Protectors or killers?
The Supreme Court verdict to conduct CBI-probes into the extra-judicial killings in Manipur has brought some respite to the 1528 families of innocent victims who have been allegedly shot by the forces. Despite the verdict, justice is still a distance away explores Radhika Dutt.
On November 4, 2008, Nongmaithem Michael stepped out early morning to visit a friend who had recently lost his father to illness. As Michael went along, his wife Neena stayed back to attend to her children, unsuspicious that any calamity would befall them. Soon, she received calls from her husband complaining that he was being interrogated by the state commandos at a short distance away from home. Eventually, unable to reach him any longer, news arrived that he had been shot on suspicion of being an insurgent. "My husband was never involved in violence. He, with some others, had gone out to help another friend to arrange for the funeral service of his father, who had recently passed away," says Neena Ningombam, wife of Michael, who is currently Secretary of Extra-judicial Execution Victims Family Association of Manipur (EEVFAM).
The Supreme Court verdict on July 14, which directed the CBI to conduct its probe into the incidents of extra-judicial killing in Manipur, came as a huge relief to Neena and many others who were patiently waiting for justice against the unconstitutional killing of their kin. The verdict came up in response to a PIL filed in 2012 by EEVFAM, demanding an investigation into the 1528 cases of extra-judicial killings that have bloodied the state of Manipur since 1979.
With the assistance of Human Rights groups in Manipur, EEVFAM was set up in July 2009. Comprising of the kith and kin of the victims of extra-judicial killings, these powerful individuals resounded their agony by filing their petition in the Supreme Court. Since 2012, the initiatives of EEVFAM resulting in public scrutiny of fake encounter killings have sharply reduced the number of shoot-offs, though it is still heard of sporadically.
Neena's case isn't an isolated incident, within EEVFAM and outside there are hundreds of widows who have been left behind with young children and ageing in-laws under their wing, as their husbands have been snatched away by the evils of encounter killing. "On our first meeting everyone came together, and we just sat and cried. We continued to cry, and at that point in time, we knew we were together, bound towards the same goal. We needed justice for what was taken away from us, what was rightfully ours," says Renu Takhellambam, President of EEVFAM.
"My husband and his two friends were travelling on a bike when they were intercepted by the Assam Rifles just on the highway near my house. They were shot dead in a crowded street where dozens of people bore witness to the entire incident. My husband was only 35, and my son was only 11-months old then," recalls Renu who has courageously marched on despite her personal woes, carrying forth with the organisation that is relentlessly working to reach out to the surviving family members in Manipur, pleading them to come up and speak against these illegal killings. "Since we were established in 2009, we have been travelling through Manipur trying to reach out to as many victim families as possible. Even now we know there are many in remote areas that we have not been able to locate," she adds.
The Supreme Court verdict earlier this month which came against the wishes of the Centre and Army ordered a CBI probe into the rampant extra-judicial killings occurring across Manipur. A Commission, led by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, had said in 2014 that these cases do not come across as encounters, but instead appear to be cold-blooded murders. Since then there has been a drop in the numbers, however, justice is yet to be meted out. The Supreme Court probe which received applause from the civil society of Manipur was contended by the Centre which said, "An internal enquiry had already been conducted through the Human Rights Division of the Army and the Defence Ministry." The Army too raised eyebrows stating that it could not be subject to FIRs in insurgency-prone areas for carrying out anti-militancy operations. The Supreme Court rejected both considerations stating that their reasons were not adequate.
What happens when an entire society requires protection from those very elements which were created to protect it? Manipur is a classic example of this paradox. Insurgency is undeniably a palpable problem. Given the tough terrains of Manipur, much of which remains unfordable, locating insurgent groups has become a massive hurdle. Many believe that the police's failure to curtail insurgency has compelled them to turn their heads towards the civilians, who fall prey to both– the guns of the militants and the wrath of the police. "Earlier there were only a few insurgent groups. But now we hear of so many. This clearly shows that the police have been incapable of handling the situation. Instead, they come for us. Not all policemen are bad; but, there are killers within them and we want those killers to be adequately punished," says an aggrieved Neena who along with her team, led by Renu, have been working unhindered to assist the Supreme Court probe.
