Missing children

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

Insurgency-affected Manipur faces another serious problem: the kidnapping of children for ransom.


THERE has been an appalling rise in kidnappings and killings of children for drug money in insurgency-affected Manipur, where law and order has touched rock-bottom. The State police, who are engaged in round-the-clock counter-insurgency operations, have little time for normal policing duties such as tracking down criminals. The police believe that organised mafias are earning huge ransoms from widespread kidnappings. Terrified families are paying the money demanded without leaking information about the kidnappers.

Two incidents that came to light recently shook the State. Moheni Martin and Hrini Hubert, two 10-year-old tribal boys from Senapati, were Class III students at Don Bosco School, Maram. On December 14, 2006, they were whisked away by persons known to them. In each case the parents paid Rs.5 lakh as ransom. However, instead of releasing the boys, the kidnappers demanded more money. When the parents insisted on listening to their sons' voices, no further contact was made. The bodies of the boys were left in a creek. Their skeletal remains were found by some urchins on March 27.

There was a wave of popular anger and the houses of the suspects were torched. The suspects fled to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) camp in Nagaland. The organisation admitted that the suspects - Adai Paomei, Manikho Mao and Brown Tangkhul - were in its custody and said that the charge was being checked.

A core committee under the chairmanship of Vienon Solomon galvanised a flurry of demonstrations. Tribal women demanded that the suspects be handed over for summary trial under tribal laws. The core committee asked the government to book the suspects. Since the NSCN(I-M) would not give them up, the State government issued non-bailable warrants of arrest against two NSCN(I-M) "ministers". The incensed leaders threatened to lodge a complaint with the Indian government arguing that this amounted a to bid to sabotage the peace talks.

Elizabeth Luingamla, 12, daughter of the then Cabinet Minister Francis Ngajokpa and a pupil of Little Flower School, was kidnapped on April 11, 2003. Usually a hired van took her to and from school. But that day, some persons she was familiar with gave her a lift. A chloroform-sodden handkerchief rendered her unconscious. Ngajokpa paid a ransom of Rs.10 lakh, which he borrowed from friends, but the girl was not released. Some days later, her body was fished out of a pond, stuffed in a barlap bag. The girl had already been murdered when the ransom was collected. While the police investigation made no breakthrough, angry people badgered the main suspect, James Kuki. He fled and took shelter at the NSCN(I-M) camp at Hebron in Nagaland. The NSCN(I-M) maintained that the charges against Kuki were being examined. Another suspect was arrested and jailed by the Manipur Police. But it was learnt that the suspect had reduced the cell to his operational office and made jail officials his errand boys. No clarification from jail authorities on this was given.

The first known case of kidnapping for ransom was reported in the State in the early 1980s. A stationery merchant was kidnapped and Rs.50 lakh was demanded. The family decided to inform the police. Since all the family members were shadowed by the police, the kidnappers could not collect the ransom. After some days, the family inserted advertisements in local newspapers asking the merchant not to be afraid and saying efforts were on to secure his release. However, a wrong message was semaphored to the jittery kidnappers that rescue attempts were being made. The merchant was shot dead. The kidnappers left his gold chain and other valuables untouched.

After this, families of other kidnapped businessmen never took the police into confidence and simply paid the ransom. The police say almost all kidnappings now go unreported and people learn of them only when bodies are recovered. Deepak Jain, a businessman's son and student of the Manipur Public School in Koirengei, was kidnapped when he was leaving his school. He was forced to write a note to his father asking for ransom. The boy managed to scribble the registration number of the van used in his kidnapping. The non-Hindi-speaking kidnappers became aware of it only when the police offensive began. They killed the boy. The police tracked down three suspects at Jiribam on the Assam border. On the way to Imphal, the suspects wanted to relieve themselves. The police shot them, alleging that they had tried to escape.

On a sunny morning in March 1987, five-year-old Takhellambam Momocha was playing in the courtyard of his home at Singjamei. Two "uncles" whom the boy recognised lured him out with the promise of "sweets". They were drug addicts who picked up a pair of secateurs and a carving knife on the way. At a secluded place, they stabbed the child to death and removed his gold earrings, which they sold for Rs.330 and used the money to buy heroin. The two men were rounded up the same evening. One of the accused was convicted. He was released recently after a jail term.

Ten years later, the situation has only become worse. On March 12, 2007, eight-year-old Laishram Shankerdev took out his new bicycle to pick up his sister from school. On the way he was accosted by a neighbour, Mayengbam Bungthoi, 23, who was a drug addict. Bungthoi lured the boy to a nearby hillock, let him play there for some time and then gagged him and stabbed him in the throat with a pair of scissors.

According to an eyewitness, Bungthoi washed the blood on his hands in a nearby stream. He removed the boy's gold earrings and fled on the bicycle. He left the bicycle in an acquaintance's house, sold the earrings for Rs.1,040, and bought drugs with the money.

While the police groped for clues, some insurgents of the People's Liberation Army took away the culprit. Identified by a witness, Bungthoi confessed to the murder during interrogation. He was produced before the media and he gave a blow-by-blow account of his bone-chilling act. The same night he was shot dead.

On March 24, 2007, Akoijam Amujao of Patsoi was lured by a drug addict to the Iroishemba hillock near Imphal and his gold earrings were removed. When he was about to be killed he screamed, attracting the attention of some passersby. The drug addict fled. But some students chased and caught him. He confessed.

The most sensational kidnapping was that of a German national, Heinrich Wolfgang. He and his compatriot, Edda Kirlies, arrived in Manipur on March 21, 2003, to inspect some projects undertaken with German funding. While Kirlies went to inspect another project, Wolfgang and some local officials left for Moirang Purel Phuramakhong, on March 23. Some armed Kuki militants intercepted them. They asked the local functionaries to return and took away the German national. The police merely registered a case.

There was criticism in the media about the way the case was handled. Since the case had international ramifications, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi, who is also in charge of the Home portfolio, made a statement. He said the police knew where the German was held captive but did not launch rescue operations fearing for his safety. Reports said that the militants had demanded Rs.10 crore as ransom. The German Ambassador to India reached Imphal on March 26. It was made clear that if the German national was harmed a crackdown would be launched under international pressure. He was released on April 8. It was not known if any ransom was paid.

Some other non-local officials were kidnapped in the mountains. During detention, the vegetarian hostages were made to eat smoked crabs. In some instances, the kidnapped persons overpowered the gunmen and escaped after snatching some weapons.

Indrasen, president of the Indo-Myanmar Traders' Association, was kidnapped by an Islamist militant organisation, which demanded Rs.1 crore as "tax" from the Association. Indrasen offered to pay Rs.2 lakh as his own "tax". The kidnappers disagreed, and he was shot dead. There was a public outcry against the militant group. But the campaign was withdrawn as it threatened to acquire a communal colour.

It is no accident that all Ministers, Members of the Legislative Assembly, senior civil officials and police officers and rich people in Manipur now send their children outside the State for education.

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