TIGERS OFTEN threatened to kill the residents of Malasi Nanke Gaur village in central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. But death came from the barrel of cobras sent to counter members of the militant Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) – to change lives and the village’s name.
For some 80 Adivasi inhabitants, Malasi Nanke Gaur village ‘died’ when Cobra commandoes of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) gunned down 13-year-old Ragha on 8 December 2011. It was ‘reborn’ as Kajiabasti, ‘kajia’ in the local language meaning ‘fight’.
But Ragha, the youngest of three brothers, didn’t fight to be riddled with bullets.
He was a fighter nevertheless, the kind that prevented rival strikers from entering his penalty box. And like the previous three days, he stepped out at 4am on that fateful day to practice for a soccer match with a team from a nearby village.
“I was woken up by some cracker-like sounds but stayed in bed as it was dark outside. I did not think much of Ragha’s absence as I was used to his early morning rush to play with friends. My world came crashing down after a neighbour spotted his blood-stained body wrapped in plantain leaves and dumped in a paddy field on the edge of the village,” said Komola Nagbongshi, Ragha’s mother.
An hour later, enraged villagers took Ragha’s body to the Dolamara police station barely 2km east, seeking justice. The police station, sited temporarily within a CRPF camp, was established in 2007 following a series of attacks by the Karbi tribal militants on ‘outsiders’, primarily the Hindi speakers.
A tricky terrain necessitated the police station at Dolamara, a converging point for some 30 villages beyond the southern fringes of Kaziranga National Park 225km east of Guwahati. Dolamara is 15km from National Highway 37 and 25km from nearest administrative centre Bokakhat, which falls in Golaghat district.
But as part of the hilly Karbi Anglong district, Dolamara reported to subdivision headquarters Bokajan 120km south and district headquarters Diphu 200km southwest. Militants used this geographical disadvantage to kill and extort at will.
The police knew what had happened. Counter-insurgency operations by the army or Central paramilitary forces need to be in coordination with the local police. Ragha’s death was believed to be an outcome of one-upmanship by the Cobra commandoes though it was attributed to a ‘communication gap’.
It wasn’t the only link failure. The commandoes, armed with mobile tracking devices had apparently traced a call made by a KPLT rebel and struck where the caller was supposed to have been. Their target turned out to be Ragha, a class 3 student of Malasi Government Lower Primary School.
The CRPF admitted it was an operation gone wrong and promised Rs 200,000 as compensation to his mother Komola. That was before National Human Rights Commission had taken up Ragha’s case and directed the Assam government to pay the next of his kin Rs 300,000 as compensation. Komola received the cheque on June 30 last year.
“The CRPF gave me Rs 100,000 weeks after Ragha was killed. They are yet to pay me the remaining amount,” said Komola, 45, who like most of the Adivasi women in the village earns Rs 80 per day plucking tealeaves in a nearby tea estate, the plucking season lasting only six months.
The money the CRPF gave her was supposed to ease Komola’s pain. It increased her anguish instead. Neighbours, local officials and village leaders she thought sympathised with her now deemed her a ‘rich’ woman and sought money for favours.
She hardly had anyone in the family to turn to. Her husband Suren Gaur died in 1997, elder sons Bikram, 21 and Ajay, 18, had to be away to work as domestic helps while sister Chandmani and brother-in-law Budhu Gaur were illiterate.
Before long, Komola exhausted the money to pay for services; transport arranged for visits to the deputy commissioner’s office in Diphu for the compensation, and food and accommodation for whoever accompanied her. Five of those trips were for a typo – she had to prove she was Komola and not Kamal, as the name of the beneficiary declared, read.
And she had to dole out a fat sum as ‘service charges’ for an identity certificate from the office of the government-appointed gaonburah (village headman) Pator Rongphar.
“People keep pestering me for donations and loans as they think my son’s death has made me wealthy. They know I have, as advised by the bank, put Rs 200,000 in a fixed deposit but I have not told them for how many years. I wish the government had not put a value on Ragha and had instead given one of my surviving unemployed sons a job. That would have saved me from sitting on a bank account with my youngest son’s blood all over it,” Komola said.