By Aman Wadud,
Khagrabari is a tiny village of 68 houses across Beki river adjacent to Manas National Park in Assam. People there have been residing since decades and some have land documents of 1958. However many acres of land has been eroded by the Beki over the years. The most devastating year for Khagrabari before 2014 was 2004 when Bhutan released water from the reservoir of 60-MW Kurishu Hydro Power project and two lower Assam districts of Barpeta and Baksa were devasted by the flood. Khagrabari was among one of the most affected villages. Acres of agricultural land were eroded by the catastrophic flood. The villagers who were relying on agriculture lost major portion of their land which was the sole source of their livelihood. Since then some villagers has started venturing out into the Manas National Park to collect cotton scattered on the ground.
The devastating flood of 2004 was nothing in comparison to what happened to Khagrabari on 2nd May 2014, a year ago, today. It was a normal Friday. Villagers performed their weekly congregational prayers together. Few took a nap after lunch and the rest crossed the river to buy groceries at the Bhangarpar daily bazar. Around 2pm two forest officials from the nearby beat office came to the village to take stock of things, they sat at a house and spend around half an hour there. Some villagers chatted with these forest guards, they were completely oblivious of what awaited them an hour later. At around 3:30 pm, some 40 heavily armed groups of people attacked the village from the western side firing indiscriminately and setting houses on fire. Initially, on hearing the gun shots, some thought it was a normal exercise often undertaken by the forest guards to chase away wild animals but very soon they realized something catastrophic had struck the village.
Of the group of around 40 assailants, some had covered their faces with black cloth, others had no such qualm, they indulged in the killing spree without even covering their faces. They were forest guards including the two who had visited the village an hour ago. These people are well known to villagers and they often visit the village to have a cup of tea and take lemon and other vegetables from the village. Those who were forest guards fired using government arms and others used sophisticated AK series weapons according to eye-witness accounts.
Among the scores of children who were brutally murdered, many used to address the same forest guards as ‘Uncle’, yet nothing stopped the forest guards from exhibiting their inhuman brutality, nothing stopped the forest guards from smashing the head of a little girl on a hand pump , no shred of humanity stopped them from throwing a little child into the fire that they had lit aimed to burn down the homes of the villagers. Most villagers ran towards the Beki river. But only few could swim across and many drowned.
Some of them drowned after being hit by bullets. The armed group of terrorists and forest guards also fired upon people who jumped into the river. A woman who jumped into the river with her two year old daughter says she tried her best to stay afloat , but to escape bullets she dived into the water, when she came out of water her daughter was not responding , she was dead by then. The wailing of the mother didn’t stop for long when she narrated the tragic incident. She was inconsolable.
Few villagers ran to the nearby forest to hide, they stayed there for hours and came out only when the rescuers crossed the river and announced through micro phone of village Masjid that it was safe to come out. Within a span of 40 minutes the forest guards and terrorists had massacred 38 people including 20 children, youngest among them was just three months old. They burned the entire village to ashes.
On May 7, 2014 after public fury Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi visited Naranyanguri where the survivors had taken shelter in makeshift camps. Mr Gogoi announced then that investigation will be handed over to National Investigation Agency, but it took 81 days to actually hand over the investigation. Finally after lots of protests by local activists, the investigation was handed over to investigation was handed over to the NIA July 22, 2014. However, by then, a substantial amount of evidence was tampered with. The NIA was left with nothing much more than the eye witnesses accounts in the case. Interestingly, when Adivasis had been massacred across Assam on December 23, 2014, it took just a day to handover the investigation to NIA. The Assam government’s swift action in the Adivasi massacre case should be applauded, but it also brings forth the double standards of the government in the case of the Khagrabari massacre of Muslims when it took the state government 81 days to hand over the investigation to NIA.
Whenever Muslims are massacred in Assam, which has become cyclic now since 1983, many vested interested groups and section of media starts accusing the victims of being illegal immigrants and assume that their ‘doubtful’ nationality somehow justifies the targeted violence that they face. They try to shift the attention from a case of inhuman brutality to illegal immigration. The 2014 Naranyanguri massacre also saw such similar propaganda. Many on social media accused the victims as illegal immigrants. None other than Arnab Goswami conducted a prime time show on the massacre and he conveniently accused the victims of being settlers. Many of those so called settlers who were in their 40s and have lost their family members were born and brought up in Khagrabari, but that didn’t stop Arnab Goswami from branding both the victims and survivors as settlers, there was no outrage about barbaric violence. It seemed as if killing poor and illiterate Muslims is respectable.
On October 31, 2014, the NIA charge sheeted four forest guards for killing 38 innocent citizens of India. The trial has begun and witnesses are regularly deposing before Special NIA court at Guwahati. A couple of witnesses who deposed before the court in the last hearing came to Guwahati only for the second time in their life , the first time being when they recorded statement under section 164 Crpc at Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court, Kamrup at Guwahati. All they want is justice and punishment for the perpetrators who killed their loved ones. They might be illiterate and poor but their faith in judiciary is unwavering. After the last hearing when I drove them from Special NIA court to Kamakhya Railway station we discussed several things, among them was their experience of facing wild animals in the adjacent forest. One of them says “We peacefully co exist with animals. No one harms each other. I came face to face with leopards, wild elephants and other wild animals several times but I was never attacked. We don’t fear animals. It is the human being which we fear. It is our fellow human being who killed our family members.”
Neither the devastating floods of 2004 nor any wild animals has taken any human lives in Khagrabari, but a group of forest guards and terrorists robbed Khagrabari of 38 lives and burned an entire villages to ashes. This became possible because no one has ever been punished in Assam for mass killings, rather the murderers are hailed for their barbaric act and victims are branded as illegal immigrants and outsiders. This very sense of impunity has ensured one massacre after another and no one can guarantee that another massacre will not happen.
On 2nd of May 2015, the massacre marked its first anniversary. The villagers in collaboration with students’ bodies and Jhai Foundation observed the anniversary and renewed their demand for justice. They held a meeting at Narayanguri, the other bank of river Beki and recount their pain, suffering and the stories of never-ending struggle. One of the local activists Shajahan Ali Ahmed recorded those painful stories and compiled a book and released on the event. Jhai Foundation also came up with a report “One year of Khagrabari Massacre: Quest for Justice Continues” and formally released by Dr. Shalini Sharma of Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Everyone pledged to continue the struggle for justice.
To download full text of “One year of Khagrabari Massacre: Quest for Justice Continues” click here.
AMAN WADUD is an executive member of Jhai Foundation and an advocate based in Guwahati, he is providing pro bono legal support to the survivors of Khagrabari massacre. He twitts at @AmanWadud . A shorter version of this article has appeared in sabarang.com.