Thursday, June 13, 2024

Two years after legal battle against home demolitions, Assam govt pays Rs 30 lakh to five Muslim families

The Assam government told the Gauhati High Court on Wednesday that it had paid Rs 30 lakh in compensation to five Muslim families whose houses were arbitrarily bulldozed following an attack on a police station in Nagaon in 2022 over a custodial death.

The Assam government told the Gauhati High Court on Wednesday that it had paid Rs 30 lakh in compensation to five Muslim families whose houses were arbitrarily bulldozed following an attack on a police station in Nagaon in 2022 over a custodial death.

The BJP government in the northeastern state was earlier directed by the Guwahati High Court to provide compensation to the persons affected by the demolition.

On 21 May 2022, a mob torched the Batadrava police station in Nagaon district, a day after a fish trader, Safikul Islam, died in custody. A day after the police station was burnt down, the police demolished the homes of the accused men.

On Wednesday, Senior Advocate D Nath, appearing for the Assam government, told the court that the Nagaon superintendent of police paid the compensation money to the five families on Monday.

According to The Indian Express, the compensation was for the demolition of two concrete houses and four makeshift houses.

Nath also said that the state government has sanctioned compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh for the family of Islam, reported the newspaper.

On May 3, the Gauhati High Court also stated that a government-appointed inquiry had admitted Islam’s death was a case of custodial death. “This is a clear case of vicarious liability of the state,” the court said.

2022 May incident

On 20 May 2022, Safikul 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 had 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 draconian 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, 2022.

The 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 inquiry.

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 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.

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