|Students and members of the Northeast community in Delhi take out a candlelight vigil in solidarity against the killing of Salouni. Picture by Yasir Iqbal
New Delhi, July 22: Delhi police made two more arrests in the lynching of Naga youth Akha Salouni but unofficial briefings portraying the motive as “road rage” drew scepticism from the capital’s northeastern students.
In the Lok Sabha, Congress MPs from the Northeast insisted that Salouni was “singled out” because of his “looks” and questioned junior home minister Kiren Rijiju’s omission of any reference to race prejudice in his statement on the arrests.
The police picked up Sanjay, Raju and Shakti — all in their mid-20s — last night and today nabbed their friends Azad, 24, and Lokesh, 23. Raids are on to find the last among the six accused, all of whom have been charged with murder.
But the police haven’t invoked the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, unlike in the January murder of Arunachal student Nido Tania that attracted national focus on the race bias faced by northeastern people in India’s metros.
Salouni, a 29-year-old from Manipur who worked with a Delhi BPO, was beaten to death on a south Delhi street late Sunday night by six occupants of a car who were apparently carrying sticks with them.
Two friends accompanying Salouni in an auto-rickshaw — one of them from Manipur — have said the attackers started the 2.15am brawl by hurling racial taunts. The friends escaped and called the police but the unconscious Salouni was declared dead on arrival at hospital.
In off-the-record briefings, officers have been stressing the road-rage angle by citing the suspects’ continuous honking at the auto that Salouni’s friends had referred to. But the officers have not satisfactorily answered the argument that honking can be part of taunting too, especially on a street too wide and desolate for a lone auto to block a car’s path.
“It was a hate crime; the police are trying to turn it into a road rage,” alleged Maivio, the president of the Naga Students Union in Delhi.
Gaurav Gogoi, Congress MP and son of Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, told the Lok Sabha: “He was singled out just because of his looks. This is a case of racial discrimination.”
He said such incidents were taking place repeatedly in Delhi’s southeast district and wondered what action the government had taken against the area’s police chief.
Admitting a racial attack would mount pressure on the police, a senior officer had yesterday privately told The Telegraph that Salouni’s friends had been discouraged from pursuing the race angle when the FIR was drawn up.
A Delhi court has remanded the three youths arrested yesterday in two days’ police custody.
The police had filed a murder charge in the Tania case too but the CBI diluted it to culpable homicide. Unlike Salouni, Tania had walked home from the brawl and died hours later.
Congress legislature party leader Mallikarjun Kharge broached the attack as soon as the Lok Sabha assembled in the morning. The Speaker asked him to raise it during Zero Hour.
Ninong Ering, Congress MP from Arunachal, did so and attributed the murder to race prejudice.
“Many such incidents have taken place and people from the Northeast are being targeted,” he said.
“The people of the country know where Arunachal, Nagaland, Tripura, etc, are located. They know that these states are in the Northeast of the country. But they don’t know or don’t want to know that people from this region are with the country.”
Rijiju, himself from Arunachal, told the House the police had taken swift action and investigations were on.
But Congress members termed the statement unsatisfactory, questioning the minister’s skirting of the race angle and accusing him of parroting the police’s purely technical version.
With Sonia Gandhi and Rahul watching, they stepped into the well demanding a “proper reply”, and relented only after the Chair promised clarifications from the government.
Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson P.J. Kurien said the attack was a very serious matter.