Safikul Islam’s home was destroyed by the district administration | Image: Rokibuz Zaman / Scroll.in
In disturbing developments in the Batadraba police station burning case, the family, friends and fellow-villagers of Shafikul Islam, the fisherman whose alleged custodial death led to the violence, have now been dubbed “Jihadi” and “criminal”, casting a shadow, in the process, on the future of Muslim inhabitants of the area.
Readers would recall that Shafikul Islam, who hailed from Salnabori village in Nagaon district, was arrested for alleged public drinking on the night of May 20 and taken to a hospital. While the police claim he died in hospital due to excessive drinking, Islam’s family alleged that he was killed in custody after he refused to pay a bribe.
The family claims that he was stopped by the Batadraba police when he was on his way to Shivsagar and asked to pay a bribe of Rs 10,000 and a duck. While his wife arranged for the duck, she was unable to arrange for the money. She claims this led to the policemen beating Shafikul in front of her. She rushed to arrange for the money, but by the time she returned he had been taken to Nagaon Civil Hospital. When she and other family members reached the hospital, they found his body in a morgue. Angry family members and fellow villagers then took the body to the Batadraba police station and held protests. Subsequently they set the police station on fire.
Shortly afterwards, the district administration undertook an anti-encroachment drive in his village and demolished homes of at least three persons accused of burning down the police station.
After heart-rending images of crying children from evicted families started appearing in the news and on social media, Jayanta Malla Baruah, who is the Political Secretary to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, was quoted by local media as saying, “Don’t show any sympathy towards criminals. A criminal is a criminal.” Baruah who is a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Nalbari, further said, “Don’t do any advocacy against the demolition of any criminal’s house.
Those who trying to capture the Assam, don’t create any sympathy for those people and the plight of their children. Original citizens and their children will get the legal rights.” And then in a bizarre attempt to conflate the identities of the people accused of burning the police station with cow smugglers and sundry anti-social elements, he said, “Those who are linked with Batadraba incident, will turn out to be cow smugglers, dacoit and drugs mafia in the end.”
One cannot ignore how cow-smuggling is a common charge levelled against Muslims, a beef-eating community, and how people accused of one crime are being associated with another without any actual basis, just because of their religion.
But it did not stop there. Shrinkhal Chaliha, leader of the Veer Lachit Sena and a serial hate offender, then demanded that the family of the deceased not be paid any compensation. Chalihas was quoted by local media as saying, “People are asking that shouldn’t the Rs 1 lakh be given to build the police staion, instead of giving it to the family?” He further demanded a judicial inquiry against All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) leader Aminul Islam, a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Dhing, who had visited the village and allegedly riled up people.
But he did not stop there. Calling the deceased fisherman’s family and friends “Jihadi”, Chaliha demanded that they should be “encountered” instead.
“We have come to know that they were Jihadi. If so, police should encounter such people,” he said.
An “encounter” is an extra-judicial killing where police officer shoot people dead, usually in transit, claiming they were trying to escape. It is alleged that such encounter killings are on the rise in Assam. It is noteworthy that allegations of encounter killing have come up in case of the mysterious death of Ashikul Islam, the alleged mastermind of the Batrapada police station burning incident. Ashikul was reportedly killed in a car accident on May 29 in Raidongia in Nagaon district after being arrested from his home in Juria. The incident took place when he was being taken to the Nagaon police station. Police claim he attempted an escape and jumped out of the police vehicle. He was hit by the escort vehicle coming from behind.
Leena Doley, Superintendent of Police (SP), told newspersons, “We conducted search operations at Ashiqul Islam’s residence at Sonaibera after he had admitted that he kept arms and ammunition hidden in his house. We seized a 7.62 mm pistol, a .22 pistol, seven rounds of ammunition and the red t-shirt he was wearing during the incident. We also seized his mobile phone.” She added, “When we were bringing him back to the police station, he was injured after he was accidentally hit by the escort vehicle after he tried to escape from the police vehicle. The sub-inspector, constable who was the driver and one home guard has also been injured in the incident. However, after being admitted at the hospital, Islam succumbed to his injuries.”
Meanwhile, AIUDF MLA Aminul Islam has now joined Congress Legistaure Party leader Debabrata Saikia in demanding a judicial inquiry into the entire matter. Saikia told Time8, “We have seen many accused die in a police encounters while they are being taken for identification of location or scene of crime etc. Sometimes, I wonder whether there is an anti-Assam element in Assam police who try to prevent the investigation process, as with the death of the accused persons many truths may not come out and as a result we may not be able to unearth the details of how some elements are working against the interests of Assam.”
Aminul Islam concurred saying, “If Ashiqul Islam, the accused was the mastermind in the Batadrava incident, then I urged a judicial enquiry into the incident under the supervision of a justice of the High court.”
But Choliha’s hateful diatribe did not stop with the open call for an “encounter”. He further said, “We have already stated that we’ll not let the Assam neither be another Kashmir nor Tripura. Only indigenous people should have the power in Assam.” Then as if to tone down his communal tenor, he added, “We are saying it clearly that Assam is neither a place for Jihadi nor a place for Hindu extremists.”
This allowed him to segue into a critique of the state government. “This government has completely failed to protect this Jati Mati Bheti. It is threatening to the whole community.”
But soon enough he was back to talking about action against the Batradaba police station arsonists. “Strict action should be taken against them and they should be given stringent punishment, so that nobody dares to pelt stones at a police station in the future,” he said. “We have already said that every action should have a reaction. If the police would have reacted that day, this day wouldn’t come possibly. We are telling the government that it’s time to react,” he added. By “reaction”, what Chaliha is actually demanding is a violent retaliation, and this makes the Muslim villagers of the area even more vulnerable.
This is not Shrinkhal Chaliha’s first hateful rodeo either. In October last year, he had demanded that an eviction drive be carried out in Mayang in Morigaon district of Assam, accusing the local population of being encroachers, he further claimed that they were “increasing influence and suppressing indigenous people.” It is noteworthy that Morigaon has a substantial Muslim population. Thus, without actually pointing towards the community, Chaliha virtually made them out to be non-indigenous.
Chaliha had also reportedly asked a non-Assamese shop keeper in Shivsagar to shut down his shop in September 2021, leading singer-activist Zubeen Garg to call him “brishrinkhal”. Shrinkhal means disciplined in Assamese, while brishrinkhal means one who lacks discipline. Chaliha had been caught on camera threatening to use hengdang (a traditional Ahom double-edged sword) on the man who was unable to pay rent to the indigenous widow who owned the shop.
In late January 2022, as many as 12 members of Chaliha’s Veer Lachit Sena were arrested – seven on charges of extortion and threatening a businessman in Golaghat, and five for assaulting a Bengali youth in Morigoan. At that time, Chaliha had proudly proclaimed that jail was their “second home’’ and that they would continue to work for their motherland.