Assam is marred with stories of extra-judicial killings in the past. Thousands of families have lost their near and dear ones when insurgency was at its peak. And while the past has its own truth to tell, the recent spate of encounters of alleged criminals in the first six months of the Himanta Biswa government has reminded the region that the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings is only here to stay. But what else also stays is the horror and trauma that extrajudicial killings leave in its aftermath, no matter how many decades pass on.

Ask the residents of Dipila, a village in Sipajhar Tehsil in Darrang District of Assam, about July 27, 1991.

It was a dreadfully humid afternoon and 48-year-old Keshab Deka or Alia – as he was known to everyone – went to the fields to cut grass to feed the cattle. His ancestral field was 3 kilometres from the Dipila Chowk, the centre place of Dipila.

His neighbour Pramod Kalita accompanied Deka to collect fodder for his cows as well.

“We heard the sound of an explosion at around 3 pm. Nobody knew what had happened. But the sound was so terrifying that our ears were ringing for the next few minutes. The entire region was filled with smoke and dust,” recalls Rukmini Deka, sister to 30-year-old Ganesh Deka, who was conducting tuition classes at Dipila’s Amarjyoti Sangha, less than a kilometre from the Chowk.

On July 27, 1991, 48-year-old Keshab Deka had gone to the fields to cut grass, 3 kilometres from the Dipila Chowk

At 3.30 pm, a bomb exploded on a wooden bridge near the Chowk, blowing up half of the bridge. The explosion killed none, but injured three people who were crossing the bridge in a car.

“Everyone was shouting – Bomb Blast at Dipila, Bomb Blast at Dipila. My body started trembling because my husband was nowhere to be seen. It had been more than an hour since the blast,” said Rohila Deka, wife of Keshab Deka, who left to work on his field in the afternoon.

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“I wanted to go out and search for him, but my neighbours stopped me, saying that the BSF personnel were hitting and shooting at everyone they could see,” continued Rohila.

Somewhere between 5 pm and 6 pm, the villagers heard the sound of bullets. Within half an hour, almost all the houses within a radius of 10 km of the explosion were raided by the 22 Battalion of the Border Security Forces posted at the Dipila village.

“They were taking all the men and young boys to the camp. It was pitch dark by late evening, and most of the men had left the village. The cows and goats were still in the fields. And then two boys came running towards the house saying that they had taken our son Chandra and his friend Karuna to the camp as well. They picked him from the place where he was painting the walls of a house.

“They were running out of breath by the time they reached our house. The boys were also running away to a nearby village,” said 70-year-old Purnima Baruah, whose son Chandra Baruah was one of the many picked up by the BSF forces that evening. He was one of the five men shot to death.

“Pramod was dragged from our house by the army right in front of our parents. He ran from the fields when he saw them taking Alia/Keshab Deka away. But he was chased by the BSF till home and taken back to the camp. Or so we were told,” said Deben Kalita, elder brother to 25-year-old Pramod Kalita, who had completed his BA from the nearby Sipajhar College a few months before he was killed.

On July 27, 1991, 30-year-old Ganesh Deka was conducting tuition classes at Dipila’s Amarjyoti Sangha, less than a kilometre from the Chowk

The Border Security Forces were posted in regions across Northeast India in the 1990s to partake in counter-insurgency operations. And while this unit is a part of the Central Armed Police forces, the people from the borderland remember them as any other armed force unit with a gun and suspicious gaze – unanimously and infamously labelled as ‘army’. 

Pabitra Kalita, then a 23-year-old college student, was among the men taken to the BSF camp. “There were 11 people there,” he recalls.

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“We were hit with guns and slapped, and many of us were badly injured. The BSF members were speaking in Hindi. They were talking about finishing us, and one guy pointed the gun towards us, almost about to shoot. Then one of them asked us to walk out.”

“We were asked to run in a nearby field, and they started shooting. We didn’t know where the bullets were coming from. All we could see was smoke. So, we just kept running. Alia, Pramod Kalita, and Chandra Baruah died on the spot in front of me.”

Two others died that day too. Pabitra was able to hide in a crowd of cattle and later hide at a friend’s home. In the following months, he lived in hiding, as the BSF personnel continued to search the village for him. He recounted seeing others who had survived the massacre too but suffered more severe injuries than he had at that time. “It’s been 30 years now; I have forgotten many other minute details, but I cannot forget the most important details. The rest of us survived only because of luck.”

Keshab Kalita, a resident of Dipila, and a friend of Karuna Kalita’s recalled the following day. “We went to retrieve the bodies from the Mangaldai Police Station early in the morning. The policemen didn’t let us go near the bodies and threw one body on top of another in a truck. It sends a chill down my spine when I picture the dead bodies in my mind. They were just in their undergarments with wounds everywhere. We followed the truck to the village again and that’s where we were finally handed over the bodies.”

Karuna Kalita’s body was lying inside the truck.

