Just Another Massacre

Sinam Ongbi Chandrajini lost two young sons and a sister when Assam Rifles personnel arbitrarily opened fire on civilians in Malom in 2000. It was the horror of this incident that led Irom Sharmila to begin her fast against AFSPA
True Life
BEING TOUGH Chandrajini with her granddaughter at Malom bus stand, with the memorial in the background (Photos: RUHANI KAUR)

The grass has grown tall at the Malom memorial in Manipur. It’s a white stone with the names of the ten civilians who were killed by the Assam Rifles, installed not long after that massacre on 2 November 2000.

That afternoon, Sinam Ongbi Chandrajini hadn’t performed her usual ritual of lifting her son’s hands to her face and smelling it before he stepped out of the house. To this day, Murphy, her grandson, reminds her of that little slip and Chandrajini just nods. “Maybe he would have lived if you did it,” he says. Chandrajini was at the pond when her son, Sina Chandramani, a 17-year-old high school student, left for his tuition class. Like most mothers in Manipur, she would have touched her lips to his hands and smelt it to ward off the evil eye. But Chandramani was getting late and he couldn’t find his mother.

They shot him at the bus stand.

Ima Chandrajini was within earshot. She heard the guns, and she felt nervous. A curfew was imposed soon after, and it was evening by the time she walked to the end of the dirt track, up on the main road, where her feet got stuck in what she thought was mud. It was only later that she realised it was blood. Two of her sons hadn’t come home.

The security personnel at the bus stop wouldn’t let them go near the bodies they had stacked there. Chandrajini lay on the side of the street for a long time, and then she had to be taken home. The next day, she was told that they had shot her sister and her two sons. That was 13 years ago. Irom Sharmila started her fast asking for the repeal of the AFSPA after the Malom massacre. She never met the mother of the two young men who were killed when security forces started firing at civilians in the aftermath of a grenade attack by insurgents in which nobody was hurt. Chandramani, while he was waiting at the bus stand, had tried to duck behind a pillar, but a bullet struck him anyway.

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The memorial stands next to this bus stand. A few girls are standing in the shade waiting for a bus. They know what had happened here. But such things happen in Manipur all the time.

“It was around 3:15 in the afternoon. He was on his way to his physics tuitions. My son was in Class XI,” the mother says. Chandrajini’s daughter had told her that her son was looking for her before he left. Maybe if she had done the ritual, he would have been alive today.

For a long time, she kept his belongings: the photos and clothes, his cricket bat and football. When the dead are bid farewell, their things are given away. Later, she burned some of the photos and gave away the other stuff. But it wasn’t easy to let go. Not then.

Chandramani’s sister—they were five siblings, two sisters and three brothers—sits against the wall of their Malom house. “He was the pampered one,” she says.

The albums his mother brings out has some of her son’s photos. He had won a National Bravery award in 1988 for saving his younger brother from drowning in a pond. He didn’t know how to swim but he got a stick and somehow managed to pull his brother out onto the shore.

They had all gone to Delhi for the award function, where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi felicitated the boy. The photo: a little boy in a red sweater with his proud parents.

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On that day almost 13 years ago, 27-year-old Sinam Robinson, the elder brother who was a teacher, was away on work. He came back in the evening and met Chandramani on the road. Their aunt was to leave for her house in Imphal, and Robinson had been asked to drop her off.

While she narrates the story, Murphy, her nine-year-old grandson, holds her hand. He knows what is coming ahead. Tears, and much more. Perhaps he has heard the story many times over. Other kids crowd around. Murphy’s sister Nancy inches closer to her grandmother before she begins to describe what happened next.

After Chandramani left, she heard a thud. It was a strange noise, full of premonition. In a village where the quiet was only broken by the trucks that honked while they navigated the single-lane road to Imphal, that ‘thud’ was an anomaly. And then she heard the shots, and the cries. Maybe her sons had cried out, but she couldn’t tell one voice from another. “Since my sons weren’t home, I was anxious. It was getting dark,” she says. “I was restless and I was running around asking for news.”

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Chandrajini has given up hope of justice. It doesn’t even matter anymore. Her loss is her own, she says. Only she knows how anger turned into grief. She has spent this past decade in a state of mourning. The cauliflowers in the kitchen garden remind her of Robinson, a quiet young man who took up his father’s job after he died. He would plant vegetables and flowers in the little garden and tell his mother to take care of them. She has a photo of her two sons that she shows us.

Chandrajini is old and wrinkled and hopes that other people’s struggle to get justice doesn’t end like hers—court cases, FIRs, recording of statements, and then, nothing. Whatsoever.

That evening, Chandrajini heard people crying. Wailing mothers, but they wouldn’t tell her anything. They wouldn’t confirm if the dead included her sons.

