Murder In Plain Sight
If any picture can speak a thousand words, these photos — available exclusively to TEHELKA — could fill volumes. They capture a shootout that happened in the heart of Imphal, Manipur’s capital, barely 500 metres from the state assembly, on July 23. They show the moments before, during and after the encounter killing’ of a 27-year-old Indian citizen – a young man called Chongkham Sanjit, shot dead by a heavily-armed detachment from Manipur’s Rapid Action Police Force, commonly known as the Manipur Police Commandos (MPC).
There is a grotesque and brutal history to the bullets that killed this young man. For years, decades even, security forces in Manipur have faced allegations of human rights violations and extrajudicial murders committed under cover of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In 2000, Irom Sharmila, stirred by the gunning down of 10 civilians, including an 18-year-old National Child Bravery Award winner, by the Assam Rifles, started a hunger fast — that lasts to this day — in protest against the AFSPA. In July 2004, the nation was rocked by the protests of a group of Manipuri women who marched to an Assam Rifles base in Imphal, stripped naked and raised a searing banner: “Indian Army Rape Us”. They were protesting the rape, torture and murder, a fortnight earlier, of Thangjam Manorama, 32, who was picked up from her home at night by the Assam Rifles.
Manipur rose up in protest that day, and in August 2004, the Centre relented, withdrawing the AFSPA from Imphal’s municipal zone. Post-Manorama,’ as history is marked in Manipur, the army has taken a backseat, withdrawing outside the municipality. However, life in Manipur is still lived on the tightrope. In a seemingly new counter-insurgency strategy, the MPC has unleashed a reign of terror in the state.
The organisation known as the Manipur Police Commandos (MPC) was first set up in 1979 as the Quick Striking Force (QSF). Former Inspector General of Police, Thangjam Karunamaya Singh told TEHELKA, “They were trained for special operations. But the men had strict instructions. They were told to fire only when fired upon and pay special attention to the needs of women, children and the elderly. If they arrested somebody on suspicion, they had to take responsibility for their security,” stated Singh.
The MPC does not fall under the AFSPA but has now become notorious across the state. It operates only in the four districts of Manipur – Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur. The MPC is housed in isolated commando barracks and has minimal contact with the general population, though its personnel are all locals.
Extra-judicial killings, and, in particular, fake encounters by the MPC have become common in Manipur. In 2008, there were 27 recorded cases of torture and killing attributed to the MPC. Where once they conducted encounters’ in isolated places, they now do not think twice before operating in cities, in broad daylight, as they did on July 23. In several incidents, innocent civilians carrying money and valuables have been robbed and sometimes killed. In some cases official action has been taken against commandos for misconduct. For instance, in July 2009, five police commandos who had reportedly robbed three youths were suspended. But for the most part, their extra-judicial activity goes scot free.
According to the official version of Sanjit’s encounter death at 10:30am on July 23, a team of MPC personnel was conducting frisking operations in Imphal’s Khwairamband Keithel market. They saw a suspicious youth coming from the direction of the Uripok locality. When asked to stop, the version goes, the youth suddenly pulled out a gun and ran away, firing at the public in a bid to evade the police.
The official record states that the youth was finally cornered inside Maimu Pharmacy near Gambhir Singh Shopping Arcade. He was asked to surrender. Instead, he fired at the police. The police retaliated and the youth was killed. The account states that a 9mm Mauser pistol was “recovered”. The youth was identified from his driver’s license as Chongkham Sanjit, son of Chongkham Khelson of Kongpal Sajor Leikai, Manipur.
Usually, such official versions of encounters are difficult to disprove though everyone may know them to be false. But in an almost unprecedented coincidence, in Sanjit’s case, a local photographer rushed to the scene and managed to shoot a minute-by-minute account of the alleged encounter’. The photographs (shown in preceding pages) clearly reveal that, contrary to the official version, Sanjit was, in fact, standing calmly as the police commandos frisked him and spoke to him. He was escorted inside the storeroom of the pharmacy. He was shot point blank inside and his dead body was brought out. The photographer, fearing for his safety, does not dare publish these pictures in Manipur.
Eyewitness accounts partly corroborate the police version — except their account is obviously about a young man other than Sanjit. These witnesses state that a youth did escape from a police frisking party about a hundred metres away from where Sanjit was killed. The police chased this youth and opened fire, killing an innocent bystander, Rabina Devi — who was pregnant at the time — and injuring five other civilians. Afterwards, the police showed the media a 9mm Mauser pistol which they alleged was thrown away by the militant before he fled. After about half an hour, the police claimed to have killed the youth who escaped from their hands “in an encounter”; according to them, this youth was Sanjit. The photographs clearly indicate otherwise.
The police claim Sanjit was a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a proscribed insurgent outfit. Chief Minster Okram Ibobi Singh also made a controversial statement in the assembly that day, asserting that there was no other alternative but to kill insurgents.
Sanjit was indeed a former PLA cadre. He was arrested in 2000 but freed. In 2006, he retired from the outfit on health grounds. In 2007, though, he was detained again under the NSA and was only released a year later. Since then, he had been staying with his family at his home at Khurai Kongpal Sajor Leikai and had been working as an attendant in a private hospital.
But even if Sanjit was a former militant, he should not have have been killed in a false encounter. The photos show him talking to his killers, calmly, without offering any resistance. He was frisked moments before the shootout. He was not an insurgent on the run. In fact, Sanjit had to make periodic appearances before the Court, a requirement that the Court later lifted. “Legally speaking, Sanjit was a free man,” says M Rakesh, a lawyer at the Gauhati High Court’s Imphal Bench. There are also significant inconsistencies in the police versions of the recovery of the weapon. First, they said it was flung away by the fleeing militant. Then they said it was recovered from Sanjit after the encounter. As the photos show, Sanjit was ushered into the pharmacy, not chased in. Also, if Sanjit was, in fact, armed with the 9mm Mauser, why wasn’t it found during the frisking? Why, as the photos show, was he taken inside the storeroom?
The law says if a death is caused by state forces in an encounter which cannot be justified by Section 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the officer causing the death would be guilty of culpable homicide. In this case, only a rigorous investigation can establish what exactly transpired. Instead of instituting a judicial enquiry, however, the state government is setting up a departmental enquiry, which is unlikely to yield any justice to the victims’ families. Sanjit’s family claims he had broken his earlier links with the militants and was leading a normal life. They say he had gone out that day to buy medicines for his uncle, who is undergoing treatment at Imphal’s JN Hospital. Says Sanjit’s mother, Inaotombi Devi, “Life is very cheap in Manipur.”
Manipur is routinely roiled by such devastating narratives. Ex-MLA 78-yearold Sarat Singh Loitongbam’s son Satish Singh was killed by the armed forces. Though a devout Hindu, he refuses to perform his son’s last rites until his name is cleared of wrongdoing. Like Satish, there is Ningombam Gopal Singh, a 39- year-old Grade-IV employee at the Imphal Bench of the Gauhati High Court, a man who was chatting over tea with women at a hotel when he was dragged off by men in plainclothes, to be shot dead in an encounter’. There is 24-year-old Elangbam Johnson Singh, a student and part-time salesman, picked up by the MPC while out with a friend and killed in an encounter, his corpse at the morgue bearing signs of torture. Stories like these are a grotesque lattice in Manipur. “Life in Manipur,” as one observer puts it, “is like a lottery. You are alive because you are lucky.”