Paperback, 210 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins India (September 2015)
Selected by Kai Friese
“Journalists who have done their time covering insurgencies or border conflicts in India all have a little pit of unpublished horror stories: confessional tales received in the sanctity of the regimental mess. Bhattacharjee and his anonymous informant have broken the code of silence. Hardly an easy read, but an important and timely book.” —Kai Friese
It is a winter morning in 2004, after the harvest festival in the month of January. It is the time for feasting and festivities. The sun is elusive and the air mostly wet and dull.
A police officer sits in his office in a district of Assam near the Bhutan border. He wears a moustache and a broad smile and is generally firm with his views, even if they offend others. He is an unlikely candidate for the job and hardly enjoys doing what he is expected to do. But he does it well; he does his job the way it’s meant to be done.
It has been an extraordinary season. The Royal Bhutan Army1 – aided by the Indian Army, in one of the biggest covert operations ever in the northeast – has dealt Assam’s 25-year-old terrorist group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a devastating blow. For years, Bhutan was a safe haven for armed separatist groups. No longer. The role of the Indian Army in the operation has not been made official, but it was there for everyone to witness. Not a single picture of this massive operation has been released. Along with ULFA, camps of other groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) were also bombed, and there were mass surrenders by militants who were hounded out by air-force strikes – or so it was told.
Dressed in starched khaki, the police officer asks for lal cha or black tea, while talking to some visitors known to him. In Assam, lal cha is largely preferred to tea with milk. The visitors are passing on National Highway 52 and have stopped by to say hello to their old friend. Their conversation is mostly about the ongoing arrests and surrenders. A day earlier, a bus full of women in the ranks of ULFA, as well as the wives of some ULFA cadres and leaders caught in Bhutan while fleeing the raids had arrived here. The police officer is now busy making arrangements for their accommodation and organising legal procedures. The women look exhausted and some are accompanied by their children. Though the interaction is friendly, the officer is careful not to divulge anything official.
A young army captain is at the door and tentatively seeks permission to enter. He hesitates to speak but is assured that the visitors are the police officer’s own people; he can go ahead and talk without any worry.
“This is embarrassing, but I have run into an overdraft, so is it possible to borrow some amount? I promise to return the favour as soon as possible,” says the young captain.
The police officer, notwithstanding that visitors are around, assures the young man: “My balance is rather low, but I hope I can transfer some amount to you by tomorrow morning. It is a tricky time, you see”.
This cryptic conversation between a senior police officer and a young army officer in this north-eastern Indian state is not about borrowing money. It is a sinister exchange in the bizarre interplay of power, politics and violence.
Although money will inevitably change hands here, the currency is of human life and murder. The young officer is deployed in counter-insurgency operations and has killed two persons (tagged as militants in his official record), but inadvertently passed the telegraphic message to his senior command that three have been killed. He needs one more to make up for a typographical error. He has none in his “kitty”, so he requests the police officer to lend him a live victim.
The police officer casually asks him to come to the riverside early the next morning and take his “advance”. Bound, gagged and blindfolded, the victim will not struggle. He will be resigned to his fate like those before him.
 “Operation All Clear” was the first military operation ever conducted by the Royal Bhutan Army. Aimed at ULFA forces, it took place between December 2003 and January 2004. Official figures say that over 30 camps and 35 observation posts were destroyed, a total of 485 ULFA, NDFB and KLO militants were killed or captured.