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Death in Manipur: The collateral damage that was Rabina Devi

by Sudeep Chakravarti

Editor’s Note: News of Mary Kom’s boxing exploits and the sudden panicked exodus of north easterners from cities like Bangalore occasionally jerk the rest of India into trying to find states like Manipur and Nagaland on the Indian map. But few know what exactly ails these states other than rumblings about separatist groups and AFSPA. Journalist and writer Sudeep Chakravarti travelled along Highway 39 through Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur all the way to the borders of Myanmar talking to rebel leaders, government officials, intellectuals, visionaries and victims about their past, their present and their hopes for the future. In this excerpt from his critically acclaimed new book 'Highway 39 – Journeys Through a Fractured Land' (4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins India) he tells the story of Rabina Devi, a young woman caught in the crossfire between a  man once associated with the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and the police commandos determined to hunt him down.

At the major crossroads in Kwakeithel, in the southern suburbs of Imphal, I turn left to visit the family of Rabina Devi. She died as collateral damage, a death by structured insanity, the same as the ten mowed down in Malom. All Rabina had done was go to a market in the heart of Imphal.

Just four days earlier I had stood where she had before her death while buying a clutch of bananas. As she had, I was surrounded by the inimitable colour and cacophony of Ima Keithel to my left. On the other side were the choked lanes of Paona Bazar. In between the shadow of a flyover loomed; the structure named after Bir Tikendrajit, a famous warrior of Manipur and hero of the Anglo- Manipur War of 1891, who was hanged for treason by the British. The route west from the flyover would have brought Rabina here from her home in the outskirts.

I had walked down to the spot from Hotel Tam-pha after an early breakfast of freshly made paratha and chana at the smoky, dim Taj Hotel just opposite, run by a friendly Meitei Pangal family. I threaded a short way to the west and then cut south, taking M.G. Road—as ever, there’s a road named after Mahatma Gandhi when imagination fails and irony does not.

A stack of canoes and kayaks was placed by the slim strip of water that runs along the western wall of Kangla Fort; once a moat, now a place of sport. A poster announced it as a site for state-level water-sport competitions over some days towards the end of September and early October. Young girls paddled along, drawing smooth, powerful strokes along the water. I had watched for a few minutes this activity so resoundingly ‘normal’ that it seemed a like a radical space-time shift away from the daily civic hell of Imphal. On the road, trim girls and boys dressed in Sports Authority of India tracksuits wove their way past police commandos; sports being the one instance in which India appears to have got it right here.

Book cover: Highway 39 – Journeys Through a Fractured Land

Focus on sports, and some youngsters will jump at it to take their mind off trouble in their homeland; use sports to break out of the somnolence of despair that deep, continuing conflict can bring. And they have. Girls and boys from Manipur have for the past several years scored big in boxing, archery, soccer, hockey, and weightlifting, bringing some joy to their state, and providing several candidates for India’s national teams. World champion boxer M.C. Mary Kom, a policewoman and mother of two, has for the past five years collected several international gold medals. In Manipur she is as much an icon as Irom Sharmila. Normality. My walk shortly brought me to the area of Thangal Bazar.

The place resembles a civic disaster zone, as I had seen and felt on every visit to Imphal—certainly since the frequency of my visits had increased since 2007. Open sewers brought all imaginable filth to this premier trading area of Imphal. Mounds of garbage and multiple species of faeces ribboned the lanes and cheek-by-jowl rise of houses with shops below. Going deeper into the bazar, groceries, sweetmeat shops, stationery outlets and medicine stores gave way to the wholesale-trade heart of this ravaged city: stores for automobile parts, hardware, vast storehouses of rice, wheat, onion, garlic, potato—every face owning or manning these of a Marwari, a Sikh, and those with features from India’s northern plains. I heard language and dialect from these ethnic zones: Punjabi, Marwari, Hindi, Bhojpuri. Folks from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were setting up a pandal for the upcoming Durga Puja festivals near a junction. The fruit sellers all spoke Hindi or variations of it. ‘Mainland’ India in mainland Imphal.

I wound my way through Thangal Bazar to emerge in the northwest corner to reach Ima Keithel. I followed the filth, crossing a line of garbage and a bridge over an enormous open sewer, and turned left to find Bir Tikendrajit flyover dead ahead. There, facing the spillover of the main market, sat Imas in neat attire, some with arrow-straight marks of sandalwood paste rising from the bridge of the nose to the forehead. They set up a shop on what I couldn’t help calling the Flyover Road, selling banana, betel, fresh and dried fish, eel, snail, greens, water chestnut, from impeccably clean sheets of plastic, such little islands of order in the chaos.

