KOKRAJHAR ATTACKS: BLOODSHED IN THE MARKET
Text and Images by Vivek Singh
The monsoons have brought more violence to Bodoland. As the rains wash the blood off the street in Kokrajhar after the recent attack at a weekly market, claims and counter-claims suggest something is amiss
Nibaran Mosahary, 62, left home early on his bicycle, like he had done every morning since 1982, the year he opened Dwimsu Salonat the Balajan Tinali Market, a 15-minute drive from Kokrajhar town. He was assisted by his elder brother, 65-year-old Soren.
Both brothers died on the morning of August 5 in a brutal attack by militants that also left 12 others dead and seriously injured 20. It was a busy day at the weekly market (held every Tuesday and Friday); traders had arrived from across the district and set up stalls.
The militants reportedly arrived in an auto rickshaw at noon. They first opened fire at the salon, where the brothers were busy giving haircuts to the two customers who had walked in minutes ago. All four were killed. There was blood everywhere, chunks of flesh lay scattered on the floor, balls of hair had dried blood on them, the barber’s comb and scissors on the floor were stained too. So merciless was the attack that blood had flowed out of the shop into the street outside. The smell of blood lingered for days afterwards.
Soren’s family was inconsolable. Leosing Mosahary, his wife, said they had to bury him as they couldn’t afford the ₹8,000 needed for the cremation.
Sumiti Basumatary had run to her husband Moniram when he was shot barely 15 feet from her. She held on to him as he fell. Moniram had been selling traditional knives at a stall near the salon, while his wife sold artificial jewellery. She recalled vividly that the assailants had spoken to Moniram in Hindi. “Tum kya samajhta hai, hum NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) hai (What do you think, we're the NDFB)?” they’d said, before shooting him point blank. The single bullet made four holes in his body, she says. He quivered as he lay on the ground, cradled by his wife. He asked for water. But she couldn’t find any. Five minutes later, he was dead. Help came too late. Sumiti says she must have sat there for a good hour, weeping over her dead husband, and is not sure how or why she was spared. The three militants wore t-shirts and short pants, she says. Their faces were covered with a black cloth as they roamed the market firing, killing, stopping to change the magazines in their assault rifles, then firing again. It appeared to last forever, she says.
Another eyewitness, Sultan Basumatary, watched in horror as a man dressed in a navy blue raincoat emerged at the crossroads that leads to Kokrajhar town from the market. He carried a folding butt AK 47, and Sultan claims to have seen the militant calling out to the security forces who watched from a distance, challenging them to come and get him. This again contradicts the police version, which stated that the militant carried an AK-56 rifle. “We know what an AK 47 looks like,” says Sultan, “We’ve seen guns all our life.”
The district police, though, have countered this claim, as also the initial media reports that spoke about an army patrol close by. They claim to be the first responders, reaching the site within minutes of getting the first call. They evacuated the two wounded who lay next to the burning shops, which had caught fire from the grenade explosions. There were so many injured, says one police officer, that he finally lost count.
The police also claim to have killed a militant, whom they later identified as an NDFB(S) operative, and recovered an AK 56 assault rifle from him.
I met Lachit and Gwswm Islary at their home in No. 2 Pakriguri village, an hour’s drive from Kokrajhar town.
They had just returned after being gone for 24 hours, after they were called in by the police to identify the body of their son Manjay Islary. Manjay is the militant the police allegedly shot down and have since claimed to be an NDFB(Songbijit) cadre who operated at the behest of the banned outfit.
They told the police the body wasn’t their son’s, who had left home 10 years ago to join the banned outfit. He had a huge burn mark on his chest, an injury he sustained when he was in the 5th standard and which prevented him from joining the police. He also had a mole on the right cheekbone. Both were missing. “He is not our son,” the parents reportedly told the police officials in Kokrajhar. They were then detained for 24 hours at the police station and their blood samples were taken for a DNA test, while the chief minister made a whirlwind visit to the site of the incident and held meetings with top district and state officials.
Hagrama Mohilary is the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council. He has governed the council ever since his surrender in December 2003 as the head of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), which fought a prolonged insurgency in the 1990s. A confidante of Hagrama recounted how he left office immediately and walked to the site of the attack from the east, leaving behind all but one of his personal security officers (PSOs) to guard a crucial exit point from the market. Along the way, he had informed the locals of the ongoing attack.
Media reports following the attack have him claiming that Manjay Islary aka Madan, the NDFB(S) cadre, was responsible for the attack. The ruling party, The Bodoland People’s Front, has since held a huge peace rally in Kokrajhar, where leaders publicly condemned the attack and squarely blamed the NDFB(S). And as images of slain militants do the rounds on social media, conflicting versions have emerged, mostly from eyewitnesses, who claim that there was more than one dead militant. They want to know what happened to the other bodies. At the time of filing this report, the unclaimed body of the militant has been cremated by the police. We may now never know who the dead militant was.
A day after the market was attacked, grim reminders of the brutal Friday afternoon are everywhere. As militants opened fire and people ran for their lives, they left behind a trail of unlocked shops, which remained open till evening the next day.
Vegetables strewn on the street were trampled upon by the security and VIP vehicles that made a beeline for “the spot”. Grim-looking, heavily-armed security personnel scanned the crowds that had gathered to inspect the bullet holes, which were everywhere. Television crew and OB vans were broadcasting every small detail about the burnt remains of the three large and nine small shops.
Bodoland’s history of violence
On August 5, 2016, militants got off an autorickshaw and gunned down 14 people visiting a weekly market at Balajan Tiniali in Kokrajhar district. The dead and the injured included Bodos, Muslims, Bengalis and Biharis. The government blamed the NDFB(S). But the group has subsequently denied involvement. Bodoland is not alien to massacres. It has reported the most number of civilian deaths in the North-East. The insurgency refuses to die down despite heavy military presence and continuing security operations in the heavily forested outer tracts of the autonomous area bordered by Bhutan and Bangladesh. The most recent violence was on the eve of Christmas in 2014, when militants attacked and killed more than 70 adivasis in the districts of Chirang and Sonitpur. Following the attacks, ethnic tensions between the Bodos and adivasis led to the displacement of at least 3,00,000 people. In May 2014, militants targeted two villages in Baksa district along the Manas wildlife sanctuary and another in Kokrajhar district, killing at least 35 Bengali Muslims. In 2012, festering tensions between the indigenous Bodo tribesmen and Bengali Muslims in BTAD led to heavy rioting and arson; 77 died and more than 4,00,000 people were displaced. The bloodshed witnessed now seems like history repeating itself in Bodoland’s autonomous areas. This time the circumstances appear a whole lot more mysterious.
A version of this story appeared in "The Hindu Business Line INK" on August 12, 2016