“I keep waiting for the day (May 17) every time with pain, and also with expectation that somebody would bring me news that the killers of Parag Kumar Das have been dragged to the court of justice,” lamented an old and thin lady. The people of Assam recognize Anupama Das as the mother of a genius and also understand her pain of losing a luminous son more than a decade ago.
Indeed, hoping against hope, the well wishers of the Parag Kumar Das family and the media fraternity in northeast India continue to wait for justice. Every year, civil society, advocacy groups and media persons in the region remember journalist-right activist Parag Kumar Das on May 17 and express resentment against the government, the investigative agency and the judiciary for failing to nab the culprits who killed the extremely talented journalist in 1996 in Guwahati. The editor of Asomiya Pratidin, a widely circulated Assamese daily from Guwahati, Paragda (as he was affectionately called by his younger generation of journalists) was shot dead in broad daylight in the Rajgarh locality of the city when he was bringing back his minor son from the school.
His death generated a huge public outcry as Paragda was a prolific writer and a brave enough to contribute a series of articles criticising the Indian Union government for its attitude towards Assam and the northeastern region of India. Paragda, who worked as the manager of the Guwahati Stock Exchange for some time, was also leading a human rights organization (Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity), and continued the frontal attack against the Union government in New Delhi for its ill treatment of the indigenous people of the region through its various anti-insurgency operations (against the United Liberation Front of Assam and other armed militant groups).
For records, Paragda was born in Shillong (the then capital of Assam) on February 24, 1961 to a decent family of Durgadhar Das and Anupama Das. Paragda completed his schooling from Guwahati and wet to Delhi for his graduation in Economics from St. Stephen’s College in 1983. He completed his post graduation from Delhi School of Economics, a premier institutes of India.
Initially Paragda started his career as a probationary officer in Punjab National Bank and later joined in Unit Trust of India as an executive officer. Soon he shifted to Guwahati as the general manager of Guwahati Stock Exchange. But later he left the lucrative job to join in professional journalism.
Paragda used to write regularly for Prantik, an acclaimed news magazine and also The Sentinel,a progressive English daily from Guwahati. In 1989, he launched Boodhbar, a news-weekly in Assamese and continued to be editor for many years. Paragda also started a magazine titled Aagaan in 1994 and he contributed his fearless and analytical pieces to both the newspapers. Later he joined Asomiya Pratidin as its executive editor in April 1995 and continued his assignment till his assassination.
Paragda was the prime mover of Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity and pioneered human rights movement in Assam. So he had to face lot of troubles from the State forces. Paragda was arrested under National Security Act and ‘TADA’ in 1992 and 1993 respectively for publishing critical articles against the authority. One of his books titled Swadhinatar Prostav was even banned by the government. Some of his other important publications are Sanglot Fenla, Rastradrohir Dinalipi, Nisiddha Kolom Aru Anyanyo, Moak Swadhinata Lage, Swadhin Asomar Arthaniti, Aami Ji Kotha Koisilu (along with his longtime journalist friend Ajit Kumar Bhuyan).
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international media rights body based in USA, said in its portal about Paragda as “----- He was the leading journalistic voice for self-rule for Assam and had continued covering separatist perspectives despite arrests in 1992 and 1993. A monitor of human rights, he also published a newsletter that reported on army and counterinsurgency abuses against the Assamese. Colleagues believe his recent interview with the leader of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) triggered his assassination by a splinter group.”
Initially, Paragda’s case was investigated by the state investigative agency, but later it was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) following growing demands from various civil society and advocacy groups. The investigative agency submitted its charge-sheet in the Kamrup District and Sessions Court, Guwahati, against four accused; incidentally, all were former members of the banned militant outfit ULFA. But before it filed the charge-sheet in 2001, two accused (Diganta Baruah and Tapan Dutta) were killed in an encounter. In 2003, another accused, Nayan Das, lost his life at the hands of a furious mob. The lone survivor, the prime accused in the case, was Mridul Phukan, who got acquitted by the Kamrup District and Sessions Judge on July 28, 2009 on the ground of lack of evidences. The court, however, pulled up the CBI for its incompetent investigation of the case. The acquittal of Phukan, thanks to the investigative agency’s inefficiency, created public fury against the CBI and once again the issue drew extraordinary media attention and a general strike (bandh) in Assam was called on July 30, 2009. “After the Aquitaine order by the Kamrup District and Sessions court, we expected the Assam government or the CBI would come forward to appeal in the higher court against the order within the stipulated period (90 days). However nobody turned up despite our formal approach to both the State government and the investigative agency,” said Paragda’s brother Pallab Kumar Das.
