AND THE STRUGGLE FOR LEGAL JUSTICE
"CRYING FOR JUSTICE"
Since the 1950's the Indian security forces have been carrying out their counter insurgency operations in Naga inhabited lands. They have burnt down entire villages; some villages were burnt 17 times. "Operation Bluebird" was the biggest operation in recent times. But this time there was a difference. The villagers did not remain silent. They have dared to speak out, and with the help of the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) they took the armed forces to court. This is the first time in the long, tortuous history of violation of human rights of our people that the guilty officers of the security forces had to stand in the dock and answer the charges of murder, rape, looting and arson. The struggle for legal justice began more than fifteen years ago on October 5, 1987. It is a unique struggle in the annals of Naga history.
On July 9, 1987 the 29th Battalion Assam Rifles post (Assam Rifles is one Regiment of the Indian Armed Forces) near Oinam village in Senapati District, Manipur was raided in broad daylight by the undergrounds. They walked away with large quantity of arms and ammunition. Nine Jawans (soldiers) were killed and three seriously injured.
The Assam Rifles launched "Operation Bluebird" to recover the captured arms and ammunition. The operation lasted till the end of October 1987.
"Operation Bluebird" was carried out in and around Oinam and its surrounding 30 villages of Senapati District in Manipur. Within a few days after the operation was launched there were reports that the villagers were being subjected to all kinds of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the Assam Rifles.
Politicians of various local and national parties, journalists, student leaders and village elders voiced their concern in the shape of innumerable memorandums and petitions both to the Manipur Government and to the Union Government of India. However no official commission of enquiry or even an administrative investigation was forthcoming. Instead the then Chief Minister expressed his absolute helplessness in protecting the villagers from the Assam Rifles' atrocities. In a confidential Memorandum to the Union Home Minister the Chief Minister on behalf of the Council of Ministers of Manipur wrote:
"The Civil Law has, unfortunately, ceased to operate in Senapati District, Manipur, due to excesses committed by the Assam Rifles with complete disregard shown to the Civil Administration. The Assam Rifles are running the parallel administration in the area. The Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police were wrongfully confined, humiliated and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces".
The Civil Liberties and Human Rights Organisation (CLAHRO), Imphal was the first to file petitions on behalf of the illegally arrested leaders and villagers and got their release. In the petitions filed by CLAHRO the Gauhati High Court not only directed the immediate release of the leaders but awarded Rs. 5,000 (US$ 100) each to all those who were illegally detained and Rs. 20,000 (US$ 400) each to the families of two persons killed by Assam Rifles. In the strongly worded judgment of July 12, 1988 the High Court stated "that the rule of law does not cease to function even under difficult circumstances. The clash of arms cannot down the voice of law."
The Women's Union of the Manipur Baptist Convention also filed a petition on behalf of women who had been raped, sexually molested and also those who had been forced to work as construction labourers or porters by Assam Rifles during "Operation Bluebird".
In October 1987 the Naga Peoples' Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) filed a petition on behalf of all the affected people. The Gauhati High Court admitted the petition. The NPMHR alleged that the security forces committed the following cognizable offences: murder; man-slaughter; infliction of grievous injuries; rape and sexual harassment; arson, looting and theft; desecration of Church; wanton destruction of public and private properties; including school buildings; illegal evictions; illegal raids, seizures; illegal detentions and arrests and forced labour.
The NPMHR petition stated that in the course of a few weeks the Assam Rifles shot dead fifteen people after subjecting them to inhuman torture. The villagers were made to stand at the playgrounds exposed to torrential rains and scorching heat for weeks. The Assam Rifles used the Churches as concentration camps. Hundreds of villagers were severely beaten and subjected to third degree methods of tortures, men were hung upside down, buried alive and given electric shocks. Women and girls were sexually assaulted. Two women were forced to give birth to their babies in the open ground in full view of the soldiers (Jawans) and villagers.
