29 yrs on, Gauhati HC orders compensation for 5 Assam men killed in army op

Mar 10, 2023 06:24 PM IST

The Gauhati high court ordered the authorities to pay the compensation for the death of the five men in 1994 within two months.

GUWAHATI: The Gauhati high court on Thursday directed the Centre to pay 20 lakh each in compensation to the families of five youths killed in an army operation in Assam’s Tinsukia district 29 years ago.

The two petitions were filed following the disappearance of nine youths allegedly picked up by army personnel between February 17 and 19, 1994 (File Photo)
The two petitions were filed following the disappearance of nine youths allegedly picked up by army personnel between February 17 and 19, 1994 (File Photo)

“For the interest of justice, we order the Union of India through army authorities to pay an adequate amount of compensation to family members of the five deceased,” a bench of justices Achintya Malla Bujor Barua and Robin Phukan said on two petitions filed in February 1994 by Jagdish Bhuyan, the then vice president of All Assam Students Union (AASU), and Dipak Dutta, elder brother of one of the deceased.

The bench ordered that the compensation must be paid within two months. Since a considerable period of time has elapsed, the high court told the Tinsukia district judge to issue notices to family members of the deceased to ascertain who amongst them “would be most entitled to receive the compensation amount”.

The petitions were filed following the disappearance of nine youths allegedly picked up by army personnel between February 17 and 19, 1994 in connection with its probe into the killing of a tea garden manager in Tinsukia by the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

Four of the nine men were produced before a Tinsukia court on March 1. But the remaining five, Prabin Sonowal, Akhil Sonowal, Debajit Biswas, Pradip Dutta and Bhupen Moran, were allegedly killed in an operation inside Dibru-Saikhowa reserve forest by the army and their bodies handed over to the police.

Their deaths led to widespread protests across Assam by AASU which demanded strict action against the army personnel who allegedly abused the shield from criminal prosecution under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which probed the killings on the high court’s orders, submitted its report in February 2002 in which it held seven army personnel including senior officers responsible for the deaths.

The army’s Summary General Court Martial (SGCM) convicted seven personnel, including a Major General, in the case in October 2018 and sentenced them to life imprisonment and dismissal from service. But on appeal, the competent authority in the army held in November 2019 that the army personnel were not guilty of killing the five in a fake encounter.

As the division bench wrapped up the hearing on Thursday, the court asked the two sides if a fresh judicial inquiry could be ordered to find out “whether the five deceased were killed in a manner acceptable to law”.

Lawyers for the army and the petitioners did not think that it would serve a purpose. The Centre told the bench that there was no need since the seven accused had “defended themselves successfully” during the final court-martial proceedings.

The petitioners also acknowledged that they also did not have any additional material to prove their allegation apart from the CBI report and the statements of the family of the victims.

The bench said: “Considering the contentions regarding the futility of ordering a judicial inquiry, we are of the view that instead of trying to arrive at a definitive conclusion whether the deaths were caused in a manner other than acceptable by law we accept the situation that deaths of the five persons took place in an army operation”.

Petitioner Bhuyan, who is now general secretary of Assam Jatiya Parishad, a regional political party, said he heard about the high court’s observations during the final hearing. “It shows that though justice was delayed, it wasn’t denied. But at the same time, we are surprised that while one court martial proceedings found the army personnel guilty after due procedure, how were they held not guilty later,” he asked.

Debashish Biswas, brother of deceased Debajit Biswas, said they were satisfied with the court order. “...our faith in judiciary has been restored. But the incident was a dark blot on the army. We would have been happier if those responsible for killing my brother and four other innocent youths after torturing them for days had been held guilty and punished,” Biswas said.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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