Mentionable that a delegation led by some senior-most journalists, advocates and Paragda’s family members met the chief minister Tarun Gogoi in presence two ministers (Rockybul Hussain and Ajanta Neog) on September 4, 2009. The State government head assured them to take appropriate initiatives, but it resulted nothing.
Similarly, another high level delegation led by Biren Baishya and Kumar Dipak Das (both are Parliamentarians from Assam) with few editors, advocates, family members submitted a memorandum to the Union Home minister P. Chidambaram in his office September 11, 2009. He too assured needful actions but all went in vain.
Finally the next of kin and well-wishers of Paragda knocked at the doors of the Gauhati High Court, seeking justice. Pallab Kumar Das filed a criminal revision petition (alleging that the CBI had not investigated the case properly) which was accepted by the court on October 26, 2009 and the case (vide no.Cri.Rev.P.386/2009) was registered.
Additionally the higher court, responding to a letter from Prof Deba Prasad Barooah (former vice chancellor of Gauhati University) admitted a revision petition (SUO Moto case of no.377/2009) challenging the verdict of the sessions court.
Meanwhile, journalist organisations renewed their appeal to the people to hand over any conclusive proof to the family of Paragda, which may help strengthen the case against the accused in the high court. They wanted a special investigation team, to be constituted and monitored by the high court.
Assam has lost more than over 20 editor-journalists in the past two and half decades. It all started in 1987 with the killing of Punarmal Agarwala, a local correspondent of The Assam Tribune in Nagaon by militants belonged to ULFA. Four years later, the militants targeted a veteran freedom fighter-turned-journalist cum- teacher Kamala Saikia. The 65-year-old was dragged out from his residence in Sivasagar Melachawk in upper Assam on the night of August 9, 1991 and his body was recovered next morning from a nearby location. He was brutally tortured before being killed.
The ULFA leaders were angry with Saikia for a series of articles condemning the misdeeds of the outfit, which were published in Dainik Agradoot, Ajir Asom and other daily newspapers from Guwahati. After the killing, the outfit termed the brave journalist ‘an informer (spy) to security forces’. But they took almost 15 years to make the allegation and tried to justify the act through a declaration in their mouthpiece Freedom (February 1, 2006 issue).
The killing of journalists continued as the timber mafia murdered Pabitra Narayan (correspondent of The Northeast Times) at Sonari in eastern Assam in 1995. The same year witnessed the slaughtering of Dipak Swargiary in Goreswar by miscreants. It was followed by the murder of Manik Deuri (Pahari Doot) in Diphu in 1996 by suspected Bodo militants. Unidentified gunmen killed Panja Ali at Kokrajhar in 1997. Nagaon-based local journalist Nurul Haque was murdered in 1998. The ULFA militants again killed a senior correspondent, Ratneswar Sarma Shastri, in Barpeta in 1999. Two local correspondents in western Assam (Dinesh Brahma and Indramohan Hakasam) were assassinated in 2003. The timber mafia gunned down Prahlad Gowala in Golaghat in 2006, who used to report for Asomiya Khabar.
The year 2007 witnessed the killing of Bodosa Narzary (a local TV journalist) in Kokrajhar. The following year, Mohammad Muslemuddin (correspondent of Asomiya Pratidin) from Hojai and Jagajit Saikia (correspondent of Amar Asom) from Kokrajhar were gunned down. The Guwahati based editor of Aji, Anil Majumdar, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on March 24, 2009.
The latest incident took place on September 4, 2010 in Nagaon. Senior freelance journalist BP Talukder was killed in his hometown, Hojai. Some more names (including Alfarid Shazad, Jiten Chutiya, Jogesh Uzir, Girija Das, Monikan Das, Ranbir Roy and Kanak Raj Medhi) were added to the list of the unfortunates.
But surprisingly, not a single perpetuator of the killings has been punished till date. The CPJ reveals that India is one of 13 countries where journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and where governments are unable to prosecute the killers. The other nations include Iraq, Somalia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Brazil.
According to the New York-based media rights body, at least 898 working journalists around the world have been killed in different incidents since 1992. India, with over a billion population, officially recorded 27 journalists killed during the period. Incidentally, Assam (with a population of 30 million where over 25 daily newspapers and six satellite news channels survive) accounts for a major share of such killings over the years. The statistics thus implies that working in insurgency-stricken Assam, where over 10 armed separatist outfits are still active (meaning attacks on media from both the State and non-State actors), remains a dangerous province for the non-compromising and committed working journalists.