Bloodspill in poll zone

Guwahati/Dhubri, Feb. 12: At least 10 people were killed as police tried to quell the largescale violence that erupted during panchayat polls in Assam's Goalpara district today. Unofficial reports put the death toll at 16.

In Cachar district, a member of a village defence party died after suffering cane blows while trying to separate the warring supporters of a Congress candidate and an Independent at Satkara-kandi village under Sonai block late this afternoon.

Unidentified men torched several houses at Bogolamari and Gobindapur villages in Goalpara police station area of Goalpara district late on Tuesday night. A police source said security personnel have rushed to the spot to control the situation. The source said these villages have a mixed population of Rabhas and non-Rabhas.

Barring the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council area, covering Goalpara and parts of Kamrup district, where Rabha groups are opposing holding of panchayat polls before council elections, the third and final phase of the election was peaceful with a turnout of over 65 per cent. Among the districts that went to the polls today were Nagaon, Morigaon, Dhubri and the three Barak valley districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi.

In the council area, trouble brewed soon after polling began this morning with a large number of people from the Rabha community attacking voting centres in different parts of the district.

Describing the developments as "most unfortunate", parliamentary secretary (home) Bhupen Kumar Borah said the police were forced to fire after protesters attacked security and polling personnel and tear gas and rubber bullets failed to quell the mob. He said so far there were confirmed reports of 10 persons dying in police firing in Goalpara district.

One protester died in retaliatory firing after two CRPF personnel were injured in a mob attack at Siluk under Dudhnoi police station. Two men and a woman were killed in police firing at Palsar under Dhupdhara police station after hundreds of people attacked a polling centre in the area. One protester died in police firing and two others, including officer-in-charge of Krishnai police station Hatem Ali, were injured when a team of police and civil officials were attacked at Bekibul. The protesters set ablaze the vehicle the police and civil officials were travelling in as well as 37 houses in the area.

Another two persons died in police firing at Kachudal under Rongjuli police station after protesters attacked a team of polling officials and damaged their vehicle. Two polling officials are untraced. Three more protesters were killed in police firing at Kahibari after the mob damaged ballot boxes and set the polling centre on fire.

However, circle inspector of Dudhnoi, Bhupen Das, said 12 people had died in his circle ' three in Dhupdhara, five in Rongjuli, one in Dudhnoi and three in Krishnai.

CMO sources said additional forces had been rushed to the affected areas after reports suggested that two persons were killed in clashes between protesters and villagers in Goalpara district. "Since their bodies have not been recovered, we cannot say for sure that they are dead," a source said.

The army was deployed at Bekibul and Marnoi areas of Goalpara district this evening, sources said.

Defence PRO Lt Col S.S. Phogat said four columns of army from Lakhipur and Balijana units in Goalpara were pressed into service after the district administration sought the army's help at 11.50am. More than 250 personnel of Red Horns division swung into action within an hour and helped the police and administration to quell violence. "No major incident of violence was reported in the affected areas since the deployment of army columns," a statement issued by Phogat in the evening said.

At Kahibari, goons snatched arms from two Bengal police personnel on poll duty. A police source said some persons tried to throw petrol bombs at Rakkhaysin polling station but they were caught and roughed up by voters. There were also some cases of arsonists targeting houses of panchayat poll candidates and vehicles in some areas of the district.

Goalpara has been on the boil with the Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Committee, an umbrella organisation of 34 groups, opposing the holding of panchayat polls in the Rabha Hasong Autonomous District Council area. The committee had called a "janata curfew" from 7am yesterday till 7pm today.

Chief minister Tarun Gogoi described the violence as "most unfortunate" but defended the government's decision to go ahead with the panchayat elections in the council area as it was the "constitutional duty of the government". He said the council elections would be held after the panchayat elections, as announced by the state election commission. He also stood by the steps taken by security personnel given the "difficult situation" they were in.

Director-general of police J.N. Choudhury said the chief minister was briefed this evening by senior officials after a meeting, chaired by chief secretary N.K. Das, was held to take stock of the situation. Gogoi accorded top priority to avoiding further ethnic conflagration.

Gogoi announced ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the victims and Rs 50,000 each to the injured. The damaged houses will also be rebuilt.

Sporadic incidents of violence and arson were also reported from the council area in Kamrup district.

Two polling officials, Dhiren Das and Hansadhar Choudhury, were injured when protesters attacked a polling station at Dekapara Middle English School at Boko and damaged a bus used by polling officials. The police resorted to baton-charge to disperse the mob. Protesters also torched a timber bridge at Jalukbari Bazar in Chaygaon. Four persons have been arrested so far, a police source said. In Hahim area, arsonists torched six lower primary schools, a bridge, a hotel and post offices.

State election commissioner Biren Dutta told The Telegraph, "The commission was aware that the situation was not normal but that it would take such a grave turn was not anticipated because we had announced the council's poll schedule. At the end of the day, it was an assessment failure of the ground situation."

He said elections could not be held in more than 100 polling stations in the council area in Goalpara district. "The commission has not taken any decision on repolling as violence might escalate. Counting in Goalpara is uncertain and the commission will take a call only if it is satisfied with the law and order situation," he added.

On other areas, the commission has decided to conduct repolling in 21 polling booths so far. "Among them 14 are in Cachar district, five in Karimganj district and one in Hajo in Kamrup. Repolling will be conducted either tomorrow or on Thursday," Dutta said.

He said the commission had recorded more than 65 per cent turnout in the third and final phase of panchayat polls till 4pm and the number would cross 70 per cent.

In the Barak valley districts, barring a few minor incidents, the polls passed off peacefully. Besides the death of the village defence party member, at least six persons, including the husband of a woman contestant, were arrested for violence.

The deputy inspector-general of police in south Assam districts, Vinod Kumar, said over 70 per cent of the estimated 20,90,652 electorate in Barak valley had exercised their franchise in 3,266 polling stations.

Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts wore a festive look as voters queued up at polling booths since morning. Opposition AGP alleged that the situation in the council area had escalated because of the "high-handedness" of the ruling Congress.

The All Bodo Students' Union also said innocent people had lost their lives because of the "high-handedness of the Congress". Absu vice-president Jiron Basumatary said, "The people in Rabha Hasong areas were opposing the panchayat elections before the council elections, which were due for the last 17 years. But the Congress went ahead with its plan to conduct panchayat polls, ignoring the sentiments of the Rabha Hasong people. Today's violence was the outburst of their anguish."

Minister for welfare of plains tribes and backward classes Rajiv Lochan Pegu and the chief minister's press adviser Bharat Chandra Nath visited Maulana Moslimuddin, who was injured at Krishnai, at a Guwahati hospital this evening. Dispur will take care of his hospital bills.

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