On 21 May 2020, Safikul Islam, a poor fish trader from the Salnabari area of Nagaon district in central Assam was arrested by the state police. The police said that he was drunk, but his family states otherwise. He was on his way to the Sivsagar district for work when arrested and was subsequently taken to the Batadrawa police station. His family claims that the police demanded a duck and Rs 10,000 as a bribe for his release. Safikul’s family could get a duck but failed to secure the money immediately, without which the police won’t release him from the station. His wife somehow arranged for the money, but by then, things had turned for the worse. His family said that Safikul was beaten to death.
This brutal murder during police custody angered the family members and agitated the kin and villagers. Some of them allegedly burnt part of the Batadrawa police station in retaliation. The next day, the police arrested the family members of the fish trader and they bulldozed the hearths and homes of Safikul and those who were said to be involved in the attack on the police station. There was no notice or order produced to evict or destroy those houses. The police and administration completely misused their power and bypassed all legal procedures in carrying out the demolition the very next day after Safikul's death.
On 30 May, a prime accused, Ashikul Islam, who was said to have incited the mob violence, died in an accident while trying to escape from police custody, said officials. This is yet another example of ongoing brutality and impunity enjoyed by the police in Assam. Another person, Niraj Das, suffered the same fate at the hands of the police last year.
On 21 May, Safikul Islam, a poor fish trader from Nagaon district in Assam was arrested by the police. His family claims that the police demanded a duck and Rs 10,000 as a bribe for his release.
Safikul's family alleges that he was beaten to death. Later, when an angry mob attacked the police station, the police demolished the homes of many villagers. Additionally, UAPA has been slapped against Safikul's family.
On 30 May, one of the prime accused in the mob violence, Ashikul Islam, died while trying to escape, said the police.
No one is above the law, but in Assam, the police have been given a free hand by the state government. Another person, Niraj Das, met with a similar fate at the hands of the police last year.
Not too long ago, the Assam police arrested Jignesh Mevani from Gujarat, going beyond their jurisdiction.
How the Regional Media Erased Safikul's Story
All this is happening in 21st-century Assam, where a person dies in police custody, the person's home is destroyed by the state, his wife and a minor daughter get arrested, and an accused dies in police custody ‘while escaping’. One of the charges against the arrested also includes the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
The regional media of the state, however, has erased two very important aspects of this event – the custodial death of Safikul Islam and the demolishing of the homes of the victim and his relatives. The entire narrative has shifted to a single point, ie, the burning of the police station. So far, no one has been arrested for the custodial death of Safikul Islam. So, who killed Safikul?
We do not support the burning down of the police station, but the state should answer about Safikul’s death and provide compensation to the family members whose houses were unlawfully destroyed. They must also acknowledge that they were wrong in misusing power and the police and administration who were behind this should be adequately scrutinised and punished.
Assam Becoming a 'Police State'?
No one is above the law, but in Assam, the police have been given a free hand by the state government. Safikul’s custodial death and the demolition of his house is an example of this new regime of the police state we are witnessing in Assam. Not too long ago, while granting bail to Jignesh Mevani, whom Assam police arrested from Gujarat (going beyond their jurisdiction), the Barpeta session judge had some very important things to say about the acts of police in Assam. The sessions judge noted:
“To give credibility to the police version of occurrences like the arrest of accused persons and the accused persons attempting to escape from police custody in the midnight, while the accused was allegedly leading the police personnel to discover something and the police personnel firing and killing or injuring such accused, which has become a routine phenomenon in the state, the High Court may perhaps consider directing the Assam Police to reform itself by taking some measures … otherwise our State will become a Police State, which the society can ill afford.”
The behaviour exhibited by the Assam police is worrying as it gives a free hand to state violence. When violence is normalised in the eyes of the people, nothing good can come out of it. Normalising violence is to go against the very ideas of rights, equality, justice and humanity.
All It Takes Is One Incident for Hate to Be Unleashed
Safikul’s case also highlights the anti-minoritarian sentiments prevalent in Assam. The moment the police station was burnt, the alleged attackers were called ‘jihadi’ and ‘illegal’, just because they were Muslims. Not only do Muslims’ bodies get profiled and are labelled as 'illegal' and unwanted, but their places of occupation also become illegal at once. This view is expressed not only by the state but by the larger public, media and the like.
See, for instance, this media platform called Voice of Axom, a megaphone of hate and disinformation, commenting on the incident:
The hate machinery of Assam has started functioning in full flow after the incident. Many hatemongers in the state are labelling the irate mob as ‘Bangladeshis’, in addition to comments on social media that state that the irate family members should have been shot dead.
Assamese newspapers have also carried stories that define them as illegal Bangladeshis. They have even amplified the speculations around their ‘jihadi’ connections.
All it takes is one incident to draw the entire community into a cesspool of hate. This can happen only if you are a Muslim in Assam, where such profiling shares organic roots with Assamese nationalism and the question of “foreigners”. It is also a trend very familiar in 'New India'.
Nagaon Was Once the 'Pulse of Assam'
As the social fabric of our society is being shredded into pieces, a historical reminder about Batadrava in Nagaon, the home of Safikul Islam is due. It is the place where the saint Srimanta Sankardev was born. A cultural icon of Assam, Bishnu Rabha called Nagaon the pulse of Assam. It was for him a pulse as it was a place where multiple cultures met and fused to become what we today know as ‘Assamese’.
Islam’s death is a testimony to the hate of the anti-cultural elements of Assamese society, including the state government, which has normalised such anti-minoritarian hate and violence. Safikul’s death in Nagaon is a reminder of how the syncretism, innocence and plurality of Assamese culture are constantly undermined to preserve a narrow identity in which the state and community turn against its minority, and their violence becomes normalised – even respectable.
(Suraj Gogoi is a sociologist based in Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. Nazimuddin Siddique is a researcher from Assam. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)