Damning the Dam Protestors – An Investigation into Police Repression in Assam

May 27, 2012

By Priyanka Borpujari. Reprinted with permission from the author’s website.

This collection of three articles is part of an ongoing investigation by freelance journalist Priyanka Borpujari into police repression in Assam. Previous coverage of protests against the Lower Subansiri dam project, towards the beginning of 2012, can be found here, and a political introduction to KMSS can be found here. CSD and PUDR statements in solidarity with dam protesters can be found here and here.

The articles are:

1. Damning the Dam Protesters, May 22 2012. This article outlines the contours of police repression and manufacturing of cases against anti-dam activists in the north bank of upper Assam.

2. Inside Tomorrow’s Mayhem, May 23 2012. This article contains interviews with dam officials and views of the reservoir, construction sites etc.

3. “Administration is Nothing But Common Sense”, May 24 2012. Through interviews of police officials, this article gives a glimpse of the kind of policing that will become common in the future.

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Damning The Dam Protesters

May 22, 2012

On the evening of May 11, the front portion of a tanker containing 11,000 litres of diesel, on contract with NHPC, was set on fire in Thekeraguri village adjacent to NH 52, just past the Subansiri river bridge. This bridge lies in the district of Lakhimpur in Assam and is just 2-3 kms before the adjoining district of Dhemaji. Beyond the river on the left side a mountain range is visible which lies in Arunachal Pradesh.

The same evening, a checkpost and protest camp at Ghagor was demolished. Ghagor lies on NH 52, few kilometres before the bridge. A road bifurcating on the left leads one directly to Gerukamukh (falling under Dhemaji district), which is the construction site and project headquarter of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. The checkpost and the camp were jointly erected by 8 organisations protesting the construction of the dam in January 2012, after a massive people’s movement to prevent the transportation of construction materials to Gerukamukh.

 

Ghagor on NH52, and the takeover of Prodeep Gogoi’s dhaba opposite the checkpost and protest camp

On the night of May 11 and into the next morning, 14 men and women were beaten and arrested by the police for their alleged crime of setting fire to the tanker. A 13-year-old boy was slapped repeatedly on his head and detained for two hours. The next day, some more were beaten, dragged and arrested. By the morning of May 20, a total of 23 people were behind bars. It has been confirmed that the first 14 men and women have been booked under IPC 120 B (criminal conspiracy), 149 (unlawful assembly), 384 (extortion), 427 (mischief with damage to property) and 435 (mischief with fire). While the latter 3 charges are bailable offenses, section 120 B is a stringent one. The men and women arrested are either farmers, students or small-time businessmen, running shops or dhabas.

Over the last few days, I have been meeting activists and local leaders of ethnic groups, families of those arrested, officials of NHPC, police personnel, as well as some of those behind bars. Even as I write about these encounters in chapters, the repression continues: 4 people who had undertaken to sit on a hunger strike on May 20 have been arrested on charges of violating Section 144 of CrPC. The next few reports are an attempt to articulate all that has been understood in the last few days of repression.

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Azad Hazarika runs a health club in North Lakhimpur town. He began to go for meetings that called for the people in Assam to protest the Lower Subansiri hydro power project. During the resistance in December 2011, when NHPC tried to get in a significant part of a turbine into the project site, he was among those who lay down on the street to protest the passage of any kind of construction material. Today, he informally functions as a significant link among the people in the movement, at times when news dissemination is the most crucial aspect of the struggle.

 He says that there was an informal agreement between government officials and activists part of 8 joint organisations resisting the construction of the dam, that tankers with diesel would be allowed to reach the project site at Gerukamukh only once in 20 days. This diesel was necessary as basic fuel to maintain a certain level of electric supply in project site. Hazarika gave a background to the all the events that finally led to the tanker being torched:

 “The 8 organisations then formed a ‘big dams construction materials blockade’ camp at Ghagor on NH 52. At any given point of time, 4 boys would man the checkpost, checking the challans of vehicles that took the left turn towards the project site at Gerakamukh. Any vehicle that bore NHPC on its challan was sent back; any other private vehicle was allowed to pass. The camp, a little ahead from the checkpost, had about 50 people staying day and night, since January 2012.

 

CRPF personnel now occupy Prodeep Gogoi’s dhaba

On May 11, the boys at the checkpost saw a tanker approaching that road. The driver said that the police had kept the challan with them. Before the boys could stop the vehicle, it sped away towards the project site. An urgent meeting was called for, and the some officials arrived at the point, along with a huge police force. I was informed about the meeting and rushed towards Ghagor – it is 35 kms away from North Lakhimpur. But I was surprised to see that NH 52 was now being patrolled by the police and CRPF, well beyond the checkpost at Ghagor. As some negotiations took place at the camp, about two other vehicles sped away. Soon the rumour spread that the tanker had been set on fire. Arbitrary arrests followed.

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The stretch from Ghagor to Gogamukh town square is about 8 kms. While heading towards Gogamukh from North Lakhimpur (the district headquarters of Lakhimpur), about 2 kms before Ghagor is the Boginodi police station. After Ghagor is the Chauldhowa police outpost, followed by a newly constructed all-bamboo camp of the 19 Assam Batallion, and then the police station of Gogamukh, which falls under Dhemaji district. The district borders are porous; police and CRPF personnel dot the entire stretch of 8 kms. Small CRPF camps – typical Assamese houses but with sand bags stacked up – are also visible.

Roopohi is a village after the Subansiri bridge, and about 3 kms away from NH 52. It has a predominant population of Mishing tribesmen. After some enquiry, we arrived at the residence of Anand (Babul) Mili. Like any other house structure of a Mishing family, this too is a chaang ghor – a house made entirely of bamboo on high stilts. Many young boys walk in with us – my guide for the day Purandar Mili (who is a local activist of TMPK or Takam Mishing Poring Kebang or All Mishing Students’ Union) and I. Few minutes later, Babul walked in and said that he has been evading arrest since May 11.

