Salonabari, Nagaon: “Aami basibo parim ne? (Will we be able to stay alive?)” the woman asked, visibly afraid.
It was five days since the lean and soft-spoken woman, in her forties, and her teenage daughter had been picked up by the local police, on suspicion of being part of a mob that set fire to a police station.
The woman spoke to Article 14 on the condition that her name not be used. A day after the Batadrava police station, 123 km east of Assam’s capital Guwahati, was set on fire on 21 May 2022, the two were taken from their home in Salonabari village to the Batadrava police station and asked to name those behind the arson.
A part of the police station building was burnt down, though an under-construction wing was intact.
“We told them we genuinely did not know,” she told Article 14. “But they hit me and my daughter with a cane—three times.”
The woman is a relative of fish trader Safiqul Islam, 39, who died while in the custody of the Batadrava police station on 21 May.
His death triggered a chain of violent events in Salonabari village, located about 5 km from the police station, in the central Assam district of Nagaon.
After the arson, the police allegedly demolished Islam’s home as well as those of four of his relatives, then booked his minor daughter studying in Class 8, among others, under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. Police were also accused of “accidentally” killing Asiqul Islam, the man accused of instigating the mob that set fire to the police station.
The violence and death in Salonabari were the latest evidence, said critics, of state prejudice against Muslims in Assam, where custodial deaths and so-called “encounter” killings have risen sharply since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Himanta Biswa Sarma took over as chief minister in May 2021.
Government data showed 31 people were killed by police in Assam from May to December 2021, Scroll reported. Of the 30 identified victims, 14 were Muslims. Of at least 55 people injured in police firing incidents between 10 May and 10 December 2021, at least 30 were Muslims.
About 34.22% of Assam’s population is Muslim. CM Sarma, who has championed an Assamese-Hindu nationalism, has targeted Muslims on several occasions.
Ahead of the state assembly polls in 2021, before Sarma became CM, he said the BJP did not need votes from the Bengali-origin Muslim community in Assam. He called the community “very very communal”, “very very fundamental”.
He said they were involved in “activities to distort Assamese culture and language”. He also said Muslims must behave like a majority and assure other communities that what happened in Kashmir, as depicted in The Kashmir Files, would not be repeated in Assam.
Delhi-based advocate Arif Jwadder, who filed a petition in the Gauhati High Court in December 2021 on the rising number of ‘encounter’ killings in Assam, told Article 14 that the state had never witnessed such large numbers of extrajudicial killings. “Even during the insurgency in the 1990s, mainly those with arms or sympathisers or informants of underground groups were killed in encounters,” he said.
When he filed the PIL, the number of deaths in these incidents was 28. “Now, with the Batadrava incident, as per my calculation, the death toll has reached 49.”
Senior journalist and editor Sushanta Talukdar, formerly senior assistant editor with The Hindu, said a judicial probe was usually announced after incidents such as the police station arson case. “There is this allegation of custodial death for which there has to be a probe by the human rights commission, which didn't happen in this case,” he said, adding that the police demolishing the house of those accused of arson was “unprecedented”.
Article 14 visited Salonabari village where at least five houses were demolished by the police in the aftermath of the police station being set on fire. These homes belonged to Islam and his relatives, who were either in jail or absconding.
Amidst the remains of the houses, neighbours became care-givers for two minor children who were yet to be taken in by Childline, a nonprofit that aids children in distress. Despite repeated attempts by Article 14, the police refused to comment on why UAPA was invoked against Islam’s wife, eldest daughter and his brothers.
A Demolition Drive Becomes A ‘Search Operation’
On the night of 20 May 2022, Islam was picked up by Batadrava police on grounds that he was lying inebriated on the side of the road in a market area near the police station.
He died the next morning. On the evening of 21 May, an irate mob that allegedly included his family members set fire to the Batadrava police station.
According to Assam special director general of police (DGP, law and order) G P Singh, eight people were identified and arrested while 15 were detained.
The middle-aged woman and her daughter who Article 14 met were among those detained, but were released on 23 May.
“We were kept in the lockup for a night and released the next day,” said the woman. She said they were not in the mob that attacked the police station. “But they took us anyway because we are related to Safiqul.”
On 22 May, police undertook a demolition drive in Salonabari.
Termed initially as a drive against “illegal” houses built with “forged land documents”, police later called it a “search operation” and booked five people under UAPA charges, including Islam’s wife who is in her mid-thirties, and his minor daughter, around 15 years old.
The police said they found a 9 mm pistol and 6,500 nitrazepam pills (a drug commmonly used as a sedative) from one of the demolished houses, and that they were probing alleged links of the accused with the Ansharullah Bangla Team (ABT), a proscribed Bangladeshi terror group.
