Featured image “Still Life, Three Skulls” – Paul Cézanne
The past by the virtue of being the testimony of experiences, decisions, and actions, is deeply etched in one’s memory. Time cannot replace the past but its memories can be negotiated in terms of what one wants to remember, recall or forget and erase deliberately. The process becomes hard if the past tends to be traumatic. During such attempts in making peace with one’s past, any intervention from an outsider may leave fresh scars, especially when such interventions are not positive but a cruel reminder of what people in Assam have once witnessed and have learnt to live with, without a closure. Gupto hoitya, popularly referred to as the secret killings in Assam is one such past, we reluctantly remember.
Politics in Assam had a turning point when a dismembered leg of an adult human was found on a dead stream in the village of Hudumpur at the outskirts of Guwahati by two journalists in June 1999. This discovery brought in the discourse of mystery and secrecy surrounding many killings and disappearances in Assam.
1990s was a turbulent phase that witnessed violence manifested in killings, extortions, and abductions, unleashed by the insurgent organization, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) during their armed struggle towards Assam’s sovereignty. To counter this insurgency, Assam witnessed various security tactics. While the early 1990s saw Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino, the onus to maintain internal security was transferred to the combined forces of police, army, and paramilitary under the Unified Command Structure (UCS) in 1997. While the insurgents and the counterinsurgents constructed the binary of what is good and what is not for a better future of the common people in Assam, either side failed to protect the civilians from the tussle of their power game. Every killing was justified either in the name of nation or disguised as an encounter, none was claimed to be a mistake from either side. During this time, slowly and steadily secret killings, which otherwise was perceived as individual cases of murder, turned into patterned and deliberate attempts targeting a particular group of people. The targets included family members and relatives of ULFA members, suspected ULFA, closed aides and sympathizers of ULFA.
In his book, Betrayal of North East: The Arrested Voice, former IPS officer Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharyya writes about a two-fold strategy behind the secret killings in Assam. Firstly, pressurize the relatives of ULFA leaders and cadres to desist from their unlawful activities and secondly, create an atmosphere of fear psychosis preventing the public from sheltering ULFA cadres. However, it was evident that human rights activists as well as anyone critical of the then incumbent state government fell prey to the secret killers who usually were masked gunmen coming mostly after midnight. They either killed the targets spontaneously or picked them up to be killed and thrown somewhere else.
Ananta Kalita of Hajo
One such classic case which opened the lid off the apparatus of secret killing was when a member of a students’ organization Asom Jatiyotabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) Ananta Kalita was picked from his home at Hajo, around 36 km from Guwahati in September 1999, kept captive at Assam Police Battalion, Kahilipara for two days and was shot at point blank range and pushed down a cliff at Jorabat. But he survived to expose the pattern of such killings and the involvement of the state government, the police, and surrendered members of ULFA where the armed forces at different check-gates in Assam were kept in loop.
Justice K.N.Saikia Commission
In 2001, the episodes of secret killings turned into a vital political catalyst to overthrow the then incumbent regional political party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Tarun Gogoi led-Congress came to power in Assam taking the secret killings as their prime issue of electoral campaign. As promised, Justice K.N.Saikia Commission was formed in 2005 to investigate into the killings. The reports submitted by the commission in 2007 described the killings as ‘remote-orchestrated’ and renamed it to be ‘Ulfocide.’ The commission brought in compensation but not a closure for the affected families. The commission cited the absence of ‘circumstantial evidence’ in implicating anyone for the heinous crimes. However, it left enough scope for the people in Assam to map the pattern of secret killings.
As a reader, if you expect to know the secret killers by the end of this article, you shall be deeply disappointed. So, you still have time to skip through this article, just like the way we have skipped this part of the past so conveniently all these years. A section in academic books, a footnote in articles, a commentary in electronic media or allegations and counter-allegations during election campaign, that’s where we have dumped down the secret killings in Assam, again very conveniently. Everyone I went to with an honest intention to study these brutal series of killings suspected me, refused to meet me (initially), switched off their phones after they had very wisely saved my number, gave me names I should approach and the names I should not approach, has only de-motivated me to pursue interest in this area any further. Why? An answer to this ‘why’ shall unveil the ‘secret’ during these killings. That’s why my intention is not to unveil this ‘why’ but to condemn recent events in Assam that have brought back only insignificant scars to the survivors and families of victims.
