LAST WEEK, Gauhati High Court quashed the appointment of a committee that had probed allegedly extra-judicial killings — often described as “secret killings” — in Assam during 1998-01 and held the then Home Department and sections of the government machinery complicit. Home was headed by AGP Chief Minister Prafulla K Mahanta during 1998-01; the commission headed by Justice K N Saikia (since deceased) was formed in 2005 and submitted its report in 2006-07.
What were these killings, and why was the appointment of this panel quashed?
Close relatives of a number of ULFA members were shot by unidentified killers, mostly masked men, during those three years. For example, on August 11, 1998, Dimba Rajkonwar, elder brother of then ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa was shot dead in Dibrugarh. Hours later, the mother, brother, sister and sister-in-law of then ULFA publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary were killed in Nalbari district. On January 3, 2001 Jyotish Sharma, brother-in-law of ULFA leader Subhash Sharma, was shot dead.
The Congress made it a poll issue during the 2001 Assembly elections.
Four successive panels probed the killings, and the ground on which the one headed by Justice Saikia was challenged was that the previous panel was still active. The first one, under Justice Shafiqul Haque, was set up during the AGP regime itself. Soon after the Congress came to power in 2001, it set up a committee under Justice Meera Sarma who, however, pulled out in 2003 citing personal grounds. The Congress government then formed the Justice J N Sarma Commission, but rejected its report in 2005 and set up the Justice Saikia Commission.
2005: The J N Sarma Commission probed six killings and submitted an interim report on three. It said these were revenge killings but did pinpoint responsibility. Gogoi claimed “discrepancies” in the report.
2006-07: The Saikia Commission was constituted by a notification dated August 22, 2005, by the Governor. It was to look into seven cases (11 deaths) but went on to probe 35 cases. It submitted its report in four parts.
Saikia panel findings
Blaming the state machinery, the Saikia panel report alleged a nexus between police and certain surrendered ULFA members, coined the term “ulfocide”, and defined it as a general plan for “killing of ULFAs, and their families and relatives”. It described the killings as “remote-orchestrated” and claimed that these were caused after ULFA families failed to persuade their ULFA relatives to come for peace talks.
“The then Chief Minister himself got press appeals to persuade them, published by different literary organisations of Assam like the Asam Sahitya Sabha, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha etc. Having failed to receive the desired response, the conspiracy to kill members of those ULFA and ULFA-related families must have been hatched in secrecy.”
The first part of the report, which covered seven cases, noted “similarities” in these killings, “which could not be so, unless there was remote orchestration from higher authorities. The remote was supposed to have been at Home”. The report also noted that the weapons used were of a type generally used by police or the military, and that there was police patrolling on the spot prior to and after the killings, but not during the time of the killings.
In 2008, Mahanta appealed to the High Court challenging the legality of the Saikia Commission; the court has now held the panel legally untenable. “Our main argument was that at the time of constitution of the Saikia Commission, the previous J N Sarma Commission was still active,” Mahanta’s counsel Rajib Baruah told The Indian Express. He said that under Section 7 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, it is mandatory that there is a gazette notification for discontinuation of an inquiry commission, but none was issued for the Sarma Commission.
Baruah described the J N Sarma Commission report as “not favourable” to the Congress and the Saikia Commission’s report as “self-contradictory in parts” because at one point is says that “there is no evidence to pinpoint responsibility” and at another it “blames the then Home department of remotely orchestrating the killings”.
What the verdict means
In 2007, after the report was tabled in the Assembly, Mahanta had alleged that the investigation was politically motivated. Now, too, sources close to Mahanta said the Congress did not accept the J N Sarma Commission report because it was not favourable to it.
For the Congress, senior leader Pradyut Bordoloi told The Indian Express, “People said at that time that without official patronage, how could secret forces carry on with the killings. And that is why, owing to popular demand, we constituted the commissions to investigate the dark chapter and bring the culprits to book. You cannot brush all killings under the carpet. It was very necessary to bring out those cases and go after the killers.”