Thekeraguri is not too far away from Roopohi. The young men told me that many of them ran deep into the forests when the police and the CRPF was hunting for the people who could have possibly set the tanker on fire. Like the other activists in the region, Babul was convinced that the tanker was purposefully set on fire as an act of conspiracy to implicate the people associated with the anti-dam movement, and thus crumble the struggle.

“Why did the fire brigade arrive 2 hours late? Why didn’t the police allow photographers to photograph the burning vehicle? Cops were standing about 200 metres away from the tanker, yet none of them came forward to assess the situation near the tanker. Besides, there is no clue about where could the tanker be headed – the driver could not produce any challan when he was asked for it at the checkpost. When he was asked about it, he had said that the cops had taken it from him. There is something surely fishy here,” said Babul, as he invited someone over the phone.

On what basis have the arrests been made? “Cops says that there was a digital camera in the tanker, which exposed the people who had set the tanker on fire!” Babul says angrily.

Twenty-year-old Rajiv Saikia is a resident of Roopohi and has studied up to matriculation. He is on the run along with his friend Ritu Saikia. Both said that they were doing business as suppliers of various goods. Both of them have been on a bike, traversing through villages, begging for meals and a corner for their night’s stay. “There is a businessman in our area who is close to the cops. That’s how he is able to leak out information to us. He has informed us that the Boginodi police is on the lookout for 53 people. Among them are Debo Bhuyan, Deepak Neog, Pranab Saikia and I, along with Ritu and Rajiv. The same person has also informed us that the cops are picking boys from villages and promising them the job of homeguards,” said Babul. The recruitment of these boys are similar to the recruitment of special police officers (SPOs) in places like Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and Kalinganagar in Odisha.

 

On the run, from one village to another: Rajiv and Ritu

Nijom Mili walked in. He had a dignified look on his face, and it seemed tough to ask him tough questions. Like, did his son really take up the job to attack his own village folk? Mili ran a pharmacy shop until few months ago, when he met with an accident. Repeated visits to various doctors yielded no good health. “Finally, a doctor at AMC (Assam Medical College in Diburgarh) operated below my ear. I still d not know what was the need for the surgery. But it has taken me a long time to move around,” says Mili.

Mili’s Graduate-educated son has taken up the job offered by the police, when he heard of the same from a relative. “They said that the job was like that of a homguard, but not exactly a homeguard,” he said.

“Did they say that he is being recruited to be a SPO?” I asked.

“Maybe. Something like that. But he was told that his job could be confirmed by the superintendent of police (SP) after 6 months.”

“What is his salary?”

“Rs 4,500.”

“Does he have a uniform yet? Are they giving the boys arms training?”

“He doesn’t yet have a uniform. So far, they have been training the boys how to march left-right-left. As if he doesn’t know which is left and right!”

Mili’s son had to apply for the job, then give an interview, followed by a training session for three days, and he was then selected. He now shuttles between Boginodi police station and Chauldhowa outpost, since the time he was recruited about 25 days ago.

When a dam made us foes: Nijom Mili (left) and Babul Mili (right)

Babul said that these recruitments mean that the government would use these boys to spy on the village folk who are protesting the construction of the dam. Mili said that he did talk of such a possibility with his son, but so far, nothing like that had happened. “He was not among the police personnel who had beaten up the people in our and nearby villages when the tanker was set on fire,” Mili said.

Babul drew me a quick map about the region and we headed to meet the family of Gagan Bora in Na-Ali Gergeria village. The landscape was fresh green and brown bamboo-and-mud houses were scattered around. Colourful chaadors (worn by the women) and white gamosas (a type of towel or gamcha) were left to dry on the bamboo fences. Cows graze with no hurry. The thin ribbon road opened to an open area and a tiny shop. This shop is run by 27-year-old Gagan and his wife Ikharani. At their residence adjoining the shop are relatives visiting from nearby houses and taking care of Bora’s two children – a daughter aged 3.5 years and a toddler son.

“My husband had gone to Silapathar (a village far away in Dhemaji district) on May 11 and returned only at about 10pm. On his way back, he heard about the tanker being set on fire. The next morning at about 8am, he went out to Na-Ali Tiniali (the T-junction at Na-Ali) to do some shopping for our shop. By 11.30am some boys came and told me that my husband had been beaten and arrested. I could not believe their words and thought it was someone else. But they knew that it was him who was arrested,” said Ikharani.

Waiting with my children….. Ikharani Bora

From that day on, said Ikharani, cops have been making rounds in the village every night. Young boys scamper into distant villages while women stay back. “Once the cops even wanted to hit me but I guess they did not do so when they saw I was with a child,” she says. She has visited Gagan just once in the jail and is unsure of the charges levied on him. “It is difficult to run the family without him. I got a neighbour to do some shopping for our shop. I just hope that KMSS is able to get a good lawyer to release him. He is innocent. Yes, he has been to meetings called in by the anti-dam groups, but he would never do such a thing,” she said.

Debo Nath’s family resides in nearby Thekeraguri village. Close to this village was where the tanker was set on fire. The fear is palpable in the voice and words of Debo’s sister Parismita, who is studying in the 12th grade. Debo is a student of Graduate-level Arts at Subansiri College, and also runs a shop nearby. He is the eldest of 5 siblings. He was in the shop on May 12 when he was arrested.

“Did Debo know that the tanker was burnt the previous the night before he was arrested?” I asked.

“We did hear something like that but we did not know anything. We heard that some people had been picked up the cops but Debo thought that it had got nothing to with him, which is why he went to the shop that day,” Parismita said.

“Do you have any idea why he could be arrested?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Did Debo ever go to the camp at Ghagor?”

