Tribute to Sukracharjya Rabha

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Sukracharjya Rabha dreams of a people’s theatre in char!

Till this time, I was lucky enough not to write an obituary; perhaps, I have not been inspired and influenced by any living person to such an extent that his or her departure would put an end to this luxury. But Sukrachariya Rabha is different, he is unique and here I am writing my tribute!

I had a very short but an extraordinary meeting with Sukra da in March this year. After several rounds of telephonic discussions, Rahul bhindeo (Rahul Dev Nath, a noted filmamer from Goalapra, I address him as bhideo – husband of elder sister) confirmed that he would be visiting our “Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ in Barpeta district of Assam along with two distinguished personalities one of them is Sukracharjya Rabha. It was almost unbelievable for me, I asked him twice and his confirmation gave me goose bum!

I heard and read a lot about his theatre involving the rural community. I became a fan of his initiative to bring back the theatre from sophisticated urban sphere to the nature. We are living in a time, when the political class conveniently ignores the destruction of nature and silently approves further destruction in the name of development. One the other hand, the artists’ community run towards urban area, chasing their dream to make them reality through the recognition and fame provided by the urban elites. But as I have mentioned in the very beginning that Sukra da was different, he was unique. While living in the age of market driven creativity, he rejected the conventional way of art and life. In an interview with Ratna Bharali Talukdar, he said “theatre became not a part of my life, but my entire life. I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind.”

When I met him for the first and unfortunately for the last time on 11th March, it didn’t take much time to read his simple but eclectic outlook towards marginalized and hard-working rural communities. He was traveling from Guwahati via Nalbari (to pick up Pankaj Govind Medhi, well known columnist and author from Nalbari). I told Rahul bhindeo that I would be waiting either at Barpeta town or at Howly so that they don’t have to face any trouble to reach, around 40 kilometres in southern side from national highway at Sorbhog. But they advised me to go to Mazidbhita char directly and they would reach by their own. I waited for them near the Janata Baazar, close to char.

They came by a white car, Sukra da was seating in the front seat. It didn’t take a moment to recognize him. During winter to spring, the stream of river Beki which flows through the northern part of the char gets dried up. They decided to drive the car through the sandy river bed. I was riding my scooter while the car followed me. The river bed was so sandy that sometimes, because of blown-up dust, I couldn’t see the car on rear view mirror of my scooter. After travelling about one and half kilometre we reached the campus of Jhai Foundation where the ‘Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ is situated.

After getting off the car, Sukra da panned his eyes across the char. I could see in eyes, he was impressed by the greenery of the char surrounded by river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra. But his focus was not on the greenery only also on those people who toiled under the sun to turn the flood-ravaged char into greenery once again. The first reaction he gave ‘how beautiful place and such hardworking people!’

Within a very short time, we spoke on various issues including flood, erosion, language, nationalism and of course about theatre. He told me “Abdul, theatre doesn’t need anything extraordinary, it’s not something different. The entire universe it part of it. You saw those people working in the paddy field? They are the best actors. Theatre is way of life”. I could hardly grasp his philosophical teaching but his lively and compassionate chain of words brought a beautiful motion picture into my imagination.

In his unique annual theatre festival “Under the Sal Tree” (Theatre in Nature), he conceptualized theatre in such a way that the life of an ordinary man or woman can be reflected amidst of nature and the wider sections of audience can relate with. ‘Under the Sal Tree’ as a festival, celebrating nature through theatre without using artificial lights and sounds not only got acceptance among the local tribal people but also attracted huge attention across the globe.

I sought his suggestions and guidance to form a theatre group in the char. I thought he would be busy and for him it might not be much productive to come to char once again to teach us basic things about theatre. So, I requested him to send some actors from his group to train us. Surprisingly, Sukra da told me “Don’t worry, Abdul, I will come back and we will work together. Next time when I come, I will come for few days, preferably during flood”. We exchanged telephone numbers for future communications. But who knew that the ‘future’ would turn into ‘history’ so quickly!

Sukra da wanted to have a walk around the char. He along with Rahul bhindeo, Pankaj da and my colleagues Kazi and Zahedul visited the farmers in their field, talked to them about crops, experience of flood, erosion, displacement, and politics among others. They went to individual households of char dwellers to understand their lives more closely. While coming back, Sukra da saw few plastic packets nearby our campus. The person who was so nice to me didn’t hesitate to warn to me to be respectful towards the nature and asked me clean the plastic packets as soon as possible. His honesty and conviction to the cause he believes, earned respect from core of my heart.

While having lunch in an open space, another round of discussion took place. This time Pankaj da took lead and started finding out how we could bridge the growing gaps between the communities. Sukra da showed the ways and means how we could work together among the marginalized groups including char dwellers to minimize this gap. I remember, along with the proposal of starting a theatre group, one of their suggestions to me was to develop a handbook on char-chapori dweller and invite members from other communities and train them on culture, tradition, food habit as well as dialects to make them familiar with the people living in char-chapori areas of Assam.

Sukra da has been one of the few individuals who have given me such radical and original ideas to bring the conflict-torn-estranged-communities of Assam together. In his short visit, Sukra da has given me so much of tasks and made me feel how much challenges has he headed on. But didn’t allow me to think for moment that he would leave me alone to complete all those challenging tasks and he would leave for heavenly abode.

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Why Khagrabari’s Ramena Khatun is Still Scared of Living at Home

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Four years on, the trauma of one of the deadliest massacres in Assam by alleged Bodo rebels that claimed 42 lives, including 24 children, still haunts the survivors.

Unlike hundreds of students of Adarsha Vidyalaya in Barpeta district in the north-eastern state of Assam, Ramena Khatun, a ninth standard student, doesn’t want to go home during holidays and summer breaks. Ramena lost her three siblings and mother in a gory incident on May 2, 2014 near her village in Khagrabari. In one of the deadliest mass killings in the recent past in this part of the country,  42 villagers were gunned down by armed militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

As the incident completes the fourth year, the victims are still crying for justice.

