April 2014
#Military , 258 Views
No Justice. No Peace.

Byline: Thomas Fowler
Photographs: Thomas Fowler

Thomas Fowler explores the human impact of AFSPA in conflict torn Manipur.

This is what an occupation feels like. Flying into Manipur recalls flying into Srinagar, another state that falls under India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, and another area where some locals make the case that they ought not be a part of the Indian Union.

But both of these places remind me of nothing more than my first – and likely last – trip to Israel, and specifically my afternoon in the Golan Heights; Israeli-occupied Syria. Government agents ask questions at the border. Bags are searched, and then searched again. The same agents keep tabs on you, in Imphal going so far as to call the local contact that I’d been required to give to ask about my movements and intentions. I had lied to those agents about why I was here. Had I not, they likely would never have let me in.

But mostly, it’s all the guns. New guns and old; black, brown, grey, and camouflage, their only common characteristic is that they are almost always very large. This might even be a defining tactic of an occupying power; a totalitarian dictatorship tends to operate through plain clothes and handguns, secrets and extortion. Occupiers prefer visibility. Uniforms, checkpoints, and assault weapons: nobody must be allowed to forget who is in charge.

For a history of AF(SP)A, the internet abounds with options. The purpose of this piece is to present the stories of three individuals whose lives have been rocked by abuses carried out with impunity by representatives of the Indian state. To understand these stories, you only need to know this:

AF(SP)A was passed in 1958 to give the Indian armed forces special powers to deal with separatist insurgents. Though it has been applied elsewhere, it is primarily used in Kashmir and India’s Northeast. It has, surely, been used to combat legitimate insurgency, although its constitutional merits are debatable even in those cases. But in the case of Manipur, it has been overwhelmingly deployed with caprice and malice, targeting nonviolent individuals who are ideologically sympathetic to insurgent groups, as well as those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or to have the wrong name.

Under the Act, which has been extended to apply to almost anyone in uniform, state security forces are immune from prosecution for any violence committed against an individual that they suspect of being a member of an insurgent group. There is no burden of proof, only the need for suspicion. Moreover, the Act has been held to be exempt from judicial review by lower courts.

Since 1979, human rights activists have recorded the killing of 1,528  individuals under the Act in Manipur. Countless others have been tortured, beaten, raped, and humiliated. In 2010, India’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a case filed by Human Rights Alert, a local advocacy group, and EEVFAM, the Extra Judicial Victim Families Association. The case alleged that these 1,528 killings by security forces in Manipur were illegal, against illegitimate targets, and represented a pattern of state-sanctioned killing of civilians. The case did not attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the Act when applied to “legitimate” targets. It merely attempted to stop the killing of unarmed innocents by Indian security forces.

A panel was set up by the Court court to investigate six of the 1,528 cases that were submitted. In each of these cases, which were chosen at random, the Commission found that security forces had faked evidence that suggested ties to insurgent groups, a pistol dropped here or a grenade left there. Not one of the murder victims was found to have engaged in any anti-state activities. Nor was one of the security force members sanctioned, tried, or convicted of any crime. Some were given commendations.

Since the Supreme Court  accepted the case, killings have dropped precipitously, from 294 in 2009 to 18 in 2012. Though welcome, this is chilling. It is unlikely that members of Manipur’s diverse security forces – some of whom are paid as little as 4,000 rupees monthly – closely follow the Court. The more likely explanation is that all along, somebody has had the power to say ‘no’. Local activists point to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Chief Minister of Manipur, but we have no way to verify their speculation.

Today, though the killings have slowed, the feeling of occupation has not abated. I was questioned at the border, I was questioned by commandos in the street, I have to lie about my purposes for being here, and – above all – the guns are still everywhere.

AK47s, INSAS rifles, and, for the low ranking, even relics from the second world war. The array of guns is matched only by the array of police, soldiers, and paramilitaries.  Because in Imphal, we are constantly under the “protection” – as I have been repeatedly reminded – of a diverse array of army units, Manipur state police, Manipur state police Commando units, Imphal City Police, the semi-professional and underpaid Village Defense Force, and a number of paramilitary groups.