“No.”

“Did he attend any of the anti-dam movement meetings? There was a large meeting held in your village few months ago.”

“No.”

The only consistent emotion Debo Nath’s sisters and aunt feel since his arrest, is fear.

“Was he associated with the anti-dam protests in any way?”

“No.”

“Have you heard of the dam coming up?”

“Yes.”

“Then have you heard of organisations like KMSS?”

“No.”

Her denials are hard to believe but understandable, under the current circumstances.

Having explained to her that she would have to actively participate in the legal matters to get Debo released, we headed to Roopohi Baligaon-Bongali Basti, to meet Nabajyoti Kamang. He owns a piece of land in Roopohi and his two children studied there, under the guardianship of a neighbour. Nabajyoti later told us that he could not leave his own residence because he had a job with Bhimpura Junior College, and travelling daily from Roopohi would be tiring.

Getting to Roopohi Baligaon-Bongali Basti meant several chances of falling into black mud, next to roaming, hungry pigs. Many Mishing families rear pigs and a sudden rainfall in the region the previous night ensured a tough ride through the villages. It meant eye-soothing landscapes with river streams and ponds, as well as feet falling deep into the mud while navigating the bike.

Nabajyoti Kamang too lived in a chaang ghor, with many such houses in the same compound. Which presumably were inhabited by extended family members. His 13-year-old son Paban Singh steps down the rickety bamboo staircase to meet us. Paban cooked and studied and lived in the house in Roopohi with his younger sister. In the afternoon of May 12, he had gone to Na-Ali Tiniali to buy some chillies, when the police caught hold of him and beat him repeatedly in the back of his head. He kept quiet all the while he was being beaten by few cops and was then taken to the police station, where he was kept for 2 hours.

“I did not know of all this until late that night. The police waited for some people to arrive to sign on some papers, before my son could be left free. How could he possibly set fire to the tanker? He is just a small boy!” said Nabajyoti.

Nabajyoti said that he brought home Paban and his younger daughter the next morning. “Ever since I brought him home, he has been on the bed. He is not keen on eating either. There was no bleeding but I could feel that his head was swollen. A local doctor is treating him with herbs and Paban is slowly getting better.”

I asked Nabajyoti if he was thinking of writing a complaint to the police. He joined his hands, almost as though he was begging. “I want to lead a simple life. I do not want to entangle my family with the police. I should be happy that they did not harm Paban to much – we can manage this. I know this has all got to do with the dam and the movement against it, but I don’t want any harm for my family. We thank you that you have come to enquire about us but we do not want any more hassle,” he said.

Nabajyoti expressed hope that situations would permit him to send Paban to the same school in Roopohi since it is a better one. The school in their resident village was almost non-existent. “But I have to work out something. I have a huge family. We all cannot shift to Roopohi because I have my job here. My wife and daughters weave here. We have our pigs. Yet, I want a good education for Paban, but am afraid to send him to Roopohi again,” he said.

Paban Singh Kamang (slouching on the chair, wearing green shirt and blue pants) with his siblings, cousins, father and grandmother in their ‘chaang ghor’

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The 14 arrested on May 11 and 12 are Bharat Sahu, Tarini Deka, Prodeep Gogoi, Juti Gogoi, Nitumoni Gogoi, Kalpana Gogoi, Gagan Bora, Bhanu Bhuyan, Debo Nath, Dipen Mudoi, Apul Nath, Aghuna Bhuyan, Lakheshwari Chutia and Pratibha Chutia.

The local activists were specifically horrified in the way Prodeep Gogoi and his wife Juti were attacked by the police. Just opposite the camp at Ghagor, they ran a dhaba. They cooked food for the camp residents, albeit they were paid as per the price on the menu. Eyewitnesses say that they were both beaten and dragged on the street on the night of May 11, after the police had apprehended Gogoi’s son Rupankar and his friend Bharat Sahu. Gogoi had charged the police when they had begun to attack the young boys, and that’s when both Gogoi and his wife were attacked and finally arrested. Gogoi’s hand was fractured; Bharat was also arrested while Rupankar fled to save his life.

Rupankar Gogoi feels safe with his cousins, but he cannot spend much time with them

When I traversed across the villages that fell under the Chauldhowa Panchayat (the expanse of this Panchayat is very large), nobody knew the wherabouts of Rupankar. Upon reaching Gogoi’s father’s (Rupankar’s paternal grandfather) house in Baasantipur, a cold indifference was felt. Only upon a lot of insistence and convincing that I wasn’t sent by the police or the Assam government did they decide to “look out” for Rupankar. Few minutes later he arrived, along with another local activist. Twenty-year-old Rupankar was in a state of shock and fear after all that had happened. In the video below, he explains all that transpired on the night of May 11. He says how the police and the CRPF attacked him and Bharat Sahu; how the armed men even beat up the pigs that they were rearing in the vicinity of the dhaba, to such an extent that they pulled out the skin from the pig’s hind side.

Like Gogoi’s family which had established deep ties with the movement, Dipen Mudoi was actively participating in the protest by staying at the camp in Ghagor whenever he could. A resident of Katorisapori Bharatpur village, 35-year-old Dipen lived with the family of his elder brother.

Several women were sitting together in the verandah of Mudoi’s residence. One of them was his sister-in-law, Gitali. She explained how both Dipen, and his cousin Manoj Hazarika, were actively involved in the anti-dam movement. “Dipen runs a grocery shop near Na-ali Tiniali. Sometimes, when he would wind up from the shop earlier, he would go and spend some time at the camp in Ghagor or offer to screen the vehicles at the checkpost. On May 11, he didn’t come home until 10pm. I did not latch the door from inside, assuming that he had been delayed for some reason. The next morning, we tried to reach him on his mobile but it was swtiched off. When he heard nothing from him until the afternoon of May 12, we began to ask around. That’s when we were told that he had been arrested. We were worried, because at the same time we heard about the tanker being torched and several others also being arrested,” said Gitali.

