Chronicle of some deaths foretold

What haven't we done for our country?
Some of us died,
Some of us gave public speeches.

Orhan Veli Kanik  If you are a shy, nine-year-old kid and, and suddenly one day two older students ask you whether you have a girlfriend, you would likely be uneasy. I certainly was. And that was how I first met Suman. That was also the way I remembered him until 10 years later when, during my undergraduate years, I would be initiated to his circle of friends by another acquaintance, LK with whom I studied in Guwahati. Each time we visited home, if I wanted to meet him, a corner table in a particular tea shop would become the temporary address for LK & Co.

The first time I sat with them was during our autumn break. Over several rounds of tea and snacks that extended well over three hours, I talked to all five of them. Some had just finished their undergraduate studies and, probably with no prospect of employment, were killing time by sipping tea, reading newspapers and discussing anything under the sky, from state politics to Madhuri Dixit's cleavage. The rest were still doing their undergraduate studies, losing a few years of their academic lives along the way. In a small town with nowhere to go, gossip over tea was the only form of entertainment; and so, like everyone else, they too used to drop by every evening.

The weather was no longer hot and humid during that trip, so no one was sweating. In addition, if you sat and drank three cups of tea and then had to bicycle home, the natural instinct was to visit the toilet before leaving for the night. One evening, when Suman did not make such a move, someone reminded him about it; in reply, he simply pointed to his T-shirt. Everyone nodded and laughed. On Suman's T-shirt was written Ajinomoto and the logo of the Japanese company – in Assamese, the phonetic equivalent of which meant 'I will not urinate today'. This was obviously a guy to be appreciated, and over the following year I spent many evenings sitting with Suman and the group.

Over time, I noticed that Suman was no longer to be found at the evening chats. After repeated inquiries, someone whispered that he had joined the Organisation, the common reference to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). He was probably overseas, Burma or somewhere, someone told me; nobody knew for sure. After that, I never again saw or met Suman; the indirect information I got about him was through my friend ND, whose family lived next door to Suman's. ND told me how Suman visited his home for half an hour one evening, and then again vanished into the thin air.

During this time, I met a friend of Suman's who was running a poultry farm. He narrated how a battalion of army personnel had raided his farm in search of Suman. This guy seemed to be less concerned about the physical torture he had had to endure at the hands of the army during the raid and the subsequent interrogation, and more impressed by the height, physical build and rugged handsomeness of the army major, who had slapped him repeatedly in trying to get information. The next time I got any concrete details about Suman was when he became a news item: the Indian Army returned his body to his family. Suman had been killed in an encounter.

The Organisation
Encounter was a blanket term, that was often met with disbelief. The then-deputy commander-in-chief of the ULFA, Hirak Jyoti Mahanta (this was his real name; I fail to remember his nom de guerre, by which he was better known), who was apparently nabbed in an army raid, and then suddenly turned up dead – killed in 'encounter' – on 31 December 1991. Five months later, JS, who had just finished his veterinary studies and was waiting for his job-appointment letter, was travelling with his friend, a soon-to-be-married groom, to the bride's home for the nightlong rituals. He ended up getting shot and killed by the army; apparently, his appointment letter arrived two days after his death.

If I remember correctly, the local Congress party candidate for the upcoming assembly election had just been gunned down a few months earlier, shot just a few kilometres from my home. Even though he was not known as a man of profound significance, ULFA had claimed that he was involved in a conspiracy against the Assamese people, and thus the Organisation had decided to eliminate him. (People who knew him personally wondered how such a simple man could have been capable of hatching conspiracies.) A year or so earlier, ULFA had also 'punished' Manabendra Sarma, an old statesman belonging to the Congress party in Guwahati, who had likewise been charged with 'conspiracy'. Sarma was returning home on foot from the local market with a bag of rice and some vegetables; his motorcycle-born assassins shot him at point-blank range.

