'We'll never get justice from state. If we get it from Supreme Court...'
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Every morning on his way to work, Basanta Meitei walks through paddy fields and stops at a spot where the grass stands taller than elsewhere. His son Nobo is buried here, alongside his cousin Gobind Meitei.
"We are Hindus and cremate our dead, but our sons were mercilessly murdered and we buried them as a mark of protest," Basanta Meitei says. "It keeps him close to me. We performed the last rites according to Hindu customs, but I couldn't bear to part with his body."
No one in the Manipur village of Bashikhong Mamang Leikia ever cuts the grass. "I know we will never get justice from the state. Now if we get justice from the Supreme Court, we will cut the grass and erect a memorial," he says.
The killing of N Nobo Meitei and his cousin N Gobind Meitei is one of six cases in Manipur that are now being investigated by a Supreme Court-appointed panel comprising retired judge Santosh Hegde, former chief election commissioner J M Lyngdoh and former Karnataka police chief Ajay Kumar Singh. Its report, due in March, will determine if the Supreme Court will set up a special investigation team to probe allegations of 1,528 alleged fake encounters submitted by Manipur group Extra Judicial Execution Victims Families Association.
Nobo was 27 and Gobind 25. Nobo, a mason like like his father, had gone out with his cousin on April 4, 2009. They never returned.
"We didn't worry at first because Holi celebrations were on. The third morning, neighbours told us about the 8 am news showing the picture of a man killed in an encounter and identified as having been a member of an underground group," says Nobo's mother Lembi Meitei, 55. The picture was Nobo's. Members of the family identified the cousins' bodies at the morgue, but for a week they refused to take them home.
"The state claims it was a joint operation by Assam Rifles and Manipur Commandos. They said the two boys were insurgents. They didn't even name the group they were supposed to belong to," Lembi Meitei says. "We know this was done by Manipur commandos alone."
Basanta Meitei himself had retired as a rifleman from Manipur Rifles in 2001. "In my time, we were afraid to let any bullet be unaccounted for; we would rarely use our guns," he says. "Commandos nowadays work like criminals, picking up young men and carrying out fake encounters. They do it for petty theft, money the victim may be carrying. Since the government instituted gallantry awards, killings have increased, in search of promotions and raises."
The cousins had been shot dead in the fields of Langol in East Imphal. The state's response to a judicial inquiry into the killing was that "at 9.30 in the night a team of commandos and 39 Assam Rifles proceeded to Langol Games area acting on information that there are some members of a terrorist organisation there... the personnel saw four to five youths coming in their direction and they opened fire at the personnel. There was an encounter for seven minutes in which two terrorists were killed and from their possession weapons and ammunition were recovered."
The inquiry by the Imphal West additional district magistrate concluded it was "a real encounter since the medical officer who conducted the postmortem stated that the firing was from a distant range".
The group Human Rights Alert says judicial inquiries have found 17 encounters to be fake but no action has been taken against the police yet.
A police jamadar, Hollal Haokip, has been named in two of the six cases (those of Kiranjit Elangbam and Umakanta Chongham) currently under investigation. A judicial inquiry in 2012 indicted Haokip in yet another encounter. The findings of the district judge says: "In the result I have decided that the petitioner's son Loitongbam Tomba Singh was killed by the personnel of 23 Assam Rifles led by Major Kaushlendra Singh and personnel of Thoubal Police commandos led by... Hollal Haokip while he was in their custody in a fake encounter and... not killed from any exchange of firing (as) alleged by the respondents."
Kiranjit Elangbam I 24--Army dreams cut short
Kiranjit ElangBAM, 24, of Thoubal Haokha village, the eldest son and second of five siblings, was a sports and fitness enthusiast who dreamt of entering the armed forces. He was killed on April 24, 2009.
"It was a public holiday, anniversary of Manipur's battle with the British. My son had taken our cow, with his bicycle, to the community grazing field," says Kiranjit's father, Ibohal Elangbam, 53. "He wasn't back till 3pm and youths went looking for him. They found the bicycle but not Kiranjit. His mobile wasn't working. The next morning, neighbours told us he had been picked up by a group of commandos. The same morning, we heard on the 7.30 news that an insurgent had been picked up from Thoubal. We went to the Thoubal police but they said there was no such case. The neighbouring Kakching police too told us there was no such case filed with them."
The family eventually found Kiranjit's body in a morgue. "We came to know he had been shot in Lamlai, on the road to Ukhrul. He was shot near the foothills where no one lives," says Elangbam. The family went back to the police. "The police didn't even allow us to enter the station. We found out it was policeman Hollal Haokip who had handed over the body to the morgue," says Elangbam. By now the police were alleging that Kiranjit was a member of the insurgent group KCP and that they had recovered a 9mm gun from his body.
The state's response to the subsequent judicial inquiry was, "Jamadar Hollal Haokip filed a written report regarding two persons holding weapons and consequently force of police and 23 Assam Rifles proceeded to the site and laid ambush... The two persons challenged the police by opening fire, following which the said jamadar opened retaliation and one person was shot dead, and the other escaped..."
The inquiry, conducted by the executive magistrate of Imphal East, "could not conclude whether the killings were extrajudicial".
At home, Kiranjit's mother fondly preserves a file with all his certificates ó an application with the Manipur employment exchange, a driving licence for heavy goods vehicles, a piece of white cloth with the marathon number 969 printed in red. He had appeared for his class X examination from the National Open School in Delhi but all he was interested in was sports and fitness. He was training for a marathon in Goa, had ranked 15th in the Manipur Mega Marathon in 2009, and had participated in state-level karate events.
