Manipur-The Missing 1528 Citizens
The Armed Forces and the police have been accused of killing 1,528 people in Manipur. Who were these people?
“I had joined politics with the intent to see AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act] repealed. I raised this issue over and over again but it went unheard.” But then, even the BJP vision document does not promise repeal of AFSPA. Biren justifies that: “It is because the situation in Manipur is a bit sensitive… Insurgency needs to be controlled first, then repeal of AFSPA.
Before we begin understanding, this point needs to be drilled in: the Northeast is a virtual mosaic of people, each part different from the other. To illustrate this, look at Nagaland; even the tribes who call themselves collectively as the Nagas, are very, very different from each other. In Manipur, the Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kukis are the biggest groups in numbers, with many smaller groups. The state itself is loosely divided into the hills and the valley; the Meiteis are largely present in the valley while the Nagas and the Kukis are present in the hills.
The indigenous tribe of the Meiteis was converted into Hinduism in the 18th century, which is why a suffix of Devi/Singh is enforced to their names, at least by mainland India [Firstpost]
The recent BJP victory in the state might point to a main agenda (at least from a community or two), but when you look closely (as this report did), the voting pattern seems scattered. The BJP signed a secret peace pact with the Naga body NSCN-IM; that should have secured all the Naga constituency votes, no? Of the 20 Naga-dominated constituencies, the BJP won in 1. The incumbent Chief Minister was a Kuki, and the creation of the new 7 districts was said to be among the community’s demands; that should have secured the votes, no? Of the 6 Kuki-dominated constituencies, the Congress won in 4 and the BJP won in 2. The Meiteis in the Imphal Valley are Hindus; they must have voted for the saffron party, no? 19 constituencies, out of 40 in the Valley voted for the Congress. The point being, there is no underlying sentiment, or feelings, or any ‘waves’ among the people.
On April 26, 1980, 25-year-old Irom Binodini was killed while feeding her daughter by CRPF firing [The Wire]
Why did the insurgency begin? This article by the DNA attempts to answer this question; for starters, the very process by which Manipur joined the country of India seems to be illegitimate and mired in controversy itself. This was the beginning, the initial spark for the people to be hateful of the Indian state. After that, as the Guardian says, it just went on:
It was among the hill tribes, in the 1960s, that armed rebellion against the Indian state began. Each decade it expanded, as a ball of cells does, by constantly splitting. Revenue, from kidnapping and extortion, came easy. With forested borders that enabled the smuggling of arms and narcotics, and neighbouring states that offered shelter, forming a splinter-group was not hard. The Kuki tribe alone now harbours 26 competing militant factions.
Why was AFSPA present in the state in the first place? And why does it matter? India Today explains:
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act came into force in 1958; by 1980, all of Manipur, which became a full-fledged state in 1972, had been declared a “disturbed area”. The act is an update of a British colonial exigency intended to control the Quit India movement. AFSPA allowed army officers to essentially act with impunity. Soldiers stopped and searched as they liked, entered homes without warrants, shot people on the basis that it was necessary “for the maintenance of public order”. It was initially used to control insurgency in the Naga hills, gradually being extended to cover the entire northeast. AFSPA was used in Punjab between 1983 and 1997 and has been in use in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990.
As the Guardian notes (we are quoting from it below), everything would have remained the same, had it not been for the developments at the turn of the millennium; a new Chief Minister came to power in 2002 (Okram Ibobi, who went on to occupy the post for 3 terms), along with a police officer, Yumnam Joykumar, who had learned from counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir & Northern Ireland. At that time, the Army and the Assam Rifles (the Armed Forces, let’s call them) had been present in the state for close to six decades, going after insurgents, alleged or otherwise. After one fateful night however, nothing was the same.
