Over vast swathes of rural and hilly Assam, fear reigns as night falls. There is nothing new about this but the persistence of this phenomenon is worrisome. The previous Congress government was put on the defensive repeatedly by pisol manuh episodes — there would be rumours about sighting of a dark, slippery being with superhuman speed and strength, people would rush out of their homes with whatever weapons they could lay their hands upon, and it would all end in gruesome manner with the infuriated crowd beating some unfortunate person to death. Mentally challenged persons were particularly vulnerable to such mob action; there were heart-rending cases of such victims trying desperately (and failing fatally) to explain their ‘strange ways’ to self-appointed inquisitors who knew no better. Even then, there were lurking suspicions of some mischievous quarters not just taking advantage of such incidents, but actually fomenting the trouble. There were allegations galore that such atavistic conditions suited some political forces just fine in the run-up to elections, because it allowed their goons to hold sway at night and intimidate the general populace which cowered indoors. It is ironic that conditions remain the same across large parts of Assam in 2018 — despite rail links and highways coming up fast, as well as claims about “100 percent” rural electrification and “better governance”. But all that self-complacent ‘feelgood’ sentiment evaporates with sunset — rural households now batten down for the night haunted by fears of xopadhoras on the loose preying on their children. What happened at Dokmoka in Karbi Anglong district on Friday night was sad to the extreme. Here were two artistes enjoying the famed scenic beauty of the hill district; they reportedly spent hours near a waterfall and looked around for ornamental fish before heading back. Television accounts by local people about what happened thereafter reveal again and again the fear factor that stalks many such places. Women spoke haltingly about gathering their children around and huddling inside their huts as the youths outside “took care of the xopadhoras”. As the police now seek to get to the bottom of this horrific double lynching, disturbing questions are being asked. Was there a mysterious phone call by a known troublemaker to inebriated local youths “to deal” with the two strangers? How did the footage of public beating and torture go viral on social media? Such angles have prompted allegations of a deep conspiracy to stoke sectarian hatred, at a time when the entire State is on tenterhooks over the imminent publication of second part draft of NRC, and with general elections barely 10 months away.
It is indeed praiseworthy that citizen groups and youth-student organisations in Karbi Anglong and elsewhere have called for maintaining age-old bonds between indigenous people as well as exemplary punishment to the guilty. But social media and sections of the press and electronic media have been intemperate, if not downright offensive, in dealing with this incident. As arrests are being made, all their talk about “animals, barbarians, fiends from Karbi hills” perpetrating this outrage — could end up painting entire communities in dark shades. Disturbing news is already coming in from Nagaon district of Karbi youths being told to leave hostels and workplaces “for their own good”. This is foolish and totally unacceptable in a composite society, a society so very prone to sudden fault-lines due to machinations of evil political forces. Forging public peace and amity, and maintaining it resolutely come what may — needs good sense, constant vigil and hard work. No right thinking citizen can shirk this duty, for it concerns all. Above all, the State administration needs to introspect whether a one-track mindset with law and order will do the trick. Should it not address public fears too and seek to forestall it, particularly in vulnerable areas? Fear of child-lifting gangs cannot be just officially pooh-poohed away, considering that mainly border districts have long been the hunting ground of human traffickers. It speaks volumes that amidst the outpouring of grief over two innocent youths senselessly killed on the suspicion of being child-lifters, similar incidents have been occurring at other places. In just the last couple of days, enraged mobs have thrashed suspected xopadhoras at Yamunamukh in Hojai district, Salbari in Baksa district, Golokganj in Dhubri district and at places in Darrang district. We have heard enough of our police force being understaffed and overworked. This State government has to apply its mind on putting more policemen on the ground for regular patrolling duties and coordinating with citizen groups. Equal vigil is needed on the cyber front — to take out rumourmongers and troublemakers spreading poison in social media. When people are left to their own devices as officialdom makes merry, mob justice is what we get.