Two months have passed: Blood-stained bus on Assam-Mizoram border still narrates the horror of July 26
If you are in Aizawl, the capital city of Mizoram and you want to travel to Silchar by road, you have a problem. No cab driver will cross the Vairengte inter-state border as they consider Assam’s Barak Valley to be a hostile territory – especially for the Mizos. Those who know Barak Valley will find it strange. Despite remaining in the periphery, underdeveloped and ignored for decades, Barak Valley and its 40 lakh inhabitants never had to carry the hostile tag. No history of insurgency or serial abductions, not a single significant demand for statehood, Barak Valley has always been an island of peace in the ocean of problems. But things have changed since July 26, 2021, a day of national significance. The Armed Police force of one state launched a blitzkrieg at the Police of another state within the same country. Today, marks the completion of two months of that bizarre incident. Apart from making Barak Valley a “hostile territory” for the drivers of Aizawl, let’s look back at what has changed since then.
For an outsider, the stretch of National Highway 306 between Assam’s Lailapur and Mizoram’s Vairengte is nothing but a war zone. Driving on NH 306, as one crosses Lailapur Police Outpost in Assam’s Dholai Legislative Assembly Constituency, it gives a sense of an international border. “I feel like I have arrived in Jammu and Kashmir, somewhere on the India-Pakistan border,” says a photojournalist from Kolkata who went to Mizoram from Assam on September 22. There are several check posts installed by the Central Reserve Police Force and it is mandatory to provide names and other details in each till one reaches the “bloody bus.”
Half burnt, totally vandalised and hundreds of grey dots on white paint. “What is the significance of this bus stationed bang in the middle of a National Highway,” questions the editor of an international broadcaster who travelled from Delhi. Two months have passed but none of the three stakeholders (Assam Govt. Mizoram Govt. Central Govt.) found it important to remove the bus. Personnel from Mizo IR Battalion says the bus has symbolic value. “Status quo is Latin for ‘existing state’. Meaning, things should remain the way they are! and so, the bus stays here,” says a local Mizo.
The bus bears registration number AS 11 BC 7487 which means it is a vehicle registered under Cachar DTO. Moreover, the bus carried a troop of Assam Police personnel. Apart from the grey dots, what also disrupts the bus’ white paint is “Mizoram” written with red paint and gigantic font size multiple times. The message, the bus carries is simple. “This is what happens when Assam Police attempts to claim dominance in this region.” The bus is a metaphor. The Mizos find pride looking at it, the people of Assam feel the pain. The bus smells of blood and the grey dots are nothing but bullet marks. One of those bullets killed Liton Suklabaidya who was a PSO to SP Cachar but had ambitions of becoming an IPS officer. One of those bullets killed Swapan Kumar Roy who has a small kid at home living with hopes that someday, her father will return. Havildar Shyam Sundar Dusad, Constable Samsuz Zaman Barbhuiya, Constable Mazrul Hoque Barbhuiya, Constable Nazrul Hussain all died near that bus. 43 others including the Superintendent of Police Cachar, IPS Vaibhav Chandrakant Nimblekar were shot near that bus. The bus has their blood and so stays the stain.
The two months that passed also gave journalists an opportunity to keep emotions and impulses aside and analyse the conflict over and over again. After visiting the spot more than ten times and travelling hundreds of kilometres in both states, interacting and interviewing dozens of residents the picture becomes clearer. For example, why were tear gas or smoke grenades were thrown deep inside the jungle in the middle of nowhere at around 4:35 pm is a question that merits an analysis? Reporters, who were hiding in front and under the bus saw it all. The smoke grenades were thrown from the hilltop targeting nobody.
The last picture clicked by Barak Bulletin’s correspondent using an iPhone captures more than the photograph. SP Kolasib, Valnalfaka Ralte was sitting next to IG Assam Police, Anurag Agarwal. Time 4:30 pm, geolocation as per google map, three kilometres inside the constitutional boundary of Assam. The next shot at 4:33 pm, tear gas in jungle. 4:36 pm bullets, bullets and bullets everywhere. Police, Press, Public running and running for life. Now, let’s go back to the significance of those smoke grenades in the middle of the jungle at around 4:33 pm. As the grenades exploded, the SP of Kolasib, with his additional SP and PSOs ran below the hill to take cover. Though he was sitting next to the Assam Police personnel, near the SP of Cachar Police, he came out of the blitzkrieg un-touched, un-scratched. Cachar SP’s PSO was shot dead, but his PSOs knew where to hide in order to escape the blitzkrieg. Also, the men unleashing the blitzkrieg had exact details of the whereabouts of their SP and so, they did not fire in that direction.
If sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs are to be believed then CRPF, in its report as a neutral force estimated that around 10,000 rounds were fired from the hilltop. Yet, not a bullet “luckily”, hit a single Mizo man standing amidst the men in Assam. None of these would ever get investigated and all of these will be forgotten, but if a journalist just by retrospection, can find these questions, imagine what an independent investigation can unveil. SP Kolasib denies any such conspiracy and says that Assam Police fired first and Mizo Armed Police only retaliated. About his escape from the spot, untouched and unscratched, he says, it was simply his “stroke of luck”. He alleges that when he ran towards the CRPF camp, the neutral forces behaved with partiality and denied him shelter or cover.
