Ajit Kumar Bhuyan

A Prisoner of Conscience in Assam, 1997

Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, editor of widely circulated Assamese newspapers Asomiya Pratidin and Sadin has been a prisoner of conscience since August 24, 1997. He was arrested on by the Assam Police and kept under detention by repeated arrests. After charging him in three separate criminal cases, one after the other, the government of Assam has finally booked him under the NSA (National Security Act, a preventive detention law) after it realized the courts are likely to grant him bail in all the three cases.

Though Bhuyan has been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment when in police custody, the Government seems to be aiming at keeping him in detention for as long as possible to effect a change in the editorial policy of the two newspapers he edits. As will be made out from below, Sadin and Asomiya Pratidin have been trenchantly critical of government policies, and the activities of the members of the government. This is another instance of an intolerant government snuffing out dissent.

What are his crimes?

Some of the charges against Bhuyan include involvement in a bombing in Kampur and abetment in the kidnapping and subsequent killing of Sanjoy Ghose general-secretary of AVARD-NE, an NGO that is active in Majuli, an island on the river Brahmaputra. This is not the first time such criminal allegations have been brought against him. In 1992, he was arrested under the NSA under vague terms. Interestingly, the government withdrew the charges the day before the Gauhati High Court was to pass an order.

In 1994, he was again arrested under the infamous TADA on charges of abetting the kidnapping of Hemram Keot, the then Commissioner of Taxes in the Assam Administration. He was granted bail by the special TADA Court as the evidences were too thin, and till today, no charge-sheet has been filed. It is of interest that after his arrest Ajit Bhuyan was questioned not on the kidnapping of Keot but on the sources of the news on the LoC scam that has been coming out regularly in the two newspapers he edits.

As a journalist

As a journalist, Ajit Bhuyan has been confronting the government on two main counts.

The LoC (Letter of Credit) Scam is the biggest case of corruption in the history of Assam, running into about Rs 200 crores (US $ 55 million). According to initial reports, involvement of ministers at all levels in both the present Asom Gana Parishad and the previous Congress(I) governments is allegedly. It is under investigation by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigations), an investigative unit of the Central Government of India. Ajit Bhuyan has been instrumental in bringing this scam to the public eye. In the few months preceding his arrest, the personal involvement of the present Chief Minister was alleged in the papers.

The pattern of corruption that has evolved is very similar to the one that is presently under investigation in Bihar by the CBI. It is a practice to offer credit to the government contractors for work to be done. This is generally done through a letter of credit, and the payment is sanctioned by the department that is deputing the work. The money is then withdrawn from the treasury by the contractor. It is now generally known that the government contractors submitted fake letters of credit, with the credit sum highly inflated. It is alleged that this was done with the knowledge of the ministers concerned, who received a share. The present scam involves just one of the departments (Animal Husbandry) though this practice of credit payment is followed in all departments of the government.

It is alleged that the Chief Ministers in both the outgoing Congress and the present AGP governments had roles to play in the sanction and payment of credit to the contractors. It is also alleged that they have received their share of the payments. These allegations were given due coverage in the news-papers edited by Ajit Bhuyan.

Lately Asomiya Pratidin and Sadin carried a series of news items on the involvement of the Chief Minister. In particular, the papers alleged that the CM has acquired benami (held in someone else's name) property in cities outside the state of Assam.

Opportunistic politics in an insurgency infested state.
Assam, one of the seven north-eastern states of India, had been relatively free of armed isurgency in the post-independence period. But for the last couple of decades, it has seen a sharp increase in insurgency activities. Political activities in the state now seem to revolve around two significant armed opposition groups: ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) and NDFB (National Democratic Force of Bodoland). Both these groups demand, amongst others, secession from the Indian State. There are other insurgent groups too, but their demands do not include secession. Some of them are pitted against each other, and are seen as mainly vigilanté groups.