“We seem to be the most unfortunate citizens in the country. My wife and children were killed for no reason. My neighbours were killed, but there’s no justice,” Ramzan Ali, Ramena’s father, told this writer on the fourth anniversary of the incident.

Sitting inside his newly constructed tin-roofed kutcha house in 10th Mile area in Baksa district, Ali said Ramena, 14 years-old now, couldn’t get over the ghastly incident that she witnessed. “I feel like crying but then I have no option. She (Ramena) doesn’t want to be at home. School is the best place for her as she can forget the past, at least temporarily. Once she is home, she starts behaving a little abnormally. During the last Bihu (a harvest festival) holidays, I had to send her to her aunt’s place.”

On May 2, 2014, the tiny non-cadastral village called Khagrabari in the foothills of the Himalayas in Baksa district was attacked by armed militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), allegedly in league with government forest guards. Only 57 families were living then in the picturesque village, surrounded on three sides by the greenery of UNESCO world heritage site Manas National Park and the river Beki, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra.

However, Khagrabari turned into a killing field without any warning or provocation. “At around 3-3:30 p.m, militants started firing bullets at us from the western end of the village. We ran towards the forest guards’ camp in the eastern part of the village for protection. But instead of protecting us, they too started shooting at us. We jumped into the waters of Beki to survive,” recalls Ajiran Nessa (38) who survived the massacre but her five-year old daughter Majoni was among the 24 children who were killed.

The children who survived the massacre still carry the trauma and psychosocial effects of the brutality that they witnessed.  Ramena Khatun is one of those, and her nightmare continues to haunt her every day. Sharing graphic details of her ordeal, she said, “I jumped into the river along with my mother and four siblings. I saw bullets being aimed at us. I dived under-water and saw a bullet hit the water ahead of me. Another bullet hit my younger brother. I saw two of my younger brothers gasping for breath and drowning, when suddenly another bullet killed my mother who had to let go of them from her arm. I couldn’t save any one of them”.  She lost her mother and three siblings in the massacre.

The trauma Ramena has experienced has had a life-long impact on her. “I have more than 25 bighas (over four hectares) land in Khagrabari. But because of my daughter’s trauma, I shifted to this place and have abandoned my land,” said Ramzan Ali.

Even in the new place, around 25 kilometres from Khagrabari , Ramena doesn’t feel at home. She gets scared when she sees someone in khaki uniform or someone from the Bodo community. “Now she is asking me sell this house and get one near her school, which I can’t afford,” said her father.

No Justice So Far
On the fourth anniversary of one of the most horrifying massacres in Assam, the victims and survivors are still awaiting justice while the perpetrators are roaming free on bail. Initially, the case was registered and investigated by the Assam police, but later it was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which specialises in terror and organised violence-related crimes.

When asked, Jasveer Singh, the investigating officer and Deputy Superintendent of Police with NIA said over phone, “We submitted the charge-sheet long back and now it is up to the court to decide the case”.

Aman Wadud, 32, a Guwahati-based lawyer and activist, who provides pro-bono legal services, applauded the courage and determination shown by the survivors and witnesses. However, he is concerned about the delay in the process. “As they say – justice delayed is justice denied. I sincerely hope that the trial gets over soon and the perpetrators get punished” he said.

Long History of Impunity

Activists alleged that the Khagrabari massacre was one of the many mass killings that have been orchestrated with “absolute impunity” against marginalised communities like the Muslims and Adivasis in the present day Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) region over the last three decades.

An international research project called Minority at Risk by the Centre for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland, documented the series of violence meted out to Muslims and Adivasis in present day BTAD. Thousands of people from marginalised communities have been killed in the BTAD region since early 1990s.

BTAD is a privileged administrative arrangement made through a tripartite accord called Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), signed in 2003 by rebel group, Bodo Liberation Tiger, the provincial government of Assam and the government of India under Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution. One of the major objectives of the accord was to bring peace into the region. Though BTAD consists of only about 27% Bodos and the rest of the population includes Muslims, Adivasis, Asomiya Hindus, Koch-Rajbanshis, Bengali Hindus, Nepalis, etc, but 75% of the elected seats in the councils are reserved for Schedule Tribes, and approximately 90% of them are Bodo.

However, the BTC Accord couldn’t stop the recurrent violence. Instead, violence continued in the region with more intensity.

Shajahan Ali Ahmed, a student leader of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), who helped the victims to organise a memorial meeting on the fourth anniversary of the Khagrabari Massacre, alleged that on many occasions, people from the marginalised communities had been subjected to mass violence.

Ramena Khatun’s father is one of the survivors of the 1994 Bashbari Massacre where internally displaced persons were killed and injured when suspected Bodo rebels attacked a government manned relief camp on banks of river Beki, around two kilometres from his house.

“Our villages were burnt to ashes and we were forced to take shelter in a temporary relief camp set up in the Bashbari High School. In the middle of the night, they (alleged members of the Bodo rebel group) set ablaze the school compound and stood near the doors with machetes, guns and other weapons. Those who were running out from the burning school were slaughtered. Fortunately, I along with my friend Haidor, were outside the camp and had a narrow escape”. At least 71 people were killed and over 100 were injured, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice, Ali said.

There have been a series of violence in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2008, 2012 and 2014, claiming thousands, but the investigation and process of providing legal justice has been a sorry state of affairs.

Justice P.C Phukan, a retired judge of Gauhati High Court, who was appointed by the government to chair a commission of inquiry into the ethnic violence of 2008 in Udalguri district of BTAD, said “even murder cases have been kept pending without any investigations for months without much breakthrough. I wonder whether the investigating officers made any inquiry at all in some of those cases.”

