BJP’s betrayal: Families of Assam's 'CAA martyrs’ are banking on the Congress alliance

Families of four young men allegedly shot dead in December 2019 have their hopes for justice pinned on the upcoming election.

ByAyan Sharma
BJP’s betrayal: Families of Assam's 'CAA martyrs’ are banking on the Congress alliance
Kartik Kakar
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For the last 15 months, Mousumi Stafford has been fighting for justice for her brother. Now, she’s keenly following the political developments ahead of the Assembly election in Assam, scheduled for between March 27 and April 6. For Mousumi, this election will prove to be decisive.

On December 12, 2019, Sam Stafford, 17, died in police firing during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati. The law, passed in the parliament the day before, gives citizenship to undocumented, non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Assam erupted in violent protests as many saw the law as a violation of the 1985 Assam Accord, which committed the central government to removing all “illegal immigrants” who entered the state after March 24, 1971.

Sam, like thousands of other Assamese, had defied the police curfew to attend a rally against the law at the Latasil playground. While returning home, he was shot in the face, just about a kilometre from his home in Hatigaon. Sam died in hospital, just a few months before he was to take his final exams in high school.

Since then, Mousumi and her husband Mohammad Sadeq Ali have been fighting for justice. They hold the Bharatiya Janata Party government responsible for his death, and they are hoping to see this government voted out of power in April.

“He was a victim of police brutality,” Mousumi said. “The BJP government killed him.”

Sam is among at least four people killed in alleged police firing at the height of the CAA protests in Assam. Two years later, the CAA has emerged as one of the key issues in the upcoming election. The Congress has stitched an alliance with eight other parties and central to their narrative is how the BJP “betrayed” Assam with the passage of the CAA, and how the “martyrs” of the protest deserve justice. The BJP, on its part, has stayed away from the CAA in its political rhetoric.

For the families who lost their loved ones in the protests, this election is at the heart of their struggle for justice.

Sam Stafford: ‘Justice only if government is overthrown’

Mousumi, Sadeq, and their six-year-old son moved in with Mousumi’s parents after Sam’s death. They live in a humble dwelling in south Guwahati's Hatigaon. Mousumi’s father, Biju Stafford, is an e-rickshaw driver. Her mother, Mamoni Stafford, was working at the government-run Child Protection Society until Sam’s death. Since then she’s battled mental health issues and had a severe stroke last May.

Sadeq used to work as a driver for Uber and Ola until he had to sell his car last year because he couldn’t repay the car loan. His work was regularly disrupted, he said, due to family commitments after Sam’s death. As the family’s income dropped, Mamoni’s medical bills piled up to about Rs 5,000-6,000 per month.

On December 30, 2019, the family had filed an FIR at Hatigaon police station accusing the police of murder.

Sadeq Ali and Mousumi Stafford with a photograph of Sam.

Sadeq Ali and Mousumi Stafford with a photograph of Sam.

Shortly before, the Assam Human Rights Commission had taken suo motu cognisance of media reports about Sam’s death, and asked for an enquiry. Since then, the family has appeared for several rounds of hearings. Mousumi and Sadeq were also appreciative of the complaint filed by the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president Ripun Bora with the Assam Human Rights Commission in December 2019.

“From the start the BJP government has been playing tricks to delay our case as much as possible,” Sadeq told Newslaundry. “The police have denied having any evidence of firing, rather they have accused Sam of being with a group of miscreants who resorted to violence that day.” He emphasised that eyewitnesses and video evidence contradict the police’s allegations.

The last hearing in Sam’s case was on February 15. Sadeq said, “We can get justice only if the current government is overthrown.”

The Congress has been out of power in Assam for five years. Its Mahajot, or Grand Alliance, includes the All India United Democratic Front, Communist Party of India, CPI Marxist, CPI Marxist-Leninist, the Anchalik Gana Morcha, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The Congress has announced that if voted to power, it will set up a “grand memorial” to those who died during the CAA protests. At a recent rally, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra sharpened the pitch by promising that the Mahajot will bring in a new piece of legislation to “nullify” the citizenship law in Assam.

But even as the politics around the CAA gains momentum in the state, the Stafford family remains anxious. For a fair trial in Sam’s trial, Mousumi and Sadeq believe that a non-BJP government in Assam is a necessity.

“For that, we are banking on the Congress-led alliance,” Sadeq said. “Not only have they promised to give justice to the martyrs’ families, they have already given us financial and moral support.”

He added that Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi had written to the National Human Rights Commission last September to expedite Sam’s case.

In the last six months, two regional parties have sprung up in Assam. The Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal were floated under the auspices of the All Assam Students Union and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, respectively, the most dominant civil society groups behind the mass protests against the CAA.

