Shaizur Rahman, local correspondent for Dainandin Barta and DA News Plus in Assam, filed a report of assault to the Barpeta Police Station, after he was beaten up by Fakrul Islam at the Bhella village panchayat office during his visit there to collect news.

Fakrul Islam is a government employee at the Public Health Engineering Department in Assam. On January 27, the day of the incident, Islam was occupying his wife’s seat at the gram panchayat office - his wife Afiya Begum being the panchayat chairperson for Bhella. According to Rahman, this is a recurring phenomenon. Islam is often found getting involved in panchayat work, with the safety of his wife’s credentials.

Rahman related the incidents of Thursday, January 27, that resulted in him and his colleagues requiring medical assistance, as well as some of their equipment getting destroyed. On the day of the incident, Rahman was accompanied by cameraperson Ratul Ali and two other journalists.

“He is an employee in the Public Health Engineering Department, Assam government. But he sits at his wife’s office most of the time and is not available to do his own work,” Rahman said. “Since his wife won the elections, he has taken over all her work in the panchayat office.”

Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, 2 crore houses were supposed to have been built by 2022, and these houses were to be allotted for free to people from underprivileged communities. Rahman said they have gone to the office to look into allegations of extortion.

“He uses his wife’s name to collect money from these people. And even the panchayat office is essentially controlled by him,” Rahman told The Citizen.

According to Rahman, Fakrul had also been accused of taking a portion of the pension amount that was received by widowed senior citizens in Bhella. The Job Development Officer too had received a complaint against Islam in this regard.

Rahman said that armed with the statements of these locals and the officials complaints that had been filed against Fakrul Islam, “I had gone with my cameraperson Ratul Ali and two other reporters for news collection purposes to the panchayat office.”

“As soon as we reached the office, I found that the President of the panchayat office Afiya Begum was not there, and her husband Fakrul Islam was there instead. As soon as we asked about his wife’s whereabouts and what he was doing in her seat, he started hitting and punching us,” Rahman said.

“Even though we had our Press identity cards, mine was around my neck and my colleagues had theirs too, he kept asking us where we are from and why we are questioning him,” Rahman told The Citizen. “He attacked us and even damaged our camera lens. My camera person managed to shoot the scuffle with his phone camera.”

Rahman says that his phone was thrown to the ground and damaged in the violent exchange. “They broke my mobile. All the recordings and bytes I had on my phone, they broke it,” he said. He said that he had lost interviews and footage in relation to this particular story, and is currently in the process of recovering the phone memory.

The fighting spilled from inside the panchayat office to the street outside, and onlookers called the police to the scene. From here the journalists were taken in the police vehicles to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed Medical College and Hospital in Barpeta. After getting the required medical assistance, the journalists went back to the police station to lodge an FIR against Fakrul Islam.

Since the police arrived at the scene of the incident, Islam has been absconding. According to the Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti, an NGO in Assam, the police had asked for a period of seven days starting January 28, to see that the matter is adequately investigated - and the journalists’ associations and NGOs have been asked to abstain from dharnas or protests until then.

The Superintendent of Police at Barpeta, Amitav Sinha, denied this notion, saying that such an agreement had never been proposed by the police. And that they had simply assured the public that the case is currently under investigation.

SP Sinha said that Fakrul Islam’s nephew Saidul Islam locally known as Raja Ali, who had also thrown a few punches had also attempted to flee the scene. Ali had been apprehended and arrested for a night on January 31, and released on bail on February 1.

Sinha said that both Islam and Ali have been booked under Sections 341, 323, 427, 379 and 506 and Section 34 of the IPC.

The Bhella panchayat President and Islam’s wife Afiya Begum have also been unavailable for comment. The couple have been served to appear before the Court in a few days.

Azizul Haque Choudhary, President of Greater Bhella Press Club in Assam maintained that Fakrul Islam had always been a person who was involved in embezzling government funds and being violent. Choudhary recalled that in August of 2020, an officer at the zila parishad level was attacked by Fakrul Islam in his own office. The reason being that Hussain had refused to sign documents with false information on expenditure of funds that had been allotted for the zila under the 14th Finance Commission.

“This is certainly not the first time, it has been happening to many journalists across Assam for many years now,” says Choudhary.

Choudhary recounted one of many incidents to The Citizen - “We were at the same Barpeta office for news collection purposes, and they came and snatched our phones away from us. We did not file an FIR but it did feature in the news. There are many such instances with reporters” he added.