In 2012, more than 100 people were killed and over half a million people were displaced, most of them Muslims. Thousands of FIRs were filed but not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted for killing and driving out Muslims. A similar incident unfolded in 2014 where Ramena lost her mother and siblings.

Despite the Khagrabari case being investigated by a premier investigating agency like NIA with full participation of survivors and witnesses, justice has not been delivered. Can one then blame Ramena’s father for almost giving up hope?

 

https://thewire.in/communalism/why-khagrabaris-ramena-khatun-is-still-scared-of-living-at-home

What Explains Mob Lynchings Becoming the New Normal in India

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Why at this particular moment in history do members of one group consider members of another group as less than human?

The rape and murder of two young girls in two distant parts of the country – one in Jammu and Kashmir and another in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh – have shocked and numbed many of us.

In Jammu and Kashmir, an eight-years-old nomad girl was allegedly raped and murdered by a special police officer to ‘inflict fear’ among the victim’s community. While in Arunachal Pradesh, a five-year-old girl was allegedly abducted, raped and murdered by an Adivasi migrant worker from Assam.

Both the incidences are brutal and sickening. However, the fallout of these incidents gives us two very different pictures of people’s perception of crime.

In the first case, when 28-year-old special police officer Deepak Khajuria was arrested by the special investigation team (SIT), the right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch openly came out in support of the rape and murder accused. The members of the group and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders carried a protest march, waving the Indian national flag, and demanded the release of the accused.

Whereas, in the second case, the police arrested 30-year-old Sanjay Sobor, accused of rape and murder, along with his accomplice Jagdish Lohar (25). Both the accused belong to the tea-tribe community of Assam and work as migrant labours in Arunachal Pradesh. When the news of their arrest spread, an irate mob barged into the police station, dragged both of them to the main road and lynched them. Thereafter, the mob disappeared. The two dead bodies remained in the busy town square of Tezu for hours while life around continued routinely – a video that surfaced on social media showed that traffic and commuters passed by indifferently.

How do two groups of people hold two different perspectives on similar crimes? Why did the protesters in Jammu and Kashmir want the accused to be released while the mob in Arunachal Pradesh want the accused to be lynched? A statement by Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu offers a hint.

Khandu termed the lynching as ‘unfortunate’ while the rape and murder of the five-year-old as ‘barbaric and inhuman’. Why is the lynching of two Adivasi migrant workers from Assam not barbaric and inhuman? Does the act of attacking a police station, stripping the accused and lynching them fall within the chief minister’s definition of ‘civility and humanity’ or does his definition cease to recognise an ‘Adivasi’ or a ‘migrant worker’ from a neighbouring state as a citizen or even a human being?

Highlighting the barbarities of mob lynching and questioning the authorities is in no way an attempt to undermine the severity of the crime they allegedly committed or at absolving them of this crime. But we do need to understand the relationship between the identity of the victim and the power dynamics of the ruling political class.

The identity of the victim and as well as the perpetrators along with the political discourse adopted by the ruling political class play a vital role in lynching and mob violence. Last week’s lynching has refreshed the memory of another one in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.

In 2015, a Muslim migrant from Assam, Sharif Uddin Khan (36), who was accused of raping a tribal woman, was taken out of the high-security Dimapur central jail after which a crowd of thousands participated in his lynching and his dead body was hung from the city’s clock tower. More than the alleged crime, the ethnicity and religious identity of the accused was used to whip up anger among the mob. He was branded as an ‘illegal immigrant’ from Bangladesh before being lynched to death.

Ever since Sharif Uddin’s lynching in Dimapur, the spate of lynchings has continued unabated throughout the country. In most of the cases, the victims of lynching and hate crime belong to marginalised groups like Muslim, Adivasi, Dalit, Christian and others. Allegations of cow smuggling, beef eating, love jihad as well as of heinous crimes like rape and sexual violence make it more convenient to orchestrate lynching and mob violence. The available data shows that in recent years, there has been an unprecedented surge in the number of lynching and hate crimes in cow-related cases and most of the victims are from the Muslim and Dalit communities. 

What makes it easy to orchestrate a lynching?

For a human being, killing a fellow human is not easy. Experts say that if someone is not a sociopath, psychologically disturbed or doesn’t have empathy and moral feeling, there are strong inhibitions against killing others. It requires a special environment to overcome the inhibitions to carry out horrific crimes like a public lynching. However, professor Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo, who developed a model to understand dehumanisation and conflict, explains: “It’s unfortunately true that not all of us but most of us have the capacity to behave in such horrific ways if circumstances are appropriately organised”.

By ‘appropriately organised’ circumstances, professor Homer-Dixon indicates the process of ‘dehumanising’ the victim which he thinks is a necessary condition for a severe conflict. Dehumanising happens when someone de-individuates and caricatures members of the out-group and does not regard them as participants of his/her moral community.

While describing the lynching and hate crimes in India, I asked the professor whether his model fits into the on-going scenario in India. His reply was affirmative. The perpetrators ceased to recognise the victims as the member of their moral group or as a fellow human being, which legitimises their cruelty against the victims.

In cases where violence is religiously motivated, often something similar to dehumanisation happens. In June last year, when 15-year-old Junaid Khan was traveling home with his siblings to celebrate Eid, he was stabbed to death by his co-passengers in a moving train after an argument over seats turned ugly. According to reports: “The men (perpetrators) allegedly mocked the boys, tugged at their beards and accused them of being beef eaters.”

To understand the psychological state of perpetrators who participate in religiously-motivated lynching and hate crimes, I sought help from professor David Livingstone Smith of New England University and author of the seminal book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. Professor Smith told me that people who commit religiously-motivated acts of violence often see themselves as greater than ordinary human beings, and this creates a kind of distance between them that allows violence to take place.

Professor Smith further said to me “when we dehumanise others, we think of them as less than human. That is, we think of them as having a lower status than ourselves, which gives us permission to treat them as lesser beings.”

