The murder of five Hindu Bengali men by armed gunmen in Kherbari village in November has left its residents anxious.
The long shadow of death fell sombrely on the banks of the Brahmaputra, in Assam, in November. Five men, all Bengali Hindu settlers whose families fled the East Pakistan district of Sylhet in 1964, were picked up from their village by men dressed in battle fatigues on November 1, and shot dead. A sixth man survived. He later said that the gunmen spoke with each other in Assamese, but talked to their victims in Hindi.
The sheer casual and pitiless randomness with which these completely innocent and unsuspecting people were killed by those who possibly wanted to make a political point with their blood, is again a chilling reminder of what violence is and does.
Both of us, part of a small team of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, visited the village of this massacre, Kherbari in Tinsukia district, 20 days after the slaughter. We tried to fathom the reasons behind this terrible mass murder, which stands out even among the many tragedies of ethnic and communal hate-induced violence that have become numbingly commonplace in the state. The state administration gave the Karwan the protection of an armed escort, amidst rumours that young men with weapons had been seen again roving in the area.
A two-hour drive from the nearest airport of Dibrugarh, Kherbari is one of hundreds of villages in which massive stretches of farmland are eroded every monsoon by the mighty Brahmaputra.
Mohan Roy Biswas had lost his two sons and his brother in the killings. The ageing man wept to us of his anguish. “What shall we do?” he asked. “This is what written in our luck, burning up our hearts”.
Gunmen in battle fatigues
It was an ordinary Thursday evening just after sunset, recalled Biswas. “I was resting inside my home that evening, and my boys were washing radish from the fields in the courtyard to sell in the village market the next day,” he said. “Helping them was their friend Sahadev”. His sons worked sometimes on their fields, and also ran a small mobile phone repair shop from their home.
Five armed men in battle fatigues walked in and peremptorily commanded the three young men to accompany them. They thought these were Army soldiers who wanted their help. Outside their home, the gunmen picked up three other men who were chatting near their mobile repair shop. One of them was Mohan Roy Biswas’s brother.
They walked the six unsuspecting men to a culvert over a stream at the entrance of their village. There they ordered them to stand in a line. It was pitch dark by that time but the gunmen did not allow them to use the light of their mobile phones. Without warning, they then opened fire. All six of them fell, but the sixth one miraculously fell down the slope of the stream, unconscious but unhurt. In the melee and the darkness, the gunmen thought he too had died. They then walked away into the night.
Initially, Mohan Roy Biswas and the other villagers thought that they had heard fireworks, and were bemused as there was no festival and no wedding in the village. But a clamour quickly rose, and Biswas ran to the culvert in rising panic. There he found his sons, their friend, and his brother, soaked in blood spilling out of their bullet wounds, their bodies strewn haphazardly around the culvert.
Mohan Roy Biswas’s son Ananda Biswas was the youngest victim. He was 18 years old. His brother Abhinash Biswas was 22. The younger man was shot in the throat and arm. The older sibling was shot in his torso, chest and lower abdomen, with one of the bullets emerging through the other side of his body.
Four bullets pierced the body of Subol Das, aged over 50. His widow and two daughters recalled that he was returning a cart he had hired to carry paddy from his fields, when he stopped for a chat outside the mobile repair shop. That was when the armed men pointed their guns at him and asked him and the two other men he was chatting with to follow them.
They shot him in the knee, hips and lower abdomen. According to accounts by local residents, he was alive for few moments (some accounts say he was breathing for 20 minutes). After the villagers got to know about the shooting, they carried him away from the spot on the same cart he had wanted to return. People called urgently to arrange for a vehicle to take him to the nearest medical facility, but he died before it arrived.
“He lifted his head and asked me to take care of his children,” said Sunil Das, Subol Das’s older brother. “He has six daughters. With no son, he urged his daughters to study well. Three of his daughters are married. We do not want politics to be played with the deaths. This is a tragedy. The government will compensate us but we have lost our dear ones.”
Dhananjoy Namosudra was 22 years old. He was shot in the right eye and on his legs. He died immediately. “He was at the mobile repair shop engaged in the usual chit-chat,” said his brother Subal Namosudra. “He was a farmer. I have nothing to say except that there should be a call to peace. We need solace and peace. I have lost my brother and he will never come back.”