Life in a shadow land

An explosive series of photographs showing a fake encounter set Manipur on fire. An insight into the fractured truths and complex wars raging in the state

August 15, 2009 in Politics
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ON JULY 23, 2009, on an ordinary day in Imphal, six people were going about their morning chores in a crowded market on BT Road. P Lukhoi Singh, a rider working with the Assam Rifles, had just delivered a packet to the SP (CID) and had stopped to chat with a friend. Gimamgal, a peon, was cycling to work. Ningthonjam Keshorani, mother of three, was selling fruit. W Gita Rani had just visited her doctor and was trying to catch an autorickshaw. Rabina Devi, five months pregnant, was holding her 2-year-old son Russel’s hand and buying a banana before she met up with her husband, working at a mobile shop. And 22-year-old Chongkham Sanjit, a former insurgent, was on his way to buy medicine for a sick uncle in hospital.

Suddenly, a young man ran from a police frisking. Shots rang out. Lukhoi Singh heard a sound like “automatic firing” and tried to duck beneath his motorbike but was badly hit. He saw two cops walking into the crowd, firing. He told them he was hurt but they did not stop. Gimamgal heard a burst of sound and kept cycling. He didn’t realise he had been hit till he saw blood pouring down his body. His left arm was shattered. N Keshorani heard the gunfire and started to push her fruit cart away but buckled suddenly. She had been shot in the calf. Gita Rani just heard a sound. She didn’t realise she had been hit till she saw blood staining her chest. Rabina Devi just dropped dead. A bullet went straight through her forehead and out of her neck. Her little son saw his mother lying in a pool of blood and began to scream.

Sanjit was standing at a PCO when within minutes he was surrounded by commandos. There were four civilians injured and one dead on the road: the cops needed an alibi. On that busy road, in the middle of a crowded market, in full view of Manipur’s citizens, Sanjit was dragged into a pharmacy next door and shot point blank. His body was then dragged out by the commandos and tossed into a truck along with Rabina Devi.

All of this passed for a routine day in Manipur. The area was not cordoned off, no forensics were called in. The State Assembly was in session when the incident happened. By late afternoon, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh had tabled a statement saying Sanjit, a member of PLA, a proscribed militant outfit, had shot five civilians while trying to escape a police frisking but Manipur’s brave commandos had killed him in an encounter. A 9mm Mauser was found on him. The CM also said there was no way to stem the menace of insurgents except to “eliminate” them (a statement he later denied). The Opposition swallowed the story without question. Everyone went back to business.

Manipur is a dark shadow land. Nothing there is what it seems. Fear and fatigue have become its universal character traits. It is estimated that about 300 people have been killed in 2009 alone between insurgents and state forces. But nobody dares to raise any questions. People suspect things, but in the absence of proof, they look away. Each time someone dies, the neighbourhood constitutes a Joint Action Committee (JAC). Token protests are made, sometimes followed by token compensations, and everyone tries to live on. The same would have happened this time, except an anonymous photographer captured the damning extra-judicial killing of Sanjit on camera. Terrified of publishing the pictures in local papers, the photographer contacted TEHELKA.

Our story – Murder in Plain Sight – published last week was like a pressure cooker burst. As the story traveled, protests erupted across the state. People everywhere poured into the streets, demanding a judicial enquiry and the chief minister’s resignation. Young boys fought off commandos with slingshots and marbles. Women stretched their phaneks across roads as deterrents (Manipuri men are traditionally forbidden to touch women’s clothes drying on a clothesline) and openly courted arrested. As L Gyaneshwari, a women protestor recovering in hospital, says, “TEHELKA opened the gates to the tears blocked within us. We have always known the truth about these killings but we never had any evidence and had lost the strength to speak. Now, we’ve found courage again. If a vegetable vendor had not grabbed Rabina Devi’s bag and kept it with her, the commandos would have put a 9mm in it and passed her off as a militant as well.” “TEHELKA has woken up Manipur,” says Arun Irengbam, editor of the news daily, Ireipak. The sentiment runs strong. “We cannot thank TEHELKA enough for bringing the truth to light,” says Dayanada Chingtham, co-ordinator of the Apunba Lup, an apex body of activist groups. “We wish you had done this story two years earlier, our police have become too brazen,” says a man, working — ironically — in the office of Joy Kumar, the DGP of Police and the man, in a sense, at the heart of the storm.

