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Salonibari, Nagaon (Assam): Fear and tension gripped the Salonabori village of Assam’s Nagaon district, where an incident of alleged custodial death sparked violent protests on May 21, Saturday evening. Later, an angry mob set a police station on fire, critically injuring three police personnel. The next day, the Nagaon administration demolished the homes of those who had allegedly set the Batadraba police station on fire.
From the death of a villager in police custody to setting fire to a police station, the grisly turn of events has affected normalcy in the region. Amid demolished houses and missing adults stands an 18-year-old, Purnima Ansari, whose house was demolished by the police on May 22, Sunday as part of what it termed as a “search operation.”
“My exams are underway. But how will I study when I don’t have a place to live or study as the police have destroyed our house,” Purnima told The Wire.
Purnima is the daughter of Mojibur Rahman, one of the accused in the case pertaining to the torching of Nagaon’s Batadraba police station. Rahman’s house was demolished by the Nagaon police on Sunday. Mojibur, a fish trader, is the elder brother of the victim, Safiqul Islam (39), whose alleged death in police custody instigated an angry crowd to set a part of the police station ablaze on May 21.
The Nagaon police had also demolished the houses of three other accused in the case, namely Iman Ali, Rafiqul Islam and Akkash Ali. All were residents of the Salonabori village. The police did not even spare Safiqul Islam’s home, which The Wire found in a state of wreckage with all furniture and utensils lying smashed on the muddy floor.
“I was in college when I received a call from home saying that my uncle, Safiqul Islam, had died. When I reached home, there was nobody. Later that night, we got to know that my father too was arrested by the police,” she said when asked about the happenings on the day of the incident.
As per the police’s version, they put Islam under police custody on May 20, Friday night in Batadraba police station, 5 kilometres from his house in Salonabori village, after he was found inebriated on the road. “He was booked after a medical check-up. He was released the next day and handed over to his wife. His wife even gave him some water/food. Later, he complained of sickness and he was taken to two hospitals. Unfortunately, he was declared dead,” a statement from the office of the Director-General of Police, Assam, said on May 22.
However, Islam’s family’s version of the sequence of events sharply differs from the police’s version. The family alleged that the police demanded Rs 10,000 and a duck as a bribe to release him. Villagers said Islam’s wife and daughter went to the police station with a duck on May 21 morning, but they were told by the policemen that a duck would not do, and they should get Rs 10,000. After that, they returned to the village to inform their family members and arrange for the money.
However, Islam was not in the police station when they went back there with the money. It was then that they were informed that Islam was taken to a hospital. However, Islam died on the way to the hospital. The family believes it was the alleged police violence that led to his death. After his death, an irate mob, primarily comprising Islam’s family, allegedly set the police station on fire.
Police have so far arrested six persons – including the wife, Rashida Khatun, and the daughter, a Class 8 student, of Islam – in connection with the incident. Police also informed The Wire that 15 people have been detained so far, out of which 12 persons have been released and interrogation with the remaining three persons is underway.
Police have filed three cases on the matter: one on his unnatural death; one related to the police station being burnt and one under UAPA at Dhing police station.
Meanwhile, a special investigating team led by Nagaon assistant superintendent of police has been formed to look into the incident that led to the torching of the police station. An inquiry into the death of Islam will also be conducted by Karbi Anglong District’s assistant superintendent of police.
Ruckus by the police
When The Wire visited the Salonabari village, it saw the concrete pillars of Mojibur’s house lay bent, and the house was turned into complete debris. “They used a bulldozer here,” a villager explained. Located near a pond on the field, Islam’s house, too, could be seen crumbled amid the destruction. Villagers claimed that the administration could not bring the bulldozer to Islam’s house and thus, broke the house with their own hands.
A similar ruckus could also be seen at Rafiqul Islam and Akkash Ali’s homes, located a few meters away from Islam’s house. The Wire saw clothes lying dishevelled in the verandah of Ali’s house, while his motorcycle could be seen half immersed inside a pond near the house. Inside, Rafiqul Islam’s house, The Wire found that all the furniture was broken, including the bed, chairs and almirah. Villagers blamed the police for the damage to property after they failed to trace Ali and Islam.
“The administration did not even allow us to come near our home. They destroyed everything. Seeing all this, we ran off in fear,” Purnima’s sister Mausumi Ansari, a Class 8 student, said. Purnima, a first-year student of Tuk Tuki Commerce College, said that she is not sure whether she will be able to give the next examination scheduled on May 30 as all her documents, including her admit card and registration form, have been destroyed during the demolition drive. She claimed the police have thrown the documents into the pond.
“I want to continue studying. We are four siblings, all girls. But how will I study in this condition?” she asked. Her sister Mausumi added, “We have seen the struggle of our father. So, we work hard to study well, so that we can reach somewhere in our life.”
Both Purnima and Mausumi told The Wire that they stayed in the field near a pond till May 24, Tuesday night. “Today only, we have brought them back to the village and provided them with food and other things,” said Aminul Haque, president of Tuk Tuki village panchayat, under which Salonabori village falls.
