The burnt tanker had been stationed at the Chauldhowa outpost since the day it was set on fire – on the evening of May 11. The Inspector In-Charge, Utpal Changmai, was known to be a kind, gentle officer who spoke to everyone with warmth. “But he unleashed such a terror on that night – we can't believe his kind words anymore,” echoed the voices of the people living close to the Subansiri bridge on NH 52.
The Chauldhowa police outpost of the Lakhimpur police is stationed on the NH 52, much before the Subansiri bridge. It has a large open space ahead of its concrete office. About three CRPF personnel sat chatting on the base of the flag post. In another corner, the Indian Oil tanker stood; its front covered with a yellow sheet of plastic. Invisible to any passerby on the highway, a tempo stood next to the tanker. It contained a few oil drums. Few sweaty, red-thin men wearing just the gamcha below their waist were transferring the oil from the tanker to the drums. Few cops kept a vigil. Changmai waited near a vehicle as I introduced myself to him and requested to speak to him. He suggested that I speak to his senior, who was present there too.
I introduced myself to Imdad Ali, Additional Superintendent of Police (Security), Lakhimpur District, stating that I was doing a series of stories on large dams (not a lie this). He said that there was nothing much to speak of. “We have nothing to do with the dam, and we have no idea about it. We are here only to maintain law and order,” he said. After a few moments of pleading, Changmai, Ali, another officer and I were seated in an office painted green. It had no racks with dusty files, or photographs of freedom fighters. The only accessories were a locked steel cupboard and curtains on the windows and the door. From the window, I could watch better the oil transfer in action.
Ali interviewed me for five minutes, taking down every detail – name, exact address of my permanent residence, place of origin, publication I worked for, the date when I arrived in the region, the place where I was staying in the vicinity, the person with whom I was staying, how I arrived at the police outpost (vehicle and with whom), the places I had visited so far and my phone number. Finally I asked if I could not interview him back. He did not permit me to interview him on video; only the SP is permitted to speak to the media.
Priyanka (P): What have the investigations so far on the tanker that was set on fire?
Ali: We have arrested 14 persons so far.
P: I heard that it was 21. So it is 14 or 21?
A: It is 21.
P: But hasn't one more person been arrested today?
P: So that makes it 22.
(This conversation took place on May 17. So far, 26 people have been arrested.)
P: So what exactly happened?
A: This happened on May 11, about 100 metres away from here, in Thekeraguri.
P: Did this happen inside the village or...?
A: We cannot give you so much details. You will have to go and see yourself. All these details are part of our investigation.
P: All I am asking if for the distance...
A: It happened 200 metres away from the highway.
P: Have the arrests yielded any information yet?
A: The arrested have been given jail custody. We have got some information, but the investigations are on.
P: What did the vehicle contain?
A: It contained 12,000 litres of diesel.
P: Was it headed to NHPC's dam site?
P: And was it taking the route of the left turn from Ghagor?
A: No, it was headed to Gogamukh Chari-ali (junction of four roads, or the town square), from where it would have taken the left turn to Gerukamukh.
P: But there wasn't any blast when it was set on fire...?
A: Actually, fortunately, the whole tanker did not catch fire. Only the front cabin got damaged. So there was no blast.
P: And the fire brigade...?
A: The fire brigade was called and they immediately put off the fire.
P: And how long did it take for the fire brigade to arrive?
A: About 15-20 minutes.
P: But the nearest fire brigade is in North Lakhimpur town, which is 35 kms away....
A: Why do you need so much details about how much time did the fire brigade take to arrive? We called the fire brigade, it came and the fire was put off.
P: I am asking so because there is a factor of distance and time...
C: The fire brigade arrived in 25-30 minutes.
P: So first you said 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, and now 30 minutes...
A: You seem to want too many details!
P: are you looking for more people?
C: (nods his head downwards to indicate a 'yes')
A: These are things we cannot reveal as our investigations are on.
P: I have also heard that a small boy was beaten...
A: No we did not beat a boy. Actually, when the tanker had caught fire, we had to demolish a camp that had been set up. Some of the organisations called for 48-hours' bandh in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. These organisations used some teenagers to pelt stones at passing vehicles. On the next day, May 12, we caught him and brought him to the police station. His guardians were called and they took him home.
P: Who were his guardians?
