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Year After Majoni's Disappearance, Still No Investigation

INDIA: Year after Majoni's Disappearance, Investigation still Missing

On 10 February, 2013 a young writer and teacher, Ms. Majoni Das working at a private educational institute in the town of Jorhat, located in the eastern Indian state of Assam, went missing. All that her family knows is that Majoni was instructed by police officials to report to a police station, and that she intended to pay this visit on her way back to her workplace following a short family visit. Before saying goodbye to her parents she told them about having been given these instructions by the Superintendent of Police, Sibsagar district.

Since then, nobody has seen Majoni.

Her whereabouts remained unknown till her family raised the alarm. Following their complaint, the police asked Majoni's aged father to travel to Nagaland, about 300 km away, to trace her whereabouts. The police didn't simply stop at reneging on their duty, i.e. to trace a person reported missing. They reportedly put Majoni's father and younger brother under pressure to initiate talks with an underground group for information, and to look out for her in Nagaland, where, as per police claims, she was supposedly located at the time.

The 30 year old Majoni Das, daughter of Dimbeswar Das, resident of Nitai Pukhuri, Sibsagar District, Assam, is a woman activist, teacher, and writer. Before she went missing, she was an active member of women's group called Nari Adhikar Suraksha Samiti (NASS). She was a regular contributor to a vernacular fortnightly magazine 'Aami'. To support her family financially, she took up a job at Purva Bharati Educational Trust, a Jorhat based organization, and worked as hostel warden for 13 months.

The sequence of incidents leading to her disappearance reveals intentional violation of rules and procedures of the legal system of the country. On 6 February, 2013 Majoni went to her parent's home in Demow, Sibsagar district, Assam, to attend a family gathering. As soon as she reached her parent's residence, local police from Demow, a small town near her parent's residence, were constantly communicating with her over phone asking for her to report at the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), Sibsagar. She informed her colleagues about the calls and sounded stressed out and jittery.

On 8 February 2013, Pritam Das, police officer of Nitai Pukhuri police outpost, along with a lady police officer, reached Majoni's parent's house, allegedly to detain her. Majoni was not at her parent's residence at that time. The police team left instructions for Majoni to report immediately to the SP office in Sibsagar. At 9 p.m. that day, she told two of her neighbors that she would visit the SP office the next day. On the morning of 10th February, at around 9 a.m., she left home to meet the SP of Sibsagar district. Since then Majoni is missing.

Two FIRs were filed after her disappearance, one in Jorhat Police station filed by the Purva Bharati Educational Trust and another one in Demow Police station filed by family members. Meanwhile, her family and the hostel authorities made several visits to the SP office in Sibsagar, requesting police to take immediate action to trace Majoni. The SP informed them that Majoni has joined the underground armed group, United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and has left for Nagaland. The SP instructed Majoni's father of to visit Nagaland and trace his daughter.

Before any conclusion could be drawn, police started a 'media trial' and reported the incident in a press conference, where officials claimed that Majoni had joined ULFA and had left home to join the team of rebels in Myanmar via Nagaland. The police intentionally turned a deaf ear to the family's speculation and fear that similar incidents in the past have ended in extrajudicial executions.

With the help of WinG-Assam, a network of women human rights defenders in Assam, the family brought the matter public attention and asked for legal help and relief from police harassment. On 20 February 2013 a press conference was arranged by WinG-Assam. The family alleged that the police was not revealing any information about Majoni. The police also declined to explain why the police had repeatedly demanded Majoni's presence at the police station.

Demanding in person attendance of a female in a police station is a violation of law in India; in person presence of females and minors in police stations cannot be demanded by police officials at any time. The illegal conduct of police, the reneging of their duty, and their decision to withholding, created suspicion regarding the role of police in Majoni's disappearance.

On 21 February, the following day, a media house in Guwahati apparently, received a communiqué from the ULFA, which claimed that Majoni had voluntarily joined the organization and that her association with ULFA is the result of the conspiracy of the SP to execute Majoni extra-judicially in the name of counter insurgency. It has been reported that the police never verified either the authenticity of the communiqué or the IP address of the computer.

The incident has been reported to National Human Rights Commission; the body has sought an explanation from the police. UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance has also expressed concern in the case. Since communication with the Working Group is confidential one, the outcome of the UN Working Group's concern is not known. A habeas corpus petition has also been filed before the Gauhati High Court [Writ Petition (criminal) no. 3 of 2013], which is still sub judice.

In a response to the National Human Rights Commission, the police has stated that Majoni has joined the banned ULFA outfit of her own will. However, the police has yet to explain why a woman needed to present herself in a police station, something that is against the criminal procedure code. Several questions remain unanswered.

