Photos taken by author, except where specified otherwise.
Death in the Marketplace
From the train to Kokrajhar I could see the verdant countryside passing by: flooded green rice fields, where egrets and the occasional adjutant stork waited patiently to spot fish, villages with ponds and bamboo groves. The people one saw, on the fields, and in the train, barely hinted at the faultlines that had appeared in this landscape—Bodo, Muslim and Hindu Bengalis, Assamese, the occasional Adivasi.
I landed up at Balajan Tiniali, the small market about 12km north of Kokrajhar town, later that afternoon with a local photojournalist, Geolangsar Narzary. Ten days had passed since the attack there in which 14 people had been killed and 18 seriously wounded. It had been a Friday, one of the two market or haat days (the other being Tuesday) when traders descended on the small bazar to sell their produce and goods. There would have been more than a thousand people there, milling about, buying and selling and catching up on gossip. I was there on a Tuesday afternoon, and the few outside traders who might have turned up seemed to have already left. The bullet marks on walls and on trees were a reminder of the horror of that 5th of August. A saloon where four Bodo people including the two owners had been killed was now closed.
At a cluster of 9 shops which had been burnt down by the fire caused by a grenade thrown during the attack, the owners were taking measurements with a tape to work out dimensions of the shops that had stood there: motor parts, stationery, saloon, a shoe shop—modest establishments run by people of limited means. They said they had got some money from the state government, and were waiting for compensation from the BTC or Bodoland Territorial Council, which is headquartered in Kokrajhar. None of them had seen the attacker or attackers—they had all fled at the sound of gunshots, and returned to find their shops in flames. The blackened, burnt remains of shoes and books and wood lay thick on the ground. I spoke to a few more shopkeepers, and they all said the same thing: they had run upon hearing gunshots, and come back only after the army and police teams had arrived.
In the aftermath of the attack several theories had been put forward: it was a jihadi attack, it was an attempt by the banned NDFB(S) to create communal disorder (and thereby give some breathing space to their few remaining cadres who were under immense pressure due to sustained operations), there was a “third party” involved. Eyewitness accounts on television were varied: some said they saw two or three men alighting from an auto-rickshaw and then moving about and firing, wearing—in different versions—either black masks or black raincoats.
One man said he saw a bearded man in a black kurta pyjama get down from an auto. One militant was killed at the marketplace—later identified by the police as Monjoy Islary or Mwdan, a senior NDFB(S) cadre—while two or three others were said to have got away. In this swirl of conflicting reports there were more surprises to come: the parents of Monjoy were brought to identify the body, and they said it wasn’t him. The ADGP of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), LR Bishnoi, had said on the day of the attack that three people were involved, two of whom had got away, while four days after the incident the Kokrajhar SP, Shyamal Prasad Saikia, said that it had been a lone-wolf strike and that Islary had been drunk, even as the Assam Police said an accomplice of Islary’s had been picked up from a Guwahati-bound bus on 8th August. Allegations of a cover-up now began to surface.
But at the market I couldn’t find anyone who had actually seen the attacker or attackers. One woman running a sort of combined pan shop and general store first said she had seen the attackers (three of them, wearing tee-shirts), but when I pressed her as to what they had looked like, she said she couldn’t recall, and that she had lain face-down behind her shop counter. Just then, by a stroke of luck, a man who had been listening to us volunteered to take me and Narzary to the nearby house of a survivor. That person turned out to be Chintaharan Nath, 50, and an employee in the BTC’s forest department. On the day of the attack he had gone to the saloon in the market run by two brothers at around 11.30am. As he waited his turn, there came the sound of short bursts of gunfire. When he stood up to have a look, he saw a man walking along the kutcha road that cut through the market, firing into the ground. He said he lay down then on the saloon floor. More bursts of gunfire followed. Opening one eye briefly, he could see the gunman standing before the saloon. He felt something hot on his back, and thought the saloon might have caught fire. The bursts of gunfire moved away. Nath then got up—he says there were three dead people in the saloon, and an elderly man who was injured. Nath tried to enter a shop where several people had barricaded themselves inside, before making his way to the house of the pujari of the bazar Durga Mandir, where he stayed for a few hours before going home.
