At the window stands the father, pleading for his son’s life. Outside, past the tree in the paddy fields, there is a gun planted on the boy’s head.
“Why are you killing my son? He is innocent. We can talk,” Mohammed Wahid Ali shouts.
“We will talk to him,” is the reply.
Ali sees his 12-year-old son Azad Khan being shot. The short summary of a killing four years ago.
Today, the window looks out on the same paddy fields that Azad Khan crisscrossed on his way to school. From this dark room, where Wahid Ali slumps in a chair, you can see where Azad Khan was allegedly dragged by the Assam Rifles’ (AR) personnel and shot. He wants to tell the story but when Ali goes to the window, he just weeps. His wife too.
Recently, a Supreme Court-appointed commission, headed by former Justice Santosh Hegde, concluded that in six cases of extra-judicial killing in Manipur that it had probed, the victims did not have criminal records and were killed in ‘fake encounters’. Of this lot of six, Azad’s is Case No 1. The petitioners in the case were the families of the victims. They now want the Supreme Court to appoint SITs (Special Investigation Teams) for at least 27 other cases from the list of 1,528 extra judicial killings they have compiled.
Around 11.30 am on 4 March 2009, Ali was home with his son. Azad and his friend were having a laugh over a news item, when 21 Assam Rifles personnel and some commandos marched in, according to his affidavit, beat up Ali and took Azad away. Azad was 12 years old at the time, according to school records. The state contests that in its affidavit, which states he was 14. There is a school identity card that has his photo with cropped hair. The family also has a blown-up version of this I-card, which they have framed.
He was a quiet child. The eldest and born after his parents had been married for more than a couple of years. The window in the room is about four-and-a-half feet high, about as tall his son was. That day, after eating rice and fish curry, he had bathed in the pond. He was wearing white pants and a pink shirt.
In his deposition in front of the commission on 3 March, 38-year-old Ali said, “It is true my son was dragged for 70 metres to the place of incident by the Commando personnel... I deny that there are many trees between the window of the house and the place of the incident. I state that there is one tree only. This tree does not obstruct the view from the window to the place of occurrence.”
He denies his son was a member of the extremist outfit People’s United Liberation Front, that he died in an encounter (khutthoknaba), that he was carrying a gun with which he shot at the commandos and that it was retaliatory fire that killed him.
Ali sits on the wooden three-seater where Azad had sat before they took him away. For a few moments, he keeps looking at the identity card. He is not literate and does not know what the letters mean. He runs his fingers over his son’s photo. Then he shows it to Mustafa, his eight-year-old son.
Mustafa sits through the story of his brother’s death, watching everyone. At some point, he goes and sits next to his father, and puts his hand on his shoulder. When he sees Azad’s photo, he breaks down. His left hand shielding his eyes, he sobs inconsolably.
Case No 1. That’s what Azad is today. But his family will not let go—younger sister Sureiya still carries his schoolbag, mother Garamjan keeps his school uniform among her clothes. It’s not possible to let go, the mother whispers.
Ali says when he spoke to Azad about the situation in the state, he would tell him to study because that was the way out. “My son and I understood each other. We used to walk through the fields and I would tell him stories of young men becoming officers,” Ali says. “I was waiting for him to grow up. All my land would have gone to him. That would be my gift to him. Now, it just lies there.”
Ali and his brothers live in four adjacent houses on family land. Ali is the youngest and poorest among them. His living quarters, which he shares with another brother, are bare except two wooden cupboards where the mother has kept her son’s school uniform among her clothes. She had fainted when the Assam Rifles soldier pushed her as he was dragging Azad away to the field. Her 40-day-old girl was in her arms. Baby Tabassum died three months later; Garamjan confessed she wasn’t upto breastfeeding or taking care of the child at the time.
“He loved cricket. He used to play with his friends,” the father remembers.