Despite repeated calls from the Congress to join its alliance, the AJP and RD have stayed away. Instead, they have joined hands to chart out their separate electoral path.

As a member of the AJP, this has dampened Sadeq’s spirits. He and Mousumi believe that the move will divide anti-BJP votes across constituencies. “I too advocate regionalism. But to defeat a giant like the BJP, you need adequate resources and organisation, which only the Congress can provide at the moment,” he said. “Hence, all must come under their alliance this time.”

Dipanjal Das: ‘Our sacrifices will not go in vain’

The Mahajot spells hope for several other families who lost loved ones during the protests. In the Das household in Chaygaon, 50 km south of Guwahati, the youngest of the family’s three children died on the same day as Sam in Guwahati’s Rajgarh.

Dipanjal Das, 17, hadn’t been attending a protest when he died. He had worked as a cook in a canteen at the Sainik Welfare Board, and was on his way home on the evening of December 12, 2019. Dipanjal was allegedly hit by a bullet in the abdomen. He was taken to the Guwahati Medical College where he died from his injuries.

His mother, Kabita Das, told Newslaundry that the Congress party, especially its Chaygaon legislator Rekibuddin Ahmed, has been a pillar of support for the family ever since her son’s death.

“We oppose the CAA and want justice for my son who died during the andolan,” Kabita said. “In the upcoming election, we are rooting for the Congress to overthrow the BJP.”

Kabita’s faith in the Congress was cemented by the support it showed her over the last 15 months. Apart from Rs 2 lakh, the party gave her husband an e-rickshaw to replace his old pedaled one, she said.

“Moreover, our local legislator is constructing a children’s park in memory of my son,” she said referring to the site about fifty metres from their house and by the main village road. “He partially sponsored a memorial site. He also financially contributed towards my concrete house which is under construction.”

Kabita Das with a photograph of Dipanjal.

Kabita Das with a photograph of Dipanjal.

The children's park set up in Dipanjal's memory.

The children's park set up in Dipanjal's memory.

A Congress delegation led by Rekibuddin Ahmed recently visited the family to assure them of justice. This struck a chord with Kabita, who responded to the party’s anti-CAA door-to-door campaign by signing on a gamosa, a traditional Assamese cloth.

“We believe that if the Congress forms the next government, our sacrifices will not go in vain,” she said.

But supporting the Congress is new for the Das family. In the Assembly election five years ago, they voted for the BJP alliance, Kabita said, but not a single representative from either the BJP or the Assam government visited the family after Dipanjal’s death.

“The government we supported took my son away from this world,” she said, “whereas the one we had rejected has become our source of courage.”

If the progress in Sam’s case has been slow, the battle for justice hasn’t even begun for Dipanjal. The postmortem report at Guwahati Medical College did not contain either his name or any mention of his bullet injury. As a result, Kabita said, the family has not been able to procure a death certificate – the biggest obstacle they face in lodging a police complaint.

Kabita pointed out that Dipanjal had been taken to the hospital by locals, many of whom had witnessed him being shot. “It was evident from the marks on his body too,” she said.

“This is a chaal, a ploy, by the BJP government to hide its crime,” she said. “They must have pressured the hospital authorities to manipulate the [post-mortem] report. They even changed the officer in charge of the concerned police station [Paltan Bazar] a week after the incident.”

The Paltan Bazar police station had filed a suo motu complaint in Dipanjal’s death on December 13, 2019. Sub-inspector Pranab Baishya was the investigating officer, and submitted a preliminary report before the case was handed over to Abotani Doley, the additional commissioner of police, Sonapur, on March 1.

Doley told Newslaundry that the case is under investigation and that he could not comment on it.

Ishwar Nayak: ‘Regret supporting BJP earlier’

About 150 km from Chaygaon is the family of Ishwar Nayak, living in Majuli tea estate in Udalguri district. Ishwar’s father Nirakar Nayak shares a home with Ishwar’s brothers, Gautam and Parameswar. Their mother, Malti Nayak, died of cancer in 2018.

Ishwar Nayak, 24, was living in Guwahati in December 2019, sharing a rented room and working at a clothing store. At around 6 pm on December 12, he was out running errands with a friend when they came across a CAA protest in the city’s Downtown area. His friend said the police “came chasing the crowd” and Ishwar was hit by a bullet.

He died two days later.

Ishwar’s family told Newslaundry they voted for the BJP in the 2016 Assembly election, hoping for paribartan, or change. Now, Parameswar said he seethes with anger every time he sees the BJP’s lotus symbol.

“My brother’s face flashes before my eyes whenever I see the BJP’s symbol,” he said. “I regret supporting them earlier.”