The fear and shock from the event was still visible on his face. He said he hadn’t been able to leave his house for several days after the incident. I showed him a photo that had been doing the rounds on Twitter since August 5th or 6th, a blurry mobile photo taken from inside a shop that showed a thin man in a light blue raincoat in mid-stride, the butt of a gun visible above his shoulder. Yes, Nath said, that was the man. I asked him what had fallen on his back. Fire? No, he said, it was the blood of the victims in the saloon, two students among them.
There were two more people killed from near Nath’s house in Balajan village, and two more wounded. It was a village with a mixed population of people from the Bodo and the Nath communities: nothing like this had ever happened before in Balajan, they said. It was a comment I was to hear again and again during the three days I spent in Kokrajhar. 2015 had been one of the safest years for civilians in the past 25 years in Assam, where the AFSPA is still in force (also 20km into Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh along their border with Assam). Never before had Bodos been targeted in this manner. And to consider that it might have been done by a Bodo person himself was unthinkable.
The next day I went to the central office of the All Bodo Students Union, or ABSU, to see if they could help me visit the parents of Monjoy Islary in their village, Pakriguri, to the north-west of Balajan Tiniali. They agreed to help. I asked them what they thought of the incident. There were too many conflicting reports doing the rounds, which is why the incident had to studied carefully, said Niyon Mushahary, general secretary of the Kokrajhar district unit of ABSU. He pointed out that the police had first said the attacker had boarded the auto at Simbwrgaon, and then said he had boarded it at Kalugaon. The ADGP had said there were 3 people involved, 2 of whom had got away, while the SP had later said there was a single attacker. Maheshwar Daimari, ABSU public relations secretary, said there were reports that Monjoy Islary, who had been a commander of the NDFB(S)’s 16th battalion, had contacted Hagrama Mohilary, the Chief Executive Member of BTC, about 2 years ago saying he wanted to come overground. In 2014 the police had been pressing hard on the NDFB(S) after they killed an ASP of the Assam Police in an ambush early that year, and then after the group killed more than 68 Adivasis across the north bank of Assam later that year, the army had launched their Operation All Out. Members of the outfit were being eliminated or apprehended—there were to be no surrenders. The ABSU members also said that state intelligence reports had stated that there were no NDFB(S) cadres in the vicinity of Balajan. They had heard some people say that a black Bolero had reached the scene from which a youth had been taken out and killed. So could a third party have been involved?
The ABSU were about to resume their movement after August 15th for the separate state of Bodoland, and had several agitation programmes lined up. They are now part of a nationwide 10-member group coordinating efforts to get separate states for their member groups. The ABSU has also invited one of the factions of the NDFB now in a ceasefire—the Gobindo Basumatary or P (Progressive) group—to work with them for a separate Bodoland. Niyon Mushahari and Maheshwar Daimari said that a third party could have staged the attack to vitiate the atmosphere ahead of their renewed separate state movement.
On the other side of the political divide in the BTAD is the ruling Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) headed by Hagrama Mohilary, the Chief, or “chief sir” as most refer to him. In the 2015 BTC elections they won 20 out of 40 seats. A combined opposition block, ABSU included, managed 7 seats; the BJP 1 and the Congress nil. I met an Executive Member or EM of the BPF later that day, and he was categorical that Islary had acted on his own. He said Islary had been on the run for a long time, and may have been hiding in a Muslim village prior to the attack. The EM said they had heard he was mentally disturbed. According to him, Islary had finished 4 AK magazines at the market before he had been caught alive by the police and tied up, and then one of the policemen, in rage at seeing all the dead bodies strewn about, had shot Islary in the face. As for the motive for the attack, he said it was to create communal disturbances in the BTAD area. He was dismissive of the NDFB(S): he said all their cadres had been doing over the years was extorting money to send to their leaders in the camps in Myanmar.
