She was shot twice in the back. As she fell forward, one of the men came to the front and fired twice again, at her breasts. The third shoved the barrel of his gun into her mouth and fired. Shot nine times, by four men, 16-year-old Priya Basumatary lay bleeding for 24 hours before her body was removed.
Priya’s father Niron was threatened to make sure he didn’t look away. Her mother Nirola who tried to save Priya was beaten up and fainted. Priya’s elder sister Arkhila was spared because she pleaded that she was married and hence belonged to another village. Her neighbours were threatened to not intervene.
Her younger sister Lakshmi, a Class V student, escaped by managing to flee from the back door.
Priya’s fault, according to the much-dreaded and outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)’s Songbijit faction, was that she was a “police informer”. Five cadres of the NDFB (S) faction had been killed earlier that day on August 20 by security forces, and the outfit blamed Priya for it.
There is nothing to suggest this was the case, but in the remote Dwimuguri village inside the Chirang reserved forest, close to the Indo-Bhutan border in western Assam, the protests of her or her parents meant little.
Priya was dragged out, severely thrashed and then shot. Before leaving, the heavily armed NDFB (S) men, including its ‘deputy army chief’ G Bidai, also warned the villagers not to touch her body or they would meet the same fate. The whole episode was recorded on a video camera, and a clip later released to local TV news channels.
Nirola says Priya and she had gone to wash clothes and take bath in a nearby stream in the afternoon of August 20. When they returned home, they found three-four armed youths in their front yard. “One of them grabbed Priya by the arm, snatched her mobile phone and started accusing her of working as a police informer. They began thrashing her with a piece of bamboo. When I tried to save her, they beat me up and flung me aside,” says an injured Nirola, speaking from a hospital bed in Bongaigaon.
Nirola fainted and can’t recall what happened later. However, Niron, who rushed home from where was tending his cows in the field, was made to watch all that his daughter was put through for the next 20-30 minutes.
“They beat me up and dragged Priya to the open field. A large number of villagers had assembled there. They made both of us kneel. One of the militants announced they were going to punish Priya for being an informer. Another one lifted my head with the butt of a gun and said, ‘See what we are going to do to your daughter now’,” says Nirola. “I sat there like a dead man. Other people also simply stood and watched. Nobody uttered a word.”
Around 5 pm, almost an hour after the militants had left, some villagers organised a bullock-cart, put the couple and their daughters Arkhila and Lakshmi into it, and shifted them to Balajhar, their original village. Many landless villagers like Nirola have encroached forest land to grow crops, and Dwimuguri has around 200 households like theirs. Nirola had occupied about 10 bighas of land, growing paddy and vegetables there. Priya was left behind on the ground.
While the militants also warned the villagers not to tell the police, information reached the Superintendent of Police’s office at Kajalgaon within a couple of hours. From Dwimuguri, the nearest police station is at Runikhata. That involves crossing the Champamati river and three other streams, reaching the nearest roadhead at No. 2 Salbari village, and then travelling some 12 km to Runikhata. Kajalgaon, the headquarters of Chirang district, which shares a boundary with Bhutan, is a further 34 km away.
“We sent out a joint Army-police party at around 7 pm, but heavy rain and darkness prevented the team from reaching the location. Next morning the team went again, taking a circuitous route to avoid the swelling river. By then, some villagers had dared pick up Priya’s body, put it on a cart and started moving towards Runikhata. Our party met them about halfway, took the body and shifted it to Kajalgaon civil hospital, where it arrived around 7 pm of August 21,” said Chirang SP Ranjan Bhuyan.
While the three factions of NDFB are blamed for countless acts of violence — the worst being the serial blasts of October 30, 2008, that left nearly 100 dead in Guwahati and several other towns — Priya’s death shocked the state. With protests raging, the government instituted a bravery award in Priya’s name and also sanctioned Rs 20 lakh as compensation to her family against the norm of Rs 6 lakh generally for victims of terrorist violence.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi denied that this reinforced the impression that Priya worked as an informer, a charge levelled by the Opposition. “Our government does not involve children in counter-insurgency operations. Priya was an innocent girl brutally murdered by a group of cowards,” he said.
At the Bodo-medium Runikhata Girls’ High School, about 16 km from Dwimuguri, where Priya studied in Class X, her friends are in shock. “Priya was my best friend. I don’t feel like attending school now,” said Binita Narzary.
She was among the 52 students who were to take the High School Leaving Certificate finals under the Assam board in 2015 from the school. “She joined our school after shifting from a middle school at Salbari last year, but was already popular because she was a good student as well as a talented singer,” said headmaster Sarat Brahma.
“Priya was supposed to take part in a debate on the merits and demerits of mobile phones in our school this week. The debate has been postponed because of her death,” said another classmate Komita Narzary.
Brahma said her teachers expected Priya to score a first division in her finals. She had got 60 per cent marks in her half-yearly exams.
Her parents say she always dreamed of becoming a civil service officer. Too scared to think about going back to Dwimuguri now, the Basumatarys have not given up at least that hope. “I want my youngest daughter to study hard and fulfil the dreams Priya had,” Niron said. “I want to give her a good education so that she can become an officer.”