23 shot at, 5 dead: New Assam govt’s ‘extreme action against criminals’

Since Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took over on May 10, at least 23 people have been shot at while in police custody, with five dead. They had been held for crimes such as cattle-smuggling, rape, murder, drug-peddling, dacoity. This is apart from deaths of 10 militants in encounters in the past two months.

INCIDENTS ranging from Assam’s northeast tip to its west, and a script that is common — of apprehended criminals “trying to escape” from custody the same day as they were arrested, “attempting to snatch weapons” and police opening fire.

Since Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took over on May 10, at least 23 people have been shot at while in police custody, with five dead. They had been held for crimes such as cattle-smuggling, rape, murder, drug-peddling, dacoity. This is apart from deaths of 10 militants in encounters in the past two months.

As the Opposition raises alarm over the “trigger happy” government and the Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC) takes up the matter suo motu, Sarma has said he stands by the new approach. On Wednesday and Thursday, he told the Assembly his government would continue its “zero tolerance policy” on criminals, and that he was ready to face “any kind of criticism”. “My clear instruction (to police) is do not break the law, but within the law… you take extreme action, and the Assam government is going to protect you.”

Days earlier, at a conference attended by police officers, the CM had said there was nothing wrong in police firing being “a pattern”, if someone was “trying to flee”. “Police cannot shoot him in the chest, but shooting at the leg is the law.”

He told the Assembly Thursday that “504 persons have been arrested in the last two months for alleged involvement in cattle-smuggling and only four were injured in police firing”; and that police had ensured the accused “the best possible treatment”. On criticism, the CM said, “Sympathy is important, but misplaced sympathy is very, very dangerous.”

On July 7, the AHRC asked the state government to institute an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the death and injuries in police firings. AHRC member Naba Kamal Bora told The Indian Express, “As per news reports, all of them were in custody and in handcuffs… so we need to know what happened.”

The Sarma government has, meanwhile, also declared a ‘War on Drugs’, as part of which 1,897 people have been arrested in the last two months. Increasingly, police are deploying rarely used provisions under which a habitual drug crime offender can be put in detention without trial. At least 15 people have been arrested under it in the past six months.

The Indian Express tracked down families of five of the accused fired upon between May and now. One of them is dead. A magisterial inquiry is on into all the five deaths.

Joynal Abedin, 47, Nagaon; shot on July 11
Charge: Dacoity, armed robbery
Status: Dead

Police version
At around 2 am on July 11, the Nagaon police went to Abedin’s house to apprehend him claiming a tip-off that an armed gang led by him was planning a dacoity in the Dhing area. “Our personnel cordoned the house and called out his name,” said Nagaon SP Anand Mishra. According to police, Abedin stepped out and started firing. “We never expected there to be firing. So we retaliated and had to shoot him (in the leg). He was immediately shifted to the nearest hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival.”

Mishra told the press Abedin was a local ‘muscleman’ and they had FIRs against him in four cases, including an armed dacoity at an NRC Seva Kendra and an acid attack case. But, the SP added, “When we went to arrest him, we only had a tip-off about plans for an armed robbery. Later, after his death, his past records came up.”

Family

Abedin’s brother Imdadul Haque said police “dragged him out handcuffed” and “beat him”. “Then they took him away… we do not know where… and killed him.”

The family says they found out at 6 the next morning when the village headman was informed. “We did not want to accept the body in protest, but we had no choice. This is 100 per cent a fake encounter and my brother was framed,” said Imdadul.

Tapan Buragohain, 26, Sadiya; shot at on July 9
Charge: ULFA ‘linkman’ involved in ONGC staff abduction
Status: Admitted at Assam Medical College and Hospital, stable

Police version

On July 9, Buragohain was picked up from his home in Teligorha village by Sadiya police, reportedly on tip-off that he was involved in the ONGC abductions of April. As per Sadiya SP Sumeet Sharma, Buragohain said he would take them to a location where another accused was hiding. “As he was walking with the police party, he tried to escape, to snatch the police weapon,” said Sharma. “When he did not stop, police, to safeguard themselves, fired at his leg.” Sharma said there were 7-8 policemen, but “they were a little spread out… since it was a jungle area… to avoid any ambush”.

