Yakub Ali, 22, had come home for Eid. Home was a village called Khutamari in Assam’s Goalpara district. Khutamari could be a postcard for Assam Tourism. It’s leafy, abounds with jute and paddy, and right on the south bank of the Brahmaputra.
Ali was shot dead by the Assam police on Friday morning. He was part of a protest that had turned violent: a protest against the alleged harassment of Muslims by the state by falsely accusing them of being illegal migrants, or “D voters” as they call them in Khutamari.
D-voter is a category of voters in Assam who have been defranchised by the Election Commission, because of having failed to produce legal documents of citizenship.
Ali, who worked as an earth mover operator in various parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, was shot barely a few kilometres from his home – metres away from where his eldest brother’s body was found two years ago. His brother had been on a motorbike when a truck hit him from behind, killing him instantly. In April this year, Yakub Ali married his brother’s widow and became stepfather to his 5-year-old nephew and 7-year-old niece.
The morning after Ali was shot, news reports said that the protesting “mob” had turned violent and Ali had been a casualty of clashes between the protesters and the police.
But Hussain Ali Madani, who recorded the incident on his mobile phone, insists that the police resorted to violence without any provocation – and that the news reports parroted the police’s version without questions.
Madani is a political activist and “Facebook-journalist” who says he puts up videos and pictures of injustice on the social media platform and tries to make them go “viral”. On Saturday, he wasn’t part of the protesting crowd. Instead, he was part of a group of other local journalists who accompanied the police to the protest. “I sensed something was going to go wrong,” said Madani. “So I decided to go along in spite of not having a press card.”
Madani shot two videos that morning. The first one, according to the time stamp on his phone, was shot at 11.21 am. It begins with group of people approaching the National Highway 37 at the southern tip of the Naranarayan Setu, a double-decker bridge on the Brahmaputra that connects Goalpara with Bongaingoan distrct.
The protesters – between 400 and 500, according to police estimates – are holding a banner and a few placards, and raising slogans. “We will not tolerate harassment of Indian Muslim citizens – Inquilab Zindabad,” they can be heard saying.
Then the group is accosted by a group of Assam police and Central Reserved Police Force personnel, led by the officer in charge of the Goalpara Sadar police station, Dimbeshwar Roy. Roy pushes and shoves a few of the protesters in the front, snatches the banner, tears it apart, and asks the protesters to show him their letter of permission to protest at the spot. The leader of the group, a lawyer by the name of Nazrul Islam, tells Roy that they had intimated the police. Roy replies that an intimation doesn’t amount to permission. Seconds later, Roy lifts his baton and goes for Islam. The other policemen and the Central Reserved Police Force soldiers follow suit and hit the other protesters. Soon, there is commotion, and the crowd is seen running helter-skelter.
Madani shot the second video ten minutes later. In the ensuing time, a clash appears to have broken out. The protesters can be seen pelting stones at the security forces, and vice-versa. A policeman is seen taking aim and firing several shots. The video ends with the security forces dragging away the dead body of a young man to a police van – the dead body of Yakub Ali.
An ‘eccentric’ lawyer
While Madani maintains there was absolutely no need for the police to fire, he concedes “an innocent man would not have died if not for this eccentric advocate Nazrul Islam”. Islam, who led the protests, has a somewhat notorious reputation in the area. He was recently arrested for assaulting a judge of the Goalpara foreigners’ tribunal and had just been released on bail. Foreigners’ tribunals are special courts in Assam that decide matters relating to nationality.
“A protest is only as good as its leader,” said Madani. “But here, Nazrul Islam didn’t even know what he’s doing. He distributed these pamphlets, which undermines what is a serious issue of people being unfairly branded as illegal migrants.”
In the leaflets distributed by Islam to announce his protests, Islam exhorts people to come to the protest as “Allah has instructed”. The leaflet adds: “Allah will render all arms and ammunition ineffective during the protest.”
‘The government can do this only because we are Muslims’
At the Alis’ home in Khutamari, there is a sense of disbelief – and anger. The family had lost their eldest son only two years ago. “We are just unlucky, it seems,” said Satar Ali, Yakub Ali’s other elder brother. “The government can do this only because we are Muslims. We are always targeted, always made to feel like second-class citizens. My mother, an old woman, was asked last year to prove that she is an Indian after having been born and lived in this village all her life.”
Indian or not
Another resident of the village, Saiful Islam, claimed the local border police – a special wing of the Assam Police, designated to detect illegal migrants – often unnecessarily harangued them, asking to see their citizenship papers. “This has increased ever since the new government has come to power,” he said. “Every Muslim is a D, it seems.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in Assam last year, had as a pre-poll promise declared that it would detect and deport all illegal migrants in the state. Critics of the government have often claimed that the government’s zealousness to declare people as foreigners has led to many genuine citizens of India being unfairly targeted.
Assam is currently in the process of counting its population and updating its National Register of Citizens for the first time since 1951, in a bid to detect illegal immigrants. According to the Assam Accord of 1985, those who came to the state after midnight on March 24, 1971, do not qualify for citizenship.
In May, 11 family members of Assam’s first deputy speaker, Moulavi Muhammad Amiruddin, were referred to the foreigners’ tribunal by the border police. In June, an Assam police constable was asked to prove that he was Indian. The spectre of the illegal migrant, however, has haunted Assam for decades now and goes well beyond the current regime.
“We had to act”
The police maintained that it had no other alternative, and the location of the protest – a national highway, right at the approach to a bridge – meant they had to act.
Sanjit Debroy, the officer in charge of the Naranarayan Setu police outpost, was one of the policemen present that morning. According to Debroy, after the police lathicharged the protestors, they retreated to the sidetrack. “But they didn’t go back,” he explained. They went under the bridge and from the other side climbed the railway line from where they started pelting stones.”
The railway track and the national highway run parallel to each other before converging at the double-decker bridge where the train line goes underneath the motorable upper-tier of the bridge.
Dimbeshwar Roy of the Goalpara Sadar police contended it was not true that there was no provocation. “They pelted stones at us,” he claimed. “Private cars could have been damaged, people could have been injured, or even killed. We had to act.”
Amitava Sinha, the Goalpara police chief, echoed Roy. Said Sinha: “How can we let anyone block a national highway so close to a vital installation like the bridge? We had denied Nazrul Islam permission to block the highway and yet he went ahead.”
Sinha said that the police had detained two trucks full of people earlier in the day headed to the protests. “After we stopped these people, he got people from another village,” the police official said.
Islam has now been arrested on the charges of instigating people to damage public property, and assaulting police officials, said Sinha.
Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer, who offers pro bono legal advice to economically disadvantaged people caught in citizenship entanglements, accused the police of acting rashly. “If they didn’t have permission, the police should have booked them,” he said. “Why shoot?”
Madani agreed. “The police knew that Nuzrul Islam is trouble, and that he was organising a protest,” he said. “They could have just arrested him instead of lathicharging everyone and the other people would have dispersed on their own. A young man died for no fault of his.”
Meanwhile, the additional deputy commissioner of Goalpara Nur Hussain told Scroll.in that a magisterial enquiry has been commissioned to investigate into Yakub Ali’s death.