On August 15, 2004, a powerful bomb went off at the Dhemaji College ground, killing Nityananda Saikia’s two teenage sisters who had gone to take part in the Independence Day celebrations.

Nineteen years later, the 36-year-old is struggling to come to terms with the fact that nobody has been held responsible for their deaths. On August 26, the Gauhati High Court acquitted five people who were convicted of the crime in 2019 by a sessions court.

“This order has reopened our wounds,” Saikia said, when Scroll met him at his home in Dhemaji town. “Instead of justice, it has revived our trauma and suffering.”

Saikia’s disappointment is shared by his 70-year-old neighbour Shanti Gogoi.

“Boku kopi uthise..raati hobo pora nai. My heart shuddered when I heard the verdict. I could not sleep at night,” Gogoi, a retired schoolteacher said. “We wanted closure. But we have been hurt once again.”

On that day, Gogoi’s 20-year-old daughter-in-law Namita had accompanied Saikia’s sisters, Rupa and Aruna, to the college ground. The three girls were meant to take part in a dance programme that day.

Like in previous years, the banned militant group, the United Liberation Front of Asom had called for a boycott of the Independence Day celebrations.

At 8.55 am, the bomb went off, killing 13 people. Ten of the victims were schoolchildren.

Though it initially denied its involvement, ULFA was widely believed to be responsible for carrying out the strike.

In many ways, the Dhemaji blast turned out to be a watershed for Assam and its experience of militancy.

The death of children eroded the public support for the banned outfit that advocated an independent, sovereign nation-state of Assam.

Protests erupted against the separatist organisation across the state, with several civil society organisations urging them to shun violence.

The All Assam Students’ Union, the students’ organisation that espouses the cause of Assamese sub-nationalism, took the lead and hit the streets against ULFA.

But in contrast, there has been little public outcry across the state over the acquittal of the alleged ULFA members convicted for the bomb blast.

Nityananda Saikia’s two sisters, 13-year-old Rupa and 15-year-old Aruna, were killed in the blast.

‘ULFA go back’

In 2004, Baluram Dihingia was the general secretary of AASU’s Dhemaji unit.

He recalled the huge rallies that were taken out in protest against the bomb explosion.

“We raised slogans like ‘ULFA go back’ and ‘ULFA murdabad,”’ said Dihingia, who is now a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “But it saddens me that no one has got justice and no one even raises their voices against it. There has been no protest at all.”

B Borooah, former principal of Dhemaji College, was present at the ground on the day of the blast.

He recalled fragments of children’s clothes hanging from trees, and frantic residents looking for their relatives after the blast.

Borooah too, expressed his dismay at the muted reaction to the acquittal.

“Xanghatik protest hobo lagisile, Dhemaji bondho hoi jabo lagisle. There should have been a big protest, Dhemaji should have shut down for days,” he said.

The current members of the All Assam Students’ Union said they cannot protest against a court order and, instead, held the Assam police responsible for botching up the investigation.

“Even at the time, AASU had taken a strong stance and demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation as we doubted that the Assam police would do a proper job,” said Dipak Sharma, an AASU member in Dhemaji. “The High Court has proved our fears correct.”

The family members of the victims, too, criticised the role of the police.

Nityananda Saikia, who is also an advocate, said it took the police nearly seven years to file the chargesheet. “Certainly, there were lapses in the police investigation. They were reluctant to investigate because of politics,” he said.

Rima Panging was 19, when her face was burnt in the explosion at the Dhemaji ground.

The court order

In 2019, the Dhemaji sessions court found six people guilty of hatching a conspiracy to plant a bomb in the parade ground.

The Gauhati High Court overturned the trial court order after noting that the prosecution had not been able to “prove the charges against them beyond reasonable doubt”.

Those acquitted included alleged members of ULFA – Lila Gogoi, Jatin Dowari, Dipanjali Borgohain, Muhi Handique and Hemen Gogoi. They were convicted on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, and waging war against the state, among others.

The High Court said that the circumstantial evidence did not form “an unbroken chain that leads to the only possible inference” that the accused persons were guilty of the crime.

“In fact, there is no evidence at all, except the statements made under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which are not supported or corroborated by evidence,” the court said.

In a 53-page ruling, Justices Michael Zothankhuma and Mridul Kumar Kalita also cast doubt on whether the statements made were voluntary.

The court referred to statements made under Section 164 of the CrPC, by Jatin Dowari, which he later retracted.

According to the retracted confessional statement of Jatin Dowari, a group of ULFA members, including Lila Gogoi, came to his house on August 5, 2004, and forced him out at gunpoint.

The Assam police told the court that the ULFA cadres took him to the college gate and asked him to show them the college field and a safe route out.

“The retracted confessional statement of Jatin Dowari only gives rise to suspicion and it is by no means an establishment of any fact pointing towards the guilt of the accused having any knowledge that a bomb would have been planted in the Dhemaji College field,” the court order said.

However, the Dhemaji police denied that there were any lapses in the investigation. “The accused made a statement on record in front of the magistrate and confessed his guilt,” Ranjan Bhuyan, the Dhemaji police chief said. “Why has he retracted now? Hope Supreme Court will overturn it.”

The Dhemaji College ground.

The aftermath

Immediately after the blast, the ULFA denied its involvement in the attack. But four years later, it tendered an apology to the people of Assam for its involvement in the strike.

The self-styled commander-in-chief of the organisation, Paresh Barua, said the Dhemaji blast was “the most tainted chapter of ULFA’s revolutionary history” and “the most brutal and heinous murder of children and women.”

For years after, the explosion created a grave fear around Independence Day celebrations. “For the next four-five years, parents did not send their children to Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations,” said B Borooah, the former principal of Dhemaji College.

Before the blast, Saikia pointed out, there was a groundswell of support for the ULFA in Assam. “The organisation was very strong and enjoyed a positive image among the Assamese people,” he said. “The blast completely destroyed that image. They went from heroes to zeroes overnight.”

He added: “Who benefited from it? The government did. But we have become the victims.”

The scars

“I was 19 years old at the time of the bombing,” said Rima Panging.

The 38-year-old survivor, who was studying in the neighbouring North Lakhimpur district, had come home on a visit. She had accompanied her brother and sister to the function at the request of her parents.

“I don’t remember much, but I do recall that there was a huge sound and I was pulled out from under the debris,” she told Scroll. “At the hospital, I touched my face and found there was a hole in my skin.”

The scars of the injury are still visible on her face. “I spent two years in Delhi getting treatment for the burn injuries on my face.”

Panging added: “My life was turned upside down because of the blast. But no one has been punished. The truth should be revealed. There should be accountability. There should be an answer.”

Saikia, the advocate, said the court verdict was an insult to the memory of his sisters. “My innocent sisters went to perform a dance, to sing the national anthem and to celebrate Independence Day, defying ULFA’s boycott call. Weren’t they patriotic? The verdict has insulted them.”

Gogoi, whose daughter-in-law died in the blast, questioned the verdict. “If no one is guilty after killing 13 innocent people, where is law and justice in this current regime?”

All photographs by Rokibuz Zaman.