At 2 am on December 1, 34-year-old Niraj Das was killed while in police custody in Assam’s Jorhat town. The Jorhat police claimed it was a road mishap.

Das had been arrested for the lynching of Animesh Bhuyan, a leader of the All Assam Students’ Union. On November 29, Bhuyan had been killed by an angry mob in Assam’s Jorhat town as he tried to rescue an accident victim. Despite his protests that he was trying to help the victim, the mob believed he had caused the accident and beat him to death. The killing of a young leader from AASU, an organisation with deep cultural resonances in Assam, had led to widespread outrage in the state.

On November 30, the Jorhat police arrested 13 people, including Das, his father and his brother, for the lynching. But hours later, at night, the police apparently roped Das into helping them with a completely different matter.

According to Jorhat Superintendent of Police Ankur Jain, Das was driven out in a police vehicle to lead a police team to “a drug consignment”. Then he “suddenly jumped off the moving jeep to escape from custody” and was “hit by an escort vehicle” following the jeep, Jain said. Three policemen were reportedly injured in the incident.

As news broke of Das’s death, GP Singh, Assam’s special director general of police (law and order) tweeted early morning on December 1: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – Newton’s Third Law.” Singh had personally been supervising the investigation on Bhuyan’s death.

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also tweeted later in the day: “Assam will remain free of crime and criminals – come what may.”

However, Das’s family rejects the police version. Asha Das, his sister-in-law, called it “pre-planned murder”. “What were the police doing when he was trying to flee? How could he escape under so much security?” she asked. “My brother didn’t kill Bhuyan alone – he was lynched by a mob of 50. But he [Das] was targeted alone.”

She also rejected police claims that Das, who used to sell fish, was a drug peddler. “If he was involved in drug peddling, why was he not arrested earlier?” she demanded. “What is the connection to this [lynching] case?”

Now, the family fears for other relatives still in police custody.

Niraj Das was arrested in a lynching case. The police claim he was run over while trying to flee custody. Picture by special arrangement.

A familiar script

Das’s death is not an isolated incident. Since May, soon after Sarma took over as chief minister of Assam, at least 31 men have been killed while in custody or in alleged shootouts with the police.

A list compiled by the Assam Police shows 28 people were killed from May till the end of November in police firing. Two more people, including Das, died in custody in early December. A third person died in a police shootout a few days later. All deaths have been confirmed by the police.

The police version of the custodial deaths follows a familiar script in almost every case: the dead man was shot as he tried to snatch service weapons or was trying to escape custody.

Singh said told that all measures permitted by law were “being taken recourse to”.

“Every incident is different and has different dynamics,” he said when asked why there were so many attempted escapes. “There cannot be a generalised statement. However, we stand committed to firm action against organised crime and incorrigible recidivist criminals.”

When asked whether such an approach had helped reduce crime, Singh said, “We will give figures only after a suitable time period for assessment has passed.”

Of the 28 people who featured in the Assam Police list, Singh said, four were “drug peddlers’’, two were protesting against government eviction drives, 11 were “extremists”, and another 11 were “criminals”.

Of the three deaths reported in December, the police alleged Das was a drug peddler and the main accused in the lynching, while 40-year-old Sanful Ali, who drowned in a river while apparently trying to bolt from custody on December 3, was a dacoit. On December 13, the police killed an unidentified man accused of kidnapping – they claimed he had opened fire first.

A closer look at the list of those killed throws up certain patterns – most belonged to ethnic or religious minorities in Assam. Of the 30 people identified killed so far, 14 were Muslims and 10 were Bodo, Dimasa or Kuki – tribal communities that have seen armed movements for self-determination. They were reportedly facing police action for being alleged extremists.

Assam Police data show that at least 55 people were also injured in police shootings between May 10 and December 10. Of these, at least 30 are Muslims.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said shooting at criminals 'should be the pattern'. Picture credit: PTI

Sarma, who also holds the home portfolio, has repeatedly defended the state police against a barrage of questions about these custodial deaths and shootouts. Shooting at criminals “should be the pattern” if they tried to escape, he said, claiming that the law permitted it. Such measures would be used until crime was wiped out from Assam, the chief minister added.