Another aspect that must be questioned is the level of intelligence that Assam Police had at its disposal. IG Anurag Agarwal was the man in charge on July 26. The idea was to claim dominance on an under-construction border-outpost occupied by the Mizoram IR Battalion. Kolasib Police claims a troop of 200 Assam Police personnel, armed and unarmed overpowered the Mizo forces and claimed the post. Nine civilians and four Assam Police personnel incurred injuries in the process. Pellet guns were used by Mizo civilians and the wounded were rushed to Dholai Primary Health Care Centre. Around six were referred to Silchar Medical College and Hospital for better treatment. While Assam Police thought, the film was over, obviously, they realised later that it was just a trailer.
CRPF Jawans who were stationed in Lailapur said they tried to stop IG Agarwal. “We pleaded with folded hands, we informed them that the Mizo forces have the strategic advantage as they are firmly positioned on the hilltop and yet, the IG refused to accept our suggestion and marched on,” said a jawan. Many senior Police officers said that they knew about the positioning of Mizo Forces. “We had an idea about their positioning but not a clue about their intentions or to the extent that they could go,” says a senior Assam Police personnel who was there in Lailapur on July 26 and got hit by a bullet. IG Agarwal is not very fond of the press and so, he takes pride in not giving an interview. However, people he speaks with say that he was caught by surprise when he heard machine guns. “They fired so many rounds that it would melt suppressors if the guns had one,” says an officer. Machine gun suppressors melt at around 700 rounds constant…
Moreover, combatting that blitzkrieg were constables with lathis, pot-belly and were running short of breath after every dash to escape. “Look at designations of the people who died,” says another CRPF Jawan. “And question yourself, will you risk a war against automatic weapons with this force?”. IG’s car has two stars and a flag. The Toyota Innova did at least 10 rounds up and down the hill in Lailapur on July 26. What does it mean? It was transferring the wounded in absence of Ambulances. “You don’t run short of Ambulances and you don’t drive patients 36 kilometres to find first medical assistance (distance between SMCH and conflict zone) while in an armed war. You build medical facilities nearby when you plan to take on machine guns,” says an author who wrote multiple books on terror attacks.
One might underestimate the quality of Assam Police and its leadership. But that would be a mistake. Director-General of Assam Police, Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta has the president’s Gold Medal, chief of the Army Staff Gold Medal, Chief Minister’s Medal for Outstanding Service and many other gallantry awards. India Today called him the “Action Hero” and he has even trained at Scotland Yard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Veterans who chronicled affairs in Assam say he understands border and hilltop conflicts better than anyone else in the state. “He was one man who could make the ULFA militants crawl,” once said a research scholar who died of COVID earlier this year. So, then why did Assam Police got bamboozled on July 26 and why despite having all the abilities, it refuses to investigate the turn of events on that bloody day. Not only this particular incident, but the Assam Police also did not investigate the bombing of two schools in Cachar, one in Hailakandi, abduction and murder of Lailapur resident Intazul Laskar in the custody of Mizoram Police. The former DIG South Assam range explained those occurances as “acts of terrorism”. In search of an “amicable solution” and exhibition of “goodwill gesture” it is likely that these incidents will remain uninvestigated and questions will remain unanswered.
Apart from the bloody bus standing still on National Highway 306, there is no status quo. Mizoram continues its aggression on other sides of the border. It is building border outposts violating the joint agreement signed on August 5, 2021, in Aizawl. In Khulicherra, Cachar, Assam, Farmer Unions guarded by the Mizo Armed Forces are constructing roads on public land violating Forest laws. These roads, SP Kolasib says, will help the farmers and so, the farmers are constructing. Assam Government under ‘Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak yojana’ was constructing a road within its constitutional boundary. The men in duty were obstructed, threatened and forced to retreat. The construction has been halted.
The Cachar Forest Division tried to set up some posts on the inter-state border to patrol the forest land within its territory. If sources are to be believed, those posts have been dismantled by Mizo forces at gunpoint. Staus quo is a myth, the officers in Mizoram and the Mizo civilians claim that till Dholai it’s Mizoram and that is the goal. As per the Survey of India map, the post where Assam Police Personnel were killed is three kilometres within Assam and Dholai is 10 kilometres from there. In between lies one of the largest inner line reserve forest areas in the country.
Officers in Assam, on the other side, believe that the border issue gets ramped up to provoke the Mizo sentiments. Each time there is a conflict, the attention shifts from the jungles where, many suspect, drug cartels could be growing leaps and bounds.
Mizoram, which separated from Assam is well within its rights to demand a territorial demarcation. The former chief secretary of Assam, Kumar Sanjay Krishna said it time and again, that if Mizoram has an issue with the border, it should engage with the Centre with discourse and not with Assam with bullets. In fact, Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma went a step further to say, if the centre says the entire Barak Valley is in Mizoram, the state will follow the centre’s instructions and hand it over.
Lastly, Home Minister Amit Shah is from BJP and chief of Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA). Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma is the convenor of NEDA. Chief Minister of Mizoram Zoramthanga is an integral part of NEDA and his Mizo National Front is in alliance with the BJP. With three friends/allies/partners at the helm of affairs locally and nationally, politically and strategically, one Police force is killing another police force. July 26, 2021, should not be forgotten in two months or two decades or two generations. It should go down as a historical disaster with contributions from each stakeholder.