MANGALDAI/GUWAHATI: Staccato sounds of gunfire broke the fragile peace of Sipajhar in Assam's Darrang district on Thursday as police tried to evict "encroachers", leaving two people dead in police firing, around 20 injured in clashes, and a shocking video where an apparently dead man with a bullet wound on his chest lay motionless but was still hit by a man slinging a camera.
The state government announced a judicial inquiry into the circumstances leading to the incident amid mounting public anger.
An order issued by the Home and Political Department's Secretary Debaparasad Misra said the government has decided the inquiry will be conducted by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.
The incident drew condemnation, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi calling the police action "state-sponsored fire".
The public protest had erupted over the demand for rehabilitation of nearly 800 families evicted from the land they were living on for decades.
Darrang Superintendent of Police Sushanta Biswa Sarma, a younger brother of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, claimed the protesters, armed with sharp weapons, pelted the police personnel and others present with stones.
Police initially fired in air to disperse the protesters but failed, forcing the men in uniform to fire at people, killing two and injuring at least ten others.
Around 10 more, including policemen, were also injured in clashes.
Meanwhile, a purported video of the incident has gone viral on social media where a photographer is seen kicking a person, presumably dead.
(The following video contains graphic content)
The video shows hundreds of policemen firing at unseen targets from behind the trees, and a man in vest and lungi running on a dusty street.
A photographer ran behind him until the time the men in uniform surrounded the man as gunshots rang in the background.
The photographer was seen being led out by a policeman, but soon returned, jumped over a man's body, and hit him with something he had picked up lying close by.
The man's left arm lifted momentarily, before he lay still, with a red circle of blood from a bullet wound on his chest, and a 'Gomosa', the traditional stole associated with Assamese pride, lying crumpled beside him.
Bijay Shankar Baniya, a professional photographer, hired by the district administration to document the situation, has been arrested.
The injured included eight policemen.
Assistant Sub-Inspector Moniruddin is admitted to the Gauhati Medical College Hospital in a critical condition.
The dead have been identified as Saddam Hussain and Sheikh Forid.
The protesters have been dispersed and the eviction drive continues, the SP said.
The situation has been brought under control but tension prevails.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, "Assam is on state-sponsored fire. I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state- no children of India deserve this."
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in Guwahati the eviction drive will not be stopped.
"The police has been entrusted with the responsibility of clearing the land from encroachers and they will continue to do it till the job is done. Eviction will stop once it is dark and resume again tomorrow," he added.
The Darrang district administration has so far cleared 602.40 hectares of land and evicted 800 families since Monday, and demolished four 'illegally' constructed religious structures at Sipajhar.
The chief minister had visited the place on June 7 and inspected the riverine areas allegedly encroached by "illegal settlers" near Dholpur Shiva temple and directed the district administration to clear the area for the government to start a community farming project.
Assam Pradesh Congress President Bhupen Kumar Borah demanded a judicial inquiry into the "barbaric act" of police firing on protesters.
"The very act of eviction is in itself inhuman especially during the Covid situation," he added.
The Supreme Court had also given a directive against eviction during the pandemic situation yet the state government led by Sarma has been behaving in an autocratic manner to evict the residents of Dholpur who have been living in the area since the 1970s, he said.
The people in the area have been subjected to repeated harassment by the BJP government since it came to power in 2016, Bora alleged.
The party's Rajya Sabha MP Ripun Bora called the incident "barbaric and inhuman".
He said, if foreigners were living in the area, the government should take steps in accordance with the law but not harass genuine citizens by expelling them from their homes.
Congress Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi tweeted: "Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma's own brother is the Superintendent of Police of the Darrang district where the barbaric violence took place. It is clear that this CM-SP duo did not want a peaceful resolution to the eviction drive / The CM continues to bring shame to Assam."
AIUDF MLA Ashraful Hussain tweeted "Terror force of fascist, communal and bigoted government, shooting at its own citizens...The appeal of these villagers, against eviction, is pending in the High Court. Couldn't the government wait till the Court order?" The newly formed Raijor Dal also condemned the firing incident, saying that it reflects the chief minister and the BJP's extreme "communalism and autocratic rule".
Party spokesperson Ashraful Islam, in a statement, demanded that the evicted people be immediately rehabilitated.
Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) President Lurinjyoti Gogoi and General Secretary Jagadish Bhuyan said the eviction was carried out in an "inhuman manner" and that the government should have given prior notice, provided the families with alternative land or housing facilities and a comprehensive rehabilitation package.
The ruling BJP, however, hit right back at the opposition parties for politicising the issue for "vested interest".
The government had given prior notice to the settlers to clear the land but they refused to do so at the "behest of third parties", BJP spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa said.
The police, along with officials of the district, urged the protestors to move away from the place and not indulge in violence but they refused which "makes them offenders of the law and the BJP government has no tolerance for those who are against the law", he added.