The unwieldy phrase “security forces” is born of this cornucopia of militarization. Most of the forces wear no visible badge, name, or rank. Though some wear khaki and others sport camo, the only sure way to distinguish between them, local activists tell me, is the type of hat they wear and the kind of assault weapon they carry.

The guns show no sign of leaving, and Manipuris are waiting in a nervous calm. The actions to be taken by the Supreme Court may determine the course of their lives when the eyes of judiciary are no longer shining on this remote corner of India, tucked along the Burmese border. But don’t worry. I’ve been assured that it’s all for my protection.

For the uninitiated, it is not the violence of Manipur’s darkest days that is the most shocking. You can read about that in the press. What shocks is the absolute impunity with which that violence is wrought.

Watching AFSPA 1958, a documentary by Bachaspatimayum Sanzu, the viewer is suddenly jarred when, in the midst of witnessing security forces brutally beating peaceful demonstrators, two other video cameras come into view. We tend to forget that images on the screen were captured by an equally intrusive camera, and so the two that come into the frame, manned by local media, remind us that these security forces, mindless of the lenses, are conducting their campaign of ruthless suppression without even a hint of fear for consequence.

This is because, with one or two notable exceptions, security forces in Manipur simply aren’t prosecuted for violence, no matter how overwhelming the evidence of their misconduct.

And the evidence is often staggering. Take the case of Mohammad Azad Khan, a fourteen year-old boy killed by four gunshots out of the 65 rounds fired from heavy weapons, including AK-47s, by about 20 security forces on March 4th, 2009.

Azad was a quiet, studious child, who wanted to become a doctor. He was less given to playing sports or watching films than to reading newspapers. Which was what he was doing – sitting on a bench in front of his family’s Phabokchau village home, about 30 kilometers outside of Imphal – when nearly two dozen security forces, Manipur State Police Commandos and members of the Assam Rifles, dragged him from his home. Manipur Commandos are frequently seen conducting joint operations with the Assam Rifles; the association brings them under the protective banner of AF(SP)A, a distinction not otherwise granted to police.

The prominence of the Assam Rifles in Manipur – and various other Indian paramilitary groups – is perhaps telling. The Rifles, who report to the Ministry of Home Affairs  and exist outside of the mainstream Defense Ministry chain of command, are the descendent of a paramilitary police force formed by the British colonial administration in the early 1800s.

The role of the force was to guard British settlements against raids by tribes who resented their colonial presence.  In some ways, little has changed. A Wikileaks cable has revealed that former Manipur governor Shivinder Singh Sidhu admitted to American diplomats that the Assam Rifles were particularly egregious perpetrators of human rights violations. The cable goes on to say that “[t]he overwhelming presence of military,  paramilitary and police officers contributed to the impression  that Imphal was under military occupation.  Several Manipuris argued that they had greater rights under the British Raj than under the present federation.”

This impression seems apt as I sit in front of Azad’s family’s home. Azad’s father, Mohammed Wahid Ali, remains calm and purposeful as he narrates his story to me. He sits in a chair, facing the house. I sit on the bench from which his son was dragged to his death five years ago.

Mr Ali has narrated the story enough times that it has become a mechanical exercise. The more times he can tell it, he seems to hope, the more likely it is that some justice will be served.

“The Assam Rifles and the Manipur police commandos came. … They said ‘are you Azad?” When he told them he was, Mr Ali recounts, they listed the crimes of which he was suspected. Mr Ali tried to stop the security forces. “Whatever you have tell him, you can tell me. I am the father.”

The forces responded with a gun butt to Mr Ali’s face, breaking a tooth. They then shut the family inside their house, locking the door from the outside. The police commandos then dragged Azad about 20 meters behind the house into an open paddy field.  They asked no questions and, according to his family and neighbours who witness the act, Azad offered no resistance. He was shot four times, while other officers laid fire around the area to send witnesses back to their homes. His family looked on through a small square window in the back of their house.

Even in cases where security forces kill actual insurgents, and surely many victims of state violence are somehow engaged in anti-state activities, AF(SP)A removes accountability for the security forces and leaves insurgents with no recourse to due process.

