New Delhi/Guwahati: The short video was stark and horrifying: A scrawny villager wearing just a vest and a lungi charging towards the police brandishing a stick before he is shot at and then thrashed with lathis before a photographer stomps on his motionless body lying in a field.
It was a video that went viral and brought much flak to the Assam Police and the state’s BJP government of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Critics and rights groups in the state, however, say the video from Dholpur village just captured the new, brutal face of the state police since Sarma came to power this summer and vowed to end crime. Assam Police, they say, has become “trigger-happy” and cite nearly two dozen deaths in police firing since early May as evidence.
On 12 September, for instance, a suspected dacoit reportedly wanted in several cases was shot dead in Dhubri. Within the week, on 18 September, Assam Police shot and killed two suspected militants after an alleged exchange of fire in Kokrajhar.
On the night of 28 August in Goalpara, Assam Police killed two suspected dacoits after another alleged shootout. The same month, three suspected robbers were killed while allegedly on their way to pull off a bank heist.
In two other incidents within a 24-hour period in August, two alleged criminals were shot at and injured — one suspected of involvement in robbery, drug smuggling, land grabbing, was allegedly struck during retaliatory police firing, and the second, a suspected extortionist and kidnapper, reportedly while trying to escape custody. Both received bullet injuries in their legs.
In July, another suspected dacoit was killed in a police encounter. Around the same time, an alleged cattle smuggler was shot in the leg while allegedly trying to flee police custody.
According to data shared by Assam Police, there have been 50 encounter incidents between 10 May and 27 September, where 27 people have been killed and 40 injured.
The suspected criminals killed and injured include “terrorists”, “drug peddlers”, and “cattle smugglers”, among others, police said.
Sarma, who took over as CM in May, has pledged zero tolerance against crime and endorsed police firing — on suspects’ legs — on “those who attempt to flee”. Some critics have drawn comparisons between him and his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath, whose much-touted crackdown on crime has come under the scanner over allegations that many of the encounters are staged.
But police firing in Assam, a state with a troubled history on account of an insurgency and illegal immigration from its international border with Bangladesh, has drawn concern in the past as well.
Under the stint of predecessor Sarbananda Sonowal, a BJP colleague of Sarma, there were 16 deaths at the hands of police and one occasion of firing in 2016, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.
While there were four deaths “accidentally in police operations/encounters” in 2017, none was reported in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
NCRB data on civilian deaths in police firing is only available from 2012, when the Congress’ Tarun Gogoi was in office. Fourteen people were killed in Assam in police firing between 2012 and 2015. There were 41 instances in this period when police opened fire, NCRB records show — 7 in 2015, 3 in 2014, 13 in 2013, and 18 in 2012.
According to NCRB data, only one state — Uttar Pradesh — had more civilian deaths in police firing in 2015, nine against Assam’s 7. In 2016, Assam (16) was second to Haryana (22). In 2017, when the NCRB started issuing separate figures for civilians killed “accidentally in police operations/encounters”, Assam was third, with four deaths, after Telangana (10) and J&K (7).
While the other states in the top slots change by the year, Assam has more or less been a constant, barring in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Although the Opposition has alleged a “dictatorship” in the state under Sarma, experts say the “militarisation” of police in Assam is a fact that predates his tenure as CM. Citing the state’s history of tumult, they add that while the state’s insurgency has ebbed, police conduct hasn’t changed.
Police, meanwhile, defend their approach as a crackdown on crime.
ThePrint emailed Chief Minister Sarma seeking his comment for this report but there was no response until the time of publishing.
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What happened in Dholpur?
The incident in Dholpur, which is part of Assam’s Darrang district, occurred during an anti-encroachment drive.
Dholpur is located on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
The area close to the river is primarily populated by migrant Muslims who have been living on government land for three-four decades. “These people have migrated from districts such as Nagaon, Barpeta and Kamrup because their land was eroded by the river,” advocate Santanu Borthakur, the counsel for those evicted, told ThePrint.
