It had been a few hours since the sun had dipped into the horizon on 22 August 2017. Journalist Biren Bora was pushing a paan into his mouth, standing at a shop barely 100 metres from the Itasali police station of Nagaon town. Suddenly, there was a hullabaloo; a few people following a police constable shouted, ‘Dacoit, dacoit; they have caught some dacoits!’
Bora, a reporter with Pratidin Time, followed the constable who was heading towards Das Enterprise, a shop that sells tractors. The shutters of the shop were down and outside it stood at least fifty young men. Sensing action, Bora called his cameraperson. The shutter was lifted; the constable went in, Bora slipped in too, while the bunch of men waited outside. ‘By then, the crowd had swelled to about 200 since the shop was on the busy Assam Trunk Road,’ Bora told me.
While the constable was angry at the shop owners for catching only one ‘dacoit’ and making such a noise about it, Bora was shocked to see the man who had been captured. ‘I recognized him at once. It was SULFA leader Moon Bora.’
Soon the district superintendent of police, along with his deputy, arrived at the spot. The shop owner Raju Das’s brother Nidhan Das showed a pistol to the DSP, claiming he recovered it from the ‘dacoit’.
They dumped Moon Bora in a van and drove off to the police station.
Biren Bora remembered calling his office in Guwahati to send the ‘breaking news’ at that point: Surrendered ULFA leader accused of dacoity.
On noticing a CCTV camera in the shop, he sought its footage from the Das brothers. ‘Somehow, it was difficult to believe that Moon Bora, a surrendered ULFA leader, would resort to dacoity,’Bora said. The video footage showed a few more SULFA men with Moon Bora, unarmed, beaten up by the Das brothers following an altercation. While the others managed to flee, Moon Bora couldn’t.
Bora hurriedly dispatched the footage to the channel’s Guwahati office. By then, more reporters had arrived. The news was flashed across regional news channels.
Next day, yet another CCTV footage surfaced, showing Raju Das’s friend, Avinash Roy or Mithu, husband of the Nagaon municipality vice-president, physically assaulting Moon Bora inside the shop. Mithu and his family were close aides of the local BJP MP, Rajen Gohain, a four-time representative to the Lok Sabha and then a minister in the Modi government. Refuting the charges that they were extorting money, the SULFA leaders claimed they had gone to the Das brothers, belonging to the Bengali Hindu community, seeking donations for flood relief. The police, meanwhile, had arrested three others who accompanied Moon Bora to Das’s shop.
What began as a seemingly straightforward story of a failed dacoity in the heart of Nagaon, Assam’s second largest city, boiled over to a near-explosive situation in the following days, eventuating a litany of bandhs and protests with anti-Bengali slogans raised in several parts of the state, thus reminding many of the communally charged Bhasha Andolan of the late 1960s. That agitation to recognize Assamese as the state language, followed by a counter-agitation in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in the early 1970s, had led to a long-drawn out, ugly confrontation between the two communities.
The result of that antagonism and the chasm is the two official state languages, Assamese and Bengali, much to the heartburn of the majority Assamese community.
The Nagaon protests were spearheaded by the pro-talks leaders of ULFA, primarily Jiten Dutta, Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia. They demanded that Moon Bora and his associates be released from police custody at once. Flogging the old horse of the agitation days, these leaders sent out warnings to ‘outsiders’ that attacks on indigenous people would not be tolerated. They would have to leave Assam. These leaders were soon joined by other Jatiotabadi organizations, including the AASU, AJYCP and the Goria Moria Deshi Jatiyo Parishad comprising Assamese Muslims. The DSP, who these powerful bodies claimed had sided with the ‘outsiders’, came under the firing line and was finally transferred out. Meanwhile, two FIRs were lodged against the Das brothers, Roy and their manager Ajit Bhuyan for the assault.
A few days later, yet another FIR was filed against Raju Das by one Ashid Alam, alleging that Das had duped him of Rs 2.5 lakh in a tractor deal. All of those accused were arrested thereafter.
The overground ULFA leaders warned they wouldn’t allow Das’s shop to reopen and that he along with his family would have to leave town. A letter was also reportedly written to the tractor company to cancel his dealership. The company obliged.
Till mid 2018, the shop remained closed though the Das brothers were out on bail.
