Editorial – Killing Probe Ambiguity

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The one-man, Justice (retd.) Agarwal Commission report on the July 23, 2009, daylight BT Road killing of Chungkham Sanjit and Thokchom Ongbi Rabina Devi, has been submitted to the government. The content of the 80-page report however has still not been made public. What has however become evident to those who have been following the commission`™s enquiry is that many of the key witnesses have not deposed before the panel`™s hearings. In fact, the term of the commission had to be extended several times on account of this. Among those who refused or else inordinately delayed deposing before the commission are the members of the families of the two victims of the incident as well as the police commandos and police officers who were either key witnesses, or were accused in the crime, or else by the position they occupy in the Manipur Police would have known of the details of the incident. This is unfortunate, and even before the seal of the report is broken, we can already sense the report is likely not able to draw any definitive conclusion on the subject of their probe.

But even as the probe was in progress, it had become clear that it would not be a complete investigation. If press reportage were anything to go by, in the list of people called to depose before the commission, none of the top police officers were included, not the least the officer at the very top of the police hierarchy, the DGP, who was the man to report to the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, then in the middle of an Assembly session that it was insurgents who had indiscriminately fired and killed innocent bystanders. This version of the story was also what was reported to the August hours on that day. The media did not buy this story totally, but the myth of this version was only to be exploded by the New Delhi based irrepressible weekly Tehelka Magazine, 10 days later, when it published graphic photographs of how one of the victims, Sanjit, who was unarmed, was whisked away by police commandos into a pharmacy, and later brought out dead. The false report of the police to the Assembly was not taken to task at all by the commission. It only wanted to examine witnesses to establish if the killing was by the police and in custody. Perhaps the panel was limited by the mandate given to it.

And now, from the reports available, even this limited mandate would likely not be completely covered because of the repeated refusal of witnesses to be examined by the commission. We have no idea what the wisdom was in the next of kin of the victims`™ families deposing, for unlike those accused of the killing, they are unlikely to want to hide anything. The question that should follow logically is, was there coercion involved? Given the reputation of the Manipur Police counter insurgency squad, this is not impossible at all. Or, if it did not come to be this blatant, was it a case of buying off witnesses? Unrelated but equally pertinent is, why did the commission not use the long arm of the law to ensure the witnesses it summoned for hearing were present at its court without fail on the appointed days? It did this in the case of the Tehelka journalists, so what kept it from doing it again in the case of the others who chose to keep away from its sessions?

Whatever the limitations, if the BT Road killing probe turns out to be a damp squib, nothing would be more disappointing. Custodial killing is a heinous crime anywhere, but the BT Road incident, if it is indeed custodial killing as it seems almost certain to be, had taken this crime to a new level of disregard of the law by none other than its custodians. Perhaps as a prescience of the likely inability of the Agrawal panel to nail the culprits of the BT Road crime, even as the probe report was being prepared, cases of custodial killings by the state forces continued to pour in. What is even sadder is, the people by and large seem to have also given up their resistance to these atrocities out of frustration and helplessness. Tired, humiliated and intimidated as they are, they failed to raise even the semblance of a protest at the continuing affronts on their dignity. We had hoped that the Agarwal panel would salvage the sinking spirit at least to some extent. But not to jump the gun, let us add that whether the panel does salvage the situation or lets down expectation will be known if and once the content of the report is made public.

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