When the blood dried in the leafy remoteness of the Northeast, the truth remained as elusive as the perpetrators. An investigation of the ethnic eruption in Assam 2012
ON THE EVENING of nineteenth July, 2012, two men sat in conversation on a low concrete bench outside a tea garden in lower Assam. The village was beautifully Assamese, with the name Magurmari: where they catch catfish. The tea garden was called Lalmati: red earth. Across them was a Baptist church and a milestone outside it marked 3.12 km in the eastern direction to Kokrajhar, the capital of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD).
One of the two men was Abu Siddique, a former leader of the All Assam Minorities Student Union (AAMSU). The other man was a 37-year-old suspended constable of the Assam Police. His name was Mohibur Islam, but he was better known as Ratul, and he had recently won a reinstatement from the Gauhati High Court. Somewhere between 7 and 7.30 pm two men on a motorcycle drove by and shot at Ratul and Siddique as they sat in conversation. Ratul identified the shooter as one Rajib Basumatary.
When I first met Ratul’s family thirteen days after the incident at their house, large premises a stone’s flick away from the church across the bench, a great riot was running its course.
The father, Afsar Ali Ahmed, 77, once an influential educator and community leader, told me in a voice whispery with age that Ratul, the third of his sons, was sahasi and stood up to Bodo extremists. That is why he was shot. Sat beneath a photograph of Sonia Gandhi, Mazharul ‘Uttam’ Islam, the eldest of his seven sons, a Congress functionary, broadened the idea. There was nothing like democratic or fundamental rights for non-Bodos in the Bodoland districts, he said (though the Congress and the ruling Bodos were then in an alliance). This shooting incident was aimed at triggering violence and the exodus of non-Bodos, who comprised over 70 per cent of the population in the Bodoland districts. “If there is a badhiya sa CBI inquiry,” he said, “the leaders of the BTAD will have to go to jail, 100 per cent confirmed.”
A younger brother, Moqibur Rehman, was coming home on his motorcycle that evening when he heard the shots. He gave chase to the bike for a while, until its lights went out. Moqibur supplied a more precise motive. Rajib Basumatary, the purported shooter, was a cadre of the banned militant group National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)—Anti-talks Faction. The Indian Army had come to meet Ratul for information about Basumatary. Ratul did not give them any—“He did the protection,” as Moqibur put it. “But we told the Army, ‘You come like this to meet him. Everyone knows you have come. After you go, he will become a target.’”
The evening they were shot, Ratul and Siddique (pronounced Siddik) were taken in a police vehicle to the civil hospital in Kokrajhar. A few hours later they were shifted by ambulance to Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, so that the following night Ratul was some 250 km away.
The following night, Friday the twentieth of July, 2012, four young Bodo men on two motorcycles were grabbed by a mob in Joypur, a village on the outskirts of Kokrajhar. It was the first night of Ramzan, although the moon had not been sighted and the Hilal committee was yet to declare it. The mob had gathered after hearing sounds of gunfire. It was anywhere in the mid- hundreds or the low thousands, wielding daos and knives and scythes and rods, which left their marks.
When they arrived at the Kokrajhar civil hospital, the four Bodo corpses were in a state of ghastly disfigurement: two bodies on a stretcher, two bodies on the floor, the executive magistrate commissioning the inquest would recall two years later at a special court in Bongaigaon. He described one of those men, Pradip Boro, as: “hair short, complexion black yellowish wearing black colour half pant and blue and black colour sporting and I have seen grievous cut injuries on his face neck nose and left leg. Height was about 5 5”.”
According to the post-mortem report, Pradip Boro’s face bore five deep chop wounds. One on his upper forehead, a second across his left eyelid, a third cutting the left side of his face, a fourth across the upper lip and upper jaw, a fifth over his mouth and mandible on the left side, exposing his oral cavity. The longest gash was close to half a foot, and the deepest went in three centimetres. Then there were incisions in the back of his left ear, an incised wound on the front of his neck, and multiple bruises between his nipples. The frontal bone of his skull was fractured. There were wounds to the parietal and occipital areas.
One point was indisputable. There was no doubt that Phatra Boro and his three friends were indeed killed on July the twentieth, 2012, in the village of Joypur, that their deaths were by human hands, and they precipitated one of the largest displacements in the history of independent India.
Pradip Boro’s was the last body to be autopsied, at ten minutes past two in the morning. The three others—Jwngsar Boro, Jatin Goyari and Nipun Goyari—were in a similar state of mutilation. The three were in their mid-twenties. Pradip Boro was much the older. He was in his mid-thirties, a husband and a father to a girl, and well known as Phatra. He was ex-BLT.
This meant he was a cadre of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers when it existed. The BLT was an armed political organisation that had fought the bloody fight from the mid-90s for a separate Bodo state carved out of Assam. It succeeded to a degree, gaining partial autonomy for a region inside Assam by an accord with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Government in 2003. At that stage, the BLT became administrators and the political party they formed came to be called, eventually, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The party had always controlled the administration of the BTAD. The BTAD was four beautiful districts of about 8,800 sq km, moderately forested, almost entirely rural, ranged in a horizontal line in lower Assam—lower, that is, in the long course of the Brahmaputra. The mountains of Bhutan lay to its north.
Not long after Phatra’s autopsy in the early hours of Saturday the twenty-first of July, fresh killings emerged at spots in Kokrajhar district. Then came arson. Over the weekend the violence raced through Kokrajhar district, and on Monday it spread beyond.
In the weeks that followed, at least 244 villages—Bodo, Muslim, mixed—were torched in part or full. At least 5,367 houses were burnt and at least 47,936 families affected. To the far corners of India the riot spread in grotesque mutations. Muslims of various denominations and tongues sub-rioted in Mumbai, Allahabad, Lucknow. Responding to threats received by SMS, Northeastern Indians of various ethnicities, communities and states fled Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Pune, Vadodara, Daman, 29,000 in three days from Bangalore alone, and maybe 14 people died from overcrowding or scuffling on their train journeys home.
In all, over a hundred people were killed. Between four and five hundred thousand people left their homes. It was said to be possibly the largest temporary displacement from conflict in independent India.
What happened on those two nights in Bodoland? What coiled tensions did they contain, and what befell those who lived through their peculiar events and the extraordinary cataclysm they sprang?
The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which administers the Bodoland districts, is headed by a man called Hagrama Mohilary. Chief is his designation; Chief was his title when he led the BLT; and Chief is how people refer to him. About Chief one encounters legends, myths, trivia. His nickname is Thebla, an affectionate term that means flat-nose or flat-face. One nugget pertains to the great amount of gold his bride wore at their lavish wedding (at which the comedian Johnny Lever apparently performed), the reporting of which earned an Assamese newspaper the threat of a ban.
Of Chief’s methods it was said, and an intelligence officer guaranteed me, there was only one. When somebody, say an executive member of the council—equivalent to a cabinet minister in a legislative assembly—stepped out of line or did something foolish, Chief invited him into his room, locked it, and gave him a sound thrashing. He might make it up to him afterwards with a drink. Senior lawyers who dealt with Chief recall tales of his legendary insouciance, for example talking to the elderly Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, as though he were an office boy. One rumour was about an enormous scar on his thigh sustained at torture from the Indian Army after a BLT bomb operation in the 1990s. This was part of Chief’s mass appeal: he had fought the war and delivered the Bodos their districts.
Chief, however, was said to be reserved with strangers. He wasn’t good with Hindi and English and did not give much to an outsider. The urbane and loquacious man of the BPF was the Deputy Chief, Kampa Borgoyari, who had a fine sarcastic chuckle that muffled his more rabid comments.
Here is a community coming to terms with a heinous crime. Everybody in Joypur is cagey: every resident could be a suspect, every outsider an informant
In Indian discourse there are three levels of cause for a riot. The first level, which could be classified as ‘root causes’, is historical, and fought for as much in commentary pages as on the field, and when I met Borgoyari at the party office, he put it like this. “Look into the root causes and you will see there is a contradiction between the natives of Assam and the illegal migrants from Bangladesh.” He raised the mathematically dubious spectre of ethnic invasion by polygamy. “You have to honour the local society, the tradition, the culture of the local people also, no? Government of India have family planning kind of thing. You have monogamy society. If they do polygamy what will happen? One-one father is begetting twenty-thirty children!”
The second level is ‘the real reasons’, which point to motivation, who had what to gain, and these are invariably political. As Mazharul Uttam Islam believed the riot was calculated to push down the proportion of non-Bodos in the districts in a bid for Bodo statehood, so to Borgoyari it was the mischief of an organisation called the Aboro Suraksha Samiti (‘Non-Bodos’ Security Committee’), whose political aim was the dissolution of the BTAD. “These people opposed the creation of BTAD earlier. And after it was created they have again started saying in Bodoland they don’t have political rights, they don’t have land rights, so on, so forth.”
The third level was ‘immediate causes’, the provocations. They were underrated. They gave us the human hand. Now Borgoyari offered a narration, taking relish in dismantling the Muslim version of each incident, his hands often coming together in a clasp that was just short of a clap. The sequence culminated in the shooting of constable Ratul, whom he called an illegal arms dealer, and the lynching of the four Bodos in Joypur the night after. “Muslim people just did a rumour that someone has blank fired. Maar diya.”
At hand was the BPF press officer. The party press officer, funny enough, was also a stringer for The Times of India, and was working on an article that would be published on its website the following day. The article called Ratul ‘the self-styled chairman of United Muslim National Army (UMNA), a new militant group’. It quoted the Ex-BLT Welfare Society President Janamohan Mushahary as saying that Ratul was “directly involved in the communal violence as he fanned communal frenzy”. No attempt to get a response was recorded.
Further, I was told, Ratul had made a blue film—and then murdered the girl in it. At the gate of the party office, another Bodo journalist transferred that piece of pornography to me.