The attackers in most of the lynching cases saw themselves as “higher” beings and the victims outside their group as “lower” beings who may be abused or killed.

Lynching videos a ‘trophy’ for attackers

Lynchings and hate crimes in modern India are followed by a disturbing new trend which resembles the lynching of black Americans in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century US. During 1880-1930, thousands of black Americans were lynched by white Americans on fictitious accusations of raping white women or stealing cattle. The victims were killed in most horrific ways to inflict maximum pain and suffering. The dispersed body parts of the victims were collected by the attackers as trophies.

In 21st century India, the perpetrators don’t collect the body parts of the lynched victims but they film the horror on their smartphones and upload it onto social media. There are several videos of such attacks being circulated in the social media by the attackers themselves. While sharing the horrific videos, the attackers neither have remorse for committing such an inhuman act of violence nor do they fear the law of the land. Rather, they feel proud of their horrendous act and want to keep the memory of the event alive.

Professor Smith terms the lynching videos as a ‘trophy’. He said, “videos made by the attackers are trophies – similar to the body parts taken at lynchings…”

Has lynching been internalised?

Lynching and mob violence are no longer just a law and order problem. These are not happening in a political vacuum. It is important to examine why at this particular historical moment, members of one group consider the members of another group as less than human? There is little doubt that lynchings and hate crimes are happening with state approval. The ruling political class has been using it as one of their political instruments – sometimes used as a direct tool to influence their constituency to garner political benefits and sometimes conveniently ignored to protect their support base for keeping political power intact.

State machinery like police and investigation departments have been biased in providing justice to the victims of lynching and hate crimes. Last month, a group of 67 retired officers from India’s elite civil service cadres wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for “firm action against perpetrators of hate crimes” in the country. The letter alleges that in every case, the accused have either not been arrested or let off easily.

This pattern has infested all states across the country. In June last year, three Muslim youths were lynched over an alleged cow theft case in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. Police arrested the three accused and booked them under section 304 instead of 302 of Indian Penal Code, which made the crime culpable homicide not amounting to murder and the accused got bail in just two weeks. In many cases, the survivors and family members do not file police complaints against the perpetrators fearing counter cases and police harassment.

Chief minister Khandu and other constitutional authorities who are entrusted to protect the rights of the people must realise that their political opportunism and compromises are not just ‘unfortunate’ but are pushing the country toward ‘barbarism’, and are ‘inhuman’ too.

 

Published in The Wire https://thewire.in/227663/what-explains-mob-lynchings-becoming-the-new-normal-in-india/

Assam forces accused of waterboarding detainees

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Guwahati, India – On the night of January 9, a police team headed by officer Ranjit Hazarika raided the home of one Hasen Ali of No 2 Atakata village in Mangaldoi district of the State of Assam in India’s northeast.

Suspecting him of possessing illegal arms, the police barged into his home at midnight and searched for the weapons but couldn’t find any.

Hasen, who had been a migrant worker in the southern state of Karnataka, had recently come back home with his wife and three children, including an infant. The 40-year-old was the sole breadwinner for the family.

Hasen’s wife Jamiran Nessa told Al Jazeera that her husband was dragged out of the home and at least four policemen pinned him down in the courtyard and kicked him indiscriminately.

“Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted after a while,” Nessa, 35, said.

Police brought him to Mangaldoi Civil Hospital around 12km from his home, where a doctor declared him “brought dead”.

Next morning when news of Hasen’s death spread, a large number of villagers gathered to protest against police atrocities and demand justice. At least one person died when police opened fire on the agitated crowd of about 5,000 people.

Torture technique

Ainuddin Ahmed, a student activist from Darrang district, claims that waterboarding is a widely practised torture technique used by the Assam police as part of their notorious “third degree”, or torture practices, in police custody to extract information from detainees.

Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted within a while

Jamiran Nessa

Ainuddin’s organisation, the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), works for the victims of police atrocities and persecution of minorities.

“Tens of thousands of genuine Indian Muslims of Assam have been harassed on the pretext of being illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, and more than 2,000 of them are put up in detention camps across the state,” Ainuddin, general secretary of AAMSU, said.

Aman Wadud, a lawyer based in the state capital Guwahati who provides pro-bono legal aid to the victims of state persecution and targeted violence, says police actions against Muslims are often harsh.

“Police have always been uncharitable towards Muslims of Assam; it has a different and very harsh parameter to deal with Muslims. Whenever Muslims protest for their rights, the police forces hardly hesitate to open firing,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Guilty will be punished’

Assam police chief announced that those guilty of Hasen’s death would be punished.

“He has died in police custody, already a case has been registered, the person (police officer) has been arrested and sent to judicial custody, and the investigation is on,” Mukesh Sahay, the director general of police in Assam, told Al Jazeera.

“The investigation will find out what the cause of death was. If his guilt is established he will be punished as per law.”

Sahay admitted there was a need for “training and sensitisation” of the police force and strict “enforcement” of law.

“If anybody violates the law he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action,” he said.

But security forces in the state have not always followed the rule book.

Two days after the custodial death of Hasen, a journalist from a local satellite television channel, Swarupjyoti Chetia, was picked up by security forces in a midnight raid at his residence in the Dibrugarh district of Assam.

Chetia was accused of passing crucial information about an air force station and other government installations in the area to the banned rebel outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

The news channel alleged that Chetia was subjected to torture during detention, including pouring cold water on his body in the middle of the winter night.

Security forces, however, released him next day owing to huge protest and road blockade by the villagers against the “arbitrary detention and torture”.

‘My life has been destroyed’

Police officer Hazarika has been accused of using waterboarding before to get confession from detainees.

Last September Hazarika picked up Ambas Ali of Borbari Sonowa village from a tea-stall under the Dhula police station in Darrang district.

