On January 10, a man named Hasen Ali died in police custody in Dhula town in Middle Assam’s Darrang district. As news of his death spread, thousands of people took to the national highway that passes through the area to protest. They alleged Ali was tortured and eventually killed by the police. They burnt tyres, blocked NH15 and reportedly attacked the local police station, injuring several policemen. The police responded by firing on the protestors, killing Mohidul Haque, 27, and wounding a man and a woman.

It was of a pattern. In the last three years, there have been several such incidents of the Assam police firing on civilian crowds. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 16 people were killed in police firing in Assam in 2016, the most in any state after Haryana, which witnessed widespread violence that year in the wake of the Jat agitation for reservation. In 2015, at least 12 civilians died in police firing or lathicharge in Assam, the highest in India by a fair margin.

Repeat offenders

In July 2017, the police opened fire on a crowd of Bengali Muslims trying to block NH37 in Goalpara, Lower Assam. The Muslims were protesting against the state for falsely labelling them as illegal migrants and harassing them.

The firing killed Yakub Ali, 22, who had come home to celebrate Eid with his family. A video of the incident suggested the police had shot to kill. “How can we let anyone block a national highway?” Goalpara’s superintendent of police had said in defence of his men.

In September 2016, as people living on the fringes of the Kaziranga National Park resisted being evicted from their villages, the police opened fire, killing at least two people and wounding 10. Two months before that, the police had shot at protestors blocking NH37 at Raha in Central Assam’s Nagaon district, killing one person.

These figures are “very high”, former Assam police chief Harekrishna Deka said, and “it should be a matter of serious concern both for the government and the police department”.

He was unaware about the exact circumstances under which the police had opened fire in these instances, Deka said, but firing should always be “the last resort in crowd control”. “Only if all other means fail and violence continues, firing can be ordered,” he said. “It should always be restrained firing. That is, if the crowd starts dispersing, firing should be stopped.”

‘Normalisation of violence’

But many in Assam claim that the police resort to firing without employing non-lethal crowd control measures. “In Assam, whenever there is a protest, there is police firing,” said the peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, the supporters of whose Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti have often been at the receiving end of police action. “I have participated in protests across the country. Normally, the police in other states first use tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds, but here the police fire without even any warning at times.”

Why this ready recourse to bullets? Haidar Hussain, former editor of the daily Asomiya Pratidin, attributes it to the normalisation of violence in the state. Assam saw a mass agitation against foreigners, mainly Bangladeshis, erupt in 1979 and soon turn violent. The six-year-long agitation contributed to the rise of an array of militant groups, which unleashed more violence. The militancy, in turn, invited a state crackdown in which relatives, friends and sympathisers of militants were allegedly wantonly killed.

“Starting from the Assam agitation and the secret killings, blood and violence have become all too commonplace for everyone,” Hussain said. “So, it doesn’t take much to kill anymore.”

Ankur Tamuli Phukan, academic and activist, agreed with Hussain about the Assam police being hardened by years of violence. “The Assam police assumed this trigger-happy character in the 1990s by trying to emulate the Indian Army alongside which it was engaged to combat the ULFA,” said Phukan, referring to the United Liberation Front of Asom, the state’s largest militant group. “So now the police deal with protesters like they would with hardened insurgents, by shooting to kill.”

In the three most recent incidents of police firing, at least, most of those killed were young Muslim men. Asked if he saw any connection between the victims’ religion and police action, Hussain answered in the affirmative. “With Muslims starting to stand for illegal Bangladeshis in Assam in recent times, it is obvious that the police would think there is less accountability when you shoot dead a Muslim protestor,” he said.

‘Minimum force’

Assam’s Director General of Police Mukesh Sahay refuted the allegation that his force was trigger-happy. He claimed the police fired only “when the situation warrants”. “Our policy is very clear,” he said. “We go by the prescribed law of minimum force, but minimum in the given context. We fire only when other means of mob control fail. Normally we start with negotiation, appeals to people, then lathicharge and tear gas. Only after that, actual firing.”

Sahay claimed that every case of police firing was followed by a “high-level inquiry”. What then explains the high casualty count? According to Sahay, it was because people were often “provoked by agents to get instant justice”. “Every death is unfortunate, so statistics don’t mean much here,” he added.

Another former Assam police chief, Prakash Singh, agreed with Sahay. “In Assam, there is a diverse range of ethnic groups, each with some demand or the other, so the number is not really high,” Singh said. “The police are, as it is, reluctant to fire, but if we put more restrictions on the police, the situation may turn worse. If there are legitimate grounds for firing, the police should be supported.”

Staff shortage

Nishinath Changkakoti, another former director general of police, said Assam experiences more protests and highway blockades than most other states, and the police “lack manpower” to deal with them. “Because of the shortage of staff, the force often draws from paramilitary forces such as the CRPF,” said Changkakoti. “They are more likely to carry weapons and fire. Also, to lathicharge a mob, you need to be in good numbers, but since there is a manpower crunch, the police have to resort to firing. The strength of the Assam police needs to be raised considerably.”

Another possible explanation for frequent incidents of police firing, he said, was that tear gas and rubber bullets, considered non-lethal means of crowd control, were in short supply in interior areas. “I do not think water cannons are available in most places in the state,” he said.

Sahay, however, insisted that most police stations had fair stocks of rubber bullets and tear gas. “But even rubber bullets and water cannons can be lethal in certain situations,” he added.

He agreed that the Assam police was short-staffed but said the department had a “road map” to plug the gap. “Police recruitment takes time, but we are in the process of filling our vacancies,” he said.