It was an MMS clip 4 minutes 57 seconds long, shot by somebody from behind a curtain. A room, a bed, a steel almirah, a folk-inspired Assamese tune. The male lead wore a fawn shirt and cream trousers, a trim moustache and brushed-up hair. This was how I first encountered Ratul. In the first moments I was struck by the comedy. It did not last. The girl looked distraught as the constable attempted to seduce her. They were fully clothed; then there was a cut; on the other side, cunnilingus followed by intercourse. She had her kurta on and Ratul, who was shot outside a tea garden somehow precipitating a riot that endured over a month, bounced away with his cream trousers drawn below his cheeks atop the put-upon girl who shielded her face once over with her dupatta and twice over with her arm. It was awful.
Ratul had two cellphones and each time they rang out. One caller-tune was set to a Bengali song, the other to Kishore Kumar’s Hum Bewafa Hargiz Na Thhe (I Was Never Unfaithful). To fix an appointment I had to go through a brother who went through Ratul’s wife. Ratul was then laying low in a small town called Sorbhog just outside the BTAD boundary. Our rendezvous point was a flyover on the highway. A motorcycle met me there. I followed it into cool, shaded bamboo groves of cattle, dung, thatched homes, and at the end of a path a concrete house.
Ratul got off the pillion. It was two weeks since he had been shot, and he walked with a stiff left leg. I had the sensation I had seen him somewhere but it took me a moment to register why. His moustache was clipped as in the MMS, his hair was brushed up in that mild filmstar pompadour. He was of medium height, distinguishable from the other men I had met in his family by a flat stomach. He was a very gently spoken man; I had not expected that.
The house was his aunt’s. We sat in the living room. When we began to talk, it was the fate of the girl in the MMS clip that occupied my mind more than the militant group. “When did the MMS scandal happen?” I asked him. “I have never heard of the organisation,” he said, mistaking one acronym for another.
A report on the UMNA had appeared a month before in the Assamese paper Dainik Agradoot. The UMNA, under one Ramjan Islam, sought a ‘Muslimland’, sought to declare Guwahati a Muslim city and sought to levy a tax on its non-Muslim residents. When I read that, the report began to feel less even like propaganda and more like a straightforward prank. The update in the Bodo press officer’s dispatch to The Times of India was that it identified ‘Ramjan Islam’ as Ratul. “It’s all lies,” Ratul said softly. “There is no such group. Not in BTAD, not in Assam.”
He attributed the UMNA as well as the MMS clip to Bodo “making”. But when asked if that girl had been killed, he said, “The girl is very much alive. I can give you her address. She is in Guwahati, doing her nursing training.”
It was difficult to establish in conversations, even with the police, why Ratul had been suspended from the force. It was either possession of illegal arms, negligence of duty or a simple stitch-up: it depended on whom you asked. His service record was unavailable when I went looking for it.
Ratul told me it had happened back in 2008. “Because there is one MCLA [Member of Council Legislative Assembly, the equivalent of an MLA] in BTAD, Afjal Hoque Sarkar, I was on protection duty for him. The MCLA’s sister-in-law’s wedding was in Dhubri. He told me, ‘There is no place in the car, there is no need for you, you go.’ I went home and because of that I was suspended.”
This felt absurd. I pressed him. “Means I had arms. I went and left the arms in the MCLA’s house. I put it in the Godrej cupboard.”
Ratul had two children, boys of nine and 13. When he joined the Assam Police in 1993, he told me, that too was a time of riot. According to an Assam Police report, the riots of 1993 and 1994 took 10 Bodo lives, 18 Others and 142 Muslims. The experience had informed him.
A few hours before they were killed, the four Bodo friends played lottery. They played at a stall in the village of Bhatipara, which lay past Joypur to the south. Their luck that day was not very good
“This same thing had happened. How many Musalman houses they burned, so many people they killed. I was new in service then. There was no protection then, no counter. But this time the Musalman countered. Those people burned, these people also burned. Those people killed, so did these people. That is why they are now saying, ‘How did the Musalman have so much guts? There must be a foreign hand. They must have come from Bangladesh.’ But nobody has come from Bangladesh. It is all lies.”
Raids on Bodos, he assured me, would yield over a truckload of weapons; his information was that the ringleaders of the riot were Chief and Janamohan Mushahary, the ex-BLT Welfare Society chairman who was once a leader of a BLT armed wing.
Ratul’s aunt brought tea, savouries and excellent malpua. Relaxing into Bengali (we had been talking in Hindi) he spoke expansively about himself. Protibaad is the word he used, protest. He protested against hafta-collection on Sundays, when every shopkeeper and every rickshawalla in Kokrajhar had to pay up; against extortion by Bodo militants, because in Kokrajhar even ordinary masons could face demands of Rs 5 or 6 lakh. He was more than a policeman; he saw himself as a social worker, always ready to collect funds if a poor man needed them for a daughter’s wedding or hospital expenses. When he was suspended, he continued to help the Officer in Charge catch criminals.
What to make of Ratul? His grandiosity was as transparent as his evasions. In a way that was not still clear, he was the seed of a catastrophe that had displaced some half a million people. He was adjusting to the circumstances, figuring out his cards. Who could know that whatever it was that transpired on those two July nights would light a loom that had no end?
He gave me his account of the shooting at Magurmari.
“On the nineteenth I was in the police station. I was talking to OC-saab [Officer in Charge] about something. He calls me from time to time. At exactly seven o’clock I went home from the police station. At home I drank a cup of tea. My younger brother Mainul came from Bilasipara and along with him his friend. His name is Abu Siddique. He is from AAMSU. The electricity went off and it was hot inside. He said, ‘Let us go out to the road.’ We went out and sat there. Around then, two boys came on a bike. They started firing. They fired seven-eight rounds. I got a bullet in my leg, but I did not feel it. When I saw the man from Bilasipara running, that is when I realised these people have come to kill us. I tried to run after the boy who fired, but he got away.”
He confirmed that the person who fired at him was Rajib Basumatary. He could not say why Rajib Basumatary would have shot him; no, there was no arms deal between them, no personal enmity. The closest thing to a motive was his aforementioned acts of protest.
With this mystery playing in my head, with the sun lowering upon Assam, with the scent of freshly baked biscuits escaping a neighbouring shed, with the riot continuing to splutter and sometimes rage around us, and with the constable offering to send me cellphone footage of a slain garage owner called Khairat Ali’s dead body, though I was not sure what this might prove except his affinity for cellphone recordings, I said goodbye.
The next morning I left to return to Delhi. I took the early morning passenger to Guwahati. It was a wonderful morning, just a touch overcast. The air was so fresh. The green was so vivid. Inside the train Assamese life played out: striped nylon shopping bags, chicken fluttering inside some; tamul slivered and taken; through window grilles the transplantation of paddy. We crossed the Brahmaputra. In between stations we braked to a stop. After some minutes passengers disembarked and made towards the engine. We had crushed an autorickshaw. We had killed the three men in it. It was not an unmanned crossing; I don’t think there was a crossing at all. Passengers converged around the bodies to take photographs on their cellphones. They squinted at their screens to study the outcome, blocking the glare with their palms.
The indifference to Indian death is never more disturbing than when one is a participant in its spectacle. But the entire week had been filled with this sense of inadequacy. Too many stories one could not honour, common lives one could not memorialise. The verb ‘maar’ could be used for hitting or attacking as easily as for killing, and for a week I had recorded its variations in testimonies. A man called Bhagirath Basumatary had lost his mother and he spoke about it with a still, blank face. I had photographed it, and every night while looking at my photographs I would go back and look at him. When they saw the rioters come and he fled with the villagers, he had left his mother behind. She was paralysed waist down and he thought they could go back for her. Maar diya.
I recalled the words of a retired IPS officer who had served in the Bodo areas. Bodos were the most stoic people he had encountered. Physical coercion was futile, though some responded to softer temptations, like pork and rice
Destruction comes with its own aesthetics. I prefer ruins to monuments, the French artist Édouard Levé once wrote. It was not possible to prefer ruins to monuments where there was nothing left of even ruins. When I met Noor Mohammad and his son Sikandar in the village Bhalatol Part 2, they were at the end of the five minutes granted them by central reserve policemen. Noor Mohammad’s brother and nephew had been killed, and they knew their own village was burnt. The knowledge had not prepared them for this cancellation of their life. Their homes were constructed from nothing much, so what much could remain of them? The straw and cane and jute hurd—which is to say the walls, the fencing, the sheds—caught easily and lay in heaps on the mud floor. Their belongings were particles. In his hands Sikandar held a distorted metal spatula, and he raced about to hunt other salvagables. Nothing.
There were 87 houses in a village called Nowhapara and 87 were burnt. Thick humidity, intense tropical vegetation, post-apocalyptic scenes: house upon house, shed upon shed, fence upon fence cindered meaningless, grain still smouldering, tamul still smoking. The vegetation bore scars, tall tamul palm blackened as though doused in tar; in some courtyards the beautiful five-limbed sijou tree, worshipped in Bathouism, melted into wax grotesques; in others, threads of stunning colour survived on devastated weaving apparatus. The sounds were of animals, pigs snouting through debris, a black dog traipsing through the ash—the dog, Kala, its master would say 18 months later, who never left.
Our train could not halt very long; it was a single-track line. Four policemen had arrived. The dead men were placed on the gravel beside the tracks, laid out parallely like drying fish. Someone had bandaged their heads. There had been enough bandage for two; the third man lay with his skull cracked open and his brain spilling out. Their names in a newspaper brief the next day would reveal that they were a Bodo, a Muslim and a Rabha, but despite the symbolism these deaths need not be demographised. They were not rioted. They were just another Indian morning.
Presently the wife of one man arrived. She hit him lightly on his cheek, hoping to get a response, willing him to life. She slapped him harder, three or four times, wailing, admonishing him for his stupidity, the stupidity of men. The crowd toppled the autorickshaw off the tracks. The mangled black metal settled into vegetation and the bright pink plastic flower attached to the side-view mirror pointed at the sky, which was a gorgeous mild grey, boding rain.
