A screenshot from a purported video of the clashes between locals and police personnel in Assam's Darrang district on 23 September 2021. | Photo: Twitter/AshrafulMLA
A screenshot from a purported video of the clashes between locals and police personnel in Assam's Darrang district on 23 September 2021. | Photo: Twitter/AshrafulMLA
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New Delhi: The Assam government set up an official probe Thursday after at least two people died and several others, including policemen, were injured in violent clashes that broke out between police personnel and village residents during an anti-encroachment drive in the state’s Darrang district.

In the evening, a video emerged showing a villager with a lathi apparently running towards policemen in riot gear, armed with sticks and guns, and being fired at. Seconds later, he can be seen lying dead with a bullet wound on his chest, and being kicked by a man carrying a camera and hit by a policeman wielding a lathi.

The video shows hundreds of policemen firing at unseen targets from behind the trees, when the victim, dressed in a vest and lungi, comes running. The man carrying the camera can be seen running behind him until the time the policemen in uniform surround him.

The photographer, identified as Bijay Shankar Bania, was hired by the district administration to document the demolition; he was later arrested according to PTI.

The incident drew condemnation, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi calling the police action “state-sponsored fire”.

The Assam government has instituted “an inquiry into the circumstances leading to the death of 2 civilians and injury of others including police personnel in the firing incident”, said an order issued by Debaprasad Mishra, Secretary, Home and Political Department. ThePrint has accessed the order. The inquiry will be led by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.

The order came even as residents alleged that three people from the village were killed during the clashes.

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Local activists contradict police

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised before the elections earlier this year that it will free government land from encroachers and allot them to the indigenous landless people. 

In June, 70 families were evicted from Hojai’s Lanka and 25 from Jamugurihat, Sonitpur. In Sipajhar, the government plans to utilise the freed land towards agriculture activities for indigenous youth under the multi-crore ‘Garukhuti Project’ (part of the state budget 2021-22).

Around 800 families occupying 4,500 bighas of land were evicted from Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 2 in Darrang’s Sipajhar area Monday. These villages are home, primarily, to Bengali-origin Muslims.

Thursday’s eviction drive started in Dholpur 3 early in the day, but soon turned into brutal clashes, according to Darrang Superintendent of Police (SP) Sushanta Biswa Sarma. He told ThePrint, “We had to resort to firing to disperse the crowd. One officer was hit by a villager with a machete.” 

Speaking about the casualties, Sarma said nine police personnel have been injured and taken to the hospital, of whom two are critical. “Two civilians have died in the clash, we are yet to identify if there are more casualties,” he said.

However, local activists contradicted the official claims and said three villagers had died, while around 50 are injured.

“Saddam Hussain (30), Farid Sheikh (13), Joban Ali (47)… are the ones who were killed by the police… but many more have died. The area has been cordoned off by the police now,” alleged Saddam Hussen, a social activist from Sipajhar who was at the spot. He is a member of the Chatra Mukti Sangram Samiti, the student wing of peasants’ body Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti.

Hussen claimed that earlier in the day, around 1,000 police personnel arrived in Dholpur 3 and started hitting the villagers. “They are landless poor people, where will they go? The police aren’t letting us go to the spot or to meet the injured people. They haven’t given us the body of the man, the one whose video has gone viral,” he alleged. 

He also claimed that the villagers were informed about the eviction drive late Wednesday. The notice, undersigned by District Collector Prabhati Thaosen, is dated 15 September. ThePrint has seen a copy of it.

SP Sarma, however, said “today’s incident was completely unexpected”. “The last eviction drive in Dholpur 1 and 2 was extremely peaceful; we have no idea why they resisted today,” he said.

Speaking about the ‘photographer’ Bania seen in the purported video, Hussen said, “We all have seen him at DC office many times. He was hired to capture photos of the eviction.”

The SP said the photographer has been “identified”, and will be “arrested shortly”.

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Clashes broke out after police action, says student leader

Rejaul Karim, president of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), who visited the spot after the clashes, alleged the government and the police tried to evict 200 villagers Thursday. 

“The villagers were protesting peacefully, but the police started bulldozing their houses, that’s when the clash broke out,” he claimed.

Karim added that the police have “no respect even for religious places”. “They broke three mosques and also bulldozed a kabrastan (burial ground). More so, they said they will offer land to the evicted families, but till then, how will they survive without basic amenities like toilets, food and water?” he asked. “We demand that the families who lost their bread earners in today’s clash have to be compensated by the government with money and jobs at the earliest.”

Meanwhile, the opposition “strongly condemned the barbaric act”. State Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah said, “Himanta Biswa Sarma tried to settle the matter with bullets.”

On Thursday, Congress MP from Assam, Abdul Khaleque tweeted, “Was the person killed by security force and cameraman a terrorist? Is there any human rights in Assam (sic).” He CM tagged Himanta Biswa Sarma and Union Home Minister Amit Shah in the tweet.

Earlier Monday, following the eviction drive, he had tweeted a letter he wrote to the Gauhati HC in June. “Considering the Covid-19 Pandemic, a full bench of Hon’ble Gauhati High Court headed by Chief Justice, vide its order dated 10.05.2021, has ordered that any decree for eviction/ dispossession or demolition should remain in abeyance,” he wrote.

Chenga MLA Ashraful Hussain of the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front also tweeted one of the videos of the clash, raising questions about the “fascist” and “bigoted” government.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

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