True to script, as the valley erupted in unarmed protest, the State responded with typical ham-handedness. Commandos were deployed everywhere and protestors were beaten back with water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs. Curfew was imposed. In a telling detail, Rabina Devi’s grandmother, MRK Rajesana, was among a group of elderly women marching towards the Governor’s house when they were stopped by commandos. “Arrest us”, they taunted. Instead, the cops began to hurl smoke bombs at them. Some of the old women ran into a tiny chicken shop for shelter and pulled the shutter down. A cop found a small chink in the shutter and threw three smoke bombs in. “Die, you hags”, he shouted. Imagine the outrage of the grandmother: a pregnant granddaughter shot dead, buying a banana, and now the oppressive suffocations of a vengeful State. “Manipur’s women fought the British in 1904 and 1939. We fought the Indian army in 2004 for Manorama Devi. It is time for another nupi lal (women’s war). I am inviting our women to come forward for another war,” says she.

The central hospital in Manipur is full of such brewing stories. KH Lokhen Singh, an autorickshaw driver, was walking down the road, not even part of a protest, when a passing commando hurled a smoke bomb at him. As the bomb exploded, Lokhen’s face was scalded. He lies in a hospital room now, face burnt, blinded. His tiny two-year-old daughter Sangeeta — a baby with an angelic face — lies sleeping on the floor on a mat beside him.

Finally, on August 5, 2009, a full week after the story first broke, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh called a press conference, admitted he had been misguided into making a false statement about the “unfortunate incident”, and promised a judicial enquiry. Six commandos, including a sub-inspector, were suspended. Though protests continued to rage across the state even after his announcement, for the moment, the immediate crisis seems to have been defused.

THE FAKE encounter of July 23, however, tells a darker story about Manipur. It lays bare the pent up triumvirate of emotions that have come to dominate the psyche of people here: extreme fear, extreme distrust and extreme fatigue. Speak to anyone in the state — the sweetshop owner at the airport, the taxi driver, historians, housewives, journalists, activists, vendors, doctors, mechanics — and despair curdles just beneath. Everybody has stories to tell. Stories of extortion. Kidnapping. Threats. Demand notes. Corruption. And extra-judicial killing.

Far away from the national gaze, in fact, this tiny emerald valley surrounded by cloud-kissed emerald hills is on the verge of internal collapse. Much of this contemporary mess has historical roots. Manipur has never entirely been a willing participant of the Indian Union. Its dominant community — the Meiteis — claim a proud and unbroken history that goes back 2,000 years. In 1947, when the British left, the Manipur Kingdom established itself as a constitutional monarchy and held elections to its own parliament. Two years later, in 1949, the Maharaja of Manipur agreed to (or was forced to, claim the Meiteis) merge with India. First as an inferior C-State, then in 1963 as an Union Territory, and finally in 1972 as a State of India.

Almost immediately, in 1964, the first underground movement for independence was born as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Other insurgent outfits with varying versions of nationalism followed in the 1970s: the PLA, the PREPAK, the KCP, the KYKL.

But these were not all. Manipur is made up of a rainbow community. Fifty seven percent of its people are the Vaishnavite Hindu Meiteis, who live dominantly in the valley. In the surrounding hills live the Nagas, Kukis and Mizo- Chin tribes. The Nagas and Kukis, which themselves have sub-groups, are mostly Christian. About seven percent of the state’s population is made up of Muslims — Pangals — who also live in the valley in a district called Thoubal.

Historically, the Meiteis have always felt and behaved superior to the hill tribes. Predictably then, each of these communities have sprouted their own militant underground movements. The Naga movement, in fact, predates the UNLF to the 1950s. To simplify a long and complex history, what all of this essentially means is that over the years, this tiny valley with a population of no more than 25 lakh people has sprouted almost 40 insurgent groups. Some of them are fighting the Indian State; many of them are fighting each other. Equally, as Central funds for development have poured into the valley, but failed to climb the hills, the fights have become less over identity and more over money. With an eye on the pie, many of the big insurgent groups have splintered into innumerable small factions. As every Manipuri citizen will tell you with disgust: “Every sub-ethnic group in Manipur has its own militia, and every militia has its own extortion industry.”

