By Bhaskar Phukan
The emergence of terrorism in Assam from the last two decades of the 20th century marked a watershed in the state’s contemporary history. Assam lost her innocence and her image as a haven of peace was dented by violence; she came under the unenviable category of a troubled state.
Early in my career I had my first brush with terrorism during my posting at Mushalpur, a sleepy little township near the foothills of the Indo Bhutan border in the undivided Nalbari district. Towards the end of the eighties, the quiet and peaceful life in Mushalpur had been frequently disturbed by extortions, kidnappings, shootings and bomb blasts. Thanks to terrorism, Mushalpur soon came to be known as one of the most dangerous places of Assam. From the very first day, I noticed that a sense of insecurity hung in the air over Mushalpur like a gloomy cloud. You never knew what would happen here the next moment, was the common refrain of the residents. Despite this dark scenario, people here tried to live their lives as normally as possible. The seasons changed; the Gods were worshipped; the festivals were celebrated. Life went along.
I was fortunate to discover my college batch mates, Promod Talukdar and Rabi Boro in Mushalpur.Both sons of Mushalpur now served as doctors in the thirty bedded hospital there. My friendship with them helped me settle down in my new place with ease. I was also pleasantly surprised to find my childhood friend, Zia posted as an Excise Inspector at Mushalpur. Oli Ullah, the Food and Civil Supplies Inspector was another colleague who became my friend. I stayed alone in a large quarter within the hospital complex. Those days my wife worked at a college in Dibrugarh. She and our infant son would join me at Mushalpur only during her vacations.
Because of the situation, most people in the town did not move out of their homes after dark. Card playing was the most common diversion during the evenings. Every evening, we too spent our time playing rummy, either at my quarters or at Zia’s or Oli Ullah’s rented premises. Among the regulars at our card sessions were my friend Promod and the three Jain brothers, Ampu, Chiku and Munna, sons of Mahavir Jain, the only Marwari family in town. Another member of our evening card session was Krishna Saha, son of Satish Saha, the leading business man of Mushalpur. Satish owned the largest departmental store in town and several passenger buses. A popular person, he was known for his generous contribution to all public events.
Krishna was of my age, a quiet and self effacing person who inherited his father’s business acumen and tact. I went along quite well with him. Krishna was his father’s main aide. Satish Saha requested me to find a bride for Krishna from the Saha community at Guwahati. He wanted to marry off Krishna soon. Sometimes, after our rummy sessions, we ended up having dinner together. I started liking this lifestyle.
That evening we chose Zia’s place for our card session. It would be followed by dinner for all of us. Krishna was to join us after closing his shop.
Hardly had we played for half an hour then Munna the youngest of the Jain brothers barged into our room and uttered breathlessly, “Krishna has been shot,” A shiver ran through my spine. We rushed to his shop just about 100 metres from Zia’s house. There was a commotion in the front of the shop. I parted my way through the crowd that had gathered there and stepped inside. I saw Krishna writhing on the floor, taking deep breaths amidst muffled cries of agony. He was in a semi conscious state. Standing near him was his father, bleeding profusely from one hand. Both father and son had been shot. It was a terrifying sight, something that I had never seen before in my fledgling career. I trembled with fright. But somehow, I could take charge of the situation. The police too arrived just then. As there was no motor vehicle nearby, Krishna was shifted to the hospital on a hand cart. Satish managed to walk alongside with a gamocha tied around his bleeding hand. Promod Talukdar and Rabi Boro had already been there at the hospital. Both doctors examined Krishna and found that a bullet had entered his body through the back. It required complicated surgery to remove the bullet which was not possible in Mushalpur. The doctors decided to refer Krishna to Nalbari. Satish suffered superficial injury on his hand. The bullet fired at him first hit the bunch of keys tied around his waist and then ricocheting from it tore his hand. Promod stitched the wound on his hand and tightly bandaged it. Satish was out of danger saved by his old bunch of keys. From eyewitness accounts, it appeared that a lone assailant had fired at both Satish and Krishna. But the presence of other accomplices could not be ruled out in the dark. The motive of the assailant had been to kidnap either Satish or Krishna but frustrated by his failure to take them at gunpoint, he shot both of them from close range and fled.
As the Police completed their formalities and arranged for security men to accompany Krishna to Nalbari, the hospital driver quickly gathered around a few hospital staff to push the ambulance. The old vehicle’s engine could only be started by pushing the vehicle for a while. Luckily that night, the ambulance roared to life with little effort. At once, Krishna was placed in the ambulance and it sped towards Nalbari. One of his relatives and Chiku, another of the Jain brothers accompanied him.
A few minutes later, the Superintendent of Police arrived in Mushalpur. He visited Satish Saha’s house and met the family members. Later at the Inspection Bungalow, he discussed the situation with a few prominent citizens of the town. Before leaving, he called me aside and said, “Please restrict your movements,” I assured him I would.
That night, Zia and Oli Ullah stayed with me. Like three frightened kids, we slept together in my bed. We were petrified by the incident that happened almost in front of our eyes. We were not sure if Krishna would survive at all. The complacency with which we lived our lives in Mushalpur; genuinely believing that things were not as bad as what people said about the place from the outside had been shattered by that evening’s gun shots.
