“We — Prabin, Akhil, Pradip, Debojit and Bhaben — are saying that we five unarmed and innocent youths lie here as witnesses… When you return from here tell everyone that we sacrificed our lives in the hope of a beautiful future of Assam.”
So reads a dirge in Assamese on a signboard erected at the memorial of the five men — Prabin Sonowal (29), Pradip Dutta (33), Debojit Biswas (30), Akhil Sonowal (36), Bhaben Moran (35) — killed in cold blood after being picked up from their homes for questioning by the Army in Assam’s Tinsukia district in February 1994. Twenty-four years later, on October 13, 2018, an Army court martial ruled in favour of the victims and sentenced seven Armymen, including a Major General and two Colonels, to life imprisonment for the extra-judicial killings. The order awaits clearance from higher Army authorities, which may take two-three months, according to defence officials. The memorial — adjacent to a National Highway at Dangari and popularly referred to as ‘Panch Swahid Memorial’ (Five Martyrs Memorial) — was erected by the All Assam
Students’ Union (AASU) soon after five bodies were cremated together on February 24, 1994, at that spot, attended by thousands.
The families of the five men maintain they had nothing to do with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) — as claimed by the Army — or with any terror activities. Sonowal was a prominent youth leader associated with AASU while Debojit, Pradip and Akhil were small-time contractors associated with the tea gardens. Moran was a farmer and ran a small tea shop by the highway.
For the victims’ families, the story began on February 15, 1994, when Rameshwar Singh, the general manager of the Assam Frontier Tea Estate — a conglomerate which had 17 gardens under it — was shot dead by suspected militants outside his home at a garden in Talap. The killing came in the peak of separatist insurgency by the ULFA and extensive anti-militancy operations by Indian forces.
According to Prabin Dutta, a brother of Pradip Dutta, Major General A K Lal – at that time a commanding officer of the army posted in Tinsukia district – was Singh’s brother-in-law and he decided to go after the killers. Lal is the senior-most officer accused in the case.
On the intervening night of February 17-18, at 1.30am, Pradip Dutta was picked up from his house in the nearby Khoubong tea garden by ten men wearing Army uniforms. “We will return him after questioning, the soldiers had said,” says Prabin Dutta, who is now in his 50s.
In subsequent raids in and around Talap, on February 17 and 18 (both during the day and at night), at least eight other persons were allegedly picked up by Army soldiers offering similar assurances of release. Of the nine, four were released and the bodies of five were recovered.
Prabin Dutta had visited a nearby Army camp to ask if his brother was detained there on the morning of February 18, 1994. He was told his brother was being questioned inside and would be let off soon. Similarly, after waiting for two days for her husband Bhaben Moran to return, Lileshwari Moran, now in her 50s, visited the camp on February 21 with other women from the area.
“I carried my two daughters in my arms and my son walked behind. I asked them if my husband is not returned to me, who will help me take care of the children,” says Moran, now a peon at a block development office in Saikhowa.
Moran said her husband was ultimately ‘shown’ to her, metres away inside the camp. “He was in the same shirt he was wearing when they picked him up, green with red checks.” She, too, was assured of his imminent return.
By February 22, two habeas corpus petitions — one by then AASU Vice President Jagadish Bhuyan for all nine detainees and the other by Deepak Dutta, only for his brother, Pradip Dutta — were filed at the Gauhati High Court.
Bhuyan said the court on February 22 ordered that the detained men be presented before the nearest magistrate. But on February 23, the families were notified that five bodies have been recovered.
The Army had then claimed that the five were ULFA cadres setting up a camp inside the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and were killed in an encounter.
“All the five persons showed signs of brutal torture. Fingernails had been plucked out, the eyes appeared to be damaged and there were black stab marks, probably caused by bayonets,” says Debashish Biswas (55), a brother of Debojit.
He said autopsies of the bodies were conducted at the Assam Medical College in Dibrugarh on February 23. The post-mortem report of Moran, accessed by The Indian Express, mentions the injury type as “rifle firearm and blunt weapon”.
“After their bodies were recovered the next day and the Army claimed that the five were extremists, I again filed a petition in the HC,” said Bhuyan, who is now the Chairman of the Assam Petrol-Chemicals Limited.
A defence source well-versed with the case told The Indian Express, “The bodies were recovered after the HC ordered them to be presented before a magistrate. After that, the HC took serious note of the issue and in March 1994, it ordered a magisterial inquiry. At the same time, the Army also conducted its own inquiry. Six years later, after going through both the inquiry reports, the HC recommended a CBI probe into the case.”
According to Bhuyan, the CBI chargesheet held the seven Army personnel guilty, saying that the five men were picked up from their homes, detained and then killed. The case then went to the Supreme Court, which in 2012 asked for a trial. After six years, the Army initiated a court martial.
Four more men — Prakash Sharma, Moteshwar Moran, Gunin Hazarika and Manoranjan Das (now dead) — were allegedly picked up in the same period, detained at the camp but released by the Army in a reserved forest area near Talap on the night of February 21.
They were allegedly threatened by the Army to not reveal whatever they saw or heard inside the camp. But, they proved to be crucial witnesses in the case, testifying that they had seen and heard the other five persons inside the detention camp till February 21 evening.
Sharma, then a 30-year-old supplier of stones and sand, said he had seen Pradip Dutta inside the Army’s detention camp because “there was a gap in the way the black cloth was tied over my eyes”. Sharma said he told the CBI and the Army court about this.
Moteshwar Moran said he had heard the screams of Bhaben Moran, Pradip Dutta and Prabin Sonowal — signifying torture — till February 21 evening.
“We four used to play cards together all the time. I knew their voice, and hence could identify that it was them, although I was blindfolded.” While being picked up, Moran said, he was asked if he knew the “killers of Rameshwar Singh”.