by Yambem Laba
A HIGH court judgment, a CBI chargesheet and a Rs 51-lakh prize for Irom Chanu Sharmila, Manipur’s Iron Lady, plus the news that Arundhati Roy would be arriving in Imphal to show solidarity with Sharmila’s cause seem to have served as the icing on the cake for the state’s human rights activists.
The 31 August judgment of a division bench of the principal seat of Gauhati High Court comprising Justices Amitabh Roy and BS Asarbhal said the state government could initiate action against Central forces. This historic judgment was delivered in response to a petition filed by the mother of Thangjam Manorama Devi, countering an earlier judgment passed by a single bench of the same court in 2005 following a writ petition by the Assam Rifles challenging the jurisdiction of the state government to institute a judicial inquiry against its troops operating under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. That single bench had upheld the contention of the Assam Rifles and had brought to a grinding halt the process of the judicial inquiry headed by C Upendra into the circumstances of the arrest and subsequent killing of Th Manorama Devi after she was allegedly raped by personnel of the 17th Assam Rifles on 11 July 2004. She was picked up the previous night and the troops had issued an arrest memo. The official version was that she was shot while trying to escape. The post mortem report suggested she was raped and shot at close range, bullets riddling her private parts.
Manipur erupted in flames thereafter, with leaders of the Meira Paibis, the women’s vigilante group, stripping in public before Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort with festoons that read, “Indian Army Come and Rape Us”. That charge saw the emergence of the Apunba Lup, a conglomerate of 32 different organisations, which called for justice to Manorama’s family and the repeal of the AF(SP)A. The Prime Minister soon responded and invited the Apunba Lup for talks in Delhi and declared the need for a more humane legislation to replace the AF(SP)A. Soon thereafter he announced the formation of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission to look into the need for the Act’s repeal. That the Reddy Commission recommended its repeal and that the Centre is yet to act on it is another story. But for the moment, the state government is at liberty to act upon the recommendations of the Upendra Commission, which was submitted on 22 November 2004. The petition was filed by Khumanleima Devi and Th Dolendro Singh, mother and younger brother of Manorama Devi. Colin Gonsalves, senior lawyer in the Supreme Court, appeared and was assisted by Meihoubam Rakesh of the Human Rights Law Network, Manipur.
The second case that brought cheer to the advocates of human rights in Manipur was the chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in another sensational killing, this one carried out by the dreaded Manipur Police commandos who are, at times, a law unto themselves. This incident happened on 23 July 2009 in BT Road in the heart of Imphal town and barely 500 yards from the Manipur assembly — which was in session then. A posse of Manipur Police commandos under the command of an inspector was on duty in the morning. A suspected insurgent, later identified as Ch Sanjit, a former member of the proscribed People’s Liberation Army, was said to have fled from a frisking point and, according to the police, had fired at them. In the retaliatory firing, a woman, identified as Rabina Devi who was seven months pregnant, was killed, as also Sanjit, from whom a 9 mm pistol was recovered. This was exactly the statement given to the house by the chief minister when the matter came up for discussion the same evening. Everyone swallowed the statement, including the opposition, and all apparently remained quiet for some time. But public anger was growing.
Then came the bombshell from Tehelka magazine. It serialised a series of photographs of the commandos escorting a captured Sanjit to a pharmacy, shoving him inside and later emerging with his body. Manipur erupted, bandhs and blockades followed and Imphal was back to the stage of the post-Manorama killing scenario, almost. The state government, which had so far maintained that Sanjit was killed in retaliatory fire, soon started backtracking, called for a magisterial inquiry and then a judicial one, even as the public demonstration under the Apunba Lup aegis spread to include a four-month halt to the entire educational system. Then Sanjit’s family moved the high court, which directed the state to register an FIR relating to Sanjit’s killing and also ordered a CBI probe into the incident.
In the chargesheet filed on 9 September 2010, the CBI named nine policemen — including two inspectors and the then officer-in-charge of Imphal City Police Station – and issued arrest warrants against them. They were said to have replaced the weapon that was claimed to have been recovered from Sanjit. The CBI’s effort was lauded by the Apunba Lup while the lower judiciary came in for criticism because all the nine have been let off on bail.
Then came the announcement by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management to confer Irom Sharmila with the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize. She completes a 10-year fast this week, demanding repeal of the AF(SP)A following the Malom massacre in November 2000 in which 10 innocents were killed in indiscriminate firing by the 8th Battalion Assam Rifles following an abortive rebel attack on them. Sharmila’s prize included a staggering Rs 51 lakh plus a gold medal and a shawl. The prize, according to IIPM founder director and chairman MK Chowdhury, his wife Ratna and dean, administration, Tarun Kumar, is in recognition of Sharmila’s determined struggle towards restoring peace and harmony in strife-torn Manipur. Earlier she had been awarded the Gwangzu Human Rights Award of South Korea.
There followed the announcement that celebrated author and activist Arundhati Roy, amongst other eminent social and human right activists, would be arriving in Imphal to take part in a five-day observation called the Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace to mark 10 years of Sharmila’s struggle. Roy had once visited Sharmila while she was being force fed at the AIIMS, Delhi, after her arrest by the Delhi Police for staging a hunger-strike in the capital.
The writer is the former Imphal-based Special Correspondent of The Statesman