Some of the ramifications of such killings were interesting. For example, the widow of the local candidate in my hometown, who was working as a nurse before her husband's assassination, was nominated to the local school-board-appointment committee in a kind of reparation. Quite out of her depth, the only question she asked of some of the aspiring candidates was the height of Hiteswar Saikia, then the chief minister of Assam. I guess, by dint of being a person of limited educational background, it was the first thing that popped into her mind, which she deemed fit to ask.

JS and I studied in the same school; he was two years senior to me, and his father was a teacher in the school. Looking back, I feel that night BR and I could have both ended up dead. We were travelling on BR's bike to DD's home around midnight without helmets. In doing so, we were breaking two blanket bans at once: riding with more than one person on a motorcycle, and riding at night. DD's sister's wedding was to take place the next day, and the guys were busy decorating the house and its surroundings. Nobody expected me to go and help out, and I was not keen on going that evening at all.

When BR arrived at my doorstep and insisted that we go to the wedding preparations for a few hours, for courtesy's sake I agreed. On our way to DD's home, we saw a jeep coming towards us very fast. We were scared (as it was most certainly a military jeep), and immediately slowed down and moved to the side of the road. It was indeed an army vehicle, but it paid no attention to us, and drove on without stopping. The army was not interested in two guys riding an ancient Jawa motorcycle, after all – the soldiers were certainly aware that the four-stroke Hero Honda Sleek had become the motorcycle of choice for the Organisation.

The next morning, when the news of the shootout reached us, I did a mental calculation. The shooting had taken place 10 km away, about 10 or 15 minutes after we crossed path with the army jeep. So, there was certainly the possibility that this was the same vehicle. BR later said he had done the same calculation.

The army gave different and contradictory versions of the incident. In one, the soldiers said that someone from the wedding party had fired at them, and that they had then retaliated; another version held that the wedding party was caught in crossfire between ULFA insurgents and the army. Nobody felt the need to explain how a convoy of cars and buses decorated with flower petals – stopped by the army, checked for weapons or 'terrorists', and then wished 'best of luck' and let go – could get caught in crossfire within minutes. A common rumour was that the soldiers had mistaken JS for someone they were looking for; not willing to take any chance, they had shot him. There has been no archive to open up, no truth and reconciliation commission; so nobody knows what really happened back then on an Assam road in 1992.

During my undergraduate days I would often go to the local college, to meet some of my old high-school friends. During one visit, I saw my friend LN and others from his group, having some benign fun at the expense of someone I did not know – a guy with long hair, baggy pants and the usual awkwardness associated with someone coming from a village to a town, or from a town to a city, and from a city to a metropolis. I asked them who the guy was, and they told me this was Suklai, an entertaining fellow who had come to the town to do his BA degree. Like Suman, Suklai was eventually to join the ULFA and leave the college. A few years later, someone told me that, while being surrounded by the army in a raid, he blew up a grenade and committed suicide. I remember reading of his death in the newspaper, but cannot remember whether the report said he was shot or that he had exploded the grenade.

There was another guy in town, a senior member of ULFA, whose family apparently exploited his position to gain advantages in contracts, business loans and the like. Some people whispered that he would probably surrender eventually, and enjoy these same benefits. Instead, he too ended up dead, killed by the army on the India-Burma border during a shootout. These people of my young adulthood in Assam were people who believed in goals and a vision, right or wrong, and sacrificed everything they had for their cause. Some of them were from well off families, and could have opted for a very different life.

Naive days
Then, one day, I had the opportunity to see the other side of the coin. During my third year of undergrad studies, a young man moved into my hostel, and some of the things I observed about him impressed and confused me at the same time. Before him, I had never met a 20-year-old with 12 pairs of name-brand shoes, and innumerable trousers and shirts. Mysterious people visited him, and he had a running account at a nearby three-star hotel for drinks. At times, a dozen or two other guys would go to the bar with him, to take advantage of the free drinks. The owner of the hotel was also the owner of a newspaper or two, and he was known to be favourable to, and to be favoured by, the ULFA.