Family

According to a close family member of Buragohain who met him in hospital, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, the 26-year-old was first taken to the local police station. Then, around midnight the same day, Buragohain was “blindfolded” and led to what he suspects was an open field. “He begged police to give him a chance… but ultimately, they did not listen and shot him,” said the relative, adding that Buragohain said, “There was no chance I would have even attempted to run because all the policemen were armed.”

Seeking an investigation into the firing, the relative said Buragohain had lost a lot of blood.

Jeharul Islam, 30, Baksa; shot at on July 9
Charge: Trafficking of women
Status: In Nalbari jail

Police version
Police said Islam, who belongs to South Salamara-Mankachar district, had abducted a woman and her nine-year-old daughter from Baksa district area on April 26 and sold them in Bihar’s Kishanganj. Calling Islam a well-known trafficker, SDPO Rupajyoti Kalita said after they had rescued the mother-daughter, “We traced Jeharul to Goalpara. We then took him to where the crime happened in Baksa. However, he tried to escape and even snatched a police weapon.” Police said they shot him in the leg.

Islam has several cases against him, under IPC Sections pertaining to trafficking of women, abduction, rapes etc.

Family
Jeharul’s brother Joynal said police asked them about Jeharul on July 7. “He does odd jobs in Guwahati. We told the police we will cooperate and I went to Guwahati the next day.” According to Joynal, Jeharul agreed to surrender and they met police on a bridge in Goalpara district. “They took him, and that’s when I saw him last.”

It was on the news the next day that he heard that Jeharul had been shot. Joynal claims they are in the dark about his condition. “We have heard that he is in jail. I do not have money to go and find out what’s happening, but if he willingly surrendered, why would he try to escape?”

Akhtar Raja Khan (alias Tiklu Khan), 48, Dibrugarh; shot at on July 7
Charge: Runs a network of cattle lifters
Status: In Dibrugarh jail after discharge from hospital

Police version
They picked up Khan on July 7 after some cattle thieves whom they arrested “confessed they were linked to him”, said Dibrugarh SP Shwetank Mishra. He was taken to a “chapori (island)” in the Brahmaputra for recovery of cattle hidden there. “However, he tried to flee by making a dash towards the river. In order to stop him… and save him… police fired at his right leg,” said Mishra, adding that Khan was discharged the same day from hospital as “the injury was not very serious”.

The SP admitted Khan’s name does not feature “prominently” in many cases, but reasons this is because “he did not usually commit the crime on the ground”.

Family
Khan’s son Jahid said police had found his father’s cows in the Marwari Patti locality and made enquiries. “We had bought these cows and had the papers for them. So my father went to the local police station at 8 am on July 7 to sort it out. When he did not return, Jahid said, his mother went to check and was told “he had been taken away”. “Next morning, we heard he had been shot and rushed to hospital.”

Jahid said he met Khan briefly at the hospital. “He told me he was blindfolded and taken to a chapori. Police told him to run, or they would fire. My father begged with them and did not run. After that he was shot.” Jahid added that they have no idea how Khan is now. “We are very stressed… my mother is ill and keeps fainting.”

30-yr-old; shot at in May (doesn’t want any details revealed)
Charge: Drug dealer
Status: In jail after spending time in hospital

Police version
As per police, one night in May, they went to apprehend the 30-year-old from his home, and he threatened them with a pistol. They say they had no choice but to shoot him.

Family
While the family refused to talk, a person aware of the incident said policemen had knocked at the 30-year-old’s door seeking directions to an address. “They did not initially reveal who they were… When he refused to step out, they broke the door open, dragged him out and started beating him.”

The person claims police then warned the 30-year-old to hold a weapon, and shot him when he refused.

Assam Police have consistently defended the shootings. Back on June 4, Special DGP G P Singh, brought to the state during the height of the CAA protests in December 2020, tweeted a warning to “criminals”, “especially repeat criminals”, “the recidivists”: “Take cue from past few weeks about what lies ahead of you. We would not spare you.”

DGP Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta said they use firing only as a “last resort”. “In all cases, it has only been lawful application of force… when the alleged criminal has retaliated or snatched weapons or tried to flee.” He also claimed the force had become “more accountable, more transparent” in the last two months, “women and child friendly”. “Extortion has gone down drastically.”

A former Assam DGP admitted to unease over the police firings. “However, if the head of the government has endorsed it — in a direct or indirect way — there will only be an increase of such incidents.”

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