Early in 1994, Prakash Sarma was picked up by the army at Tinsukia in eastern Assam on the suspicion that he was a functionary of the outlawed ULFA which had a role in the abduction and murder of a general manager of a tea garden. He was apprehended along with eight other men from different locations in the district and detained at the Dhola army base for four days where the 18 Punjab Regiment was stationed.
A businessman, Sarma supplied bricks, cement and sand to the tea estate from where its general manager Rameswar Singh was abducted by the rebel group. His name was found on the visitors’ register at the gate, which was why he fell under suspicion of having helped ULFA carry out the killing. According to informed sources, Singh had failed on many occasions to deliver money demanded by ULFA.
He was let off after four days of interrogation and torture by the army along with three other persons. The rest were shot in cold blood at the Dibru-Saikhowa Reserve Forest and their dead bodies produced by the army at a police station only after a writ petition was filed in Gauhati high court by vice president of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) Jagadish Bhuyan.
On October 15, seven Indian army personnel were sentenced to life imprisonment for the 24-year-old fake encounter case in Assam by an army court martial.
Sarma narrates his harrowing experience of the episode – from the moment he was dragged out of his bed at Bishnu Nagar to his internment at the army camp and till he was finally shoved out of a vehicle in the dead of night near a forest.
‘Continuously thrashed for a whole day’
I was awakened by the loud and continuous knocks on the door of my house at 1:30 am on the night of February 18 (morning of the 19th). Four army personnel barged in, caught hold of my neck and dragged me to their jeep parked a few metres away from my residence. We travelled for about 20 km to reach the Dholla army base where we were locked up for four nights.
First, I was blindfolded and my hands tied behind the back. Then began a volley of questions about ULFA but I would be punched and kicked all over my body every time I replied saying I was a petty businessman and had nothing to do with the militants. The first day was the worst as I was beaten continuously at regular interval by a group of around 7-8 personnel.
They stopped only when blood began to ooze from my ears by late evening. I could not sleep due to the excruciating pain. On the next day, the torture was less as I was asked to locate the house of an ULFA cadre named Biren Hazarika near my house who had been missing for many years. The army picked up his brother Gunin Hazarika, who also tortured at the camp.
‘The same reply saved me from death’
At night a thin sheet of canvas would be spread on the floor for sleeping. Meals of chapatti and pulses were served twice a day but I would be kicked every time I asked for a glass of water. But I knew there were more people like me who were in the camp. Although blindfolded, I was able to have a glimpse of Pradip Dutta in an adjacent cell who was also a businessman and who was shot along with four other persons at Dibru-Saikhowa Reserve Forest. I also heard the screams of other people whenever they were beaten up by the army personnel.
The torture was reduced to slaps on the last two days but my whole body would cringe every time I was hit on the face. I had all but given up hope of returning alive from the camp until I was told on February 21 that I would be released soon. After dinner on the next day, I was ordered to board a vehicle which seemed to be a further confirmation that my end was near.
Fake encounters usually happen at night in remote locations. The vehicle stopped after about 45 minutes at the forest in Bogapani. I was told to run but the trigger was not pulled. The army was perhaps convinced about my innocence since I had been consistent with my replies to their queries.
The vehicle sped away and I headed for a restaurant some kilometres away. After some time, I saw Gunin Hazarika who was also released by the army. We reached our homes together in the morning where we came to know that five dead bodies have been produced at the police station. Days later we learnt that one of the colonels now convicted for the crime was a relative of the general manager who was killed by ULFA.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men and Lens and the Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast.