On a summer afternoon of May 17, 1996, democracy and sanity lay threadbare in Assam when four armed assailants in a Maruti 800 car pumped 13 bullets into Assamese journalist and political activist Parag Kumar Das in broad daylight. The brutal assault killed him instantly. Das, the then executive editor of the popular Assamese daily, Asomiya Protidin, was escorting his eight-year-old son, Rohan, home from school. The child was severely injured.
Before anyone could even comprehend the appalling reality of what had happened, the new chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) promised the killers would be apprehended within 48 hours. He had been sworn in only the day before, replacing the Congress’ Hiteswar Saikia. Even the Commander-in-Chief of the separatist rebel outfit, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Paresh Baruah, pledged to avenge Das’ death within the next two days. Twenty years later, despite a lengthy investigation and trial process, justice still remains on stand-by for the fearless Das.
Who was Parag Kumar Das? Who killed him? Why hasn’t justice been served yet? These questions demand rational and transparent answers, not political or institutional rhetoric. The answers have long been overdue for not just the friends and family of Das but also a sizeable section of the Assamese population that believes his murder was remote-controlled by the state government. They believe that Das was a martyr in his own country, and took a fatal hit for the seemingly lost cause of ‘freedom of speech’.
Notwithstanding popular conviction, Das’ assassination provides a reference point for us to revisit the murky days of 1990s Assam, marked by an imploding security situation and an exploding fear psychosis amongst the masses. The period witnessed the coming of what some observers call a “diminished form of democracy”. Let’s not make a mistake about this – Das’ death wasn’t a simple hate crime but a brazen political murder committed under the nose of the administration. It marked the beginning of the dog days of democracy in Assam.
Smooth Talker in Hard Times
Das was a milestone figure in Assamese society, and perhaps one of the most undervalued (and somewhat forgotten) public intellectuals of the state. Born in 1961 in Shillong, Das was educated at Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College and then Delhi School of Economics (DSE). He went on to become not only the most radical modern theoretician of Assamese nationalism, but also a fiercely vocal and progressive journalist. He was also the founder of Assam’s own modern human rights movement.
A man of sharp political foresight, Das published musings which confronted the Indian State head-on over a range of issues surrounding independence for Assam and reactive State repression. Herein lay Das’ thorny relationship with the Indian State. In 1989, he started a radical vernacular weekly called Boodhbar (‘Wednesday’) to make his case for Assam’s independence. Three years down the line, the state government banned it. But Das continued publishing from his residence, running another weekly called Agan in 1994.
The answers have long been overdue for not just the friends and family of Das but also a sizeable section of the Assamese population that believes his murder was remote-controlled by the state government. They believe that Das was a martyr in his own country, and took a fatal hit for the seemingly lost cause of ‘freedom of speech’
In 1995, he quit his high-paying position as the General Manager of the Guwahati Stock Exchange and became the first executive editor of what was to become the highest circulated local daily in Assam, Asomiya Protidin. Through the course of his brief but blazing journalistic career, Das meticulously developed a radical dialectical discourse that chipped away at New Delhi’s de facto narrative of territorial inviolability and the ‘national myth’ of sociopolitical unity by sharply critising its exploitative attitudes and militaristic policies in Assam. In this regard, he was a fierce and unapologetic talker, the kind that Assam had never produced before.
Amongst the numerous bestsellers that he wrote, Swadhinatar Prostab (Proposal for Independence) managed to rile the establishment. At a time when the Congress government in Dispur was under constant pressure from New Delhi to quash the secessionist discourse by force or inducement, an entire book on secession was an institutional hazard. It was banned and the last remaining copies confiscated by the police from Das’ residence. Unsurprisingly, his weekly columns were banned too.
Das literally introduced the discourse of human rights in Assam when he co-founded Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) in 1991 after the Indian Army’s Operation Bajrang (1990). Today, many deem it the only true non-partisan, mass-based civil society organisation that Assam has ever produced. Principally a human rights watchdog aimed at documenting excessive and extrajudicial use of force by the security forces, MASS also took on the daunting role of exposing corrupt State practices. In doing so, it came to be seen as a nuisance by the state government. The Saikia government tried to shut up Das and his colleagues by arresting them twice – first in 1991 under the National Security Act (NSA), and then again in 1993 under the now-defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA).
The Journalists Association of Assam participating in a dharna demanding constitution of a Media Council
In restrospect, many recall Das as an ‘ULFA ideologue’. He did write a bestseller novel (Sanglot Fengla) based on the real life of an ULFA leader and sharply criticised the government for its brutal killing of one of the outfit’s commanders, Hirakjyoti Mahanta. But, truth be told, as an academic his complex discourse remained his own till death. The appropriation of Das’ critical narrative by ULFA was almost inevitable, given the former’s rich repertoire of pro-independence arguments. Yet, he was one of the select Assamese nationalists to have actually deliberated upon the economic viability of an independent Assam in his book Swadhin Axomor Arthaniti (Economics of an Independent Assam) – something which no ULFA leader, not even Baruah, could ever opine on coherently.
Frankenstein Let Loose
We do not yet know for certain who ordered the killing of Das but we do know that the four men who fired the bullets – Mridul Phukan alias Samar Kakati, Diganta Baruah, Tapan Dutta alias Biswajit Saikia, and Nayan Das alias Guli – were ‘surrendered ULFA’ or ‘SULFA’ boys. Two of them – Baruah and Saikia – had visited the office of Protidinsome days before the shooting. According to recorded court statements, there they threatened Das over an article he wrote against Binu Chetia, a SULFA-backed electoral candidate in Margherita constituency. A few days down the line, he lay dead in the middle of the city. Who were the SULFA, really, and how did they manage to execute such an audacious act of violence in broad daylight?
The term ‘SULFA’ was initially accorded to the bunch of ULFA rebels and top-level leaders who laid down their arms after the Indian Army’s massive 1991 offensive in Assam called Operation Rhino. These desertions of rank, which happened en masse, were given a solid push by the state government through lavish amnesty schemes for “rehabilitation and reintegration”.
But, in reality, the government was only co-opting the surrendered militants into its elaborate security wheel as informants against ULFA.
Henceforth, the SULFA turned into an ad hoc counter-insurgency force of sorts that entered into a quid pro quo relationship with the state government – the ex-rebels were to provide information regarding whereabouts of ULFA cadre, ammunition depots, and camp locations in return for state patronage and protection from retaliatory attacks.
However, this instrumentalisation of renegade rebels turned out to be a conscious mistake for the government, despite the fact that it was a clever “divide and rule” strategy. It triggered a camouflaged form of lawlessness and political violence. SULFA became a ‘running trophy’ of sorts, getting passed down from the Congress to the AGP government as a ready-to-use counter-terrorist force. But, it gradually transformed into what security analysts Bibhu Prasad Routray and Ajai Sahni call a “Frankensteinian monster” – a dangerous crime syndicate with no real motive beyond engaging in illegal profit-making ventures. They began operating like an organised crime gang or a drug cartel—non-ideological, utilitarian, and profit-making. In return for actionable intelligence, the state offered them a carte blanche to indulge in their independent money-making ventures like extortions, kidnappings, illegal businesses, and contraband smuggling. The government not just looked away from all of SULFA’s wrongdoings, but also became an active stakeholder in their shadow businesses.
Things were to get worse during the 1998-2001 period. Once the AGP came to power and created the multi-agency ‘Unified Command Structure’ comprising the state police, paramilitary, and the army, SULFA took on the role of a mercenary force.
Under pressure to annihilate ULFA, the state government started using SULFA as a hit squad of assassins to eliminate ULFA ‘status offenders’ (family, friends, and lay sympathisers). This set in motion a grisly cycle of what many observers call ‘quasi-political violence’, marked by covert executions and retaliatory killings.
The outcome was a thorough destabilisation of the state’s law and order situation from within. These shadow executions were popularly referred to as ‘secret killings’ by the local English press or gupto hotya by the vernacular.
Although SULFA unleashed most of their terror during the 1996-2001 AGP rule, no proper investigation has yet been launched to scrutinise its record during Congress rule in the first half of the decade. The landmark Justice K.N. Saikia Commission Report of 2006 looked into 35 cases of secret killings, but all during the AGP period. The report established the role of the state police and the Indian Army as central to the execution of the gruesome killings. It also indicted Chief Minister Mahanta for his complicity in sustaining an institutional killing machine. But was Mahanta the only political leader to have used SULFA as a hit squad? Was Das the most prominent victim of an initial spate of secret killings under Saikia, which is all but erased from history? We might never know.
Errors or Cover-Up?
The Das files were handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 1997, a year after the murder. Three years later, a chargesheet was filed against the four main suspects. However, three of the accused died in ‘isolated’ shooting incidents even before they could stand trial. Only Phukan alias Kakati ended up facing a prosecution trial, but was acquitted by the Kamrup District Sessions Court on July 28, 2009. The court said that the prosecution failed to produce credible evidence that was “beyond the pale of doubt”. Although the judgment understandably caused outrage in Assam, even a cursory reading of it tells us that the judge might not have been entirely wrong.
The court blamed the CBI for failing to put in place a proper witness protection programme, which resulted in many crucial witnesses turning hostile. The evidentiary value of the suspects’ photographs was deemed to be nil due to non-establishment of their source. One Investigating Officer, Biplab Kumar Bagchi, while interviewing Das’ family members, breached protocol by taking informal notes on his notepad instead of recording statements. Another witness – an employee of Das’ son’s school who could not read or write in English – was made to sign a CBI memorandum worded in English. Yet another so-called eyewitness ‘forgot’ why he signed on a suspect’s photograph. The list goes on. Perhaps the most glaring inconsistency in the CBI chargesheet was regarding the suspect vehicle – a Neptune Blue Maruti 800 – which was stated to be untraced in the first part of the report in contradiction to a later part where it is said to have been found abandoned near the crime scene without a registration plate. In reality, the car was never found.
Similar to several other past verdicts, the Das judgment bluntly points fingers at the investigating parties for depositing faulty evidence, reaffirming the urgent need for reforms within both criminal investigation institutions and state police forces in the country. A good example is the 1987 Hashimpura massacre in Uttar Pradesh in which close to 40 Muslim men were shot in cold blood and dumped in canals by the state-controlled Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). The 16 accused were let go in March 2015 due to lack of credible evidence, thanks to flaws in the chargesheet filed by the Uttar Pradesh Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department (CBCID). Both judgments also argued that suspicion, however strong, cannot take the place of proof.
Yet, the grim possibility of a manipulated or rigged trial looms over the collective judgment of the Das case. The 15-year Congress government under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who succeeded Mahanta, did not undertake any serious investigation of the Das murder, beyond some perfunctory attempts at sanctioning micro investigations. Did the Gogoi government accomplish a grand cover-up to save his party’s grace? Such questions are indeed bewildering, and most often than not, the answers outrageous. Some accuse R.M. Singh, the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Guwahati during the murder, of ‘vandalising’ the investigation process. Some call it conspiracy, others basic logic. Using a renegade militant force to kill Das was, tactically, a very effective double-edged sword for the Saikia administration – it did the job of silencing the most radical ‘pro-ULFA’ intellectual in the region and at the same time, contributed an element of deniability in case of any inadvertent public disclosure.
Litmus Test for Democracy
Despite what many deem obvious, some objective questions remain. Did the government of Assam really use a listless gang of violent criminals to silence a leading public intellectual of the state, or is it merely a conspiracy theory hanging on the threads of collective suspicion of a disgruntled population? Was the CBI under specific orders to investigate the murder with considerable laxity? Without a fair trial, we might never know. But what we know (or must know) is that Das represented something far beyond just radical idealism or anti-Statism. He stood for those extreme but real possibilities of democratic civil and political rights, which the Assamese people had momentarily forgotten under an internalised status quo of militaristic State action. Undeniably, on that fateful afternoon, democracy took a hit.
Yet, the grim possibility of a manipulated or rigged trial looms over the collective judgment of the Das case. The 15-year Congress government under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who succeeded Mahanta, did not undertake any serious investigation of the Das murder, beyond some perfunctory attempts at sanctioning micro investigations
Das’ assassination only proves that in a scenario where the State’s legitimate monopoly over violence mingles with vested political agendas, ‘peacekeeping’ becomes a tactical weapon to define the ‘evil’ along narrow lines, rather than a benevolent venture to quell violence. Although Das’ memory has been kept alive through annual celebrations of his ‘martyrdom’ and an award for journalism in his name, Assam must do more to preserve his stellar legacy. Not because he argued for independence, but because he stood for democracy in a region where it was hardly a priority. In some ways, Das embodies that dissentious soul of India, which the post-colonial Indian State has found extremely difficult to reconcile with. He was a litmus test for the Indian variant of democracy and, quite manifestly, the results were dismal.
[This piece was published in the July 2016 print edition of Hard News Magazine. An online version can be found here.]