Seven months after he was killed, I visited the home of the ex-Bodoland Liberation Tiger Pradip Boro aka Phatra. His family lived in South Narabari village outside Kokrajhar, next to Joypur, where he was slain with his three friends on the first night of the Ramzan gone.
Work was on when I visited. A pair of masons was up on scaffolds drawn against a half-completed structure. Along its front, like a masthead, the words were recently written into the cement.
Patra-Boro-Late Died 20.07.2012.
The family home was beside the new half construction. It was an Assam Type structure, with clay-tile and tin roofs, pillars and beams exposed. The courtyard was coloured with flowering plants, drying dokhanas and a sijou.
Phatra’s parents and his younger brother, Sanjay, were home. Sanjay was an autorickshaw driver. The father, Mahendra, worked as a peon with a government health department. He was a thin man in his mid-fifties, with long fingers, white hair, a white moustache and troubled eyes. He spoke with me a long time in broken and occasionally agitated Hindi, and I strained to follow him. It dawned on me that his speech was not slowed or agitated by unfamiliarity of language; he spoke reasonable Hindi. His wife had a similar glassy gaze. They were high. It was not later than noon.
“Ma was never like this before,” Sanjay told me. “Two-three times a week she cries a lot. She is in a really bad state. She gets dreams. That is why she is drinking so much.”
When the CBI came home with their computer, Mahendra communicated to me, Phatra’s daughter, who studied in an English-medium school, saw a photograph of her father cut up. She was eleven years old. He wanted me to know how badly this had affected her. A different image haunted Sanjay. At the hospital, when he identified Phatra’s dead body, it was already in a dreadful state. By the next day, when he lifted it for the last rites, it had deteriorated beyond belief. “I can’t get sleep till 2 or 2.30 in the morning. My brother keeps coming. His cut-up body.”
The lens of ‘immediate causes’ shows us the riot as historical grievance and as politics by other means, but also as an eruption of human friction, frustration, depravity. A riot is the cover under which the ugliest aspects of the heart are let loose
Phatra was a thekedar. He did not have his own contractor licence. He worked on one or two projects a year with a friend who had a licence. Facts like this meant something to me because, though the dead Phatra was documented in such mathematical precision, there was little to imagine his life by. In subsequent visits I would learn more: that he enjoyed badminton, and picnics, that his favourite food was not pork or any other meat but the humble alu. Of all the ironies: his favourite fish was magur, catfish.
There was a clue in the name too. The word phatra meant naughty, frivolous but with an implied vulgar touch, possibly a layabout. On one visit, by poking me in my ribs in order to tickle me, Phatra’s uncle would demonstrate to me exactly in what way Phatra was phatra. “Sirf enjoy. Jaisa naam, waisa.”
But that is not how the Muslims of Joypur knew Phatra.
Though it is among the most important organisations in modern Assam, there is little material to be found on the Bodoland Liberation Tigers. Academic works give us some political context, newspaper archives bring us a litany-in-brief of bandhs and bombings, but there is little ground reporting, and especially not after the Tigers became governors. Any bits of authentic information would need one of the old guard to open up, someone who was there from the start. That was not easy.
When I met such a man, after much chasing, it was under the condition that I would not identify him. It was again a time of atrocity. In December 2014 the NDFB’s Songbijit Faction had perpetrated the massacre of over 80 Adibasis. The Bodo leader had long days of travel and meetings in its aftermath, and our conversation took place in his vehicle, where he took off his shoes for relief.
The Bodoland movement, he reminded me, had its roots in the Plains Tribal Council of Assam and their 1967 movement for ‘Udayachal’, a state for Assam’s plains tribes. The movement for a separate Bodo state gathered momentum in 1987, under Upendra Nath Brahma, then president of the All Bodo Student Union (ABSU), and later christened Bodofa, or the father of the Bodos.
Though Bodos formed between five and ten per cent of Assam’s population, the ABSU’s demands were no less than ‘Divide Assam 50/50’. The people who would become top leaders of the BLT and afterwards the BPF were all part of ABSU, which my source described as the “umbrella organisation”. They were of the same age, in their late teens, and driven by the cause.
It was not until 1996 that the entity called Bodoland Liberation Tigers came into being. Its genesis, my interlocutor told me, was a small meeting held in an abandoned house in the village of Molandobi, near Dotma in Kokrajhar district, at a time when ABSU was under the leadership of Sumbla Basumatary. It was decided that the struggle must be taken to the next level, from a different platform. It would have to be an armed fight. “In defence,” the leader stressed. Against what? Against government policies, the non-delivery of promises (in 1993 there had been a disastrous first experiment with an autonomous council), against the oppression by security forces, which had included false imprisonment of Bodo boys and the rape of Bodo girls.
Who coined the name? He told me; and immediately felt sheepish. It was an important person in the annals of the Bodo struggle; he would rather I did not publish it. One of the surprises here was that the man who coined the name had died years before the organisation was created. But it was part of his vision: he felt that the strong arm of the movement needed a strong name. The LTTE was a famous organisation at the time. So: the Bodoland Liberation Tigers.
The leader was keen to downplay the militant aspect of the BLT. What sort of physical training did they undertake? “Very little, just like PT.”Arms training? “Basic. Not for offence.” The years of sporadic mayhem the BLT unleashed in lower Assam, the extortion, the abductions, the bombings of vital trains like the Brahmaputra Mail and the Rajdhani he explained with an analogy. “It is like how in this road there can be obstacles and you can go off road, it was like that. It happens sometimes. The policy was just defence.” Unlike the militant groups today, he said, the BLT hardly needed to hide in the forest. “We had so much support, the villagers used to protect us.” From an initial ‘executive council’ of 12, the Tigers swelled to 2,641 cadre at the time of the Bodo Accord in 2003.
One of those 2,641 cadre was Pradip Boro aka Phatra, whose death on July the twentieth, 2012, had an entire region up in flames, whose home I was now in.
Under a rehabilitation initiative of the accord, 1,000 surrendered cadre were absorbed by the security forces. Phatra joined the Border Security Force in Manipur. But after three or four months, Sanjay told me, he ran away; it was too hard, “too much punishment”. There was a construction boom in Kokrajhar around then, as the Rs 500-crore package secured in the accord began to come in. Roads and bridges were getting built, a handsome secretariat, colleges,institutional buildings. Phatra started working with a contractor and eventually became a sub-contractor.
Phatra’s militant past never quite left him, or perhaps he never left it. The Muslims in the area spoke of him as an extortionist and a sort of gangleader. One Joypur policeman told me Phatra “was a bad fellow elsewhere, but not in Joypur”; unlike others he accepted whatever money he was given on Bihu and for a while, when he was in a surrendered-militant camp, he helped the police as an informer. Many others believed Phatra to be a commander of an underground outfit called the Bodo Royal Tiger Force, a kind of post-BLT version of the BLT: when weapons are surrendered, it is well known, they are never all surrendered. The night he was killed with his friends, Joypur villagers claimed, the four had been firing either bullets or blanks in the air.
Sanjay maintained that his brother kept no weapons after the surrender—and certainly had none on that night, as Joypur residents claimed. “If he had weapons why would they have died? If you have weapons and I have weapons then neither of us will die.” Sanjay wanted the killers to be hanged in an open field.
Of that night he could only say that Phatra had gone with his friends towards Bhatipara, a village beyond Joypur. One of those friends was Jatin Goyary, also from South Narabari, who sometimes stayed over at their home. He could not say why the four had been killed, except for the character of his neighbours.
“Since when we were young we are seeing this Joypur is very bad. Bad people stayed there. At night nobody can travel there. Whether Bodo or other people, they used to just attack them without reason. They used to drink in the fields, do dadagiri. Whoever is arrested, till they are hung in an open field nothing will change.”
Among those arrested was Mainul Haque, another of Ratul’s brothers: one younger, the number four in sequence.
On the ninth of August, 2012, three weeks after it began, the CBI was given charge of seven cases pertaining to the riot, starting with the trigger incidents of the nineteenth and the twentieth of July at Magurmari and Joypur.
Mainul Haque was a leader with a body called the All BTC Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU). He was a local presence. If you looked closely at the blood-red slogans bordering the road that ran past Joypur, under the fresh ‘ABMSU Long Live’ graffiti that duelled, wall after wall, pillar after pillar, with ‘No Bodoland No Rest’ and ‘Divide Assam 50/50’, you could make out traces of an older ‘Mainul Hoque Long Live’.
Mainul was a robust man with a loud voice, a round belly and slightly shameless but sentimental eyes. I had first encountered him at a relief camp in the riot days. He received the media and petitioned them with an agitational confidence, as he would have tried to petition Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had also visited there. He had a way with words. His style was muscular, accusatory, though he was not averse to emotion.
“We are looking forward to dying,” he had said to me. “But when we die we should at least feel that we did work for the quam, the community. I am not angry with the uparwala. If not for Him we would have died already. We will stay here. Where will we go? If we go somewhere else they will make us foreigners there too.” Despite the air of performance, I found this affecting.
Mainul was a railway contractor by profession, but his instinct was politics. In 2011 he stood for Assembly elections on a Trinamool Congress ticket from Bilasipara East in Dhubri district (with 1,889 votes, he finished eighth of 11). Although he was presented as the founder of ABMSU, which began in 2005, it was said by many, including some ABMSU members, that the organisation was started by Ratul before that. One high-ranking policeman who had worked in Kokrajhar, told me that the body was set up at the behest of Chief, Hagrama Mohilary, who wanted to counter the growing prominence of the older union AAMSU. Things soured between Chief and ABMSU, which then began to ally with AAMSU. As a policeman, Ratul would not have been allowed to join, let alone float, an organisation like this, and in our meeting Ratul had claimed he had nothing to do with it. He only attended ABMSU cultural events. “My son is a singer. I go just for the singing.”
By the riot of 2012, Mainul Haque was himself no longer president of the body—he was ‘advisor’—but he remained its force.