The next morning we came to know that Krishna had been referred to Guwahati from Nalbari the previous night itself. His bullet injury though deep did not damage any of his vital organs but it grazed his spinal cord. Krishna survived but there were indications of damage to his motor functions; it was too early to say to what extent.
The attack on Satish and Krishna shocked everyone in Mushalpur. As the leading business man of the area, Satish Saha was respected by all sections of people. The town spontaneously observed a bandh as a protest the next day.
After that terrible night, I never met Krishna again during my tenure at Mushalpur. Krishna did not recover fully. From his neck downwards except for his arms he lost all sensation. Krishna was confined to a wheel chair permanently. After being released from hospital at Guwahati, he didn’t return to Mushalpur immediately. He stayed for several months convalescing at Barpeta Road where the family had some property. During the time he was away, I was transferred from Mushalpur to Naharkatiya on the other end of Assam. Satish Saha’s business suffered some setback after Krishna’s incident. Krishna was his eldest son. Though he had another two sons, they were too young at that time to help him.
Only after he finally returned to Mushalpur, did Krishna resume his role as his father’s aide, taking charge of the shop. But they had to scale down their business at Mushalpur considerably, putting on hold all plans of expansion. The tragedy cast its shadow on Krishna’s personal life as well. Satish Saha abandoned all hopes of getting his son married. But their troubles did not end there. Some years later, Satish Saha was kidnapped by terrorists and kept in their custody for many days. Though he was released unharmed it was rumoured that a large amount of money had exchanged hands to secure his freedom. There had been rumours that Satish Saha would sell off his properties in Mushalpur, including his shop and settle in Barpeta Road .But he was made of sterner stuff. Despite all odds, he stayed put in Mushalpur, continuing with his business. His support to public causes remained unchanged. There was not a single organisation in Mushalpur that didn’t continue to benefit from his generosity.
Twenty years later, I met Krishna again for the first time since that fateful night. Along with a friend, I went to Mushalpur on a day long trip. Satish Saha’s shop was still there, a large untidy store without a signboard stocked with goods in all available space right on the main crossroad of the town. It now appeared quite out of place and awkward amidst the row of brightly decorated shops jostling for space in the commercial centre of the town. Everything have changed and how. Mushalpur was no longer the remote outpost that even time seemed to have passed by. It was now the headquarters of Baksa district. A huge complex housing the offices of the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police came up right in the middle of paddy fields. The mud tracks connecting the villages were replaced by a network of paved roads.
As I walked to the shop on that mild November afternoon, I saw a middle aged man seated behind a large table stacked with glass jars containing lozenges, marbles, petroleum jelly and cold creams tubes. The table also doubled as the shop’s cash counter. There were few customers at that time of the day. As I stepped inside, the man looked up.
“Krishna,” I said, recognising him. He too recognised me.
“What brings you here?” he said.
Krishna was seated on a wheel chair. He turned the wheels of the chair slightly to one side with his hands so that I could squeeze through the narrow passage behind the table and sit on a plastic chair by his side. I pulled the chair closer to him.
“How are you?” I asked.
“This is how I am,” he said gesturing towards his frail body.
For a few moments, I couldn’t say anything. The scene of a youthful Krishna playing badminton with me in front of my quarter almost twenty years back flashed passed me. I looked at his wasted body and thought how tragic and long lasting the impact of a single bullet’s trajectory could be. It was quite disconcerting.
Krishna asked me about my family. “How is your son”?
I remembered Krishna specially bringing for my son a particular brand of baby food that had not been available in Mushalpur.
“He is studying Engineering,” I said.
“Great,” he said, thrusting a hand forward to shake hands with me. His grip was hard and strong as if all his strength was now concentrated in his hands. Even while we were talking, I saw that Krishna was attending to his customers as well, counting the cash and returning the change. His mind was still as sharp as ever. He knew the prices of most of the items in his shop and could quickly calculate their total in his mind. He managed his shop quite efficiently, keeping his salesmen on their toes, chiding them for any slackness.
“How is your father?” I said.
“He is not keeping well these days. He keeps forgetting things. ,” Krishna said, pointing towards a man sitting in a corner of the shop. I hadn’t noticed the man in the room before. I was shocked to see Satish Saha. He was hardly the man I had met twenty years back. The spotlessly clean dhoti clad figure was now in a loose fitting shirt and trousers, looking unkempt and haggard. He too saw me but failed to recognise me. Krishna and I talked for some time. Observing Krishna that afternoon twenty years later, I realised that he had been able to reconcile himself completely with his life confined to a wheel chair. There was no trace of regret or anger in his words. I was filled with sadness but at the same time, there was also immense admiration for him.
As I took leave of him, shaking hands with him, he smiled at me. “Do you remember that we were supposed to have dinner together that night?” he said. “Please come again soon and stay here overnight. We must have dinner together”. I promised to come. As I walked out of his shop, I saw Satish Saha once again. He was still sitting in the corner. Once again he failed to recognise me.