The one-man inquiry commission appointed by the Assam government to look into the shooting of a 22-year-old former student leader in Nagaon district raised questions about the police version of events and suggested disciplinary action against officials.

Kirti Kamal Bora, a member of the All Assam Students’ Union, was shot in the leg on January 22, during what the police claimed was an operation by the anti-narcotics squad in Nagaon district.

As public anger started spreading, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma appointed Paban Kumar Barthakur, then additional chief secretary and now chief secretary in the Assam government, to look into the matter. Barthakur submitted the report to the government on February 2 but its exact contents were not revealed to the public – until now.

The report was released by the state’s home and political department for the first time in response to questions submitted by the Guwahati-based news website, Crosscurrent, under the Right to Information Act. It is a rare indictment of police action by the Assam government.

The 21-point page report pointed out that the accounts of Bora and other witnesses contrasted with the police version. If Bora’s account was true, the report said, it would be a case of “police high handedness exceeding the powers vested on them”.

The report made several recommendations. First, the existing Nagaon anti-narcotics squad should be disbanded and future squads be formed under legal guidelines issued by the government or the state police headquarters. Second, special committees involving “local people” should be formed in every police station to strengthen anti-narcotics operations. Third, the two first information reports filed at the Nagaon Sadar police station should be transferred to the state’s criminal investigation department for an “expeditious and impartial investigation”. Fourth, there should be a “thorough departmental enquiry” to examine “the Role played by each and every police official involved in the incident”.

The report also suggested that certain police officials involved in the incident be transferred and suspended.

Crime and punishment

After Himanta Biswa Sarma became chief minister in May 2021, Assam saw a number of police shootings. An affidavit submitted by the Assam government to the Gauhati High Court said the state had witnessed 171 such incidents between May 2021 and August 2022 . It also said 56 people had died and 145 were injured in police action.

Many of those injured and killed belonged to the state’s ethnic and religious minorities. A number of shootings also took place in the course of a police crackdown on drugs, which has been championed by the government.

Sarma’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government openly supported the police shootings. However, the Nagaon police firing – involving Bora, a popular student leader – was a rare occasion where the government took prompt action.

Then Nagaon Superintendent of Police Anand Mishra was transferred soon after the inquiry report was submitted. Sub-Inspector Pradip Bania, leading the anti-narcotics squad that night, was also suspended. Later, the police filed a chargesheet against him, booking him for “attempt to murder”, among other offences.

Shot at close range?

Bora graduated from Nagaon College, where he had been general secretary of the student’s union, in 2020 and made a living giving tuitions.

This is his account to Barthakur: Around 7pm on the evening of January 22, Bora had gone out on his bike to buy medicine and some paan for his mother. On his way back through Nagaon’s Kachalukhowa locality, he saw a man being beaten up by seven or eight people, all in civilian clothes. As he stopped his bike to ask what was happening, one of them started beating him. Then one of the men caught him by the neck and shot him in the right thigh. Bora was admitted to the Nagaon Civil Hospital.

The account of Jakir Hussain, the vegetable vendor beaten up that evening, corroborates this version of events: Around 7.30 pm on January 22, he had been sitting on a motorcycle and drinking when two officials of the anti-narcotics squad came up to him, asked what he was doing, and started slapping him. They were joined by six or seven people in a police vehicle, who also started beating him. When a passer-by on a motorcycle stopped to ask the police what they were doing and “tried to save him”, the police turned on the passer-by and one of them shot him in the leg.

‘A container of drugs’

The accounts of Misra and Bania, also recorded in the report, echo each other.

Mishra said that on January 22, he had told Bania that a person called “Badshah” was selling drugs in the Kachalukhowa area and Bania accordingly went on a “recce” with a police team.

According to Bania, while on the recce, they saw two men drinking. When they introduced themselves as the police, one tried to flee. While the police were still grappling with them, a third person on a motorcycle stopped at the scene and asked what was happening. Bania claimed when he said they were police, the passer-by started beating him with his helmet. In the ensuing scuffle, the passer-by was shot in the thigh.

Bania claimed he had to deal with Bora alone as one of the constables accompanying him was chasing after someone else and reinforcements were yet to arrive.

Mishra, informed about the incident immediately, said he met the injured Bora, who had been taken by the police to the Nagaon Civil Hospital. He also said that Bania had told him they found “a container of drugs” in Bora’s pocket and six other plastic containers of drugs at the scene of the scuffle.

‘Poorly conducted operation’?

The commission said that if the police version were to be accepted, it pointed to a “poorly conducted police operation” lacking uniformed personnel, coordination, the supervision of seniors and discipline among members of the anti-narcotics squad.

The commission was, however, inclined to be sceptical of the police version. For instance, it said, “finding of one vial of drugs in the pocket of Kirti Kamal Bora appears to be a very unlikely situation especially, considering the fact that he did not try to avoid or ran away from police, rather came nearer to them”.

It also voiced suspicions about claims that Bora was the first to attack the police. “He was totally unarmed and a motorcycle helmet was in his hand,” it said. “In such a case, that he overpowered ABSI Pradip Bania, is less tenable to believe as true and even if that is believed as true, it would cast serious doubt regarding the physical ability of Pradip Bania and his selection as the operational team leader by the SP Nagaon.”