But in Azad’s case, there is no ambiguity as to his innocence. The case of this child is one of six that have been reviewed by a Supreme Court -appointed Commission. The Commission lists an abundance of protocol deviations on the part of security forces and notes “serious doubt as to the version put forth by the security agency”, which suggests that Azad fled from the house upon their approach and fired in their direction, concluding that the incident was “not an encounter.”

Rather, it seems that Azad was killed for having the wrong name. A thirty-five year-old senior leader of an insurgent group, the People’s United Liberation Front, shared the name Mohammad Azad Khan. It is hard to imagine that two dozen security forces legitimately believed a fourteen year-old boy to be the chairman of revolutionary armed insurgent outfit. It is much less difficult to imagine that the forces, covetous of the cash bonus that comes with gallantry awards distributed for killing insurgents, simply didn’t care. Indeed, human rights activists suggest a pattern in which families borrow money to secure police posts for their sons through bribery. Gallantry awards are one of the few means they have to repay those loans.

Mr Ali, was less concerned about money when I asked him if he’d received any compensation from the state. “Even if the government gives us five crores or fifty crores, that won’t bring back my son. The only thing we want is justice.”

“This was not a mistake.” Mr Ali said. “Here is a perpetual case of mistakes. A mistake can happen only once. But in Manipur’s case it has become perpetual and habitual. It has to be stopped. [A guilty] verdict has to come to those who commit a crime. … In Manipur, no [guilty] verdict has been given to any of the security forces. Once you give a verdict to the perpetrators… they will understand that they can no longer get away with it.”

As we leave, I notice a camouflage t-shirt hanging from a laundry line, and ask about it. It belongs to a cousin, who stays in Azad Khan’s joint family. He is a member of the Village Defense Force, the lowest run on Manipur’s paramilitary ladder. They don’t like it. But there are very few jobs in Manipur. What can you do?

Renu Takhellambam heard gunshots in the distance on Good Friday morning, April 6 2007. It was also the morning of her two-year wedding anniversary. She didn’t know it was the sound of a Manipur State Police Commando executing her husband, Thangkhenmung Hangzo, known to friends as Mung.

Renu was at home when the bullets were fired, caring for their eleven month-old son and preparing for church. Born Meitei Hindu, Renu’s marriage to Mung, a tribal Christian, had left her isolated from her family, who opposed the union. Mung, riding a motorcycle along with two friends, returned from the market where he had gone to buy film so that they could commemorate the day. As Mung sped away from market, Police Commandos shouted after the bike to stop.

What happened next is unclear. Police reports indicate that the bike sped off, tossing grenades into a ditch at the side of road. The story Renu conveyed to me, which has been corroborated by eyewitnesses in independent reports, is different.

Renu says that one of Mung’s friends was carrying Spazmo-Proxyvon tablets (the brand name of dicycloverine), an antispasmodic pharmaceutical drug that, though its popularity is now on the wane, has long been an abused substance in Manipur. It was these tablets, wrapped in a handkerchief, not a grenade, that he tossed in the ditch, perhaps fearing one of the city’s all too common friskings. It is unclear whether the failure to stop was due to the tablets, because Mung simply didn’t hear the police in the crowded market, or if there was another reason that only those three men knew.

But police responded with deadly force, fatally shooting the bike’s rear rider and causing the bike to go into a skid. Mung and his friend immediately surrendered to the police who, on a crowded market street in front of numerous witnesses, then beat and humiliated the men before executing each with a single bullet to the head.

Renu Takhellambam sits behind a desk at Human Rights Alert, which works closely with EEVFAM, the organisation of Manipuri widows and mothers of men killed by security forces.

In the official police version, the men were dangerous terrorists who fled while hurling grenades behind them. Some might wonder how the police, who apparently needed 65 rounds to subdue an unarmed fourteen year-old student in the case of Azad Khan, now had the sharpshooting expertise to deliver multiple headshots in the midst of high speed pursuit. Others might ask why, according to witness reports, those same grenades were collected by police, who handled them casually, at the scene of the crime. If the police had reason to fear the grenades that were ostensibly hurled by Mung, normal procedure would require explosive experts to handle the unexploded ordinance. They might also ask why, if the alleged Good Friday terrorists were so dangerous, they decided to toss grenades at the police wrapped in a handkerchief. Presumably, terrorists might have been aware that grenades work best when the pin is pulled before the grenade is thrown.

