Sri Nagar 3rd July (TNS): More than 1,500 people were allegedly killed in a wave of extra-judicial executions by security forces in India’s insurgency-ridden north-eastern Manipur state between 1979 and 2012. Last year, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court asked relatives of the victims and activists to collect information on the killings. The court will rule in July whether to order an official investigation which could lead to convictions. Soutik Biswas travelled to Manipur to find out more.
Neena Ningombam vividly remembers the day her husband disappeared – and ended up a corpse on cable news.
It was a bright, sunny November day in 2008, and 32-year-old Michael was visiting a friend’s house in Imphal, the non-descript, mountain-ringed valley capital of Manipur.
At home, Ms Ningombam was doing her chores. Her two boys were fast asleep. At half past three in the afternoon, her mobile phone rang.
Michael was on the line saying that he had been picked up by police commandos on his way home, and that she should quickly pass on the news of his arrest to a senior policeman who was known to the family so that he could help secure his release.
The call disconnected abruptly. Two hours later, a man finally picked up the phone and told Ms Ningombam that her husband was “in the toilet”. He said he would inform him that she had called.
Michael never called. When she tried calling again, his phone was switched off.
Tense and confused, Ms Ningombam sat down in front of the TV. Her sister-in-law had gone in search of the police officer known to the family, but he couldn’t be found.
Manipur, a hilly north-eastern state on the border with Myanmar (Burma), has been a cauldron of insurgency for more than four decades.
At one point, the state was home to some 30 armed groups. Six main groups are outlawed.
The violence is stoked by ethnic rivalries, and demands for independence and affirmative action for local tribespeople. Some rebel groups also act as social watchdogs, targeting liquor sellers, drug traffickers and banning Bollywood films. Lack of jobs has worsened matters.
According to the government, 1,214 civilians were killed by insurgents between 2000 and October 2012. Also, 365 police and soldiers were killed by insurgents during the same period.
A controversial anti-insurgent law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) – which protects security forces who may kill a civilian by mistake or in unavoidable circumstances – has been in effect here since 1958 and been partly blamed for the “perpetual immunity” enjoyed by the forces.
In July 2016, the Supreme Court remarked that the law could not be an excuse for retaliatory killings and excesses.
So she waited, and waited, for Michael, watching the news on a local channel. At nine in the evening, the screen exploded with breaking news.
They were showing footage of her bloodied husband, wearing blue nylon tracksuit bottoms and a dark green T-shirt, lying dead on a stone floor. A Chinese-made grenade lay next to the body. The news reader breathlessly announced that police commandos had killed another militant.
Ms Ningombam says she looked at the screen and froze. Grief felt so like fear itself.
“I just remember that I cried and cried and cried. Someone came rushing in and yanked off the TV cable wire. My brother-in-law went to the morgue and identified him.”
The post-mortem report said Michael Ningombam had died of “shock and haemorrhage as a result of firearm injuries to lungs and liver”.
The police said Michael and two friends were riding a motorcycle when they were stopped by half a dozen vehicle-borne commandos in a wooded area on the outskirts of the city. The pillion rider was said to have fired at the vehicle and Michael apparently tried to throw a grenade at the commandos who then shot and killed him in an act of self-defence. The police also said Michael was a militant and extortionist.
“My husband was struggling, doing odd jobs. He was a drug user and he was trying to kick the habit. But he was not a militant,” Ms Ningombam , 40, told me. They had met in college, fallen in love, eloped and married.
The neighbourhood had erupted in protests after the killing, demanding an investigation.
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Ms Ningombam, who holds a masters degree in history, took up a driving school job to support her sons. She also single-handedly launched an arduous battle for justice, filing official complaints, petitioning the government and the court, collecting papers and coaxing a key potential witness to testify.
Every day, for more than a month, she would drive 15km (9 miles) on her scooter to the wooded city outskirts where an ageing shop-owner had spotted the commandos drive by in a SUV with her husband on the afternoon of the killing. Then he had heard the sound of gunfire in the distance.
“After days of coaxing him and interacting with his family, the old man consented to testify and became a key witness. That is how we sometimes get some justice in Manipur. The state doesn’t help you,” she said.