Gitali and Manoj met him in the jail once and he confirmed that he was doing fine. “But he may not say that he was beaten even if we ask, lest we get worried,” said an old lady who was sitting with Gitali. She added, “He is a very quiet boy. Even if he was part of the movement, he would keep to himself. He would do only that was told to him; he would comfortably do anything that he was asked to do. I never saw him angry. It is unbelievable that he would torch a tanker – because I hear that he has been arrested for doing such a thing. He could never have done this. They are trapping him.”

Manoj took the photograph of Dipen Mudoi when he had gone to visit him in the jail

 Dibakar Saikia’s mother Ilashi too thinks that her son is being falsely implicated. She refuses to divulge further details, lest her son’s case would worsen. The way Dibakar was arrested sounds familiar to the way human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was arrested.

Saikia’s residence is on NH 52 and just half a kilometre from the Subansiri bridge. It is unlike the houses visited so far. It is a large concrete structure, and neatly painted in pink. His mother Ilashi spoke to us in few words while cutting the betel nut. Saikia runs a stone crusher mill and had recently purchased a piece of land a little ahead of the erstwhile Ghagor camp, to further extend his business.

“Dibakar’s papers for the purchase of the land was in place, and he was in touch with the District Collector for the same. On May 14, he got a call that the DC wanted to meet him in North Lakhimpur. When he went there, he was told that the DC did not call him at all! When he was on his journey back home, he got another call that the SP wanted to see him. When he reached the SP’s office, he was arrested,” said his mother.

Was he actively involved in the anti-dam movement? “Look, we live very close to the river. If anything happened to the river, we would be among the first people to be affected. Some say that the dam would do us good, while we also hear about the threats. We are really confused about the dam. My son is just a businessman. He is not an activist,” she emphasised.

Another relative present during the conversation vehemently denied any possible association between Dibakar and any political or activist group. “He only does business and for that he meets many people. He is not aligned to any party or group,” he said.

When I requested Mrs Saikia for a photograph, she reiterated, “Please do not put me into any further trouble.”

“Please do not get us into further trouble”: Dibakar Saikia’s mother

 Dibakar’s wife wasn’t present at the time of my visiting their residence; she had gone to meet some lawyers. I requested for her phone number so that I could later check on the progress of the case. When I dialled the number later that night, it turned out to be a wrong one. Clearly, the family was shaken with fear. And so was the rest of the region. It wasn’t easy to meet people; many of them had several phone numbers of which some were unreachable. Like Bedanta Laskar, one of the key activists of KMSS said, “The government is hell bent on having the dam completed. It will crush all movement, any how. Even the best of police officers are today unrecognizable.”

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Inside Tomorrow’s Mayhem

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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May 17 had been declared a day of statewide shutdown by a coalition of non-Bodo groups. However, it was imperative to meet Rajni Phukan who worked for Suma Enterprise Ltd. Soma, along with three other companies – L&T, Alstom and Texmaco – had been contracted by NHPC for the construction of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro power project. Phukan and 462 others had offered to resign from their job at Suma the previous day. It was most likely that they would be able to clear their dues the same day, which meant that an possible entry into the project site could not be possible after that date. Besides, he was all-supportive of the movement against the big dam, and he nonchalantly proclaimed that he needed the job, and perhaps the dam too, for his own survival.

There were a handful vehicles on NH 52. The few that plied were stared for long after they disappeared from sight by police and CRPF personnel. That day, the green and blue hue of the highway was replaced with the khaki colour. Little boys carrying unusually large gunny bags were stopped – strangely, never are little boys taking big bags ever stopped on ‘normal’ days. Perhaps it is easy to digest child labour on a normal day, than to believe the innocence of the same child with the large bag on the day of a statewide shutdown.

The three petrol pumps on the highway across a 10km-stretch were half open. Long bamboos were put in place at the entrance of the petrol pumps, to notify that they would be doing no business. To prevent my guide for a day, a young student, from exposing himself unnecessarily before the large contingent of CRPF personnel, we avoided taking the route via Ghagor, past the erstwhile checkpost and protest camp. We took another route and the approximate 20 km ride was breathtaking. The distant mountains of Arunchal Pradesh surrounded us on three sides, as bamboo branches bent forward to provide us shade and coolness.

Tomorrow’s children on Twitter will tweet

“Our forefathers sang that the woods were lovely, dark and deep…”

 This stretch of road too was heavily guarded. After some distance, a godown was visible, and large rings could be seen. There were at least 50 of them parked there on someone’s arable land. These rings were part of the construction material of the dam at Gerukamukh. Finally, we reached the NHPC gate. It was a mammoth iron structure, with the mountains in its background.

Waiting to be taken to the place where it won’t rust….

Rajni Phukan was waiting for us, along with Jibon Bora, the Secretary of Soma Workers’ Union. Both of them have been working on dam construction sites for the last 17 years, beginning with the construction of the Ranganadi dam in Lakhimpur. Phukan said, “After the resistance movement in December 2011, there has been almost no work here. No construction materials are reaching here. The company slowly stopped giving us our Sunday pay and the overtime pay. We understand that the completion of the project seems bleak in the given scenario, which is why we have decided to quit the job.” About 2 months ago, about 500 workers with L&T also went home; Phukan told me that there are just a handful left at NHPC.

We took a stroll around the campus of the headquarters of the Lower Subansiri hydro power project. A large gate notifies that it was a Kendriya Vidyalaya high school; all spic and span with no students yet. A signboard showed us the way to a shopping complex, bank, residential quarters, etc. The gate to Soma Enterprises Ltd was manned by aging guards; Bora said that all the construction materials were stored there. There was a high wall and a barbed fence over it, yet the top curve of the large rings (like the ones seen previously on the way) were visible.