If anybody violates the law, he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action

Mukesh Sahay, Assam police chief

Ambas, who lost his land to river erosion, now supports his family by purchasing goats and cattle from nearby villages and selling them in the local market.

He says the police first took him to the police station and then to another location where they planted a pistol under his belt before he was photographed.

Ambas says he was then brought back to the police station where he was blindfolded, pinned down and held tightly by several policemen, some of them sat on his chest and belly. They then placed a cloth on his face and poured water over it.

“Hardly half a minute to one minute, I could survive but then lost my senses. When I regained my senses, they did the same thing again and asked me to confess that the pistol was mine,” Ambas told Al Jazeera.

“I can’t explain what I suffered. …I thought, I wouldn’t survive…. My life has been destroyed…..”

Huge public outcry

waterboarding, or simulated drowning, only became widely known after it was revealed that the CIA had been subjecting suspects to it in the wake of 9/11.

However, the torture technique to extract information from detainees dates back hundreds of years.

In modern times, there was a huge public outcry in the US after it came to light that US soldiers were using water for a form of torture infamously known as the “water cure”, used against Filipinos in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).

And in the late 1950s, French military used waterboarding against the Algerians suspected to be members of FLN (National Liberation Front).

Most recently, the CIA employed waterboarding as one of their “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” in Guantanamo Bay prison camp to extract information from detainees.

According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent prisoners were tortured in police custody

 

However, a US Senate Intelligence Committee report highlighted the ineffectiveness of torture as a tool of interrogation.

Between 1994 and 2008, India recorded 16,836 custodial deaths or more than 1,203 persons per year but successive governments have been denying torture as a cause of custodial death.

According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent of prisoners were tortured in police custody.

The National Human Rights Commission’s annual report 2013-14 says that it had received indications of 1,719 cases of custodial death during the review period.

Assam police chief Sahay claims that in recent times the higher number of custodial deaths is due to some other technical causes like “mob violence” and “lynching”, not police torture.

However, studies tell a different story; a report released by Human Rights Watch said that more than 590 detainees died in police custody between 2010 and 2015 in India. And no police officers were convicted during that period.

The report documented individual cases of custodial torture, death and impunity, including the practice of waterboarding.

UN Convention against Torture

According to Kirity Roy of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), an organisation working against torture and extra-judicial killing, India has signed but not yet ratified the 1997 UN Convention against Torture.

The South Asian nation is one of only nine countries worldwide that have yet to ratify the treaty and enact a law against torture.

Roy has faced arrest for working against torture and atrocities meted out by the armed forces in Assam.

He said that waterboarding is just one of several torture techniques used by police in the northeastern state.

The draft Torture Bill has many strong features – the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment

Harsh Mandar, human rights activist

In 2010, the then government introduced the Prevention of Torture Bill, which grossly overlooked torture techniques such as waterboarding.

Article 1 of the UN Convention defines torture as an act of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” but the Indian bill defined torture as “grievous hurt” or “danger to life, limb or health”.

It declined to recognise some of the brutal and inhuman torture techniques, which do not leave physical marks and therefore were considered to not be a punishable crime.

Torture techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, are known as “clean torture”, as they don’t leave physical marks but are brutal and inhumane.

Last year, the Supreme Court described torture as an instrument of “human degradation” used by the state.

In October, the Law Commission of India, the highest recommendatory body on law prepared the draft “Prevention of Torture Bill, 2017”, widening the definition of torture to cover clean torture, including waterboarding, and making provisions for stringent punishment including life in prison, compensation, and burden of proof on the accused in cases of custodial death.

Activists and academics welcomed the draft bill as progressive.

“The draft Torture Bill has many strong features – the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment,” Harsh Mander, author and special monitor to the National Human Rights Commission, said.

“We would still need to build systems to be able to protect a victim as he seeks justice against an all-powerful official system.”

Sanjay Barbora, who heads the school of Social Sciences and Humanity at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati, also welcomed the new Prevention of Torture Bill but shared his concerns about laws such as Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), which grant immunity to security forces.

“In the last six decades, the ‘culture of impunity’ enjoyed by the armed forces has ‘infected’ the state police forces as well, who normally don’t have protection under AFSPA”, said Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative.

Published on Al Jazeera Link http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/assam-forces-accused-waterboarding-detainees-180123063800303.html

 

 

Curse of the Brahmaputra: Assam Drowns Every Year and Rest of India Turns a Blind Eye

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The death of Haishor Ali’s seven month old toddler is the second drowning case within a week in a village called Mazidbhita in Barpeta district of Assam. Ali’s house got inundated in the current devastating flood. The flood water of river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra, has submerged the earthen floor of his house. The entire family has been living on two elevated beds.

On that fateful day of July 11, Ali’s wife Eliza Khatun got up before dawn and went to the nearby jute field on their country boat to attend to nature’s call. There is hardly any toilet in the village that can be used and open defecation is the order of the day. Women and adolescent girls have to do it before sunrise. By the time Eliza came back and started preparing breakfast on one corner of the other bed, where her mother-in-law was sleeping, Ali got up and couldn’t find his son Injamul on the bed. Injamul was neither on his mother’s lap or his grandmother’s.

Injamul drowned in the flood water. His dead-body was found under the bed. Just the thought of it brings back sharp memories of the Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who lay dead on the shore, face down. But there was nobody to photograph Injamul, or even mourn his death.

Majuli floodsAn aerial view of the flooded river island in the Brahmaputra river in Majuli, in Assam on September 24, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

This year alone, there have been more than 50 deaths and thousands have been displaced. The numbers are still not enough to hit the collective conscience of the nation. The news of flood in Assam has become monotonous and boring over the years. With abysmally low attention from policy makers and policy advocates, a large percentage of population is turning into climate refugees in Assam. This is happening silently but has dangerous repercussions on socio-economic and political spheres of the state.