Nirupam Hazarika, Nagaon’s additional superintendent of police, told Article 14 there were seven people in custody including Islam’s wife and daughter. The latter, a student of class 8, he said, was in juvenile detention. “Two of Safiqul’s brothers have also been arrested, and the rest were part of the mob that burnt the police station,” Hazarika added.
Retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officers told Article 14 that the demolition of houses by the police showed absence of due process.
A former director general of police from Assam said the manner in which the demolitions were carried out in Salonabari raised suspicions. "If the houses of the accused in the Batadrava arson case were illegal, then why didn't the authorities take any step earlier?" he asked. "How did the mob burn down the station so easily? Why were they not resisted?” He said back-up forces should have been called for.
It was Safiqul Islam’s death that set off these events, but the exact cause of his death remains shrouded in mystery.
Villagers Claim Arson Incident 'Spontaneous', Not Planned
Inhabited by Bengali Muslims, Salonabari is a quaint village in the Dhing circle of Nagaon district. According to locals, the village has more than 2,000 voters and a large majority earns their livelihood by selling fish.
Ponds dot the village, water bodies in which fish ponas (seeds) are released. The fish caught are sold in districts including Jorhat, Golaghat and Sivasagar. “Nearly 80% of people in our village are involved in the fish business while others cultivate boro dhan (a type of rice),” a local said.
Islam was also a fish trader. Local residents told Article 14 that he was going to Sivasagar district to sell fish on the day he was picked up by the police. He drank daily, his neighbours said.
“He was a modaahi (alcoholic). But that day, he went out riding his cycle so he must have been in his senses,” said a 33-year-old man from the village who did not wish to be named.
Based on what he heard from Islam’s relatives, the man said the police telephoned Islam’s home on the night of 20 May and asked his wife to bring a duck to the station the next morning.
Early the next day, when she went to the station with the duck, the police said he had been arrested, and allegedly asked for Rs 10,000 in order to release him. She arranged the money and went back to the station with Islam’s brothers and cousins, where they were told he had been taken to the Batadrava public health centre (PHC). When they reached the PHC, they were told he had been shifted to Nagaon civil hospital, 15 km away.
They were informed at the hospital that Islam had died. His body was in the hospital’s morgue. “Then they came back to the police station to question the police about what exactly happened to Safiqul, how he died,” said the Salonabari resident. “I believe that’s when the situation got heated and the arson ensued.”
Videos of the mob setting fire to the police station went viral after the incident. In one video, a woman in a salwar kameez can be seen lighting the fire. Local residents said she was Islam’s cousin Akas Ali’s wife. “She has fled now and we don’t know where she is,” the local resident said. Safiqul Islam’s eldest daughter, who was later arrested, is also seen with her, he added.
An 18-year-old neighbour of Islam’s family said that there were no prior police cases against them. “They got aggressive because a family member had died. I doubt they pre-planned anything. I think some people might have come from outside and instigated them.”
Batadrava—about 5-10 minutes away from Salonabari village—is known for the Batadrava than, a holy place for the Assamese, the birthplace of 16th Century Vaishnavite poet-saint Srimanta Sankardeva.
Villagers said they did not support what Safiqul Islam’s relatives did at the police station. They said the guilty should be punished. The alleged link between the family and a terrorist organisation, however, was far-fetched, they said.
According to the young neighbour, the village has enjoyed communal harmony. “We feel bad because this incident has brought a bad name to the village and to our community,” he said. The neighbouring village has a Hindu majority. “They invite us during Bihu and we do the same during Eid.”
He said their ancestors, who set up this village after clearing jungles, were included in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC), a register of Indian citizens first published in 1951 after the census that year.
The issue of citizenship in Assam is rooted in the fear that ‘foreigners’ (Muslims, loosely considered to belong to Bangladesh) will reduce the state’s ‘indigenous’ multi-ethnic population to a minority. This led to the Supreme Court ordering a revamp of the NRC in 2014.
The NRC lists those who can prove that they or their ancestors entered Assam on or before 24 March 1971, when the war to liberate Bangladesh began.
‘People Build A Home With A Lot Of Pain’
On 22 May, uniformed policemen came with bulldozers and razed five houses belonging to Islam, his brothers Rafiqul and Mujibur, and his cousins Iman Ali and Akas Ali. Police targeted only those houses that belonged to Safiqul Islam and his relatives.
A local resident said Islam had earlier lived in another house nearby and had only recently shifted to the new house. “People build a house with a lot of pain. It was not necessary to demolish the houses,” the man said, adding that Islam’s brother Rafiqul’s daughter was appearing for an exam and she returned to find her house being demolished, her cycle broken.
“Why should children suffer for their parents?” asked the relative.
When Article 14 visited the village, household items lay scattered around the razed houses and in the courtyards, including motorcycles, utensils, cooking gas cylinders, hand-pumps, clothes, toys, textbooks and even a television.