In the narrative of AFSPA’s excesses in Manipur, a violent and volatile state that has around 15 underground outfits fighting for the state’s liberation, these killings are tagged as the ‘Malom Massacre’. Local newspapers carried photographs of the victims, and this is what made Irom Sharmila, who was 28 years old at the time, start her fast. She has been protesting against India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for 13 years, but not much has changed even now.

Chandrijini had once gone to meet Irom, also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, and carried a shawl for her. They didn’t get a chance to speak though.

“The last thing I heard that evening was a woman shouting ‘Don’t shoot us. We are innocent’, and then all was silent,” she says. “Maybe it was my sister who had cried out. I still hear the cries. It haunts me and I can’t get over it.”

Nancy looks at the photographs. Inside the house, there is a cupboard with her son’s books. Tucked away within the leaves of one of the books is Rs 180. His pocket money, the mother says. He never spent it on his little desires. Her grandchildren want the money, but she locks the cupboard.

She starts crying, and Murphy looks at her. “Grandmother is crying again,” he says.

That evening, the whole neighbourhood was filled with security forces. “Ima, open the door,” an Assam Rifles man had said. She opened it nervously. Murphy’s father Kamal, her only remaining son, was taken outside. They asked him, “Where are the terrorists?” They beat up many people during the combing operation, angry at the grenade attack. “Everyone was asked to come out,” Chandrajini says. “I was restless.”

Chandrajini walked to the end of the road and lay down. At some point, she fell into a dreamless reverie. Her daughter had followed her out. She mentioned that a two-wheeler on the street looked like that of Robinson. “No, that’s not the one,” her mother had said, refusing to believe what she didn’t want to hear.

It was midnight and cold. “Frisking was going on. Everyone was being questioned. The womenfolk were sent home earlier,” she says.

The phone lines had been cut off. The pradhan, who used to have a phone in those days, told Chandrajini he hadn’t received any news of her sons.

The bodies had been lined at the bus stop, but nobody could go near them. They were hauled into a van—along with the injured—and taken to the mortuary. Kamal told Chandrajini to wait. “Let it be dawn and we shall search,” he told her. And then he became more reflective and started talking about life and death. “Life is like a drama. Nothing is predictable, mother,” he said to her.

As she sits in her verandah, she begins to cry again. She scratches her forehead, and wipes away the tears. “In the morning, the pradhan came with the information. A curfew had been imposed,” she says. “My brother was beaten up and taken to Guwahati for treatment. His fingers had been smashed,” she says.

It was a series of losses. She had lost her husband a year-and-a-half ago. Her husband was a school teacher and the couple lived a humble life. They educated their children so they could live better lives and not get embroiled in the state’s politics.

For six days after the killings, no food was cooked in the house. Nobody had the appetite. Chandrajini’s eyes were swollen from crying. She would go behind the house, or to the pond, and cry for hours. She would then wipe away the tears and return. She was the eldest in the family and she needed to be strong. “I wanted to kill the police. Only if I were a man,” she says. And then grief takes over. That sense of loss, and helplessness.

The pain is still there. She can’t rid herself of the constant reminders of the day she lost two sons. There’s the kitchen garden, and there are the cupboard and the books. “Elders said ‘Get rid of the memories. Burn the things’,” she says. “I did. But it doesn’t help. I can’t sleep at night. I hear the cries. I feel bad at not having the chance to say goodbye.”

She can blame the Government, the Army, and God. But that won’t help and she knows it. At first, there was collective anger. Everyone wanted justice. But the edges have worn off. Now, the memorial stands uncared for.

She goes there once in a while on her way to Imphal and sits for a long time at the spot her son had tried to seek shelter from the hail of bullets.

At the bus stand, she cries again.

In the background are the hills and paddy fields. The sun beats down mercilessly. The white of the memorial glows in the white light. “I want to see justice while I still live,” she says.

It is here that the anger begins to seep in again. Ex gratia payments were made. The case was closed. After all, in a state where the fight is about liberation and secession and annexation, there will be ‘collateral damage’. That’s what the Government said while trying to justify the extra-judicial killings.

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Each time she hears of a killing—and this happens quite often—she says she is reminded of the day that she lost her sons. For the frail woman who never got over the loss, it is like reliving that horror.

“There are no words to express loss. I can’t say anything. I just cry over my loss,” she says. “I am still waiting for my release. I know my sons won’t be coming back, but I still wait for them. Sometimes, I want to meet those who killed them. At least the security people should have seen the identity cards before gunning them down.”

She takes succour from the fact that her sons figure in the narrative of Irom Sharmila’s resistance. “That which I can’t do, she is doing,” she says. “Men in uniform—that’s just power, that is arrogance. I wish her all the best. But I want her not to suffer. We have suffered enough already.”