The Guwahati High Court sought an explanation from the Assam state government and asked to submit an updated report in connection with the demolition of the homes of five Muslims in Nagaon who were accused of setting a police station on fire.
While hearing a PIL representing the affected families, Justice Kaushik Goswami asked the Assam government to submit the final draft of the inquiry report on the case which was being investigated by an already-appointed committee.
When the government counsel requested four weeks to file an updated status report the court accepted the prayer.
The series of incidents which led to the current intervention of the court could be traced back to May 2022.
On May 20, 2022, Safiqul Islam, a 39-year-old who sold fish roe to make a living, was arrested by the police while he was on his way to Sivsagar district on business. The police allegedly demanded Rs 10,000 and a duck from his family as a bribe to release him.
Islam was found dead the next morning. Alleging that he died in police custody, an angry crowd, set fire to the nearby Batadrava police station in Nagaon district, where Islam had been held.
On the very next day, after the funeral of Islam, seven villagers including his wife and his eldest daughter, a student of Class 8, were picked up by the police for arson.
Four of them were charged with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Around the same time, Islam’s home was demolished. The homes of two of his brothers – one of them, Rofikul Islam, and two of his cousins were also bulldozed.
One of the accused men, Ashikul Islam, had died in a road accident under suspicious circumstances after he allegedly tried to escape police custody on May 30.
Majority of the residents of Salonabari village accounting for a population of about 3,000, mostly Bengali-origin Muslims, fled their homes out of fear after these happenings.
When the issue was first brought to the Guwahati High Court in November 2022, the Guwahati High Court condemned the police for demolishing the homes of the five men.
The court stated that there was no provision under any criminal law to bulldoze the homes of any accused “in the guise of investigation”.
While commenting on the incident, the court compared the act of police to a “gang war” and advised the police to resort to better ways for a fair investigation.
Later, it disposed of the matter through an order on January 3, 2023, after the state government assured of actions against the accused officials.
“D Saikia learned Advocate General, Assam states that a committee consisting of the chief secretary is enquiring into the incidence of bulldozing of the house and appropriate action shall be taken even against the erring officers within 15 days from today,” a division bench headed by then chief justice R M Chhaya and Justice Soumitra Saikia had said at that time.
The state government was also directed to provide compensation to the persons affected by the demolition.
It had also warned that the case can be reopened “merely by filing a note,” if the government fails to submit a step-by-step report of the enquiry.
Due to the inaction of the government-appointed committee, the aggrieved families have requested the court to revive the litigation by submitting a note in August, last year.
The proceedings continued for months as the state government presented further assurances before the court.
The court then served four weeks of relief and an ultimatum to the government for filing the status report. As per the current order of the HC, the case will be taken up for hearing on February 16.
The Indian law does not confer the police with the power to persecute a person accused of any crime using measures like destroying property, but this has become a prevalent practice in several BJP-ruled states.