What really happened at Balajan Tiniali on 5 August?

08 September 2016

From the train to Kokrajhar I could see the verdant countryside passing by: flooded green rice fields, villages with ponds and bamboo groves. The people, in the fields and on the train, barely hinted at the political and ethnic fault lines that are simmering within the region.

I reached Balajan Tiniali, a small market about 12 kilometres north of Kokrajhar town, late afternoon. Ten days had passed since an attack had occurred in the village, in which 14 people had been killed and 18 injured. The day of the attack, 5 August, was a Friday, one of the two market or haat days (the other being Tuesday). Bullet holes on the walls of the shops and the trees that surrounded the market were a reminder of the horror of that day. A saloon at which four Bodo people, including the two owners, had been killed was now closed. A cluster of nine shops had also been burnt down that day, because of a grenade that had resulted in a fire. I could see a group of people—they were, I later learnt, the owners of these shops—taking measurements of the shops that had once stood there. The owners told me that they had received some money from the state government, and were waiting for compensation from the BTC or Bodoland Territorial Council—the council that governs the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), and which is headquartered at Kokrajhar. None of them had witnessed the attack—they had all fled at the sound of gunshots, they said, and returned later to find their shops in flames.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, several theories and rumours began to float: that it was a jihadi attack by groups active in the region; or that it was an attempt by the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) , a separatist outfit which was carved out of the NDFB, and has been seeking a sovereign Bodoland for the Bodo people since it was established in 2012, to create communal disorder (and thereby distract the security forces’ attention away from their own cadres, whose numbers had been dwindling due to continuous operations by the forces); or that there was a “third party” involved. Eyewitness accounts in the media were varied as well: some said they saw two or three men alighting from an auto-rickshaw and then moving about and firing, wearing—in different accounts—either black masks or raincoats. One man said he saw a bearded man in a black kurta get down from an auto.

One attacker was killed at the marketplace—later identified by the police as Monjoy Islary or Mwdan, a senior NDFB(S) cadre. On the evening of the attack, the additional director general of Police LR Bishnoi had said that three people were involved, two of whom got away. However four days after the attack, the Kokrajhar superintendent of police, Shyamal Prasad Saikia said that it had been a lone-wolf attempt and that Monjoy had been drunk, even as the Assam Police said an associate of his, Bodoland Boro, had been picked up from a bus bound for Guwahati on 8 August.

On 6 August, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said in a press release that the NDFB(S) was “directly involved” in the attack. However, on 8 August, Home Minister Rajnath Singh stated in the Lok Sabha that “the exact number of militants and the militant group involved in the attack was being investigated.”

At the market, I couldn’t find anyone who could offer any detail about the attack or the alleged attackers. A woman running a general store, who did not reveal her name, first told me that she had seen the attackers—three of them, wearing T-shirts. When I attempted to ask her for more details about their appearance, she said that she could not remember anything else, and that she had lain face-down behind her shop counter at the first sign of gunfire. A man who had been listening to us volunteered to take me to the house of a survivor who lived nearby.

At the house, I met Chintaharan Nath, a 50-year-old man, who told me that he worked in the BTC’s forest department. On the day of the attack, Nath said that he had gone to the saloon in the market run by two brothers, Nibaran and Shuren Moshahary, at around 11.30 am. As he waited his turn, he heard the short bursts of gunfire. When he stood up to take a look, he told me, he saw a man walking along the kutcha road that cut through the market, firing into the ground. Nath said he lay down then on the floor of the saloon. More bursts of gunfire followed. Opening one eye briefly, he told me he saw the gunman standing before the saloon. He felt something hot on his back, and thought that the saloon had caught fire. After, the bursts of gunfire moved away. Nath then got up—he told me that there were three dead people in the saloon, and an injured elderly man.

Nath told me that he was not able to leave his house for several days after the incident. I showed him an image that had been circulating on Twitter since the day of the attack—a blurry cell phone picture, which had been taken from inside a shop. It showed a thin man in a light blue raincoat in mid-stride, the butt of a gun visible above his shoulder. “Yes,” Nath said, “that was the man.” I asked him what had fallen on his back. Fire? “No,” he said. It was the blood of the victims in the saloon.

An image circulating on Twitter since the day of the attack.

Two people from the area near Nath’s house in Balajan village had also been killed in the attack, and two more had been wounded. It is a village with a mixed population of people from the Bodo and the Nath communities. People from the area told me that nothing like this had ever happened in the village before. It was a comment I was to hear again and again during the three days I spent in there. The year that preceded the attack, 2015, had been one of the safest years for civilians in the past 25 years in Assam. Never before had Bodos been the victims of such an attack. And to consider that it might have been done by a Bodo person, many people told me, was unthinkable.