Injamul drowned in the flood water. His dead-body was found under the bed.

The intensity of flood and erosion has terribly increased in the last few decades. The weather has become more unpredictable, impact of flood and erosion has been more destructive. Over half a century ago, the magnitude of flood was much lesser and people used to welcome the flood. Writings of travellers and soldiers of the medieval time reveal the story of amazing rivers and awe-inspiring seasonal rains in Assam. Assamese people used these factors to their advantage in their battles against other armies.

Assam flood

But the situation has drastically changed. Experts believe that along with adverse impact of climate change, deforestation, destruction of natural water bodies like beels and haors, short-sighted interventions have created more problems than they could solve.

Sanjay Barbora, the dean of humanities and social sciences at TISS, Guwahati says, “The propensity to build embankments and dykes with a very short-term economic logic in mind created several unintended consequences that continue to have an adverse impact on the social geography of the Brahmaputra valley.”

Over half a century ago, the magnitude of flood was much lesser and people used to welcome the flood.

He further argues that the construction of embankment has radically altered the social structure of the place and construction of such embankment in one village creates water-logging in the paddy fields of another. Moreover, the breach of embankment causes more loss since the community doesn’t remain prepared for the unforeseen disastrous event.

The major casualty caused by flood in recent years in Assam has close links with some of the mindless development projects in the region. Devastation happened in 2004 in Barpeta and adjoining districts due to the release of access water from Kurishu dam in the upstream of river Beki in Bhutan. Those on the side of the downstream didn’t have a clue about the imminent disaster and thus couldn’t prepare at all.

Rivers of Assam

The floods in 2004 had far reaching impact on human and wildlife in areas including the Manas National Park. The debris carried by flood water blocked and killed a river called Hakura at Mathanguri in Indo-Bhutan border. The water of river Hakura got diverted to Beki which caused over-flowing and widening of river Beki, resulting in heavy erosion and displacement of tens of thousands people.

This year the sudden release of water from NEEPCO’s dam over Ranganadi has created havoc in Lakhimpur district. The flood victims allege that the dam authority didn’t warn the people about the release of water and the risk of subsequent flooding. An early warning could have saved many lives and properties in the district.

Assam floods 2017 - Inundated areasAssam floods 2017 (Image: Bhuvan/ISRO)

The government sponsored flood control and response measures deployed in Assam are one of the most frustrating things to observe. Every year, in the pre-flood scenario, the government agency concerned build or repair the embankments just before the monsoon which makes these structures extremely vulnerable and often get breached on the first web of flood.

In post flood situation, the agencies wash their hands with distribution of meagre amount of essential commodities like rice, pulse and salt in the relief camps and in some cases fodder and tarpaulin. A government official informed that they have distributed 20 bags (35 Kgs per bag) of fodder among 4,000 farmers as the only flood relief measure!

The news of flood in Assam has become monotonous and boring over the years.

Though India is a signatory in the Sendai Framework, a voluntary and target oriented disaster risk reduction agreement and Assam claims to be the first state to implement it, there is hardly any initiative taken by the responsible agencies to reduce the risk and vulnerability in the flood prone areas of Assam.

Sendai Framework has identified four priority areas for action i.e. i) understanding the disaster risk, ii) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, iii) investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and iv) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Unfortunately, we could hardly find any of these in the priority list of the government for action.

Stranded Baby Rhino in Assam A baby rhino seen standing near a human settlement following floods at the Kaziranga National Park on July 27, 2016 in Assam. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Former chief minister of Assam late Sarat Chandra Sinha realised the hollowness of government sponsored flood control and response mechanism and asked the people to learn to co-exist with the flood.

Four decades later, the “Build Back Better” concept of Sendai Framework talks about promoting decentralised and participatory approach to reconstruction and best use of local and traditional knowledge and skills. Thus, making the community more resilient towards flood.

Similarly, Early Warning System (EWS) involving key components like risk knowledge, monitoring and warning, dissemination and community response can reduce the vulnerability to a great extent. The Central Water Commission (CWC) has sufficient numbers of gauge water level in the state and monitors the water level on hourly basis during the flood prone monsoon season. But the readings never reach the vulnerable communities who need the information most.

Rickshaw puller in flooded Guwahati A rickshaw puller wades through the water logged area of Anil Nagar road after a heavy downpour on July 7, 2016 in Guwahati (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In our neighbouring country Nepal, the development agencies are tapping traditional and local knowledge to build successful community-based early flood warning system.

In Bangladesh, an initiative called ‘Char Livelihood Programme’ has been one of the best interventions to eradicate extreme poverty in the flood and erosion affected char or river island areas of Bangladesh using traditional knowledge and taping local resources.

Buffaloes in flooded Kaziranga Wild buffaloes swim through flood waters at Kaziranga National Park on July 26, 2016 in Assam. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Considering the impact of climate change, deforestation and destruction of natural water reservoirs, there is little doubt that the intensity of flood and erosion will continue to strike in Assam for coming years too. Our response to flood and erosion need a paradigm shift in terms of control and response.

Though we are blessed with inspiring people like Jadav Payeng, who promotes afforestation as a flood and erosion control mechanism but our government seems to be not interested in investing on communities to build their capacity to reduce the disaster risks using traditional knowledge and skills.

They’d rather be busy in building non-sustainable embankments, porcupines and distribution of flood relief in quantities that many would term inhumane.

The Struggle of ‘Doubtful Voters’ Has Intensified in BJP’s Assam

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The Sonowal government has employed measures that appear designed to pressurise local authorities to work at its behest, all the while creating fear and giving rise to renewed anger among the Muslim community.

 

On June 30, 22-year-old Yaqub Ali was killed by police fire in the Goalpara district in western Assam. Ali was part of a protest march demanding an end to the harassment of Muslims for allegedly being ‘D voters’. ‘D voter’ is a category of voters in Assam where ‘D’ stands for ‘doubtful’. The citizenship rights, entitlements and privileges of a D voter are withheld until they prove their citizenship.

