Fragments from a fractured time
29 November 2013
Reminiscences on an education money could never buy.
As I type this, I worry about a load-shedding power cut. My laptop battery, weary from the day and night atrocities of this fanatic typist, has finally succumbed to the inevitable: a power cut means sudden death for these words. At one point in time though, I survived without power for almost six months at a stretch. Don’t be surprised. I still remember the look of disbelief on the faces of those around me when, after a prolonged hiatus and without warning, we would receive electricity during our days in the sleepy border hamlets of Sibsagar district, Assam. Electricity was more a luxury than a necessity in those days.
My father’s seemingly mundane job as a government doctor had brought us to that remote corner of the district in 1990. Just after my parents and I (a toddler at the time) arrived in that sleepy hamlet, President’s rule was decreed in Assam. The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) government – which had close and intimate connections with ULFA – had almost lost its grip over the state. My father recounts that young boys flashing oversized weapons would roam freely in the region, even coming openly armed to the hospital for health checkups. There was almost an unspoken truce between the government and the yet to be banned outfit. Popular support for ULFA was immense – most families of the village had a relative in the outfit. Our village was more or less a free territory for ULFA cadres who exercised power over local issues, often punishing petty thieves and drug dealers. While we wanted to believe, at that time, that guns were used exclusively by the police, quite the opposite was true. We came across very few police personnel during those days.
Things deteriorated when ULFA started massive fundraising operations, making kidnapping and killing the order of the day. Tea garden officials bore most of the brunt of ULFA cadres who had become remorselessly trigger happy. The honeymooning of the AGP-led government and ULFA came to an abrupt halt as President’s rule was imposed on the state in November that year, followed by the launching of Operation Bajrang by the Indian Army.
My father, often summoned after-hours to treat patients in remote areas, had an eventful working life for a government doctor. Many a time he was forced hands-up at gunpoint by ambush parties of the Indian Army. His pride, a Yamaha RX100 motorcycle, only added to his woes: ULFA operatives were known to have a liking for that particular model owing to its capacity to tackle difficult terrain. In broken Hindi he used to shout “Mein daktar hun. Patient dekhna hai”. To this day, he has no idea if his Hindi passed muster, or if their guns were jammed. He survived nonetheless. There were instances when army personnel – suspicious of Father’s movements – followed him on his way back from a patient’s house, eventually finding their way to our hospital quarter and the terrified tears of my mother and I. Most of the time the local weekly bazaar, about 300 metres from the hospital, functioned as a battlefield for ULFA and the Army. On Thursdays – market day – however, the numerous villages that relied upon the bazaar for everything from groceries to children’s books reclaimed the space.
It was no country for young men. Many youths were tortured and murdered in cold blood by the Indian Army in the name of counter-insurgency operations. Local ULFA leaders died too in these operations. Mourning or protest processions by locals became remarkably frequent.
Sometimes though, the experience was altogether different. An innocuous-looking man would arrive, asking Father to come with him to treat a patient urgently. Soon this simple doctor-patient exchange would be complicated by the revelation that the afflicted was an ULFA leader. My father, who took his Hippocratic Oath seriously, recounts that these visits were generally silent, with very few exchanges made except the routine questions and answers.
One particular instance – which my father often narrates – was an encounter with a badly bruised young boy with injuries dominating his body and face. On being asked whether it was the result of a simple accident, one of the ULFA men retorted, “Sir, he is a boy from a good family, but he sells drugs among young people in his college. We are punishing him here for his evil doings.”
In our initial days in that sleepy border hamlet, my parents hunted for a ‘proper’ educational institution for their only son. The sole government primary school was in tatters, as a lack of sustainable infrastructure and development had brought the region almost to ruins. As luck would have it, they heard about a new English medium school that was going to be established that very year just half a kilometre from the hospital premises. My happy school-free days were soon to be ended.
The hospital field doubled as our playground as all of the local kids were told strictly that we could play anything we liked, so long as it was within the boundaries of the hospital compound. Naturally, going beyond the hospital boundaries became equated with the tedium of school and, sometimes (when I was lucky), making the journey with my father to the only stationery shop in town where one could buy Tinkle Digest and toffees.