A well-screened entry into the fortress amid the hills…

The administrative staff at the NHPC office were local boys and girls. But the reigns were in the hands of experts who were not from the region. Phukan facilitated me to meet the Geophysics Chief of the project, S Murugappan. A kind man who offered coffee in the tea state, he refused to go on record with our long conversation. He said that only recently it had been decided that nobody except for the Executive Director, could speak to the media. Even so, the permissions had to be taken from NHPC’s main office in Faridabad. “But since you have come all the way, I will explain some things to you. Just do not note down anything,” he said. He tried his best to explain how the project was technically sound, how it was to be the largest dam in Asia, how dams in other countries had withstood the test of time, how the Bhakra-Nangal dam was “temple of modern India” like it had been quoted by Nehru. He loaded me with enough brochures that screamed out the projects of NHPC. Then he let his public relations manager Mr Toppo give me a tour of the project site, for me to understand what he was talking about and how the dam was “indeed a much-needed project”.

(To understand the social and ecological threats to the North East through a series of hydropower projects, do read this detailed report: Damming Northeast India)

Gone are the grains from the hands.

Welcome, electricity!

(In the campus of Lower Subansiri hydro power project headquarters)

We got onto Murugappan’s vehicle. We stopped at a site after climbing uphill for a while. From the barbed fences, one could see a large stone crusher in the distance below, on the other bank of the river. The crusher mill was connected to a site close to where we stood, by conveyor belts. These belts took the stones way up far and high. “Can you see that patch of green in the far right? That was what NHPC has planted as part of our forestation (sic),” said Toppo with a bright smile. “You are not from any NGO na?” he asked suddenly. I denied the allegation and say that I am only an independent journalist. Toppo himself began his public relations career with two NGOs, and then he found the jobs were not promising enough. He joined NHPC 2 years ago and it took him 6 months to understand the project well, to be able to conduct such guided tours for journalists.

A few minutes later, as we continued going uphill on a winding partly-cemented road (which was once a thick forest) parts of the dam construction were visible. A CISF checkpost stopped us, ad then let us o on seeing Toppo. The concrete construction looked huge already, amid the bushes on the periphery on the road we were traversing on. And then, the mighty Subansiri river could be seen. In the distant were the cascading mountains in different shades of distance. From among their feet, the river snaked out. And then we reached the viewing point of the dam.

What a scarily large structure it was! We were on one side of the mountain, and below us was the gushing river. At our eye level was the other side of the mountain, and between us was a tall red crane. Below, a platform had been created and the few men there looked smaller than ants. Turning right, and after some explanation from Toppo, I understood that a tunnel had been created, into which the river was flowing. Of course its width was nothing as compared to the width between where we stood and the mountain on the other side (which is the actual width of the river). On the left, from a corner, the river appeared to rush out – that was the exit point. Toppo explained that below our feet was the tunnel through which the river had been diverted.

There she flows – with her path diverted, her forest home concreted….

“The dam is supposed to come up to where we are standing – full 116 metres tall. But then, everything is in the mind. Even fear. If I tell people that this fence is safe, they still walk carefully as though they will fall. How will this fall? This is strong iron! Similarly, people have decided to sta scared about the dam. They want to think that there will be an earthquake and this dam will break. That is just not possible!” Toppo laughs.

The main dam below had been constructed in large ‘slabs’ and would be built upwards in a sloping manner. The stone crusher mill was visible at a distant; the conveyor belts leading to the crane would transport a cooled and solidified mixture of sand and cement. “This is a very unique crane. Can you see the spirals and the long extensions? The crane moves around in a circular way so that materials can be transported easily to any particular portion on the dam below,” Toppo said.

 

He also showed me the gates to 8 tunnels through which water would flow. Those tunnels were connected to a power grid far on the left, on the opposite side of the mountain. The water will travel up there, and through a tunnel, fall into the pressure shafts. That is the powerhouse where electricity will be generated,” he explained. I could tiny tubes in the distant where water could possibly flow into, to the turbines.

The ‘powerhouse’

 I stood in awe, listening to the marvels of the possibilities of human engineering and watching the grey concrete looking alien amid the lush greens. Faint sounds of machines were interspersed with the call of wild birds. We spent about half hour in that location. “I will now take you to the powerhouse,” Toppo said. The car passed through a bridge called ‘Progoti Setu’ (Progress Bridge) and we were now on the side of the powerhouse. Almost every large iron machine was in yellow – the colour symbolising L&T. Toppo took us inside to the place where the pressure shafts were assembled, which is a part of the turbine at large. A similar pressure shaft was mistaken as turbine when it had to be transported from North Lakhimpur to Gerukamukh in December 2011. It was protesting this transportation that the agitation took shape, which led to the creation of the checkpost and protest camp at Ghagor. For 4.5 months, it had been a successful protest act – to prevent the materials from reaching their destination.

Inside the ‘powerhouse’

“People are ignorant. They thought that the pressure shaft was a turbine an they have been making unnecessary noise about it,” said Toppo. The 4 storeys of the powerhouse was full of huge machines but no men operating them. “They men had to be asked to leave when there was no work taking place. We only now have the security guards,” said Toppo. The security guards were old, nearly-stooping Assamese men. Their tiffin boxes waited in a corner, to be opened at ease until we left the premise.

A little below, there were 2 large spiral casings; 6 more were to be assembled and fitted in a line series. Into the distant was the mountain. I realise that these large spirals were that what I had thought of as ‘tiny tubes’ while on the other bank of the river. “The water coming from the river will fall through a height of 80-90 metres, and they will enter these casings. They will hit the runners and then hit the pressure shafts. You can see those chamber-like things there – the water will hit there. And on top of this structure will be the transformer,” Toppo said.