A: His parents could not come. His maternal and paternal uncles came to take him.
P: But don't you think that the sections under which the arrested people have been charged are very stringent ones?
A: When A FIR is filed, the details of it are understood and based on those ingredients a case is made. If we find during the course of the investigation that some sections need to be added, we do so with the help of the chief judicial magistrate.
P: But why did you say earlier that this has got nothing to do with the anti-dam movement?
A: The police is here only to maintain law and order. We are not interested with the dam.... if anyone goes against the law, we look only into that.
P: Okay, in that case, I shall speak to the SP, if it is difficult for you to give me too many details.
A: Yes, please do so.
P: So now the oil is being transferred...?
A: There are actually four companies working on the dam site with NHPC – L&T, Soma, Alstom and Texmaco. This tanker was headed to L&T as it is working on the powerhouse. So this tanker is being offloaded now and the oil will be sent there.
P: But after the strong movement in December last year, which led to the creation of the camp in Ghagor, what kind of agreement was arrived for, for letting materials reach the dam site?
A: We don't know all the things that NHPC needs, and we are not concerned with that. Whenever they needed any essential materials we would provide them that. Most unfortunately this time this has happened. So now we have received orders from our higher-ups that there should not be an illegal gatherings or camps because Section 144 (unlawful assembly) of the CrPC has been imposed here.
P: Since when has Section 144 been imposed here?
A: Whenever Section 144 is imposed, it is lifted after 3 months. About 15-20 days ago, Section 144 was again imposed here.
P: But was Section 144 imposed here earlier too? On what basis...?
A: Yes, this happens sometimes. It was imposed here earlier too. This is decided by the District Magistrate, and not the police.
P: So was it imposed again before or after Bihu (Bihu is officially celebrated on April 14, but its festivities and gatherings are still going on in some places)
A: I do not remember the exact date but...
C: It was after Bihu.
P: And Home guards have been recruited too here...?
A: Actually home guards are not recruited here now. They were recruited earlier.
P: But SPOs...?
A: Well, SPOs have recently been.... (didn't complete the sentence). Actually home guards stationed at different police stations have been gathered together. Some of them receive a salary of Rs 4,500. But because we have received outside forces, now the home guards are being utilised for other work. But this is an internal matter of the district and we can deploy the home guards however the need arises.
P: But haven't there been any recruitment for SPOs too lately?
A: I cannot say much on that. Only my SP can give you answers to that.... Do you have any more questions?
P: Not really, as you are directing me to the SP for my questions!
P: So for how long will Section 144 be imposed here?
A: For about 3 months.... until June.
P: So this means that you would have to patrol throughout the highway and in and around Gogamukh too...
A: Well, we cannot arrest people in a restaurant or in the market place or private institutions. But there were many people at the camp and they would pelt stones at the passing vehicles. Because of such incidents Section 144 has been imposed. Now if 7 journalists come to meet us, then Section 144 cannot be imposed. But those people were pelting stones on the SP's vehicle! But if there are ill persons taken by a vehicle because they cannot walk, or if there are women or children as pillion riders on a two-wheeler, then of course it is not imposed. The administration is nothing but common sense.
P: But those who have been arrested were under such circumstances....
A: No. People have been arrested after due investigation! A person is arrested when he is found to be connected to a particular case.
P: ...but then there were women who were arrested, who were manhandled by the male police personnel...
A: Look, there will always be allegations, like they are visible everywhere....
P: ...of course there can be allegations, but there could be eye-witnesses too...
A: ...but whom do you term 'eye-witness'? Just because someone says that he saw something, can I trust him as an eye-witness? Eye-witness is that which one sees with his own eye! There are always allegations when something has to be done. There are allegations that police go and watch women who are bathing by the river! These are all baseless things. And there will always be allegations that there were mo women police personnel. But now it is actually very common that there will definitely be women police personnel around. The media is always ready to tarnish the image of the police....
P: ….no sir, I do respect the police because I too have to work and communicate with the police on a regular basis. But all that I am asking is from the point of view of this case.
A: Look, we are transferred to different places throughout our lives in the police force. We too have women at home. So we cannot ill-treat women while we are at work. So saying that we 'manhandled' the women is wrong. The instances of one or two policemen cannot be generalised....