Mainul and the ABMSU were at the centre of a flashpoint in the weeks leading up to the riot. It concerned an Eidgah in a remote village called Bedlangmari. The land was slightly larger than the size of a football field, wedged between forest, hills, and a small tea garden. In May 2012, men the villagers recognised as ex-BLT cadre trashed the Eidgah sign and demolished the minbar from which the imam preached. The villagers told me they had been using the land as an Eidgah for over 25 years and paid revenue on it (a nominal sum, Rs 50 a year). Kampa Borgoyari, the Bodo deputy chief, one of whose portfolios was Forest, told me that it was grabbed forest land (“wherever there is unused land, whether by the river or grazing land or in the jungle, they are there”) and it was forest department officials who removed the sign.
To protest the trashing of the sign, and the looming invalidation of the Eidgah altogether, Mainul’s ABMSU had called a 24-hour bandh. That bandh turned violent. There were skirmishes, assaults, injuries, the burning of motorcycles. The day after the bandh the Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner of the time, Donald Gilfellon, called an all-party meeting and then issued a public appeal. The appeal termed ABMSU’s bandh a ‘pre-planned conspiracy’, ‘baseless’, ‘undemocratic’, and cited a 2009 Supreme Court promulgation of ordinance that required religious structures on disputed properties to shift location. It did not mention the status of this particular piece of land.
For several victims I spoke to, the most astonishing thing was that violence was done to them by people they knew and shared everyday relations with: landowner and tiller, shopkeeper and customer, contractor and mason, teacher and student
In January 2013, Mainul Haque was arrested by the CBI for the Joypur lynching. While he was in custody, there was a ‘shown arrest’ for the Eidgah bandh violence. He was lodged in Kokrajhar jail and that is where I went to see him.
Across a window-sized grille in the wall from me now, Mainul Haque was balder and shorter than I remembered. His hands and his face were soot-blackened, as though in parody of prison life. “What can I say? One day feels like one month inside.” The stress had been hard on the family. His father, Afsar Ali, had had a stroke and was paralysed on one side. His mother had developed kidney problems.
I asked him why he was arrested. “They want to bring down ABMSU,” he replied. But you say you are not the ABMSU president, I said to him.
“Still, I am seen as the leader. I talk to the media, I talk to the other organisations. To bring down ABMSU they thought they have to bring me down. So they are putting all kinds of cases on me. Why aren’t they catching the people who did all this? The BTC Chief had made a statement that if I give the order all this will stop in one day. What does that mean?”
The night the four Bodo boys were killed, Mainul told me, he was not in Joypur. “I only took some phone calls from people who were in Joypur.” The death of those four boys had occurred right in front of the police. “What was the police doing? They should be held responsible.”
I was inside a wire cage the size of a telephone booth. A minder waited at the entrance of the booth. Because of his presence I did not probe much further. The jail was a laidback gabled structure. The only other visitor that afternoon was a man with a long beard and bookish spectacles I had seen while making my application to see Mainul at the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court. He had since procured a hen, and he waited to present it to his Under Trial Prisoner at the gate.
“This case is an ABMSU conspiracy, nothing more, nothing less,” the CBI investigating officer said. “All evidence is against Mainul Haque. He de facto runs ABMSU. Their real president is a dummy. They have no bank account, no stated objectives, nothing, for such an organisation. Ever since that, what’s his name, Parful… Parful… haan, Prafulla Mahanta, went straight from the campus to chief minister’s office, everyone thinks they can do the same. This bugger fellow Mainul! He masterminded the whole attack. One hour to mobilise those people, get weapons, surround them, pull the four boys out from the police jeep as they were being taken away and kill them.”
Listening to him speak, the dimension of time in that incident began to open up for me. There had been a substantial gap between the firing and the lynching; there had been police intervention; the four Bodos were not pulled off their bikes but out of police vehicles. The investigator did not mention anything about weapons recovered from the boys, but he had heard reports that they had earlier been seen with country pistols.
What happened in Magurmari? I asked.
The officer looked meaningfully at me. His name was Surinder Singh Gurm. He was Sikh, a DSP with CBI’s Special Crimes-1 unit.
“It is all bakwaas, rubbish. See me in two weeks, we are close to a breakthrough. I will tell you.”
“Ratul says that a guy Rajib Basumatary shot him . . .”
“We have no idea who he is, where he is. Assam Police should know. Achcha, what sort of fellow is this Ratul? He is untraceable. We have summoned him. He has some rape and murder case against him I have heard. This family has a really bad reputation, I tell you.”
On the wall of their temporary office, a cottage in Dhaligaon Refinery township, was a giant map of Kokrajhar district, its villages and rivers neatly labelled, small red circles for flashpoints in the cases under investigation.
What might have been the ABMSU’s motive? They were not armed as the Bodo militant groups were. They were bound to be defeated. The majority of the people in the relief camps were Muslim. The majority of the deaths in the riot were Muslim. Some figures would put it at 79 out of 108.
“Motive, I mean in an overall way,” I said, vaguely.
“Hmm… overall motive… That is not the reality, but, about arms . . .” the officer said to me. He rose from his seat to check something in a file.
Another investigator, also north Indian, took up the question.
“Have you been to Jammu and Kashmir?” he asked me.
“Bas, for a few days.”
“Poonch side, go and see. There are gurdwaras, there are mandirs. Just no Hindus remaining.”
“Let the report be completed,” SS Gurm said after consulting the file. “Contact me in fifteen-twenty days in Delhi. I will tell you many interesting stories.”
Those stories did not come my way. We spoke a few times but I was not able to meet him. I don’t think he wished to, and that was that.
Surinder Singh Gurm was 46 at the time of the riot. The CBI website showed him joining as a sub-inspector on the SC quota in 1988. In 2009 he was made DSP. He had a Twitter account, which revealed him to be a cricket fan and told us a little about his personality. His inaugural tweet was addressed to Rajdeep Sardesai: ‘pl take up the issue of malacious prosecution of officers involved with anti corruption job by the accused persons.’ After the sixteenth December gang-rape in Delhi, he tweeted: ‘If they could send the victim to Singapore for better treatment, they can send the accused to Saudi Arabia for better justice…’
Within the organisation, another CBI officer told me, Gurm’s reputation was not especially good and one indicator was the fact that he was with Special Crimes. Special Crimes investigated riots, cases of sensational murders, things like that, whereas the cream of the crop was involved in anti-corruption, which was the original mandate of the CBI. He had a knack, according to my source, for keeping his superiors happy.
Afsar Ali Ahmed, Ratul and Mainul’s father, passed on. Ratul took to offering prayers in both mandir and masjid that CBI’s Surinder Singh Gurm “falls ill, he gets blood sugar, he gets blood cancer, this is my curse”. Gurm was promoted from DSP to ASP
I could not meet Gurm but I grew obsessed with the chargesheet. Since a chargesheet is a public document of sorts and in this instance pertained to a public matter, my attempts to get it included a Right to Information application and a formal request to the CBI. There was a negative reply to the RTI application. The CBI directed me to make a submission to the Assamese court in which the chargesheet had been filed; because I had no locus standi in the case, it was my understanding, only a rare magistrate would grant me it. I would have to source the chargesheet, which was harder than I imagined. I had almost given up hope when one day I began to receive hunks of rubber-banded papers.
A chargesheet is a work of kaleidoscopy, a kind of Rashomon within a Rashomon. In order to lay charges it must claim a particular truth. Characters, in the form of police witnesses, give the chargesheet the authenticity of its claim—and yet their partial awareness betrays the fragility of the claim. Everybody knows something, nobody knows all things, and natural scepticism makes the omniscient narrator unreliable. Patterns may emerge and disappear, and sameness could appear more suspicious than contradictions: for instance, when half a dozen people recount something in identical words.
There were two chargesheets for the slaughter of the four Bodos in Joypur. The first was filed three months after the incident,with investigations still continuing. It laid out the sequence of events.
Blank firing is heard by villagers at eight in the evening. The villagers congregate with chants of ‘Allah O Akbar’. Two police vehicles arrive on the scene. Then two motorcycles bearing four Bodos. The mob identifies the Bodos as the same ones who had been firing in the air. The police frisk the men, find no weapons, take them into their vehicles, drive off and, once they have cleared the crowd, turn the vehicles around in order to drive back to Kokrajhar. Meanwhile the mob sets the two motorcycles alight. It blocks the police vehicles when they return, drags the Bodos out and lynches them.
There were eight Accused. These did not include either Ratul or Mainul, and their names appeared only in passing in the 28 witness statements.
In the supplementary chargesheet three months later there is significant substantiation. The incident presented as straightforward mob violence in the first chargesheet is upgraded to a conspiracy. (Afterwards a CBI officer explained to me that this brought in Section 120-B of the IPC, which provided the procedural advantages of joint criminal liability for conspiracy. Participation in the execution of the crime was not essential; agreeing to participate was an equal offence.) The conspiracy is as follows.
Soon after the ‘alleged incident of firing’ at Ratul in Magurmari, his brother Mainul Haque takes ‘a meeting of ABMSU Cadre of Joypur Unit at about 11.30 pm in the night near LP School in Joypur’. In that meeting ‘it was decided to attack persons of Bodo community to refrain them from making future attacks on Muslims besides giving a call to observe Bandh on 20.7.2012’.
The following night Phatra and his friends present the opportunity. The ABMSU cadre in Joypur ring Mainul and Ratul to apprise them of the situation. Then the phone lines start to burn. Mainul, using his own cellphone detected to be in the tower area close to Joypur, and Ratul, using the phones of his companions in the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, apparently issue instructions to kill the Bodos, which the mob, mobilised by the ABMSU cadre, duly proceeds to do.
The Accused swelled in number from eight to 37, and three of those were identified as the chief conspirators. Along with a low-key friend of theirs called Ibrahim Bhuiyan, they were Accused 36 Mainul Haque @Raju and the Accused 37 Mohibur Islam @Ratul.