Rather then tackle the problem of insurgency with honesty and forthrightness, successive governments have looked at it as an opportunity to further their narrow interests. The last Congress(I) government succeed in manipulating some of the ULFA cadre to surrender and in the pretext of protecting them against their erstwhile comrades, armed them. Thus the Congress government had at it's disposal an armed group enjoying a great degree of immunity. The surrendered ULFA cadre (called SULFA) went about indulging in extortion and shoot-outs with impunity.

The present AGP (Asom Gana Parishad, a regional political party) government too has been involved in it's own brand of shenanigans. The last time it held power, it was removed from office largely due to the machinations of the Tea Industry. The Tea Industry, which lacked adequate protection from the government, had to face extortion, kidnapping and killings at the hands of the armed groups. The Government of India then dismissed the AGP Government following reports of it's close relations with ULFA and general breakdown of law and order.

After coming back to power in 1996, the AGP Government has been able to get back at the Tea Industry. It has arrested a number of top executives of Tata Tea (P) Ltd, accusing it of keeping close touch with ULFA and funding their activities. In particular, the company has been accused of footing the medical bills of the cultural secretary of ULFA, Pranati Deka.

Other tea companies like Williamson Magors and the Goodricke Group, have been accused of funding the activities of the banned NDFB militants.

Ajit Bhuyan has been severely critical of the government on such a handling of a sensitive issue, which has caused much killing and bloodshed. According to him, one can see the roots of insurgency in the neglect of socio-economic needs of a relatively backward local populace; and if these are addressed directly, the raison d'etre of the insurgents would vanish, as would insurgency. It is the wrath of the people against the neglect that has given the insurgents the local support they presently enjoy. In particular, he has been vociferous against a military solution to the insurgency problem, which, according to him, would not only not solve the problems besetting the region, but further aggravate them.

As a human rights activist

Bhuyan is also the chairman of MASS (Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti, a human rights organization). MASS, which was born around 1990, has been documenting the human rights violations of the security forces.

Human Rights Violations In Assam
Subsequent to the dismissal of the AGP government in 1989, the state was put under President's rule and a military operation was initiated by the Indian Army to tackle the insurgents. The operation still continues with no end of insurgency in sight. In the course of the operation (called by various names over so many years), the security force personnel are alleged to have perpetrated various human rights violations, which include torture, extra-judicial killings, rape etc. Under the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, which is under sway in Assam, security personnel enjoy complete immunity from any legal proceedings. MASS has been documenting specific violations (for a sample, click here) and has even succeeded in presenting such instances in international fora like the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Lachit Bordoloi, the secretary-general of MASS, who represented the organization in Geneva has since been arrested under NSA.

MASS has been under attack since the time it came into being. In 1992, along with Bhuyan, two other colleagues were also arrested, namely Parag Das and Niloy Dutta. Parag Das the then secretary-general of the organization and the executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin was assassinated by unidentified gunmen on May 17, 1996 a few weeks after the present AGP government took oath of office, and till today the killers have remained elusive.

Asomiya Pratidin and Sadin

Sadin is a weekly newspaper published the Assamese language from Guwahati, India. Established in 1989, it soon became very popular and is presently a leader in its segment. It had a circulation (according to official count) of 90,928 ahead of it's nearest rival Asom Bani (18,933) in the period July-December 1996. Bhuyan had joined the paper as the founding editor and has continued to be so even during the time he was in detention. Sadin gained a reputation early on for incisive political commentary and scathing reports on corruption of public personalities in government. It has been instrumental in bringing out various scams in all the three governments it has seen through, the most important being the LoC scam.

Asomiya Pratidin is an Assamese daily, and a sister publication from Sadin groups of papers. Established in 1994, it too became the leader in the daily newspaper segment with a circulation of 82,451 in the period July-December 1996, the nearest rival being Dainik Janambhumi (33,826). Here too, Bhuyan had been the founding editor. It followed a similar editorial policy, and further concentrated on human rights violations by the security forces.

The two newspapers have been frequently subjected to government attacks. Other than the arrests of the editor, the offices of the newspapers have been searched by the police a number of times. The founding executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin, Parag Das, was assassinated in 1996.

