In its issue dated August 8, 2009, the Tehelka magazine published a damning sequence of photographs, said to be shot by a local photographer, capturing the death of a young man in a shootout on July 23, 2009, in the heart of Imphal, Manipur’s capital, barely 500 metres from the state assembly.
As the chillingly detailed report by Teresa Rehman put it, the photographs showed the moments before, during and after the "encounter killing" of a 27-year-old Indian citizen – a young man called Chongkham Sanjit, shot dead by a heavily-armed detachment from Manipur’s Rapid Action Police Force, commonly known as the Manipur Police Commandos. Thokchom Rabina, a pregnant woman who was a bystander, also died in the firing.
The case was finally transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2010 and after all these years, one of the nine accused in the case, Thounaojam Herojit Singh, a 35-year-old Manipur Police head constable and a gallantry award recipient, has reportedly confessed to the killing, according to the Indian Express in its Wednesday, January 27, 2009 edition:
"Yes, I shot him. I shot Sanjit Meitei. No, he was not armed," 35-year-old Herojit Singh told The Indian Express. “I felt no remorse, no sympathy after I killed Sanjit. I felt nothing. It was an order and I had to simply carry it out.”
Herojit Singh also reportedly alleged that he was told by then Additional Superintendent of Police, Imphal West, Dr Akoijam Jhalajhit – he is now SP of the same district – to “finish him [Sanjit] off”. In a separate report, the CNN-IBN reported Singh as having claimed that the then Manipur Director General of Police and Chief Minister were in the know.
Before this confession by Thounaojam Herojit Singh, an anonymous army officer's confession had been recorded in the recently released book, Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, by investigative journalist and conflict-specialist Kishalay Bhattacharjee. The army officer talked about the anatomy of staged encounters in India's northeast and Jammu & Kashmir and explained how awards and citations are linked to body counts. The following is an extract from this explosive document on institutionalised human rights abuse.
Sanjit and Rabina were innocent civilians going about their ordinary business when they were killed. And the forces’ cavalier disregard for their humanity was captured poignantly by the images of their bloodied corpses dumped by police personnel on to the tray of an open delivery truck, while the public thronged. The images of the incident, like the photograph of Nguyen Van Lem’s killing a little more than four decades earlier, cut through the public’s numbness.
Months of violent protests against fake encounters followed the publication of the photographs. The incident was investigated, and the police commandos who killed Sanjit have been charged; so far, no action has been taken against them.
These incidents provide us a rare insight into the workings of State-sponsored killings. For, with photographic images, there is little left to doubt and interpretation – only details between the frames are open to conjecture.
What the camera cannot tell us, though, are the machinations behind the killings. An entire network of trespassing and transgression has been generated by the State. Laws have been transgressed and peoples’ lives have been trespassed. In order to secure the nation’s territory, several other territories have been violated. Slowly, and with conscious design, the citizen has been dispossessed of rights that should be guaranteed in a free country; and it has been done with force.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn declared in his Nobel speech in 1970:
"It is not only mere brute force that is triumphant, but its strident justification also. The world is flooded with brazen assurance that might is omnipotent while right is powerless."
In the same speech, he said:
"[L]et us not forget that violence does not exist alone and cannot survive in isolation: it is inevitably bound up with a lie. Between them there is the most intimate, most natural, fundamental link: violence can only be concealed by the lie, and the lie can be maintained only by violence."
(From the Chapter "Manhunts")
The police force in Manipur was totally moribund, so commandos were raised to bring in fighting ability. In the 1990s, the thanas used to be run over, and any weapons issued were looted. So the police weren’t issued any weapons. It was known that they were also passing on the weapons to underground groups. Whom do you trust there? The law enforcement agencies were sleeping with the enemy, so the common people had nowhere to go. And this is how the people slowly started having their own jugaad and got involved in the murkiness of it all.
Look what happened in 2001. This is just to give you an idea of the law-and-order situation. A mob was at the gates of Raj Bhawan. It was President’s Rule. The governor with his ADC (aide-de-camp or personal assistant) and a briefcase was waiting at the treasury, which is connected to the back gate of Raj Bhawan. The plan was that they would escape to the Red Shield Division and be escorted inside Kangla Fort, from where he would be airlifted. The map of India would have been redrawn that night had the mob entered and brought down the Raj Bhawan.