The BTAD politics are heavily fragmented. The party in power in the BTC currently the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), headed by Hagrama Mohilary, or the “chief,” as most refer to him. The Bodoland Territorial Council was established in 10 February 2003 after the surrender of the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force, a separatist group under Mohilary’s leadership. Mohilary was then sworn in as the Chief Executive Member of the BTC. In the 2015 BTC elections, the BPF won 20 out of 40 seats. A combined opposition block, which included the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), a students organization formed in 1967 that supports the movement for a separate state of Bodoland, managed seven seats; the BJP managed one and the Congress none.

Later, I met an executive member (EM) from the BPF, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. He was categorical that Monjoy had acted on his own. He said Monjoy had been on the run for a long time, and may have been hiding in a village prior to the attack. The EM also said that he had heard Monjoy was “mentally disturbed.” According to him, Monjoy had spent 4 AK magazines (contrary to an initial official claim that one magazine was used) at the market before he had been caught alive by the police and tied up.Then, the EM said,one of the policemen, “enraged at the sight of all the dead bodies,” had shot Monjoy in the face. As for the motive for the attack, the EM said it was to create communal disturbances in the BTAD area. He was dismissive of the NDFB(S)—he said that all that their cadres had been doing over the years was extorting money to send to their leaders in the camps in Myanmar.

I met the Kokrajhar district Deputy Superintendent of PolicePrakash Medhi. He said that the police and army had learnt of the incident at around 11.45am, and had reached the market within half an hour, slowed by the midday traffic. By then the shops were burning, and the marketplace was deserted–most people had fled and the rest had locked themselves inside their shops or houses. They had engaged the attacker, but Medhi couldn’t say whether it was the army or police that had shot Monjoy. A yellow rope taken from one of the makeshift roadside shops had been tied to the dead body and used to turn it over—standard procedure to guard against unexploded grenades. The body was then carried to a vehicle and put inside, the rope around his body visible in the photos taken at that point.

I asked if there were any warnings before the attack. Medhi said the police had carried out an operation on 11 May in the Ripu reserve forest along the Bhutan border where they had busted an NDFB(S) camp and killed one cadre. Monjoy was reportedly one of those who had escaped from the camp, and was on the run since—a “hunted man.” I was told the auto-rickshaw driver mentioned in the official report had identified Monjoy to the police as the man who had alighted at the market. The body had been kept at the civil hospital morgue for three days, after which, because it remained unidentified and unclaimed, it was cremated by the Gaurang river, with the district magistrate’s permission. The post-mortem report was awaited, as was the result of the DNA test with the blood taken from Monjoy’s parents.

Medhi said there were still some 100–200 cadres of the NDFB(S) in the camps in and around Taga in Myanmar, with female cadres among them as well. Medhi claimed some had re-entered the North-East, while younger members were still being recruited in remote areas of BTAD. Poverty, lack of jobs, peer pressure, the idea of protecting their land—those were the factors responsible for the continuing recruitment, he said.

I went to the central office of the ABSU, to see if they could help me visit Monjoy’s parents in their village, Pakriguri, to the north-west of Balajan Tiniali. They agreed to help. I asked students their thoughts on the incident. There were too many conflicting reports doing the rounds, which is why the incident had to be studied carefully, said Niyon Mushahary, the general secretary of the Kokrajhar district unit of the ABSU. He pointed out that the police had first said the attacker had boarded the auto at Simbwrgaon, and then said he had boarded it at Kalugaon. Then there were the conflicting claims between the ADGP and the Kokrajhar SP. Maheshwar Daimari, the ABSU public relations secretary, told me there were reports that Monjoy, who had been a commander of the NDFB(S)’s 16th battalion, had contacted Mohilary about two years ago saying he wanted to come overground.

In 2014, the police had been pressing hard on the NDFB(S) after they killed an ASP of the Assam Police in an ambush in January 2014, and then after the group had killed over 68 Adivasis across the north bank of Assam on 23 December 2014. That month, the army launched its Operation All Out, to eliminate the militants in the region. Since the operation was first initiated, more than 60 NDFB(S) cadres have been killed and more than 600 cadres and linkmen arrested, along with arms seizures. The ABSU members told me that the state intelligence reports that they saw stated that there were no NDFB(S) cadres in the vicinity of Balajan.

The ABSU were about to resume their campaigning after 15 August for the separate state of Bodoland, and had several agitation programmes lined up. They are now part of a nationwide 10-member group coordinating efforts to get separate states for their member groups.The ABSU had also invited the Gobindo Basumatary or P (Progressive) group of the NDFB to work with them for a separate Bodoland (the NDFB(P) group is now in a ceasefire). According to Niyon Mushahari and Daimari, a third party could have staged the attack to vitiate the atmosphere ahead of their renewed separate state movement.