The number of custodial deaths, shootouts and injuries rose as the new government publicised its crackdown on drug trafficking, cattle smuggling and other forms of organised crime as well as militancy. “After I took charge, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told me to work on three areas — rising drug abuse, cow smuggling and human trafficking,” Sarma said at a press conference in July where he defended police shootings once again.

Between May 1 and December 10, there have been about 1,700 cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and around 2,900 people have been arrested for drug-related offences, according to a recent statement issued by the Assam Police. National Crime Records Bureau data show there were just 983 cases under the anti-narcotics law in all of 2020. spoke to the families of four people killed in police shootouts and of one person injured in such an incident. In each case, they rejected the police version. In at least two cases, the killings have triggered protests by the local community.

‘Dragged out handcuffed’

In the early hours of July 11, 47-year-old Joynal Abedin was shot dead by the police in his home in Shalkati Pathar, a village in Nagaon district. The village falls under the jurisdiction of the Dhing police station.

The Nagaon police claimed they had information that Abedin was leading an armed gang that was planning a dacoity in the Dhing area so they went to his home to arrest him.

“The police cordoned the house and called out his name,” said Nagaon Superintendent of Police Anand Kumar Mishra. “When challenged to give up his arms, he fired on the police team.” According to Mishra, Abedin started firing “as soon as he stepped out.”

Abedin’s brother, Shahab Uddin was also in the house at the time. He also said that the police came to their house around 2 am, and called out his brother’s name. After that, the police and the family’s accounts diverged.

“As soon as Abedin came out, the police dragged him handcuffed to the compound and beat him,” Shahab Uddin said. “They shot him immediately outside the house and took him away. He never fired and there were no arms with him.”

Surrounded by the police, Abedin’s family had been unable to leave the house as the incident took place. Early in the morning, they were told by the village headman that Abedin had been killed.

Mishra claimed Abedin was a local “goonda” and named in first information reports in four cases. These included an acid attack case and an armed dacoity at an NRC seva kendra – a service centre meant to help people apply for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens.

These claims are rejected by both the family and other residents of Shalkati Pathar village, who appear to be unaware that there were cases against Abedin.

“This is 100% a fake encounter and my brother was framed,” said Shahab Uddin. “There was not a single dacoity case against him. How can the police kill him on the suspicion that he was planning a dacoity?”

After Abedin’s death, hundreds of local residents had marched in protest, demanding justice for his family.

“Abedin was a good man, he was neither a goonda nor a dacoit,” said M Ali, the gaonburah, or government-appointed headman, of Shalkati Pathar village. “There was no case in the police station either. I have been in the public service for the last 45 years as a gaonburah, I have not heard anything bad about him or that he was involved in any kind of crime. I was not informed when the police came here, either.”

It is customary for the police to inform the gaonburah before entering a village for such operations, although police officials in Assam claimed it was not compulsory.

‘The police knew him’

The family of 46-year-old Khairul Islam, shot dead in Geruamukh in Nagaon district less than a month later, also claim he was wrongly accused of being a drug peddler. According to them, he was a goat trader who could barely make ends meet.

His mother, 64-year-old Rezia Khatun, was awake when the police came for him that night, around 11.30 pm on August 7.

“He was playing ludo on the phone with his four brothers – they were drunk,” she recalled. “He protested when police tried to arrest him and the situation was tense. But he did not attack the police. The police directly killed him. The local village headman was also not with them.”

According to Khatun, the police knew her son. “They had a good relationship with him. But now that relationship has destroyed him,” the weeping mother said.

Since Khairul Islam, the main breadwinner for the family, was killed, they had slipped further into poverty. “We are very poor and he is survived by five children including one who has been severely ill since his father died,” said Khatun. “His father is old and we are in need of immediate help.” One of Khairul Islam’s children had been severely ill since he was killed.

Her son, she said, had been “framed in a case on suspicion”.