Neighbours said that police had initially thrown most of the items in the nearby ponds but these had been retrieved and dried.
A few hens sat on shards of glass scattered in Rafiqul’s home while Safiqul’s goat, tied to a pole for several days, was bleating continuously.
According to villagers, the land on which Safiqul Islam’s new house was built was bought from the previous owner through the transfer of ‘miyadi patta’–permanent settlement rights. “Here most land is bought by people through transfer of miyadi patta.
Nobody from this village is an illegal settler and we don’t think what the police did by demolishing their houses was the right thing to do,” the woman said. “Where will their children live?”
Illegal encroachers from other communities are treated differently, said Aman Wadud, a lawyer from Guwahati who has represented many alleged illegal immigrants. “This government is targeting Bengali Muslims in every possible manner,” Wadud said. “In this case, the people accused of burning the police station are not illegal encroachers, the land on which they are residing never belonged to the government. There is absolutely no justification in demolishing homes of people accused of any crimes.”
The demolition of houses of people accused of a crime mirrors the wider trend of state machineries targeting Muslim families, particularly in BJP-ruled states, as recent incidents in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh and Khargone in Madhya Pradesh highlighted.
As Article 14 has reported, such demolitions not only reverse the burden of proof on the alleged offenders, but also prevent them from defending themselves.
According to S M Mushrif, former inspector general of police in Maharashtra, such demolitions by police are “akin to taking law in their own hands”. He said it amounted to the police punishing the accused without a trial. “This has to be challenged in the Supreme Court,” he told Article 14. “Even if there are illegalities in the buildings, due process has to be followed. This is absolutely wrong and has to be put an end to."
Assam Congress leader Debabarata Saikia, also the leader of opposition, said the party condemned the burning of the Batadrava police station and wanted strict action against perpetrators. “But we are also against the highhandedness of the police.” He said no inquiry by the human rights commission had been initiated yet, and demanded an independent inquiry by a Gauhati high court judge.
“The manner in which the houses of Safiqul Islam and his relatives were demolished is unfair,” he said. Their land was not part of any village grazing reserve (VGR), professional grazing reserve (PGR) or any government land. “These were miyadi patta land which these people acquired by inheritance.”
Motorcycles, Arms, Ammunition, Documents Lost In Fire
Even though Salonabari village falls under the jurisdiction of Dhing police station, Islam was reportedly found lying on the road in the Shantijan Bazaar area, which falls under the Batadrava police station’s jurisdiction.
As allegations from family members surfaced that Islam died in police custody, Batadrava officer-in-charge (OC) Kumud Chandra Gogoi was suspended and the police station’s staff replaced after the police station was set on fire. An inquiry was initiated under Karbi Anglong district’s additional superintendent of police Prakash Sonowal. Article 14 made several attempts to speak to Sonowal, but he did not answer his phone.
Assam DGP Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta tweeted a statement on 22 May that said, “Some local bad elements took law into their own hands and burnt down the thana. But as we have identified, they were bad characters and their relatives with criminal records—records that were within the thana. (sic)”
Villagers, however, told Article 14 that Safiqul Islam and his family members did not have criminal records and had not been arrested for any crime prior to 20 May.
Article 14 visited the Batadrava police station on 26 May, a part of which was completely charred.
Chiranjib Lahan, the new OC who took charge late on 21 May after the fire had been doused, said his predecessor and his team used to sit in the maalkhana (storeroom) as the station building was being renovated. “That part has been completely burnt down,” he said, adding that they do not have an exhaustive list of what was destroyed in the fire. “But three motorcycles and two scooters along with arms and ammunition and heaps of documents stored there have been entirely destroyed.”
About the incident of arson, Lahan said he heard that a mob of about 200 people had gathered at the police station.
The arrested were booked under sections 120 B (punishment of criminal conspiracy), 121 (waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India), 143 (punishment), 144 (joining an unlawful assembly armed with any deadly weapon), 145 (joining or continuing in an unlawful assembly, Knowing that it has been commanded to disperse), 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object), 152 (assaulting or obstructing public servant when suppressing riot), 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 155 (liability of person for whose benefit riot is committed), 327 (voluntarily causing hurt to extort property), 307 (attempt to murder), 333 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 341 (wrongfully restraining any person), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of 50 rupees or upwards), 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house), 440 (mischief committed after preparation made for causing death, or hurt), 447 (ounishment for criminal trespass) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 . They were also charged under the Public Property (Prevention of Damage) Act, 1985.
Some of the accused were also booked under UAPA but police officials were reluctant to disclose details on this. Lahan said, “Cases under UAPA have been registered at the Dhing police station.”
However, when Article 14 contacted Dhing OC Mithu Das, he said, “Cases under UAPA have been registered under my police station but I won’t be able to share the details.”
