An open letter to Justice N Santosh Hegde
The most honorable justice Hegde,
Your appointment, by the Hon’ble Supreme Court while hearing the PILs on extra-judicial killings in Manipur, as the chairman of the commission to “tell the correct facts” and also to look into the “larger question” of functioning of the security apparatus in the state has brought a ray of hope to the benighted people of the state who are condemned to a Hobbessian environment where life is nasty, brutish and short. Relentless predation by the state and the non-state agents of violence and betrayals by the successive past committees and commissions constituted to this very mission of telling the truth have plunged the Manipuris into ever-deeper depths of despair. Resurrection of hope is solely on account of your reputation of audacity for truth. Manipur is a dysfunctional state. The criminal justice system has collapsed and the rule of law is extinct. Only the gun, be it of the state or the non-state, does the talking. The gun has become the principal currency of power exchange. Innocent persons are killed with impunity in gratuitous violence, many more by the security forces than by the militants, and their deaths trashed as collaterals.
Sir, yours is a difficult commission. It is difficult not because the truth per se is elusive but because the governments- both the Union and the State have assiduously concocted their “truth” and given it wide currency. They will try to sucker you into their “truth” with their well-rehearsed stories and wily assertions. Mercifully they didn’t succeed doing so before the Apex Court in the PILs. The situation is far dire than the Union government glibly portrayed before the honorable Supreme Court. The Union government told the Apex Court a historical lie that the “ethnic rivalries” amongst Meities, Kukis and Nagas, the communities who broadly constitute the population of the state are “deep-rooted” and responsible for the militancy. The reality is that these communities lived side by side in peaceful co-existence for over a thousand years. Several centuries of the recorded history of Manipur bear testimony to their peaceful co-existence.
In the first quarter century of its creation in 1972, the Manipur state had evolved into an example of a syncretic democratic politics. It had quite a few chief ministers from the minority hill tribes-Nagas. It couldn’t have been possible without support of the Meities and Kukis who together constitute over 80 percent of the electorate. Even during those days, the ultra-radical nationalists challenged the status of Manipur within the Indian Union, but they did so from the fringe, kept there by the nascent state through a mix of sticks and carrots. The secessionist militancy was brought down from its peak in 1981 to below the threshold of existential concerns in the subsequent decade. The insurgency became largely rhetorical. But then something sinister happened in 1994 and the gains were reversed.The Union government, in a cavalier assertion of authority, took the steering of the counterinsurgency and began insensitively meddling into critical affairs of the state. On several crucial issues of counterinsurgency the state government was disdainfully bypassed and the local sentiments were callously ignored.
In utter disregard for the federal principles enshrined in our Constitution the Union government in 1994 began soliciting the NSCN/IM, a secessionist Naga militia with crucial stakes in Manipur for a ceasefire, behind the back of the Manipur state. The professed objective of this militia has been to take away over 60 percent of the state’s territory in its self-claimed sovereign Nagalim. This inept solicitation by the Union government made the Naga militias evermore aggressive in their territorial ambitions and they launched themselves on a large scale ethnic cleansing of Kukis-another ethnic race with significant demography, from the areas predominantly inhabited by the Nagas. Their aggression led to deaths of hundreds of innocents and mass exodus of Kukis from their centuries old habitats. Unprotected by the state the Kukis raised their own militias. A huge and bitter chasm between Nagas and Kukis ensued. The Union government’s covert and questionable patronage of the NSCN/IM also exacerbated the existential apprehensions of the Meities, demographically the largest community-over 60 percent of the state’s population, living in less than 10 percent of the state’s territory, who also bear the self-assumed historical legacy of preserving the territorial integrity of the state.
Suspecting some foul outcomes of the hush-hush dealings between Delhi and the Naga militias whose avowed aim has been to dismember the state, the majority community looked toward the ultra-radical Manipuri nationalists as the saviors of the territorial integrity of the state. Unexpected resonance of the ultra-radicals with broad swath of the populace suddenly brought the militants from the fringe to the centre stage. The wars began. So did the repressions by the security forces. The Union government while responding to the PILs sought to mislead the Apex Court with simplistic rhetorical assertions that “ it is only a handful of disgruntled elements” who are waging militancy “to retain their hegemony in the society” and are holding the people of Manipur who are “fully and completely integrated with the rest of the country” to “ransom and in constant fear” so that they “can continue to extort money” and their “leaders lead luxurious life”.
The Union government asserted that the number of such “disgruntled elements” is just about 1500. Such has been the assessment of the government for the last several years and yet over 5300 persons, labeled as militants, have already been killed in counterinsurgency in the state since 1995. Since 2001 alone over 3000 young men and women have been killed and posthumously branded militants. In the last five years alone some 1200 civilians have died in counterinsurgency and over 7300 persons incarcerated on charges of waging militancy. Since the militants, by the government’s own admission, number only about 1500, the bulk of those killed and arrested were innocent people. The counterinsurgency has become a reckless chemotherapy killing far more benign cells than the malignant ones and caused egregious traumas to the body polity. In the name of counterinsurgency a ghastly tragedy is being played in Manipur.
A person killed by the state is a presumed terrorist and his murder is never investigated. The security forces have become prosecutor, judge and executioner-all in one in the dispensation of summary justice. Truth remains buried in the din of counterinsurgency while the aggrieved families live with rage and rankle. While the All India ratio of police charge-sheeting the reported crimes for trial is about 88 percent, in Manipur it is abysmally low- 4 percent! Only 4 out of 100 cases of violence reported to the police are sent for the judicial trial! Abandoned by the state, the aggrieved rarely approach the police. Bringing their plaints to the militants for justice, sometimes through the vernacular media, is not uncommon.
The armed forces of the Union- over 40 battalions, twice the size of the state police, are the mainstay of counterinsurgency. They invoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and claim and receive impunity for their acts of violence. The culture of impunity from judicial scrutiny in which the Army operates has infected even the state police. The rule of law and due process of justice have been tossed to the winds. Justice K N Saikia Commission on “secret killings” by the security forces and their cohorts in Assam, in its report, has rightly rooted such ‘extra-judicial’ killings to such an entrenched culture of impunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The uninterrupted fast by an young woman, Irom Sharmila for the last over 12 years and the march by the naked women on the streets of Imphal seeking justice for the victims of unprovoked killings and rapes by the security forces could not stir the conscience of the government. The present mode of counterinsurgency has corrupted and degraded the minutiae of everyday life. The people and the state of Manipur cannot be redeemed so long the Union government protects its errant security personnel with the shield of impunity and strips the people of their fundamental rights to life and dignity.
Hon’bl Sir, people of Manipur are expecting from you a forceful language for the rule of law and justice.
R N Ravi
(R N Ravi is a retired special director, Intelligence Bureau)