Ishwar’s father and siblings were given his death certificate in January 2020. The following month, Parameswar recorded a statement at the deputy commissioner’s office in Guwahati. There have been no developments in the case since then.

“The Covid situation disrupted out plans,” he said. “We will file an FIR once the election is over.”

In the meantime, Parameswar, Gautam and Nirakar are eagerly waiting to see a new government in Assam. The family will support Rihan Daimary in the Udalguri Assembly segment, Parameswar said, referring to the senior leader of the Bodoland People’s Front, which is a part of the Congress-led alliance. He said the family received a cash compensation on Ishwar’s death, and Daimary helped build a memorial in Godhuli Bazar, about 50 metres away from the house.

(from left to right) Gautam Nayak, Nirakar Nayak, and Parameswar Nayak with a photograph of Ishwar.

(from left to right) Gautam Nayak, Nirakar Nayak, and Parameswar Nayak with a photograph of Ishwar.

A memorial to Ishwar in Godhuli Bazar.

A memorial to Ishwar in Godhuli Bazar.

But Parameswar’s anger towards the BJP isn’t only because of the CAA and his brother’s death. He said the party’s “divisive” politics are a deterrent too. “They have tried to divide people along religious lines,” he said. “CAA is a clear example.”

All the families that Newslaundry spoke to cited the support extended by the Congress and Opposition parties, including the two new regional ones, and, in contrast, the government’s cold shoulder. The grand alliance’s messaging seems to have had a particular impact: pre-poll surveys have slowly increased its projected share of seats, bridging the gap between the alliance and the BJP and its allies.

And this was before the Bodo People’s Front joined the alliance, a party that might be capable of tilting the result in the alliance’s favour in over 10 seats.

Abdul Alim: ‘No humanity left’

In Holongbari village in lower Assam’s Barpeta district lives Lal Mamud Ali, whose son Abdul Alim, 23, died on December 12, 2019, when the police allegedly fired at anti-CAA protesters in Guwahati’s Lalunggaon.

“I am 100 percent convinced that if an alliance government under the Congress comes to power, the case will be fast-tracked and justice will be swift,” Mamud told Newslaundry. “The martyrs will get marjyada, honour."

Abdul had been working at a pharmacy and hardware store in Guwahati at the time of his death. At around 9.30 am December 12, he closed the shore on his boss’s instruction, since a curfew was being imposed across the city. That morning, he also spoke to his father and said he planned to return to their village the next day.

Abdul was walking home, a distance of a kilometre, when he saw a large gathering of protesters in Katakipara.

Security forces descended on the crowd and opened fire. A bullet allegedly hit the left side of Abdul’s head. Eyewitnesses told Mamud that Abdul had probably died on the spot, though he was taken to Guwahati Medical College where he was declared dead only three days later.

Lal Mamud Ali with a photograph of Abdul.

Lal Mamud Ali with a photograph of Abdul.

After Abdul’s death, Mamud’s brother Akabbar filed a complaint on December 24 on the family’s behalf at Guwahati’s Garchuk police station, under whose jurisdiction the alleged firing took place. Procuring the death certificate had been a daunting task, Mamud added, and once the case was registered, he was summoned once by an additional deputy commissioner in Guwahati to record his statement. That was one year ago, and he hasn’t heard from anyone ever since.

This, Mamud argued, was because of “badmashi”, or foul play, by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his powerful cabinet colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma.

“The BJP government is high on power,” he said. “They have blocked the case. The government is shameless and has no humanity left.”

Abhijit Gogoi, who was the investigating officer at Garchuk police station in Abdul’s death, told Newslaundry that a preliminary report had been submitted a year ago to Himangshu Das, the additional commissioner of police who is now the investigating officer. The case has been under investigation ever since under the supervision of a deputy commissioner of the police’s crime branch. Das refused to comment on the case or explain the delay.

In the meantime, Mamud said, the family received financial support from the Congress and its ally, the All India United Democratic Front. Holongbari village falls under the Bhabanipur constituency, whose legislator, Abul Kalam Azad, is from the AIUDF.

For Mamud, the mission now is to ensure victory for those against the CAA, though he did not specify which party he would vote for.

“Through CAA, the BJP government plans to bring more Bangladeshis to Assam, an already burdened land,” he said. “We can never support it.”

Mamud added that he is now campaigning to bring in a non-BJP government, and promises to get at least a couple of hundred votes through his friends and relatives. “That will be my contribution to the fight against the CAA and the BJP,” he said.

His voice optimistic, he said, “ The deaths of the anti-CAA martyrs will not go in vain. People will give a resounding answer to the arrogant BJP government this time.”

All photos by Ayan Sharma.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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