The EM was a heavyset man in his mid-40s, a former BLT or Bodo Liberation Tigers member. They had fought, and then settled with the government for the BTC, even while the then-undivided NDFB had stayed away, demanding sovereignty for the Bodo people. The seeds of a conflict were sown then between the Christian-dominated NDFB and the Hindu-dominated BLT, and lingers to the present day. The EM claimed they hadn’t dropped the demand for a separate state, just that the BPF now wished to achieve it politically. I spoke to him about his early days. He had grown up in a village near the Bhutan border, and as children they had to walk for several kilometres to come to a road and see a bus. Now there were roads to his village, bridges in the area, electricity as well. They had been fighting the police and the army initially, and during his younger sister’s wedding the army raided their house on several occasions but he managed to slip away each time. Then they had become the administration, and started working with the army in operations against the NDFB.
While Songbijit Ingti Kathar, the S in the NDFB(S) is mentioned as a Karbi in most reports, some people say that he is of mixed Bodo–Karbi descent, with a Bodo mother and a Karbi father. He comes from a village near Diring tea estate in what is now the newly-created district of Biswanath Chariali (separated from Sonitpur district in 2015). There is a mixed population in those areas: Bodo, Karbi, Adivasi, Nepali, Bengali Muslims, Assamese. Local Assamese newspapers had once described him as a woodcutter who turned guide for the chief of the undivided NDFB, Ranjan Daimary, but most Bodos living in villages established near the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh over the past few decades are expert woodcutters. An old-time NDFB cadre I had met in Udalguri in 2015 told me that Songbijit had started out as a collection agent for the ULFA, and then switched over to Daimary’s group at one of their camps in Bangladesh (this person remembered T. Muivah and [the late] Isaac Swu coming and spending three months in their Bhutan camps in 1990, after the violent split in the NSCN in 1988. Swu later got passports from Nepal and he and Muivah left through there, possibly for Amsterdam or Bangkok).
Armed with sophisticated weapons sourced from the clandestine Dimapur arms market, the NDFB(S) faction had let loose a reign of terror across the northern parts of the BTAD and (the-then undivided) Sonitpur district from 2012 onwards, kidnapping and extorting at will. In January 2014 they killed an ASP of the Assam Police in an ambush above Batachipur in Sonitpur district. Achha chal raha tha un logo ka, an army officer told me in Tezpur, where the army’s 4 Corps HQ is located. They were taxing woodcutters and rice-beer brewers close to the foothills, and small tea growers, people from the Bodo community. Then the killing of more than 68 Adivasis in coordinated attacks in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts on 23rd December 2014 brought down an army operation upon the group.
Across the northern part of the BTAD and adjoining Sonitpur district, along the foothills of Bhutan and Arunachal, both the army and the police have also used the old tactic of setting one group upon the other: I had heard that in some cases two or three outer perimeters were set up by the army, the CRPF and the Assam police, and then members from the P and/or R groups of the NDFB sent in to finish of the beleaguered S cadres. There were also reports of drones taking off from the sprawling Missamari army base in Sonitpur to comb the jungles for NDFB(S) members. More than 60 NDFB(S) cadres have been killed and more than 600 cadres and linkmen arrested, along with arms seizures, since December 2014.
The day I had reached Kokrajhar, a press release and photos had been mailed to the local journalist’s office of the army day celebrations of the Kangleipak Communist Party of Manipur at a camp somewhere in Myanmar. Other insurgent group leaders from the north-east, in camouflage wear, were shown in the photos, as also the current President of the NDFB(S) B. Saoraigwra. There was also a tall youthful-looking man in a white shirt and dark coat, the elusive Songbijit himself. “It is a fact that Mr. Songbijit has left the NDFB,” the press release stated. I had earlier heard reports that he was trying to set up a new militant group that would operate in the Karbi Anglong region of Assam.
What did the police have to say about the incident though? The next person I met was the Kokrajhar district DSP Prakash Medhi, a former college lecturer. He was busy with arrangements for setting up a police outpost at Balajan Tiniali (something the local journalist had said was needed), but gave me some of his time. They had been informed of the incident at around 11.45am, he said, and had reached the spot within half-an-hour, slowed by the midday traffic. By then the shops were burning, and the marketplace was deserted, with most people having fled and the rest locked inside their shops or houses. They had engaged the militant, but Medhi couldn’t say for sure if it was the army or police that had shot Islary. A yellow rope taken from one of the makeshift roadside shops had been tied to the dead body and used to turn it around, standard procedure to guard against unexploded grenades. Then the body was carried to a vehicle and put inside, the rope around his body visible in the photos taken at that point.