They removed the bed in Azad’s room because his mother couldn’t bear to look at it. They have put a worn-out sofa instead. But some things remain. There is the green canvas schoolbag. He had scribbled his name on it. The letters have now faded. Sister Sureiya carries it to school. “Out of love for my brother,” she says.
Imphal is a curious place. You come looking for insurgency, and you find a valley town, barren and not so beautiful. It is a ‘disturbed area’ and the provisions of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) grant Indian armed forces a virtual licence to kill. There are at least 20 reports of magisterial and other commissions that have not yet been made public. RTI applications have been filed but the state government has said these reports are exempt from its purview. So far, no prosecutions against the security forces have taken place for murder, rape or destruction of property in the state. Despite Irom Sharmila’s famous 13-year fast, the Government is yet to respond to this alleged repression.
It is also a state of memorials. Both private and public. In Heirangoithong, Imphal, there is a white stone memorial in a volleyball field with 14 names on it, including one of a security personnel. It marks the Heirangoithong massacre. On 14 March 1984, a volleyball match was being played here between the Manipur Police and the BSF. The field was filled with spectators cheering for their teams. Saratchandra Singh, one of the organisers of the match, was keeping the score. At one point, he got off his seat to get the ball which had gone flying into the Nambul river on the right. That is when the firing started. There is a scar on his wrist from trying to break the fencing to get to a safe place.
“It went on for 30 minutes,” he says.
According to locals, insurgents had tried to snatch weapons from CRPF personnel, who reacted by opening fire on them. Five were injured, and the insurgents escaped. But the security forces continued shooting at the crowd. More personnel joined in from the nearby CRPF camp, and by the end of it, 13 people were killed and 31 injured. One CRPF personnel was also killed. According to the enquiry commission’s report, there was no crossfire.
Ibempishak Elangbam, now over 70, was sitting in her house when her three-year-old nephew Amul was handed to her. He was covered in blood and bits of flesh of his father’s body. They were at the spot when the firing took place. Amul is now a young man, but he never talks about the incident. “I thought Amul was dead [when they brought him]. His eyeballs were pointing up. He didn’t blink or so I thought. He wasn’t crying,” Elangbam says. “Then the neighbours said the father was dead. He was my brother-in-law.” That evening the BSF and the police roamed the neighbourhood announcing “please identify the bodies in the field.”
“There was this thudding sound of the bodies being dumped in the truck. I remember that,” she says. Arun Kumar, 44, a relative of Amul, says he was there.While he was ducking, trying to avoid the bullets, he heard security forces shouting “Sab maro, sab khatam karo” and he ran to the other side of the river. Sometimes, Amul goes to the memorial. He stands there and tries to remember the dead.
In the January 1986 edition of Target magazine, Dhanabati Devi’s photo is faded but you can make out her blunt haircut and small frame. She was in Class VII.
Dhanabati, just 11 years old at the time, died trying to save another girl. The Target article was written by the girl she saved. ‘Didi Dhanabati pulled me to the side of the road, and asked me to bend. She held me tight in her arms. After some time, she fell on the ground as she was hit by a bullet on her head. Thus, while saving me, she was killed,’ she wrote. “Nobody was punished,” says Soibam Jiten, elder brother of Dhanabati. “My sister was on her way back from school that day.” Soibam Memma Devi, Dhanabati’s mother, has kept the National Bravery Award medal and certificate that Dhanabati got in a little box in her cupboard.“It is a long wait for justice. I am tired,” she says. “Long years have passed, but it is a mother’s heart.”
Every year, on 14 March, the family goes to the memorial to pray for the dead. Memma carries flowers.
Then there were the Operation Blue Bird killings in Oinam village in 1987. Former Justice Upendra Singh, who recorded the statements of the victims over six months as part of a magisterial enquiry, is still not sure why he was not asked to file a report. “The judges, I think, do not want to read these voluminous records. The case is still pending,” he says. “All such reports are lying with the government. They are not made public.”
