Assam lynching, Part 1: Gruesome murders fuel ire against Karbis even as calls for peace flood social media

Editor's note: This series examines how social media rumours falsely accusing two young Assamese men, Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das, led to their lynching. The incident reflects not just the marginalisation of the Karbi community to which the alleged perpetrators belong, but also points at fissures in a society that's grappling with the complexities posed by the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to unite dominant Assamese and all ethnic tribes in the state.

Guwahati: The Assam lynching case, which led to the death of two men, took place at a time when the multi-ethnic state was already battling the ongoing row over Citizenship Amendment Bill. While a majority of Assamese community was largely united in protesting against the Bill due to the impending ‘threat of outsiders’, the Karbi Anglong lynching has led to a crack in that unity.

Since the lynching was carried out in a region dominated by Karbis, an indigenous tribe of the district, it has led to infighting within Assamese communities questioning how safe they are in the hands of their own brothers on their own lands. Despite having expressed remorse and condemned the lynching, the Karbi community is facing flak of Assamese people on social media, while many are even critical of where Assam's civil society is headed to. "Not proud to be an Assamese... Not proud to be an Indian," said Kathak dancer Meghranjani Medhi in a Facebook post condemning the mob lynching where she called for strict legal action against "everyone who was part of the mob, including the cameraman".

The news of the brutal murders even crossed the Indian shores. Protestors in Russia demanded justice for the deceased youths. Image courtesy @News18Northeast

The news of the brutal murders even crossed the Indian shores. Protestors in Russia demanded justice for the deceased youths. Image courtesy @News18Northeast

On 8 June, a mob of over 200 people attacked Abhijeet Nath, 30, a businessman from Goa and Nilotpal Das, 29, a musician from Guwahati, in Panjuri Kachari -- a picturesque village in Karbi Anglong district. The duo was returning after seeing the Kansi Langso waterfall where they were attacked by the mob which suspected them to be child abductors (xopadhora). Many confirmed that the crowd kept growing as men from nearby villages also joined in. One of the men was already dead and the other was barely alive when the police arrived at the spot at around 8.45 pm. He too died while being taken to the hospital.

Many have raised questions over the alleged delay in action by the police. There have also been murmurs about the incident being engineered through a deliberate conspiracy to divide the Assamese people. A special investigation team has been tasked with carrying out the probe.

"We have commissioned a special investigative team to look into the details and the root cause of the incident. Rest assured no perpetrator would be spared," said Additional Director General of Assam Police Mukesh Agarwal who is monitoring the investigation.

Incident fuels social media mob

The pouring of outrage from across the country has prompted the police into action. Reports suggest 25 people have been arrested so far in connection with the killing.

Meanwhile, social media is abuzz with hate speeches against the Karbis. Though Panjuri Kachari — home to less than a hundred families — is mostly comprised of Kachari tribe members, the other villages in the region are largely Karbi-dominated.

A callous comment from Karbi Anglong deputy commissioner, Mridul Kumar Mahanta, further added fuel to fire when he said, "The guys should have been more careful and taken permission." In addition, a Dokmoka Police official also commented upon the victim’s appearance. "The duo was attacked on the basis of suspicion since one of them looked different due to long hair. Moreover, they supposedly visited the site in search of ornamental fish which caused some people to raise questions," the official said.

Repeated appeals by intellectuals, thinkers and even the victims’ parents against the ‘politics of hate’ have been unable to quell tempers on social media. Expressing anxiety over a possible backlash against the Karbis, Mitra Phukan, a noted Assamese author, said, “This is a cry for justice. It is the utmost duty of the administration to avoid any instance of retaliation without any ethnic bias.”

“We strongly condemn this act. This is plain inhuman. We cannot build a bigger Assam if we continue this infighting amongst ourselves,” Vijay Phangshu, a well-known Karbi personality, said.

Phangshu also hinted at the possibility that people with ulterior motives could try to create an ethnic rift using this incident as an excuse. He appealed against it saying that aggravating differences would simply mean getting played into the hands of people with hidden agendas.

The Karbis are one of the many Bhoomiputras, or the indigenous Assamese, who have been residing in the state for ages. The incident seems to have exposed an underbelly of inherent hatred among the people that has been cultivated among the various tribes living in Assam due to various reasons.

“Every tribe wants to part away as a different state. What people fail to realise is that unless all the existing tribes in Assam maintain unity, we cannot function to our highest potential as a state,” noted actress and writer, Akashitora Saikia, said. Her father, Kamala Saikia, had been the first journalist in Assam to be killed by ULFA — the notorious separatist outfit in the state.

No law against mob violence

This is not the first incident of mob violence in Karbi Anglong. In June 2013, Jhankar Saikia was killed by an angry mob of auto-rickshaw drivers in Diphu for refusing to pay an extra Rs 10. Despite several promises of action, the perpetrators of the incident continue to roam around scot-free.

Noted Assamese singer Zubin Garg, who attended the silent protest in Guwahati’s Judges Field where thousands turned up on Monday, said, “The bigger issue is that there is no law existing against mob-lynching. Also, there is no mechanism to ensure a fast track arrest of perpetrators in such cases.”

Protesting groups have also submitted a memorandum to the state government demanding statues of the victims to be erected at the site of the incident as a permanent reminder of the ghastly act.

On Monday, several members of the Karbi community also attended candlelight vigils in large numbers to counter the damage done to the social fabric of Assam by the barbaric mob.

While a section of people is against blaming an entire community for an act of a violent mob, condolences from Karbi Anglong have had little impact on the minds of some Assamese people who are brushing off the Karbi protests as a mere façade to cover the grave act of injustice.

Nilotpal Das’s father, Gopal Chandra Das, said his son believed in the warmth of tribal communities and was not apprehensive of travelling alone.

"I told my son to go in a group since it is not a tourist season. He assured me while holding my hand that the tribals are sweet people and he would love to play music, sing, dance with them, and come back after having a good time.” His mother, Radhika Das, reportedly said she would never be able to watch the video of her son’s gruesome death.

Nilotpal’s painful cries for mercy in the now viral video made hearts cringe at the brutality suffered by him and his friend. The dying victim’s constant pleas “Moi Axomia, muk namaribo” (I am also Assamese. Please don’t hit me) is likely to ring in the ears of the Assamese community for a long time.

The author is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jun 16, 2018 10:43 AM

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