In 1997, the Election Commission (EC) identified several hundred thousand people as D voters, most of them Muslims, but also including Bengali Hindus, Koch Rajbangshis, Nepalis and others. The process of identifying D voters came into being after a huge political mobilisation led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other ultra-nationalist organisations, with the government being asked to carry out an intensive revision of the voters list across Assam.

EC officials were supposed to conduct door-to-door surveys and revise the list after verifying people’s citizenship documents. However, it is alleged that the people were randomly marked as doubtful citizens. There are numerous cases where one or two members of a family were marked as doubtful while others were marked as Indian citizens. There are peculiar cases where government officials, including election officers, and Assam police personnel belonging to the Muslim community are enlisted as doubtful voters. Family members of distinguished Assamese Muslim personalities like film actor Adil Hussain, literary legend Syed Abdul Malik and Padma Shri Eli Ahmed were also branded as D voters and questioned about their nationality.

‘Reference case’

Listing someone as a D voter is not the only way to strip them of citizenship in Assam. The Assam police has a one-of-its-kind organisation to deal with the so-called illegal migration from Bangladesh. In 1962, the Assam police established a special branch organisation under the Prevention of Infiltration of Pakistan (PIP) scheme. Initially, the organisation was headed by the special branch’s deputy inspector general of police.

This unit was entrusted with detecting and deporting illegal foreigners from Bangladesh, known as East Pakistan at that time. Under the PIP scheme, nearly two lakh Muslims were forcibly deported to Bangladesh without any legal process. When Meghalaya was bifurcated from Assam, it also had border police units, but despite sharing a border with Bangladesh, the state has dismantled its border police units and turned them into normal police outposts.

Currently, the Assam police border organisation is an independent organisation manned by over 4,000 personnel and headed by an additional director general of police of the state police. In 2009, the organisation was further empowered with greater discretionary power to question anyone and to take their fingerprints and photographs. The police have fingerprinted thousands of so-called doubtful people, who are mostly internally displaced people in search of a livelihood. Now they are forced to go through a rigorous and expensive legal process to prove their nationality.

In rural areas, the border police units are entrusted with conducting surveys in villages and sending the names of suspected illegal foreigners to the foreigner’s tribunal. It has even been alleged that border police constables were given set targets to report certain numbers of cases every month. This practice led to thousands of genuine Indian Muslims being listed as doubtful citizen and reference cases were registered against them.

The numbers

Till October 2016, 6,21,688 people, mostly Muslim, were either branded as doubtful voters or reference cases were registered under The Foreigners Act 1946, resulting in them losing access to government-sponsored welfare schemes, the right to vote, and other civil and political rights granted to an Indian citizen. In February 2017, Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, said that the cases of 4,44,189 people were referred to tribunals. Altogether 2,01,928 cases are still pending with the tribunals.

Data shows that of the cases resolved, 92% were able to defend their Indian nationalities. The majority of the remaining cases where the person was declared as foreigner were ex-parte judgements. As per the white paper on foreigners published by government of Assam, 88192 cases were disposed off between 1998 and 2012. Out of 88192 cases, only 6590 cases were declared as foreigners.

Unfortunately, the cases of declared foreigners poses a serious question on the nature of the judgements. Last year, the government of Assam published a list of around 38,000 untraced declared foreigners in the local newspapers. The Assam police also put out a list of nearly 7,000 ‘declared untraced foreigners’. The list has ‘declared untraced foreigners’ from 13 districts of Assam. Out of 13 districts, three districts provide the information regarding ‘manner of judgement’. The data of Mangaldoi district reveals that out of 208 cases of untraced declared foreigners only one person contested his case. In Karimganj district, the ratio of ex-parte and contested case is 938:9, while in Hailakandi district, the ratio is 127:2.  This shows that the cases where people were declared as foreigners by the tribunal were mostly unchallenged or that the court didn’t examine their nationality at all.

Why people are protesting now

Protests against the arbitrary filing of reference cases and listing as D voters is not new in Assam. There has been a constant demand and mobilisation from the Muslim community to stop harassing them for being illegal Bangladeshis. However, there have been visible changes in the approach of the government in dealing with the issue. The BJP-led state government in Assam came to power by mobilising the majority communities on the issue of alleged illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Since coming to power, the government’s actions have created more fear among the Muslims, while also feeding their anger and frustration. Certain measures have eroded the credibility of the foreigner’s tribunal and has created an environment of utter helplessness among the Muslims.

Soon after coming to power, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal met the members of the foreigners tribunal and told them they have now got the opportunity to work for a national cause, a chance they should not miss. Is it okay for the head of a state government to lecture members of a judicial body? Is this not an interference into the judiciary’s independence?

There is a noticeable fear psychosis among the Muslims because of government’s fascist and anti-Muslim initiatives. Besides already increasing the number of foreigners tribunals from 36 to 100 and detention centres from three to six, and setting up a detention centre in Goalpara, the government is also strengthening IT infrastructure to crack down on the alleged illegal foreigners more efficiently. The Assam police is creating an exclusive database of so-called suspected and declared foreign nationals. Once the central database is developed, photographs and fingerprints of a;; alleged foreigners could be shared with various law enforcement agencies with a click of the mouse.

But the government has not stopped here. It has formed review committees at the district and state level to scrutiny the judgements given by the foreigners tribunal, thus questioning its integrity. The government has also initiated performance appraisal for the tribunal members “so that no illegal Bangladeshi national is spared”. But it is clear this entire process is to pressurise tribunal members to work at the government’s behest.

Organisers of the Goalpara protest on June 30 allege that by challenging tribunal’s orders in high court, the government is trying to harass another 40,000 people whose nationalities were upheld by the tribunal. The government has already approved the filing of writ petitions in 50 such cases.

