In May this year, the Assam police booked 19-year-old Barshashree Buragohain under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for a Facebook post she shared a day before the arrest. The police said the girl had expressed interest in supporting the banned outfit United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I).
As per the FIR, Buragohain had posted a verse in Assamese: ‘Swadhin xurujor dixe akou ekhuj, Akou korim rastro druh’ (One more step toward the sun of freedom, Once again, I will commit treason). Later, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma clarified that Buragohain was “not arrested for writing a poem”. He said: “When the Golaghat police interrogated her, she said that she had intentions of joining the outfit (ULFA)… If she had not been arrested, she would have joined the ULFA. She is one of our own, and it is our responsibility to save her… Forty-two youths have died in camps after joining the ULFA. What if she meets the same fate?”
Buragohain has been in jail for two months now.
In May this year, the Assam police booked 19-year-old Barshashree Buragohain under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for a Facebook post. The police said the girl had expressed interest in supporting the banned outfit ULFA-I.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has taken it upon himself to save Buragohain as she is said to be one of "our own”. If Buragohain weren’t a 'Buragohain', would the sentiments of the Chief Minister still be the same?
The actions of the Assam police and the way the Chief Minister shares on his social media profiles of crime and police actions in the state have turned punishment into a spectacle and public affair.
From the Niraj Das case to the arrest of Jignesh Mevani and use of bulldozers, the police's methods are being celebrated widely both by the public and the state government.
Rise of Police Shootings in Assam
Following a PIL filed by Delhi-based lawyer Arif Jwadder against the rise of police shootings in Assam, the High Court directed the Home Department of the Assam government to submit a reply. In its reply, the government stated that “there have been 51 numbers of death and 139 numbers of injuries caused due to police action or during police custody since May 2021 till May 31, 2022". As noted by Jwadder, it must be highlighted that the victims were “unarmed and handcuffed” at the time of the encounter.
The recent activities of the police in Assam have been put into question by many. However, unsurprisingly, the regional media is silent on such acts. Fake encounters, defending such acts publicly and the notoriety of the police in misusing the law have increased in the past few years. What do we make of this mood of the police in Assam who have made unconstitutional evictions (even during floods), bulldozing, fake encounters/FIRs and misuse of law a norm?
It is possible for the police not to enjoy social prestige or respect. We often come across people qualifying them as corrupt, rude or unpleasant. Occupationally speaking, police is a “low-prestige” job (meaning ‘low-pay’), but they may enjoy a high degree of support from both the public and government.
The nature of public support and the section of the public supporting them may vary depending on issues. For instance, if a certain law is applied against the minority, the majority are often silent or supportive of such police acts.
Public Support for Police Action
Sarma recently stated that crime rates have dropped this year as compared to the last. He defended the police's actions in the state assembly and attributed the fall in the crime rates to the police. However, there can be a gap between reported crimes and actual crime rates, as we see in most cases of domestic violence. Secondly, there is not sufficient proof that an increase in police action has indeed led to a drop in crime. The statement of the Chief Minister underlines a problematic conception of crime and punishment.
What should worry us about Assam is not just the fact that the police enjoy public support but that the support is now often about the methods used to prevent crime and the type of punishment and police actions. In posts that the Chief Minister shares about drug busts or apprehending criminals (this is so particularly if the accused are minorities), comments from the public are rife with hate, disgust, vengeance, violence and revenge.
Sarma recently noted, “Police have to work within the law. But while working within the law, if a bullet hits a rapist, we must be clear whether we should sympathise with the rapist or the victim.” Praising the Chief Minister, GP Singh, special director general of police, law and order, Assam, said on Twitter:
“Rape represents regressive mindset of controlling, scarring & destroying a girl/women’s mind and body. @assampolice would use all instruments of law to fight this evil. As a father & a Cop, grateful to Hon @CMOfficeAssam for crystal clear directions to this effect.”
Such characterisation is alarming and unfortunate. Firstly, the sensitive issues of rape and women’s bodies are appropriated to inflict more violence. Secondly, it underlines masculine ego and patriarchal values that aim to protect and 'save' women, and lead to the use of more force and violence in the process.
