Last month, the Manipur High Court disposed of a case that had been pending before it for the past 28 years. The case was just one of the 42 lakh cases pending in different High Courts across the country. The disposal was by itself not newsworthy but it did get a mention in the local newspapers.
The Imphal-based Sangai Express mentioned that the hearing on June 13 by the Division Bench of High Court of Manipur, comprising of Chief Justice Ramalingam Sudhakar and Justice MV Muralidharan “disposed 28-year-old cases relating to ‘infamous Operation Blue Bird’ which occurred at Oinam village, Senapati district in 1987.”
What was Operation Bluebird?
In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district in broad daylight, walking off with a large cache of arms and ammunition. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation codenamed Operation Bluebird to recover the looted arms and ammunition, but after three months of intense cordon-and-search operations in 30 villages that had been put under strict curfew, they recovered next to nothing. However, in those three months they committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the jawans.
Even after 28 years the memory of those atrocities is alive. The news report mentioned that the case filed by the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights in October of 1987 before the Guahati High Court was concerned with charges against “the security forces for committing murder, manslaughter, grievous injuries, rape and sexual harassment, arson, looting and theft, desecration of Church, wanton destruction of public and private properties including school buildings, illegal evictions, raids, seizures, illegal detentions and arrests and forced labour.
The reporter did not inform the readers why a case dealing with such serious charges had been pending in the court for nearly three decades. Who was responsible for this obvious neglect and delay? It would certainly be worthwhile for a journalist to investigate the reasons for the delay.
The original case
I was the lawyer who filed the original case in October 1987 and pursued the case till the final arguments in March 1992. I have had very little news about the case since then. I might not have even known of the disposal of the case had I not got an email from Nehemiah Rong, a young man from Oinam which requested: “Dear Madam, Kindly go through the court order recently given by Manipur High Court as a layman I could not understand the matter in detail.” He attached the 14-page order.
Rong was really asking whether the order would result in delivering justice to the victims of Operation Bluebird.
The Order of the Manipur High Court notes that the entire records were transmitted to Imphal Bench of the Gauhati High Court vide an order dated July 9, 1991, at the request of counsel N Haksar. The order directed that the entire records be transferred from Gauhati to Imphal within a week.
I can testify that the entire records in 12 volumes running into some thousand pages were indeed transferred and it was on the basis of these that the final hearing was conducted before the bench of Justice Phukan and Justice Shishak in March 1992.
The two judges failed to give their judgement; and they were subsequently transferred to different High Courts and Justice Phukan retired as a Supreme Court Judge. There could not have been a final hearing without a complete brief.
However, 28 years later the Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court noted in his order that: “Despite several orders of this court in the recent times, it appears that the entire records could not be identified or located. There is no final or interim report of the District Judge, Imphal. Registrar (Judicial), informed the court that in spite of several enquiries, he is unable to identify any relevant file except pleadings, Smt R K Memcha, the then Registrar (Judl) submitted a letter dated 21.2.2019 enclosing certain documents. To our dismay, we found that some of the records referred to in the above said letter are totally unconnected to the present case. The letter dated 21.02.2019 also does not in any way help us adjudication of the present case.”
In other words, the present judges disposed of the case, relating to such serious charges, without having the brief before them.
Loss of brief
Who is responsible for the loss of the brief, the 12 volumes of evidence of large-scale human rights violations of the people of nearly 30 villages in Senapati district?
The human rights violations committed by the Indian security forces during the counter-insurgency operation codenamed Operation Bluebird included:
1. Death due to torture or starvation of 27 persons including several babies.
2. Rape and sexual abuse of several women, including minors.
3. Torture of men, a list of 300 cases was attached to the petition.
4. Illegal arrests of villagers, officials and government servants.
5. Burning and dismantling of more than 100 homes.
6. Dismantling of schools and churches.
7. Widescale looting of property with details of each household.
8. Forced labour on a large scale.
Each allegation was supported by sworn affidavits, statements, other documents. However, at the time the Gauhati High Court decided that it needed to verify these allegations and in an unique step in the annals of public interest litigation High Court gave an order on July 6, 1988, directing the Sessions Court at Imphal to record the evidence of the victims.
In other words the burden of producing these victims in court and ensuring their safety fell on a human rights organization with no resources.
It was no easy task to get the villagers to testify because the security forces did their best to intimidate them and stop them from coming to court. Villagers had to travel long distances from their remote villages to the court to give their testimonies standing in the witness box while the officers who had tortured them sat at the back of the court in full uniform.
The villagers were subjected to cross-examination by both counsel for Manipur state as well as counsel for the Assam Rifles. Often the cross-examination was aggressive with the intention to intimidate the villager but the witnesses stood firm.
Then the officers and the soldiers of the Assam Rifles who were charged with these crimes gave their testimony and I cross-examined them; sometimes the cross-examination lasted several days.
The cross-examined testimonies and the Assam Rifles statements all formed a part of the brief.
In addition, we filed the internal correspondence of the Senapati administration given to me by Sub Deputy Collector N Surendra Singh. The man came one night to the place I was staying and handed all the files and asked that we summon him to court so he could testify. He died under mysterious circumstances soon after he testified in the court in January 1989. Files given by Surendra were a part of the record.
Where has all this evidence disappeared?
Now, 28 years later, the Manipur High Court states that the evidence is lost and so they have directed the Home Secretary Government of Manipur to constitute a committee within three months from June 13 to enquire into the matter. Assam Rifles, the main accused, have been given the right to give their version of the story – but they denied all the allegations in affidavits and on oath.
The saga of the fight for justice for victims of Operation Bluebird is too long to recount here. I have recorded it in a book published after 25 years of waiting.
The state of Manipur is one of the respondents, so asking them to record evidence is making a respondent a judge in his own cause – a clear violation of principles of natural justice. Further, even if the state of Manipur were to conduct a fair and impartial enquiry, they have no means to redress the grievances against Assam Rifles, which is directly under the Home Ministry.
The villagers of Oinam asked me what the latest order means. What can I say to them?
The case was fought over several years by a group of committed lawyers and all of us fought the case pro bono. We were assisted by a group of activists equally committed and together we withstood threats and intimidation; and sometimes there was a very real threat to our lives.
It is also true that the next generation of Naga human rights activists neglected to follow up the case. The Human rights community in Manipur and rest of the country campaigned for the abolition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 – largely inspired by the indomitable Irom Sharmila’s record-breaking hunger strike in support of the demand for the abolition of the notorious Act. But in their campaign they did not focus on the Oinam case.
But the ultimate responsibility for reaching justice to victims of state violence rests with the courts and the criminal justice system, the writ jurisdiction of the courts have exposed their inability to deliver justice to the most vulnerable sections of our people.
All I can say, to the people of Oinam and the other villages I am ashamed that the courts have not delivered justice and there is no remedy in law against the courts, the judges or the legal system which does not deliver justice. So, dear Nehemiah Rong, I am sorry. The victims of Operation Bluebird operation will not get justice. Ever.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.