We drove back to the office. Before I could thank Murgappan for the site tour, he asked me, “So tell me, how did you feel?”

++++

This is what you will see now….

This is what you may not get to see tomorrow….

***********************************

‘The Administration Is Nothing But Common Sense’

May 24, 2012

 ***********************************

 

The burnt tanker had been stationed at the Chauldhowa outpost since the day it was set on fire – on the evening of May 11. The Inspector In-Charge, Utpal Changmai, was known to be a kind, gentle officer who spoke to everyone with warmth. “But he unleashed such a terror on that night – we can’t believe his kind words anymore,” echoed the voices of the people living close to the Subansiri bridge on NH 52.

The Chauldhowa police outpost of the Lakhimpur police is stationed on the NH 52, much before the Subansiri bridge. It has a large open space ahead of its concrete office. About three CRPF personnel sat chatting on the base of the flag post. In another corner, the Indian Oil tanker stood; its front covered with a yellow sheet of plastic. Invisible to any passerby on the highway, a tempo stood next to the tanker. It contained a few oil drums. Few sweaty, red-thin men wearing just the gamcha below their waist were transferring the oil from the tanker to the drums. Few cops kept a vigil. Changmai waited near a vehicle as I introduced myself to him and requested to speak to him. He suggested that I speak to his senior, who was present there too.

I introduced myself to Imdad Ali, Additional Superintendent of Police (Security), Lakhimpur District, stating that I was doing a series of stories on large dams (not a lie this). He said that there was nothing much to speak of. “We have nothing to do with the dam, and we have no idea about it. We are here only to maintain law and order,” he said. After a few moments of pleading, Changmai, Ali, another officer and I were seated in an office painted green. It had no racks with dusty files, or photographs of freedom fighters. The only accessories were a locked steel cupboard and curtains on the windows and the door. From the window, I could watch better the oil transfer in action.

Ali interviewed me for five minutes, taking down every detail – name, exact address of my permanent residence, place of origin, publication I worked for, the date when I arrived in the region, the place where I was staying in the vicinity, the person with whom I was staying, how I arrived at the police outpost (vehicle and with whom), the places I had visited so far and my phone number. Finally I asked if I could not interview him back. He did not permit me to interview him on video; only the SP is permitted to speak to the media.

Priyanka (P): What have the investigations so far on the tanker that was set on fire?

Ali: We have arrested 14 persons so far.

P: I heard that it was 21. So it is 14 or 21?

A: It is 21.

P: But hasn’t one more person been arrested today?

Changmai: Yes.

P: So that makes it 22.

A: Yes.

(This conversation took place on May 17. So far, 26 people have been arrested.)

P: So what exactly happened?

A: This happened on May 11, about 100 metres away from here, in Thekeraguri.

P: Did this happen inside the village or…?

A: We cannot give you so much details. You will have to go and see yourself. All these details are part of our investigation.

P: All I am asking if for the distance…

A: It happened 200 metres away from the highway.

P: Have the arrests yielded any information yet?

A: The arrested have been given jail custody. We have got some information, but the investigations are on.

P: What did the vehicle contain?

A: It contained 12,000 litres of diesel.

P: Was it headed to NHPC’s dam site?

C: Yes.

P: And was it taking the route of the left turn from Ghagor?

A: No, it was headed to Gogamukh Chari-ali (junction of four roads, or the town square), from where it would have taken the left turn to Gerukamukh.

P: But there wasn’t any blast when it was set on fire…?

A: Actually, fortunately, the whole tanker did not catch fire. Only the front cabin got damaged. So there was no blast.

P: And the fire brigade…?

A: The fire brigade was called and they immediately put off the fire.

P: And how long did it take for the fire brigade to arrive?

A: About 15-20 minutes.

P: But the nearest fire brigade is in North Lakhimpur town, which is 35 kms away….

A: Why do you need so much details about how much time did the fire brigade take to arrive? We called the fire brigade, it came and the fire was put off.

P: I am asking so because there is a factor of distance and time…

C: The fire brigade arrived in 25-30 minutes.

P: So first you said 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, and now 30 minutes…

A: You seem to want too many details!

P: are you looking for more people?

C: (nods his head downwards to indicate a ‘yes’)

A: These are things we cannot reveal as our investigations are on.

P: I have also heard that a small boy was beaten…

A: No we did not beat a boy. Actually, when the tanker had caught fire, we had to demolish a camp that had been set up. Some of the organisations called for 48-hours’ bandh in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. These organisations used some teenagers to pelt stones at passing vehicles. On the next day, May 12, we caught him and brought him to the police station. His guardians were called and they took him home.

P: Who were his guardians?

A: His parents could not come. His maternal and paternal uncles came to take him.

P: But don’t you think that the sections under which the arrested people have been charged are very stringent ones?

A: When A FIR is filed, the details of it are understood and based on those ingredients a case is made. If we find during the course of the investigation that some sections need to be added, we do so with the help of the chief judicial magistrate.

P: But why did you say earlier that this has got nothing to do with the anti-dam movement?

A: The police is here only to maintain law and order. We are not interested with the dam…. if anyone goes against the law, we look only into that.

P: Okay, in that case, I shall speak to the SP, if it is difficult for you to give me too many details.

A: Yes, please do so.

P: So now the oil is being transferred…?

A: There are actually four companies working on the dam site with NHPC – L&T, Soma, Alstom and Texmaco. This tanker was headed to L&T as it is working on the powerhouse. So this tanker is being offloaded now and the oil will be sent there.

P: But after the strong movement in December last year, which led to the creation of the camp in Ghagor, what kind of agreement was arrived for, for letting materials reach the dam site?

A: We don’t know all the things that NHPC needs, and we are not concerned with that. Whenever they needed any essential materials we would provide them that. Most unfortunately this time this has happened. So now we have received orders from our higher-ups that there should not be an illegal gatherings or camps because Section 144 (unlawful assembly) of the CrPC has been imposed here.