Chandra Baruah was painting the walls of a house when he was picked up by the BSF forces and shot dead on the evening of July 27, 1991

“Karuna was not even from this village. He had come to work at the Handloom and Textile department in our village. He stayed at my sister’s house on rent. We had to take his body to his home at Palasbari. His parents were aware of his death only after we reached his house. What a devastating scene!” said Keshab Kalita. Keshab was one of the two men who went to deliver Karuna Kalita’s body to his family. Karuna Kalita was survived by his parents who passed away a few years ago.

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Once the bodies reached the village of Dipila, the families were informed to come and identify if it was indeed their family members who were killed the previous day. Haranath Baruah – father to Chandra Baruah – was informed about his son’s body reaching his village. Baruah was still searching for his son in a nearby village, hoping that he was hiding away, like many of the young men that day.

“A man came to me and said that my son’s body was found among four other men who died. I was almost about to cycle to Mangaldai, but a few others stopped me,” said 85-year-old Haranath Baruah, who remembers every injury on his son’s body apart from the bullet wounds.

With roads blocked everywhere by the security forces and a connecting bridge blown away the previous day, the families of the dead had to find various means to reach the other end of the bridge to identify the bodies. Some reached out to fellow villagers to bring the body halfway, while some took detours through other villages to finally receive the body of their kin.

“My brother-in-law somehow managed to go and identify my husband’s body. The body was poked with a knife-like object and probably hit with the edge of the gun several times. There were so many injuries and no clothes on his body. His body was covered in mud and bullet wounds from head to toe. I can never forget that sight,” lamented Rohila Deka, with vivid memories of similar injuries on her husband’s body.

None of the families EastMojo spoke with received the post-mortem reports of the victims. None of them filed complaints either, either fearing government reprisal or simply not knowing how to. “We didn’t file any complaint or want to proceed with a court case,” Deben told this correspondent. “We didn’t even know how to go about with such proceedings against the army. None of our families filed complaints.”

Keshab Deka, farmer; Pramod Kalita, farmer; Ganesh Deka, teacher; Chandra Baruah, painter and Karuna Kalita, an employee at the Handloom and Textile industry of Assam were the five men killed by the BSF personnel on 27 July 1991, under suspicions of being involved with the blast at the bridge.

25-year-old Pramod Kalita had completed his BA from the nearby Sipajhar College a few months before he was dragged from his home and killed by the BSF on July 27, 1991

The explosion at Dipila was allegedly initiated by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) – a banned insurgent group that demanded a separate sovereign nation-state of Assam. But ULFA never admitted to nor denied their involvement in the explosion that day, which led to the death of five innocent men.

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Unlike today, when common citizens have access to social media to express themselves; back then, there was no one to listen to the people. To give more context, the Assam Human Rights Commission, which has now raised the matter about extrajudicial killings, did not come into existence until 1996.

In the decade following the Dipila killings, four different enquiries were set up to look into extrajudicial killings in Assam. But the enquiries remained restricted to only the killings that took place between the late 1990s and early 2000s. The JN Sharma Commission, which was set up in 2003, probed only six killings. The KN Saikia Commission, set up in 2005, probed 32 killings between 1998 and 2003. None visited Dipila or listed the massacre as something that should be probed.

“It feels unreal, you know. To see a young man leaving home for some mundane work in the afternoon and receiving his body the next day filled with bullet holes,” said Rukmini Deka, whose brother Ganesh Deka was stopped on his way back from his tuition classes by members of the BSF and was taken to their camp.

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The burning issues in 1990s Assam were varied: insurgency; unemployment; a freehand to the defence forces through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to curb the growing insurgency; and the most infamous of all: Secret Killings. Assam was overburdened with news of young men and women being either taken into custody or killed by unidentified killers with alleged help from the armed defence forces and former ULFA operatives. The Assam Police was also alleged to have been involved in sharing vital information during these killings, however, the state machinery was comparatively questioned and criticised much less for being involved in the extrajudicial killings.

A newly-formed regional party Asom Gana Parishad was voted with a high public mandate to power in 1985, in the aftermath of the Assam Movement, replacing the long term Congress government with many of its old guards ousted from power. But Congress returned to power in June 1991 after months of Presidential rule, and just a month before the Dipila killings.

“I was trembling as my husband was nowhere to be seen. It had been more than an hour since the blast,” recalls Keshab Deka’s wife Rohila, who was 33 then

The fact that the extrajudicial killings at Dipila took place under the Congress government and not under the AGP could be one of the prime reasons why the Dipila killings never made it to the inquiries probed by the Congress government for extrajudicial killings.

Meanwhile, many young men and women in Assam were growing sympathies towards ULFA, which led to its considerable popularity amongst people. Many left their homes behind with an ambitious dream of establishing a separate sovereign nation-state of Assam through armed conflict.

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By the early 2000s, with the advent of a newly-formed Congress government, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi probed an enquiry into the alleged extrajudicial killings under the AGP government. The AGP government too formed a committee for the same purpose under the rule, but it didn’t come up with any substantial outcome.

The Gogoi-led government set up three commissions, with only the third commission’s report i.e the KN Saikia Commission being put to use in 2005. A report was submitted in 2006 and alleged that the Home Department, alongside the police, was involved in the killings between the late 1990s to early 2000s. The Home Department was under the then AGP Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta. While some called it political vendetta by the Congress government, some believed the reports and held them to be true.