Around this time, a small bamboo establishment had sprung up on a paddy field next to the hospital. We soon came to know that this rather inauspicious hut was actually a den of country liquor. People, especially young college kids, came in hordes to drink there while the police failed to do anything. Allegedly, they were hand in glove with the operation. But one day, the place became abruptly deserted. I still remember hearing, “The boys came and destroyed the place”. “Boys” or “Our Boys”, were popular euphemisms used for the ULFA cadres.
The town railway station was very close to the hospital. The black smoke from the steam engines that chugged past on the railway tracks – parallel to the large rectangular pond just in front of the main building of the hospital – often left us kids excited. There was something mysterious, conspiratorial even, about these train journeys. We were regularly warned about dangerous men who might carry us off in the trains. Often strangers would turn up at the hospital, waiting for the next train to arrive. Many of these strangers were actually ULFA cadres who found the train route convenient – the close proximity of the hospital to the railway tracks was an added benefit. My father says now that many of them used to pat me, urging me to study well.
The pond in front of the hospital belonged to the railways, though each year it was leased to interested parties. The bidder with the ‘proper connections’ used to win the tender. The temporary owner would then become the master of the pond, including the fish. Immune to the wishes of whoever was leasing it, we continued our small fishing expeditions, relishing the prospect of getting chased away by the chowkidar on duty. But sometimes, strange men used to come and bathe in the pond. No chowkidar or owner dared to venture out then though.
* * *
During off-time at the hospital, we used to write our names with chalk pencils on its walls. I still remember wondering the meaning of the words ‘ULFA’ and ‘AGP’, which strewn all over the hospital walls, electricity posts and even on the old benches of the hospital verandah. After winning the 1985 general elections in the wake of the Assam Agitation, the young leaders of the AGP – who were student leaders only a few months before – were almost like war heroes at one time. But the situation was different now.
AGP had come to power for the second time in 1996, allegedly with the aid of ULFA. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the Chief Minister, soon realised that it was going to be tough to please the centre as well as ULFA at the same time. Things turned sour between AGP and ULFA with an assassination attempt made on Mahanta by ULFA cadres in 1997. The surrendered ULFA leaders – SULFA – as they were popularly known, became the active agent in a violent, almost fissile reaction between the state and ULFA.
SULFA leaders were sponsored by the state machinery with power and funds. They soon proved a powerful obstacle in the never-ending struggle for peace. The pond in front of the hospital eventually became the temporary property of a businessman supported by a SULFA leader. The tender process became a mere formality. SULFA leaders roamed about, openly flaunting arms in Maruti Gypsys and engaging in extortion and other illegal activities. It was as if the early 90s were repeating again, but this time even the Army couldn’t do anything about it.
Soon another dark chapter in Assam’s history – the ‘secret killings’ – started. Many families of ULFA cadres were tortured and clandestinely killed. With the bitter relations of the Prafulla Mahanta-led AGP government and ULFA, these ‘secret’ killings sent a powerful message. Even we felt the tension that these murders brought to our community. Suspicions and rumors only added to the woes. This was the time when my parents decided that we should shift to the nearby district headquarters at Sivasagar. My father was to seek a transfer soon, too.
Robberies began to occur indiscriminately. With almost no electricity, kerosene lamps were the only form of solace in the all-pervading darkness that engulfed the area after sunset. Worst were the times when Father was beckoned by hapless patients to far-flung villages at night. The persons who came to fetch Father understood our plight: often one of them used to volunteer to stay at our place while Father would journey out to treat the patient. I now understand when my mother recounts how this arrangement compounded her worries. She didn’t feel comfortable at all with a strange man in her house. Other times we used to get anonymous knockings on our front door or on the bedroom window. Though my father would always want to check on the knockings, which he sometimes did, we would not let him venture out most of the time.
* * * *
I still remember the low flickering light of the kerosene lamp casting ominous shadows on the grey asbestos of the bedroom. Though Father was eventually transferred, my memories of the time, dimmed like the embers of a once raging fire, remain close to hand. For this fanatic typist, the threat of literary homicide provides a cogent reminder of a fractured yet formative time in those sleepy border hamlets of Sibsagar district.
~ Anuraag Baruah is a Delhi-based writer and poet.