Police said they have “rescued” six children belonging to the accused on May 24 and they are now provided with “care and protection.”
“People are scared here. Even though we want to help the children, we fear this would lead to repercussions from the administration. So, no one approached them to help in the last few days. I came today only after police officials assured me that there would be no problem if we come here to help the children,” a woman from the village said, whom The Wire met in front of Mojibur’s demolished house.
A dubious ‘search operation’
As per the police, the houses were demolished as a part of the search operation. “We did not conduct any demolition drive. We conducted a search operation and some houses were demolished to access some areas,” Nagaon district superintendent of police (SP) Leena Doley told The Wire. Doley also said it is highly suspected that the land on which Safiqul Islam’s family has been settled was bought using forged documents. “District commissioner of Nagaon is conducting a survey to ascertain if they have occupied the land illegally using forged documents,” Doley added.
However, ambiguity in the police’s version of demolition can be articulated from the fact that when The Wire spoke to Mridu Das, the officer in charge of Dhing police station, under whose jurisdiction Salonabori village falls, he outrightly said that he didn’t know why the houses of the accused were demolished. “I was doing my job. I just followed the instructions given to me. Rest I don’t know,” Das said.
Notably, a CCTV was also installed in the house located on the other side of the road facing Mojibur’s house. But the resident, Musharraf Hussain, told The Wire that the police had disconnected the CCTV just before they performed the demolition.
No illegal settlement
Villagers of Salonabori told The Wire that the land on which Islam’s family has been residing has proper documents. “The land has myadi patta [permanent land settlement] and they have bought it from a fellow villager named Faiz Uddin,” the panchayat president Aminul Haque said. According to the villagers, Mojibur Rahman bought the land from Faiz Uddin, but the land is still registered under Faiz Uddin’s name. “They had done a power of attorney agreement. But now since the house had been demolished, how would they get the documents!” an elderly villager told The Wire, requesting anonymity.
“The land has all proper documents and you can check all details in the Assam government’s Dharitri portal. My father sold the land to Islam’s family but they have not yet registered it in their name,” Faiz Uddin’s son Umar Ali told The Wire.
“We don’t support torching the police station. If they did it, it was completely wrong and should be punished accordingly. But is it right to demolish their houses? Even if they are criminals, what was the crime of their children? They are now suffering the most. Where will they stay now?” a villager told The Wire on condition of anonymity.
On police’s claim that they have found a 9 mm pistol, four rounds of bullets, and 6,500 bullets from the house of the accused Mojibur Rahman, villagers maintained that it was found a day after the demolition. “We only got to know about it when police officials informed me after they found it on Monday [May 23],” said Mojibur’s neighbour, Musharaf Hussain.
“I came to know about the police’s claim through the news. They were arrested by the police on Saturday [May 21]. On Sunday, the government demolished their houses with bulldozers. They did not find anything then, but they claimed they found a pistol on Monday evening. Now, what can I say about how true the police’s claim is!” Haque added.
Many villagers kept mum on the issue, while one villager told this reporter, “Police are saying a lot of things, but this village has only two things for survival: one is fish trade and another is paddy cultivation. Rest you know what is happening now.”
Purported ‘Jihadi’ link
The administration has linked the incident to the suspected involvement of terror outfits like the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a banned organisation in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, fear has gripped the village, so much that many people were not even willing to talk to the media fearing consequences.
Jahra Khatun from the neighbouring Haidubi village was initially scared to speak about the alleged incidents of police atrocities on her family. She later alleged that she along with two other female members of the family were picked up by the police when they could not trace her son Anowar Hussain. “We were released only after our son surrendered to the police. But he was innocent. He has tuberculosis and is very weak. Then how can he be involved in the incident?” she told The Wire.
Anowar could be seen in the video of the incident, but his family has claimed that he was on his way back from the Shantijan weekly market. “Police have also broken our window panes, glasses of our almirah and hit our trunks with machetes. But that is all fine. We don’t need anything, we just need our son back,” she added.
Chiranjib Lahon, Batraduwa police station’s newly appointed officer in charge, neither accepted nor declined the police harassment allegations, saying: “Is setting fire to a police station a justifiable act?”
When asked about police’s claim that Jihadi organisations are involved in the incident, Lahon said it is under investigation.
Notably, the previous officer in charge of Batradawa police station was suspended due to his negligence in duty as he had failed to inform the district headquarters about Safiqul Islam’s death.
However, most of the villagers who spoke to The Wire refuted police’s claim of the existence of any Jihadi organisation or ABT in the area.
Although news reports have said that the accused were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the police however told The Wire that they have not yet booked any of the arrested persons under UAPA. Nagaon SP Doley said, “Those who were involved in the Batadrawa incident will ultimately come under UAPA… It is under process.”
Pratyush Deep Kotoky is an Assam-based freelance writer.