The recent events that compel me to initiate this conversation today are four.
One, on 3rd of September 2018, the constitution of Justice K.N.Saikia Commission was declared invalid by the Gauhati High Court on the ground that the commission was constituted without discontinuing the previous J.N.Sharma Commission through a required resolution in the Assembly and a gazette notification. This verdict came based on a writ petition filed by former Chief Minister of Assam Prafulla Kumar Mahanta in 2008. At a time when 35 cases have been officially registered and families of around fifty people covered in Justice K.N.Saikia Commission received compensation, quashing the commission reveals an attempt to erase the documentation of the event.
Two, at a time when the incumbent political party in the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attempted to silence the dissenting voices from across the state against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, AGP not only opposed the move but also three of its ministers resigned from the ministry. At such a juncture, BJP brought in the conversation on secret killings at public rallies and local news channels to represent the ‘disloyalty’ of AGP towards the people of Assam often forgetting to mention the nature of governance under the then powerful National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at Centre during that period. Secret killings have maligned the political journey of the regional party in Assam.
Three, as stated earlier, secret killings are always remembered during elections in Assam. This makes the current time relevant to recall and rephrase narratives. For example, former Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi from Congress spilt the bean recently when he accused the then NDA government at the Centre to have pressurized him to continue the secret killings. The irony of this statement is his silence when he was in power in Assam for three terms (2001-2016) during which investigations into the killings just dragged on.
Apart from these three stances of three political parties at different phases of power politics, there is a fourth event that may compel one to remember the secret killings today and that is to empower the Assam Rifles to arrest anyone without a warrant and to search any place in suspicion in the border towns of five states in the Northeast India- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Northeast India has already seen the ghost of Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA) and the scars haven’t been healed yet. At such a time, such news from the Central Government is definitely contradictory when the government claims to have achieved peace in the Northeast. Interestingly, the decision was withdrawn within 48 hours. Such notifications continue to exhibit the North East Region (NER) as periphery and as a field for pilot study where laws and rules are imposed arbitrarily despite the growing significance of the region not just nationally but also internationally and intellectually.
I also write this article in the birth month of journalist and human rights activist Parag Kumar Das who would have turned 58 years on 24th of February 2019, if alive, if not being brutally killed by unidentified gunmen. His death matters to be remembered here for many reasons. I shall cite three.
One, he was the founder of Manab Adhikaar Sangram Samiti (MASS), a human rights organization formed aftermath Operation Bajrang in Assam in 1991 that challenged the state against the extra-judicial powers exercised under AFSPA and the organization recorded hundreds of cases of fake encounters, killings, and disappearances in the Assam of 1990s. Being a fearless journalist, he wrote on self-determination and was critical of those surrendered combatants of ULFA who were engrossed in the politics of terror in the state. If he and his opinions did not matter, why was he killed?
Two, Parag Kumar Das’s death did not stop the activities of MASS rather gave the organization a hope to fight injustices. My encounter with the families affected by secret killings bear witness to this when the survivors and family members of victims acknowledge the support of MASS in an environment of suspicion and fear twenty years ago. As a result, the MASS activists became the new targets of the secret killers.
Three, the kindergarten kid in me witnessed the funeral of Parag Kumar Das on 17th of May 1996 at Nabagraha crematorium in Guwahati with my family. My blurred memories from the time continue to remind me of a woman shouting and sloganeering when the mortuary van reached the crematorium. That was traumatic for a then 5 years old. During one such candid conversation with acclaimed journalist and novelist Ratna Bharali Talukdar in Guwahati, I made some sense of what I was trying to remember and why it was important for me. She said the generation born in early 1990s inherited negativity and memories of hate from Assam’s violent past and the only way to make sense of such brutality is to talk about it.