Though such affiliation seems unlikely, we cannot categorically state that Mung had no links to any insurgent groups. We can, however, unequivocally state, based on numerous witness accounts, that Mung and his companion were unarmed and fully cooperating with the police when they were killed.

Krishna Das, the Manipur Police Commando who shot and killed Thangkhenmung Hangzo, later received a gallantry award for killing insurgents. He has not been subject to any disciplinary action regarding the killing.

In the wake of Mung’s killing Renu came together with other widows and mothers of killed Manipuris to form EEVFAM, the Extra Judicial Victim Families Association, that, in cooperation with Human Rights Alert and the Human Rights Law Network, filed the public interest litigation that has finally slowed killings in Manipur.  She is now president of the organization. “I realized,” she told me, “that I am not the only widow that is fighting the struggle. There are many widows. … [A]ll are young. There are fifty members in the organization and [almost all] of them are young widows.”

But like in mainland India, life for a widow is not easy. Because of her interfaith marriage, Renu has been shunned by her family and isn’t welcome back in their home. The situation is also tense in the home of her in-laws, who are already supporting a family of ten siblings.

Even meeting for the purpose of our interview was a logistical challenge. Imphal is a small town, and people talk. The challenges faced by any widow in India are compounded when she is young and attractive. The café in my hotel was out, as we might be seen together. Her home was never an option. The Human Rights Alert office, where we had planned to meet, was closed for the day, but we eventually figured out a way in. Renu’s activity with EEVFAM puts her in the public eye, and her in-laws are concerned by her behaviour, worrying that she might be seen “out flirting with men.”

And so Renu has thrown herself into her church, and into EEVFAM, which acts as a hybrid advocacy organization, group saving association, and support group for widows and mothers who have lost their husbands and sons to state violence. “We’re always laughing and joking,” Renu tells me, chuckling herself before continuing, “but sometimes, we don’t want to live.”

“I think I’m very strong now,” she concludes. “I’m very happy that we’re coming out. We have to fight for justice together. … By the grace of god, I will be patient and strong.”

If you are a human rights activist in Manipur, the odds are good that someone is listening to your phone conversations. Someone is the key word here; given the web of military, police, and intelligence agencies active in the state, the number of potential eavesdroppers is vast. HRA director, Babloo Loitongbam – the leading light of Manipur’s principled fight against human rights abuses and a supremely eloquent man who slips into a professorial role with ease – simply laughed when I asked him if his phones were tapped.

“Of course,” he finally responded. And then he moved on to more important matters. Manipuri human rights activists have no way to prove these allegations. They simply observe that police visits and questioning follow their phone conversations with far more regularity and topicality than chance would seem to dictate. Many activists who work on conflict resolution often simply have to communicate with insurgent representatives; it’s their job. But such conversations make them a target for questions from security forces.

And often, they don’t ask nicely. Although many of the activities that constitute torture could be found illegal under Indian law, it is not explicitly banned by the Republic of India. India signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture nearly two decades ago, but has yet to ratify it.

This is linked to the stalling of numerous anti-torture bills. The most recent, which passed the Lok Sabha, was cheekily referred to as a “torture facilitation bill” by many civil society actors, but floundered after recommendations in the Raj Sabha that it be strengthened. But any discussion of torture’s legality is largely irrelevant to the practice of intelligence gathering in Manipur, where the blanket immunity conferred under AF(SP)A has rendered moot the finer points of jurisprudence.

This is the reality: If security forces in Manipur think there’s a chance you know something about an insurgent group, they are likely to detain and possibly torture you. And though my sample size is small, there seems to be an inverse correlation between your international visibility and English language skills and your likelihood of being tortured.

To oppose arbitrary arrest and torture is not to suggest that all of those who are arrested and tortured are innocent. One human rights activist, who we will call Suhrid to protect his safety, told me that he’s been arrested and tortured more times than he can count. His group, though non-violent, is linked to a larger insurgent group and shares their ideology of Manipuri autonomy. This makes him a target. Through the course of our conversation, I pressed Suhrid on whether he had ever carried weapons or trafficked arms, and his response was resolute and unequivocal: “I never handle guns.”

