In the evening of 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a 46 years old African-American man was choked to death by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer of the Minneapolis Police Department, an incident that sparked massive outrage and protest demonstrations against police brutality and lack of police accountability and racism, in the United States of America and around the world. Subsequently, Chauvin had been initially charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, which was later elevated to second-degree murder, and three other accomplices – Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng – were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
At around 00:30 AM on 15 June 2020, a team of Indian Army personnel under Major Sachin Sinha of 244 Field Regiment based in Charaideo assisted by a team of Assam Police under Amit Kumar Hojai, Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Titabor and Mintu Kumar Handique, Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Borholla Police Station (PS) picked up Jayanta Borah, 25 years old son of late Hem Borah who had served in the Indian Army, from his home at Balijan Gabhoru Ali, Kakodonga Habi Gaon, Borholla in Jorhat district in Assam where he lived with his old mother, Lila Borah. At the time of taking Jayanta Borah into custody, no arrest warrant was shown or handed over to Lila Borah, nor were the village headman and the Village Defence Party (VDP) informed by the joint team of the Indian Army and Assam Police. Instead, Mintu Kumar Handique allegedly made Jayanta Borah’s illiterate mother sign on a paper with a heading “No Objection (Military Custody).”
After he had been brought to Borholla PS, Jayanta Borah succumbed to death in police custody on that very night, almost within an hour, because of heinous custodial torture. The register entry of Jayanta Borah at Borholla Community Health Centre (CHC) records the time of admission as 01:15 AM on 15 June and according to Dr. Dolen Borah, who was on duty when Jayanta Borah was taken to Borholla CHC, there was no consciousness, no pulse rate, no blood pressure, and no nerve pulse in his body and he died midway to the Jorhat Medical College Hospital (JMCH). This is also confirmed in the Medico Legal Case (MLC) record in the JMCH. The photographs of the dead body of Jayanta Borah prove that he had been a subject to vicious and fatal assault by the Indian Army and Assam Police while he was in custody (there were severe injuries on his head and ear, and the result of severe blows to his genitalia could be clearly seen).
Once details of Jayanta Borah’s extrajudicial killing came to light, his family members and the villagers refused to receive the dead body unless preliminary investigation began after identifying the perpetrators of custodial violence and murder within 24 hours. Lila Borah filed a first information report (FIR) at Borholla PS on 15 June 2020. However, instead of swiftly and impartially probing into Jayanta Borah’s death, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Shiv Prasad Ganjawala attempted to downplay the custodial murder as baseless and defend and protect the culprits who are otherwise supposedly the custodians of law and order by brazenly lying in front of the media that Jayanta Borah was alive when the team of Indian Army admitted him in the JMCH.
Despite concerted efforts to pacify the agitated family and the protesting villagers by the district administration, high ranking officers of Assam Police as well as local representatives of the government, the people refused to be silent over the custodial murder of an innocent youth. At the behest of the Chief Minister of the state, Sarbananda Sonowal, a couple of ministers in the Assam government and a Member of Parliament visited Jayanta Borah’s house. Subsequently, three police officers – Sub-Divisional Police Officer of Titabor, Amit Kumar Hojai, Borholla PS OC, Mintu Kumar Handique, and Bekajan Police Outpost In- Charge, Gopal Doley – were suspended. However, the suspended police officers have not yet been arrested or taken into custody for interrogation, nor has any action been taken against Major Sachin Sinha and his team of 8 Indian Army personnel.
But, mere suspension of the three police officers cannot be accepted as consolation. The officers of Assam Police and the Indian Army personnel, including Major Sachin Sinha must be charged with murder, and the others who stood by and did nothing should be charged as accomplices to the murder. They must be immediately terminated and arrested for their crime.
While the murder of George Floyd saw the American State apparatuses work swiftly to terminate and charge the perpetrators for their crime, the extrajudicial killing of Jayanta Borah is yet to be acknowledged by the Indian State apparatuses as an institutional murder. Instead, what we have seen are despicable attempts by the concerned authorities to downplay the murder and conciliate the agitating people that invariably lead us to question the role of the law and its legitimacy. There is almost an everyday history of extrajudicial and custodial killings especially by the armed forces empowered by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the northeastern region of India (and indeed in Jammu and Kashmir) that always keep reminding us of the authoritarian and violent qualities of the law.
What we have seen time and again is that the law is always asymmetrical in its application – those who are not deemed to be police property, that is, those who occupy a privileged position as custodians and representatives of the formal legal system are treated differently by the law. In the “India: Annual Report on Torture 2019” recently published on 26 June 2020 by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), it was brought to light that 125 people died in police custody in 2019, while 1606 people died in judicial custody in the same year. According to the “India: Annual Report on Torture 2018” published by Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), 147 people died in police custody and 1819 people died in judicial custody in 2018. In the Indian context, it is very rare to find instances where the institution of law opens itself to legal scrutiny, allowing its own rules – with their seemingly, and suspiciously ‘clear’ demarcations of what kind of treatment is reserved for what kind of actions – to apply to itself. Instead, absolute impunity is granted to the perpetrators of custodial torture. But, those who are deemed to be police property – the unprivileged, the lesser privileged, the migrants, the workers, the dissenters, the minorities, etc. – always encounter the law in its direct and violent form, while its own custodians and representatives are always granted exemptions not afforded to anyone else, thus establishing institutionalised inequality.
While demanding justice for Jayanta Borah and his family, as well as exemplary and appropriate punishment for his murderers, we must reflect on the legal system that operates by a form of preventive repression – that is, the law operates by instilling a fear in its ‘subjects’, in the form of a perpetual, really existing ‘threat’ of punishment if one is not deemed to be a ‘law-abiding citizen’ – which is an exercise of direct, brutal repression for one category of people and that of an exemption for another category of people. The law as a non-contradictory, comprehensive system is only tendentially true. Therefore, it is also not wrong to say that most of the times, the law operates illegally.
The armed forces are institutionally trained to kill. The police forces are trained to institutionally represent the law. It is precisely the nature of this ‘training’ which necessitates that human rights education be imparted to all personnel in both the forces. Only then the law could be accepted as legitimate and deemed to be equal for everyone. Otherwise the old Orwellian metaphor – all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others – would continue to haunt the society and the state.