Speaking on Patriots’ Day in Manipur this Sunday, Chief Minister Biren Singh said the joint interrogation cell in Imphal’s Kangla Fort would be shifted out. The move was meant to preserve the “sanctity” of the historic fort, Singh said, and he did not “want to hear cries” against it.
To begin with, some background. First, Patriots’ Day commemorates those who died fighting for sovereignty in the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. The battle broke out as the British advanced on Kangla Fort, the traditional seat of the Meitei kings. After the war, the colonial administration moved into the kingdom, reducing the Meitei rulers to mere figureheads.
Second, the British forces moved into the fort and the Assam Rifles were stationed there until 2004, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh handed it over to the state government. As the state was roiled by decades of insurgency, a joint interrogation cell came up in the fort. It would become notorious as a “torture chamber” of the Indian security forces.
Third, as the insurgency progressed, the occupied fort became a symbol of Manipur’s alienation from Delhi. In 2004, when the women’s group Meira Paibis staged their famous naked protest against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles, they made for the Kangla Fort.
But the chief minister’s speech did not suggest he was raising objections to the torture and other excesses that took place in the cell, merely to the geography.
In military parlance, a joint interrogation centre is defined as the “physical location for the exploitation of intelligence information from detainees and other sources”. As insurgencies gained ground in various parts of India, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was imposed, ensuring security forces a degree of immunity from prosecution in civilian courts, joint interrogation centres became fixtures on the landscape. In spite of official denial, several human rights groups as well as news reports have linked these centres to torture and enforced disappearances.
According to a 2011 report by The Week, not many admit to the existence of such interrogation centres “because doing so could result in human rights activists knocking at their doors”. A former director general of police in Tripura, who had also worked with the Intelligence Bureau, reportedly said, “Such sites exist and are being used to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists and it has been going on for a long time.”
In Kashmir, like in Manipur, several alleged centres were housed in buildings with a history: Papa 2, Hari Niwas, Kawoosa House, Red 16. These became grim icons in the local history of state excesses. There were other alleged centres, scattered around the countryside and in smaller towns. Local residents now point them out to visitors.
High-profile interrogation centres such as Papa 2 and Hari Niwas have now got makeovers. The former is the chief minister’s residence while Hari Niwas is apparently set to become a Cultural Centre. With Kangla, there seems to be a breezy official acceptance of the fact that an interrogation centre exists within its walls.
No law against torture
According to human rights activists in Manipur, almost all suspected insurgents are interrogated at the centre in Kangla. It also surfaces in reports by human rights groups in Manipur. The most famous case is that of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama, allegedly picked up from her home by the 17 Assam Rifles, stationed at Kangla. She was picked up on the night of July 10, 2004, and her bullet-riddled body was found the next day. Her family alleged torture and sexual violence, and the public outrage triggered by her death prompted the government to set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy commission to review the the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
According to a report compiled and released by the Manipur-based Centre for Organisation Research and Education in 2015, torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment was still used by law enforcement agencies and security forces stationed in the state to “aid civilian authorities”. Between 2014 and 2015, according to the report, 353 people became victims of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The map of these incidents spreads out from Kangla into surrounding areas.
A waning graph of militancy, the fact that several underground groups have agreed to ceasefires and suspension of operation agreements, and engaged in talks with the government, does not seem to have changed institutional behaviour. India became a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1997, but is one of only nine countries that are yet to ratify it. Over 161 countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, already have. A Bill against torture was moved in the Lok Sabha in 2010 but it has since lapsed. Last year, the government informed the Rajya Sabha that an amended draft of the Bill was ready and would be tabled in the Parliament, but there has been no visible movement on the law since then.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard a petition, filed by the Congress, seeking such legislation, which would also strengthen the National Human Rights Commission. The court expressed concern that the government had not even made a “good faith commitment” to draft such a law.
Until the convention is ratified and the law passed, there seems to be tacit consent to torture, in spite of official denial. So, the interrogation centre can just wander away from the historic Kangla Fort to a less visible spot.