The Assam Rifles went from house to house to search and looted homes. People were not allowed to go to their fields, or to tend their cattle as a result of which lakhs of Rupees worth of agricultural crops were destroyed. The Assam Rifles dismantled and burnt down more than a hundred resident houses, several Church and School buildings, hundreds of villagers were forced to construct camps, build roads and carry rations for the Assam Rifles without any payment.
The Assam Rifles did not allow either student leaders or politicians to enter the villages. Those leaders who tried to reach the people were illegally detained and tortured.
In support of these evidences the Naga Peoples' Movement for Human Rights filed dozens of affidavits of victims, memorandums, petitions, newspaper reports and other documents, running into almost 1000 pages.
The NPMHR in the Writ Petition has asked the Court for the following relief:
1. Revoking the notification declaring Senapati District as a Disturbed Area under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act,
2. To lay down guidelines to ensure that the Civil administration can effectively check misuse of power by the Armed Forces during combing operations,
3. To declare Section 6 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act unconstitutional. Because of this Section no one can file any case against the security forces even if they commit crimes without first obtaining permission from the Central Government, an impossible condition for the villagers in the hill areas,
4. Exemplary damages to be paid to the families of those tortured to death; women who were assaulted or raped; to the house owners whose houses were dismantled or burnt; to those who were tortured or illegally detained; to those whose goods were looted or destroyed and to all those who were forced to work without any payment.
The High Court decided that there was a need for more evidence. On July 6, 1988 it directed the Sessions Judge at Imphal in Manipur to record the evidence of villagers with regard to the following charges made by the NPMHR against the Assam Rifles:
a) 27 persons are alleged to have been killed in the encounter known for short "Operation Bluebird" on different dates in Senapati District of Manipur State.
b) Three women were alleged raped and five women were alleged sexually molested.
c) 300 persons are alleged tortured by Assam Rifles.
d) Persons who were detained; persons who were victims of third degree method like electric shocks; persons illegally detained and tortured.
(e) 125 resident houses were allegedly burnt; in addition 112 houses were dismantled.
f) 6 schools and 10 churches were dismantled.
g) 7 villages are enumerated where property worth Rs. 50,79,000/- (US$ 101,580) were looted. The names of the villages are - (1) Oinam, (2) Ngamju Shah, (3) Ngamju Ponvah, (4) Khongdei Shimphung, (5) Khongdei Khuman, (6) Kodam Khullen and (7) Sorbung village.
h) Villagers belonging to five villages were forced to work in five villages - (1) Oinam, (2) Thingba Khullen, (3) New Maram, (4) Maram Khullen and (5) Phaibung Khullen. On this account headman of five villages if is represented will be examined.
AT THE SESSIONS COURT, IMPHAL
From August 22, 1988 the Sessions Judge at Imphal, Shri C. Upendra Singh, began recording evidence of the NPMHR witnesses. Here are extracts of what they told the court:
" I was taken to Oinam Post and beaten severely during interrogation …I was beaten with sticks and iron rods all over my body and given electric shocks in my private parts…"
Ng. Khailang of Ngamju Sha Village
" I was arrested by the Assam Rifles on 30th August 1987 and taken to their camp till 3rd September 1987. On 4th September I was taken to a Magistrate at Imphal and forced to put my signature on a false affidavit prepared by Assam Rifles."
L. Jonathan of Phuba Thapham Village
"I was beaten very badly outside the Church, I got a severe injury in my pelvic bone and legs. I can no longer walk or sit."
Thaiso of Sorbung Village
"Ten houses were forcibly dismantled by the Assam Rifles in my village … the Commanding Officer C. P. Singh was himself in the village when they dismantled houses … I saw one villager, Sosang, being badly tortured. Later he was found dead."
P. K. Wakhao of Ngamju Shah Village, Pastor.
"I was nine months pregnant at the time. I was forced to give birth to my baby in the concentration camp where we were all confined."
L. Khola of Oinam Village
"Major Ravindra extorted money from my village. I was beaten and I cannot do work now. I saw Ms. Somila and Ms. Solomi being badly tortured."