"Every morning he would get up and go for a run. Then he'd help the family at work and go to the gym," says his mother, Esheihanbi Elangbam, 48. "He had applied to the Army and the BSF, passed the written and physical examinations but was rejected in the medical examination because of a problem in his right leg. He told me he would keep trying till he got through."
Azad Khan I 12,14 or16--'How can a boy be a terrorist?'
The boy was allegedly picked up and killed on March 4, 2009. His age is a subject of dispute: one case filed by his family in the Gauhati High Court's Imphal bench says he was 12, its petition in the Supreme Court says he was 14; the government says he was 16.
He hailed from Phoubakchao Makha Leikai in Imphal West. His family says Azad, a student of class VII, was reading a newspaper with a friend in the courtyard when commandos entered and asked him for identity papers. "His mother and other women tried intervening but they were dragged and locked inside a shed while Azad was dragged to a paddy field. He was directed by the commandos to run and when he refused, one of them shot him. They then took the body away," says Azad's uncle Dr Bashir Ali.
"How can a 12-year-old be a terrorist? The state claims there are child insurgents in Manipur. Ask the village headman or his principal if Azad had ever been in a fight," says Dr Ali. He alleges commandos keep visiting the house with threats.
The state's version is, "While investigating the presence of PULF (a Muslim insurgent group), the Thoubal commandos and 21 AR saw two unknown youths hastily moving towards a paddy field. The armed forces asked them to stop... they started running and one of them opened fire. The forces returned fire in which one youth was killed..."
A magisterial inquiry concluded that "the armed forces resorted to retaliation in the aftermath of being fired upon and while the response was correct, the degree was not." The inquiry could not establish if the boy had fired. The report notes that "Azad Khan was 13-14 years old and the police personnel (should) have acted with special restraint."
Priyobarta Akoijam I 25: An unfinished errand
He worked as a cameraman at weddings, was married with a son, and lived in Imphal. On March 15, 2009, Priyobarta left on his Pulsar to buy packets for pickles his mother would make and sell. It was the fifth day of the Holi celebrations and his failure to return didn't worry his mother, Chandrakala, 54, until late in the night. The next morning, his death was announced in the local news.
"I thought this wasn't possible. My son had never been involved in any kind of criminal activity. He was a good boy. I went to the police and asked them why they had killed him, what he had done. They told me he was a member of the KCP. Later they came out with a statement saying he belonged to the KYKL," Chandrakala says.
"We never found his Pulsar or the Rs 8,000 he was carrying," she says. "The police refused to file an FIR. Had my son died in an accident or natural causes, I would have been able to deal with it. There was no reason for him having to die this way. The motive of the police was petty theft; they work like criminals," says Chandrakala, who has since been under therapy at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal. Priyobarta's wife and son, now 5, live with her parents.
The state told a magisterial inquiry, "While investigating a complaint about the presence of KCP cadre, Imphal West commandos came across 2-3 youths behaving in a suspicious manner and required them to stop for checking. The youths did not stop and opened fire and the commandos retaliated. One youth was killed while the other escaped. The body of the killed youth was recovered along with some weapons and ammunition."
The magisterial inquiry concluded the encounter was real since the postmortem report found the firing had come from long range.
Umakanta Chongtham I 24: 'Dragged out of house'
According to the police version, an unidentified youth was killed in an encounter in Iroisemba Boroi Makhong in Imphal West on March 15, 2009. According to Gunna Chongtham, 44, commandos had picked up his brother Umakanta, 24, from a neighbour's home. "We were told they beat up the men. The women didn't allow them to take my brother's friend. My brother had no one to defend him," he says.
Even as he recounts these events, a group of commandos arrive, have a brief discussion and leave. "They come every couple of weeks. They want to know if another one of us brothers is in an underground group," Chongtham says. "They threaten us, tell us to withdraw our case."
He says Umakantha had been picked up earlier on suspicion of being part of the group KYKL, once by the police, once by the BSF. "They found no evidence against him."
The state's version was, "A jamadar, Hollal Haokip, received information that members of a banned group were taking shelter in a village... a group of CDOs at Thoubal police and 23 Assam Rifles went to the area... These persons opened fire, and the armed forces fired back. In the encounter, one unknown armed youth was killed...''
The magisterial inquiry found multiple bullet injuries fired from "a distant range" and concluded that the deceased had been proved to be a member of the KYKL.
Khumbongmayum Orsonjit I 19--He rode to his death
K Lata, 55, a government schoolteacher, last spoke to her son Khumbongmayum Orsonjit, 19, before leaving for Jiribam to check class X examination papers. "He told me he was going to get his scooter repaired and buy food for our dog Rani. I didn't have mobile connectivity in Jiribam and came to know what happened much later," she says.
Orsonjit is said to have been picked up by police commandos from MG Avenue in Imphal's crowded business district. The family alleges he was arrested and tortured in custody, where he died. They cite torture marks on his body and fractured fingers.
"My son used to work with Dimapur Jingbayo Private Limited as an oil refiller for Tata Indicom towers. He always carried the company ATM card. I believe that this is why he was picked up," she says. He used to play the TV all day long, and now "we can't bear the silence. We keep the TV on all the time".
The state's version is, "At around 2.50 pm, a written report was filed regarding an alleged armed cadre riding a scooter and intimidating people and likely to commit pre-judicial activities. The deceased was riding on a scooter and refused to stop when asked to by the police. He didn't stop and randomly fired at the police, as a consequence of which they fired back, killing him."
The magisterial inquiry, by the additional DM of Imphal West, concluded that the encounter was real since the postmortem report indicated the firing was from a distance.