On July 10, 2004, a team of Assam Rifles allegedly reached the residence of Thangjam Manorama, suspected of being a member of the banned insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Army. On July 11, her bullet ridden body was found from the fields four km from her home in Bamon Kampu village in Imphal East district [Indian Express]
After the subsequent widespread protests (which led to AFSPA being removed from the Valley altogether while being kept in place in the hills), the police began to take over the role of the Armed Forces. They even outstripped the Armed Forces in the number of deaths caused:
Many of the people killed in encounters were innocent– drawn into militant circles by circumstance. But others were completely innocent: they had no links at all to the insurgency, as a man named Babloo Loitongbam intended to prove. Babloo rallied the families of “encounter victims”, and soon they had identified 1,528 Manipuris, all killed by security forces in what appeared to be faked encounters. Of those, he says, 1,200 had taken place under the incumbent chief minister, Ibobi – more than 100 a year. The families formed a new group, known as EEVFAM (Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Execution) – a homonym for the local word for bloodstain. In 2013, they brought a case before the Supreme Court, which in turn asked a panel to investigate six of the 1,528 killings [The Guardian]
The insurgency itself has largely been assumed to be done, but it cannot be ignored; on June 4, 2015, four trucks carrying soldiers of the 6 Dogra regiment came under attack with Improvised Explosive Devices and rocket-propelled grenades. 18 soldiers died, with another 11 injured. The Naga separatist outfit, NSCN (Khaplang) took responsibility for the attack. This was followed by the Indian Army’s troops entering Myanmar on the morning of June 9, as the perpetrators of the attack had fled across the border. This cross border operation was hailed as a success, as it was said to kill the militants who had caused the earlier attack.
On April 3, 1991, Lalbeiklien and Saikaplien were seized from a hut in Lunthilian Village in Manipur, taken a distance away in a truck and shot dead. The police said they were killed in crossfire between the police and the Hamar People’s Convention, an organisation from Mizoram [The Wire]
In January 2016, something happened which sickened just as much as it gave the victims a glimmer of hope; a former police officer, Thounaojam Herojit, met some journalists secretly and revealed that he had indeed killed an unarmed man in a 2009 encounter which had made news, and in which he had previously denied being guilty. His another confession was that both the then-Manipur DGP as well as the then-CM were aware of the encounter, and had given permission for the same. He also claimed that he had killed more than a hundred people.
That was to happen just some months later, on July 2016. In the EEVFAM case, the Supreme Court gave what was said to be a landmark decision; it essentially hit back at the immunity provided by AFSPA to the armed forces:
The court held that the army or Manipur police cannot use excessive force under the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to deal with militants or insurgency [The Wire]
However, as other commentators have noted, it did not affect the actual law. There was mention of a reasonable period till which AFSPA is to be implemented in a disturbed area, but no mention of any specific time period; it mentioned that carrying a weapon is not sufficient ground to be fired upon by the armed forces, but an earlier judgement had admitted that it was out of the Court’s hands to decide how and when armed force had to be applied.
July also witnessed 11 out of 28 familes coming out to say that they had not received the compensation that the state government had been ordered to pay them. Earlier that month, the state government had told the Supreme Court that it had paid the compensation amount.
—Irom Sharmila was a quiet volunteer working with Babloo Loitongbam‘s organisation. After the Army attack at Malom in 2000, the then-28 year old announced her decision to go on a fast, a fast which she said would end only when AFSPA was repealed from the state. This fast lasted 16 years; for 16 years, Irom Sharmila was fed through drips in hospitals, arrested by the police for attempted suicide, and produced before the court for her offence. Then, on 26 July 2016, she announced her decision to end her fast and contest the state elections to be held the next year.
The reaction to this decision seemed different than what was expected. They also seemed eerily foreboding of what was to happen in the approaching elections. Some samples:
Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India, said:
“People are puzzled, stunned and angry. She is otherwise quite stubborn but she has to know that she would always need the support of her people in whatever she does. She needs to take people along with her. She has to work hard, reconnect with the people, tour the villages. Sharmila has not seen any Manipuri village in all these years. She cannot just remain as an icon on a pedestal”
Babloo Loitongbam said:
“Although her announcement around two weeks ago surprised us, it is finally a phase of satyagraha that has come to an end. A new chapter is beginning and we will find out a different way to fight (the Afspa). She needs to consult a lot more on her political plans. Right now, she is very emotional. A concrete ground check and more practical approach is required. It could not be decided in 10 minutes. There has to be an other way”
Yambem Laba was present on the State Human Rights Commission in 2000, when Irom began her fast. He said:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Sharmila’s supporters ask even her for Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 in exchange for their votes. It is the tragedy of Manipur”
In retrospect, the pessimism was justified; in the March 2017 elections, her party, the Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance ended up with no seats in the state, with the founder herself getting 90 votes in her contested constituency. The winner, the incumbent Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, got 18,649 votes; the NOTA (None Of The Above) option itself got 143 votes.
Part 2 deals with the legal process that the EEVFAM petition set in progress, and the conclusion of this article.