P: ...I am not generalising. If I did so, I would be wary of coming to a police station or would have men coming with me for my protection. I am asking facts pertaining to the case at hand. And when I said 'manhandling', I meant the instance when women were dragged by male police personnel by their hair.
A: Then you should ask like that.
C: I am very happy that you have clarified yourself too. Which is why I ask you honestly, did you or any person face any trouble here? Have they or their vehicles been stopped midway on the road? Did people face any harassment here before this incident took place?
P: Sir, I haven't been here before the incident. So all I now see around are armed personnel. It is an obvious fact that people will be curious or maybe even fearful when they see a road full of police personnel. It is not always a positive environment. So I am aware that there was indeed such an aura here before too, based on whatever people have told me.
A: Look, in November 2011, a pressure shaft was being transported to NHPC by road. People tried to block it, and then they later began to block the highway and disallow any materials from being transported to NHPC. Then they formed the camp at Ghagor, yet we would apply just bailable charges, if we arrested them. This time the same thing happened; they blocked the highway and the tanker was burnt. Nowadays, if there is a highway blockade anywhere, the message goes right up to the Centre. Blocking the highway does cause a lot of inconvenience to people – old people, pregnant women, people going to the market. You won't see this kind of highway blockade anywhere but this has become prevalent here because in doing so, the message goes to the Centre directly. Once the highway is blocked, some senior politicians do arrive and then the groups can highlight their demands. So now we have orders to ensure that the highway is free, and whenever there is any disturbance there will surely be police around.
P: One last question, and a very personal one – what do you and the police cadre think about the movement and the reason for which the movement is taking place?
A: Look, we are just policemen. As per the Assam Police Act of 2007 and the Police Act our duty is just detection and prevention of crime. We are not concerned about anything other than law and order....
P: ... but this is one Assamese asking another Assamese what he feels about the dam project.
A: Look, the project is being done by the higher-ups. There are different views among people – those who feel that the dam should be built, and those who feel that it should not. We do not go into such details.
P: All I am asking you is, what you feel about the dam, under the given rumours that it will devastate the whole of Assam and that it would not generate just about 10 per cent electricity for Assam....
A: I am wearing my police uniform now, so I cannot tell you what I feel. I can tell you this if you come to my residence, when I am not a policeman.
P: Okay, I will look forward to that then! Thank you for your time.
The jail in North Lakhimpur town is a short tiny building in white and brown on the street. One could easily mistake it for yet another beautiful Assamese home which had been modernised to some extent. A small concrete structure, akin to the bus stands in villages which had a good seating area, was where families and friends waited to meet their loves ones who were behind bars. In the waiting area were Gagan Bora's wife along with her two children. She had come neatly dressed, with a large dollop of vermilion decorating her little head. Along with her were Debo Nath's parents; Debo Nath's mother would be seeing her son the first time after 6 days. Also present were some relatives of Dipen Mudoi, and friends of other prisoners.
A simple list of the prisoners was all that was needed to meet them. One had to wait outside the grilled-door to see if the prisoner was being brought. Minutes later, Debo Nath, Gagan Bora, Dipen Mudoi and Prodeep Gogoi walked to the nearby window. It had a fine grill, but porous enough to lightly touch your loved one's hand. But there were paan-chewing non-talking guards in civilian clothes who accompanied each of the prisoners. They would bend forward if our questions were inaudible to them.
But there was good news from each of the men who had been arrested after the tanker was set on fire near Ghagor on NH 52 – they were all doing well, except for the spicy food which was inedible for most. One complained of torn mosquito nets; another of no access to newspapers. But over all, they all were doing well. Prodeep Gogoi smiled despite his aching hand from the fracture and his face still had bruises. “Are they beating you here?” was a constant question for all the men. Instantly, the guards would bend forward and look towards the prisoner, either hoping to memorise every word of the reply or ensuring that no cryptic words are leaked out. When the replies would be “No, we are doing well” or “No, we are not beaten here”, the guards would relax their posture. But all of the prisoners accused of burning the tanker – farmers, shop owners, students – affirmed that they were tortured when they were first arrested. Some of them suffered kicks in the stomachs, some of them were punched on their faces.
