The rice paddies were almost ready for harvest, turned golden by the December sun, on the bountiful land in Assam’s Barpeta district, close to the Bhutan border. Old-timers at Uzan Barbari, one of several small hamlets that dot the landscape, still recall that fateful evening. As dusk settled on the land, a bitter cold wind was blowing in from the Himalayan foothills, sending people scurrying indoors, to the warmth of their hearths. All, except a group of youth who set out to the nearest township Bhawanipur where thousands of people had gathered to join a protest demonstration on the national highway.
Those were tumultuous times in Assam. Just months ago, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched the anti-foreigners agitation which was to convulse the state for the next six years, and set the tone for staggering events in the next few decades. The exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—a controversial subject today—would also grow out of the same agitation many years later. The fire had just been lit in the form of a mass movement that would even trigger charges of Assamese jingoism from critics.
And it was into this raging fire jumped Khargeswar Talukdar, just 18 then, as he joined the protesters for what was seen as a battle to save their land and culture from “lakhs” of undocumented migrants swamping Assam from former East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. As police swooped down, the protesters were forced to flee. Talukdar, the second of four brothers, was detained by police and allegedly tortured in custody, leading to his death. Former supercop K.P.S. Gill, who was a DIG in Assam then, is accused of assaulting Talukdar in custody. But he later denied the charge, claiming that Talukdar fell into a roadside pond while fleeing and drowned.