Manipur's protest

Print edition : August 27, 2004

An injured woman is carried away after the police used teargas shells to disperse protesters, in Imphal on July 23. -

The alleged rape and killing of a woman in Manipur by Assam Rifles personnel sparks protests against the security forces and the demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

THE sentries guarding the headquarters of Assam Rifles at the historic Kangla Fort in Imphal on July 15 morning were left dumbstruck when a dozen Manipuri women staging a demonstration near the fort suddenly decided to do away with their clothes. They were protesting against the alleged torture, rape and killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by the paramilitary force.

The protesters then walked towards the gate of the fort holding up banners with the slogans "Indian Army, rape us overtly" and "Rape us the way you did Manorama" written on them. They retreated after much cajoling by senior Assam Rifles officials and police officials.

Ramani Devi, secretary of the All Manipur Women's Social Promotion and Development Samaj, who led the protesters, said the women took the extreme step as all previous protests against extra-judicial killings and molestation of women in Manipur had gone unheeded.

The protest came four days after Manorama's bullet-riddled body was found 4 km away from Ngariyan Mapao Maring village in Imphal East disrict, a few hours after she was picked up by personnel of the Assam Rifles on the suspicion of being a militant. Emotions ran high all over the State as people thronged curfew-bound streets, defying rubber bullets and tear gas shells, in protest against the atrocities committed by security forces and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The demonstrations turned violent. Protesters set ablaze government offices, five youth attempted immolation, and a young man cut off one of his fingers.

The AFSPA, which has been in operation in Manipur since September 8, 1980 and is applicable to all the north-eastern States, allows any commissioned or non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank from the armed forces to enter and search any premises without a warrant, arrest without a warrant and even fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the extent of causing death, against any person acting in contravention of any law in the notified disturbed area.

MANORAMA'S body bore bullet marks on the genitals, which lent credence to the public's perception that she was raped before being shot dead. Dr. Th Manglem, who conducted the second post-mortem examination of the body along with two other forensic experts, testified before the Justice P. Upendra Commission constituted by the State government and reported that because of the injuries in the lower part of the body no conclusive opinion could be passed on whether Manorama was raped or not.

The second post-mortem was ordered by the State government in response to Manorama's mother Khumanlei's demand that another autopsy be done on her daughter's body as she had doubts about the first post-mortem report, which the Army claimed had ruled out rape or torture. Manorama's family refused to accept her body, which was lying at the mortuary of the Regional Institute of Medical Science (RIMS) in Imphal since July 11, until the "guilty" Assam Rifles personnel were punished and the AFSPA was withdrawn from the State.

However, the Okram Ibobi Singh government ordered the cremation of the body after the completion of the second autopsy on July 24. The cremation was carried out at the Minuthong crematorium amid tight security.

The Assam Rifles version of the episode is the same as the one given out in all such incidents of the killing of "hardcore militants" while in the custody of the security forces. An arrest warrant signed by a Havildar of Assam Rifles, which was handed over to Manorama's family, stated that she was being arrested on the suspicion of being a militant and that no incriminating evidence was found during a search of the house. However, after Manorama's body was recovered, a statement issued by the paramilitary force stated that self-styled "Corporal" Thangjam Manorama, alias Henthoi, was gunned down as she made a bid to escape by jumping down from the vehicle that the force used. The statement added that during interrogation she disclosed that she possessed an AK-47 rifle and was willing to take Assam Rifles personnel to recover it.

Army and Assam Rifles personnel patrol the main streets of Imphal.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Lt.-Gen. Bhupinder Singh, Director-General of Assam Rifles, dismissed the allegations and reiterated the claim that she was a member of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), a militant outfit. He attributed the public fury to the linking of the incident to rape, but expressed the hope that the people of Manipur would accept the "real facts" after the first post-mortem report revealed neither sexual abuse nor torture, as had been alleged. Lt.-Gen. J.S. Verma, General-Officer-Commanding of the Army's Eastern Command, said in Kolkata that Manorama was a confirmed member of the PLA and had taken part in many of its operations.

OPPOSITION parties joined the protest and extended support to the demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA and set a three-day deadline to the Ibobi government to take action on it. Their leaders also hailed the protests as "courageous acts" to protect human rights. Ibobi, who was in Delhi for nearly a week consulting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, returned to Imphal on August 4 to a barrage of protests.

While a harried State administration re-imposed an indefinite curfew in the twin districts of Imphal East and Imphal West after the United Progressive Alliance government expressed reluctance to withdraw the Act, Opposition legislators staged a sit-in demonstration in front of the Assembly demanding the convening of a special session of the House to adopt a resolution for the withdrawal of the Act. "We have demanded the summoning of a special session of the Assembly because as public representatives, we want to reflect the voice of the people on the floor of the House," said N. Chandramani Singh, former Deputy Chief Minister and at present Leader of the Opposition. For the past three and a half years, Irom Sharmila Shanu, a young Manipuri woman, has been on a "fast unto death" demanding that the legislation be revoked. She began her fast after 10 people were killed in retaliatory action by security forces on the outskirts of Imphal in 2001, and is being forcibly fed liquids forcibly at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital.

The Central government, following the Prime Minister's discussions with political parties including those in the Opposition, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs and the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs, said it was not in favour of withdrawing the Act. It felt that such a move, while appearing to allow the 20-odd militant outfits in the State a free run, would give room for similar demands by other States.

The court of inquiry instituted by Assam Rifles failed to assuage public anger as it lacked transparency. It found some lapses by Assam Rifles personnel, but remained silent on the allegations of rape until it received forensic evidence. Similarly, the Justice P. Upendra Commission, which has begun its probe, failed to convince the protesters to call off their agitation as Clause 6 of the AFSPA bars all legal proceedings against security forces personnel without Central government sanction.

Chandramani Singh said: "Our past experiences showed that even after judicial probes found personnel of the armed forces guilty of violating human rights or committing excesses, the Central government either denied or delayed prosecution sanction against the guilty personnel." He also pointed out that the AFSPA had failed to suppress the insurgency in the State. "Rather, it has proved to be counter-productive as insurgency-related activities in Manipur have only increased. The solution to the problem lies in holding unconditional talks with the insurgent outfits instead of trying to find a military solution and allowing the armed forces to let loose a reign of terror in the name of counter-insurgency operations."

Meanwhile, the pressure on the Ibobi government is mounting from within, with two Ministers and seven legislators of the ruling Congress threatening to resign if the Act is not withdrawn by August 15.

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