Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Damning The Dam Protesters


On the evening of May 11, the front portion of a tanker containing 11,000 litres of diesel, on contract with NHPC, was set on fire in Thekeraguri village adjacent to NH 52, just past the Subansiri river bridge. This bridge lies in the district of Lakhimpur in Assam and is just 2-3 kms before the adjoining district of Dhemaji. Beyond the river on the left side a mountain range is visible which lies in Arunachal Pradesh. 

The same evening, a checkpost and protest camp at Ghagor was demolished. Ghagor lies on NH 52, few kilometres before the bridge. A road bifurcating on the left leads one directly to Gerukamukh (falling under Dhemaji district), which is the construction site and project headquarter of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. The checkpost and the camp were jointly erected by 8 organisations protesting the construction of the dam in January 2012, after a massive people's movement to prevent the transportation of construction materials to Gerukamukh.

Ghagor on NH52, and the takeover of Prodeep Gogoi's dhaba opposite the checkpost and protest camp

On the night of May 11 and into the next morning, 14 men and women were beaten and arrested by the police for their alleged crime of setting fire to the tanker. A 13-year-old boy was slapped repeatedly on his head and detained for two hours. The next day, some more were beaten, dragged and arrested. By the morning of May 20, a total of 23 people were behind bars. It has been confirmed that the first 14 men and women have been booked under IPC 120 B (criminal conspiracy), 149 (unlawful assembly), 384 (extortion), 427 (mischief with damage to property) and 435 (mischief with fire). While the latter 3 charges are bailable offenses, section 120 B is a stringent one. The men and women arrested are either farmers, students or small-time businessmen, running shops or dhabas. 

Over the last few days, I have been meeting activists and local leaders of ethnic groups, families of those arrested, officials of NHPC, police personnel, as well as some of those behind bars. Even as I write about these encounters in chapters, the repression continues: 4 people who had undertaken to sit on a hunger strike on May 20 have been arrested on charges of violating Section 144 of CrPC. The next few reports are an attempt to articulate all that has been understood in the last few days of repression.

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Azad Hazarika runs a health club in North Lakhimpur town. He began to go for meetings that called for the people in Assam to protest the Lower Subansiri hydro power project. During the resistance in December 2011, when NHPC tried to get in a significant part of a turbine into the project site, he was among those who lay down on the street to protest the passage of any kind of construction material. Today, he informally functions as a significant link among the people in the movement, at times when news dissemination is the most crucial aspect of the struggle.

He says that there was an informal agreement between government officials and activists part of 8 joint organisations resisting the construction of the dam, that tankers with diesel would be allowed to reach the project site at Gerukamukh only once in 20 days. This diesel was necessary as basic fuel to maintain a certain level of electric supply in project site. Hazarika gave a background to the all the events that finally led to the tanker being torched: 

“The 8 organisations then formed a 'big dams construction materials blockade' camp at Ghagor on NH 52. At any given point of time, 4 boys would man the checkpost, checking the challans of vehicles that took the left turn towards the project site at Gerakamukh. Any vehicle that bore NHPC on its challan was sent back; any other private vehicle was  allowed to pass. The camp, a little ahead from the checkpost, had about 50 people staying day and night, since January 2012. 

CRPF personnel now occupy Prodeep Gogoi's dhaba

On May 11, the boys at the checkpost saw a tanker approaching that road. The driver said that the police had kept the challan with them. Before the boys could stop the vehicle, it sped away towards the project site. An urgent meeting was called for, and the some officials arrived at the point, along with a huge police force. I was informed about the meeting and rushed towards Ghagor – it is 35 kms away from North Lakhimpur. But I was surprised to see that NH 52 was now being patrolled by the police and CRPF, well beyond the checkpost at Ghagor. As some negotiations took place at the camp, about two other vehicles sped away. Soon the rumour spread that the tanker had been set on fire. Arbitrary arrests followed.

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The stretch from Ghagor to Gogamukh town square is about 8 kms. While heading towards Gogamukh from North Lakhimpur (the district headquarters of Lakhimpur), about 2 kms before Ghagor is the Boginodi police station. After Ghagor is the Chauldhowa police outpost, followed by a newly constructed all-bamboo camp of the 19 Assam Batallion, and then the police station of Gogamukh, which falls under Dhemaji district. The district borders are porous; police and CRPF personnel dot the entire stretch of 8 kms. Small CRPF camps – typical Assamese houses but with sand bags stacked up – are also visible.

Roopohi is a village after the Subansiri bridge, and about 3 kms away from NH 52. It has a predominant population of Mishing tribesmen. After some enquiry, we arrived at the residence of Anand (Babul) Mili. Like any other house structure of a Mishing family, this too is a chaang ghor – a house made entirely of bamboo on high stilts. Many young boys walk in with us – my guide for the day Purandar Mili (who is a local activist of TMPK or Takam Mishing Poring Kebang or All Mishing Students' Union) and I. Few minutes later, Babul walked in and said that he has been evading arrest since May 11. 

