Eluding justice for a freedom fighter scribe
By Nava Thakuria
In Assam, more than 20 dedicated editor-journalists have been killed in mysterious situations in the last two decades. The cry for justice and protection literally falls on deaf ears, and the painful saga of the unsolved murder of the 70 year old Gandhian journalist, teacher, freedom fighter Kamala Saikia is a constant reminder of the failure of the state to trace the murderers and punish them.
Kamala Saikia paid with his life as he was a harsh critic of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), both in his public speeches and his journalistic writings. The outspoken gentleman tried to highlight the misdeeds of the insurgent outfit, that was intolerant of this criticism. Initially they issued threats warning him to stop writing against them, but later the outfit eliminated him.
Kamala Saikia was taken away from his residence in Sivasagar of eastern Assam on the night of August 9, 1991 and his body was recovered next morning on the Janji-Amguri Road. He was not feeling well, but the ULFA militants did not spare him. They tortured him before killing and his whole body had these marks of cruelty.
The ULFA leaders later admitted that Kamala Saikia was killed by their cadres for spying against the outfit. The claim was rejected by one and all. After his release on bail, the ULFA chief Rajkhowa even sought an apology from Kamala Saikia’s family nearly twenty years after his assassination.
Born in the year 1920 in a remote and backward village, Goalgaon of Sivasagar district, Kamala joined the freedom struggle responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s call. In those days, he came in touch with veteran freedom fighters like Bimal Prasad Chaliha, Rabin Kakoty, Purnananda Chetia, Kedarnath Goswami, Prafulla Ch. Baruah, Ramnath Das and finally he decided to dedicate his life for the society. He was deeply inspired by the Swadeshi movement and even installed many Jatars (manual spinning machine) to spin cotton yarn in his own family. Since then he used to wear white Khadi dress in all public functions.
Saikia retired as Head Master of Dikhowmukh High School in 1985. Meanwhile he engaged himself in journalism and started contributing news and other articles for various newspapers published from Guwahati.
Soon after the murder, his family members lodged an FIR at Sivasagar Police Station and the state police carried out investigation for seven years. But ultimately the police closed the case on September 5, 1998 citing insufficient evidence and witnesses. It created huge public fury and shocked the media fraternity of Assam.
The frustrated Saikia family then appealed to the state government reopen the case. It was then handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department of Assam police. The investigative agency also failed to chargesheet anyone though it interrogated many people, including some surrendered ULFA militants like Kushal Duori, Netra Chetia, Raja Mumin, Lalit Shyam, Baba Phukan, Uma Gogoi, Mohan Sarma, Indra Chetia, Chitra Dihingia, Rohini Khanikar and Robin Neog.
Today except Kushal Duori alias Jayanta Hazarika, who is a former Legislator from Thowra Assembly constituency, all those questioned in the case have been either killed in separate encounters or have died.
The CID too submitted its report in 2008 without convicting anyone claiming that it could not have conclusive evidences. Seeking justice, his eldest son Dhananjoy Saikia then filed a petition in Gauhati High Court on June 27, 2008. He claimed that Sivasagar Police in its final report had indicted Kushal Duori and four other militants for their involvement in the killing. The court ordered a re-investigation of the case (Case No: 291/91u/s302,365,3/4) and finally the Assam Police chief reopened the case again.
Worried over the very slow progress on the investigation, over 30 editors, journalists and intellectuals had also signed a memorandum and submitted to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on August 3, 2003. Later the Journalist Kamala Saikia Memorial Trust also submitted another memorandum to him on August 6, 2006.
Instituted in 2002, the JKSM Trust has been organising an annual memorial lecture in Guwahati, where some of the outstanding editor-journalists of Asia including N Ram (The Hindu), Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN), Kanak Mani Dixit (Himal SE), Haroon Habib (BSS), AJ Philip (New Indian Express), Om Thanvi (Janasatta), P Sainath (The Hindu) have delivered thought-provoking lectures. The Trust has also instituted an award to honour the slain journalist, through which an individual with excellent commitment to the society would be recognised every alternate year.
Even the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was also approached to intervene on the matter. Dr Singh, who represents Assam in Rajya Sabha, was briefed about the hazards of journalism in the state by the then Editors Guild of India president Rajdeep Sardesai. Listening to the editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, on August 14, 2009 at PMO, Dr Singh promised to take up the matter with Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and the Kamala Saikia Memorial Trust.
“It is a matter of grave concern that the family of a journalist, who was killed to stop his critical writings against the banned outfit, has had to wait for justice for all these long years,” said Kanaksen Deka, a senior editor and the president of JKSM Trust adding, “even today, the family and the entire media community of Assam do not have any idea, if justice will be delivered in the coming days.”
The family, well-wishers of the slain journalist and the JKSM Trust have already demanded for a high level probe (preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation) to investigate the case. The State Chief Minister virtually agreed to the demand but even then no breakthrough has been achieved.
In fact, working in insurgency stricken Assam has become increasingly dangerous for journalists. The ongoing insurgency and unrest among the youth of this region, where a number of armed outfits have been fighting New Delhi on various demands varying from sovereignty to self-rule, put tremendous challenges on the journalists based in the State. They are subjected to numerous threats from insurgents, surrendered militants and even the anti-insurgent security personnel.