Skulls to tell the truth: Who is prepared to listen and act?

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By Deben Bachaspatimayum

It seems the market development plans of the present Govt has once again stumbled over another treasure chest that can change fortunes. It is not another Gold chest but the eight unidentified skulls in the erstwhile Tombisana High School campus discovered on the 25th December, 2014, the day when the world was observing the Birth of Jesus Christ. These skulls are there to tell the truth which remained buried and unheard for so long. The truth of these skulls will demand of the Govt justice due to them and healing for their traumatized surviving families. And it is in responding to these demands of unidentified remains of the deaths by following due legal, political, cultural and social processes, authentically and appropriately that the present Govt both at the state and centre can transform the culture of conflict, institutionalized violence and resultant painful memories of the past into one of a vibrant and progressive multicultural democratic society and systems in the state.

This opportunity of correcting historical wrongs, which has been acknowledged by former the former Union Home Secretary, GK Pillai, seems to have come in our hands by providence not by any human designs. The truth existed only to be revealed on that day. By all media reports available and Govt’s plan for the site, the discovery of the eight human skulls not older than 17-40 years (according to preliminary experts’ opinion as reported in the Newspapers) coincided with the period when the entire territory of the state came to be declared as ‘disturbed area’ and AFSPA 1958 has been kept enforced as part of governance and civil administration. Over 10,000, mostly civilians, have been reportedly killed during this period excluding those many who never returned home after they were picked up. As per records, the violent armed conflicts began from 1980 between the state security forces comprising of both military and paramilitary forces mostly belonging to diverse linguistic, cultural and racial backgrounds from rest of India and various armed groups both in the valley and hills districts belong to different indigenous communities in the state. The war is still on but if the accidental discovery of the eight skulls in an erstwhile educational institute facing the state’s highest decision making institution (the Old Manipur Legislative Assembly campus) is any indication it seems to beckon us like the white flag in the battlefield to retreat, reflect and re-strategize future course of engagements based on the ground realities. However, the response of the State Govt seems to indicate lack of seriousness by all measures in the matter to take any advantage for a change.

Though the state police have, dutifully, registered a case at Heingang PS but did nothing to get the excavation works on the site stopped for proper investigations until AMSU, a student body forced cease work at the site on 30th Dec 2014. This was five full days after the discovery! The fact that Govt allowed the further excavation works to go on continuously for 5 more days after the skulls were discovered makes the elected Govt culpable as per the law and party to the possible crime which resulted into the discovery of the skeletons. By law, all the present and future plans for developing the site where the skulls were accidentally discovered must come to a complete halt and an appropriate investigating State authority should have secured the site under its custody and kept it out of access by all Govt, State and Non-govt parties but nothing of that seems to have happened even after one whole week till 30th Dec 2014. These precious five days also went by in complete absence of judiciaries in the state who could have taken a suo moto case on the incident. A PIL filed to the High Court on 30th Dec 2014 also remained unattended.

Despite all efforts by human rights defenders and civil society groups, the State Human Rights Commission remains death. All the Judges at the State High Court were also reportedly on New Year leaves. All sections of the society including the elected representatives and Govt were in the New Year festivity and Christmas mood when excavation was making extensive progress in the erstwhile Tamphasan H School campus. The timing was good for the work.

Now that eight skulls have surfaced, accidentally, to tell the truth the Govt only has to answer to the people, not by premature speculations but after thorough scientific inquiry on who, when, where from, how and why the skulls were there in the Tombisana HS campus. The Govt has to first establish whether the deaths of these many people were caused with due legal procedures or in subversion of it. Secondly, in either of the cases, establish the identities of the death with their surviving families by using latest forensic technologies. Thirdly, to determine if anyone of the eight skulls or all of them were connected to any one of the registered cases of enforced involuntary disappearances after 1980. And lastly, according to the findings, take up such appropriate political and legal actions as responsible and representative government of the people. But even before taking up any such credible step it also behoves well for the Govt to show some solidarity with by sharing the pains of those families who have been reporting involuntary enforced disappearance of their near and dear ones both in the hills and valley during the past few years along with the routine New Year greetings.

All the above may be mere wish-list of concerned citizens and it may not even reach the ears of our Govt. What remains for sure is that the skulls are there where-ever they are kept to speak the TRUTH to the experts. But what may concern any responsible and law abiding citizen in the state is whether the experts, if at all some established and credible ones are at work, would be allowed to reveal the truth for public consumption by the elected Govt! It is here the integrity and credibility of the elected Govt in Manipur and the Central Govt is at stake and will be subjected to litmus test especially when the State, by the Constitution is duty-bound to protect life and property of its citizens unless one is proven guilty of homicide or any other such crimes against humanity. Both the State bodies; at the state and the centre have to take critical choice in this matter. The choices are two. One is to let the people know the truth as revealed by the skulls and take legal actions against those responsible for the crime. Or. Two, conceal the facts and the truth about the matter for the fear of further disturbing internal / national security in the politically sensitive state.