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‘The problem is as much with Delhi as with Imphal. The situation in Manipur can get much worse than Jammu and Kashmir but the Centre just does not want to recognise it’

Ved Marwah, former governor of Manipur

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The stories of extortion in Manipur are epic. All well-heeled citizens are routinely sent “demand notes” in the form of threat calls, kidnappings, grenades or Chinese bombs hurled into shops and homes, or outright killings. Apart from these individual payouts, every government contract or development fund has a fixed scaffold of cuts that go to the underground – or “UG” as they are collectively known. These fixed cuts have now peaked at 38 percent of every project. In early 2009, Dr Kishan, a officer of the Manipur Civil Service, was shot for resisting extortion demands from a development fund. As historian and former Apunba Lup leader, Lokendra Arambam — an eloquent and disillusioned elder — puts it mildly, “There has been a qualitative degeneration of the militants.” Things are so bleak that the outfits that restrict themselves to “institutional extortion” are now seen as honourable or principled.

The UG is everywhere in Manipur, permeating the skin of everyday life. Most of them run parallel governments, complete with Finance-in-Charge, Auditor General and Secretaries of military and cultural affairs. In several heinous incidents, as in the infamous Heirok village episode, the PREPAK group — fanatic revivalists who want the Meiteis to go back to their pre-Hindu past — walked into a village celebrating a pre-Diwali ceremony and shot a boy and girl in cold blood as a lesson for the village.

But the trouble is, the UG is only one facet of the fear that stalks Manipur. The more damning facet — because you are groomed to expect better from it — is the State itself.

LIKE CHAUVINISTIC nation States everywhere in the world, from the very start, India has responded to the riddles of identity in the North-East with brute force rather than patient dialogue. In 1958, it responded to the Naga movement with a draconian version of an old colonial law: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This Act allows even junior officers of the army to arrest, torture or kill any citizen on mere suspicion, and to search and destroy property without a warrant. It also stipulates that no army officer or jawan can be punished without the sanction of the Central government.

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‘Guns will not stop the insurgency. Just stop the cycle of killing and peace will come. We can earn money, we can manage our family, but “the Act” is beyond bearing’

L Mem Choubi, Apunba Lup

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With every passing year, different districts of Manipur were brought under this Act. By 1980, all of Manipur had begun to live under its shadow. It is difficult to imagine the history of violence this Act has brought to Manipur, and the “psychology of impunity” it has bred. Think of a conflict zone — a place where death comes easy, where everyone is jumpy — and think of young men enabled to do as they please, ungoverned by law, unmindful of any punishment.

In the 30 years that the Act has been valid in Manipur, hundreds of young men and women have disappeared, been tortured, raped or killed. Despite dozens of human rights reports, no action was taken against the army. In 2004, the frustration pent up over decades spilled out like lava. A young woman, Manorama Devi, was dragged out of her house in the middle of the night by jawans of the Assam Rifles and led away. Her body was found the next day, brutalised, raped. A spontaneous rage ran through Manipur. Amidst protests across the state, a dozen elderly women stripped themselves stark naked and demonstrated in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters carrying searing placards: “Indian Army Rape Us.”

Every ethnic group has its own militia, every militia has its own extortion industry

Their extreme despair had a tiny impact: The Jeevan Reddy Committee was set up to review the Act. Its recommendations have still not been implemented, but in a minor victory, the Act and the army were removed from the city districts of Imphal.

In the five years since, a new monster has been born on Manipur’s already ravaged landscape: the Manipur Police Commandos. With the army pulled back, the state and Central governments took a conscious decision to groom a wing of the state police to “stamp out” the insurgents. Unfortunately, that has bred a fear in the people as crippling as their fear of the UG. As the editor of Ireipak, Arun Irengbam, puts it, “The psychology of the AFSPA is like a contagious disease. The commandos move around with the same sense of impunity the army used to.”

He is right. The official mindscape in Manipur is so militarised, it cannot think of approaching any problem except through violent suppression. As in every conflict zone, the arguments are complex. On the one hand are the excesses of the insurgents: the extortions, the murders, the intra-outfit killings. As a top police officer puts it, “We can either let things drift, or we can decide to take action. The truth is, we are hitting back more in the last two years. Look at how the Punjab problem was sorted out. I accept our boys might go too far sometimes, but you have to understand their psychology too. They too can be shot at any time and they get jumpy. Our police stations are unviable. We have just 10-15 men, we need at least 58 per station. We need more men, we need more weapons.”