Why did senior police officials of Sibsagar district, pressurise Majoni's family members to talk to members of an underground group and to go to Mon district of Nagaland to trace Majoni Das? The police, in particular the Superintendent of Police, Sibsagar District, should explain why Majoni Das was called repeatedly to the SP's office without proper notice. Also, if the ULFA communiqué is to be believed, then the SP conspired to extra-judicially execute Majoni in the name of counter insurgency. This is a serious allegation and requires detailed investigation by an independent body. The communique, whether it represents the truth or a cover-up, raises uncomfortable questions.

Reporting of the numerous incidents of disappearance in police stations in India and in Assam is rare; however, impunity for such crimes is common. InBudheswar Bora vs State of Assam and Others (2007, 1 GLR 453), the police were asked to pay compensation of INR 200,000 from their own account for the disappearance of Ms. Moni Bora from their custody. A habeas corpus petition was filed on December 24, 2005 alleging that the wife of a self-styled ULFA captain Danda Bora was missing after being picked up by police from Kalapthar area under the Bokajan police station in Karbi Anglong district. The District Judge of Golaghat was appointed to make an enquiry. The judge concluded that "Moni Bora was picked up by the Assam Police from the forests of Kalapahar hill under Bokajan Police Station in the district of Karbi Anglong during the operation conducted on 20.4.2005 and she was never produced before any Magistrate and from the facts available on record, I do not see any hope of the production of said Moni Borah by the Police before any authority in the near future". A subsequent CBI inquiry into the disappearance remains incomplete and inconclusive.

Incidents of disappearance perpetrated by the police and the armed forces acting under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, is quite prevalent in north east India. But accountability for such crimes is rare. In Sabastian Hongrey vs. Union of India (1984 AIR 1026), the Supreme Court of India ascertained the disappearance of two civilians from custody and indicted the armed forces active in Ukhrul region of Manipur. This case, along with a previously decided case, Rudal Shah vs. State of Bihar (1983 AIR 1086) has led to human rights jurisprudence in the country through the award of exemplary compensation. It should be noted, however, that the 'exemplary compensation' was the result of a contempt of court petition, not as a natural outcome of a violation of right to life. Hence, the rulings failed to establish a precedent on accountability. Later, the involuntary disappearances in the north east of Sanamcha in 1997, Tayab Ali in 2000, and Podum Nath in 1998 resulted in social protest, intensifying the popular campaign for the repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Several Inquiry Commission reports on the incidents of disappearance are yet to see the light of day.

Enforced and involuntary disappearance is inbuilt in the culture of the Indian security agencies. The practice is endemic in armed conflict situations, such as those that prevail in Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, and North Eastern states. Disappearance in India takes place due to repressive security legislations like AFSPA and the Public Security Act that allow arbitrary detention without warrant, which end up in involuntary disappearance.

In Manipur, a public interest litigation filed by Family of the Disappeared Association of Manipur, requesting investigation into several disappearances committed in the state since 1980 is pending litigation. In Punjab, counter insurgency operations in the 1980's and 1990's resulted in mass disappearance of civilians, extrajudicial executions, illegal cremations. In Jammu and Kashmir, discovery of mass graves highlights the practice of disappearance and extrajudicial execution by the security forces. The existence of about 2,700 'unknown, unmarked, and mass graves,' with around 2,900 dead bodies has been reported by the civil society organizations. In Assam, hundreds of people were arbitrarily detained and secretly killed as a part of counter insurgency measure in the last two decades. The K.N. Saikia Commission, entrusted to inquire into the mysterious disappearance of relatives and sympathizers of armed opposition groups, has reported 35 incidents in 2007 itself. However, the state has failed to indict anyone for these crimes.

India signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Convention) on 6 February, 2007. However, the process of ratification is pending and there is a lack of political will to undertake the statutory obligations under the Convention.

Early in 2013, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances reported (January 2013) that, since its establishment, the Working Group has transmitted 433 cases to the Government of India. Of these 433 cases, 12 have been clarified on the basis of information provided by the source, 68 cases have been clarified on the basis of information provided by the Government, and whopping 353 remain outstanding. Request for a country visit by the Working Group has yielded no positive response from the government to date, despite several reminders over the years.

Disappearance forms a continued offence till the whereabouts of the person is known. However, provisions for legal immunity for the offence of disappearance are embedded in the criminal justice system in the form of official barriers, such as requirement of prior sanction from the authority for legal prosecution of security personnel. Such culture of impunity has made the practice endemic in India. The current legal system will remain unable to wipe out the practice of disappearances.

In the case of Majoni, there is no public information about her well being. Several similar disappearance incidents have resulted in death to the victims. Time, not the criminal justice system, is unfortunately the best chance for truth surrounding Majoni's disappearance to emerge.

*About the author: Anjuman Ara Begum is Program Officer - India Desk at Asian Human Rights Commission and can be contacted at e-mailindia@ahrc.asia

ENDS

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