The KN Saikia Commission’s report was, however, quashed by the Gauhati High Court in 2018. The HC termed it legally invalid as a previous committee i.e the JN Sarma Commission was not discontinued yet, as it should have been, through a gazette notification as per Section 7 of the Commission of Inquiry Act.

And amidst the process of mandatory legal proceedings and political hullabaloo, the horrific incidents like the Dipila killings were conveniently forgotten and erased from public memory.

Aftermath – Compensation for human life

“A few years later, we were asked to meet our local MLA in Guwahati, during an Assembly session. He made us meet Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia. All five families were handed over a cheque of Rs 1 lakh. That was our compensation,” said Deben Kalita.

Purnima and Haranath Baruah still wonder if their son Chandra would have been alive had he not gone to work that fateful day on July 27, 1991

“Some of the family members received government jobs here and there, but we can’t really consider it a part of any compensation. Many had their networking with local political representatives. And these were the jobs that would have come along, regardless of any unjustified death in the family,” continued Deka.

And while Deben Kalita’s parents died, languishing in the pain of seeing their youngest son Pramod Kalita being dragged by armed men as the last memory of him being alive, the families were also very much aware that no amount of compensation could fill the void of what they had lost. Three of these five men were also the sole breadwinners of their families.

Ganesh Deka was a graduate in Economics. He had just completed his B.Ed and was pursuing an LLB. “It was so unfortunate to not have found a job that matched his qualifications. But he was working hard and tutoring students,” recalls Rukmini, with fond memories of how the entire village of Dipila looked up to Deka.

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“When he died, my father withdrew himself from the entire world. It was a shock that both my mother and father couldn’t recover from. I know that had my brother lived, my parents would have lived for many more years,” continued Rukmini, who now works as a school teacher in a nearby village.

But for the family of Alia/Keshab Deka, his wife and their two young children were left at the mercy of the rest of the family members until the sons grew up and started earning on their own.

“The next one month after the killings was only about politicians visiting our household. True that there were many sympathisers, but could that bring my husband back? My children were so young and I never went to school to go look for work anywhere. We had to rely on my husband’s brothers to look after us. But by the mercy of God, both my sons work now,” said Rohila, who was 33-years-old when she lost her husband.

“We didn’t file any complaint or want to proceed with a court case. We didn’t even know how to go against the army,” said Promod Kalita’s brother Deben 

For the octogenarian Haranath Naruaha and septuagenarian Purnima Baruah on the other hand, their son’s death at the age of twenty-five was not only a reminder of pain and trauma but also a cause of worry like for anyone else who lives by the means of hand to mouth.

“Had my son not gone to work that day, he wouldn’t have been killed like that. But what can we do now,” said Haranath Baruah, sitting by the corner of a tiny room with a portrait of his late son Chandra Baruah hanging above him by the wall.

These young men’s deaths are remembered every year on July 27 by various students’ organisations and political parties alike. And according to many, any gathering on July 27 is still met with at least a visit from any nearby camp of the armed forces.

“They don’t feel very comfortable with the fact that they or their colleagues killed someone and those who died are still remembered by the people here,” said a resident of Dipila village, who wants to remain anonymous.

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But the families have also shown their concerns regarding the declaration of July 27 as Martyr’s day by the banned rebel outfit ULFA, honouring the death of the five men.

The ULFA never denied their involvement in the explosion of the bridge on July 27. And the village of Dipila, like many other rural pockets of Assam in the decade of 1990, did witness a few men joining the insurgent group.

When surnames were dangerous

The Kalita surname was a dangerous one to bear in Dipila at that time.

Tum sab Kalita ek hi ho. Woh bhi ULFA tha, tum mein se bhi koi hoga”- Keshab Kalita recalls the regular threats by the armed force members during their usual checking of any men who would walk past them in the evening.

“There was a ULFA member from our village with the surname Kalita. He was killed by the army later. But because his last name is the same as ours, they would be extremely suspicious towards the rest of us as well,” continued Kalita, who had experienced many similar incidents with the armed forces. 

Rukmini Deka’s brother Ganesh was stopped on his way back from tuition classes, dragged to the BSF camp and shot dead

Today, a school stands in the place of the camps where the 22 Batallion of BSF was placed, and where one of those five men was possibly tortured before being killed. Ironically enough, the name of the school is Paradise English School.

And while the memories of even the residents of Dipila often forget about what happened on that dreadful day, the families remember. And they are still angry and in pain. And they have many things to say – to the men who killed their innocent family members, to the government who forgot about their accountability and to the ULFA whom those men had nothing to do with.

Ganesh Deka’s only surviving family member Rukmini Deka said, “We know many boys who joined the ULFA from our village. But my brother was not one of them. The ULFA declared 27 July as Martyr’s day – in memory of my brother and the other four men. But these men were not ULFA members. I don’t prefer his death being referred to as a martyr. He should have lived and lived a normal life – the life of a teacher maybe, or a lawyer. But not an insurgent. They were killed for something that they not even were.”

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