Thekeraguri is not too far away from Roopohi. The young men told me that many of them ran deep into the forests when the police and the CRPF was hunting for the people who could have possibly set the tanker on fire. Like the other activists in the region, Babul was convinced that the tanker was purposefully set on fire as an act of conspiracy to implicate the people associated with the anti-dam movement, and thus crumble the struggle.

“Why did the fire brigade arrive 2 hours late? Why didn't the police allow photographers to photograph the burning vehicle? Cops were standing about 200 metres away from the tanker, yet none of them came forward to assess the situation near the tanker. Besides, there is no clue about where could the tanker be headed – the driver could not produce any challan when he was asked for it at the checkpost. When he was asked about it, he had said that the cops had taken it from him. There is something surely fishy here,” said Babul, as he invited someone over the phone.

On what basis have the arrests been made? “Cops says that there was a digital camera in the tanker, which exposed the people who had set the tanker on fire!” Babul says angrily. 

Twenty-year-old Rajiv Saikia is a resident of Roopohi and has studied up to matriculation. He is on the run along with his friend Ritu Saikia. Both said that they were doing business as suppliers of various goods. Both of them have been on a bike, traversing through villages, begging for meals and a corner for their night's stay. “There is a businessman in our area who is close to the cops. That's how he is able to leak out information to us. He has informed us that the Boginodi police is on the lookout for 53 people. Among them are Debo Bhuyan, Deepak Neog, Pranab Saikia and I, along with Ritu and Rajiv. The same person has also informed us that the cops are picking boys from villages and promising them the job of homeguards,” said Babul. The recruitment of these boys are similar to the recruitment of special police officers (SPOs) in places like Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and Kalinganagar in Odisha.

On the run, from one village to another: Rajiv and Ritu

Nijom Mili walked in. He had a dignified look on his face, and it seemed tough to ask him tough questions. Like, did his son really take up the job to attack his own village folk? Mili ran a pharmacy shop until few months ago, when he met with an accident. Repeated visits to various doctors yielded no good health. “Finally, a doctor at AMC (Assam Medical College in Diburgarh) operated below my ear. I still d not know what was the need for the surgery. But it has taken me a long time to move around,” says Mili.

Mili's Graduate-educated son has taken up the job offered by the police, when he heard of the same from a relative. “They said that the job was like that of a homguard, but not exactly a homeguard,” he said.

“Did they say that he is being recruited to be a SPO?” I asked.

“Maybe. Something like that. But he was told that his job could be confirmed by the superintendent of police (SP) after 6 months.”

“What is his salary?”

“Rs 4,500.”

“Does he have a uniform yet? Are they giving the boys arms training?”

“He doesn't yet have a uniform. So far, they have been training the boys how to march left-right-left. As if he doesn't know which is left and right!” 

Mili's son had to apply for the job, then give an interview, followed by a training session for three days, and he was then selected. He now shuttles between Boginodi police station and Chauldhowa outpost, since the time he was recruited about 25 days ago. 

When a dam made us foes: Nijom Mili (left) and Babul Mili (right)

Babul said that these recruitments mean that the government would use these boys to spy on the village folk who are protesting the construction of the dam. Mili said that he did talk of such a possibility with his son, but so far, nothing like that had happened. “He was not among the police personnel who had beaten up the people in our and nearby villages when the tanker was set on fire,” Mili said.

Babul drew me a quick map about the region and we headed to meet the family of Gagan Bora in Na-Ali Gergeria village. The landscape was fresh green and brown bamboo-and-mud houses were scattered around. Colourful chaadors (worn by the women) and white gamosas (a type of towel or gamcha) were left to dry on the bamboo fences. Cows graze with no hurry. The thin ribbon road opened to an open area and a tiny shop. This shop is run by 27-year-old Gagan and his wife Ikharani. At their residence adjoining the shop are relatives visiting from nearby houses and taking care of Bora's two children – a daughter aged 3.5 years and a toddler son.

“My husband had gone to Silapathar (a village far away in Dhemaji district) on May 11 and returned only at about 10pm. On his way back, he heard about the tanker being set on fire. The next morning at about 8am, he went out to Na-Ali Tiniali (the T-junction at Na-Ali) to do some shopping for our shop. By 11.30am some boys came and told me that my husband had been beaten and arrested. I could not believe their words and thought it was someone else. But they knew that it was him who was arrested,” said Ikharani.

