While the rest of India celebrates Independence Day on August 15 every year, few of the celebrators and revellers know about a massive tragedy that happened in one corner of Assam during the Independence Day celebrations in 2004.

But one man remembered and made a moving documentary film on the tragedy that shocked millions of people in Assam. Parthajit Barua, a noted young journalist and author of Assam, decided to make The Dhemaji Tragedy – An Undefined Chapter, a 28-minute documentary on the real life tragedy in 2015. The film won many awards among which are the Best Director Award at the 4th Kolkata Shorts International Film Festival, 2015, the Best Director Award at the North East Film Festival in 2016, the Best Documentary Award at the 3rd Indian Cine Festival in 2015 and so on.

Director Parthajit Barua

On August 15, 2004, people of Dhemaji, a small district in Assam, mostly comprised of school children between the ages of 12 and 14 and their mothers had gathered at the Dhemaji College ground for an Independence Day Parade. At around 8.45 am, a powerful bomb planted near the college gate triggered by a remote control device went off killing ten school children and three elders and leaving many injured in different critical states. Though the ULFA (United Liberated Front of Asom) that was accused of planning and executing the explosion, apologised in 2009 for the killings. Baruah approaches the event and the consequences eleven years after the tragedy an two years after the public apology to find out whether the families are ready to forget the black day and forgive the guilty for destroying their lives.

On investigation after the tragedy, ULFA which is a banned organization of Assam, had appealed to the people of Assam to boycott Independence Day celebrations. But the residents of Dhemaji defied the appeal and this led to the explosion, snatching the lives of children before their lives had begun. In December 2009, according to a report in The Hindu (December 14, 2009), Paresh Baruah, Commander-in-Chief of ULFA reported stated: “Dhemaji Blast is the most tainted chapter of ULFA’s revolutionary history and the most brutal and heinous murder of children and women. We seek the apology of the people of Assam.” Questions remain – why did the apology come five years after the tragedy? Will this apology cushion the brutality of the crime? Should the apology, if and when it comes, absolve the ULFA of the heinous crime it had committed with diabolic and planned precision never mind if the victims were innocent and mostly children?

The site of the attack on women and children

Arabinda Rajkhowa, Chairman, ULFA, said: “This was the biggest mistake of ULFA. The Dhemaji incident is a black mark in ULFA history. I apologise.” (The Times of India, May 27, 2011.) How can Rajkhowa use the word “mistake” for a crime that took away the lives of 13 innocent people of which 10 were children? How can he say that it was an “incident” when it is clearly a man-made tragedy that is almost genocide? How can they expect an ‘apology’ from the families who have lost their close ones at a single stroke on Independence Day? Why did it take seven long years for this man to tender an apology? Will this wipe away the crime?

The film opens with these pre-title graphics followed by the credits flowing down. The director talks to the people who had partly organized the celebrations, the officials who were in charge of security at the venue and the time of the programme, witnesses who began to cry when they narrated their experience of watching children die in their arms and surviving family members of the victims whose lives have changed completely after the tragedy. Budhin Boruah, principal of Dhemaji College said that there might have been a security lapse because “we think that the terrorists were mingling with the workers engaged here to put up the barricade.” An APS police officer placed with the responsibility of overseeing that everything was all right, said, “The police did not suspect that an incident of such magnitude may be triggered by ULFA in the Parade Ground. The alertness of Police Force or security was not tight to that level. So the terrorists succeeded in their design taking full opportunity.”

An AASU (All Assam Students Union) leader said: “At that time, in the print or electronic media it was clearly mentioned that Bharat Narah, a Cabinet Minister of Assam was involved in the blast. Lila Khan, the prime accused and cadre of ULFA said bluntly during interrogation – Minister Bharat Narah was totally connected with the blast. He was the Water Resources Minister of the State.” But Baruah does not take this at face value and also talks to Narah for his side of the story. What does Narah have to say? “It is a baseless allegation,” insists Narah in his explanation to the filmmaker. At one point, Mahi Sandiqoi, a student leader joined the Congress and we put him or his wife as Ward Member. I knew him but have no idea whether he was linked to some outfit or not. I later learnt that an ULFA member who had surrendered in some other case said in his statement that I had helped some linkman. I do not know this ULFA member at all but I know Mahi Sandiqoi. I think that is why my name cropped up.”

Aruna Saikia (15) and Rupa Saikia (13) were sisters. Their father has lost two daughters at one go but the mother refused to come out and face the camera though the father did. Says the father, “We heard the deafening sound of the blast and saw flue-red flames looming up. I went in search of my daughters though I did not believe they could be there. They were not in the fields. They were not in the nearest hospital and then I saw them in the ambulance and could recognize them only from the clothes they wore.”

Siddharth Taid (10)’s mother says that he had got a new pair of trousers stitched to wear on August 15. But he forgot to wear them. I still weep when I see them. He could not even try it on and he told me in the summer vacation that he would wear it on August 15. My heart breaks even today when I see the pair of new trousers.” Bandana Dutta Hazarika , Social Activist, Dhemaji, says, “Thirteen familes lost their members. My first thought was how to console them. What they need most is mental support.”

It is amazing the way in which Baruah could bring back history into the present through stock shots from the past of the blast happening and splintered bodies thrown away helter-skelter, people rushing to rescue the dead and the injured and merging this with the interviews and the exploration into the event eleven years after the tragedy. Among the dead are – Montu Gogoi (10), Juganta Padun (12), Monjit Gogoi (13), Bijit Sonowal (13), Dinesh Padun (14), Manashi Boroghain (15), Chitrawati Dole (20), Namita Gogoi (20) and Dhanada Dewri (42) apart from the names mentioned above. Busts have been built in memory of every single one of these victims and the camera pans across them slowly, allowing the viewers to soak in the soul of the tragedy.

The parents of the dead children did not go to celebrate Independence Day next two –three years (2005,2006 and 2007) because they were seriously traumatized. With time, the central govt took the help of psychiatric counsellors to motivate them and gradually, they started participating Independence Day. It took some years to come out of their trauma. The film interpolates the narrative with a couple of beautiful poems and a painting being executed in front of the camera. The film is socially relevant, historically significant and aesthetically good. It ends on a note of hope. “Assam observes August 16 of every year as Mourning Day in memory of those innocent souls. The then chief minister announced Rs Three lakh for the victims and Rs 50,000 for the seriously injured. The central Govt. gave a sum of Rs. Five crores to build an auditorium in the names of the victims,” sums up Baruah.

Cover Photo: Poster of the movie