S. Seiba of Phuba Khuman Village
"The NSF decided to form a Good Will team to visit Oinam. Our team was detained and five of us and our driver were not allowed to sleep and were tortured the whole night. We all had to be hospitalized at Kohima."
Neikuo Lhousa, Vice President,
Naga Students' Federation
"When I saw my husband again he was in great pain with bruises all over his body. He was taken to the Assam Rifles camp the next day. After three days the dead body of my husband and Wakhao were brought to the village for burial."
S. Khyala of Oinam Village
"I saw with my own eyes the dismantling of the Government High School Building of Oinam by the Assam Rifles … The Headman of my village was brutally tortured and as a result our villagers had to carry him on a stretcher to the Oinam post when he was ordered to go there. The cattle destroyed our standing crops because we could not tend them."
L. M Thaipi of Thingba Khullen Village
"My elder brother, N. Thava, and another villager M. Essau were kept confined in the school office. When I took food to my brother and M. Essau. I found them without shirts, sitting inside the room. My brother told me they were feeling very weak and tired after beaten repeatedly … Later the police told us to identify some dead bodies lying in the jungle. One of them was M. Essau. The next day we found the dead body of my brother hanging from a tree, his feet touching the ground."
N. Silas of Khongdei Shimphung Village
"When I was in the school building working as an interpreter for Assam Rifles I saw them beating village authority members, villagers and even a pregnant woman. I saw two Gaonburas (village council members), Mr. R. Khowa and Mr. K Sunai in a serious condition. Later the police told us to collect their bodies from the jungle. I saw gun shot injuries on the private parts of Mr. R. Khowa and injury marks on the body of Mr. K. Sunai."
Mr. N. Sekho of Khongdei Khuman Village
"The Assam Rifles ordered the village to construct a road; nothing was paid either for the timber or for our labour. We have made a list of property looted or damaged by the Assam Rifles during the curfew days. It amounts to more than five lakhs rupees (US$10,000). A major demanded women from a schoolteacher and when he refused to oblige he was beaten. The schoolteacher's house was dismantled."
N. Saheni of Phaibung Khullen Village
"We were told to take the schoolgirl, Miss Kholo, to the Commanding Officer who was stationed at Khongdei Khuman."
Zhiiso of Lakhami Village
"I saw P. Rangkhiwo and Mathotmi, Headman and Village Secretary of our village severely tortured by the Assam Rifles. Later the two died."
R. Kangshang of Ngari Village
"The villagers were taken inside the school building in turns and beaten severely with wooden sticks. I was among those severely beaten and till today my head reels. We were detained inside the school building and not allowed to bend, to tend our cattle so our standing crops were destroyed. Assam Rifles took away our hens, pigs, rice, etc. without payment."
H. Peter of Kodom Khullen Village Pastor
"I was ordered to gather all the villagers within four minutes. They separated men and women. Then they started beating the village authority members. The Assam Rifles also beat the Pastor of my village church. The villagers were used as porters. They were not given any payment of any kind."
Ch. Daihrii of Liyai Khullen,Raja
"They blindfolded me and started to beat me … As a result of this beating my right eye is permanently damaged. The Assam Rifles destroyed my house, which was constructed after the performance of special rites. My villagers were used as porters to carry rations for the Assam Rifles."
R. Hepuni of Thingba Khullen Village, Raja
"The Assam Rifles forced me to remove my clothes and I was beaten till I fell unconscious. I saw thirteen others being beaten severely by the Assam Rifles."
H. Sow of Purul, Pastor of Liyai Khullen
"I pleaded with the officers of the Assam Rifles at Oinam to allow me to take my ailing wife to the hospital but the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. C. P. Singh, flatly refused … I then approached the D.I.G. Brig. B. N. Singh, and he replied by boxing me and shouting "teachers are bastards" till I fell unconscious. My wife died. I have come this court straight from the jail. I was arrested by the Assam Rifles and given electric shocks because I brought my younger sister to Imphal al to give evidence against them… They handed me to the police and implicated me under the Terrorist Act. I am out on bail."