According to the police, however, Khairul Islam ran a major drug racket in the area. They claimed his brother, Bulbul, arrested earlier on drug-related charges, and other members of the so-called gang were also present when the police raided the house.

“As soon as the police team reached the spot, one Khairul Islam, who was already armed with a machete, attacked the Khatowal police station OC [officer in charge] and tried to target his neck,” said Mishra. “The OC sustained grievous injuries, particularly on his hands, as he tried to save himself. He had to open fire in self-defence and control the situation.”

Khairul Islam was killed at 12.30 am on August 8, according to the police. Mishra said others present at the house also attacked the police. When the police found them, he claimed, “they were packing a huge quantity of drugs into small sachets that would have been distributed later”.

Rezia Khatun was at home the night the police came for her son, 46-year-old Khairul Islam. Picture by special arrangement.

A bike accident and a shooting

In Assam’s Kokrajhar district, Jwngsar Mushahary and Janak Kumar Brahma, both 23 years old, were shot dead in an alleged “crossfire” between the police and militants on September 18. The police claimed they were both militants, part of a newly floated Bodo armed group called United Liberation for Bodoland.

According to the police version, the two youths were wanted in an extortion case and were arrested with weapons at 5.30 am on September 17. A first information report was registered at the Kokrajhar station the same day, listing offences under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 121 (waging war against the state), among others, police said.

In a written statement issued on September 18, Surjeet Singh Panesar, Kokrajhar’s additional superintendent of police, said the two arrested youth had revealed that the United Liberation for Bodoland had a makeshift camp in the Ultapani Reserve Forest, close to the Assam-Bhutan border. The two youths were then made to accompany a police team from Kokrajhar, which launched an operation to flush out the camp at 3am on September 18.

“When the police party reached near their camp, suddenly miscreants started firing upon the police party and in retaliation [the] police party took a lying position and started controlled fire towards the extremist party,” Panesar said.

He added that as the shooting started, Brahma and Mushahary fled in the direction of the militants. “After 30 minutes of firing, the two were found dead, with bullet injuries.They died in a crossfire,” he said.

But the United Liberation for Bodoland denies the two youths were part of their outfit.

Mushahary’s family says he had once been part of one of the factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, but not of the United Liberation for Bodoland. All factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, an older armed group fighting for Bodo self-determination, have signed ceasefires with the government. When he was killed, Mushahary, father to a 15-day-old child, was working in other people’s fields to support his family, relatives say.

According to Jagdish Mushahary, his father, his son left his home in Salguri village, which is in the Serfanguri police station area, on September 16. That same day, he met with a bike accident in South Aflagaon, a nearby village. He had been travelling with Brahma and both were injured in the accident.

“Later, the police took them to Serfanguri police station,” Jagdish Mushahary said. “We went to the station and met him on September 17. We were told he would be released soon. How can he have died in an encounter? We need justice.”

Other relatives of Mushahary said they later learnt the two youths had been transferred from Serfanguri police station to Kokrajhar police station sometime before they were killed in the alleged encounter.

As news of the killings spread, so did protests in Bodoland Territorial Region, the four Bodoland districts that are governed by a separate territorial council and enjoy a degree of autonomy. Local residents of Salguri, including school students, went on a protest march bearing Mushahary’s body, shouting slogans against the government and the Assam Police. Protests demanding justice for the two youths also spread across the four Bodoland districts, including Kokrajhar town.

The killings seemed to surface old discontents in the Bodoland districts, which the government claims have been calm after a new peace treaty signed in 2020. As fresh anger broke out and a 12-hour bandh was called in the four Bodoland districts, the state government acted fast. It ordered an inquiry into the killings on September 21. The Kokrajhar district administration also ordered a probe. The status of the probes is not known yet.

Meanwhile, Pramod Boro, who heads the Bodoland Territorial Council, offered jobs to the two youth’s families. While Brahma’s family accepted the offer, Mushahary’s family refused.