The village also has an Assamese-speaking Muslim and Hindu population who live farther away from the river, the lawyer said.
“Some of these people have paid the encroachment fine so they have those documents to show. They have also approached the board of revenue seeking resettlement but nothing has happened on that front,” he added.
In 2019, he noted, the BJP government introduced a policy that speaks about giving land to the landless, but only to ‘indigenous’ people. “Who counts as an indigenous person has not yet been defined,” Borthakur pointed out.
The government, however, defines the residents of Dholpur as illegal settlers.
On the night of 22 September, an eviction notice was served on residents of the village, which has around 200 houses.
While some villagers left within a couple of hours, others waited. After all, they said, lives had to be packed up and children woken up.
At noon Thursday, residents claim, a group of police personnel began attacking villagers.
“People’s houses were being broken and they were being attacked too. How do they keep calm? It was then that an altercation between a second batch of police personnel and the villagers took place,” Faizur Rahman, 28, who lives in an adjacent village and claims to have witnessed the entire incident, told ThePrint.
Rahman, who owns a mobile shop, said the police personnel “fired at people’s chests, with the intention of killing them”.
On their part, police allege the involvement of outsiders in instigating villagers.
“Police could have handled it better if there was no ‘outside element’ having infiltrated and instigated the villagers, but there was a scenario where police had to resort to force,” Director General of Police (DGP) Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta told ThePrint, but refused to identify who these “outside elements” are.
Chief Minister Sarma Saturday identified the Popular Front of India, a Kerala-based Muslim organisation, as the “third force” that instigated the “illegal settlers on government land”.
While Sarma did not defend police’s action in Dholpur, he repeatedly pointed out how the people attacked the forces, calling Thursday’s events an “aberration”.
“We have ordered a CID inquiry. But that doesn’t mean we will not investigate who mobilised 10,000 people there… You have to see the total video… That particular person, according to the video, had attacked that guy… We do not justify that. But… please give the entire sequence,” he said. “Police did one wrong thing… but because of that you can’t justify encroachment,” he added.
Eleven police personnel were injured in the clashes, and Sarma noted that the drive took place on “agreed principles” and resistance of this sort was not expected.
“About 10,000 people gheraoed Assam Police, used violence, then police retaliated,” he said.
On the criticism that has come the police’s way, Mahanta said it’s “very easy to jump to conclusions”.
“The video shows an isolated incident. Just prior to that, a massive mob was instigated by ‘outside elements’ who were attacking the police.”
He added that the population of those being evicted was very low, but there was a 10,000-strong crowd present.
“This was organised and it was done by some very well-trained people. We know who these people are and this will come to light soon but only after due process,” he said.
The state government has also ordered a judicial inquiry into Thursday’s events — headed by a retired Gauhati High Court judge.
In early July, Sarma, who also holds the home portfolio, told the Assam Police brass that shooting an accused who tries to flee from police should become the pattern.
“Police shouldn’t shoot them in the chest, but law permits shooting them in the leg. Police in Assam shouldn’t be scared of taking such action (against criminals) but no such action should be taken against innocent persons,” he had said, addressing questions that had begun to emerge about frequent reports of suspects being shot.
Moinul Hoque, 33, one of two people who died in Dholpur, had a bullet wound to his chest.
Mahanta said shooting someone above the waist is certainly not protocol, but the “matter remains subjudice”.
Citing the Dholpur clip, a former DGP who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “the force was not led by any responsible officer and there was no magistrate present in that clip, though I could hear sounds of continuous firing from the police contingent”.
“Such a big armed force could have easily restrained him (the man) without resorting to brutal assault. Sarma’s encouragement to police to fire on legs is an indirect endorsement of such brutality and he seems to connive at selective use of firearms on the targeted ‘criminals’ as well as on so-called anti-social suspects in minority areas,” the former DGP added.
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Allegations surround encounters
Many of the killings that have taken place in recent months have been surrounded by allegations of being fake encounters.