Were there any inputs about Islary before the attack? Medhi said they had carried out an operation on 11 May in the Ripu reserve forest along the Bhutan border where they had busted an NDFB(S) camp and killed one cadre. Islary was reportedly one of those who had escaped from the camp, and was on the run since, a hunted man. The autorickshaw driver had identified Islary as the man who had got down at the market. After the August 5th incident, the body had been kept at the civil hospital morgue for 3 days, after which, as an unidentified and unclaimed body, it had been cremated with the district magistrate’s permission, at the crematorium near the jail, by the Gaurang river. The post-mortem report was awaited, as was the result of the DNA test with the blood taken from Islary’s parents.
DSP Medhi said there were still some 100 to 200 cadres of the NDFB(S) in the camps in and around Taga in Myanmar, female cadres among them too. Some had re-entered the north-east, while youngsters were still being recruited in remote areas of BTAD. Poverty, lack of jobs, peer pressure, the idea of protecting their land—those were the factors responsible for the continuing recruitment, he said.
The next morning two ABSU members took me to Pakriguri village. We passed by Kalugaon and Simbwrgaon, familiar names to me now, then picked up another local ABSU contact from near Jainary. It was a humid overcast morning, and the green of the paddy fields and bamboo groves gave the area a tranquil aspect. I tried to imagine a man with a gun hidden under his raincoat boarding a shared auto-rickshaw. Had he already decided to carry out a massacre by then, or would he still have been trying to decide? What would have been driving him? We crossed a low wooden bridge over a swollen stream and entered the shaded road running through Pakriguri.
The Islary residence had three small tin-roofed huts around a courtyard, the plaster of the huts fallen off in places to expose the reeds, and the tin roofing discoloured with rust and age. The courtyard was damp with patches of moss in places, and on the fourth side was a concrete and tin structure, unpainted. Monjoy Islary’s mother, a thin, tired looking woman in a red blouse and orange dokhona sat outside one of the huts putting paddy from a plastic sheet (where it would have been laid out to dry) into a container. One of the daughter-in-laws, a stout young woman, took out two benches for us and started peeling a betel nut. The mother seemed to have guessed what we were there for even before the ABSU members told her. Her left hand was balled into a fist, as if to help her stay in control of herself. A while later the father, who had gone to tie his cows in the fields, came back, a lean man of medium height wearing an old vest. His name was Lachit Islary he said, and he was 67, while his wife Gwswm was 50 (the ‘w’ is pronounced ‘oo’, as in ‘pool’). The EM had mentioned his name as Lawga—maybe a nickname. Lachit Islary told us that they had heard about the incident at Balajan Tiniali, and had then gone to Kokrajhar the next day where they saw the body of the dead gunman at the civil hospital. But he said it wasn’t their son: mur lora nohoi, he said, in Assamese. How had he come to that conclusion? The father said Monjoy had a burn mark on his chest, caused by a bamboo joint in a fire bursting near him when he had been in class 6. There was also a til or mole in one eye. The dead body had been missing these. He claimed the body had also smelt more and was more swollen than the other dead bodies from the incident in the hospital. Even as he spoke, I could feel the grief in the mother as she squatted outside the hut.
Monjoy Islary had left his parents’ house a decade ago, after appearing for his matric exams. None of the family members had seen him ever since. He was one of six children: there were three brothers and three sisters. One of Monjoy’s brothers was now a driver, the other a carpenter. What sort of a boy had Monjoy been? His father said he had been a good boy, had liked to play volleyball. He had even appeared for an army recruitment test and cleared the running stage, but was disqualified at the medical stage on account of his burn mark, or mole, or both (in a newspaper interview the day after the attack the father said Monjoy had tried to join the police). They couldn’t say why he had gone off and joined the NDFB (undivided then in 2006–7). The family wasn’t well-to-do. Lachit Islary had 3 bighas of land on which he grew some rice, and owned a few cows. He worked as a sharecropper on other people’s land, taking half of the paddy, a system known as adhi. He said 5ml of blood had been taken from both him and his wife at the civil hospital (after they had spent the night at the police station), but that even if the DNA test established the body as Monjoy’s, he wouldn’t accept it. Their son was still alive somewhere out there. We felt it was time to leave. I would have liked to stay, gotten to know the parents better, and tried to find out the cause of the mother’s evident grief. But it would have been intruding upon them. I took a couple of photos and then we left.
