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Extra-judicial killings in Manipur and India’s human rights template

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-08-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

Here is an interesting update on the ongoing Supreme Court case over more than 1,500 alleged extra-judicial killings, which includes instances of staged encounters, in Manipur. It is among the most important human rights marquees in India in recent years, and it is being played out as much in Manipur as it is in the Supreme Court, which has pursued the matter, based on “public interest litigation”, or PIL, by an organization representing the families of victims and a Manipur-based human rights watchdog.

The process itself is setting benchmarks for culpability, response of the state, and is influencing India’s human rights cause-and-effect template. It could also rattle Manipur’s fractious and incestuous political structure.

Earlier this week, news arrived of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) constituting a five-person team to examine 97 of such instances between 2000 and 2011, though the PIL records cases all the way back to 1980. This follows a Supreme Court order on 14 July that CBI conclude such investigation into “fake encounters or use of excessive or retaliatory force” by the end of 2017, also the deadline for filing cases. The court will review progress and CBI’s compliance in January 2018.

As with the 1,528 extra-judicial killings alleged by the PIL, the focus of the CBI investigation will involve the Indian Army, its adjunct Assam Rifles, central paramilitary forces, and even Manipur police, which has for long piggybacked on the impunity and immunity offered to army personnel under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

Indeed, in an earlier hearing in April, the Supreme Court bench directed that cases of the army and Assam Rifles, and those of the police be segregated for investigation and judicial process. It also dismissed a plea that internal inquiry and investigation on several incidents by the army is adequate from the perspective of human rights.

In July, the Supreme Court bench was also harsh on central government representatives claiming that compensation had been paid to families of the victims—in a way, admission of wrongdoing—suggesting that compensation was hardly the preferred avenue else “all heinous crimes” would be settled that way, over-riding law of the land. This is dulcet compared to an observation of the Court in 2015: “Now it’s like you kill 10 people, pay compensation and the matter ends there.” Meanwhile, reportage by local media in Manipur revealed as false several instances in which the state government claimed to have paid compensation.

It will be interesting to see how the law of the land now plays out in Manipur.

For most of the years that now form part of CBI’s envelope of investigation, was the time of Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress as chief minister. Ibobi’s remarkable run lasted three terms from 2002 until March this year, when Nongthombam Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over. I imagine it’s another matter that Ibobi was for long Biren’s mentor, and Biren jettisoned the Congress and Ibobi late last year, and quickly emerged as BJP spokesperson and then in short order, as chief minister.

Biren has enough credibility issues to deal with, which I will discuss in a future column, but for now I would urge focus on his deputy chief minister Yumnam Joykumar Singh of the National People’s Party, which with others offered Biren coalition support to trump Congress; Ibobi-led Congress won more seats than BJP in assembly elections held earlier this year.

Joykumar was the state’s longest serving director general of police in recent times, serving two stints, one from March 2007 to January 2012, and again from June that year until his retirement in August 2013. Joykumar was considered as chief minister Ibobi’s hatchet man during that time. The Joykumar years have long been considered as troubling by most human rights organizations, for transforming Manipur police—and, in particular the elite Manipur Police Commandos—into a near-private army that did as it pleased.

Instances of human rights violations and extra-judicial killings during that time (which I shall share in future columns) are included in the dossier prepared for the Supreme Court by Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, which is partnered in the PIL by Imphal-based Human Rights Alert. The watchdog’s head is Babloo Loitongbam, who is also Joykumar’s nephew—and has had to battle the state during his uncle’s tenure as chief of police.

How will this play out? Will Biren dump Joykumar? Can he dump Joykumar? Will CBI’s investigation proceed unhampered? Will justice be served? We’ll find out shortly.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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