National

A shot in the arm for Manipur’s intrepid women

Relentless fight: The country has seen umpteen protests seeking the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. This file photo shows a protest in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

September 8 was the grim anniversary of the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (AFSPA) in Manipur in 1980. Allegations of extra-judicial excesses and killings by security forces have persisted since then.

The Supreme Court, which is hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition, seeking a probe into as many as 1,528 cases of extra-judicial killings that allegedly took place in Manipur between 1979 to 2012 under the contentious Act, on July 14, 2017, constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and ordered the framing of chargesheets in a time-bound manner against Army and police officers involved in the encounters.

Quest for truth

Renu Takhellambam, president, Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM), told The Hindu, “We joined hands to find out the truth about the deaths of our husbands, brothers and fathers. The Supreme Court’s direction to the CBI to file chargesheets in the deaths of most of the 1,528 persons has vindicated us.” Wives of men who died in alleged extra-judicial violence formed the EEVFAM on July 11, 2009.

Ms. Takhellambam recounted, “On that fateful morning of April 7, 2007, my husband, Mung Hangzo, was proceeding towards Imphal in a scooter with two friends. On seeing a police team, a common sight in those days in insurgency-afflicted Manipur, which caused fear of harassment and delays, they swerved to take a detour through a village road.”

Eyewitness accounts said the police team chasing the scooter overtook them. “This was not far from where we lived. I heard the gunshots. The police later said in the FIR that my husband and his two friends hurled a hand grenade at the police party. But nobody heard a grenade blast. They didn’t find it [the grenade] also. This is just one of the cases of fake encounters now pending before the Supreme Court,” she said.

Her only child, a son, was 11 months old at the time. Today, he is a brilliant student in Class 7, and takes a keen interest in sports. “Mercifully, he does not ask much about his father now,” Ms. Takhellambam said.

‘More cases exist’

Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of the NGO Human Rights Alert (HRA), said, “We have reason to fear that at least 200 more cases of custodial killings exist.” The HRA published ‘Manipur in the Shadow of AFSPA’, a 275-page report documenting extra-judicial killings in the State, in 2010.

My husband did not call for a long time, so I was worried. That night, there was a report in the media about an encounter: Edina Yaikhom, EEVFAM general secretary

My husband did not call for a long time, so I was worried. That night, there was a report in the media about an encounter: Edina Yaikhom, EEVFAM general secretary  

 

Eight skeletons were found in the heart of Imphal city by construction workers digging pits in December 2014. State and Central forces had camped at this spot in the recent past at the time. The Okram Ibobi-led State government had said the case would be handed over to the CBI or the National Investigation Agency (NIA), but this did not happen. Some of the victims may have been women, since ear-rings and ornaments were found with the skeletons.

A police whistleblower, T. Herojit, has stated publicly that he had killed about 150 persons “on orders from the higher-ups.” More recently, Lieutenant Colonel Dharamvir Singh of 3 Corps Intelligence Unit, in his July 2018 affidavit to the Manipur High Court, stated that five alleged Manipuri militants had been killed in fake encounters.

Living in penury

Edina Yaikhom, general secretary, EEVFAM, said, “Almost all widows are living in unspeakable poverty in far-flung areas. Most of the slain men were sole breadwinners. The widows are not even able to send children to schools. Many of them are eking out a living by selling a basket or two of vegetables, or as unskilled daily wage labourers.”

She said: “We have heard of widow pension of ₹200 each per month and some other benefits, but widows have been unable to get any benefits because the forms are not given to us on various pretexts. We have been branded as widows of terrorists who took up arms against the country.”

Several widows allege that they were urged to withdraw court cases in return for employment and monetary settlements. Salina Memcha, a middle-aged Muslim widow, said at a public meeting in June, “I refused their proposal. Then, one night, security personnel raided my house. They found nothing though they ransacked it for hours. It was a threat. I hope the CBI files the chargesheet quickly.” She alleged that her husband, Mohammad Faziruddin, while having dinner at their home in Kwata in the Bishnupur district on January 21, 2010, was dragged out, “tortured for a long time”, and shot dead in an encounter killing.

Harrowing tale

Many such accounts are shared. Ms. Yaikhom alleged, “On the morning of January 21, 2009, my husband, Anand Ningthoujam, left home. He did not call for a long time, which was not his habit, so I was worried. That night, there was a report in the media that three insurgents of the Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup had been gunned down in an encounter at Makhan village in Senapati district by personnel of the 16 Assam Rifles and the Imphal West District police. Officials claimed to have recovered one Chinese hand grenade and one AK47 rifle from the bodies.”

The police said that my husband and his two friends hurled a grenade at them. Nobody heard any blast. They did not find the grenade either: Renu Takhellambam, EEVFAM president

The police said that my husband and his two friends hurled a grenade at them. Nobody heard any blast. They did not find the grenade either: Renu Takhellambam, EEVFAM president  

 

She added, “However, there were protests since my husband was innocent and had no link with any insurgency group. We refused to claim the body. We submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Okram Ibobi with copies to other authorities. For four days, my husband’s body remained unclaimed.”

Then, Ms. Yaikhom said, “Our MLA, N. Bijoy, approached me with the appeal to perform the last rites since the body was in a mortuary. He also promised to unearth the truth and arrange for a government job for me. My family and other locals eventually claimed my husband’s body for cremation. It was the last time we heard from the MLA.”

The Yaikoms’ son and daughter, now in Classes 9 and 8 respectively, were aged 5 and 3 when they lost their father. “Initially, they used to ask me frequently when their father would return. They used to point their fingers at me [imitating a policeman pointing a gun], saying they would take revenge,” their mother recalls in a choked voice. “I am glad now that the image of their father has faded [from their minds], and they have come to terms [with his death].”

Some widows and bereaved families received monetary solatium on the orders of the High Court and the Supreme Court for the “mental torture” they had undergone. But no official has been arrested so far.

Led by women

The investigation led by the Supreme Court is a credit to the intrepid women of Manipur, who revolted against the colonial British government’s injustices in 1904 and 1939, and took up cudgels again to check the Army’s excesses.

At the start of this movement for justice, they confronted an Army column at Maibam Leikai in Imphal on December 29, 1980, and ‘rescued’ Ibomcha Lourembam, an alleged victim of custodial torture; the charge on which he was arrested was not made known.

No immunity

In a far-reaching 85-page July 2016 judgment that set a judicial precedent, a Bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and U.U. Lalit ripped open the cloak of immunity provided by the AFSPA, declaring that “there is no concept of absolute immunity from trial by a criminal court” if an Army man committed an offence.

On July 2, 2018, the Supreme Court urged the National Human Rights Commission to be “actively involved” in the ongoing probe. The alleged extra-judicial killings and fake encounters by the Army, the Assam Rifles personnel and the police in Manipur “cannot be tolerated”, the Supreme Court said.


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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 7:51:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/a-shot-in-the-arm-for-manipurs-intrepid-women/article24904078.ece

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