Assam lynching reflects state's evolving reality, one where marginalisation and poverty can trigger senseless violence

Assam is in the news for an oft visible, terrible trait that it possesses – the 'great divide'. This divide – ethnic, linguistic, religious – is visible once again with the blood-curdling lynching of two young Assamese men in a remote, tribal-dominated district, Karbi Anglong.

In perpetrating merciless and senseless violence against men that are from the state, those that killed and maimed these two young men displayed a blood thirst that beats logic and rationality. They simply displayed hate and a complete lack of humanity.

Abhijeet Nath, 30, a musician and Nilotpal Das, 29, a businessman from Guwahati drove to the lush village of Panjuri Kachari in this district. They decided to spend some time by the Kansi Langso waterfall, reportedly looking for an ornamental fish. Now, as the police have found, they ran into Alphajos Timung, a local who had a heated argument with them.

People pay their respects to Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath. Image courtesy Justice for Nilotpal and Abhijeet

People pay their respects to Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath. Image courtesy Facebook

Sensing trouble, as Timung began to call up others to put up a fight with them, both men decided to leave. Timung pelted stones at Nath and Das's SUV and arranged for them to be stopped by villagers. He lied to them, telling them that he had seen the two men drive away in a black SUV with an abducted child.

Playing into the age-old Xopadhora myth (child kidnapper), often a folktale used to rein in children, he trumped up rumours circulating on WhatsApp about the same. Over 200 (a number not confirmed), gathered for over an hour, bludgeoning, beating and murdering these two young men. It is not yet clear if they asked their victims to clarify what they were doing, or if they ever really intended to stop the kidnappers.

There was no child in the vehicle and no evidence of an abduction. Severely beaten, these young men must have repeatedly said that they were just tourists, not kidnappers. Their pleading and heart-wrenching pleas for mercy, with one stating that he is Assamese and giving names of his parents repeatedly, captured on a video, make this clear. But the violence continued, as more participated in the process of methodical murder. A video capturing the entire incident was shot on a mobile phone. It is not clear who shot this or put it up, but it went up on social media.

This story continues to evolve, as Assam rises up in civil protest and many get polarised over the rights and wrongs. Over 35 have been arrested for spreading false rumours on social media, one has been held for impersonating the police, by creating a fake Facebook account of Guwahati Commissioner of Police Hiren Kumar Nath. Around 28 are being held as perpetrators. Appeals for peace and calm and to maintain civility while interacting with Karbi people has revealed the deep rifts that exist in Assam's social fabric.

The author will not claim objectivity while writing this piece, for she belongs to Assam and is Assamese by origin. But it does argue, simply, that this incident appears orchestrated, organised and was, simply put a killing frenzy. With tribal communities, it is almost impossible to pin the blame for after a mob or large group commits a crime, the community opens up, absorbs their own and then shuts itself out. The Karbi Anglong District Council is an autonomous body in charge of civil administration and carrying forward development and government projects. Run by native people, its fealty remains with the local population.

Karbi Anglong represents the distorted reality of a democratic process that has followed a consistent policy of ruling from a distance. It is beautiful, virginal, backward in all aspects of the development paradigm and dirt-poor. With a tribal population of 12.4 percent, Assam faces a consistent problem of uneven economic and social development.

Tribes like the Karbis, with a sizeable population and bhoomiputras (sons of the soil), have always felt left behind. It is important to note that spends from both the central and state governments have not petered down to Karbi populations, despite it being run by an autonomous, native populated district council. It's not too difficult to read between the lines here.

When city-bred young men spend time idling by a stylish vehicle like an SUV, they feel absolutely alien. They look and sound different. The reality of poverty, lack of opportunity and marginalisation becomes very evident. The history-sheeter that masterminded this lynching might not have been motivated by impulse. Allegedly, Timung has incited lynching of two youths in 2012, calling them militants and has also killed another person in a similar manner. His motive and involvement suggest pre-planning.

But for those that formed the 'punishing' crowd, this became a case of 'no one's to blame'. Police say some villagers were drunk. So murdering two young urban men, one with dreadlocks, became sweet revenge. It turned into a frenzy, of de-humanising the victims by repeatedly hurting them.

Weapons used while perpetrating the crime, as retired DGP Harekrishna Deks, a respected public figure whose opinion counts in shaping Assam's public opinion, points out in a Facebook post, were readily available. The person filming this blood fest had a mobile phone, but he didn't use it to call the police or inform anyone.

While spears and daos (hacking knives) are kept in most tribal homes, the bamboo rods used to hit them were prepared beforehand. Their faces were slashed, the victim with dreadlocks was 'scalped' in a manner, with his hair being hacked off till he bled. But no one in this crowd stopped to consider that neither victim was a child abductor or ask why they had come visiting. They were partaking in a frenzy of bloodletting, somewhere reflecting the sense of alienation – a deep divide that the urban Assamese and rural locals now face.

Assam has faced a localised immigration of sorts in the past two decades. As the shadows of Presidents Rule, insurgency and insecurity pushed the state's industrial development behind, a large chunk of educated, the urban youth began to leave seeking employment or further education in Indian cities. Most have never had the scope or motivation to return home, for there is no work there. Musicians, artistes and cultural talents have been part of the exports from Assam to the rest of India.

This youth, as opposed to those that live in villages, face poverty, lack of infrastructure and floods, feel a sense of being different from each other. The development and opportunity divide is vast. It leads to alienation. As some now begin to return home as entrepreneurs, dividing time between Assam and a metro city, they often face this sense of being unwelcome in remote areas. Taking a cigarette break outside a village, for instance, might lead locals to question the person – irrespective of him/her being Assamese or not.

This is in no way addressed here to justify the lynching. It is just a part of Assam's evolving reality. While scholars, academics and journalists have drawn reasonable linkages between the tension over this lynching and the ongoing debate around a citizenship bill, the bloodletting that Nilotpal and Abhijeet faced is nothing but an example of hatred and a mob seeking blood.

The father of Nilotpal leads a chorus of voices in the state, appealing for calm and of seeking an inclusive, larger solution of mutual acceptance as well as assimilation. That's benevolent of him. This incident merits the harshest punishment possible within Indian law. It also urgently demands an answer – why was a history-sheeter with a record of lynching roaming free in the first place?

Presently, the Assam police has been very active and has been arresting perpetrators that they can determine. However, with clannish behaviour ruling courts, who goes to jail is an entirely different matter. For little else can explain how a man accused of lynching in the past roams around scot-free.

While ethnic tensions are not welcome and will not help matters, one must pause to remember, those who killed two young Assamese men for no reason, and brutalised their bodies over time, had no political, social or ethnically progressive motive. Theirs is a sick, criminal act. And it must be viewed and addressed as that alone.


Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 11:45 AM

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