A black-and-white photograph of human rights activist Irom Sharmila, with no tubes sucking into her body, surrounded by only a handful of followers when she launched her party, Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance in 2016, mushrooms in visual artist Rohit Saha’s book 1528. Saha’s photobook, which was on view at Art Heritage Gallery, Delhi, contains a heart-rending image of a young boy crying during his father’s funeral in Manipur, after losing him to police cross firing. Next to it is a frame full of Manipuri child soldiers, aged between 12 and 15, picked up by insurgent groups, standing tall with pride and displaying unflinching emotion. Passport-sized photos of 10 civilians allegedly gunned down by the 8th Assam Rifles in Malom in 2000, who prompted Sharmila to undertake her 16-year hunger strike, stand as ghostly reminders of the state’s turbulent past in the last 33 years.
Winner of the Alkazi Foundation Photobook grant in 2017, Saha’s book 1528 was launched in Delhi last month. Published by Alkazi Foundation, it’s the result of a three-year research into Sharmila’s journey, the Malom massacre and victims of alleged fake encounters in Manipur. Hailing from Kolkata, Saha’s gaze was struck by political activist Sharmila in 2016, when she broke her hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by tasting a drop of honey, after years of being force-fed through nasal tubes. When pursuing a masters in photography at National Institute in Design in Gandhinagar, the Mumbai-based photographer decided to base his research project around Sharmila’s plans after the fast, her crushing defeat with merely 90 votes in the assembly elections despite sacrificing years for the people of her land, and the changes in Manipur from 16 years ago to present day. He says, “Irom believed she was fighting for the same cause but through a different path. This had upset her followers, including her own brother — her closest aide — who once considered her their hero, because of the normal notion of a politician in the public’s head.” The research led Saha, who won Magnum Foundation’s Social Justice Fellowship in 2018, to concentrate on Manipur’s extra-judicial killings and document the lives of those whose family members have disappeared.
Saha volunteered for Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), an organisation formed by the widows and families of those who lost their husbands or close ones in alleged extrajudicial killings in 2009. Coincidentally, he stumbled upon the 1528 case files of alleged fake encounters carried out by the armed forces in Manipur between 1979 and 2012, housed in their office’s cupboard. With Human Rights Alert as collaborators, this stood as proof of the organisation demanding an investigation into the 1528 cases from the Supreme Court, of which only 42 were picked, merely 13 investigations were finished and the CBI issued charges of murder in nine cases. His book, resembling the look of an investigation file, reveals chilling details from EEVFAM’s archives, containing photographic documentation of identity cards, post-mortem reports, newspaper clippings and police records.
With very little text to act as guiding tools, the book includes the experiences of activist Neena Ningombam, EEVFAM’s first petitioner, whose husband Michael had gone missing in the afternoon when he went to meet his friends in Imphal in 2008. Michael called back to inform about being picked up by commandos but became untraceable thereafter. Nigombam worst’s nightmare came true, of waking up to footage of her husband lying dead in the street on television, and being declared a ‘militant’. In July 2012, following her efforts to prove her husband’s innocence, the District Judge concluded that Michael was not a terrorist and was wrongfully killed by police commandos, before handing her a compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
In rough, unpolished and broken English, the book reveals details of the victims’ families, names of the perpetrators, action taken against them and when the victims were last seen. Saha reads few of his discoveries: “The information contained a woman’s confession of how her husband left the room around 8.30 pm to get paan, only to find his body at the morgue the next day. Another spoke of how her eldest son went to an uncle’s house with money (Rs 20,000) and his dead body was found the following day. He was then called an extortionist.” Saha says that the psychological impact of such an environment on the children is immense, who often play the ‘militant vs army’ game instead of India’s famous chor sipahi, evident in a photo where they hold fake guns in an empty street.