Justice K.N.Saikia Commission submitted four reports covering 35 cases that included 50 victims of secret killings in Assam during the period of 1998-2001. This is an official data. No one has an accurate figure. While some claim it to be around 110 killings, some say it to have exceeded 400. However, one thing was quite certain that many cases remain unregistered due to people’s fear in losing someone else from the family. I shall elaborate only one such case covering six members of a family who were shot dead and their house was bombarded at Sivasagar. Unfortunately, no one from the family survived to narrate me the horrific experience, neither did their surviving daughters could navigate down the memory line as they were very young and married off by then. The official documentation of the case in commission reports failed to capture the intensity of the brutality committed. I visualize the case from the eyes of a former woman cadre of ULFA, who has been the first person to witness the massacre, the following day. Two days later, she went on to join ULFA.
In 2016 I met Barsha (name changed) for the first time at Lakwa in Sivasagar while I was researching on the lives of women in ULFA. Today (in 2019), she must be around 45. In 2019, I went back to her for a story she narrated then, but did not complete and I never asked. I decided to revisit that story for that moved me in the last three years to question the very morality of insurgents and the counterinsurgents in the region. At a time when politicians in Assam have made a mockery of the secret killings, I want to argue which law allows such a death? A death so brutal, the ashes of which were witnessed by the neighbours of Umakanta Gogoi and his entire family at No.2, Borbil Gaon under Kakotibari Police Station at Sivasagar district in Assam. Reading the novella Arunimar Swades (Arunima’s Homeland) by award winning novelist Arupa Patangia Kalita may give one goose bumps that seems to be inspired by the cruelty carried out during secret killings in Assam.
Umakanta Gogoi, who was around 57 years, led a simple village life as a farmer in the interiors of Sivasagar. Before he was killed in the village alongwith his wife who was a homemaker and their four children, they had just planted new saplings around their thatched house, where they had shifted few months back. Two of their daughters were married off. Amongst the four at home, the eldest daughter and the son were pursuing their undergraduate studies, the other daughter was in twelfth standard and their youngest daughter was in sixth standard. However, things were not as simple as it seems to be in rural Assam as the region has remained ULFA’s stronghold ever since its inception. Till Operation Bajrang was declared in 1990 and ULFA was banned, ULFA cadres would frequent almost every house for food, shelter, and for recruiting new cadres. ULFA’s socially motivated everyday welfare activities in the 1980s popularized the armed organization throughout Assam and people inculcated a welcoming attitude towards its members. However, the ban on ULFA had severe repercussions on the people who failed to make sense of this enforced alienation towards the organization. Neither did the ULFA cadres reflect upon their association with the villagers which was pushing many households into grave risks. It is claimed officially as well as in oral narratives that the victims of the secret killings had sheltered the cadres. Ironically, former ULFA cadres confess that there was hardly any house in the interiors of rural Assam who didn’t give them food when they asked for. The sense of hospitality and the sense of an armed struggle were poorly perceived by either side. The killing of families under such circumstances has left deep regrets even in the minds of the former combatants. Umakanta Gogoi’s family was no exception.
Barsha was the age of Gogoi’s eldest daughter who lived in the same neighbourhood. During the late 90s, she got involved in women’s collective that would pursue the issues of human rights in the locality. Apart from that, Barsha had a difficult childhood under poverty and she was in-charge of her young siblings after the demise of her mother. This compelled her to give up on her schooling at the face of familial responsibility. She found solace with Gogoi’s family at times of despair. Referring to Umakanta Gogoi and his wife as borta and borma (Assamese terms for addressing anyone elder to one’s father) respectively, Barsha recall how the memories of 11th of September 1999 continue to haunt her every day. She contemplates how death is destined as she was to stay with Gogoi’s family that night but could not make through as she was engaged with work at the collective. Similarly, Gogoi’s son did not live at home during nights due to regular army search operations that left the young boys vulnerable to be arrested on suspicion. However, that night the entire family stayed back home together.
