Manipur insurgencies leave legacy of widows and orphans

For decades Manipur has been wracked by internal conflict. We look at allegations of violence by state forces as they try to contain Manipur's myriad insurgencies and whether a new era of accountability is possible.
Kongkham Gangarani Devi with her children. Security forces killed her husband in March 2008.
Kongkham Gangarani Devi with her children. Security forces killed her husband in March 2008.

IMPHAL, MANIPUR // Kongkham Gangarani Devi, 36, began losing her eyesight a few years before she lost her husband. Now completely blind, she struggles to feed her two children on the 500 rupees (Dh37) provided each month by a local charity and also to deal with the trauma of her loss.

Her husband, Khomkham Deban, was a van driver in the state capital of Imphal. On March 7, 2008, he inadvertently took a job from two men who turned out to be militants with the People's Liberation Army (PLA), a group fighting for Manipur's independence since the mid-1960s.

The police say they tried to stop the van at a checkpoint outside the city, but it sped away. They opened fire, riddling the van with more than 100 bullets and killing everyone inside.

"I have received no support from the government," said Mrs Devi. "If they can't support me, it would be better to just kill me and my children. I can't carry on living like this."

There are widows and orphans in almost every corner of Manipur - lives shattered by decades of brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Eighty-year-old Sarat Singh Loitongbam lost his son, Satish, in May 2009 after he was accused of being a PLA militant.

The Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit stationed in Manipur, say Satish was shot while trying to escape, although a witness has challenged this version of events in court.

"He was taken to a remote spot and shot in cold blood," said Mr Loitongbam, who was a member of the first legislative assembly in Manipur when it gained full statehood in 1972.

As a devout Hindu, he says he will not perform the last rites for his son until the stigma of the allegations against him has been removed. A case in the High Court was due to be completed in 2010, but has been extended several times.

For years, human-rights groups have accused the security forces in Manipur of illegal detentions, torture, rape and unprovoked killings - often of innocent civilians.

Their extreme measures find an easy justification in the fact that the state faces 40 or more different insurgent groups.

Many draw substantial popular support through their demands for independence, but many have degenerated into little more than mafia-style extortion groups, fighting violent turf wars for control of revenue.

Militant attacks are common. The most recent took place on August 1, when a bomb strapped to a motorcycle destroyed a barber's shop in Imphal East district, killing five civilians. The police blamed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah, which wants independence for the Naga tribes of the north-east.

Nonetheless, civil-rights groups say the government response is disproportionate and often driven by criminal motives. Imphal-based Human Rights Alert says security forces killed 524 people in 2008 and 2009, compared with 217 killed by insurgents over the same period.

"Only a handful of those were hard-core insurgents," said Babloo Loitongbam, its director. "Often these killings are just robberies by the police, or they are seeking rewards from their bosses."

He points out that in 2008, when the security forces say they killed 219 people, more Gallantry Awards were handed out by the central government to troops in Manipur than any other state in revolt-wracked India.

"The whole system is geared towards incentivising the security forces to register as many kills as possible," said Dolen Phurailatpam, a lawyer who has represented both suspecteded insurgents and the state in hundreds of cases. "To show they are taking action, the police will make up cases on a daily basis. Until recently, no one had ever been suspended for a wrongful killing."

The event that may finally break this culture of impunity was the killing by police commandos in July 2009 of a former PLA militant, Chongkham Sanjit.

A local photographer caught the incident on film and published the pictures in Delhi-based magazine Tehelka.

For the first time, the policemen involved were suspended and now face an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi. Deaths by security forces fell to 73 in 2010.

In the background to all this violence is the iconic figure of Irom Sharmila, a 39-year-old poet and activist who has been on hunger strike for almost 11 years.

Held under tight security in Imphal's Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital and forcibly fed through a tube in her nose, she is demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, which provides the legal basis for the deployment of armed forces in disturbed areas of India and prevents any prosecution against army personnel without sanction from the central government. Many see AFSPA as encouraging severe violations by the army, such as an infamous case from 2004 when a 32-year-old woman, Manorama Devi, was allegedly raped and murdered by members of the Assam Rifles.

No action has been taken against the accused.

But some rights experts say repealing the act would change nothing, not least because many killings are committed by police who are not covered by AFSPA.

"I can't say this in front of many of my colleagues," said one of the most prominent human-rights defenders in Manipur on condition of anonymity. "But if you repealed AFSPA tomorrow, nothing would change."

With or without AFSPA, any prosecution of a government official - from the army or anywhere else - has to be sanctioned by the central government, he said.

After years of ineffectual attempts by the government to contain so many insurgent organisations within the bounds of the law, the hopes of a peaceful future remain dim.

erandolph@thenational.ae

Published: October 17, 2011 04:00 AM

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