Terror Charges: ‘These People Were Involved In Drugs, Murder, Arms’
Under section 43D(5) of UAPA, courts can refuse bail if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the accusations are prima facie true.
Nirupam Hazarika, Nagaon’s additional superintendent of police and the investigating officer for the arson case, said a case was registered at the Dhing police station, and based on that case, a search operation was conducted at the homes of Islam and his relatives. “That is the case which includes UAPA and the Arms Act, 1959,” he said. “These people are dreaded criminals and they have been involved with drugs, murder and arms.”
Police claimed the accused have links with terror groups. “We have been informed about many criminal activities of the accused persons…we suspect (they have) terror links, too, and have got in touch with the police in Barpeta and Bongaigaon districts to confirm whether any of them are linked to the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT),” Nagaon superintendent of police (SP) Leena Doley told The Indian Express.
Article 14 made several attempts to reach Doley but she did not respond.
According to advocate Wadud, there is no legal bar against charging a minor under UAPA. “But the question is, where does the UAPA come in this case? A terror angle in an incident that looks spontaneous is itself baffling and bad in law,” he said.
Seven Children Taken Into Protective Custody By NGO
Their houses demolished and parents either in jail or absconding, children were left to fend for themselves until non-profit agency Childline took them into their custody, one by one.
A neighbour who works as a daily wage earner in Dimapur, Nagaland, was looking after the children and took responsibility for handing them over to Childline. When Article 14 visited, two children were yet to be taken in by the organisation, the five-year-old daughter of Rafiqul Islam and Safiqul Islam’s son, about 18 months old.
The woman said she was scared to keep the children with her. “The police might take me away for helping them…who knows. I don’t want to risk my own children’s life but it felt bad to leave these kids alone.”
She said Rafiqul Islam’s daughter, usually a talkative child, has gone completely silent since the incident. Her mother was absconding.
A 44-year-old meat seller, also a neighbour of Safiqul Islam, was taking care of the little boy. He said, “What option do I have other than taking the child in for a few days before someone takes responsibility for him?”
Later that day, the two children, too, were taken in by Childline.
Sangeeta Saikia, the Nagaon co-coordinator of Childline told Article14, “Initially, we brought six children to our custody and later brought two more. As the youngest one is a little over one-year-old, he has been sent to his mother in jail with the permission of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). The remaining seven will stay in our custody till their parents are released.”
The five-year-old girl was “deeply traumatised”, she said. “She had seen her home being demolished in front of her. Her father has been arrested and mother is absconding.” Her older siblings were also in Childline’s custody.
At least two boys, studying in classes 3 and 4, told Childline representatives that their textbooks had been destroyed in the demolition drive. “We got them new textbooks,” Saikia said.
Since March 2021, Police Killed 47 In ‘Encounters’
In December 2021, Niraj Das, a prime accused in the November 2021 lynching of a student leader in Jorhat district of Assam, died when he allegedly tried to flee police custody. He was run over by a police vehicle.
In a strikingly similar incident, Asiqul Islam, 20, booked for instigating the mob that burnt the police station in Batadrava, died while allegedly trying to escape while he was in police custody. According to the police, Asiqul was not a member of Safiqul's family.
According to several news reports, Nagaon SP Leena Doley said Asiqul Islam was booked on 29 May, and during questioning, confessed to keeping illegal arms in his home in Sonaibara village in Juria, Nagaon district.
Doley said that during a search, one 7.65 mm pistol with two rounds of ammunition and one .22 rifle with five rounds of ammunition were recovered from his house. Police also found a red t-shirt—a man in the video footage of the arson incident was in a red t-shirt.
According to the police, Asiqul Islam tried to escape by jumping from the police vehicle. He was hit by the police vehicle following them. Three police personnel—a sub-inspector, a constable-driver and a home guard—were injured in the incident.
Guwahati-based senior advocate Hafiz Rashid Choudhury said the accused are cuffed while in the police vehicle. “How did he manage to escape? And if he was not in handcuffs, then whose fault was this?” Choudhury asked.
Since the Himanta Biswa Sarma government came to power in May 2021, the number of people killed while trying to escape from police custody has risen to an all-time high.
According to a PTI report, between March 2021 and May 2022, 47 people were killed and 116 injured while trying to flee from police custody or while attacking the police. In February 2022, the Assam government submitted an affidavit stating that between May 2021 and January 2022, 28 people were killed and 73 injured in police action.
“The Himanta Biswa Sarma government has given a free hand to the police,” Choudhury said. “The way things are happening in Assam, there will be a threat to democracy and the constitution.”
Pointing out that all these incidents follow the same pattern, advocate Wadud said, “It has become apparent that the government and its agencies do not have faith in the judiciary and due process.”
(Sanskrita Bharadwaj and Nabarun Guha are independent journalists based in Guwahati, Assam.)