On the way back we stopped at Balajan Tiniali market again. The gunman had got down from the shared auto outside a fertiliser shop, I had heard. Now I saw that it was a shop I had entered on my first visit—only a worker had been present there that day. This time the owner was present: Subroto Sen, 42. When I asked him, he said he had seen but not really noticed the man in a blue raincoat get down from the auto in front of his shop. But Sen saw him shoot a Muslim vegetable vendor from Salakati who sold his produce on the roadside beside Sen’s shop—the first victim. According to Sen, there was a gap between when the man had alighted and had started shooting: that would account for some reports of the gunman walking around the market and talking to people. Then the gunman would have walked toward Dwimu Saloon where Chintaharan Nath was waiting for his haircut. Nibaran and Shuren Moshahary were the brothers who ran the saloon; they died, as did Daorao Basumatary, a college student, and Dwaithun Narzary, a class 9 student. Eight Bodos, three Bengali Muslims, and three people from the Nath community were killed in the attack.
Later, going through the photos of Lachit and Gwswm Islary, I couldn’t help notice their resemblance to the photos of the person killed by the security forces, especially of the mother. And the photos of the gunman—several after he was shot, and one while walking around the market in his blue raincoat—were similar to a photo (possibly a police file photo) that came from an Assamese news channel, showing a person in camouflage fatigues and cap holding an AK rifle—Monjoy Islary himself.
By then I had with me several photos taken by the local journalist at the incident site, and which he had sent me over WhatsApp. Looking at those bloody images, of the dead gunman (shot through his right eye and his chin), of the blood spread over the floor of the saloon, of the bodies lying in the hospital morgue, of the 6-year-old who had miraculously survived after a bullet grazed his head, and then thinking of the elderly couple in their modest dwelling, and all the politics and the riots and the killings that this area had seen over the years, I started to feel uneasy. What had I come here to find out? What could I even hope to achieve by writing about it? The events of that day, indeed the whole situation, had a reality that seemed stronger than my power to comprehend and describe them. I felt it was time to leave.
On the day of the attack, there was panic at the market and people ran helter skelter. Except for those who actually saw a gunman, the other accounts appear to have been influenced by hearsay. The accounts of bearded men and black kurta pyjamas might have been suggested by the repeated visuals on local news channels, after the Dhaka terror attack, of ISIS members. Jihadi-style attacks were expected in Assam they warned—and the fact that Bodo people were killed seemed to lend credence to that theory, initially. As for the attackers wearing black masks, that might have been the black scarves used by the Assam Police commandos. But if the gunman was acting alone, what could have been his motivation? After ten years in the jungle, had he finally reached the end of his tether? Was he frustrated with the leaders of the outfit in Myanmar? There were stories doing the round that he was suffering from TB, and, in the absence of medicines and money, was relying on quack doctors and alcohol to help him cope.
The day I left Kokrajhar, the morning news on the channels from Guwahati mentioned an encounter in the forested upper reaches of Sonitpur district along the Arunachal border, some way above the town of Rangapara, where three NDFB(S) cadres had been killed by the security forces. One of them was named as “Gothal”, and I wondered why the name sounded familiar. Then it struck me: a few months ago a surrendered NDFB cadre, a young boy really, from a camp at Batachipur had mentioned someone still in the jungles, one Botal or Bothal. I was sure it was the same person. Woh challenge liya hai, the young boy said about him, uska bhai ko mara tha na. His brother had been killed by the security forces somewhere around Chariduar. The surrendered cadre confessed they lived in tension as well—the S faction members had sent word that if they caught them, they would burn them alive. Once the killings started, ideology and beliefs, if they ever existed, went out of the window—on the ground it seemed more like a gang war, in which armed groups fought to control turf.
