Debates Grow on Indictment of An Indian Chief Minister

The debate on the indictment of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the two-time Chief Minister of Assam, a Northeast Indian province, continues in the media, even though it supposes to serve no purpose. The issue started gaining momentum with the tabling of the Justice (Retired) K N Saikia Commission of Inquiry in the State Legislative Assembly of Assam recently.

The Saikia Commission indicted Mr Mahanta for his role in a series of assassinations (later came to be known as secret killings) of the relatives of an insurgent group, which is fighting New Delhi for an Independent Asom since 1979. The kin of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) were targeted during the second term (1996-2001) of Mahanta as the province government.

Constituted by the present Tarun Gogoi-led government on August 22, 2005, the Commission blamed Mahanta, though not individually but as the then Chief Minister and also the Home Minister of Assam for his role in the extra-judicial killings. It firmly observed, “There is enough evidence to show that the then Home Minister was at the helm of these extra-constitutional killings.”

But the news did not come as a surprise to the indigenous people of Assam, who were aware of the fact that to tame the banned outfit, Mahanta was involved in the assassination of close relatives of ULFA. The issue was discussed in public on many occasions in Assam, to highlight the attitude of the Mahanta government, which apparently adopted the infamous tactics of KPS Gill (the former Punjab super cop) to deal with the armed groups. The Gill theory, that arguably claims success in controlling the Punjab terrorism, says, if the armed groups continue killing the common man, arrange the assassination of the family members (or close relatives) of the outfit leaders, so they too feel the pain of losing someone in the family.

It may be recalled that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a culmination of the Assam agitation of 1985, swept the Assembly polls in the State and Mahanta became the Chief Minister of Assam. His close associate, Bhrigu Phukan, was sworn in as Home Minister. The regional party however couldn’t repeat its success in the next Assembly election, which paved the way for Congress to regain power in Dispur. The AGP-led post-poll coalition came back to power after the 1996 assembly polls and Mahanta was the unanimous choice for the Chief Minister’s post. This time too, he became the Home Minister.

The greatest challenge to Mahanta (both as Chief Minister and Home Minister) surfaced with the ULFA militants engaging in disruptive activities. The armed group, which continues fighting New Delhi for an independent Assam since 1979 was active in almost all parts of the State at the time. Frustrated with the relentless and unruly activities of ULFA, Mahanta decided to tackle insurgency with an iron hand and adopted a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy.

The Saikia Commission saw a pattern in the killings involving ULFA leaders’ family members or relatives. The assailants were equipped with sophisticated fire arms, the investigation was not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime, the government did not condone the deaths, no compensation was paid to the families of the victims, etc. It also pointed a finger at the police and security personnel saying that ‘the army (meaning armed forces of the Union deployed in Assam to aid the State agencies) was ubiquitous.

It may be mentioned that the first Commission to probe the killings of ULFA kin, headed by a former Gauhati High Court judge, Meera Sarma, was disbanded in 2003 since she expressed her inability to continue. Earlier, another Commission, headed by Justice (Retired) Safiqul Haque (instituted by the Mahanta government), which conducted an enquiry into one case (involving Ananta Kalita), was also terminated by the Congress government in 2001.

The second Commission headed by Justice (Retired) J N Sarma, in its interim report, revealed that it did not have enough evidence against Mahanta. The Tarun Gogoi cabinet termed it inconclusive. However, the government had to submit both the reports (J N Sharma’s and K N Saikia’s) to the Assembly following an order of the Gauhati High Court.

The debate was triggered by those who question the legitimacy of the Saikia Commission. A senior Assamese journalist wrote in his regular media column that ‘while the Sharma Commission report says it could not pinpoint responsibility in the cases referred to it, the Saikia Commission noted that there was enough evidence against the then Home Minister; Now for an ordinary mortal like me, which report do I accept?’

The Guwahati based journalist added, “Now, here was a report that had not indicted Mahanta or anyone, and here was another that has indicted Mahanta and the police under his dispensation then and some surrendered ULFA rebels. Doesn’t it mean that the end result is zero because the two reports have neutralized each other?”

Almost the same viewpoint has been expressed by another reporter, “One Commission’s findings found Mahanta guilty while the other gave him a clean chit which once again leaves the question wide open regarding the architect of the secret killings. Probably another Commission would be set up to investigate the authenticity of the two Commissions and so forth. Therefore till the tug of war continues the public needs to sit back and grope in the dark for an answer to the secret behind secret killings.”

An editorial in ‘The Sentinel’, a leading English daily published from Guwahati, was also apprehensive about the findings. The November 17 editorial of the daily said, “Have the two successive Inquiry Commissions for the same lot of ‘secret killings’ really solved any problem of the people who are without any security in this State of ours? Have they even achieved anything really worthwhile for the administration? There is room for a great deal of doubt. If the Sarma Commission has been totally clueless about the identity of the killers, the Saikia Commission has been only a little more specific.”

However, the Assamese dailies unanimously raised their voice against Mahanta and weighed in with the Saikia Commission. ‘The Assam Tribune’, the premier English daily of Northeast India openly praised the Saikia Commission for doing ‘a commendable job by unveiling the secret killings and exposing the powerful people orchestrating these operations through the police-Ulfa nexus’. An editorial in the daily dated November 18 and titled ‘Secret killings unveiled’ said ‘the ‘Saikia Commission deserves full credit for bringing out the truth which will restore public confidence in democratic institutions’.

Pointing a finger at the student leader-turned-politician, the editorial went on, “The image of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and the AGP have been sullied beyond repair by the revelations in the report of Saikia Commission of Inquiry. Nobody would buy Mahanta’s argument that the Gogoi government manipulated Justice (Rtd) Saikia to get a suitable report for their political end. Such remarks in respect of a distinguished Judge like K N Saikia deserve condemnation.”

At another point, the editorial clarified that ‘the argument that Saikia Commission has no jurisdiction has been dismissed by the Gauhati High Court’. Talking about the rejected Sharma Commission, it stated, “The State government has rightly rejected the report of Justice (Rtd) JN Sharma commission, which is superficial and perfunctory and clearly wastage of time and government’s money.”

The Saikia Commission however received appreciation from various organizations including student bodies and civil rights groups. Two powerful student organizations, namely the All Assam Students Union (which was once led by Mahanta himself during the days of agitation) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad came out in public demanding stringent punishment for those found guilty of perpetrating the killings. The Manav Adhikar Sangram Samity, a civil rights body, even set a three-month deadline to the government to arrest those found responsible for the killings of ULFA kin.

Unfortunately for Mahanta, who now leads a breakaway group of the Asom Gana Parishad (Progressive), his former AGP colleagues have asked him to own responsibility in his individual capacity. Announcing the stand of the party, the AGP President Brindaban Goswami declared that Mahanta must be held individually answerable to his indictment by the Saikia Commission. Terming the policy of secret killings as a violation of fundamental and human rights, Goswami also added, “Mahanta is answerable to the people of Assam after his indictment.”

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.