The village of Joypur is perhaps a kilometre long and half a kilometre wide. To the north the road runs past Phatra’s house into Kokrajhar town; to the south out of the BTAD and into Dhubri district. To the east are the paddy fields, by which some villagers make a living, and to the west the river Gaurang, by which a few others do. There is a minor bend in the road that goes through Joypur they call Turning. Turning is where the four Bodos were killed.
Joypur is about 100 per cent Muslim, and it is the nearest Muslim village there is to Kokrajhar town. This gave it some significance. The Religious Minority Council held its meetings here, and the ABMSU established a strong base. The proximity to Kokrajhar also attracted a floating population of labourers, who hired hovels for Rs 70 a month near the river, so that the population of about 3,000 could seasonally swell by another 500. There are two mosques in Joypur, one at each end; one private college, one Middle English madrassa, three government Lower Primary schools and one private; education standards are low.
Azizur Rahaman, a teacher of Assamese literature at the Kokrajhar Girls’ College next door in Narabari, was the first to get a Master’s degree (he is working towards a PhD, ‘A Study of the Sociocultural Life of East Bengal Origin Assamese Muslims of Undivided Goalpara and Kamrup’). Rahaman, in his mid-forties, has been in Joypur since 1978 (contrary to the Bodo claim that it is a new settlement, he says the village has been around since 1913) and has what is likely the only written chronicle by a villager of those harrowing days. Half his account, which runs to 6,500 words in the English translation, deals with the political background and the flashpoints like the Eidgah affair. The other half looks at the calamitous night and its aftermath. ‘July 20, 2012. This day can be termed as a cursed day for the people of BTC as well as Joypur,’ Rahaman writes. He describes the mood once news of the deaths spread:
“Phatra was known to everyone in Joypur; a former BLT member, presently having links with the youth wing of the BPF or BRTF, he was a leader feared by many. Therefore the news of his death sent shivers to many. The killing of not one but four Bodo youths, that too within the BTC territory and in the presence of police, was an unbelievable incident…Vehicles equipped with siren and red light lined the northern part of Joypur. In an unknown fear the people started offering namaz in the mosque situated by the road. Everyone had the same prayer coming out of their hearts— ‘Hay Allah, save us, save our children and family from “bala” , protect our life and property. ’ After 10 pm when the namaz ended, the people were gripped in extreme fear; they thought that since youths from the nearby Narabari village (200 meters away) had been killed this would certainly be avenged. At that time standing on the road felt like experiencing the utter silence of a graveyard. As if men, women and children all became dumb out of fear.”
Here is a community coming to terms with a heinous crime and its consequences. Everybody in Joypur is cagey: every resident could be a suspect, every outsider an informant. And I remember the panic in the eyes of the young fisherman with whom I was talking about tangra and other fish in the river when I asked, “Were you here during the gondogol?” But there were people willing to talk.
Soon after they were slain in Joypur, the four Bodos were looted. The trail of Phatra’s stolen mobile phone led the CBI, via two other villagers, to Accused 3 Hashem Ali Rahman. But the startling inculpation of Hashem Ali Rahman in the CBI chargsheet came from Police Witness 4 Hussain Ali Rahman. What made it extraordinary was that Hussain Ali was Hashem Ali’s brother.
Police Witness Hussain Ali was a sweet-faced, frightened-looking boy. His eyes were vulnerable and expressive and occasionally welled up. His voice sometimes trembled. A yellow plastic belt tugged his jeans together around a narrow waist. He was 16 at the time of the life-altering slaughter in his village, and eighteen months later still looked no more than 15.
“They beat me, they beat me a lot,” he said to me. He was talking about the CBI and Surinder Singh Gurm. “He made me stand like this—” he spreadeagled himself, and put his hands around his throat. “They strangled me and kicked me. They would tell me, naam lo, take names. There was a laptop in that room. For seven or eight days they beat me. For two days they locked me up in their Dhaligaon office. They told me, ‘If you don’t tell us your brother will get stuck.’ They made me a witness against my brother. Tell me, will anyone say this against their own brother?”
The Alis were a very poor family. Hussain was the youngest of four brothers and a sister. Their father died before he was born; their mother had worked hard to bring them up. Two sons were masons. Accused 3 Hashem Ali ran a shop and was working towards becoming an imam.
“I was the only one going for education,” Hussain Ali said. “Then there was this gondogol. I stopped studying after that. I could not take exams. This is the first time I got into any trouble. I used to just go along on my own way. We are poor people. Where did we get stuck in this mess? Sometimes I feel like I am tired of life. Sometimes I think it is better to die.”
The mother petitioned me to get her son out of prison. Almost everybody else was released on bail but he was still stuck inside; Chief had posted the bail money for some—this was true; no politician could ignore a large constituency—but not for him. Hashem did not even like her visiting him in jail. He would get angry with her for not being able to get him out. She wept loudly as these thoughts gathered in her. “If you can speak to anyone. We are poor people.”
It was a poor family’s home. The structures were mud and cane; so was the shop which Hussain now sat at, having given up his studies. The village knew of the family’s vulnerability. The shop had been burgled three times in the past year: once they took rice, another time money, the third time dal, oil and whatever else they liked.
According to Hussain Ali Rahman’s statement in the chargesheet, the first blow to Phatra was delivered to the head with a dagger by a man called Arosh Ali. Accused 8 Arosh Ali was a calm 39-year-old schoolteacher of science, and this is his brief account of what happened.
It was meant to be the first Tarawih namaz of Ramzan, the extended recitation of the Qur’an that proceeds through the month. He had left home for the mosque when he heard firing; since it was the first night of Ramzan he wondered if it was a bomb. Then he heard shouting, people saying there has been gula-guli, firing. He was called to the NEF College near his house, by its principal. There he and other teachers learnt that Muslims had surrounded some Bodos at Turning. He returned home to his wife and two young daughters. From his house he could hear sounds of cars and bikes moving about; he slept at 1.30 am; in the morning he heard that a Muslim woman and a Muslim man were killed at Narabari, that Babu the bike mechanic at Ganga Talkies in town had been attacked. Four months later he was summoned by the CBI, which he held in awe. The CBI wanted him to become a police witness. “They told me, ‘If you give us 3-4 names, we will leave you.’ I said, ‘I have told you the full story.’ They said, ‘Take a walk for ten minutes and think about it.’ I said,‘No.’They arrested me right there.” He mentioned an identity charade, where he believed the police acted in bad faith. He was put in Goalpara jail for one year and three days.
Several others I spoke to had similar stories. Accused provided their alibis for the night. One alleged low-grade torture. Police Witnesses contradicted in part or full measure their statements in the chargesheet and claimed harassment, coercion or fabrication by the CBI.
I do not presume to judge the case; every man will further his cause. Our interest is in what the life of the investigation reveals about the life of the riot and the lives of its participants. One point was indisputable. There was no doubt that Phatra Boro and his three friends were indeed killed on July the twentieth, 2012, in the village of Joypur, that their deaths were by human hands, and they precipitated one of the largest displacements in the history of independent India.
A few hours before they were killed, the four Bodo friends played lottery. They played at a stall in the village of Bhatipara, which lay past Joypur to the south. Their luck that day was not very good. Sanjib Narzary, a jovial 33-year-old Bodo and the proprietor of the lottery stall that was never to re-open, told me the boys must have spent about eight hundred rupees that evening and made close to nothing. The system worked online, with results coming in every fifteen minutes. That evening they played a variation that involved the final set of numbers. The game had a local name: it was called ‘Ending’. The boys were in good spirits. Narzary saw no weapons on them, but added that they would not display them anyway. At some point late in the evening the four Bodos left the lottery stall, moving, unknown to them, from one Ending to another.
What particular fires burned in their hearts on that first night of Ramzan? Did they, like Phatra’s brother Sanjay, harbour long-standing resentment towards “those people of Joypur”? Did they like to use the name ‘Joypur’, or were they, like the spokesman-stringer in the Bodo party office, loath to call it by that name, considering it usurped from the Bodo village of Narabari? At what intersection of immediate provocations and root causes did their deaths lie?
On a winter morning of rolling white fog I set out to meet Mainul Haque in Bilasipara, south of the Bodoland districts. The sun slowly burned off the fog over the fields, exposing the brick kilns of Dhubri district, the Chinese fishing nets tied over its beels, the landscape shading from the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan to the lowlands that flowed with the Brahmaputra into Bangladesh.
In the Goalpariya or deshi language of lower Assam, ‘bhatiya’ is the descriptor for a Muslim of east Bengali ethnicity. The word means ‘one from downriver’. “We are not bhatiya Muslims,” old Afsar Ali Ahmed, Ratul and Mainul’s father, had made it a point to tell me. He wished to convey, perhaps, that his family should not be mistaken for Bangladeshi. But the word was older than Bangladesh, older than East Pakistan. En masse migration began in the early-twentieth-century Raj, which sought cultivation of the abundant ‘waste lands’ of Assam by the Bengali Muslim peasantry downriver. Among the things the bhatiya was known and sometimes resented for in Assam was his industriousness, which occasionally supplied a jovial anecdote. “How is it that you are able to work in the sun all day?” a bhatiya oddjobsman is asked by the lady of a wealthy Assamese house. “I also wonder,” he replies, “how Hujoor sits up in the verandah and does nothing all day.”
Bilasipara, a market town whose main road usually clanged with clanging workshops and hustling handcarts, was quiet on a Sunday morning.
Mainul Haque stood at a shop outside his home in a vest, purchasing biscuits and cigarettes. He had not placed me on the phone. “You had come to meet me in jail,” he said by way of greeting.
He looked bigger, rounder. We went into a sparsely furnished living room. He put on a shirt. A tall lady in a sari soon served us tea. She was his wife, a Bihari from Kishenganj. Mainul had three wives. One lived in Magurmari, one in Kokrajhar town, and one here in Bilasipara. From them he had five children.