Ajit K Bhuyan: a personal note.

Ajit Bhuyan was born in Jorhat, India in 1952. He had his early schooling in Amguri High School, in Sibsagar district, Assam and attended college in Sibsagar College. Before he could graduate, he joined the Janambhumi, published from Jorhat, as a sub-editor. While still working as a sub-editor, he earned a BA from Dibrugarh University.

He moved to Guwahati in 1976 and joined the Raijor Batori, published by the Publication Division, Government of Assam. At the same time, he, along with Jiten Sarma and others, brought out a fortnightly magazine called Somoi. In 1980, he joined the Asom Bani, an Assamese weekly published from Guwahati, as a sub-editor, where he rose to assistant editor. Asom Bani, under the editorship of Tilak Hazarika, soon became very popular. It was during the days of the Assam Agitation, and after the infamous 1983 Assembly Elections that Asom Bani earned a reputation for incisive political commentary and investigative journalism.

After the retirement of Tilak Hazarika, the editorial policy changed and Asom Bani transformed into a socio-cultural weekly. In 1989 Bhuyan, along with Tilak Hazarika, teamed up with a young publisher Jayanta Barua to bring out a new Assamese weekly Sadin.

Sadin soon rose in popularity to lead the weekly segment. It largely followed the editorial policies of the old Asom Bani. In 1992 and 1994, Bhuyan was arrested under NSA and TADA respectively, during the Hiteshwar Saikia led Congress(I) Government. In 1995, the Sadin Group established Asomiya Pratidin, an Assamese daily. Bhuyan and Parag Das joined the paper as editor and executive editor respectively.

In 1996, soon after the swearing in of the second AGP Government, Parag Das was assisinated and in 1997, Bhuyan was again arrested under NSA and other criminal charges.

National Security Act is a preventive detention law which enables the law enforcing agencies to detain a person prior to an act of subversive to public order, and national security.

The Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA) gives the security personnel virtual freedom to shoot to kill with complete protection from legal proceedings in a court of law.

Sequence of Arrests

As can be seen below, the Government wants desperately to keep Bhuyan in police custody or at least in judicial custody for as long as possible. This will give the government enough time for machinations.

August 24, 1997
The Police arrested Bhuyan at his residence at 11pm in connection with Nagoan Police Station case 586/97 under section 124(A)/121/121(A) Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with section 10/13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. That night itself, he was taken to Nagoan and detained in the Police Station.
August 26, 1997
The Police produced him before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (in-charge), who remanded him to police custody for 72 hours. The Police was asked to provide him with adequate medical facilities.
August 28, 1997
Bhuyan was moved to the Nagoan Civil Hospital on the orders of Gauhati High Court.
August 29, 1997
The Officer-in charge of Kampur Police Station arrested Bhuyan in his hospital bed in connection with Kampur PS case 48/97 under section 121/121(A) IPC read with section 5 of the Explosive Substance Act and 10/13 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and moved him to the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate with a prayer for police custody. The prayer was not granted, and Bhuyan was moved back to Nagoan Civil Hospital.

The Gauhati High Court granted Bhuyan parole for medical treatment. Government of Assam filed Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court of India against the order.

September 9, 1997
Bhuyan shifted from Nagaon Civil Hospital and taken to Jorhat.
September 10, 1997
Police produced Bhuyan before the Sub-divisional Magistrate, Kamalabari in connection with Kamalabari PS case 314/97 under 365/34 IPC and prayed for police remand. Bhuyan was remanded to judicial custody for the night.
September 11, 1997
Bhuyan remanded to 15 days of judicial custody.
September 12, 1997
Supreme Court of India set aside the parole for Bhuyan but directed that he be admitted to either the Jorhat or Nagoan Civil Hospital.
September 30, 1997
Gauhati High Court granted Bhuyan bail on the first two cases (Nagoan and Kampur).
October 1, 1997
Government of Assam booked Bhuyan under the NSA.