Recounting the incidents, Renu recalls that men, women, old, young, nobody was spared. 75- year old Waikhom Mani Devi was shot in her bed in 2011, making her one of the oldest victims. 33-year old Uttam Kumar was dragged out in front of his family and shot in the courtyard while his wife and parents bore witness to the horror. Of the 1528 civilians eliminated, about an estimated 20-30 belonged to insurgent groups, and they too were attacked while unarmed; not in gun battles. This raises a pertinent question on civilian rights. Innocent until proven guilty– an adage we learnt at a young age. Even the most hardened criminal deserves his time in court to seek justice. The police or any armed force is not capacitated to take justice into their own hands. Eliminating insurgents is only acceptable when under attack, but to enter homes, drag-out teenagers and shoot them in front of their parents on suspicion of them being villainous is unjustifiable.
AFSPA was applied in Manipur in 1980. Since then, this Act has witnessed widespread controversy. Irom Sharmila has been an icon in her own right as she continues to fight for its withdrawal, rightfully stating that it has been unfairly used to ambush civilians. In July 2004, a group of women assembled at Kangla Fort- headquarters of the Assam Rifles and Indian Army, to strip off their traditional attire in protest against civilian rapes by the Indian Army. The condition in Manipur has just swelled over time, paving way for more innocent killings, more wrecked families, and a most distraught society whose very protectors have turned against them.
The Ibobi Singh government which was overthrown only earlier this year has been blamed for allowing this radicalisation to spread its roots. In many ways, it has been alleged that his government empowered the killers. "My husband's killer was given a gallantry award. Many such killers who were recognised by members of our association were promoted and provided awards. Far from them being punished for killing innocent ones, they were glorified," says Neena. While Neena and Renu both received monetary compensation for the misfortune of their husbands' killing, it provides little solace knowing that first, their loved ones would never return, and second, that the killers still loom large, unfazed, protected by the power of the uniform that they hardly deserve to adorn.
The Supreme Court verdict has asked the petitioners to organise documents that would assist the probe. "We are working constantly on our documentation. In many cases, families were even denied access to FIRs. Most come from very poor backgrounds and they do not have adequate knowledge to uplift themselves. We are reaching out to them empowering them to come up and fight for their own rights," says Renu. "We have also been trying to provide counselling to these families. We hold regular meetings, and often these are very emotionally draining. Losing a loved one is never easy, and we are an organisation where everyone has lost their most loved one," she adds.
"We will continue to fight until the Supreme Court convicts the killers. Only monetary compensation is not satisfactory," says Neena who has strong expectations from the highest judicial body of the country. "It is not just for us, it is for our children, it is for our Manipur. We want to leave them back with a better society, a society where they can continue to live knowing who their fathers and mothers are," she adds.
The condition of Manipur is disturbing, to say the least. For mainlanders who are distanced from this atrocity, the situation is unthinkable. An entire generation in Manipur has been bereft of a wholesome family, with brothers, fathers, husbands, sons all falling victim to the lies of the bullets. Unfortunately, the men fall victim more often than women; another flip side of patriarchy. A recently surfaced confession of a killing machine, a policeman Thounaojam Herojit, further unfurls the problem that is spreading ripples across Manipur. Orders are sent from different ends, and policemen down the rungs execute these orders mindless of why, where and how? It is no longer an incident of isolated occurring; instead, it is endemic to the police system of Manipur. The wrath against insurgency and the incapacity to control the real insurgents has converted the entire police system into killing machines who fire emboldening their idea and without questioning the subject.
This resonates a return to the traditional fascist society where justice remained eclipsed. These actions are not markers of modern democracy which prides itself in a transparent system of enquiry where the public is the ultimate king. With Herojit's confession, it becomes evident that even policemen suffer the wrath of the system once their crimes come to the forefront. They are rejected, even though they were only the objects of the act, the philosophy still remains strongly rooted within a staunch ideological system. While the Supreme Court verdict brings in fresh hope, the lives that are lost will never be redeemed.
"Just pray for us, just pray that we can get justice for our husbands, and we can create a better society for our children," says Neena Ningombam whose voice cracks under the enormity of the situation; and rightfully so.