The Supreme Court on Friday held that armed forces cannot use excessive force even in areas that come under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and ruled that over 1,500 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, over the last 20 years, “must be investigated”.
The ruling should come as a relief for the conflict-ridden north-eastern state, where the demand to repeal AFSPA, in force here since 1958, has been a long standing one. Since the late ’70s, according to the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), the petitioner in the current Supreme Court case, there have been 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur. Human rights activists blame AFSPA for the killings, alleging that the law gives blanket protection to the Army and the Manipuri commandos to kill with impunity. They also allege that these are just the recorded cases and that instances of people simply disappearing have gone unreported over the years.
“There is an assumption here that if it is a counter-insurgency operation, then security forces can kill. This is legally untenable; what actually should happen is that the suspected insurgent should be given a fair trial. That is how AFSPA has worked here. There is an issue in the intelligence gathering which relies heavily on local informants. So some times this is misused, and people with army contacts would pass off someone they have a personal or land dispute with, as an insurgent. That person would be picked up and killed without their links actually being established,” says Human Rights Alert director Babloo Loitongbam, who is fighting the case on behalf of EEVFAM.
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In 2013, the Santosh Hegde Commission, set up by the Supreme Court, probed six “sample cases of alleged fake encounters” in that year and found that every one of them “had not been an encounter’’and had not been carried out by the security forces in self-defence. The commission further found that in all six cases, the perpetrators (in many cases a combined force of the Assam Rifles and the Manipuri Commandos) were also the investigators and that police officials involved in an encounter would lodge an FIR against the victim.
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 mountainous areas. Of these, the tribal hill groups — the biggest of which is the NSCN (IM) — are in some form of agreement with the Indian government. The Kuki groups, which number around 20, 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 work has traditionally been carried out by the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles in collaboration with the Manipur police, as is mandatory under AFSPA, 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 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 specially trained by the 61 Infantry Brigade at Leimakhong. The police department was sanctioned 210 commandos by the state government in 1994. The present strength of the CDOs is 1,600 personnel, inclusive of all ranks.
Most CDOs belong to the India Reserve Battalion, raised by the state but provided financial assistance by the Centre. Their units are presently placed in nine different locations in the Imphal valley. The commandos were to be used only to fight insurgents and not for the day-to-day law and order activity but as their profile increased, the commandos to a large extent have replaced the military in Manipur as the face of power and terror.
Families of fake encounter victims got a shot in the arm earlier this year, when suspended Manipur Police head constable Herojit Singh admitted to having killed an unarmed suspected insurgent. In his “confession”, Singh, an erstwhile encounter cop used by the Manipur government in numerous encounters, admitted that he had shot suspected insurgent Sanjit Meitei six times after taking him into a pharmacy. This belied the official version of the Army and the Manipur Police that all the encounters had taken place were in self-defence and also went against Supreme Court rulings and guidelines issued by the Army headquarters on what is permissible under AFSPA.
In the last five years, 66 complaints have been lodged against the Assam Rifles (AR), of which three have been disposed of but the action taken in them has not been made public. In one case, the Manipur government sought permission to prosecute one AR personnel for abuse of power, but was denied permission by the Centre.
As many as 17 writ petitions filed against AR personnel in the past five years, 10 of them alleged custodial deaths, 4 missing persons, and 1 case of torture.
There is no official record on the number of cases filed against the Manipuri Commandos. According to rights activists, there are 17 cases where judicial inquiries in the state have found encounters to be fake. These were on the basis of writ petitions filed individually by the families of the victims in the Imphal bench of the Gauhati High Court. Between 1996-2007, the then district and sessions judge C Upendra Singh, who had headed 12 judicial inquiries, and found security forces guilty in every case. No punitive action, however, has been taken so far.
Rights activists in Manipur believe that many of the killings are linked to the gallantry awards handed out every Republic Day. A gallantry award in Manipur translates into an out-of-turn promotion, a salary raise and better prospects of rising in the ranks. For instance in 2013, N Nungshibabu Singh, a havildar-rank policeman with the Manipur Police, was among the nine police personnel in the country to receive the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day. A judicial probe by the court of the district judge, Manipur East, in 2010, on the directions of the Gauhati High Court, had implicated Nungshibabu along with three others in a fake encounter in Imphal.