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‘Our morality was so muddied and the fear of State and non-State players so rampant, even civil society had taken a backseat. Tehelka has retrieved a bit of our humanity’

Lokendra Arambam, historian and dramatist

[/box] But power is a heady pill and the atrocities of the army over 30 years have found a twin face in the commandos. The two years since the police decided to “hit back” coincide with a huge spurt in police atrocities. The brazen killing of Sanjit — in broad daylight, in a crowded market — is only a symptom. The list of similar (but unproven) illegal executions in just 2008 runs a mile long. Even if you suppose for a moment that they are all militants, as the police might claim, Johnson Elangbam of the Apunba Lup has a timely reminder. “If even Kasab can be put on trial for Mumbai 26/11, why don’t Manipuri boys deserve the same treatment under law?”

This absence of law — the absence of sanity — has created a corrosive paranoia in Manipur. Drive into Imphal and you feel the fear everywhere. Jeep-loads of commandos drive around the city, heavily armed, shooting and bullying at will. According to activists, in 2005, Lokhon Singh, a commando, was shot by Vikas, a PLA cadre, who in turn was killed. During Singh’s funeral, the police stormed into Vikas’ house and arrested everyone in his family. Then they allegedly gang-raped his girlfriend, Naobi. When Naobi told the court, “They have taken whatever they could from my body,” an officer apparently threatened her in front of the magistrate. No action was taken.

It is difficult to imagine the‘psychology of impunity’ the act has brought to Manipur

In another sign of this paranoid fear bred by the State, after TEHELKA’s story on Sanjit’s fake encounter, journalists and activists in Imphal tried hard to deter anyone from TEHELKA visiting Manipur. “We cannot assure your safety,” they said. “The commandos are looking everywhere for the photographer who gave you the pictures.” At the chief minister’s conference, local journalists who had helped us navigate the city asked us not to recognise them for fear of reprisal. Sometimes, distrust can be more damaging than empirical fear.

Ved Marwah, former super cop and former governor of Manipur affirms, “No police in the country has a worse record than the Manipur police. There is an allegation that they shot one their own officers in a fake encounter. The force is completely divided along ethnic lines and functions like the armed militia of the ruling party. That place is like the Wild East.”

There are immediate palpable reasons why the Manipur Police Commandos have suddenly morphed into a new dragon face of the State. There is, most of all, the psychology of impunity. But since the decision to use the police and army as a combined force to “stamp out” the insurgents, there has also been a sudden rapid expansion of the force. From a mere 300, the commando unit has shot up to a 1,000. Now, according to the police source, 1,600 new commandos have been sanctioned. But where are these high caliber men to come from?

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‘We can either let things drift, or we can decide to take action. The truth is, we are hitting back more in the last two years. That is how the Punjab problem was sorted’

Senior police officer, requesting anonymity

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Local journalists and activists speak of a massive recruitment scam. To become a sub-inspector, you pay Rs 10-15 lakh with kickbacks running all the way to the top politicians. To become a commando, you pay Rs 5 lakh. To become a rifleman, you pay Rs 1-2 lakh. Sources within the force confirm all this to be true. Unfortunately, logic demands you earn back what you pay out and the number of extortion demands by the police has risen proportionately to the expansion of the force. Taking in former militants into the force, as well as giving gallantry awards to commandos who kill militants, have all contributed towards creating a force that is, at least partly, motivated by a combination of greed, testosterone, vendetta and unbridled power.

“I admit 10-20 percent of our boys could be bad eggs,” says the police officer. “We have to fine-tune their behaviour and make them more humane. I also admit the AFSPA needs to be amended, particularly section 4 and 6 whose wording now allows the boys leeway to torture or kill under any circumstance. But, in general, the violence is unlikely to come down soon. We need at least two years to clean up all this. We have to finish what has been begun. And please don’t believe everything you read in the Manipur press. First find out which UG outfit it is a mouthpiece for.”

TRUTH IS, indeed, a difficult thing to ascertain in Manipur. The state is like an illusory pool, you step into it, and you are lost. Militants and politicians are friends. Commandos and extortionists are collaborators. Friends are informers. Law enforcers are killers. Beneath the table, every hand is interlinked.

