Top officer defends police action as ‘self defence’, criticises photographer
Horrific visuals of police brutality emerged from India’s northeastern state of Assam on Thursday as the police opened fire at protestors during an eviction drive. A photographer with the administration was caught on video stomping on the body of a man who lay motionless, probably dead, on the ground.
The video begins with hundreds of policemen firing at unseen targets from behind bushes in Sipajhar area of Darrang district in Assam on Thursday.
As the camera pans out, a man dressed in a white vest runs with a stick in his hand towards the armed security forces personnel. The police fire at him and he falls to the ground sustaining what appears to be a bullet wound to his chest.
Several police personnel, dressed in riot gear, surround the villager and hit him with their batons. As they move away, the camera shows the man lying motionless on the ground. Soon, a photographer begins to brutally attack the body.
The photographer, later identified as Bijoy Bonia, runs towards the body and jumps on his chest. The police simply watch as Bonia, a professional photographer that the district administration allegedly hired to document the situation, also threw punches at the motionless body. He is pulled away by some police officials but soon returns to jump and stomp on the body again.
The video sparked outrage across parties and rights groups in India, leading to the arrest of the photographer.
GP Singh, Assam’s special director general of police, defended the police action and said that they “did what they had to do” in “self-defence” but condemned the photographer’s actions, according to The Indian Express. He added that nine policemen were injured and one person was in a critical condition.
“Wherever there were violations of SOPs [standard operating procedures] and protocols, police will take action,” he was quoted as saying by the paper. “The only thing I can say is that having seen the video, we will take action against him [Bijay Baniya]…no questions asked.”
Mr Singh later said in a tweet that the photographer has been arrested and a case has been registered against him.
According to local media reports, at least two civilians were killed. They were identified as Saddam Hussein and Sheikh Farid by EastMojo.
According to Scroll journalist Arunabh Saikia, Farid was a 12-year-old boy who was killed in the police firing. He had gone to a local post office to collect his Aadhaar card, a biometric ID.
The victim in the video was identified as 30-year-old father of three, Moinul Haque, according to local reports. However, the police and the Assam government have not yet identified him.
The state government has also ordered an inquiry under a retired judge of the Guwahati High Court to investigate the circumstances leading to the killings.
But the Assam government, led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has said that it will not stop the eviction drive despite these clashes.
Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma alleged that the police were only doing their duty. “As per my information, people attacked the police with machetes, spears and other things,” Mr Sarma said, according to the Hindustan Times. “Eviction has restarted [after the violence] and will continue tomorrow as well.”
Political parties criticised the state administration, while some students’ organisations held strikes and protests across the city of Guwahati on Friday.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said: “Assam is on state-sponsored fire. I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state — no children of India deserve this.”
A Congress delegation, comprising MP Ripun Bora, state chief Bhupen Bora and local leaders, protested outside the Darrang deputy commissioner’s office in Mangaldoi on Friday.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, questioned the police firing. “What protocol orders firing to the chest of a lone man coming running with a stick,” she asked while tagging the Twitter accounts of the Assam Police. “Who is the man in civil clothes with a camera who repeatedly jumps with bloodthirsty hate on the body of the fallen (probably dead) man?”
Ashraful Hussain, a member of Assam legislative assembly from the All India United Democratic Front, tweeted: “Terror Force of fascist, communal & bigoted Govt shooting at its own citizens. Also, who is the person with camera? Someone from our ‘Great Media’ orgs? The appeal of these villagers, against eviction, is pending in the High Court. Couldn’t the Govt wait till court order?”
The clashes between the police and protesters on Thursday was a result of the eviction of 800 families in Dholpur 1 and Dholpur 3 villages of Sipajhar, who were accused of occupying 4,500 bighas (2,789 acres ) of land, according to The Indian Express. Residents alleged that they received eviction notices on Wednesday between 10pm and midnight and were asked to clear out by 6am the next day.
Thursday’s eviction drive was also the latest in a string of similar exercises carried out by the administration in Dhalpur village of Sipajhar Tehsil, which is said to have a dominant population of Muslims from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), reported The Wire. On Monday, the state administration claimed to have evicted 800 families in a separate eviction drive.
The first round of evictions was carried out in June, after the state Cabinet agreed to form a committee to “utilise 77,000 bighas (47,727 acres) of government land, freed from encroachers” for agricultural purposes.