Mainul had spent five months in jail. But Ratul was now inside. Not on a CBI arrest, not yet. He was summoned to the Kokrajhar court for an appearance in an old case. And while there, he was arrested for yet another case. One of those cases, I learned from the court, was an incident of thuggery between the two bodies, ABMSU and AAMSU, involving Rs 20,000, rods and khukris. Mainul explained it as a case of simple misunderstanding, and to demonstrate that there was no problem between the two unions, he summoned an AAMSU man and made a great show of saying that it was a terrible oversight that the case had not been withdrawn. The AAMSU man did not say much and soon left.
On the afternoon of nineteenth July, 2012, Mainul told me he met Abu Siddique at Fakiragram and together they came to Magurmari. Ratul and Siddique had something to discuss; Mainul left them to drop a nephew to Bilasipara. A little later, near the Kokrajhar Circuit House, he heard about the shooting.
The CBI’s presentation of Mainul’s role as a kind of mastermind had him take an ABMSU meeting in Joypur that night, in which it was ‘decided to attack persons of Bodo community’. One participant in this meeting, according to his statement in the CBI chargesheet, was Police Witness 43 Mijanur Rehman— who told me that he had neither attended nor heard about such a meeting.
Mainul Haque told me the only meeting he had that night was with an ASP of the Kokrajhar thana, after he had been stopped on his motorcycle in Narabari by ten Bodos armed with AK-47s. “I said, ‘Shoot me but I am going.’ They were Janamohan Mushahary’s men. Extremists. I called the Additional SP and he came to the spot. He shouted at them and chased them away.”
The following night, he said, he was buying fruits in the Kokrajhar bazaar when the fruit seller told him something was going on in Joypur. “By the time I went to the police station I heard that kaam khatam ho gaya, it’s all over. I understood that the situation will be bad now. I got scared that I will be killed and went back towards Magurmari. But at the tea garden I heard that the Bodos are coming from that side too.” He turned around and went to his Kokrajhar father-in-law’s home near the jail.
According to the CBI, Mainul had mobilised ABMSU cadre in Joypur over the phone and urged them to kill the four men apprehended as per the previous night’s decision. Mainul says he only received news from Joypur on the phone. “Everyone speaks on the phone, what does that prove? They have no evidence, no recordings. Everyone talks about the four boys only. What about all the people their side killed. What about the baby who was stabbed in Kokrajhar? His mother was stripped and found in a drain.” He asked me whether I had heard of Nellie.
He reiterated the point he made to me in prison: that the police was to blame for the deaths of Joypur. “What were they doing, so many of them? One shot in the air and the matter would have ended right there. Why did the police let them kill? In the Supreme Court also I will say: this is total conspiracy.”
He said he knew Phatra well. “He used to respect me—if he was smoking, he would put out his cigarette when I came.” He then made staggering claims about him.“Phatra has killed at least 200 people. The other three boys were also khatra, danger. Those four together were the equal of 4,000 people. Phatra was a special shooter for BLT. He was well known. When Hagrama and all came to power he would use Phatra to target people who went against the party. Anyone. Even Bodos. He had gone once to eliminate a Bodo leader, Daneswar Goyary. You can check with him.”
(I did, in fact, check with Daneswar Goyary, a BPF MCLA. He looked nonplussed at the claim, and denied any knowledge of it. He added that after the BLT surrender Phatra had become an “aam aadmi… theek hi tha”.)
I asked Mainul about the violence and he replied with a mini oration. “The reason of violence is the blueprint. The blueprint is that there should be a riot and Muslims should leave. They are taking a hit on numbers. This is not a new story. When I was in high school, there were attacks on Nepali, attacks on Rajbongshi, attacks on Bengalis, Adibasis. Who forced the Adibasis to get weapons? They were happy naked in the jungle and the tea gardens. Bodos did. For twenty years people were scared to say we are Muslims. People used to change their names. This changed after Ratul became a policeman and I started ABMSU. We staged protests, demonstrations. That is why they started hating us over here. This will happen to everyone who raises their hands and talks in BTAD. If you accept gulami, slavery, you will get jobs, money, everything.”
Some months after that meeting, I recalled Mainul’s words. Days after polling in the 2014 General Election, Bodo militants massacred 45 Muslims, understood to be punishment for voting the wrong way. The man the non-Bodos had thrown their lot behind, as results would confirm, was an independent candidate called Naba Kumar ‘Heera’ Sarania. Heera Sarania was a former battalion commander in the United Liberation Front of Asom, the oldest and largest of Assam’s militant organisations. According to one legend, Heera Sarania went into combat strapped with 20 kilograms of explosives so that if he was hit the other man would go down too. It was a reasonable analogy for the BTAD situation.
As I left him that morning, Mainul said, with seriousness: “This can become a great film, if I tell you all the details. If you can get some interest, tell me…” Of the twists this film might take, I did not quite anticipate the one that lay ahead. When I next saw him, before the BTC elections of 2015, Mainul Haque had become a small-time leader in the Bodoland People’s Front.
The one person nobody could tell me much about was Rajib Basumatary, the man who shot at Ratul on the nineteenth of July in Magurmari and set things off in motion.
Who was Rajib Basumatary? Did the question keep me awake at nights? Yes, occasionally. Sometimes I pictured him in fatigues, cropped hair, a taut face and a taut body, hiding out in a camp in Bhutan or Myanmar. At other times I wondered if he existed at all, a man never photographed, never quoted, never arrested, never reported on. He was a McGuffin that the director of riots up in the sky had tossed into the fields below to roll her film along. The connection between Ratul and Rajib was a thing of speculation—illegal arms seller and illegal arms buyer? Cop and robber? Army informant and militant? None of the above? More than the above?—and, as it had turned out, of unending consequence.
But I did have one or two factual details. From the FIR against him I knew the names of his village and his father. And from those details I could see from the online muster rolls of the NREGS that he had clocked in a few stints of six days each in 2013 and 2014 in the Magurmari area. Because I was not sure if it was advisable to show up at the home of an NDFB militant, I had not. Then one morning in early 2015, I decided to.
Crossing the bridge over the Gaurang, on the road of the bench where Rajib had shot at Ratul, I turned off into the tea garden, Lalmati. A sweet-looking young man on a bicycle wearing a black Wilson compression top pointed for me the way to Hakorbari. Going through the tea garden, I reached first Hakorbari’s Adibasi hamlet, and from there I was directed to the ‘Bodobasti’. The hamlets were poor, the structures impermanent; everything looked golden and idyllic in the winter sun. At the Bodo hamlet I was directed to the gaon bura, who turned out to be a very young man. There I asked for the home of Bordokanto Basumatary. I was told he had died a few months ago from a brain tumour, but he could take me to the house. On our walk there he told me he was related to Ratul’s family. This is when I first learnt that Afsar Ali Ahmed had three wives, one of whom was Bodo (different brothers would place the total number of siblings at ten and 13), and I would learn that through that wife Ratul and Rajib were also related.
We turned off the main path, towards a house at the end of a lane where in a courtyard a girl attended to a spinning wheel and a child hung about languidly beside an older lady. The lady told me her son was home. He was eating lunch. He soon emerged: a chubby round face, short fringy hair, a whiskery moustache, brownish eyes, a sweet smile. He was now in a lungi but still wearing the black Wilson top. Rajib Basumatary had shown me the way to himself.
Rajib Basumatary studied up to the eighth standard. He began working young, at 15 or 16, any kind of work wherever he could find it. Construction work, for a while on a railway site, for some months in Silchar. Briefly in the coal mines of Meghalaya. Nine months sawing pine wood in a timber mill in Gandhidham, Gujarat, where he was not happy. When he returned home from Gandhidham some boys from nearby villages told him about the “party”, as he called the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary faction). Around then he also had fights with his family, did some zidd, and in 2010, against their wishes, joined the party and went off into the jungle.
In the forests of Udalguri, the most eastern of the four Bodoland districts, and Sonitpur, a district just outside the BTAD, he went through an induction. The training lasted 28 to 30 days. There was physical training and basic pistol training. Along with that the group—of eight to ten people, that is how the groups were organised—was given moral lessons, such as respecting elders and listening to superiors. When he joined the party, it was with the thought that “desh ke liye kuchh karoon”, that he would do something for the country. The desh he meant was a Bodo homeland. But he was not aware of NDFB’s purported aim of a sovereign Bodo nation; a separate state would do.
On the nineteenth of July, 2012, the evening that he was said to have shot Ratul in Magurmari, Rajib Basumatary says he was close to Ultapani towards the Bhutan border. He was cooped up in a house. He had a severe ache in his leg and his back and so could not move. He knew Ratul, though not very well. He was aware of Ratul’s reputation as a big badmaash, but could not recall anything specific. He could not, at first, say why Ratul identified him as a shooter. “Aise hi phansaa diya,” they framed me just like that, he said a few times with a smile. Then he mentioned an incident at the previous year’s Durga Puja, which the oldest of Ratul’s brothers—number 1, Mazharul Uttam Islam, the Congress secretary—had alluded to in one of our conversations.
There was a gambling angle in Rajib’s telling, but I could not quite pick up the details. Muslims observed Durga Puja in that area he said, and his “local commander” had tasked him with extorting two lakh rupees from the head of the Puja committee. When the committee did not pay up he was asked by the commander to go fire some shots at the venue. This he did. Perhaps because of that he was seen as an enemy and framed for Ratul’s shooting.
Having become entangled in the Magurmari case, he began to feel pressure from home. He decided to turn over a new leaf. So in December 2012 he surrendered. He went with a friend to the Dogra Regiment at the Patharghat Army Camp. He was so nervous there that he forgot all his Hindi, and could only speak in Bodo; a friend translated everything for him. From there he went to the SP’s office in Kokrajhar and got his Surrender Card made. Name: Rajib Basumatary @ Rwdwmkhang. The aforesaid militant surrendered before the administration on 07/12/2012. Around this time he met SS Gurm of the CBI.
