On July 17, a group of activists led by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur demonstrated in front of the Central Bureau of Investigation office in the northeastern state. Their demand was that security personnel involved in extrajudicial executions in Manipur be brought to justice. The association’s president, Renu Takhellambam, called upon the CBI to specifically investigate Akoijam Jhalajit Singh, commandant of the Second India Reserve Battalion, in connection with the killing of an unarmed person on July 23, 2009, in state capital Imphal.

According to the Manipur police, on that day in 2009, 22-year-old Chungkham Sanjit, an alleged former militant, had fired at police commandos while trying to escape a routine frisking operation on a busy street. Thockchom Rabina, a pregnant woman, who happened to be a bystander, was shot dead in the crossfire and five others were injured. Soon after, the police picked up Sanjit, who they claimed was armed, dragged him inside a pharmacy and shot him dead. On receiving news of this incident, Okram Ibobi Singh, the chief minister at that time, congratulated the police on killing a “terrorist”.

Almost immediately, glaring gaps started appearing in the official version of events stated by the Manipur police. Unknown to them, a local photojournalist had captured the moments that led to Sanjit’s death in a series of photographs. In August 2009, the newsmagazine Tehelka published a damning report along with the photographs, which poked holes in the official narrative. A CBI enquiry was ordered. The investigation revealed that Sanjit was shot dead and the police had planted a pistol on him. The CBI chargesheet submitted in 2010, charged nine police personnel with crimes connected to this case, including conspiracy and murder. Following this, hearings on the case began at a local district and sessions court. However, like in many other cases in India where justice is sought, the case has proceeded at a plodding pace.

That changed in 2016, when police constable Thounaojam Herojit Singh, who had been named in the 2010 CBI chargesheet, released an alarming confession that refuted the police’s version of the events. Herojit claimed that he killed an unarmed Sanjit on the direct orders of his superior officer, Jhalajit, who was also present at the scene. At that time, Jhalajit was an Additional Superintendent of Police. Herojit further claimed that Jhalajit had told him that he had obtained the consent of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and Director General of Police Y Joykumar to carry out the killing.

One year after Herojit’s confession, the CBI launched a further investigation into Sanjit’s death. This case is currently being heard at the Manipur High Court, where Jhalajit is the main defendant. It is in this context that activists in Manipur are calling for Jhalajit, the officer-in-charge who allegedly ordered the killing, to be thoroughly investigated by the CBI.

Knocking on the doors of justice

In 2012, in another landmark attempt to achieve justice, the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur and Human Rights Alert, a non-governmental organisation, filed a Public Interest Litigation with the Supreme Court of India, seeking investigations into 1,528 similar cases of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces in Manipur.

In July 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed the Union government’s contention that older cases should not be investigated because of the passage of time, stating, “Merely because the State has not taken any action and has allowed time to go by, it cannot take advantage of the delay to scuttle an inquiry.” It also ordered a CBI enquiry to investigate over 90 alleged extrajudicial executions in the state. This investigation is dragging on, and the CBI is yet to submit its final report.

The delay is so egregious that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders issued a statement condemning the lack of progress in the investigations. On July 30, the Supreme Court rebuked the CBI for the slow pace of its investigation into extra judicial killings in the state, and its failure to arrest those accused of being involved in it.

In January, an affidavit by Herojit was filed as an intervention to the ongoing Supreme Court case. The affidavit stated that he has knowledge pertaining to several other cases of fake encounters perpetrated in Manipur. However, till today, not one chargesheet has been filed in relation to these cases of alleged extrajudicial executions. Accountability for these cases seems a long way away.

The progress in Sanjit’s case, which is being heard at the high court level, separately from these 1,528 cases, seems to offer some hope to members of the association and activists because it has the potential to be a game changer and establish a legal precedent of command responsibility.

The command responsibility ladder

Command responsibility is a principle of international law. The effective exercise of command is an essential tool in ensuring that crimes under international law are prevented and, if they nonetheless occur, are punished. Where sufficient evidence is found in the investigations, those suspected of rights violations, including those with command responsibility must be prosecuted and convicted. A ruling in the Sanjit case could set a precedent for investigating command responsibility in India, and consequently improve accountability for rights violations in the country.

Herojit confessed to killing Sanjit. But was the killing his decision? Herojit’s account bears striking similarities to other such incidents of fake encounters across India and beyond. Herojit maintained a diary in which he documented the alleged instructions he received from a superior officer to kill Sanjit.

In 2013, a sub-inspector of the Punjab police, Surjit Singh, claimed to have killed 80 people in fake encounters after he joined the force in 1989. Similar to Herojit in Manipur, Surjit provided details of those he had killed in Punjab, which he had recorded. He approached the court for protection, alleging that Paramjit Singh Gill, a senior-superintendent of police, had instructed him to carry out the killings. His petition was dismissed. However, Herojit’s confession, because of the ongoing Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur case before the Supreme Court, seems to have added an additional and essential dimension that establishes that instructions to kill did not emanate from thin air.

The families in Manipur have waited for justice for far too long. With no punishment meted out to any of the perpetrators of extrajudicial executions, impunity persists in relation to the cases being pursued by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur. However, activists think that the Sanjit case offers a ray of hope. The ruling in this case could actually open “the floodgates of justice” says Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert. If Herojit was instructed by Jhalajit to kill Sanjit, then who instructed Jhalajit? Investigating such questions can help dismantle the culture of impunity that exists in Manipur. Climbing the ladder to establish command responsibility will be a slow and arduous task but hopefully one day we will reach the top where justice and accountability will prevail.

Arijit Sen and Likhita Banerji are researchers with Amnesty International, India.