An otherwise busy neighbourhood of Garigaon, 3 km from Gauhati University, has gone quiet since the past few days following a rape, a subsequent police encounter, escape of other accused and a brewing tension between two groups -- one supporting the rape victim’s family and the other supporting the accused.
On the intervening night of Tuesday last, the Assam Police shot down Biki Ali, 20, from Garigaon, accused of being part of the gang that raped a 15-year-old girl from the same neighbourhood.
Ali was arrested on March 15 following an FIR registered by the victim’s family on March 8. The same night, he was killed, apparently, while he was trying to snatch a weapon from police in an attempt to flee custody during a crime scene reconstruction, said the police.
On the same night, in another incident, Rajesh Munda, 38, accused of rape and murder of a 7-year-old child in a tea garden in Udalguri district, was also shot dead "while trying to flee custody".
With these two encounters, the number of extra-judicial killings during the first term of the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government since May 10, 2021, has increased to at least 35, if not more.
The police first visited Ali’s house the same day the FIR was filed. However, all the accused fled from their houses when they were alerted of the arrival of police.
Talking to Outlook, Rupa Begum, 42, mother of Biki Ali, said, “When they could not find Biki, they took my other son and threw him in lock-up on March 14. His aunt was also arrested by the police on March 10, over a controversial statement to the media. My husband and I were also detained by police for a day. When Biki, who was on the run, came to know of all these, he called us from an unknown number on March 14 and said he wanted to surrender. So the very next day we received him and handed him over to the police. That same night, a police official called us at midnight and told us about the encounter.”
In the face of a storm, Begum sounded hopeless yet calm while describing her son’s death. Ali’s brother Ajijul Haque is still in custody, even though he is not an accused in the case.
The house of the rape victim is hardly a 5-minute-walk from Ali’s house. The mother along with her minor son stopped getting out of the house since Ali’s encounter.
“I wanted the culprits to be punished in a way that my daughter gets justice. I don’t know whether the police has done the right thing or not, but I am happy justice has been served. Though, now I am scared of going out. There are many people who feel that for us a boy lost his life. We fear for our safety,” said the mother to Outlook.
Meanwhile, the family of Biki Ali says few villagers visit them anymore. “We have been outcast; we had to perform the last rites of Biki alone. No one would come to our house for other remaining rituals. If my son is guilty, he should have been punished as per law, but he did not stand a chance of trial,” said Rupa Begum.
Revisiting the past
On August 28, 2021, Bashit Ali, 21, an alleged dacoit was shot dead in Goalpara district of Assam. Even today, the family is waiting for the post-mortem report. Such is the fear among the family members of encounter victims that they mostly don’t want to speak on the record about the incidents.
A relative of Bashit Ali, who does not wish to be named said, “After two-three days of the incident, we went to the police station to file an FIR for an investigation into whether he was actually involved in any wrongdoings or was actually innocent. He didn't have any criminal record. We went with a complaint letter with the signatures of people in our village, but the police didn't accept it.”
Twenty days before the encounter, in another town of Dhing in Nagaon district, Khairul Islam, 51, a father of five, was shot dead by police. According to police, Khairul, an alleged drug peddler, was gunned down when he tried to attack them with a machete.
His mother Rejia Begum rejects the police version. Talking to Outlook, Begum says, “We are a very poor family. My son somehow used to manage two squares of meals by selling goats. He was only a goat trader and not a drug dealer."
After the killing, with the help of an advocate, the family filed a case under sections 448, 506, 302 and 34 of the IPC.
Talking to Outlook, Harunal Rashid, the advocate who is fighting the case, says, “A complaint of goat lifting was initially registered against Khairul on July 25, 2021. Following the complaint, the police came to the house of the deceased and fired at his belly. Our case is based on the post-mortem report of the deceased. Now the case is going on in the Gauhati high court.”
On November 30, 2021, in Jorhat district, Neeraj Das, the prime accused in a mob lynching incident, was killed while he was in police custody. Talking to Outlook, Bhaity Das, paternal uncle of Neeraj Das, said, “I remember the day clearly. No vehicle agreed to carry the body of Neeraj from the hospital back home after his death. Even now, except a few relatives, no neighbour visits us.”
The police said that Das was killed in a car accident when he jumped out of a running police vehicle.
The version of Assam Police about “accused shot down while trying to escape custody” is repetitive in at least 25 out of the 35 cases. In other cases, the accused tried to “snatch police’s weapons” or “faced an accident while trying to flee.”.
Selective outrage and selective investigation?
Out of the 35 cases of police encounters, the Assam government directed an enquiry into only two. One, in the case of a former student leader and the other, the encounters of two Bodo youths suspected to be members of a militant outfit.
