On Wednesday, Loitongbam Kishan Singh, a 17-year-old student, took his parents’ permission to join a protest in Imphal.
Hundreds of students like Singh have descended on the streets of Manipur’s capital since Tuesday, after the state government confirmed the deaths of two students – a 17-year-old girl, Hijam Linthoingambi, and a 20-year-old young man, Phijam Hemjit – who had gone missing in July.
The photographs, purportedly of their bodies, had been widely shared on social media. The Imphal police have said they suspected the students had been killed by Kuki militants. Since May 3, ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki communities has left around 200 dead and around 60,000 people displaced.
“After seeing their photographs, I could not sit idle,” said Singh, a student of Thambalnu High School in Imphal’s Yairipok. “So, I went to the rally.”
Singh’s mother Loitongbam Sorodoni said he left the house wearing a school uniform. “But he has ended up in the emergency ward of the hospital in the same uniform,” Sorodoni said.
Singh was allegedly shot with a pellet gun from close range by personnel of the Rapid Action Force or RAF, a wing of the Central Reserve Police Force specialising in riot-control. “The child was unarmed and they should not have shot him like that,” his mother Sorodoni said.
On Wednesday, Singh was operated on at the Shija Hospitals and Research Institute in Imphal to extract around 90 pellets, said Dr Indranil Dutta, who carried out the surgery.
“We could only remove 60 pellets, the rest are still in his body,” he said. “These are not regular bullets but metallic pellets, each approximately 1 mm in size,” Dutta said.
Singh was a part of a large group of students marching towards the chief minister’s secretariat in the heart of the city on Wednesday.
As clashes erupted between the security forces and the students, Singh ran and took shelter in a house in a bylane, he told Scroll.
Around 2 pm, as the sound of protests stopped, he came out to the main street, thinking the forces had stopped firing.
There, he came face to face with a RAF personnel. “He saw me, placed the gun on my shoulder and fired. Then he ran away,” Singh said, speaking from his hospital bed.
The impact of the shot mangled his right shoulder, leaving a 10 x 10 cm gaping wound, according to the medical reports Scroll has seen.
A second victim at Shija Hospitals and Research Institute who reported pellet injuries was 17-year-old Thokchom Lemenson. Lemenson was shot in the face near the eye, a hospital official said.
The crackdown by the state police in coordination with the RAF and other central security forces on student protestors has been sharply criticised for the “excessive use” of force.
What stands out, particularly, are the allegations that the forces fired on students with pellet guns – a first for Manipur.
Two police officials told Scroll that the nature of injuries suggested the use of pellet guns by the RAF to disperse the crowd. “These are non-lethal guns. It appears they have been used for the first time in Manipur,” said one of them.
Pellet guns are widely used in Jammu and Kashmir as a means of crowd control during protests.
On Thursday, the director-general of police announced a committee to investigate allegations of excesses by security forces.
Another pellet wound
On Tuesday night, 20-year-old Uttam Soibam had joined a growing crowd in the city’s Singjamei to protest the killings of the two Meitei youth.
“My brother, like any other teenagers, got emotional as the two murdered youngsters were of the same age,” said Kangleinganba Soibam, his elder brother. “So he joined the protest.”
Around 10.30 pm, clashes broke out between the protestors and the security forces.
Uttam and his two friends hid in a house, while security forces fired tear gas and smoke bombs outside, said his brother.
“The RAF personnel went looking for protestors with torchlights and found them.,” Kangleinganba said. “They fired at my brother from very close proximity. He was the only one hit.”
On Thursday, Uttam was operated on at Raj Medicity hospital in the city. “He came to the hospital with multiple pellet wounds,” said a member of the hospital staff.
Tests carried out at the hospital revealed that five pellets lay buried in Uttam’s neck, several more in his skull bones, and multiple foreign bodies in his left leg, said hospital authorities.
Why the excessive use of force?
Security officials Scroll spoke to insisted the use of force was proportionate to the provocation by the protestors.
An Army official said force was used only as a last resort. “The students were approaching a sensitive target, which is close to the CM’s official residence and other ministers’ residence,” the official said. “Action had to be taken.”
The official also alleged that “armed miscreants” had infiltrated the student ranks and were assaulting the security forces.
He, however, said the Army and Assam Rifles do not use pellet guns.
One of the police officials quoted earlier echoed the Army official. He said, “The students were marching to target the CM’s secretariat. The security personnel had to fire, otherwise they would have been overpowered.”
A third senior police official posted in Imphal city told Scroll that the police crackdown was necessitated because of the unruly behavior of the protestors.
“We react depending upon the situation and tried to use minimum force,” the official said. “The way they burned down a police vehicle in Imphal on Wednesday night, snatched a policeman’s gun and pelted stones first, the police had to retaliate.”
CRPF did not respond to Scroll’s requests for comment on the allegations that its personnel used excessive force.
Trouble for N Biren Singh government?
Human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam said it was the first time in the history of Manipur that pellet guns had been used.
“Their use is condemned by the United Nations and human rights organisations,” he said.
He added: “Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the constitution. Why should the government use excessive force like smoke bombs, tear gas and even pellet guns is totally inconceivable – unless they are trying to deliberately fuel tension in the Valley.”
An Imphal-based editor of an English daily said that the high-handedness of the security forces has made things worse for the N Biren Singh government.
“There is a lot of dissatisfaction against the state government since the ongoing police crackdown is only limited to Imphal valley,” the editor said. “They can’t do anything in the hills.”
All pictures courtesy Rokibuz Zaman.