The choice is clearly between the people and military. If the state and central government considers, as has been the case so far till date since the merger in 1949, military /security forces only to be trusted for national security in Manipur it will conceal the truth by tempering all evidences. And if by the recent change in national politics both the elected government at the state and centre decide to trust the people over the security forces for the India’s national security the truth will be out in and justice will be done, deeply held trauma and historical pains will begin to be assuaged, and credibility and accountability of the Indian state will be improved. However, going by the past trends, the state Govt is likely to choose for the first option but if changing time favours the second choice, 2015 can prove to be a watershed moment for social transformation in the history of the State. The second option is likely choice for present state Govt only if it is bold enough to trust its own strength of being the most stable Govt and honest enough to be accountable to the people more important than the loyalty to the Central Govt, although, it is indeed the hardest choice.

In the unlikelihood of opting for the harder choice, there can be a third option for the Govt which may be easier and quite adept to have developed mastery. This is to do anything to weaken agitating civil society groups demanding for justice. It requires inviting the agitating groups one by one, divide them and buy them off to their favour or bully them by intimidations or isolate them (if one is too extreme or too hard to bend) by putting them behind the bars on any flimsy grounds for years and weaken them from inside while keeping alive like Sharmila. Interestingly, this tactic has worked well with the people in Manipur as they are deeply divided within community and groups, suspicious of one another, competing leaderships with deep distrusts and often impulsively reactive to situations and indulge in mob violence, and especially when public memory is also often short-lived. In such situation often times people’s movement easily get diverted to side tracts from the main issue as there are many leaders. For instance, ILP movement was derailed for sometime by Victoria factor and Sharmila’s historical movement by Coutinho factor for the few years. The state always wins the game without having to deliver the justice people hunger for restoration of human dignity! Furthermore, since the state alone has the right to use violence by established international laws and conventions, it is easy and right for any Govt to arm itself tooth to nail and use violence against its own people who use violence against the state and also justify the same. State’s right to armed and use violence cannot be questioned by any non-state group within the state except by an intervention at the legislation and judiciary. But why the legislatures and judiciaries do not/ cannot work in Manipur to make the state less violent and more people centered?

And yet, the eight skulls, standing together, are asking to hear them out the unheard stories of crimes committed upon them and their families as the state alone can, is capable of and duty bound to listen to the grievances of its citizens on issue of fundamental violation of human rights, unless by law the state with due procedures declares someone ‘outlaw’. The question is: Is the state Govt of Manipur ready to listen to them and let the people know the truth in toto and take up concrete legal and social measures to deliver restorative justice to the victim families? Equally critical is also the question to civil society groups and human rights defenders in the state whether they will be able to get the state deliver justice to the victim family – which may prove to be a historical and transformative moment for the state by engaging the state consistently as one collective and using appropriate legal, social and political means without resorting to violence that could weaken the struggles for human rights in this undeclared war field. Even as these questions will continue to trouble us it may be worthwhile to take few observations on the suspected war crime sites without declared war.

Discovery of eight skulls right across the State Legislative Assembly building inside the campus of an educational institute also tells upon the character of consecutive Governments that we only elected to rule and the nature of the state of Manipur over the past three-four decades which may have serious social and political implications. However, going by the version of the state home minister, if the Govt is able to prove with authentic records; facts and figures of the place once having been a hospital mortuary and no. of death bodies voluntarily or with family consent, dumped at the site, it can put at rest all the implications of discovering the eight unidentified skulls. Until such time the Govt proves it this way, the location of the suspected homicidal war crime site close to law making institute of a established democratic society, irrespective of whether the criminals were state or non state actors, undoubtedly show the weakness and subjugation of civil authority to either the military under AFSPA 1958 or non-state groups over the years to commit any crimes they wanted under their nose. It further raises more fundamental questions.

One may like to ask the role of elected Government in the undeclared internal war between the state armed forces and non-state armed groups in Manipur. Is the Govt of Manipur facilitating war or peace in Manipur when it cannot exercise its power over the military under AFSPA 1958 to investigate and prevent the reported cases of enforced involuntary disappearance of its own people and encourage proven extra-judicial killings of innocent people in the state over the last three decades? Why does the Govt of Manipur religiously and obediently so have to extend the “Disturbed Area Act” year after year to use security forces under the Act on whom they have no control? Whose securities are at stake in Manipur: the Govt security forces who have to operate in alien racial and cultural region; the elected leaders and the political class; the contractors and business communities who finance the political class; or the majority of common people on the streets, farmers and the poor in the rural areas? Who is benefitting most out of the sustained disturbed conditions and persistent presence of army under AFSPA with extra-judicial powers in the state?

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