The story, according to activists and locals, is that insurgents had raided an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village in Manipur’s Senapati district. Nine Assam Rifles personnel were killed in the surge. Operation Blue Bird was the State response to this insurgent audacity. For three months, Assam Rifles men took control of Oinam and 30 villages in Senapati district. Fourteen civilians were killed, several others tortured to death. A Naga woman from Senapati says pregnant women were forced to deliver in the fields. Men and women were kept in separate detention camps.
Among the six cases being investigated by the Justice Hegde Commission is one of Khumbongmayum Orsonjit, 19, who was shot in the busy streets of Imphal on 16 March 2010. He had gone to buy chicken bones for his dog. His mother, Tourangbam Ningol Lata Devi, a teacher, was on her way to a school on the Assam border, for examination duty. When she reached, she had messages on her phone asking her to return. When she did, nobody was home. She kept waiting.
In a corner of their home, father Imo Singh sits quietly. He runs a small grocery shop. It is hard not to miss the son, he says. In the room where there is an altar to their son, there is the bullet-ridden Activa scooter he was riding the day he was shot.
They found his body in the mortuary, and the mother refused to collect the body from the State, saying justice had to be done. After a point, the officials said they would tag the body as ‘unclaimed’ and dispose of it as they saw fit if she did not claim it in three days. So she did.
She shows the photos she took with her mobile phone. Her hands didn’t shake; the photos are not blurry or hazy. But it is hard to look at them. The fingers look smashed and the face is bloody.
“I will fight till I get justice. The pain is deep. It is killing us,” she says.
According to the State, there was a report identifying him as an armed insurgent cadre riding a scooter. He opened fire at the police, and was gunned down as a result.
Babloo Loitongbam of NGO Human Rights Alert, who is one of the petitioners in the litigation filed in the Supreme Court, says after the Court’s observation in the six cases based on the Commission’s findings, he has stopped going for morning walks. He receives threats and his phone has been tapped.
“AFSPA must be repealed. The paramilitary forces and others are trained to destroy. That leads to cases of violence against those who are innocent because they act on what they call ‘Grade 1’ information, which does not need to be verified because of its urgency,” he says.
The Army is for the moment stuck in Manipur and the Government cannot decide on the fate of AFSPA. Irom Sharmila’s strike, protests, dharnas and blockades are a spent force. The Army is used to the power AFSPA grants it. The Home Ministry meanwhile blames the Defence Ministry for its reluctance to review and amend AFSPA.
Azad’s family was given the body after a few days. The graveyard lies on the side of the street bereft of tombstones. Wahid Ali comes here every morning. At 4:30 am, he kneels down in prayer. He returns before sundown.
“I pray that no father should live to see his son’s murder. We are poor. Maybe justice will not come to us. But we still hope,” says Ali. He kneels once again. Wife Garamjan stands outside the fencing, watching her husband in prayer.
“When [Azad] was alive, he was fascinated with the news of a proposed flyover in Imphal. He wondered what it would look like. Now, when we see it, we feel sad,” Garamjan says.
Ananda, the friend who was with him the day he was killed and deposed in front of the Commission, lives nearby. His parents are scared. They say he is not home. Azad and Ananda grew up together. They would often take a shortcut through paddy fields to Phoubakchao High School. When she sees two boys go to school, Garamjan looks away. The memories are painful. As per the deposition of Havildar Bronson Thanga, 29, “Information was received from certain reliable sources as to the activities of the underground cadres of PULF.” Thanga decided to go to Phoubakchao, and said he had permission from the control room within minutes of seeking it.
The father says he had no knowledge of a police case against his son. As per submissions made by Mohammed Salim Khan, a neighbour, the distance between his house and the victim’s is about 150 metres, and there is a paddy field between the two houses. He says there is no hedge or tree or anything in the paddy field or between the two houses. “When I saw Azad Khan being dragged by Manipur Police commandos, I was in my garden planting maize,” he says.
“I refute the suggestion that the shots were fired not by police commandos but by Azad Khan. There were local people asking the police not to plant a gun on Azad Khan’s body.”