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Bulldozers gone, Nagaon village retrieves papers, stunned at ‘terrorist’ tag

Salonabori is stunned at the turn of events. “Yes, they deserve punishment…double punishment if need be. But to break their homes, say they are terrorists… Never did I imagine that it would come to this,” says a 72-year-old.

nagaon police station fireThe home of Safikul Islam, who allegedly died in police custody, was demolished on Sunday. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

A LOT has happened in three days in this village dominated by Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam’s Nagaon district. One evidence of it is the documents and household goods laid out to dry along a pond from which they were fished out. The other is the missing adults.

After the Assam Police announced it would book some of those suspected of setting fire to a police station under the UAPA, an Act meant to counter terrorist activities, even several women of Salonabori have fled. Amidst the huts demolished by the bulldozers that came before the UAPA, stand children, like a 13-year-old.

Even she is aware that something changed irrevocably when anger over the alleged custodial death of her uncle provoked villagers to attack the police station. However, trying to retrieve some family documents, including voter cards and birth certificates, she says: “Yes, my father deserves to be punished, he burnt a police station… But what did I do? What did my mother do? Why did they break our homes, throw away my books?”

Children retrieve their documents, fished out of a pond in the village. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Meanwhile, the death of Safikul Islam now lies behind curtains of fog. A 39-year-old fish trader, he had been brought to the Batadrava Police Station, 5 km from the settlement of Salonabori, after being found drunk along the road. By the next morning, he was dead.

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A statement from the office of the Director General of Police, Assam, Sunday said Islam was released and handed over to his wife on Saturday morning, after which he died. “One Safiqul Islam (39yo) was brought to Batadrava Thana on 20/05/22 at 9:30PM after receiving a complaint of him being drunk… He was booked after a medical check-up. The next day he was released and handed over to his wife. His wife even gave him some water/food. Later he complained of sickness and he was taken to two hospitals… Unfortunately he was declared dead,” the statement said.

Events followed in quick succession: an irate mob, primarily comprising Islam’s family, arrived at the station on Saturday afternoon. In an hour, it had set fire to the station. By Saturday night, six were picked up, including Islam’s wife and their 13-year-old daughter, his two brothers, and two other relatives — all for the arson.

A special investigation team was set up to probe the violence, a judicial inquiry was ordered into the alleged custodial death, and the officer-in charge of the Batadrava Police Station suspended, with his team put on “reserve close”.

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On Sunday morning, the bulldozers arrived at Salonabori, and demolished the homes of all those booked. By Monday, the district police said that apart from the arson case, they would book the arrested under the UAPA for suspected terror links to “jihadi groups”. A case was registered at the Dhing Police Station, under which Salonabori falls.

Among those in the village are Islam’s three younger children. An aunt is here from Dimapur in Nagaland to take care of them.

The three include a 10-year-old, who says she accompanied her mother to the police station to get her father released. She says they received a call late on Friday night from her uncle. “He told us that the police had asked for a duck to release my father.”

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Documents, clothes strewn after demolition of homes of the accused. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

At 4 am on Saturday, she says, she and her mother left for the station carrying a duck, which is reared by most homes here. She says her father “looked really sick… was asking for water”.

The family alleges the mother and daughter were told by the policemen that a duck would not do, and they should get Rs 10,000. “We went back to arrange the money,” the 10-year-old says, adding that when they returned to the police station a while later, “my father was unconscious… he was barely breathing”.

“My mother and I ran back home to tell the family.” Their uncle then accompanied them to the police station, she says, but by then Islam was not there. “We were told he was taken to the hospital.”

(On Tuesday afternoon, after The Indian Express had met them, the children were put by the government in “safe and proper accommodation” in shelter homes.)

According to local reporters present at the station, police brought Islam’s body back to the station around 2 pm Saturday. “His family refused to accept it,” says a journalist, who covers the area for a local news channel. “They started pelting stones at the new police building, which was under renovation… They were so angry… they began beating up the three-four police personnel there,” says the journalist.

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Part of the Batadrava police station, after a mob torched it on Saturday. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

With the building of the Batadrava Police Station under renovation, the station was temporarily functioning out of an adjacent old, two-room cottage.

The journalist says the mob proceeded towards the cottage. “Suddenly, two women (said to be the mother and daughter) poured petrol on some scooters, threw a lit matchstick and ran away,” he says, adding that another, unidentified person set fire to some files.

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Videos of the incident show two women sprinkling liquid on parked two-wheelers at the station and lighting a fire.

On Tuesday, the area and its charred remains are cordoned off. The current officer in-charge, who was transferred to the station on Sunday, says he cannot comment. “All I know is I came to a burnt police station. Rest… the investigation will reveal.”

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The Indian Express reached out to the officers present on the day the incident happened, but their phones were switched off. However, a worker at the station confirmed that Islam was brought on Friday night, drunk and unconscious. “The next morning, around 7 am, the police took him to hospital… he was barely conscious,” the worker says, adding he didn’t know what happened inside the station.

Nagaon SP Leena Doley admits lapse on the police part, with the officer in-charge not informing superiors about the death. “If he had, we would have taken preventive measures, sent reinforcements. He failed to assess the situation.”

Doley claims the mob came “prepared” to attack the police station. “While there was an element of reactive response, there is more to it, considering the intensity and force of the attack.”

Now, police are charging the accused with “possibly forged land documents, links to terror groups, drug mafia and unlawful activities”. Doley says they are investigating links with the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a proscribed terrorist organisation based in Bangladesh.

Salonabori is stunned at the turn of events. “Yes, they deserve punishment…double punishment if need be (for attacking the police station),” says a 72-year-old. “But to break their homes, say they are terrorists… Never did I imagine that it would come to this.”

A 48-year-old farmer adds: “We have documents, this is land we have tilled for decades. In our entire history, no one has ever been picked up in connection to a terror case.”

Police also claim they found a country made revolver with four rounds of ammunition, and a huge quantity of pills, from one of the homes they demolished.

First published on: 24-05-2022 at 11:35:21 pm
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