The next morning, on 16 August, two ABSU members took me to Pakriguri village. The Islary residence had three small tin-roofed huts around a courtyard. The plaster of the huts had fallen off in places, exposing the reeds, and the tin roofing was discoloured with rust and age. Monjoy’s mother, Gwswm, a thin, tired-looking woman in a red blouse and orange dokhona, a traditional bodo dress, sat outside one of the huts, putting paddy from a plastic sheet into a container. The mother seemed to have guessed what we were there for even before the ABSU members told her. Her left hand was balled into a fist, as if to help her stay in control of herself. A while later, her husband, Lachit Islary, who had gone to tend to his cows in the fields, came back. A lean 67-year-old man of medium height, he wore an old vest. They had heard about the incident at Balajan Tiniali, and had gone to Kokrajhar the next day and seen the body of the dead gunman at the civil hospital, but Lachit told the officials that it wasn’t their son. “Mur lora nohoi,”—Not my boy—he told me in Assamese.

He said Monjoy had a burn mark on his chest, caused by a bamboo on fire bursting near him when he had been in the sixth standard. He alse had a til, or mole, near one eye, Lachit said. The dead body had been missing these. He claimed the body had also smelt more and was more swollen than the other dead bodies from the incident in the hospital.

Lachit told me that Monjoy had left his parents’ house a decade ago, after appearing for his matric exams. None of his family members had seen him since. He was one of six children—three brothers and three sisters. His father said Monjoy had been a good boy, and that he liked to play volleyball. He had even appeared for an army recruitment test and cleared the running stage, but was disqualified. Lachit said he had even tried to join the police. His parents did not know why he had gone off and joined the NDFB (undivided then, in 2006–7). The family wasn’t well-to-do. Lachit had 3 bighas of land on which he grew some rice, and owned a few cows. He worked as a sharecropper on other people’s land, taking half of the paddy, a system known as adhi. He said 5 ml of blood had been taken from both him and his wife at the civil hospital after spending the night at the police station, but that even if the DNA test established the body as Monjoy’s, he wouldn’t accept it. Their son was still alive and somewhere out there, he said.

On the way back, I stopped at Balajan Tiniali market again. I had heard from people nearby that the gunman had got down from the shared auto outside a fertiliser shop. The owner was present, 42-year-old Subroto Sen. He said he had seen but not “really noticed” the man in a blue raincoat get down from the auto in front of his shop. But Sen said he saw the man shoot a Muslim vegetable vendor from Salakati who sold his produce on the roadside beside Sen’s shop—the first victim. According to Sen, there was a gap between when the man had alighted and had started shooting. Sen’s description would account for some reports of the gunman walking around the market and talking to people. Then, possibly, the gunman would have walked toward Dwimu Saloon where Nath was waiting for his haircut. The Moshahary brothers who ran the saloon died, as did Daorao Basumatary, a college student, and Dwaithun Narzary, a class nine student. Eight Bodos, three Bengali Muslims, and three people from the Nath community were killed in the attack.

On the day of the attack, there was panic at the market and people ran helter skelter. Except for those who say they actually saw a gunman, the accounts appear to have been influenced by hearsay. The accounts of bearded men and black kurta pyjamas might have been suggested by the repeated visuals on local news channels. After the Dhaka terror attack Jihadi-style attacks were feared in Assam—and the fact that Bodo people were killed seemed to lend credence to that theory, initially. As for the attackers wearing black masks, that could have been the black scarves used by the Assam Police commandos, a familiar enough sight. But one detail is still unclear: if the gunman was acting alone, what could have been his motivation?

In yet another twist to the story, a local journalist Geolangsar Narzary told me that after the attack, a teenage girl turned up at the civil hospital claiming the slain gunman was her brother, and that she wanted to take him home to Gossaigaon, about an hour’s drive to the west of Kokrajhar. She also approached the local police station, but then disappeared; nobody Narzary spoke to seemed to know anything more about her.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the executive member from the Bodoland People's Front was dismissive of the suggestion that the attack was the work of the NDFB(S). This has been corrected to reflect that the member was dismissive of the NDFB(S). The Caravan regrets the error.

Ankush Saikia Ankush Saikia is the author of The Girl from Nongrim Hills; Dead Meat; Red River, Blue Hills and the forthcoming detective novel Remember Death. He can be reached at ankush_as@rediffmail.com.

Keywords: Assam the Northeast NDFB Bodoland