Courtesy: Al Jazeera
Imphal, Jul 24 : Just a few kilometres away from a bus stop in Malom, the infamous site where Indian paramilitary forces allegedly shot dead 10 civilians in 2000, about 100 women gather in a hall.
It’s a wet monsoon morning in Manipur, a picturesque North Eastern Indian State that shares a long, forested border with Myanmar and has been battling armed insurgencies for decades.
Opposite the hall where the women congregate, a temple for the followers of Sanamahism, an ancient indigenous religion, emerges like an island amid puddles of stagnant water.
Many women have come dressed in orange and white, traditional colours of mourning. Some clutch large portraits of their sons, fathers and brothers – men they claim were killed in cold blood in fake “encounters” by the Manipur police and security forces. The women are observing the seventh anniversary of coming together. They call themselves the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM).
They petitioned the Supreme Court in 2012 to set up a special investigation team to examine what they claim are extrajudicial killings of their loved ones. They say the police refused to lodge complaints of their deaths, as a result of which, no investigation or prosecution has ever taken place.
A generous basket of flowers awaits the women. Lilly, lotus, marigold flowers for the men in the framed photos. The women line up, one by one, clenching their fists, holding back tears as they await their turn to make their offerings. One woman breaks down in loud, inconsolable sobs. She’s whisked away and comforted by another, Nongmaithem Neena, a young widow whose husband disappeared after lunch in 2008. He appeared on the 9 pm news bulletin as a corpse.
Nongmaithem Neena is raising two children on her own after her husband was killed. On July 8, the women won a quiet victory when the Court issued a stern interim ruling in the case, asking for details of 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings between May 1979 and May 2012 by the Manipur police and armed forces.
The Court also said“the use of excessive force or retaliatory force” by the police or armed forces is not permissible, and that allegations of excessive force resulting in casualties must be thoroughly looked into. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” says Yaikhom Edina, whose taxi-driver husband was allegedly killed in a fake encounter in January 2009. “We are hopeful that we’ll succeed in bringing to an end the special powers enjoyed by armed forces in our State.”
Sense of vindication
The Manipur Government estimates that nearly 30 groups that aim to secede the State from India are currently active. Parts of the State have been declared “disturbed” under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958. It grants sweeping powers to armed forces to make arrests without warrants on “reasonable suspicion”. They are authorised to shoot or use force against civilians – even if it results in deaths – for “the maintenance of public order”.
The entire State was brought under the act in 1980 until 2004, when it was removed from seven constituencies in the State, but remained in place elsewhere. Human rights activists have linked the act to extrajudicial killings, torture, and even rape of rebels and civilians. In its 85-page ruling on July 8, the Supreme Court referred to a 2013 commission it had appointed to investigate six cases of the 1,528 alleged extrajudicial killings in Manipur.
In all cases, the commission found that either the encounter was not genuine or that there had been an excessive use of force. The police and armed forces maintain the encounters were genuine. This, observed the Court, “put us on the right track and has convinced us that the allegations made by the petitioners cannot be summarily rubbished”.
For Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, which was the co-petitioner in the case, this is a significant moment. “The Supreme Court has acknowledged that it is wrong to kill innocent people, even in the name of counter-insurgency.” Kongkham Gangarani, a visually impaired widow heard the news of the Court ruling on the radio. Her husband, a taxi driver, was allegedly killed by a police commando in 2008 on suspicion being an insurgent. “I am very happy with this. We think we will get justice now and be able to prove that my husband was not an underground man,” Gangarani told Al Jazeera. Kongkham Gangarani, who is blind, does all the housework after she lost her husband in 2008. Her elder son Lamjingkhomba, a lanky, bashful teenager is happy, too. Last year he took part in a child rights campaign at the United Nations in New York, and spoke about the need to repeal the Act.
“AFSPA has given suffering to some, and also lots of opportunities to some in the form of gallantry awards and promotions for fake encounters,” he says. His mother completes his thoughts on how this might change. “As long as there is solidarity in civil society groups and victims’ families, we can create greater pressure to bring justice. This is a stepping stone. We are hopeful for a stronger final verdict.” Rajat Mitra, a psychologist, has been working with the families on their healing process for three years. “This is a major development socially and psychologically for people in Manipur, besides being a significant legal development. It validates what they’ve been fighting for,” he says.
At the anniversary meet of EEVFAM, there are some fathers and brothers present as well, and they’re cheering the ruling. Singhajit Irom’s sister Sharmila has been protesting against the security Act by fasting for more than 15 years. He is hopeful the Supreme Court ruling will kick-start the process of justice in Manipur. “India is the biggest democracy in the world. If it doesn’t take steps to repeal AFSPA, it will look very bad in front of other countries. Curbing the army in doing excesses is a step in ensuring our right to life,” Sharmila says. Then there is Dee Abonmai, a filmmaker. He is here as a father. He took a bone-rattling journey from Tamenglong district, about 150 kms away, to bring his son’s framed photo to the meeting. His son was allegedly killed in a fake encounter in 2008. “He was innocent. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, the truth will now come out.”
End of impunity ?
Over the years, there have been several calls for the repeal of the Act across India. It has been scrutinised internationally too, with the UN calling for it to be scrapped, and Human Rights Watch arguing the law violates India’s obligations under international human rights law. The Act was removed from the North Eastern State of Tripura in 2015. But it remains in place in Manipur and other North Eastern States. A version of the law is also in place in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In its recent ruling, the Court observed the rule of law and democracy in India would be “in grave danger” if armed forces kill citizens on mere allegation or suspicion that they were enemies.