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Crime pays in Assam, the rebel zone

Guwahati, Nov. 14: Since 1989, high-profile killings of tea garden owners such Surrendra Paul and Adilur Rahman aside, as many as 21 tea garden managers/assistant managers have been killed in militant-related violence in Assam, according to data provided by tea associations here.

Add to that cases such as the killing of Daulat Singh Negi, superintendent of police, Dibrugarh, in 1990, Surrendra Paul the same year or activist Sanjoy Ghose of Avard-NE. Add to that the killing of at least 22 journalists over the past 20 years in Assam, and it throws up just one overwhelming truth: that in this state, bumping off someone is easy; and if it is done by a militant organisation or in the name of a militant organisation, the killer, or killers will, most of the time, get away scot-free.

Ever since insurgency set in in Assam, the people of the state and the media have gone from case to case, one coming after the other, without respite to ponder over any one case in particular. One hopes that the killing of Rahman, the owner of the Mahaluxmi and Tezalpatty tea estates yesterday in Sonitpur, won’t turn out to be just another case that will never be solved, no one punished.

For the state, its people and its industries, it spells disaster. “This astronomical figure of 21 managers and assistant managers getting killed is not what something a planter bargained for while choosing a career in tea. The violence is to terrorise an industry that is supporting the livelihood of over 10 lakh people and many dependants, maybe with the larger objective of these groups to derail the economy of the state,” said Dhiraj Kakati, secretary of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA).

“Most of the time we are caught between a rock and a hard place. If the manager pays up according to the demand of the outfit, he will be penalised by the government. If he does not, he is killed,” said Deepanjol Deka, secretary of the Tea Association of India (TAI).

Worse still, since the time insurgency has become a part of life in Assam, the government has played a trick on its people: that of going easy on militants once they decide to go in for a ceasefire or come for talks, so much so that Gauhati High Court recently criticised the government of Assam for following such a policy which involved not opposing bail applications of such militants, while opposing those of other people who may have been involved in the same case. The court felt that the very idea of deciding to not oppose the bail applications of militants once they come for talks could encourage others to take up arms against the state.

It was in August 1991 that Akashitora, then a young girl, lost her father, Kamala Saikia, to the bullets of Ulfa. Twenty-one years later, nothing has come of the case. Now a filmmaker, Akashitora documents the lives of victims of terrorism in Assam. “They are terrified. The fear psychosis is unimaginable. They refuse to speak about what has happened to them. The attitude of the state government is pathetic,” she says. Akashitora’s father was the first journalist to fall to militants’ bullets in the state.

Anil Majumdar has been the latest journalist victim of militants, killed on March 24, 2009. The government then had promised to book the killers “within a week”. Last heard, the case had been handed over to the CBI, said Jogesh Majumdar, Anil’s brother. “They’ve begun their investigation but the CBI got the case after three years. A lot of evidence could have been lost by then.” Says Rupam Baruah, president of the Journalists’ Forum, Assam: “Our journalists become targets of militants as they raise their voice for the public cause, and it is the responsibility of the government to punish those behind their killings. But unfortunately, none of their killers has ever been punished.”

“In almost all the cases, the accused either goes scot-free or the process gets lengthy because of ‘vague investigation’ by the police and investigation agencies. From Daulat Singh Negi’s case to Gritchenko to P.C. Ram’s, the high-profile cases have been found reduced to low-profile ones because of poor investigation. All this has happened due to the lack of interest of our government to punish those involved in the killings. Soon after the incident, the government takes some steps at the preliminary stage owing to public resentment, and then shows no serious interest,” senior lawyer Nekibur Zaman said.

The killings, meanwhile, continue.