Waiting with my children..... Ikharani Bora

From that day on, said Ikharani, cops have been making rounds in the village every night. Young boys scamper into distant villages while women stay back. “Once the cops even wanted to hit me but I guess they did not do so when they saw I was with a child,” she says. She has visited Gagan just once in the jail and is unsure of the charges levied on him. “It is difficult to run the family without him. I got a neighbour to do some shopping for our shop. I just hope that KMSS is able to get a good lawyer to release him. He is innocent. Yes, he has been to meetings called in by the anti-dam groups, but he would never do such a thing,” she said.

Debo Nath's family resides in nearby Thekeraguri village. Close to this village was where the tanker was set on fire. The fear is palpable in the voice and words of Debo's sister Parismita, who is studying in the 12th grade. Debo is a student of Graduate-level Arts at Subansiri College, and also runs a shop nearby. He is the eldest of 5 siblings. He was in the shop on May 12 when he was arrested.

“Did Debo know that the tanker was burnt the previous the night before he was arrested?” I asked.

“We did hear something like that but we did not know anything. We heard that some people had been picked up the cops but Debo thought that it had got nothing to with him, which is why he went to the shop that day,” Parismita said.

“Do you have any idea why he could be arrested?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Did Debo ever go to the camp at Ghagor?”

“No.”

“Did he attend any of the anti-dam movement meetings? There was a large meeting held in your village few months ago.”

“No.”

The only consistent emotion Debo Nath's sisters and aunt feel since his arrest, is fear.

“Was he associated with the anti-dam protests in any way?”

“No.”

“Have you heard of the dam coming up?”

“Yes.”

“Then have you heard of organisations like KMSS?”

“No.”

Her denials are hard to believe but understandable, under the current circumstances. 

Having explained to her that she would have to actively participate in the legal matters to get Debo released, we headed to Roopohi Baligaon-Bongali Basti, to meet Nabajyoti Kamang. He owns a piece of land in Roopohi and his two children studied there, under the guardianship of a neighbour. Nabajyoti later told us that he could not leave his own residence because he had a job with Bhimpura Junior College, and travelling daily from Roopohi would be tiring.

Getting to Roopohi Baligaon-Bongali Basti meant several chances of falling into black mud, next to roaming, hungry pigs. Many Mishing families rear pigs and a sudden rainfall in the region the previous night ensured a tough ride through the villages. It meant eye-soothing landscapes with river streams and ponds, as well as feet falling deep into the mud while navigating the bike.

Nabajyoti Kamang too lived in a chaang ghor, with many such houses in the same compound. Which presumably were inhabited by extended family members. His 13-year-old son Paban Singh steps down the rickety bamboo staircase to meet us. Paban cooked and studied and lived in the house in Roopohi with his younger sister. In the afternoon of May 12, he had gone to Na-Ali Tiniali to buy some chillies, when the police caught hold of him and beat him repeatedly in the back of his head. He kept quiet all the while he was being beaten by few cops and was then taken to the police station, where he was kept for 2 hours.

“I did not know of all this until late that night. The police waited for some people to arrive to sign on some papers, before my son could be left free. How could he possibly set fire to the tanker? He is just a small boy!” said Nabajyoti.

Nabajyoti said that he brought home Paban and his younger daughter the next morning. “Ever since I brought him home, he has been on the bed. He is not keen on eating either. There was no bleeding but I could feel that his head was swollen. A local doctor is treating him with herbs and Paban is slowly getting better.” 

I asked Nabajyoti if he was thinking of writing a complaint to the police. He joined his hands, almost as though he was begging. “I want to lead a simple life. I do not want to entangle my family with the police. I should be happy that they did not harm Paban to much – we can manage this. I know this has all got to do with the dam and the movement against it, but I don't want any harm for my family. We thank you that you have come to enquire about us but we do not want any more hassle,” he said. 

Nabajyoti expressed hope that situations would permit him to send Paban to the same school in Roopohi since it is a better one. The school in their resident village was almost non-existent. “But I have to work out something. I have a huge family. We all cannot shift to Roopohi because I have  my job here. My wife and daughters weave here. We have our pigs. Yet, I want a good education for Paban, but am afraid to send him to Roopohi again,” he said.

Paban Singh Kamang (slouching on the chair, wearing green shirt and blue pants) with his siblings, cousins, father and grandmother in their 'chaang ghor'

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The 14 arrested on May 11 and 12 are Bharat Sahu, Tarini Deka, Prodeep Gogoi, Juti Gogoi, Nitumoni Gogoi, Kalpana Gogoi, Gagan Bora, Bhanu Bhuyan, Debo Nath, Dipen Mudoi, Apul Nath, Aghuna Bhuyan, Lakheshwari Chutia and Pratibha Chutia. 