‘I wasn’t trying to escape’

Unlike many others, Dilwar Hussain lived to tell the tale. On July 27, he was shot at and injured in police firing at Jamunamukh in Hojai district. The police, who allege Hussain was responsible for robbing ATMs, said he was trying to flee custody. They added Hussain had been taken to Jamunamukh so that he could lead them to an associate when he tried to flee. According to the police, they fired blanks at first but finally resorted to shooting at his legs.

“I wasn’t trying to escape at all,” Hussain told the press as he recovered at a hospital in Nagaon district. “I was handcuffed when they fired on my legs. They held me and fired with a revolver. I think it’s better I die than go on living like this. The police have destroyed my life and my both legs have become disabled now.”

Hussain is now back in jail. According to the police, there are nine cases against him, including charges under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, an anti-terror law.

“We will not comment anything right now – one case after another has been slapped on my brother,” said Anwar Hussain. His brother’s statement to the press, made from the Nagaon hospital, spoke for itself, he said.

Police bias?

What explains the high number of ethnic and religious minorities in the list of those killed or wounded in police action?

According to Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, who was editor of Prag News, an Assamese news channel, before he became a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, it reflected the “political agenda” of Assam’s the Bharatiya Janata Party government, which acted on “communal lines”.

“It has been portrayed that only people belonging to religious minorities or other minorities are involved in such alleged crimes,” said Bhuyan, who recently formed the Anchalik Gana Morcha, an opposition party. “They are trying to cultivate this in the mind of common people to spread more hatred. Assam has witnessed secret killings in the 1990s but such targeted encounters on such a large scale has never happened before.”

The “secret killings” refer to a series of extrajudicial killings that took place in Assam in the 1990s, allegedly with government backing. They targeted the United Liberation Front of Asom, an armed group fighting for a sovereign state of Assam, relatives of its cadre and sympathisers.

BJP spokesperson Jury Sharma Bordoloi, however, denied allegations of bias.

“Criminal-free Assam and drug-free Assam is the government’s agenda,” she said. “It is a totally illogical allegation that some specific groups are targeted. If some criminals belong to a certain community, we can’t help it.”

A former director general of police in Assam, speaking off the record, claimed there was no bias during his tenure. Then he added, “what is happening in the present government – I can’t comment.”

Sabina Yasmin Rahman, a sociologist affiliated to Tezpur University, said conversations about criminals killed in so-called police encounters could not end by pointing out that most belonged to tribal or other minority groups.

“One must analyse the conditions that push vulnerable groups into crime in the first place to begin to unpack structural oppression or disenfranchisement,” she said. “This structure manufactures the vicious cycle of vulnerability and crime among oppressed groups. It also pays excessive attention to their ‘bad behaviour’, whereas crimes of privileged sections are overlooked.”

‘Police criminality’

In Assam, these alleged extrajudicial killings are supported by many sections of society, rightwing politicians and even much of the local media. When Das died, for instance, many took to social media to celebrate. Crackers were burst in Jorhat.

But the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the Assam government and in July the state human rights commission ordered a probe into 12 of the killings.

There are also critical voices within the state. The former director general of police said he was worried. The trend of “extrajudicial killings” which seemed to deliver “instant justice”, he warned, set a dangerous precedent where police norms and guidelines could be flouted as a matter of course.

“Even the worst offender should face justice through due process of law. But before that, he is injured or killed,” he said. “This has become a pattern. Even the top functionary of the state has endorsed it, saying criminals can be shot in the legs if they escape. Laws say the police can only use minimum force and it doesn’t mean you can fire on a fleeing person.”

The apparent police negligence that allowed the alleged criminals to escape in these cases was deliberate, he felt. “The negligence is allowed just to insure that the criminals get injured in the process. Everyone will suspect there is a pattern,” he said.

Guwahati-based social scientist Hiren Gohain called the killings a sign of “police criminality”. He feared that if such “high-handedness” became customary, “one day, it will be mostly innocent people getting killed just because they oppose the government”.

Chandan Kumar Sharma, professor of sociology at Tezpur University, said police reforms were the need of the hour. “In the long run this may not help in reducing crime,” he warned. “Meanwhile growing encounter incidents and their public celebration can make police unaccountable and weaken the judicial system.”