Nineteen-year-old Nandi Parja of Birjan village was cutting firewood inside the Behali Reserve Forest on Assam’s border with Arunachal Pradesh when he saw two people among several standing nearby being shot dead.
“It was about 4 pm, and the sun was just beginning to disappear behind the trees when these armed men started firing at us. I managed to escape, but Maneswar Barman and Roopchand Munda were killed before my eyes,” said Nandi, who was among hundreds of people from villages around Behali and Borgang who blocked NH 15 from 7 am on Thursday in protest.
Ten people, all from Assam, were killed on Wednesday by assailants who the state government said belonged to the adjoining Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh.
Besides Barman and Munda, those killed have been identified as Ganesh Newar, Himan Subba, Prakash Subba, Prabhat Subba, Rohit Subba, Kanu Munda, Tomar Subba and Bhalu Subba. All of them belonged to villages under Behali police station, and were inside the reserve forest to “resist” encroachment from the Arunachal side. Behali is about 300 km east of Guwahati.
Sona Munda, Diben Saikia and Biren Parja, along with Nandi, managed to flee from the indiscriminate firing. Nine others who sustained bullet injuries have been admitted to Guwahati’s GMC Hospital.
According to the Assam government, 15,069.65 hectares of land around Behali, covering as many as 30 reserve forests along the border, have been encroached upon by Arunachal. “Sizeable portions” of each of the 11 reserve forests in Assam’s Sonitpur district — which shares a boundary with Arunachal — are under encroachment, says the government in Dispur.
“Arunachal Pradesh has been advancing into Assam’s territory at a very fast pace, and as our state government has failed to protect our land, we have launched a resistance movement called Arunachalar Agrasan Pratirodh Samiti,” said Bibek Das, a local CPI (ML) leader who had contested the Behali assembly seat in 2011.
According to Das, about 500 “volunteers” from several villages have been taking it in turns to create a “human barrier” against the encroachment by Arunachal.
“Yesterday, about 300 volunteers were getting ready for the night shift of the vigil close to the inter-state boundary inside Behali RF when a large armed group attacked them with guns, killing 10 of them,” Das said.
Assam home secretary G D Tripathi corroborated Das’s version, and put the number of attackers at about 100. “The unarmed people were caught unawares by the 100 persons armed with an assortment of guns,” Tripathi told The Indian Express over the telephone.
Among the protesters on the highway on Thursday morning were people from across the political spectrum. BJP national vice-president and MP Bijoya Chakravarty stood under a CPI (ML) flag during an impromptu public meeting on the road, hitting out at the Congress governments in both states.
”The government of Assam is not present along the boundary with any of its neighbouring states. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya have encroached upon large tracts of Assam’s land and forests, and the Assam government has done nothing to protect or recover those tracts,” Chakravarty said.
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi said, “There are no border outposts along inter-state boundaries. There are hardly any guards in the forests along the border. The common people are vulnerable to attacks like the one that took place inside Behali yesterday.”
Home Secretary Tripathi said Assam had on Thursday despatched central forces to the border areas, and was contemplating demanding a CBI probe into Wednesday’s killings. The government has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 6 lakh for the next of kin of each of the dead.
“It was an unprecedented incident and we are considering seeking a CBI investigation into it, especially in view of use of arms in large numbers by the miscreants from the other side,” Tripathi said.
\Arunachal Chief Minister Nabam Tuki on Thursday asked the union home ministry to institute an independent inquiry into the killings. “I condemn the incident in the strongest words and law should take its own course. It is really a trying time for both states. The pain is equal for all of us as the incident is highly condemnable. I am going to plead with the union Ministry of Home Affairs to institute an independent enquiry into the incident,” he said in a statement in Itanagar.
Tuki, who convened a high-level meeting on Wednesday night and on Thursday morning, said the two states had had “cordial brotherly relations from times immemorial”, and appealed to “brothers and sisters of both the states to stay calm and maintain peace and tranquility in this hour of distress”.
Tuki has also spoken with his Assam counterpart Tarun Gogoi.
The start by the government, with 44 days gone, has been measured, more practised and less frenetic.