P: Since when has Section 144 been imposed here?

A: Whenever Section 144 is imposed, it is lifted after 3 months. About 15-20 days ago, Section 144 was again imposed here.

P: But was Section 144 imposed here earlier too? On what basis…?

A: Yes, this happens sometimes. It was imposed here earlier too. This is decided by the District Magistrate, and not the police.

P: So was it imposed again before or after Bihu (Bihu is officially celebrated on April 14, but its festivities and gatherings are still going on in some places)

A: I do not remember the exact date but…

C: It was after Bihu.

P: And Home guards have been recruited too here…?

A: Actually home guards are not recruited here now. They were recruited earlier.

P: But SPOs…?

A: Well, SPOs have recently been…. (didn’t complete the sentence). Actually home guards stationed at different police stations have been gathered together. Some of them receive a salary of Rs 4,500. But because we have received outside forces, now the home guards are being utilised for other work. But this is an internal matter of the district and we can deploy the home guards however the need arises.

P: But haven’t there been any recruitment for SPOs too lately?

A: I cannot say much on that. Only my SP can give you answers to that…. Do you have any more questions?

P: Not really, as you are directing me to the SP for my questions!

P: So for how long will Section 144 be imposed here?

A: For about 3 months…. until June.

P: So this means that you would have to patrol throughout the highway and in and around Gogamukh too…

A: Well, we cannot arrest people in a restaurant or in the market place or private institutions. But there were many people at the camp and they would pelt stones at the passing vehicles. Because of such incidents Section 144 has been imposed. Now if 7 journalists come to meet us, then Section 144 cannot be imposed. But those people were pelting stones on the SP’s vehicle! But if there are ill persons taken by a vehicle because they cannot walk, or if there are women or children as pillion riders on a two-wheeler, then of course it is not imposed. The administration is nothing but common sense.

P: But those who have been arrested were under such circumstances….

A: No. People have been arrested after due investigation! A person is arrested when he is found to be connected to a particular case.

P: …but then there were women who were arrested, who were manhandled by the male police personnel…

A: Look, there will always be allegations, like they are visible everywhere….

P: …of course there can be allegations, but there could be eye-witnesses too…

A: …but whom do you term ‘eye-witness’? Just because someone says that he saw something, can I trust him as an eye-witness? Eye-witness is that which one sees with his own eye! There are always allegations when something has to be done. There are allegations that police go and watch women who are bathing by the river! These are all baseless things. And there will always be allegations that there were mo women police personnel. But now it is actually very common that there will definitely be women police personnel around. The media is always ready to tarnish the image of the police….

P: ….no sir, I do respect the police because I too have to work and communicate with the police on a regular basis. But all that I am asking is from the point of view of this case.

A: Look, we are transferred to different places throughout our lives in the police force. We too have women at home. So we cannot ill-treat women while we are at work. So saying that we ‘manhandled’ the women is wrong. The instances of one or two policemen cannot be generalised….

P: …I am not generalising. If I did so, I would be wary of coming to a police station or would have men coming with me for my protection. I am asking facts pertaining to the case at hand. And when I said ‘manhandling’, I meant the instance when women were dragged by male police personnel by their hair.

A: Then you should ask like that.

C: I am very happy that you have clarified yourself too. Which is why I ask you honestly, did you or any person face any trouble here? Have they or their vehicles been stopped midway on the road? Did people face any harassment here before this incident took place?

P: Sir, I haven’t been here before the incident. So all I now see around are armed personnel. It is an obvious fact that people will be curious or maybe even fearful when they see a road full of police personnel. It is not always a positive environment. So I am aware that there was indeed such an aura here before too, based on whatever people have told me.

A: Look, in November 2011, a pressure shaft was being transported to NHPC by road. People tried to block it, and then they later began to block the highway and disallow any materials from being transported to NHPC. Then they formed the camp at Ghagor, yet we would apply just bailable charges, if we arrested them. This time the same thing happened; they blocked the highway and the tanker was burnt. Nowadays, if there is a highway blockade anywhere, the message goes right up to the Centre. Blocking the highway does cause a lot of inconvenience to people – old people, pregnant women, people going to the market. You won’t see this kind of highway blockade anywhere but this has become prevalent here because in doing so, the message goes to the Centre directly. Once the highway is blocked, some senior politicians do arrive and then the groups can highlight their demands. So now we have orders to ensure that the highway is free, and whenever there is any disturbance there will surely be police around.

P: One last question, and a very personal one – what do you and the police cadre think about the movement and the reason for which the movement is taking place?

A: Look, we are just policemen. As per the Assam Police Act of 2007 and the Police Act our duty is just detection and prevention of crime. We are not concerned about anything other than law and order….

P: … but this is one Assamese asking another Assamese what he feels about the dam project.

A: Look, the project is being done by the higher-ups. There are different views among people – those who feel that the dam should be built, and those who feel that it should not. We do not go into such details.

P: All I am asking you is, what you feel about the dam, under the given rumours that it will devastate the whole of Assam and that it would not generate just about 10 per cent electricity for Assam….

A: I am wearing my police uniform now, so I cannot tell you what I feel. I can tell you this if you come to my residence, when I am not a policeman.

P: Okay, I will look forward to that then! Thank you for your time.

++++

The jail in North Lakhimpur town is a short tiny building in white and brown on the street. One could easily mistake it for yet another beautiful Assamese home which had been modernised to some extent. A small concrete structure, akin to the bus stands in villages which had a good seating area, was where families and friends waited to meet their loves ones who were behind bars. In the waiting area were Gagan Bora’s wife along with her two children. She had come neatly dressed, with a large dollop of vermilion decorating her little head. Along with her were Debo Nath’s parents; Debo Nath’s mother would be seeing her son the first time after 6 days. Also present were some relatives of Dipen Mudoi, and friends of other prisoners.