Shortly before I left, however, he let something slip: over the past several years, he has burned about half a dozen government buildings to the ground. “Always at night”, he assured me. The buildings were empty. But despite countless rounds of torture, he’s never shared this fact with his interrogators.

Jiten Yumnam, who now primarily works as an environmental activist in Manipur with the Centre for Research Advocacy, Manipur, was detained by Manipur State police in 2009. He was on his way to Delhi for a round of political activism related to a particularly blatant fake encounter case that had been publicised by Tehelka.

“They detained me at the airport,” Jiten recounts. “I was taken to the commando headquarters and kept incommunicado. My friends and family were asking for my whereabouts but … the first day was full of torture. Electric shocks, beatings, guns to my head. They threatened to kill me.”

Jiten tells me his story by candlelight. In the constant interplay between development and underdevelopment in Manipur, he has been without electricity for weeks due to construction of an Asian Development Bank backed road-widening project. The project will be incorporated into a forthcoming Trans-Asian Highway Network, which will link Singapore to Istanbul, passing through the heart of Imphal. The flickering candles and the peaceful Imphal back alley belie the intensity of Jiten’s words:

“I was detained for four months. The [second] day, they revealed [to my family and the media] that I had been arrested. … They charged me, saying that I was a member of the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), an underground group operating here.” The RPF is the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army, which is designated as a terrorist group by the Indian government.  “Under the National Security Act, you can be held for one year without charge.”

“During the torture, they said ‘you have to tell us that you’re a member of [the RPF].’ I said ‘I’m not.’ And there was a lot more brutality after that…. I think many people were forced to confess. Those who were unwilling to confess were subjected to extreme forms of torture, and I think many people lost their lives.”

Though Jiten was eventually released and the charges dropped, the detention and torture has left him physically and emotionally jarred: “After that incident I have a lot more problem in recalling names and remembering things. I’m not saying I used to have a very sharp memory,” Jiten laughs, “but [now] it doesn’t come very fast in my mind.  I think that’s one of the biggest impacts of nine or ten rounds [of electrocution].

But Jiten says that his biggest fear is that he’s now on the radar of security forces, “Even though we were released and the charges were dropped, one of the biggest concerns that remains with us is that our records are everywhere; with the army, with the police, with intelligence. … Which means that if anything happens, they can come looking.”

And they have: “ [T]hat happened again last year. I was called to the police headquarters. For no reason. No legal process was there. … One of the police commandos came to my home.

“I went with a lawyer. [But if I didn’t go] they might come again and threatened me. There might again be a threat to my life. Safety is still the biggest concern of everyone who works on human rights. Everyone is under threat.”

The problem of violence in Manipur is beguilingly complex. We have not attempted here to unpack its roots and causes, but merely to present the experiences of several individuals who have suffered at the hands of the state of Manipur, the Indian armed forces, and paramilitary groups reporting to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

To fully explore the causes of violence would require an examination of the terms of Manipur’s accession to the Indian Union and an understanding of decades of separatist sentiment that only crossed into large-scale violence in the 1970s. It would demand a keen appreciation of the delicate and unending geopolitical dance between India and China and an exploration of Manipur’s pivotal role as a gateway between India, China, and Southeast Asia, a fact we are reminded of as the Trans-Asian Highway makes the once-isolated region newly relevant.

Finally, we don’t wish to give the impression that our focus on state abuses should be taken to exculpate insurgent groups. Some renounce violence. Others actively support it. Many extort funds from local business leaders. And because political leaders are often business leaders, the relationship between insurgent groups and those who are trying to police them is not always clear.

Moreover, insurgent groups have carried out shocking campaigns of moral policing, going after amorous young couples, school girls wearing anything other than traditional Manipuri dress, and even shooting heroin addicts in the legs as a means of discouraging drug use. Indeed, two members of the Assam Rifles were killed and six more injured in a bomb blast on August 29th, the day after I left Imphal. The Manipur People’s Army, an insurgent group, claimed responsibility.

Members of Azad Khan’s joint family outside their house.