A blurred future... Prodeep Gogoi (left) and Dipen Mudoi (right)
It was imperative to try meet Bharat Sahu. He was with Prodeep Gogoi's son Rupankar when they were apprehended by the cops on the night of May 11, around the same time that the tanker was set on fire. While Rupankar had a narrow escape from being arrested, Sahu was left behind. The news spread the next day that he had been admitted to the Civil Hospital in North Lakhimpur town, owing to the injuries he suffered at the hands of the armed personnel – police and CRPF. But what seemed more intriguing was the fact that none of the people wanting to meet him were successful in doing so. They would be told by the cops in the jail that he did not want to meet anyone.
But this day he had appeared before us, and seemed excited upon seeing one activist he had known for long during the days and nights at the protest camp. He had a litany of complaints – he was punched in his left ear while in police custody but had received no cure; one of his fingers was probably fractured and there were no medicines for it; he was kicked in his stomach and back and they ached; he was still limping from being beaten by the batons on May 11. His left ankle appeared bent inwards. He hated the food; he wondered why nobody had visited him so far.
“But baidew (elder sister), do give us any material we could read, about our rights inside the jail. We will do andolan here itself!” he asserted, even as the guard look disinterested.
“Why don't you write an application to the jailer for appropriate medical treatment?” the activist suggested.
“They won't provide me with pen and paper!” he retorted back.
We requested to meet the jailer.
Bhanu Bhuyan (20), Kalpana Gogoi (20) and Nitumoni Gogoi (23) were brought in next to meet their visitors. Petite girls with smooth skin and soft voices, they had been arrested from the camp at Ghagor on the night of May 11.
They said that were doing fine but had a few basic needs:
- the undergarments provided to them were the size meant for a child
- there was no bathing soap or toothbrush or toothpaste
- the sarees provided to them from the jail were dirty
- they had been wearing the same clothes they had been wearing since the time of their arrest
- they wanted peanuts and other lentils that they could eat, instead of the spicy food
Their mobile phones had been taken away by the police during the commotion when they were beaten and arrested. All three of them hail from remote villages of Kaziranga of Golaghat district. Hardly anyone in their village had mobile phones; they could not remember the phone numbers of those who carried a phone. This simply meant that their parents had not heard from them or seen them or learnt about their arrests, even at least a week after their arrest. The deploring case girls, in a way, represent the state of the numerous political prisoners across the country – 'lost' for their families, trapped in a political battle, hungry for life.
After the girls were sent back to their cells, we were able to meet the jailer, S Baishya, through the same window as we had met the prisoners. We suggested that Bharat be provided pen and paper to write an application since he feels that he is not being treated well. But the jailer ranted how prisoners always lie and they are always taken care of.
Crouching tiger... Bharat Sahu
We complained that prisoners were not provided newspapers to read; the jailer said that they could not ensure 300 prisoners to read just the 4 newspapers the jail was provided.
We complained that Bharat was not given pen and paper to write an application; the jailer said that he could just talk openly since writing paraphernalia was not permitted for jail inmates.
We complained that Bharat's finger had possibly been fractured; the jailer said that he had been taken for an X-Ray the previous day.
They brought in Bharat as well as the jail doctor, to verify the 'allegations'. Bharat was not the same boy we had met minutes ago. What we saw was a scared child with only a murmur, who replied in the affirmative to everything that he was being asked pertaining to his treatment. The jail officials spoke to him lovingly; he didn't for once turn to look at us screaming that he was being threatened. We left the jail, requesting the jailer to provide writing paraphernalia in the least; the jailer retorted that even we could possibly be lawyers, we ought to understand the law better since it not have assert that inmates could deserve this.
As Bharat walked passed us, we murmured that he should not feel threatened. He limped away with his head hanging downwards.
The mystery about who torched the tanker continues.
The jail custody of the arrested men and women has been extended.
In all, 24 are in jail under the charges of criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, extortion, mischief with damage to property and mischief with fire.
At least one truck owner alleged that his truck was being used by the police to transport construction materials to the dam site, when as the police claimed it needed the truck to transport some people.
It is intriguing that the age of several young boys who were arrested has been registered as 18.
People living in close vicinity to NH52 allege that ever since the incident on May 11, many more trucks have been plying on the highway, supposedly taking construction materials to the dam site.
KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi continues his fourth day of fast in Guwahati to protest against the construction of large dams in Northeast India.