The 2009 encounter was a watershed. Do you remember the case of the surrendered militant being dragged and shot in a marketplace and the pregnant woman killed in the ‘crossfire’? The police gave a report to the government. Later, the DGP even came up with a proposal to the cabinet that didn’t get passed by the home department; it didn’t even come up. Guess what Joykumar’s proposal was? He wanted awards for all those involved in the encounter. It was the senior minister T.H. Deben from Jiribam who advised everyone to go slow on this, saying they didn’t know the facts yet, so they should first find out what happened. Deben was a wise old man, and Joykumar needed Deben: his channel to the chief minister (CM). So the ridiculous proposal of awards fizzled out.
I have no idea why the CM protected these fellows. In no civilized society do you have such things. Kailun was involved, and he was the CM’s hitman. He was the guy who held the border at Mao gate when NSCN (Isak–Muivah) supremo T. Muivah wanted to enter. You recall there was a stalemate for months after the encounter I mentioned just now, and this moment in CM Ibobi Singh’s life saved his chair. He stood against the Central government’s naive decision to allow Muivah to travel to his village inside Manipur. That united the entire state, and the encounter was forgotten.
There was another cop, Radhashyam or Radheshyam, who with two hours’ notice led a unit of fifteen commandos at night under army cover. This was when the information came that there was a road along Pfutsero that Muivah and his gang may have taken to enter Ukhrul. Muivah waited for days at the Mao gate. What Ibobi’s secret unit did was, for a week they cut the road, felled trees, dug ditches and made the road unusable. The night they were sent, three cabinet meetings were held, and Radhe was chosen for the job. I am mentioning this to show the might of the police in Manipur. The political bosses there give the police huge power and plenty of freedom.
After the Muivah incident, the political leadership lost their appetite for encounters. It unified all the sections of Meitei society. The boss realized that to survive on the job and get stronger, he needed everyone. He was also being instructed by the UNLF and PLA , and there was suddenly total unity among the Meiteis. And encounters could once again erode what he’d managed to retrieve.
During the Muivah visit, the Union home ministry had no idea of what was going on, and they made a huge error in dealing with the case so nonchalantly. They realized their mistake later and backed Ibobi.
The government’s reaction was always to stonewall first, then find mediators to start negotiations followed by exgratia payments, and maybe a job in the government and then some informal money given to the victim’s family. An inquiry would be conducted. Hundreds of reports would be there in the home department, but nobody really bothers about such reports.
You see, getting a government job is such an important thing in a place like Manipur that the families have generally stopped pursuing their cases. In practice, the agitation could be purchased off – and to be fair to the families, really, what else would they do? The person is gone. The rest of the family needs to live. If he or she was a breadwinner, the family now needs financial support, and a job does the trick. But many a time, the victim is proven to be a militant. In those cases, the family suffers a lot – stigma, job loss – it is bad.
The higher-ups in the government would never know what was really happening. The chief minister and the DGP would decide it all: who gets eliminated and who gets to live. Even the principal secretary in the home department was not privy to the next move. If the others said anything, they would be given a vibe, like ‘hey, dare not’! The police officer mentioned drinks every evening and can get rather abusive. He lives by his own rules and maintains a relationship only with the chief minister. Even in the districts, the SP and the DC (deputy commissioner) are estranged. The Meitei officer has nothing to do with the non-Meitei senior officer. The dynamics are quite different.
Encounter kisika bhi ho sakta hai yahan par (it can happen to anyone here). Encounters and cover-ups are a daily routine here. The Assam Rifles too is in it full-time and is capable of anything. They are big time into extortion rackets. Teak smuggling, narcotics – they are also into these big time. Shopkeepers in Churachandpur would collect money and pay the Kuki undergrounds inside the Assam Rifles camp. This is a long tale, and Manipur itself can run into volumes. Do you know what the conviction rate is in Manipur? It’s the lowest in the country at 3 per cent. And nothing, absolutely bloody nothing works in the police force. Whereas this is the department that actually runs the state, providing legal protection for corruption and killing.
Excerpted with permission from Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, Kishalay Bhattacharjee, HarperCollins India.
For background of the case, read the original 2009 report in Tehelka: Murder In Plain Sight
Read about the confession of Thounaojam Herojit Singh: Imphal encounter: 6 years later, the admission — ‘Yes, I shot him dead, he was unarmed, officer told me to’