Th. Stephen of Ngamju Pongvah,
Government School teacher
AGAINST ALL ODDS
The NPMHR was able to produce only 22 witnesses between August 22, 1988 and February 1989, although the Sessions Judge was recording evidence on a day-to-day basis, continuously working even through the holidays. Throughout this period the Assam Rifles intimidated the NPMHR witnesses both in the court and in the villages. They tried to terrorize the people into silence. The Assam Rifles filed false criminal cases against key witnesses and pressurized the police into arresting them. They prevented the villagers from coming to Imphal and several villagers went to Kohima or into the jungles to hide. They even illegally arrested villagers and gave them electric shocks.
In January 1989 the Assam Rifles raided the Manipur Baptist Convention Centre Church at Imphal and went into the girls' hostel where the advocate for the NPMHR was staying. More than two weeks later they filed criminal cases under the Terrorist Act against three church leaders and a NPMHR activist.
Human Rights organizations all over the country and even international organizations voice their concern over blatant interference by Assam Rifles in the judicial process. Amnesty International gave the following statement to the 45th United Nations Commission on Human Rights:
"In some countries, serious machinery for independent judicial investigation may be in place but its efforts to investigate human rights crimes may be sabotaged. A Court in INDIA has been investigating allegations of reprisal killings and torture of villagers by the Assam Rifles in Manipur State. It is reported that members of the Assam Rifles have reportedly tried to intimidate witnesses, even resorting again to torture, and also to intimidate one of the Lawyers by invading her lodgings and threatening to use force against her. The government of India has regrettably not responded to Amnesty International's request to observe the proceedings."
The NPMHR filed a contempt petition before the High Court against the Assam Rifles for interfering in the judicial process. The petition is pending.
Throughout this period the NPMHR has been able to continue against all odds only because of the indomitable courage of the villagers who have dared to speak out. Their courage has been a constant source of inspiration. The villagers came down to Imphal at grave risk to themselves. They walked into the gates of Sessions Court compound at Uripok, Imphal only to find it full of Jawans (soldiers) of Assam Rifles standing with their self-loading rifles (SLR's) the villagers would walk into the courtroom to find the officers of the 21 Assam Rifles sitting in the middle, in full uniform. The Courtroom was charged with tension and the overbearing presence of the Assam Rifles. In this conditions, far from home in a totally alien and hostile atmosphere the villager told his or her story - always with great dignity and firmness.
From March 1990 the Assam Rifles started producing their witnesses before the Sessions Court at Imphal. They have been cross-examined by the Counsel for NPMHR. This is the first time that senior officers have stood in the dock and have had to answer the charges made against them by the people. The Assam Rifles had filed a list of more than 700 witnesses.
The High Court directed the Sessions Court to allow the Assam Rifles to produce only 32 of the 700 witnesses and to finish recording evidence within three months which period ends on April 18, 1990. The High Court has also directed the Government of Manipur to deposit various confidential documents in the Court. The Manipur Government has already deposited several files containing wireless messages exchanged between the various officers of the civil administration. The correspondence is a testimony to the brutality and acts of savagery committed by the Assam Rifles.
On April 21, 1990 the recording of evidence at the Sessions Court, Imphal ended and the Session Judge has transferred all the records to the High Court at Guwahati. In 1992, the Gauhati High Court appointed two Judges namely: - Justice Phukon and Justice W. Shishak for the final hearing and arguments. Surprisingly, after recording of over 10,000 pages brief of the argument, Justice Phukon was transferred before writing the judgment. Since than, inspite of several appeal, the case has been kept pending as no Judge has been appointed nor listed for final hearing till date.
The NPMHR is a small human rights organization without access to financial resources. The long legal struggle has sapped the energies of the members and drained the organization's resources. However the fight against State violence has strengthened the organization and its members in their faith and belief in democracy. The moral and political victory has already been won. But the legal battle has a long way to go still. We need your continued support and solidarity in the days ahead.
"WAITING FOR JUSTICE"
"JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED"
Published by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR)
Based on the 2nd & 3rd reports of
The Co-ordinating Committee on Oinam Issue (COCOI)