An Increasingly Divided Public
Not just the police in the state, but leading journalists also reveal their prejudices, more so in moments of crisis. Journalist Kaushik Deka said on Twitter: “Agreed but hope ‘encounter’ is not the instrument. People should know what legal instruction CM @himantabiswa has given to prevent rape & ensure fast justice for victims. Else there will be a repeat of Nagaon. Cops must take rapists to gallows, not shoot for ‘instant justice’."
Deka is seen here voicing his support for the gallows and dwelling not too far from the “zero-tolerance” policy adopted by the Assam government towards crime, of which its police is an integral organ.
In another incident involving Niraj Das aka “kola lora”, who was one of the main accused in the mob lynching case in Jorhat, journalist Atanu Bhuyan uploaded a live video on Youtube explaining why Das should be shot in the chest should he try to escape from police custody. Many other leading journalists also expressed similar sentiments.
Niraj Das succumbed to injuries. The account of the police is that he tried to escape and was hit by a vehicle. This is not the only such case of an accused dying in such a fashion. Following his death, a few videos documented people shouting slogans in praise of the police and the state government. Crackers were also burst to celebrate the death of “kola lora”.
Police are Meant to Facilitate Justice, Not Deliver It
Why does Assam see so many custodial deaths? If crime tells us about “deviant behaviour” in our society, the type of punishment reveals the morals of our society. Such acts of swift justice reveal the desire for violence lodged in us. Police do not have the licence to kill. They are supposed to apprehend and bring the perpetrators to justice. When police cross those basic and strict boundaries of their vocation in the name of public order and safety, we find ourselves in a place where our rights and duties as citizens are gravely undermined.
It should worry us when one of our elected representatives (here Piyush Hazarika) says, “There is no such word as encounter in the Assam Police manual … If a criminal tries to escape or attack the police, they may get injured or killed.” We ought to be worried when death and misuse of law become so banal to people in power. It is a sign of social decay where the justice system, the government or state institutions take no responsibility for the violence they are capable of and practise in the name of punishment.
A quick glance at social prejudice and public feelings about crimes can also reveal the actions of the police, for police authorities may also theoretically share social prejudice and shifting public feelings.
We must thus ask whether such policing is natural to our society or whether such acts of police brutality are borrowed or manufactured anew.
Sociological studies have reflected the various aspects of policing found in our society. Policing primarily exists for maintaining social order and enforcing law. Police and policing are also not entirely divorced from how power is organised in both society and the state. In the spirit of Pierre Bourdieu, let’s call this functioning of the police the “field of police”. In this field of police, we can see and locate its operation, display and exercise of power.
Sensing the pulse of misuse of police actions, power and its implications on society, the Barpeta Session court judge while granting bail to Jignesh Mevani noted:
“In view of the above and to prevent registration of false FIR like the present one and 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 judge expressed concern that Assam might become a police state. Such views from a session court are indeed telling of the law and order situation in the state and at once map the sentiments of the current government and the police establishment.
The charges against Barshashree Buragohian must be read in this growing field of police power in Assam.
Sarma has taken it upon himself to save Buragohain as she is said to be one of "our own”. The CM also promised her release if she and her parents can assure the state that she won’t join ULFA-I.
If Buragohain weren’t a 'Buragohain', would the sentiments of the Chief Minister still be the same? Also, what is Sarma saving Barshashree from? Why is she framed as an enemy of the state?
Do those qualifications of her being an enemy carry any basis? Let’s also ask in the same vein, who are, then, ‘friends’ of the current government?
The actions of the Assam police and the way the Chief Minister shares on his social media profiles about crime and police actions in the state have turned punishment into a spectacle and public affair. Punishment in this sense becomes a mirror of the changing matrix of power and how society or a community is organised and influenced. In this change, we increasingly see that the presumption of innocence, which is a basic rule of criminal jurisprudence all over the world and a peremptory norm of international human rights, is not only eroded but runs the danger of being completely reversed.
What becomes of a society where the horns of a rhino, its state animal, can be burnt publicly, and poets are charged with UAPA? Who profiles and decides that a certain person is an ‘enemy’? Who decides their identity, and why?
(Suraj is a sociologist from Assam. He also wishes to thank Oliullah Laskar for his valuable inputs to this piece. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)