The local activists were specifically horrified in the way Prodeep Gogoi and his wife Juti were attacked by the police. Just opposite the camp at Ghagor, they ran a dhaba. They cooked food for the camp residents, albeit they were paid as per the price on the menu. Eyewitnesses say that they were both beaten and dragged on the street on the night of May 11, after the police had apprehended Gogoi's son Rupankar and his friend Bharat Sahu. Gogoi had charged the police when they had begun to attack the young boys, and that's when both Gogoi and his wife were attacked and finally arrested. Gogoi's hand was fractured; Bharat was also arrested while Rupankar fled to save his life. 

Rupankar Gogoi feels safe with his cousins, but he cannot spend much time with them

When I traversed across the villages that fell under the Chauldhowa Panchayat (the expanse of this Panchayat is very large), nobody knew the wherabouts of Rupankar. Upon reaching Gogoi's father's (Rupankar's paternal grandfather) house in Baasantipur, a cold indifference was felt. Only upon a lot of insistence and convincing that I wasn't sent by the police or the Assam government did they decide to “look out” for Rupankar. Few minutes later he arrived, along with another local activist. Twenty-year-old Rupankar was in a state of shock and fear after all that had happened. In the video below, he explains all that transpired on the night of May 11. He says how the police and the CRPF attacked him and Bharat Sahu; how the armed men even beat up the pigs that they were rearing in the vicinity of the dhaba, to such an extent that they pulled out the skin from the pig's hind side.


Like Gogoi's family which had established deep ties with the movement, Dipen Mudoi was actively participating in the protest by staying at the camp in Ghagor whenever he could. A resident of Katorisapori Bharatpur village, 35-year-old Dipen lived with the family of his elder brother. 

Several women were sitting together in the verandah of Mudoi's residence. One of them was his sister-in-law, Gitali. She explained how both Dipen, and his cousin Manoj Hazarika, were actively involved in the anti-dam movement. “Dipen runs a grocery shop near Na-ali Tiniali. Sometimes, when he would wind up from the shop earlier, he would go and spend some time at the camp in Ghagor or offer to screen the vehicles at the checkpost. On May 11, he didn't come home until 10pm. I did not latch the door from inside, assuming that he had been delayed for some reason. The next morning, we tried to reach him on his mobile but it was swtiched off. When he heard nothing from him until the afternoon of May 12, we began to ask around. That's when we were told that he had been arrested. We were worried, because at the same time we heard about the tanker being torched and several others also being arrested,” said Gitali.

Gitali and Manoj met him in the jail once and he confirmed that he was doing fine. “But he may not say that he was beaten even if we ask, lest we get worried,” said an old lady who was sitting with Gitali. She added, “He is a very quiet boy. Even if he was part of the movement, he would keep to himself. He would do only that was told to him; he would comfortably do anything that he was asked to do. I never saw him angry. It is unbelievable that he would torch a tanker – because I hear that he has been arrested for doing such a thing. He could never have done this. They are trapping him.”

Manoj took the photograph of Dipen Mudoi when he had gone to visit him in the jail

Dibakar Saikia's mother Ilashi too thinks that her son is being falsely implicated. She refuses to divulge further details, lest her son's case would worsen. The way Dibakar was arrested sounds familiar to the way human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was arrested.

Saikia's residence is on NH 52 and just half a kilometre from the Subansiri bridge. It is unlike the houses visited so far. It is a large concrete structure, and neatly painted in pink. His mother Ilashi spoke to us in few words while cutting the betel nut. Saikia runs a stone crusher mill and had recently purchased a piece of land a little ahead of the erstwhile Ghagor camp, to further extend his business.

“Dibakar's papers for the purchase of the land was in place, and he was in touch with the District Collector for the same. On May 14, he got a call that the DC wanted to meet him in North Lakhimpur. When he went there, he was told that the DC did not call him at all! When he was on his journey back home, he got another call that the SP wanted to see him. When he reached the SP's office, he was arrested,” said his mother.

Was he actively involved in the anti-dam movement? “Look, we live very close to the river. If anything happened to the river, we would be among the first people to be affected. Some say that the dam would do us good, while we also hear about the threats. We are really confused about the dam. My son is just a businessman. He is not an activist,” she emphasised.

Another relative present during the conversation vehemently denied any possible association between Dibakar and any political or activist group. “He only does business and for that he meets many people. He is not aligned to any party or group,” he said.

When I requested Mrs Saikia for a photograph, she reiterated, “Please do not put me into any further trouble.”

"Please do not get us into further trouble": Dibakar Saikia's mother

Dibakar's wife wasn't present at the time of my visiting their residence; she had gone to meet some lawyers. I requested for her phone number so that I could later check on the progress of the case. When I dialled the number later that night, it turned out to be a wrong one. Clearly, the family was shaken with fear. And so was the rest of the region. It wasn't easy to meet people; many of them had several phone numbers of which some were unreachable. Like Bedanta Laskar, one of the key activists of KMSS said, “The government is hell bent on having the dam completed. It will crush all movement, any how. Even the best of police officers are today unrecognizable.”