"One year of BJP 2.0 rule turns Assam into a polarised police state"
A polarised police state is the one-year legacy of the Assam’s BJP government as it has targeted Muslims and low level criminals in its crackdown drive.
Abdul Ahad Choudhury, a coal mafia, who had allegedly escaped from police custody earlier in the day, was shot dead by police on the intervening night of May 1 in a sleepy village in Assam’s Hailakandi district.
Police said Ahad was spotted riding pillion on a two-wheeler at around 1.30 am, hours after fleeing from police custody while being taken to a hospital for a medical check-up.
Police shot him in retaliation after he had opened fire on seeing the cops, Hailakandi superintendent of police Gaurav Upadhyay told the media.
Earlier on April 6, a dacoit, wanted in a murder case, was killed by the police in the state’s Chirang district.
Police’s version of the incident again was that the dacoit, Manjit Basumatary, was shot as police was “forced” to open fire in retaliation.
Just days ago on April 1, a former National Liberation Front of Bodoland (NLFB) militant Sanjula Warry was killed by police again in an encounter when he was taken to a reserve forest in Kokrajhar district to retrieve hidden looted booties.
Police said when they reached the spot, Warry picked up a revolver kept with the booties and fired at the accompanying police team in a bid to escape.
He was shot in a retaliatory fire, police claimed.
On the same day, two more cases of encounter killings were reported from elsewhere in the state.
Ever since the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government took charge on May 10 last year, there have been around 40 such extra-judicial killings, according to the government’s own data,
In almost all the cases, there is an uncanny similar pattern – arrested accused killed while trying to escape from police custody.
Recurrence of such strange coincidences with alarming frequency might raise a few eyebrows and outcry from rights group but the government is determined to follow the pattern as part of its so-called “zero tolerance” policy against “criminals”.
“It should be a policing pattern to shoot criminals who try to escape police custody,” the chief minister told a conference of police officials soon after taking charge last year.
Such crime-controlling policy, rights activists point out, has not only turned Assam into a police state in the past one year but also hampered the investigation process to bring to book the main culprits.
“Once the small fishes are killed in these so-called encounters, they obviously cannot lead the police to the masterminds,” pointed out Sabda Rabha, head of the north-east chapter of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.
Ahad Choudhury, who was killed in Hailakandi, for instansce was reportedly greasing palms of high-profile political leaders and police officials to run his illegal coal trade.
A diary containing names of 17 high-profile officers and leaders to whom he had paid ₹3.51 crore was recovered by the police form his house after he had been arrested on an earlier occasion in July 2018.
His killing has now raised doubt whether those leaders and officers would ever be exposed, let alone be brought to book.
“If this trend continues, larger conspiracies behind the crimes would never be unearthed… In many cases, we have seen big guns were given immunity while their subordinates were killed or arrested. This way there will be no rule of the law in the state,” said Rabha, who is also the president of the Indigenous Lawyers Association of India.
Apart from those killed, more than 125 people accused of various crimes such as drug-peddling, cattle-smuggling, rape and murder were injured in these “encounters”.
Police also arrested nearly 5,000 people accused of these crimes in the past one year, highlighting it as major success story of the government’s crackdown on crimes.
Critics however dismiss the success narrative, alleging these incidents only lay bare the brutal face of the government. More so as the “police highhandedness” is not limited to mere crime controlling.
The recent arrest of Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani showed how far the Assam police could go to push a political narrative.
First, the Dalit MLA was arrested and brought to Assam from Gujarat for a social media post where he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “devotee” of Nathuram Ghodse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.
Then when a court granted him bail in the case, the Assam police moved quickly to arrest him again in another case of “abusing” and “assaulting” a lady police officer in the police vehicle in which he was being taken to Kokrajhar.
A session court taking serious note of the absurdity, said the case was “manufactured”, noting “no sane person will ever try to outrage the modesty of a lady police officer in the presence of two male police officers, and there is nothing in the record to hold that the accused… is an insane person”.
The court further observed that “converting our hard-earned democracy into a police state is simply unthinkable and if the Assam Police is thinking about the same, the same is perverse thinking”.
Many, however, say to blame the police for the excesses would be wrong as they merely enforcing the policy allegedly laid down by Chief Minister Sarma himself, who publicly stated that he wanted to convey the message that Assam is a “tough state”.
The Chief minister is trying to follow the governance model of Uttar Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state which has earned notoriety for extra-judicial police actions, many alleged.
“Be it police excesses or pushing Hindutva cause, he (Sarma) is competing with Yogi Adityanath in a bid to prove he is a greater follower of RSS ideology,” alleged Assam Pradesh Congress general secretary Apurba Kumar Bhattacharjee.
Comparison with Yogi is drawn because Sarma in his one-year stint as CM emerged as the Hindutva poster boy in the east with a series of policy decisions that his detractors say are polarising in nature.
Just three months after forming the government, the Assam Cattle Preservation Act 2021 was enacted to regulate the slaughter, consumption and transportation of cattle.
In December last year, the law was further amended to empower police to enter the houses of accused, search and seize properties if they have a “prima facie reason to believe” that the properties have been acquired in the last six years with money earned from illegal cattle trade.
Further, during the tenure of the Sarma’s government more than 700 state-run madrasas were shut down to convert them to general schools.
“Some people in Assam want to make mullahs through madrassas. Instead, I want to establish medical colleges and make them doctors. As a father, I want my children to be doctors. If I go to a Muslim area and say that I want to make their kids doctors, they should feel happy. This is part of my freedom of expression to suggest that I want them to be doctors, not mullahs. The choice, obviously, is theirs,” Sarma said at an event of a television channel.
“Everyone should go to Muslim areas and ask them to shut down madrassas. They should ask them to make schools. Politicians should have the guts to say this even if it creates faultlines. I have stopped giving funds to all government madrassas. We need new politicians who can go to Muslim areas and say that if a Hindu girl can become a PhD scholar or doctor, how can you force limitations on your daughters? You ask the kids about their aspirations and they will tell you that they want to be doctors and engineers. We must be local, even if it is at the cost of losing votes,” he added.
The reality is closure of madrasas affected 98,000 students, of whom nearly half are girls, according to figures from the State Madrassa Education Board.
From September 20- 23, the Assam Government conducted a massive eviction drive at Dholpur in Darrang district to free nearly 77,000 bighas of “encroached” land to set up a ₹9.6- crore agricultural project christened the Gorukhuti Project.
About 1,481 families were rendered homeless in the violent eviction drive, most of whom are Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The violent clashes between the settlers and the police left two dead and 18 injured. The video of one of the evictees, Moynul Haque, who was shot dead by the police as he charged them with a ‘lathi’ and his lifeless body being stomped upon by a government deployed photographer made news even in the global forum.
In November 2021, the government launched another eviction drive inside the Lumding Reserve Forest in Hojai district, ejecting nearly 1,500 people from 1,410 hectares of land.
The All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) staged a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in November against the government’s move alleging that the Muslims were being targeted in Assam in the name of eviction drive.
“We do not have any objection against the Hindus or Hindutva. But in the name of Hindutva, the present government is polarising the state with its politics of hatred, which will destroy our society,” said Abdul Khaleque, a Congress Member of Parliament from Barpeta.
“A polarised police state is the one-year legacy of the state’s BJP government,” said Shahnaz Islam, a Guwahati-based lawyer and poet.