The Nagaon protests can be viewed as an extension of the sensational Silapathar incident that had occurred some months before. On 6 March 2017, in Silapathar town of Dhemaji district, the Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samannya Samiti (NBBUSS), a Nagpur-based Hindu Bengali organization promoting Indian citizenship for Bangladeshi Hindus residing in Assam, West Bengal and elsewhere, held a public rally. As it passed by the local AASU office, some participants reportedly attacked it. News reports quoting AASU leaders said the attackers, about twenty of them armed with sharp weapons, first shouted anti-Assamese slogans, then pelted stones and thereafter entered the office. The mob damaged furniture and framed portraits of Assamese cultural icons Bhupen Hazarika and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala besides vandalizing the swahid bedi, a ubiquitous presence in every AASU office as a reminder of the Assam Agitation. Those inside the office scooted through the back door.
Across the state, the incident caused massive public outrage, mobilized by local AASU leaders. The state administration set up a special investigation team (SIT) to get to the bottom of the matter. Word spread that the outfit’s all-India head, a Nagpur-based doctor, Subodh Biswas, had delivered a provocative speech against AASU at a meeting prior to the rally, which might have triggered the attack. Demand began to grow vociferously for Biswas’s arrest.
He went into hiding even as over fifty people were rounded up in the next few days by state police for their alleged involvement in the attack. The Nagpur-based outfit was reported to have close ties with the RSS, which has also been batting for Indian citizenship for Hindu Bangladeshis. Photos began to surface in local media of Biswas with senior BJP leaders from Assam and elsewhere. The SIT report said that in 2013, the NBBUSS leaders met state BJP leaders Himanta Biswa Sarma (then in Congress) and Bijoya Chakravarty to seek support for their cause. The NBBUSS meeting was widely seen as an example of the RSS’s growing clout in the state and its possible complicity of interest with that of the outfit. Many from the Assamese community questioned the RSS’s ‘anti-Assamese’ role because of the Silapathar incident leading the RSS prant pracharak Mahesh Sharma to hold a press meet in Silchar on 17 March 2017, to deny any link with Subodh Biswas.
With pressure mounting on the police to nab Biswas, by then declared the main culprit behind the attack, frantic search operations were launched. On 22 March, a joint team of Assam and West Bengal police nabbed Biswas along with another accused in the West Paraganas district and brought him to Assam. He was denied bail, leading his organization to move the Supreme Court. Since the progress report of the SIT, based on various eyewitness interrogations, couldn’t establish Biswas’s role in instigating violence, his lawyer and the outfit’s national general secretary Avinash Roy sought its details through an RTI application to the state police. A police source later claimed to me that he was tipped off about the details of the SIT report by a state BJP functionary.
After the SIT head N. Rajamarthandan supplied the report to Roy in response to the RTI, in a bizarre turn of events, the IPS officer was also arrested on the charge of sharing confidential information in a sensitive state like Assam without informing his seniors. A case was filed against Roy too and he was taken into custody when he arrived in Guwahati to seek interim bail. While both Roy and Rajamarthandan were released some time later, Biswas was released on bail only in September 2018.
The incidents in Nagaon and Silapathar might have involved different sets of people but the reaction they prompted among the public and the local Assamese dominated media was similar. While the Nagaon incident could be seen as Hindu Bengali supporters of the local BJP MP asserting themselves to break the hegemony of the local SULFA men, it was interpreted by a wide section of the Assamese as an attempt by the entire Bengali community to politically assert itself over the indigenous people. The Silapathar case too, was treated as the Bengali community’s assertion, emboldened by BJP rule, and thereby ‘openly’ demanding citizenship for Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state in defiance of the Assam Accord.
Looking at both the cases, it can easily be deduced that the protesters saw them as instances of Bengali Hindus politically empowering themselves to become a competitive force against the majority Assamese community.
These incidents also denote attempts by Assamese subnationalist forces to exhibit through mass protests that a strong public opposition existed to the dilution of the terms of the Accord.
By then, some BJP–RSS leaders of the state had openly declared that they didn’t accept the Accord since it didn’t provide a reprieve to Hindu Bangladeshis. Yet another motive behind these incidents could be to underline that Jatiotabadi organizations might have their differences but they would unite as one potent force when it came to opposing any concessions to the Bengali community, particularly when it might increase their population in the state and thereby challenge the khilonjia/indigenous political hegemony.
Since then, there has been no let up in public opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Brahmaputra Valley, thus pushing the BJP—at least its leaders from the region—to become a lot more cautious in expressing their support to it, particularly when the 2019 general elections was approaching.