The decision to surrender came with complications. Some boys from the party fired bullets at his house. But things settled. He got a job for Rs 94 a day as a watchman at the tea estate, where his father had once worked as a labourer, digging trenches and so on. Rajib was 24 or 25 then. He got married, and the child I saw was his baby daughter. The family had no land; apart from Rajib’s wages, they got by selling rice beer.
Listening to Rajib Basumatary, I recalled the words of a retired IPS officer who had served time in the Bodo areas. Bodos were the most stoic people he had encountered. They were difficult to break in interrogation. Physical coercion was futile, though some responded to softer temptations, like pork and rice. I thought of this because there was something openly vulnerable about Rajib Basumatary, something soft and disarming, and it made me like him. Yet: the Army, the police, the CBI, a militant group. In the loops of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy in terrain like Kokrajhar it was difficult to know where he stood, whose pawn he might be other than of the circumstances in which a young man joined an armed outfit in the way youth elsewhere accepted admission in a college.
And if Rajib Basumatary did not shoot Ratul, then who did? It was two years and five months since Ratul was shot outside the tea garden I met Rajib Basumatary in, and the CBI had only just submitted its chargesheet for the incident. Once more it took a while to source it and although I had been hearing about what it would contain, when I had it in my hands the sliding doors of this peculiar case realigned themselves once more.
So here we are again. On the evening of nineteenth July, 2012, two men sat in conversation on a low concrete bench outside a tea garden in lower Assam… And what follows is a summary from the 200-odd pages of the Magurmari chargesheet with its witness statements and attachments.
The men, Ratul and Siddique, were discussing a murder charge against Siddique in Dhubri. Across the road was the paan shop of one Dino Das and the provision shop of one Pinto Das. A short distance away one Shoukat Ali was making his way to Ratul’s house to watch the 7.30 news on television as he did every day. Then there were gunshots. Everybody heard the shots—but neither Dino Das nor Pinto Das nor Shoukat Ali saw a motorcycle.
This is how Siddique’s witness statement described it: ‘I was preparing Tobacco for myself and was looking at my hands. Ratul was smoking. During this time, Ratul had shown me one firearm. I am not sure about the bore of the same. Ratul was holding cigarette in his mouth and was showing me the said firearm by opening the same. While Ratul was handling the same, it fired off suddenly.’
Siddique was stunned and leapt up to run and cut his pants on the barbed wire of the tea garden. Ratul was wounded. Shoukat Ali, the TV watcher, helped Ratul across to his house, where Ratul took out ‘one firearm from his backside’ and handed it to his wife. About then, brother number 1, Mazharul Uttam Islam, according to his witness statement, ‘took my .32 bore licensed pistol… and fired some rounds towards tea garden opposite to my house. Some of them might hit the tree under which Ratul and his friend were sitting.’
Ratul then began to mobilise ABMSU cadre, who gathered first at his house in Magurmari and then in large numbers at the Kokrajhar civil hospital where Ratul and Siddique were taken by the police, so much so that the staff could not work and the Bodo nurses had to seek refuge in the toilets. It was at the hospital, in a conversation with Jitmol Doley, then SP Kokrajhar, that Ratul revealed the name of a suspect—Rajib Basumatary of Hakorbari. The motive, Ratul told him, was that he was helping the Army nail Rajib Basumatary in anti-insurgency operations. Afterwards, the SP checked with the Army and found this claim to be untrue.
That night a joint police and Army team went out to Hakorbari. In order to pick up Rajib Basumatary they planted evidence—a stolen motorcycle that had been lying in the Kokrajhar thana, a 9 mm gun and some ammunition. But there was no tracing Rajib. The CBI chargesheet contained his alibi in the form of Police Witness 19 Shakkal Mushahari, who said Rajib was convalescing at his home in a village called Bongshidorma and ‘was not able to walk properly’ at that time.
Four weeks later, the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL) reconstructed the crime scene on the concrete bench in Magurmari with Ratul and Siddique. They found unlikelihoods in Ratul’s version of events. The bullet entered from the inside of his left leg, below the knee, and exited from the outer part. Further, the direction of fire ought to have been downwards, given that the shooter’s hand when seated on a motorcycle would have been at a height of 1.20 metres from the ground. But the entry and exit wounds were at the same level, 33.5 cm from the heel. There were discrepancies in the direction of fire described by Ratul and the three bullet holes examined in the tree.
The CBI concluded that: ‘The main aim of Ratul was to create a communal situation in the highly sensitive area of Kokrajhar to avoid police action for possession of illegal arms.’ He then conspired, with Mainul and the ABMSU, in the death of the four Bodos in Joypur the following night, ‘which acted as trigger point for communal violence in Kokrajhar and adjoining area in BTAD… and escalated the violence in Assam resulting in large scale loss to life and property’.
The chargesheet prayed that Rajib Basumatary be discharged from the case. In addition to the gamut of charges for the Joypur murders, Ratul was charged here under three sections of the IPC—promoting enmity on religious grounds, providing false information, filing a false complaint—and one under the Arms Act for possession and discharge of the illegal firearm with which he allegedly shot himself.
When a man shoots himself, he leaves behind evidence of ‘close-range phenomena’ around the point of entry: on the garment or the skin or both. These phenomena are blackening—the deposit of smoke; scorching—burn marks; tattooing—the deposit of burnt or partially burnt gunpowder. Of these blackening could disappear after a wash, but other phenomena might last a long time, in some cases forever. I was explained this by NG Prabhakar, a Bangalore-based ballistics expert and a director at the independent forensics laboratory, Truth Labs, whom I approached for an opinion.
The CFSL ballistics report in the CBI chargesheet, Prabhakar observed, was “silent” about the close-range phenomena. I asked if it could be because of the quality of medical reports at their disposal. Even if that were the case, Prabhakar said, it was a “basic duty” of the ballistics expert to record the presence or absence of the phenomena. Another basic failing, Prabhakar pointed out, was to not supply an approximate range of firing. (Neither the alleged gun nor Ratul’s garment at the time of the firing was sent to CFSL, presumably because they were not recovered.)
Prabhakar did not think it was a case of accidental firing. An accidental fire usually involved a single shot, whereas according to the chargesheet the police had recovered two cartridges from the scene. The recovered bullets were determined to be of .380 calibre and fired from a single standard .380 revolver. A revolver made the possibility of an accidental fire of more than one bullet even more remote.
The points above all seem to militate against the theory that Ratul shot himself. Yet Prabhakar’s analysis of the report did concur with the CBI’s conclusions in some crucial respects. If the shooter was on a motorcycle, the bullet would indeed have travelled from a higher to lower level, but ‘in the instant case, the wound of entry and exit were on the same level which rules out the possibility of shooting while riding the motorbike.’ Then the location of the injury was unusual: one, however, that was easily accessible to the person himself if using a small gun. So from the facts given in the report Prabhakar’s view was that ‘the injuries on the left leg were not homicidal or accidental but it was self-inflicted’. (The chargesheet refers to the injury in some places as ‘accidental’ and in others as ‘either accidental or self-inflicted’.)
Bear in mind that this was an opinion on the ballistics report, rather than an investigation of the incident and based, as Prabhakar noted, on a recreated crime scene rather than an actual one. Yet, for both the omissions he noted and the conclusion he drew, it was a tantalising one.
In the middle of 2015 the CBI arrested Ratul and put him in Goalpara jail. In Joypur at the end of the year I learnt that he was out on bail. In fact, at the moment of asking, he was probably a few villages down the road, monitoring construction on a plot of land on which there was a minor dispute. As I was about to leave that site, a speeding jeep paused and out he stepped. Ratul was in a candy-striped shirt and a grey sleeveless jacket, sneakers, no moustache, and on the whole cut a not-unpornstarlike figure. He was with a Joypur scrap dealer, who had since become an MCLA on an AIUDF ticket.
“Kaise ho?” I asked Ratul.
“Aap kaise ho?” he replied, striding towards me as we shook hands. We had not met or spoken since 2012. I asked him if we could sit down somewhere and talk.
“We will not sit. Why will we sit? I have great anger against CBI and media. I almost did suicide in front of the magistrate. If CBI comes here I will cut their neck and play football with the head. I told Gurm this on the phone. Mera naam Ratul hai,” he roared into the open road, a man in his element, so different to the one I had encountered in the house in Sorbhog. “I will cut their neck and then I will cut my own.”
But some days later I got my sit-down with Ratul. He was calm, subdued, in a black Leatherite jacket. There was much to talk about, and though I am drawn to the biographical detail— that he was a black belt in tae kwon do, that he had studied till Higher Secondary in the Assamese medium, that Bihu songs were his favourite songs, Bhupen Hazarika and Mohammad Aziz his favourite singers—we must stick with the perplexing case at hand.
The conversation was less than clarifying. He told me the motorbike was a mere four or five feet away when he was shot—but the smaller the distance, the sharper the downwards angle would have been. He told me he stood up as the shots were fired (on the ground, not on the bench)—but that would not have raised his calf any higher off the ground than it was while sitting. Eventually he said there was actually a slight difference in height between the entry and exit wounds, and there was “making” in the ballistics report too.
Then there was the question of why, if the shooter was trying to kill him, would he miss from a point-blank range?
The reason Rajib Basumatary missed, Ratul told me, was that “he shot with his left hand. His left hand was towards my side.” But he added: “According to me he was not trying to kill me. If he wanted to he could have.” He claimed that Rajib and the man driving the motorcycle, one Monu Brahma of Shukhanjara village, had both owned up to him. “They themselves say it. Rajib says it. Monu Brahma says it. Monu himself tells me ‘Ratul bhai, don’t feel bad, if we wanted to kill you we could have. But we have grown up together, gone to school together. Orders came from above. That is why we shot.’”
Those orders, Ratul said, came from Janamohan Mushahary (even though Rajib Basumatary was NDFB not ex-BLT), and the motive was the ABMSU protests during the Eidgah affair. Ratul now had no qualms about claiming foundership of the ABMSU. He started it because “every other community had a student organisation”.
