Data alleges 1,528 extra-judicial killings in Manipur; widows march against all odds for justice
Manipur widows have been quietly marching on against all odds, debilitating diseases and inner demons — a journey marked by few triumphs and numerous setbacks.
New Delhi: It was Good Friday on 6 April in 2007. A holiday and Renu Takhelabam's husband had driven out on his scooter to a local market. Hours passed and he did not return. Renu grew anxious, their nine-month-old son bawled. Meanwhile, Mung Hangzo's corpse lay unattended in a local hospital. Hangzo's death had become another statistic in the decades-old separatist insurgency in Manipur where security forces are armed with a law, even older than the insurgency, which gives them wide powers to raid homes, detain suspects and even kill on grounds of public order.
Earlier this month while the Indian government was defending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) at a United Nation's forum, Renu and other Manipuri widows were busy — on the Supreme Court's order — documenting cases of 1,528 men, women, and children — all victims of extra-judicial killings or "fake encounters". Manipuri activists' struggle against AFSPA became
national news thanks to some dramatic personalities, such as Irom Sharmila, the curly-haired activist who was on a hunger strike for 16 years until recently when she decided to contest assembly elections. She lost comprehensively after garnering only 90 votes.
An imprint was also left by a singular protest by 12 imas (mothers), who undressed themselves in front of the Kangla Fort in Manipur's capital Imphal in 2004, holding aloft a banner reading "Indian Army Rape Us" against the killing and rape of a young girl, Thangjam Manorama. But unnoticed in the campaign are activists such as Renu and Edina Yaikhom, the widowed foot soldiers of the movement, all in their 30s, who lost their husbands about 10 years ago.
These women have been quietly marching on against all odds, debilitating diseases and inner demons — a journey marked by few triumphs and numerous setbacks. In 2008, one July evening, Edina sat restless, waiting for her cabbie husband to return. He was usually home before dark. In a few hours, a few relatives walked in, wearing whites, the colour of mourning. Edina went blank and collapsed, the sudden trauma of her husband's death leaving her partially paralysed.
A year later, in another part of the state, Neena Ningombam's husband had gone out for a stroll after lunch. Around dinner time, she heard of his death on the 9 pm TV bulletin. The alleged extra-judicial killings in Manipur have followed a pattern over the years — of men disappearing and being found dead.
Fighting against AFSPA are members of the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association or EEVFAM. The acronym's pronunciation sounds like the local word for bloodstain. Mostly made up of young widows, the newest, albeit the strongest, troops in the relentless battle against AFSPA, the group has focused on filing court petitions demanding accountability for the killings.
Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights activist, recalls how the judicial battle was conceived over a few cups of coffee in Delhi University, sometime in 1980.
"Youths, who had come to study in universities here, were discussing how the mainland differed from their native land," he said. "At that point, AFSPA was introduced in Manipur. The
Patsoi Langjing incident in which CRPF killed four civilians including a pregnant woman triggered anger against the law. The first PIL (Public Interest Litigation) against it was taken up on 10 October, 1980," he said.
Around 36 years and multiple PILs later, "we are finally here," he adds. His organisation, Human Rights Alert, and EEVFAM, are co-petitioners in the ongoing case against AFSPA in the apex court. Losing her husband at the age of 24 was shattering for Renu, the president of the association, but she did not have any choice except to take up activism against AFSPA along with
the responsibility of her family. Edina, her comrade in the campaign, runs a small grocery shop.
"Locals told me that my husband was picked up by Manipur Police from a college campus at 5 pm in Imphal and taken 30 km away where he was tortured and killed. From TV news, my
relatives found that he had been killed. Nobody told me anything. When people came to my house wearing white clothes, I got to know that he had been killed," said Edina, 37. "My husband was a good man. I kept crying for days and the trauma led to paralysis. The left side of body was so badly affected for two years that even today I cannot cook or wash clothes. My children and I are dependent on my parents," she said.
In 2016, the Supreme Court sought details of 1,528 cases of alleged extra-judicial killings between May 1979 and May 2012 by the Manipur Police and the armed forces. So far, Renu's association has documented and submitted evidence in 748 cases of alleged extra-judicial killings to the court, which on 8 July, 2016 stripped the security forces of "complete impunity" from criminal actions and directed a thorough probe into the alleged fake encounter killings.
The association has put together details of the victims — photos, copies of FIR/inquiry/investigation conducted, documents of compensation given, postmortem reports, press clippings and written statement by eye-witnesses. "We are meeting the families and documenting the cases every day. It is tiring to juggle work and activism but we can't give up. We are closer to justice," Edina said. "It took years of efforts to get these families to register complaints and eye-witnesses to testify the killings."
On 7 April, the top court identified 265 key cases that it agreed to hear first. AFSPA is based on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942, which was issued during the Quit India
movement. It allows army personnel to use force, "even to the causing of death", in order to maintain public order, and also grants them executive powers to enter and search any premises
and arrest without any warrant.
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Sharmila today pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempt to commit suicide before a Delhi Court. The next date of hearing has been fixed for May 22.
"What I want is not awards. I want more people to support to strengthen the movement against the act," Sharmila said.
About criticism on her way of protest, Sharmila said if she wanted to commit suicide, she could have done it years ago.