On January 22, Kirti Kamal Bora, 22, a former student leader of All Assam Students Union (AASU), a student body, was shot by Assam Police in Nagaon district. Bora survived the bullet injury. According to the police he was involved in drug peddling and tried to attack the police during an anti-drug operation. His family did not buy the claim.
Huge protests backed by AASU erupted in various parts of the state, compelling the government set up an inquiry commission into the matter. This is also the first instance where a case has been filed against a police officer. The Superintendent of Police of Nagaon district Anand Mishra was also transferred out.
In the other case, Jwngsar Mwshahary and Janak K. Brahma, both 23, were killed in a police encounter on September 18 last year. Various civil organisations, student bodies belonging to the Bodo tribe took out prolonged protests in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar, following which, the government had to set up a one-man enquiry commission.
Barring these, other incidents, where most of the victims are either from religious or ethnic minorities, could have slipped out of public memory when a PIL was filed in Gauhati high court against ‘fake encounters’.
The PIL filed by a Delhi-based lawyer sought an independent probe into the alleged fake encounters of the Assam Police.
On January 3, The Gauhati high court asked the government to apprise the court about the "alleged" encounter killings and the action taken by the state.
The Assam government in February filed an affidavit where Ashim Kumar Bhattacharyya, additional secretary (home and political department), said, “….due process of law and procedure established by law, including the guidelines issued by the NHRC, are being complied with by the district police.”
The affidavit also said a total of 28 people were killed and 73 were injured in police action since May 10, the day the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government took oath for the second term, till January 28 this year, across 27 districts of Assam. Karbi Anglong district tops the list of police encounters with 10 deaths.
“…FIRs have been registered in each and every case and investigations are being carried out to take the cases to logical conclusions,” it reads.
No matter how much the Assam government claims to follow due process of law, the version of top cops and those in the power of corridors depicts a picture where police action fading the judiciary out.
Extrajudicial encounter: New normal or it has always been there?
On March 16, the next morning of the encounter of Biki Ali and Rajesh Munda, Special DGP (Law & Order) G.P. Singh, tweeted, “Rape represents the regressive mindset of controlling, scarring & destroying a girl/ women’s body and mind. @assam police will use all instruments of law to fight this evil. As a father & a cop, grateful to Hon@CMOfficeAssam for crystal clear directions to this effect.”
On the same day, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma stated in the state assembly that tough stand by the police regarding criminals has resulted in decreasing the crime rate in the state.
“Compared to 2021, this year, there is a 30 per cent reduction in criminal cases in the state. Somewhere the actions of the police have worked. Police have to work within their power. But while working, if a bullet hits a rapist, whom shall we cry for? For the rapist or for the rape victim?” he asks.
Sarma further went on to say that as BJP was still winning various elections in the state, it should be introspected whether or not the criticisms (against police encounters) were working.
Arif Jwadder, the advocate who filed the petition on ‘fake encounters’ said “Police is orchestrating extra-judicial activities and killing people with the backing of the government. We have seen the incumbent CM saying that shooting should be the pattern and top brass of police writing on social media justifying the encounters. They have taken law into their own hands. This has led to Assam becoming a police state. Trust between police and common citizen has diminished. What if those killed are found to be innocent? Will those perpetrators bring back the life of killing?”
In July last year, Sarma openly backed police encounters, saying that shooting should be the pattern if criminals tried to escape.
However, Opposition leaders have been calling out extra-judicial killings in Assam citing that Assam already has a terrifying history of such encounters.
Debabrata Saikia, Leader of Opposition in Assam assembly, has recently submitted a letter to the Assam Human Rights Commission, urging it for an investigation into such encounters and holding the BJP led government “accountable”.
“There was a time when people of Assam were living in fear of secret killings. Now many allege that the police is performing open killing. Everyone wants a crime-free, drug-free Assam. But while going to achieve that people should not be targeted based on caste and religion. Assam had witnessed a history of secret killings. If you go by the police reports everything will be pretty much clear," Saikia said.
Talking to Outlook, Lok Sabha MP from Congress, Abdul Khaleque, says, “The government does this kind of wrongdoings to gain popular support. Serious crimes should be tried in fast-track courts and the guilty punished quickly. Tomorrow, what if an innocent is killed? We can’t say that there will always be a good cop. No democratic person can support extra-judicial killings.”
According to Aman Wadud, a rights lawyer, Assam Police’s own failure of a dismal conviction rate, the support for a majoritarian government and failure of civil society and Opposition in raising voices against such grossly illegal trends, are the reasons why extra-judicial killings are gaining public support.
“Our criminal jurisprudence is based on the principle of presumption of innocence. What Assam Police is doing is not only grossly illegal but very alarming. Assam Police has made it apparent they don't believe in rule of law.
It is deeply disturbing to see mass support for such extra-judicial killings and silence of various organisations in Assam who are generally very vocal on every issue,” he said.