And then just before leaving Kokrajhar, I came to learn from a source in army intelligence that a ration collection party of the 3 Rajput Regiment had by chance been in the vicinity of Balajan Tiniali around the time of the attack (plausible, as it was a market day). So I went back then to one of the first videos to have surfaced on Twitter that day, a 9 second clip of Islary lying dead in one of the market lanes. Now I noticed the yellow rope tied to his lower left leg, and three army men moving around the body. It appeared to be close to Dwimu saloon, and there didn’t seem to be any Assam Police personnel around. On either side of the lane were deserted vegetable sellers’ makeshift shops. A pile of green chillies was strewn near Islary’s right arm.
One blurry photo of Islary in the market shows him walking around in the blue raincoat, possibly checking his phone or loading a magazine. Another one shows him crouching behind a low stall and looking to his right, sans the raincoat, a black magazine pouch over his blue checked shirt, as if he is trying to hide from someone. A middle-aged woman in a dokhona stands nearby, a shopping bag at her feet. It is hard to make out whether he is holding a gun or not. The stall owner isn’t present, and a cycle in the corner of the photo is tilted, as if pushed by someone while hurrying away. Who might have taken these two photos? Could they have been taken before the firing started? And in that case was there someone who had recognised Islary, even someone who might have been looking for him? Who could he have been trying to hide from? Army personnel? Were cadres from the factions now under ceasefire looking for him?
On the train coming back to Guwahati I realised that the only certain fact was that 15 dead bodies, including that of the gunman, had been found in the marketplace that day. And yet, my writer’s mind couldn’t stop coming up with further scenarios. Had Islary still been undecided about carrying out an attack when he got down in the market? What if the AK he was carrying under his raincoat had been meant for protection only? Had he counted on the absence of a police outpost at Balajan Tiniali to keep him safe? Was he there to maybe collect money from someone? Or might he have wanted to give himself up? Had he been surprised by the security forces, or had there already been someone at the market waiting for him? One of the things I had kept hearing was the presence of two or three men dressed in black. Might have there been a crossfire? Or was there just a single gunman involved, as claimed by the police, looking to lessen the pressure on his group by a terror strike? And could that claim have then influenced the testimony of the eyewitnesses I had met?
The residence of the Chief, Hagrama Mohilary, was in the village of Debargaon, not too far away from Balajan, off the highway headed back to Kokrajhar. Could that have been Islary’s intended target, but for the chance presence of the troops of the ration collection party?
The BTC executive member had showed me the press release in Bodo from B.R. Ferenga, the general secretary of the NDFB(S), after the attack, in which the outfit claimed that it was a conspiracy by the police and army to create communal clashes and defame the NDFB(S). The date given was 19/7/2016 (also a Tuesday), and not 5/8/2016 (it was later corrected), and the EM said the release might have been prepared beforehand. On 17 July three NDFB(S) cadres were killed by the security forces in a joint operation near the Bhutan border in Kokrajhar district as they were trying to ferry rations and other supplies to a small group holed up in Bhutan. Among this group were the army chief of the NDFB(S), Bidai, and his deputy Batha, the people who had reportedly masterminded the attack on the Adivasis in December 2014. Had a revenge strike been planned after that incident on 17 July? The EM also said that Ferenga had been a lecturer in a college in Chirang district, but had left for Myanmar after his post hadn’t been made permanent.
In the South African author Damon Galgut’s unsettling short story “An African Sermon”, a preacher is forced to contemplate a chance encounter, and his own morality. The story concludes: “There was no clear moral theme, no uplifting lesson to be learnt. There were only shadowy motives and more questions, one behind the other, receding back into the darkness.” Looking out at the hot green landscape, the glare of the sun dazzlingly bright on the platforms of stations we crossed, I felt something of that sort as well. In many ways the incident held parallels to the lynching incident in Dimapur, Nagaland on 5th March 2015: a seemingly straightforward case that, when one looked into it closely and spoke to people from the place, took on an even darker hue, with sinister connections appearing.
And a final twist to the story: the photojournalist Narzary told me that after the attack a teenage girl turned up at the civil hospital, and had then gone to the thana and claimed the slain gunman was her brother, and said that she wanted to take his body home to Gossaigaon, about an hour’s drive to the west of Kokrajhar. Then she disappeared; nobody seemed to know anything more about her.
A Shorter version of the essay appeared recently in Caravan Vantage