A simple list of the prisoners was all that was needed to meet them. One had to wait outside the grilled-door to see if the prisoner was being brought. Minutes later, Debo Nath, Gagan Bora, Dipen Mudoi and Prodeep Gogoi walked to the nearby window. It had a fine grill, but porous enough to lightly touch your loved one’s hand. But there were paan-chewing non-talking guards in civilian clothes who accompanied each of the prisoners. They would bend forward if our questions were inaudible to them.

But there was good news from each of the men who had been arrested after the tanker was set on fire near Ghagor on NH 52 – they were all doing well, except for the spicy food which was inedible for most. One complained of torn mosquito nets; another of no access to newspapers. But over all, they all were doing well. Prodeep Gogoi smiled despite his aching hand from the fracture and his face still had bruises. “Are they beating you here?” was a constant question for all the men. Instantly, the guards would bend forward and look towards the prisoner, either hoping to memorise every word of the reply or ensuring that no cryptic words are leaked out. When the replies would be “No, we are doing well” or “No, we are not beaten here”, the guards would relax their posture. But all of the prisoners accused of burning the tanker – farmers, shop owners, students – affirmed that they were tortured when they were first arrested. Some of them suffered kicks in the stomachs, some of them were punched on their faces.

A blurred future… Prodeep Gogoi (left) and Dipen Mudoi (right)

It was imperative to try meet Bharat Sahu. He was with Prodeep Gogoi’s son Rupankar when they were apprehended by the cops on the night of May 11, around the same time that the tanker was set on fire. While Rupankar had a narrow escape from being arrested, Sahu was left behind. The news spread the next day that he had been admitted to the Civil Hospital in North Lakhimpur town, owing to the injuries he suffered at the hands of the armed personnel – police and CRPF. But what seemed more intriguing was the fact that none of the people wanting to meet him were successful in doing so. They would be told by the cops in the jail that he did not want to meet anyone.

But this day he had appeared before us, and seemed excited upon seeing one activist he had known for long during the days and nights at the protest camp. He had a litany of complaints – he was punched in his left ear while in police custody but had received no cure; one of his fingers was probably fractured and there were no medicines for it; he was kicked in his stomach and back and they ached; he was still limping from being beaten by the batons on May 11. His left ankle appeared bent inwards. He hated the food; he wondered why nobody had visited him so far.

“But baidew (elder sister), do give us any material we could read, about our rights inside the jail. We will do andolan here itself!” he asserted, even as the guard look disinterested.

“Why don’t you write an application to the jailer for appropriate medical treatment?” the activist suggested.

“They won’t provide me with pen and paper!” he retorted back.

We requested to meet the jailer.

 ++++

Bhanu Bhuyan (20), Kalpana Gogoi (20) and Nitumoni Gogoi (23) were brought in next to meet their visitors. Petite girls with smooth skin and soft voices, they had been arrested from the camp at Ghagor on the night of May 11.

They said that were doing fine but had a few basic needs:

 – the undergarments provided to them were the size meant for a child

- there was no bathing soap or toothbrush or toothpaste

- the sarees provided to them from the jail were dirty

- they had been wearing the same clothes they had been wearing since the time of their arrest

- they wanted peanuts and other lentils that they could eat, instead of the spicy food

Their mobile phones had been taken away by the police during the commotion when they were beaten and arrested. All three of them hail from remote villages of Kaziranga of Golaghat district. Hardly anyone in their village had mobile phones; they could not remember the phone numbers of those who carried a phone. This simply meant that their parents had not heard from them or seen them or learnt about their arrests, even at least a week after their arrest. The deploring case girls, in a way, represent the state of the numerous political prisoners across the country – ‘lost’ for their families, trapped in a political battle, hungry for life.

++++

After the girls were sent back to their cells, we were able to meet the jailer, S Baishya, through the same window as we had met the prisoners. We suggested that Bharat be provided pen and paper to write an application since he feels that he is not being treated well. But the jailer ranted how prisoners always lie and they are always taken care of.

Crouching tiger… Bharat Sahu

We complained that prisoners were not provided newspapers to read; the jailer said that they could not ensure 300 prisoners to read just the 4 newspapers the jail was provided.

We complained that Bharat was not given pen and paper to write an application; the jailer said that he could just talk openly since writing paraphernalia was not permitted for jail inmates.

We complained that Bharat’s finger had possibly been fractured; the jailer said that he had been taken for an X-Ray the previous day.

They brought in Bharat as well as the jail doctor, to verify the ‘allegations’. Bharat was not the same boy we had met minutes ago. What we saw was a scared child with only a murmur, who replied in the affirmative to everything that he was being asked pertaining to his treatment. The jail officials spoke to him lovingly; he didn’t for once turn to look at us screaming that he was being threatened. We left the jail, requesting the jailer to provide writing paraphernalia in the least; the jailer retorted that even we could possibly be lawyers, we ought to understand the law better since it not have assert that inmates could deserve this.

As Bharat walked passed us, we murmured that he should not feel threatened. He limped away with his head hanging downwards.

++++

The mystery about who torched the tanker continues.

The jail custody of the arrested men and women has been extended.

In all, 24 are in jail under the charges of criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, extortion, mischief with damage to property and mischief with fire.

At least one truck owner alleged that his truck was being used by the police to transport construction materials to the dam site, when as the police claimed it needed the truck to transport some people.

It is intriguing that the age of several young boys who were arrested has been registered as 18.

People living in close vicinity to NH52 allege that ever since the incident on May 11, many more trucks have been plying on the highway, supposedly taking construction materials to the dam site.

KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi continues his fourth day of fast in Guwahati to protest against the construction of large dams in Northeast India.

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