the circumstances of the firing incidents. The police conducting the encounter is itself investigating the incident, which is a clear violation,” he added.

In its May 11 order, the Gauhati HC had told the Assam government to file a counter affidavit in this regard within three weeks. The other respondents in the case, the Assam Human Rights Commission, DGP Assam Police and the Department of Law and Justice, have not yet filed the affidavits in the case.

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