The recent “confession” of Herojit Singh, a head constable with the Manipur Police who is now under suspension, has opened a can of worms for the state administration. Encounters, an integral part of counter-insurgency operations, are but a way of life in Manipur, riddled with conflict for 60 years.
There are officially 34 banned militant groups, known in local parlance as the UG groups (underground groups) — and unofficially over 60 groups — which function in Manipur’s valley and hill areas. Of these, the tribal hill groups — the biggest of which is the NSCN(IM) — are in some form of an agreement with the government of India. The NSCN(IM) recently signed a peace pact and has been under a ceasefire agreement for 16 years. The Kuki groups, around 20 of them, have signed Suspension of Operation agreements with the government.
This leaves the valley groups, or the Meitei groups, who have shifted base across the border to Myanmar.
While most counter-insurgency operations have traditionally been carried out by the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles in collaboration with the Manipur Police, as is mandatory under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, over the years it’s the Manipuri commando who has taken a more active role in these operations. To strengthen these counter-insurgency operations, a small force of one platoon of CDOs or commandos was set up in 1981-82 from among the personnel of the Manipur Rifles, the armed police wing of the Manipur Police. They were given special training in weapons and tactics, unarmed combat, ambush, cordon and search etc. by the 61 Infantry Brigade at Leimakhong outside Imphal city. The police department was sanctioned 210 commandos by the state government in 1994. That number of CDOs has gone up to 1,600.
Most CDOs belong to the India Reserve Battalion raised by the state but are given financial assistance by the Centre. Commando units are at present placed in nine different locations in the Imphal valley. The commandos were to be used only to fight insurgents, not for day-to-day law and order enforcement of the police. As their profile increased, the commandos have, to a large extent, replaced the military in Manipur as the face of power and terror. According to a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2012 by the families of victims of alleged extra-judicial encounters, as many as 1,528 deaths have been recorded from May 1979 to May 2012. And these are just the recorded deaths.
Supreme Court rulings and guidelines issued by the Army HQ on what is permissible under AFSPA, 1958, remain largely on paper. The Act specifies that an encounter is to be carried out if lives are endangered or in self-defence. But as Herojit Singh’s testimony now suggests, this may be rarely the case.
According to the police, the July 2009 encounter was one of self-defence. Meitei, during a routine police frisking, had allegedly whipped out a small gun and fired at them before fleeing. The police chased Meitei; a pregnant woman, Thokchom Rabina, who was a bystander, was hit on the head and died in the firing, the police version goes. Meitei then supposedly ran into the pharmacy and when the police stormed in, he fired again, at which point the police shot him dead, according to the official version.
Singh now says that Meitei had been apprehended elsewhere and brought to the pharmacy. Singh alleges he was given direct orders to kill Meitei by his superior, then additional SP AK Jhalajit (now SP, Imphal West). Singh says he then went into the pharmacy and shot Meitei six times. Meitei was unarmed and the police had only recovered a cellphone from him, he says.
The Santosh Hegde Commission, set up by the Supreme Court to probe ‘fake encounters’ , tried six sample cases of alleged fake encounters and found each and every one of them to be “not an encounter’’ and not carried out by the security forces in self-defence.
One of these cases was the death of Azad Khan, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a joint group of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur commandos.
According to the family’s version, on March 4, 2009, months before Meitei was killed, Azad was sitting with his friend Kiyam Anand Singh on the family verandah when 30 security personnel arrived at his home and dragged Azad to a nearby field. His parents and a cousin were at home at the time. The officers allegedly locked Azad’s family members and his friend in a room. From a window in the room, which overlooked the field, Azad’s parents watched him fall to the ground and the security men shoot him and then throw a pistol near his body.
Like in the Meitei case, the official police version is very different. According to this version, the team had gone to Azad’s locality to bust an extortion ring. When they approached the house, two youths ran out from the back and the security personnel gave chase, shooting down one youth while he other got away, the police say.
Azad was suspected to be a member of the PULF, an organisation that is not banned. The police said that they got to know of the boy’s identity only after the encounter. The commission argues that the fact that the security team went directly to Azad’s home shows that they knew they would find him there. The commission has further argued that the 30 personnel, who were equipped with AK-47s and Insas Rifles, could have easily overpowered a 12-year-old, even if he was carrying a 9 mm pistol. “The security forces had gone prepared for an encounter…” says the Commission report adding that the commandos are transgressing the “legal bounds for their counter-insurgency operations in the state of Manipur.’’
In last five years, 66 complaints have been lodged against the Assam Rifles. But only three of these cases have been disposed and action taken in these three cases has not been made public. In one case, the Manipur government sought permission to prosecute one Assam Rifles personnel for abuse of power – but was denied permission by the Centre. Of the 17 writ petitions filed against the Assam Rifles in the past five years, 10 alleged custodial deaths, four of missing persons, and one case of torture.
The impunity with which these executions are carried out, as is illustrated in these cases and Herojit Singh’s confession, raises troubling questions.