We moved to the damning witness statement in the CBI chargesheet, of Abu Siddique, the man who sat beside him on the concrete bench and claimed that a gun in Ratul’s hands went off as he examined it.
“Siddique has said nothing to the CBI about me,” Ratul responded. “Even if he told CBI something against me, there should be his signature under his statement, right? Where is his signature?” Yet Siddique’s statement, like most others in the chargesheets, was taken under section 161 of the CrPC, which was not supposed to bear a signature (section 161 statements are not treated as substantive evidence). “CBI has written [Siddique’s witness statement] themselves,” Ratul said. “If you go to Siddique, he will also tell you this openly.”
I had tried to see Siddique, at the Bilasipara house of Mainul, whose associate he was. Mainul too was certain Siddique would deny the statement attributed to him. I waited for hours. A no-show.
Ratul said SS Gurm wanted him to change his own statement against Rajib Basumatary. Spread over a few sessions,with some slaps and plenty of abuse thrown in, Gurm told him: “‘Ratul, your older brother [Uttam], he has a licence pistol, with that pistol say that he shot you.’…‘Fine, if not your brother’s name, take four-five Muslim boys’ names, that they have come and shot you.’…‘Then say it was your own pistol. While cleaning it you shot yourself, say that.’…‘Fine, if you won’t say Muslim boys, won’t say bhaiya, say it was people from the KLO [Koch-Rajbongshi Liberation Organisation].’ Like that he was tutoring me.”
Ratul claimed he was asked for a bribe by an investigator to be let off in the case. Then he presented his counter-conspiracy to the CBI’s conspiracy theory. It involved the ousting of a senior Muslim CBI officer from the supervision of these cases by the Bodo administration in collaboration with a CBI investigator, followed by a humongous bribe to the CBI investigator by a top Bodo leader, the cash passed along at the offices of a TV channel in Guwahati (I have omitted names). He had evidence. The evidence was, what else, a phone recording. A Muslim driver was attached to the CBI during its investigations at the time; a go-between for the bribe had borrowed this driver’s phone and had an incriminating conversation with the bribe-giver, the top Bodo leader. The driver’s phone had an automatic recording function; the conversation got recorded. Ratul could supply me the recording. I waited months; a no-show.
A magistrate at the CBI special court in Bongaigaon will determine whether Ratul shot himself or not. If he did, was it was accidental or deliberate?
In Kokrajhar all theories have takers and it depends on their affiliations. Says one, “To be a hero, he could have shot himself also. To be a hero, he can do anything.” Says another, “The Bodo administration has been trying to get rid of Ratul and Mainul for a long time for their minority politics, for speaking out. Joypur was a case of mob violence, it was pent up anger coming out. CBI made it a conspiracy, ignoring all the events and background.”
One theory comes from an IPS officer with recent experience in Kokrajhar and who was posted in Assam at the time of the riot. Somebody (not Siddique) had gone to give Ratul a weapon. Ratul was testing it and it misfired. Ratul took the clever option and blamed it on a Bodo. He would not tell me who took the weapon to Ratul, who sent him, or why this weapon was given. “It’s a complicated story. But I know nobody shot him.” There were some things, he said, he could not reveal.
This was Bodoland and there was no guarantee whether whatever it is he knew was fact, much like the question of whether or not the great riot began because a pornographically inclined police constable shot himself in the knee. Pursue a thing long enough and there remain no facts, only versions and consequences.
‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below,’ Thornton Wilder tells us in the opening sentence of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Why did this happen to them? Was it written? That is his big question. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.’
On Friday night, July the twentieth, 2012, four Bodos were precipitated into a ghastly end and a similar question could be asked of their deaths and its consequences.
When seen through the lens of ‘root causes’—immigration, land rights, tribal alienation, underdevelopment—a riot is policy failure. Yet policy is up against the undefeatable forces of pressure and time. Considered like that, a riot is an inevitability.
Seen through the lens of ‘real reasons’, or political motivations, a riot is entirely an orchestration. “The people who organise [riots] are not driven by religious fanaticism or faith, but by political cost calculations,” the sociologist Ashis Nandy once said. “They plan a riot like chartered accountants.” To some extent it holds for the riot in question. The CBI has its ABMSU conspiracy theory, but it is a limited one. The Bodo leadership’s is a far bigger political role.
The IPS officer who told me his version of the Ratul incident also told me that the violence came from the long-running impunity of the Bodo administration—especially after the 2006 alliance with the Congress, which helped form the state government. As their assertiveness grew, in the two or three years before the riot, the local police and the civil administration got cosy with them. A lot of the aggression, which did not spare Bodo opposition either, was directed towards Muslims. Sometimes there could be violence, but there were enough subtler ways. Policemen would not register cases; circle officers would not register land or property deeds. Then the extortion, enforced with arms. The situation had been building up to a head when the four Bodos were lynched in Joypur.
When the riot caught, he told me, it was at first encouraged by the BPF, and taken to the next level by the NDFB. (One BPF leader, Pradeep Brahma, was arrested after multiple cases of inciting violence were filed against him and released on bail a fortnight later.) When things got out of hand and the pressure was on, intercepts showed the party communicating with the NDFB to try and rein it in. A few months later, in November, violence broke out again on a small scale, and once more it followed a similar pattern. (Another BPF leader, Mono Kumar Brahma, was arrested for possession of assault weapons.)
The lens of ‘immediate causes’ shows us the riot as historical grievance and as politics by other means, but also as an eruption of human friction, frustration, depravity. A riot is the cover under which the ugliest aspects of the heart are let loose. For several victims I spoke to, the most astonishing thing was that violence was done to them by people they knew and shared everyday relations with: landowner and tiller, shopkeeper and customer, contractor and mason, teacher and student. If a riot is an interplay of human provocations, there occur moments when it can be staved off, deflected, postponed by human agency.
I think of Inspector Bhuvan Chandra Das, Officer in Charge at Kokrajhar thana, who had been to Magurmari and Joypur on the two fateful nights. Inspector BC Das was in his early fifties, in the service for some 25 years, and who often used Ratul as an informant. The OC was described to me as “a nice man” as well as “a weak man”; in our phone conversations BC Das came across as a dithering, traumatised man. He changed his mind about meeting me three times, and eventually ducked it. “My health has suffered, blood pressure, diabetes. My life has been harmed. Please don’t take me back to that time again.” To a variety of people BC Das’s timidness allowed the riot into being, because as the most experienced man in the police teams that night in Joypur all he should have done was fire a shot in the air and scatter the mob. But BC Das could not bring himself to fire a shot; instead he was himself attacked, was spirited away by his PSO, Phatra and his friends were soon mutilated, and some days later Das was temporarily suspended. And two years later, in the hills north of Guwahati, the Commandant of the Commando Battalion, Jitmol Doley, a Mising, an officer regarded for his valour, looked back on his short and event-filled stint as SP Kokrajhar and recalled with a resigned cigarette puff the challenge to operations as the cases began to pile up and the station Officer in Charge was missing.
I think of the Deputy Commissioner of the time, Donald Gilfellon, under whose watch the four Bodo bodies were taken through Kokrajhar in a ceremonial-style procession the morning after they were killed. Several people remarked on its inflammatory consequences, especially with political leaders present. A few days after the Christmas of 2014, I met Gilfellon, an Assam Civil Services officer who has since superannuated. His house in a remote part of Guwahati was still in decorative lights and in his living room wrapped boxes sat beneath a tree beside an aquarium. Gilfellon had a bristly moustache and light grey eyes (he was said to be Anglo Indian), and was not the most articulate; but eventually he communicated to me the peculiarity of a DC’s working arrangements in the Bodoland districts. Law and order was entrusted to him; almost everything else to the BTC. There was little he could do about land or revenue matters, as with the Eidgah affair, until it became a law-and-order issue. The procession of the bodies he said was “traditional”; it required no permission; if he had intervened the situation would have become worse. “We have to control, actually, give confidence and promote harmony.” Eight days after that procession, Gilfellon was shipped out of Kokrajhar, and with a three-hour notice late in the evening a young IAS officer, Jayant Narlikar, Mission Director in the Madhyam Siksha Abhiyaan in Guwahati, was thrown into a conflagration the likes of which he had never before seen and thinks he never would again.
Others might identify moments of potential circumvention in the three days that it took for the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi to act on the Assam government’s request for Army deployment. By a perfect alignment of causes large and small, follies large and small, that firing at Magurmari, those four deaths in Joypur became the sparks that burnt the house.
Both trials have begun and continue (riot cases are “nuisance cases”, a CBI investigator told me, especially those involving mobs, with their large number of witnesses and large number of accused). Continues too, with extensions already sought, Justice Mutum BK Singh’s one-man commission instituted by the Assam government in October 2012.
Continues too life, or not. Afsar Ali Ahmed, Ratul and Mainul’s father, passed on. Mainul’s addition to Chief’s party, BPF, could not prevent a slide from 33 seats to 20 in the BTC elections. Ratul’s older son, the singer, progressed to the final of the Northeast edition of Sa Re Ga Ma. Ratul took to offering prayers in both mandir and masjid that CBI’s Gurm “falls ill, he gets blood sugar, he gets blood cancer, this is my curse”. CBI’s Gurm was promoted from DSP to ASP.
Phatra’s brother Sanjay gave up the autorickshaw and took a job as a peon and watchman in the Kokrajhar office of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with which the BPF allied for the 2016 Assembly elections. Phatra’s mother stopped drinking when her body began to break out in rashes, but his father remained in a terrible way until he fainted in the queue on BTC election day in 2015 and at the hospital the doctor told him his liver and kidneys were a mess. Phatra’s daughter Bibita went to live in Udalguri district with Phatra’s sister, Sabita, and continued studying in an English-medium school. She spent time with her mother, Rompa, estranged now from Phatra’s family, whenever she returned from Delhi, where she worked as a cleaner in the new Bodoland Bhawan, along with others bereaved in one Bodoland cataclysm or another, each one of those forever ending something, each ending sprouting fresh new endings.