Truth is difficult to ascertain in Manipur. Every hand is interlinked beneath

In early 2008, the police carried out a surprise raid in Babupara – the elite colony where ministers and government officials live behind several layers of thickly grilled iron gates. According to a top police source, who asked not to be named, twelve KYKL insurgents were found in a Congress MLA’s house. According to the same source, UNLF cadres were also found in a MPP member’s house. Others will tell you that politicians themselves inform the UG about every new scheme that comes into the state – expecting tidy thank you notes in return for their courtesy.

What makes things worse is that, as the police officer alleged, the media in Manipur is certainly part of the many mirages in the state. A complex matrix of allegiance and coercion governs them. On August 4, for instance, shockingly, The Sangai Express carried a glowing account of the KCP (MC), a proscribed militant outfit’s third anniversary. The next day, the paper carried an open threat from the outfit to Vodafone masquerading as a story. “Tabunga Meiti, secretary in-charge of the revolutionary government of the KCP,” the story went, “says that the bomb attack at the office of Vodafone was the first and last warning for not conceding to the request for some monetary contribution to the outfit… To run an important organisation like KCP which is fighting for the cause of a nation, money is required…”

“The UG does try to use our papers as notice boards for their demand notes,” says Arun of Ireipak wryly. Issued a threat by the UG outfit a few years ago for not toeing their ultra-revivalist line, he went underground for six months, before he decided he’d rather die than live a life of a fugitive. But many others cave in. As Pradip Phanjaobam, editor, Imphal Free Press, says, “The government also tries to issue guidelines to us, but we argue with them. Most of our real self-censorship is out of fear of the UG.” Or out of allegiance. For as another editor admits candidly, “I do have great empathy for the UNLF.”

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‘If even Kasab can be put on trial for Mumbai 26/11, why don’t Manipuri boys deserve the same treatment under law? Why should they be eliminated?’

Johnson Elangbam, rights activist

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SANJIT’S MOTHER, Inaotombi, sits stoically in white against a bamboo pole in Khurai. She refuses to conduct the shraddha ceremony for her son till a judicial enquiry is instated and the CM resigns. Inaotombi has borne more than a mother should. Her son joined the proscribed PLA when he was 13 though she pleaded with him not to. By the time he was 20, he had a chest injury and had come overground. Two years later, he was dead. She has three other sons and must now contain their fear and anger. When the neighbours start rattling a stone on a metal pole — a cops sign for protestors to gather despite the curfew — she restrains her boys. She doesn’t want to lose them too.

Sanjit’s killing holds key lessons for everyone in Manipur. And the Centre. The State must understand that bestowing extra-legal powers to any of its units can only sow new evils. Three generations of Manipuris have grown up in a climate of such extreme fear, distrust and militarisation that normalcy has been leached out of their blood. The sight of a cop makes even innocent boys want to run: the sight of a running boy makes the cops want to kill. What made a 13-yearold boy join the PLA? Neither AFSPA nor commandos can answer that question. The rift at the heart of Manipur is an internal one – between its various ethnic groups. Neither AFSPA nor commandos can heal that either.

Equally then, the intellectuals of Manipur could draw some lessons of their own. How valid is the injured sense of alienation that has kept the insurgencies buoyant over 30 years? “Is there space for us in the Indian imagination?” asks Arun. “India has never welcomed us.” That feeling is baseless, argues Mani Shankar Aiyar, former minister in-charge of development of the North-East. “Rupees fourteen lakh crore has been earmarked for investment in the North- East over the 10th to 12th Five Year Plans,” says he. “The North-East makes up 4 percent of India’s population, but 10 percent of Central development funds are routinely kept for it, and if it is unspent, it lapses into an eternally available pool of resources. What Manipur needs most urgently is to integrate all its own communities. It needs inclusive growth with inclusive governance.”

More emotional sensitivity from the Centre might help, though. When the new Minister for the North-East, BK Handique was asked to comment on the crisis in Manipur, he said, “Law and order is not our concern.” It should be, though, because the militarisation has the Centre’s sanction and as Pradip says, “You lose a bit of yourself every time you put up a fight. And you lose more if nothing happens.”

Also Read: Murder In Plain Sight

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