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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Secret Killings, Open Truths?

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman

The Saikia Commission Report investigating the secret killings in Assam between 1998 and 2001 was tabled in the Assam Legislative Assembly on November 16, 2007. The Commission was headed by K. N. Saikia, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. This report has heated up the political atmosphere in the State as the issue is one of the most controversial in the history of insurgency in Assam. It has also opened up the debate on the efficacy of the Unified Command structure comprising of the State Government and the military command in tackling the growing insurgent activity in the State.

The Saikia Commission Report has clearly indicted the former Chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, for his active role in the secret killings. It examined altogether 35 cases of secret killings and found out commonalities which exposed the complicity of the then State Government. The Commission has noted that these killings could not have been carried out without help from the government machinery and also described the role of the Army as being “ubiquitous”.

The secret killings were indeed the darkest period in the history of insurgency in the State. The mindless killings of the relatives of the ULFA militants, who had hardly anything to do with their ideology or activities, and the violence that followed were very unfortunate. The use of surrendered ULFA cadres (SULFA) in conducting these secret killings indicates massive state manipulation in shaping the dynamics of the insurgent movement in the State. The Asom Gana Parishad Government had, under Mahanta and with the connivance of the Army and the State Police machinery, used these SULFA men to carry out the secret killings and had actively facilitated the logistics for this operation. This can be substantially proved by the Commission’s findings that the weapons employed by the perpetrators were of a very sophisticated nature and equipped with ‘prohibited bores’ normally used by the Army and the police. In the areas where such crime took place police patrolling, normally very intensive, was was stopped at the time of the crime.

There were instances of secret killings also during the earlier Congress rule under the leadership of Hiteshwar Saikia; these were only continued by the Mahanta regime. There have, therefore, been charges that this report is politically motivated and would be used for political witch-hunting. The AGP has tried to wash its hands off the whole issue by branding it as the sole handiwork of Mahanta who was shown the door by the party just before the Assembly elections in 2005 mainly on charges of anti-party activities and because of his controversial personal life.

The role of the Army also needs to be examined in the context of the secret killings as it had taken the help of SULFA men in its counter-insurgency operations in many parts of Assam during the time. It is common knowledge that SULFA cadres used to be taken along with the Army convoys to provide information of ULFA hideouts and their arms and ammunition supplies. In fact, the Army pitted the SULFA against the ULFA, effectively creating a shield between themselves and the insurgency.

The targets of the secret killings were selected with care and aimed to hit the ULFA where it hurt the most. The families of prominent ULFA leaders were targeted and these included that of its Chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, whose elder brother was killed in broad daylight in Dibrugarh. The intention of these killings was to launch a chain of killings which the SULFA would start and which would naturally be avenged by the ULFA.

IT is important to note that SULFA men had certain political aspirations after they had surrendered and come to the mainstream to form certain groups. They had become very powerful as a group in the areas they were active mostly out of the fear that they evoked on society at large and their new-found wealth as they had cornered much of the government contracts. They carried on with their nefarious activities and unleashed terror of a new kind. They could carry arms in the open as they were allowed to do so by the government for their own protection and using their image of ex-militant status managed to create a fear psychosis in the minds of the common people. The involvement of Mahanta, who was known to be close to certain sections of the ULFA (which later drifted out of his influence), must also be underlined in the context of trying to effectively keeping these SULFA men out of the political scene and engaging them elsewhere. Initially there was a semblance of support between the ULFA and Mahanta but that did not last long as the ULFA no longer trusted Mahanta since his policies became more centred on building his own political base. There was also a lot of corruption in the ranks of the Asom Gana Parishad and most of the party leaders were interested in amassing their own wealth.

It is, however, also not proper in this context to put all the blame on Mahanta alone as the Saikia Commission has done. It could be true that Mahanta was involved in some of the secret killings and it is also true that he must have been in the know of most of the killings as he was in charge of the State’s Home Ministry at that time. In fact the AGP, which has tried to wash its hands off Mahanta and the entire secret killing episode, has still in its ranks many leaders who had some role in the secret killings.

The Commission’s report has been branded by Mahanta as a covert understanding between the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad to single him out and finish him politically. Mahanta had formed his own party called the Asom Gana Parishad (Pragatisheel) after his exit from the AGP. It could not have been possible that prominent leaders like the late Bhrigu Phukan and the present chief of the AGP, Brindavan Goswami, who was in Mahanta’s government during 1998-2001, were not involved or even aware of the secret killing agenda of Mahanta. They were a part of the unholy nexus of the government, the police, the Army and the SULFA. It is noteworthy to mention in this context that the J.N. Sharma Commission, which was constituted before the Saikia Commission by the AGP Government immediately after the secret killings, could not pinpoint any responsibility as such for the secret killings. That Commission’s report was also tabled along with the Saikia Commission Report. Therefore it is quite possible that the findings of both the Saikia Commission and the Sharma Commission and the wide divergences between them may discredit the whole process and brand it as politically influenced as Mahanta has already claimed.

The ULFA did avenge the killings and the Moran Polo Ground encounter in 2001 when most of the SULFA leaders of Sibsagar and Dibrugarh were killed at one go was indeed the high point of the revenge killings. The State Government and the Army which had all along been using these very SULFA men could not provide them protection against the ULFA. It may also well be that their efficacy being exhausted, it was considered that they be eliminated. The SULFA leaders probably knew much which could have been harmful for both the State Government and the Army.

It is difficult to know if we yet have the final picture on the secret killings. The sense among the people of Assam about this highly controversial issue is one of fear and of a disinclination to talk. The SULFA men learnt the hard way of the consequences of subjecting themselves to the manipulative designs of the State Government and the Army.

While it is important to acknowledge that the Army is working under tremendous pressure in Assam, this however does not mean that they can resort to such illegal tactics, and forge an unholy nexus involving the politicians and the SULFA. This also brings into question the continued presence of the Unified Command structure and the accompanying Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and provides additional proof of its misuse by both the government and the Army. The Saikia Commission has recommended that the Unified Command structure should be kept in abeyance and gradually dismantled. This is one measure recommended in this report that needs to be implemented immediately. The growing debate about the logic behind the continued Army presence in counter-insurgency operations in Assam could be somewhat addressed by steps in this direction. This could be followed up with the gradual withdrawal of the Army from Assam.

The author is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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