I was young then and still believed that I had some principles, so I never joined this student for those parties. When we did drink together, we would generally split the cost. He was involved with ULFA, though I do not know in what capacity (someone told me that he coordinated the visits of the ULFA leadership to the city). But he told, he also had a 'visitor pass', personally signed by the president of the state Congress party at the time, who was at the top of the ULFA hit list, that enabled him to visit the president at any hour of the day or night.

Sometimes, in the middle of a drinking session, he would get a mysterious message and leave immediately. I never did find out much about the ULFA or its ideology from him, but I did learn something important: The best way to camouflage drinks in your breath is to gulp some toothpaste or chew some tea dust. This was obviously a successful strategy he had put to use, considering that no senior leader of the ULFA – a group that officially banned drinking, gambling and all other 'vices' – ever asked him about his drinking.

During the same time, back home, NS accosted me one day and insisted that I sat down with him for a cup of tea. We sat in the same tea-shop where I had met Suman, and NS explained to me in detail that he was leaving home for good – he was joining the Organisation, and was going to be shipped to Burma. Over four rounds of tea he became very nostalgic, talking about our schooldays together and the fun we had had. He also mentioned that while he was ready to die for his motherland (Assam, that is), his only regret was that he would have to hide his decision from him parents and disappear quietly and suddenly. He repeatedly mentioned that he would probably never again see me or the other friends, as in all probability he would die fighting the Indian Army. He also insisted that I should convey his adieu to any classmate I met thereafter.

It saddened me that even someone like NS, who was never known for ideology or a very serious approach to life, was so determined as to lay down his life for the sake of a goal. It also impressed me, because, as legend had it, he had once gotten his head tonsured by a barber at the weekly bazaar, drank gallons of country liquor, and then went home to convey the news of his failing the high-school leaving-certificate examination to his father, a sub-inspector with the Assam police. It also made me respect people like him, who came from that point to this – their determination and selfishness alike. However, contrary to my expectation, I did meet NS the next time I went home, and kept meeting him after that. Whenever I asked him about joining the ULFA and going away, he would just give me some evasive answer.

Looking back, I realised that I was too naive. After all, NS was the same guy who once told me, in detail, how one late night he had met a woman who had hooves like a horse instead of hands. He said that he had run away from the lady, and then met someone else on the street, and asked for a cigarette. When the stranger asked why he was huffing and puffing, NS narrated what he had just experienced. When the stranger expressed his surprise, NS explained in greater detail, trying to convince him of his experience. Finally, the stranger pulled his own hands from his pockets and asked NS, 'Were the hooves like these?' And, to NS's amazement, that man too had horse hooves. NS said he had run home, possessed. During the next few weeks, I retold this story again and again to my friends at the hostel. Finally, someone pointed out that this was a story that had been published just the previous month in Bismoi, a monthly journal that specialised in thriller-type stories.

Looking back, I realise that I was not the only naive person. Most of the guys that I knew personally, who willingly and with wholehearted dedication joined the Organisation, were also naive. They really expected that their sacrifices would do some good for the neglected state of Assam, and improve the conditions of its people. Like most of us hoped during the Assam agitation of 1979-85, they too hoped that their actions would bring about dramatic change. The words of Lewis Carroll seem an apt description:

You may charge me with murder – or want of sense –

(We are all of us weak at times):

But the slightest approach to a false pretence

Was never among my crimes!This is sad, because within less than two decades, one can read about some of the top ULFA leaders owning hotels and other properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Bangladesh. I do not know if this is true, nor do I really care. However, I do strongly believe that those people who laid down their lives for the cause of the Organisation could have done better for themselves, and contributed more to society, if they had decided to stay back – to educate themselves and to try to do well for themselves with what they had.

~ Pankaz Sharma was born and raised in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, and has since lived in Delhi, Hyderabad (Deccan), Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He works in science for a living.

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