Will ULFA’s Claim of Sonowal’s Role in Student Leader’s Murder Derail BJP’s Prospects in Assam?

Slain student leader Sourab Bora’s brother hopes the ULFA’s statement will revive the court case into his murder.

Sarbananda Sonowal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ULFA claims Sarbananda Sonowal was responsible for the 1986 murder of a popular student leader. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On a Sunday morning, the tiny Dangdhora market in Jorhat district of upper Assam was in its usual frenzy. Vendors were sitting on both sides of the market road, quoting their prices loudly in a bid to catch the customers’ attention.

A little distance away from the bustle stood the swahid veti or commemorative bust of Sourab Bora, a popular student leader at the state’s Dibrugarh University, allegedly killed by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 1986. Standing tall in a field where Sourab’s family had been cultivating paddy for years, the structure seemed to have not received a coat of paint in years, almost forgotten.

“It is true that in the last 30 years, Sourab was nearly forgotten by people but the ULFA’s recent sensational disclosure has refreshed public memory,” his brother Sapon Bora said.

“It may have come three decades late, but it still can bring justice for Sourab. I wish my mother was alive to hear what ULFA had to say about Sourab’s murder. All these years, she waited to know who actually wanted him dead. Unfortunately, she passed away three months ago,” Bora told this correspondent during a visit to his house in the Titabor assembly constituency.

On March 24, the Paresh Barua faction of the ULFA (Independent) made a statement that raise many eyebrows in poll-bound Assam. The statement, made available to the local media through an e-mail, accused Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, also the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president and the party’s chief ministerial candidate, of using the ULFA’s cadre to kill Sourab inside the Dibrugarh University campus on May 27, 1986.

Signed by Arunudoy Asom, the ULFA’s assistant publicity secretary, the statement claimed that Sonowal collaborated with Himanta Biswa Sarma, also a well-known BJP leader in the state, to kill Sourab. “Sonowal, was, in fact, with some of our colleagues till the time Sourab was murdered,” the statement said.

Bora is hopeful the ULFA’s statement will revive his brother’s case. “The case against four of the accused is still on in the Gauhati high court. Since a long time has passed, the case has weakened a bit. Many of the witnesses are no more interested in it; some don’t want their present jobs and business interests to be affected by it. Though Sonowal was discharged because of weak witnesses, I feel that ULFA’s statement will give a fresh lease to the case. I urge ULFA to provide evidence which can be admitted in the court,” he said.

The commemorative bust of Sourab Bora, seen in his family's field. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pishorty

The commemorative bust of Sourab Bora, seen in his family’s field. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Likely motive

Both Sonowal and Sarma had served the All Assam Students Union (AASU) as presidents before joining active politics. While Sonowal joined Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) before joining the BJP, Sarma was a Congress member before moving to the BJP.

Reacting to ULFA’s statement, Sonowal told the media, “The Gauhati High Court had discharged me of the charge in 2012.”

According to some AASU old-timers, Sonowal was known to be close to AGP leader Bhrigu Phukan, who was state home minister in the first AGP government led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta from 1985 to 1989. With the gap between Phukan and Mahanta widening towards the end of the term, Mahanta reportedly ordered a CBI inquiry into the case.

In its initial report, the CBI indicted Sonowal, but in its final report it said there was no material to accuse him in the case. Even then, a lower court ordered the framing of charges against Sonowal.

Sonowal challenged the lower court order in the Gauhati high court, which discharged him in June 2012 for lack of evidence. A single-judge bench of Justice B. D. Agarwal stated that the CBI had rightly concluded that there was no material to proceed against Sonowal.

Bora believes Phukan had a crucial role to play in Sonowal being let off by the court. “Soon after the murder, the then Dibrugarh District Superintendent of Police Bikhudhar Deka arrested all the five accused including Sonowal in the case. But Phukan, being the then Home Minister, got him transferred at once along with another police officer investigating the case,” he alleged.

Although he was very young when Sourab was killed, Bora believes he knows the reason for the killing.

“In 1978, just before the Assam Movement was formalised, AASU split into two factions. One was led by Mahanta and Phukan (who later negotiated the clauses of the Assam Accord with Indian government in 1985), the other called itself AASU-Democratic. My brother Sourab became its general secretary. The main issue behind the division was the AASU’s inability to take with it all the youth who were the genuine citizens of Assam. It became an Assamese-only organisation, and the tribal youth, the Assamese Muslim boys and the Bengali boys to leave AASU. The agitation against illegal immigrants became an agitation against all others except those whom AASU thought to be ‘real’ Assamese. My brother had a Leftist leaning and didn’t support it.”

He added, “I later learnt from his friends in the university that he was warned many times by Sonowal (then a student of the same university) as he was raising many sensitive issues, including corruption in the university. The then registrar was close to Sonowal. The AGP government had just formed then after the signing of the accord and the AASU leaders didn’t want any problem for the government. So they wanted Sourav to keep quiet but he didn’t. That is when, we believe, Sonowal and others used the ULFA cadre to neutralise him.”

Poll prospects

In its statement, the ULFA termed Sonowal and Sarma the “so-called political leaders,” and accused them of using “the group’s cadre to carry out killings,” not just of Sourab but also “(State) Congress leader Manavendra Sarma, journalist Kamala Kalita and social activist Sanjay Ghose, to gain political mileage.”

Interestingly, besides Ghose, who worked in Majuli from where Sonowal is contesting the upcoming assembly elections, Sourab’s family too traces its origin to the river island. “My father shifted to Dangdhora only in the early 1960s when our house in the Ahatguri area of Majuli was swept away by the Brahmaputra. One of my sisters still live in Majuli,” said Bora.

With Majuli residents set to vote on April 4, Bora made an appeal to them, stated in an announcement to the media a day after ULFA made its statement: “I urge people there to think first what Sonowal did to one of their youth. If our house would not have been eaten up by the river, we would have been living in the island still.”

  • N Motwani

    In Assam, people are not politically aware as people from Bihar or UP. In Bihar, for example, such allegations might have had severe consequences because Biharis are politically very aware. Do not think even murder allegations will erode his chances in Assam, which is rather unfortunate. Did similar illegal allegations against Himanta Biswa Sarma reduce his chances while he was in Congress? No.