Their faces were calm, their eyes, in the manner of those who keep market, all-seeing. Near us was a broken, once-white statue of Hijam Irabot, another Meitei hero. All around us—every few metres, it seemed—were Manipur Police commandos in their brown uniforms, stationed or strolling in twos and threes, in jeeps parked near crossroads, their automatic rifles at the ready, their caps spelling the word ‘Commando’ in an italicized scrawl in case anyone doubted their identity. Like I had, Rabina may have noticed the sponsorship of the flyover in Bir Tikendrajit’s name by Aircel, a prominent mobile telephony service in Manipur. She may have seen posters on the flyover advertising a ‘30-day Compressed Course MBBS in Shillong’—whatever the merit of such a crash tutorial in medical basics. Alongside, she may have also noticed posters that urged in bold capital letters: STOP OPPRESSION. STOP SILENT KILLING. STOP EXTRA JUDICIAL EXECUTION. Perhaps as a resident she was inured to such schizophrenic missives, unlike me, a visitor for whom such a place seemed bizarre in the way dignity, desperation and death came together so carelessly, so seamlessly.

With such utter terror.

Here, as she stood on 23 July 2009, Rabina and her unborn child were shot dead.

On 23 September, I had at the same spot seen her family perform a simple, dignified ceremony to mark the passing of two months since her death. I had held back from introducing myself, not wishing to sully the moment with the intrusion of an interview.

Those who performed the ceremony, dressed in traditional funereal pink and white cotton, and the handful who watched, had tears. Nobody knew why, and nobody had told them why a bullet marked Rabina out.

The only reasonable explanation—if ever it can be called reasonable— was that security personnel had fired shots to cover a staged encounter taking place a few metres away in a chemist’s shop, to make it look like there was an exchange of fire while the police were under attack, and a shot hit Rabina. The police version says she was accidentally killed when police fired at a ‘fleeing youth’.

I had also seen the family of that ‘fleeing youth’, Chungkham Sanjit, offer prayers for him near Maimu Pharmacy, one among a series of chemists’ shops at the Kangla Fort end of the flyover, the same morning as Rabina’s family offered prayers for her.

Nobody, not even his family, denies Sanjit had once been associated with the People’s Liberation Army. Twice arrested and freed, he was, his family insists, detached from his former comrades and since 2006 had worked at a private hospital as an attendant. The police insisted: He tried to flee, he had a Mauser 9mm pistol which he threw away. So, they had no option but to shoot, and kill.

Much like some of my fellow citizens I had seen horrific photographs of the cold-blooded, point-blank killing of Sanjit by Manipur Police commandos, published just weeks earlier by Tehelka magazine. The article was headlined, ‘Murder in Plain Sight.’ The introduction chillingly led off with: ‘In Manipur, death comes easy.’

And so it does. The series of a dozen photos in the magazine showed a composed Sanjit—hardly a ‘fleeing youth’—being first surrounded by a posse of commandos at a small communication centre, and then being escorted to nearby Maimu Pharmacy. He was then dragged in—and dragged out, dead. A photo shows a dead Rabina placed on a truck. Photos show her sarong, a purple and pink striped phanek. Sanjit, wearing a black shirt, blue jeans, and a dazed expression in death, is placed by her. Photographers crowd the truck. Close-ups of Sanjit, and Rabina’s bare feet and phanek.

No Mauser 9mm.

No explanation. I saw a few more photographs that did not make it to the Tehelka story, perhaps for reasons of space, perhaps for reasons of propriety.

One showed Rabina lying at the feet of a policewoman. Rabina’s body was limp, curved in death. Her face was covered with a thin white cloth, bloodied. A pool of deep crimson nearly reached the polished leather boots of the policewoman, her face a study of consternation.

Other images showed a bloodied and dead Sanjit sprawled on his back at the far end of Maimu Pharmacy, on some old cartons and medical junk.

And on a building adjacent to the pharmacy, for years—and even on the day I watched Rabina and Sanjit’s grieving families offer prayer—I saw a large billboard advertising the Congress party. On it a stern-faced chief minister with folded hands, Okram Ibobi Singh, marked space only a little less prominent than his boss, Sonia Gandhi, she with her trademark waving hand. It was a public display of a reach that political and media circles in Imphal— indeed, nearly everywhere in the region—insisted keeps Ibobi in power. This proximity to ‘senior leadership’, and what in politics is often called the TINA Factor: There Is No Alternative at present to Ibobi. Above Ibobi and Sonia soared the Congress pantheon, some members with impeccable and others with iffy records in relations with the public, democracy, and human rights. From left to right: Mohandas Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi.

Exhibit A on a normal day.