The story of a night: how a college turned into a jail during the Assam floods

As 80% of Assam was inundated, so was Dhubri District Jail. That meant turning a college into a jail in a couple of hours, escorting 409 prisoners through rising waters to it, in a town under a total blackout, and ensuring no one escaped

The Deluge

The sight that greeted him at Dhubri District Jail on the night of July 15 could have belonged to the thrillers he used to watch as a teenager, says Deputy Superintendent of Police (HQ) Trinayan Bhuyan. “Except, this was no movie. This was real life.”

The rains had lashed continuously for a week and Dhubri town, like 80 per cent of Assam, was inundated. The floodwaters reached Bhuyan’s waist as he stood at the door to the jailor’s office. Inside, a few guards, clutching candles, looked helpless as waters swivelled just a few inches below the jailor’s desk.

“I told them, ‘Do something. Save the files, put them on top of the cabinet’,” says Bhuyan.

“Files? Forget the files. What about the inmates?” one of them shot back at him.

It was then that Bhuyan heard them. Behind, through the wall, there was a low thumping sound and cries of despair: “Save us. Let us out.”

There were 409 of them — men, women, and children — marooned in their cells. “And we had to get them out,” says Bhuyan, 36, who had joined his post in November 2018.

His boss, Superintendent of Police Shri Yuvraj, sent him a text: “Ho paayega (Can it be done)?” Bhuyan remembers being unsure. But he took the Almighty’s name and sent a text back: “Yes, Sir.”

The Transfer

Electricity had been out that entire day in Dhubri town. Earlier that morning, Jintu Borah, an Assam Civil Services officer posted with the district administration, had come to check on the jail. Established in 1965, it was housed in an old Assam-style bungalow and spread over 8 bighas. Within the premises lay a pond and a juvenile jail, which had been empty for years.

Borah had been the jail superintendent earlier, and knew the area well. “When I reached, the water level was just below my knee,” he recalls. “The kitchen had started flooding and the medical unit looked like it was about to.”

With the rain not letting up and the waters rising every hour, the 40-year-old began to work out alternative arrangements. He had heard that many years ago, in a similar episode of flooding, the inmates had been shifted to the District Library, 2 km away. Borah went to check on the library. “It was under water too. Plus, there were security concerns.”

Through the day, Borah waded through the waters, inspected other potential jails and made calls, before realising the answer lay right across the road: Dhubri Girls’ College (established in 1983), housed in a three-storied brick building with high walls and a big gate. “The verandahs too had grilles. And the college was closed for the summer. We had found our designated jail,” says Borah.

But it was already late evening, and before the transfer could begin, the administration had to give the college the form of a jail, turn classrooms into cells. Each floor had eight doors, all of which had to be padlocked, windows double-checked, two giant generators brought in, and entries and exits sealed. The work, including the construction of two bamboo watchtowers, would spill over to the next morning, with 15 workers on the job. “Imagine all of this in the middle of a storm, when practically the entire town was blacked out,” says Bhuyan.

When the transfer finally started at around 10 pm, the police and civil administration, nearly 50 of them in all, formed a human chain across the breadth of the road. Two registers were maintained — one at the original jail, the other at the designated one. One by one, as the handcuffed inmates were led across the road carrying the three things they would need the most, their blankets and a plate and bowl each, their names were jotted down — first on leaving, then on entering. Each prisoner was escorted by a guard each.

“We helped the elderly and sick carry their belongings,” says Bhuyan. Of the eight women prisoners, two had children with them, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. One of the police constables carried the baby in his arms as the mother, a short woman, had water up till her neck.

Bhuyan says that, all through, he and his colleagues had another fear: “Rescue in any case is tricky. But even then, never do you expect that the ones you are rescuing might make a run for it.”

While the policemen were armed, the rules didn’t allow shooting in case someone did try to flee. “That is because many prisoners are under trial and in for petty crimes. However, to ensure they didn’t try something like that, we scared them saying we would fire if anyone tried to run away,” says Bhuyan.

But the fear of nature proved stronger. The criminals, some of them hardened, accused of crimes ranging from theft to rape and murder, did as told. “It dawned on me that they did not want to run. Standing in water all day is a scary thought and all they wanted was to get to drier ground,” says Bhuyan.

As hours passed and the procession continued without incident, the authorities decided to let a guard handle up to four inmates each to speed things up. The transfer ended about eight hours later, at 5 the next morning.

However, just as Bhuyan and the team were about to take a break, a tally of the two registers showed that while 409 prisoners had checked out of the jail, only 408 had made it to the college. One prisoner was missing.

The alarm though proved shortlived. Two prisoners with the same name, Shukur Ali, had been noted down as one.

The Escape

Almost immediately, the officials started getting the new jail into shape. With the ground floor flooded, the prisoners had to be accommodated on the first and second floors, and were told to make their beds with the blankets they had brought.

A kitchen was set up and the “biswashi” or trustworthy prisoners (usually the ones serving life term) roped in. Borah set up a WhatsApp group called ‘Designated Jail Management’, with officials across departments such as the Public Works Department, Assam Power Distribution Company, municipality, police etc.

“This was a way to keep everyone informed. Were the inmates eating? Was anyone sick? Did they need to go to a hospital? Was their electricity?” says Borah. Among those who had dropped in at night was Deputy Commissioner Anant Lal Gyani, and SP Yuvraj. “The thing is everyone, including the prisoners, saw how hard we were all working. That led them to cooperate,” Borah says.

Bhuyan decided to head out to other parts of the flood-hit town, reassured that his work at the district jail was done. But he woke up the next morning to what he had feared all along. A text informed him that an undertrial accused of rape, Hafizur, had escaped.

A ventilator with a broken iron rod on the first floor was suspected to have been the escape route, with Hafizur landing safely on the waters flooding the road below.

The Capture

Then started the hunt through a town that by now resembled a water park, says a local journalist, who did not wish to be named.

Police had little to go on except a photo of Hafizur taken 10 months ago when he was admitted to the jail. Bhuyan says there was no resemblance with that photo now. Plus the geography of Dhubri added to their worries — 40 km away is West Bengal, and 50-60 km by land the border to Bangladesh. “He could escape anywhere,” says Bhuyan.

Bus stations were alerted, railway stations checked, as the team scouted the route on foot, vehicles, even a boat, from Hafizur’s first wife’s house near Dhubri town to his second wife’s mother’s house in Dakshin Dharmashala. “We found that he had reached his second wife’s home the night after his escape. He had told her he was out on bail and that he was going to Delhi,” says Bhuyan. The wife gave police a number that ultimately led them to Rupchand, an ex-convict who Hafizur had made friends with in jail.

Sixty hours later, police found Hafizur sleeping in a house surrounded by water in Fakirganj in neighbouring Goalpara district.

On July 22, a week after they had been shifted, the 409 inmates returned to Dhubri District Jail. This time the transfer was smooth. The rain had abated, the waters receded, and the prisoners took a bus in broad daylight.

Things are slowly getting back to order. The jailor, who did not wish to be named, says, “The office is in a mess. Everything is ulat-palat. But at least the prisoners are back home.”

And that matters, Bhuyan says. “I realise Hafizur’s escape could have made a joke of our efforts. The fact that we had successfully transferred 400-plus people would have been forgotten. The media would only see that one person had escaped.”

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2019. Full article here.