On the evening of 10th of September, the two elder daughters of Gogoi went to pick Barsha up for a sleepover. One of the sisters asked Barsha to comment on the newly painted red nail colour on her legs. Barsha says she was healthy and had pretty legs. While the daughters were waiting for Barsha hoping she would complete her work, their mother went to a neighbour’s home that witnessed an encounter, the previous day. While the ULFA cadre was killed at that house and a conventional bomb was recovered, the family members were harassed by police, army, and masked men. One of the male members was shot on his foot during altercation. The atmosphere at No.2, Borbil village was engrossed in fear and suspicion during those days. Everyone would stay indoors after dusk as news of secret killings spread across the state. The strong army vigil also restricted the movement of insurgents during this period. When Barsha could not complete her work, she asked the sisters to return as it was dusk.
Late night around 3 am, neighbours claim to have heard an explosion. However, no one had the nerve to go out and see what had actually happened. Early morning, the next day news reached Barsha that Umakanta Gogoi’s house was burnt down. She instantly got ready to visit the house and asked her neighbours to accompany her. Nobody went. While she was walking down the road towards the house, people had started gathering on their doorways, but as she reiterates nobody agreed to enter the burnt house. Barsha narrates,
“It was around 7 am. When I reached their home, I could just see the broken and burnt thatched walls of the house. There was a strange silence. As I entered their doorway, I shouted thrice, Bai, Bai, Bai (addressing elder sister in Assamese). There was no one but hearing my voice, their ducks started quacking and the cows mooed. I leaned on a broken wall and tried to figure out where the people could be. Instinctively, I turned back and trembled at the sight of a dog eating human flesh. There was blood all around that left me in shock for the next five minutes. I went out of the house shouting in fear and told one of the neighbours who had gathered outside the house by then to go inform the gaon burah (village headman). I ran along three villages to inform the other village headmen. I met my father on way ploughing in the field and told him, Bai’hotor ghor khon aru nai (Elder sister and her family are no more). Hurriedly I told him to send my younger sisters to inform the people all around and I informed a local journalist. By the time I returned, the house was surrounded by hundreds of people. There was police too by then. I decided to enter the house again and along with other close neighbours, we were the ones who collected the pieces of human flesh in bed covers. This time I could make sense of what I saw inside the house. Bai dekhi bhoi lagisil. Soku duta ase, tolor nai, pasfale nai, muror khini beror usorot pori ase, eta bhoyonkor drishyo (I was frightened to see the eldest daughter’s eyes intact on her severed head on one corner of the room which was a dangerous sight). The second daughter who asked me to comment on her nails the previous day, her severed legs lay at the other corner of the room. I could recognize her by the red nail paint. How will it feel? Then I saw a clump of intestines hanging on the entrance of another room in the dilapidated house. It didn’t affect me and I wanted to see where others were. Some of us started breaking down the thatched walls. I saw their brother lying on the floor in blood with his legs bent. He was shot by a bullet. He was wearing lungi (wrapper for men). Next to him laid the body of the youngest child. I did not see any bruise upon her. She was a kid and didn’t even attain her puberty. A little away borma’s body was lying on the floor fully naked. That sight made me shout against the sinners who must have raped her before killing. When someone tried to pick up borta, the lower part of his body, mostly in intestine form fell down on the floor. It was a daunting display. The furniture burnt into pieces and there was a deep hole in the middle of the house. May be that’s where they placed the bomb and may be the daughters were closer to that spot which affected upon their bodies so brutally. After seeing all these, I got unconscious.”
(Barsha, Interview taken at Sivasagar in November 2016 and January 2019)
As the writer, I leave this story to be analyzed by the common people at a time when occasional and official narratives dominate the order of day. Episodes like that of secret killings are often narrated anticipating who could be the possible killer. However, I hope to find an alternative voice, the voices of those who had remained a death statistics in counterinsurgency accounts. Absence of justice or even apologies has left the survivors, families of the victims, and the witnesses not just lose their faith on governance but have harmfully affected their mental health in post-conflict societies. Umakanta Gogoi’s family is just one case. There may be a hundred more. At such times, petty politics over the secret killings not just make the politicians in the state look dirty but also brings an embarrassment to the democratic institutions of the country that failed to bring justice to the victims that included grandparents, aged parents, pregnant women and children. Episodes like these trigger justifications, not a closure.