Scores of Muslims have been lodged in detention centres across the state with little or no sign of ever being set free. This fear and frustration was evident at the Goalpara protest. So desperate and helpless are the victims, that their faith now only lies in the belief that ‘Allah will render all arms and ammunition ineffective during the protest’ over the judicial and democratic institutions of world’s largest democracy.

 

The article was published on The Wire https://thewire.in/156268/assam-doubtful-voters-sonowal/

Has Fear Lynched My Conscience?

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These days, I often ask myself ‘am I scared?’

I keep checking my ‘conscience’ – is it dead or about to die an unnatural death because of the ‘fear’ which is engulfing me slowly but steadily every passing day. To be honest, growing up in one of the most prejudiced societies; fear has been a companion since my adolescence.

I grew up in Assam – the land of Srimanta Sankardev who spread neo-vaisnavite movement in this part of the country. His movement outlined the foundation of greater Assamese society, which was inclusive of all castes, creeds and communities. Yes, gurujona’s Assamese society included Muslims too! Chandasai, a Muslim was one of his most devoted disciples.

However, I was born in post-Nellie Assam. Nellie a place just 60 kilometers from Guwahati witnessed one of the largest massacres in the world in 1983. More than 3000 innocent Muslims were butchered in broad daylight.

Perhaps, Nellie is the last nail in the coffin of inclusive greater Assamese society. The greater share this credit should go to civil society for maintaining complete radio silence on the question of justice to the victims.

A dangerously polarized society identified my community as alien to this place even before my birth. Various adjectives, precisely which are derogatory and dehumanizing in nature were added before or after my identity. I grew up swallowing abuse and rejection on every other occasion.

I was growing up in a hostile world around me; which kept me scared. I was scared of being bullied, denied of my wage and perpetuating physical and mental torture by anyone only because of my identity. One day, a group of stray youths physically assaulted my rickshaw puller uncle who gently refused to push a vehicle due to his health ailment. In front of my eyes, they kicked his stomach, my middle-aged uncle pleaded for mercy with his folded hands.

As a seventh standard young kid, I was scared; I moved fast and disappeared in lane behind the rolling mill and reached the slum-like rented house in Lalganesh area of Guwahati city. I couldn’t sleep that night; whenever I closed my eyes, the same scene repeated like a motion picture.

It was not just the unruly bullies; I was scared of my governments too, including the so-called Muslim appeaser Indian National Congress led governments. My uncle who was physically abused by the bullies lost his land to erosion and moved to another village; police framed him as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh despite the fact that his father was agovernment teacher and whose service was initiated by the colonial government way before the words ‘Bangladesh’ and ‘Pakistan’ came into being! He faced the abuse, and fought his case courageously and defended his Indian citizenship.

But his elder brother couldn’t bear the burn. One day while coming back from the foreigner’s tribunal he collapsed midway and succumbed to the stroke.

In Assam millions have been uprooted by river erosion, climate change has accelerated this displacement in the last few years. Once they get displaced from one place, the risk of being labelled as illegal immigrant increases manifold. There are few hundred thousand people framed as ‘doubtful voters’ , or reference cases have been slapped on them just because of their identity. Most of them are victims of flood and erosion who need to shift their house often. Many of them are languishing in the Nazi Concentration Camps styled detention centre across the state.

Data suggests that more than 90 per cent of the detainees didn’t the get the opportunity to present their side of the story before the court as their case were settles ex-partite. The new government in Assam has increased the number of the detention centres and foreigners tribunal and proposed one gigantic detention centre in Goalpara in western Assam. These are deadly and fearful events unfolding before us and obviously make us all scared.

However, I navigated through my fear, anguish and hope for a better future. I dreamed for reconciliation, peaceful co-existence and a dignified life for everyone guaranteed by Indian Constitution, including the Muslims. Unfortunately, the 2014 general election shuttered my dream completely. The fear of another Nellie like genocide occupied my mind when the then NDA Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi kick- started a campaign by alleging that the much adored one horned rhinos in Assam were killed to clear the land to settled Bangladeshis! Days after his speech nearly fifty Muslims mostly women and children were massacred by militants in league with forest guards.

The rhetoric initiated by PM Narendra Modi eventually revived the four decade old issue of illegal immigration once again in Assam. Without providing justice to the victims of massacres like Nellie, Chaolkhuwa, Mukalmua etc or proving the deceased to be illegal immigrants – another round of campaign has started against the Bengal origin Assamese Muslim community. In the 2016 assembly election, the rhetoric worked and for the first BJP led government came into power in Assam.

The new government in Assam started evicting the climate induced internally displaced persons living across various government lands across the state. As per the government data, by the end of 2016 more than 3500 families (more than 20000 people) were forcefully evicted. Many of the families were evicted from their patta land without any compensation and rehabilitation. Two persons were killed in police firing during forceful eviction and two children died in post eviction IDP camp.

Nobody questioned the government’s inhumane attitude against its own people – this was bone shivering dreadful. The local media played the role of cheerleaders for the government and sometimes as extended arms of the government. Hardly anyone raised a voice against the injustice meted out to one of the most persecuted communities. Even, I too just wrote a ceremonial article and didn’t ask the government why it didn’t rehabilitate the IDPs. Maybe I am too scared.

I sincerely have started believing that I am not the only scared person in the country. I could see a kafila of terrified young men and women who normally used to be the vanguard in any resistance movement against injustice. While seeing the social media videos of lynchings, every day, I am getting convinced that it’s not only mine; but our collective conscience is dying an unnatural death. Otherwise, how could I skip the news and videos of lynching and thrashing of innocent people? It is fear that is stopping us from raising a voice and asking the government to put an end to this brutality!

 

The article first published in The Citizen http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/1/11101/Has-Fear-Lynched–My-Conscience