Joynal Abedin, 47, a suspect for dacoity and armed robbery, was shot in the early hours of 11 July, according to a report in The Indian Express. Police said Abedin fired on them after they cordoned his house and called him out.
His family, however, alleges that Abedin was already handcuffed when police took him away “and killed him”. They only learnt about his killing at 6 am when the village headman was informed, they have said.
Allegations of foul play also surround the 18 September “encounter” involving two suspected militants of a new outfit.
Apprehended on 17 September, Brahma and Mushahary were shot during an exchange of fire in Kokrajhar district that erupted when they took police to a militant camp, police said. The incident is being probed.
The Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has taken suo motu cognisance of killings in police operations. On 7 July, it asked the state government’s principal secretary of the home and political departments to hold an inquiry into the circumstances. The report has not yet been submitted despite several extensions from the 17 August deadline. Earlier this month, the deadline was extended to 1 November.
On 14 September, after a Delhi-based lawyer approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the panel sought an action-taken report from the state government in four weeks.
Asked about the incidents — which involve criminals accused of many different crimes — Assam Police speaks of a zero tolerance towards crime.
Soon after taking office in May, Sarma listed seven core issues on which there would be “no tolerance”, G.P. Singh, Additional Director General of Police (Law & Order), told ThePrint. These, he said, are cattle smuggling, drugs, human trafficking, terrorism, rhino poaching, crime against women and children, and theft of crude oil.
“There will be a crackdown on cases when it comes to such incidents and police will exercise no tolerance,” Singh said.
Singh added that using a firearm against a criminal is a lawful use of force under Section 46 and Sections 129-132 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Sections 96-103 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
However, the former DGP quoted above said “shooting is permitted in exceptional circumstances in private defence when life and property are in imminent danger”.
“And even then, minimum force should be used. Within these parameters only shooting at legs can be justified,” he added.
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A product of Assam’s history?
Sibsagar MLA Akhil Gogoi, who heads the anti-CAA Raijor Dol (People’s Party), pointed a finger of blame at Sarma, saying his “words, decisions and steps are full of communal vengeance… surpassing even UP CM Yogi Adityanath”.
Others in the Opposition likened the current system to a dictatorship.
“Shootouts are akin to dictatorship. We want a trial not a shootout. Because in shootouts, innocents can also become victims,” Congress MP Abdul Khaleque told ThePrint.
Human rights lawyer Aman Wadud, who practises at the Gauhati High Court, said there were many fronts where law enforcement had changed since Sarma took over, adding that “all he wants to do is propagate the image of being a tough administrator”. One way he signals this is with statements such as shooting in the leg, he said.
Mrinal Talukdar, author of Assam after Independence and Post-colonial Assam (1947-2019), said, Sarma is “sending police a signal with his ‘shooting criminals should become a pattern’ statement”.
“This is straight out of Yogi Adityanath’s rulebook in UP. No elected CM will say something like this in the court of law,” he added.
However, some experts argue that the state’s history of insurgency plays a role in Assam Police’s behaviour.
Ankur Tamuli Phukan, an academic and activist, believes the “trigger happy” nature of police can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“The Assam Police battalion guys were by now trained to behave like the Indian Army did against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA, an insurgent group). This is a case of militarising police. They have been this way through the Tarun Gogoi government as well, but then insurgency was still an issue,” Phukan said. “While that has significantly declined, police’s behaviour remains the same,” he told ThePrint, adding that this is not a BJP-versus-Congress issue.
Jayanto Choudhury, another former DGP of Assam, sought to underline the difference in approach and attitude of the civil and armed police.
“Assam Police were dealing with insurgency for 20-25 years and the focus was on developing anti-militant skills. We need more training to transition back to a more civilian style of policing, but of course that will be very difficult,” he said.
When the state was reeling under insurgency, the central government funded police’s training in anti-insurgency, he added.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has a number of schemes where they help states raise armed police battalions, but there are no programmes that will help police in civilian cases. Funding is needed to help reverse the change that was put in place,” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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