Retired IPS officer recounts violent period in Manipur

Ninglun Hanghal *

The last thing one expects in an Indian conflict story is an unabashed story from a police officer about inter-forces rivalries and human rights controversies. Vale of Tears is one such chilling account of John Shilshi, a police officer not just about the conflict, but also about the human condition.

The author served during the height of violent insurgency, ethnic and communal clashes in Manipur. The book published by Blue Rose is an anecdotal memoir that offers the reader the other side of “conflict” not found in the public domain. An IPS officer of the Manipur cadre, Shilshi served in ultra-sensitive areas of the state between 1990 and 2000.

Trained in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, he led the elite civil police commando unit during his tenure. A recipient of gallantry medal for meritorious service and distinguished service, Shilshi also served in the Intelligence Bureau and the National Security Council Secretariat giving him multiple perspectives into conflict in India’s North East.

Shilshi’s upright and unbiased first-hand accounts as a police officer is like a dissection of the anatomy of Manipur’s conflict. There are some rare insights into how security forces interact with one another in a Union of States like India. There are insights into the friction between the State police and Central forces.

His investigation of how incidents flare up provides an understanding of the causes, consequences, and lessons learnt. During his tenure, Shilshi witnessed some of the bloodiest incidents of Manipur’s violent contemporary history. He stood firm on his ground and principles, often at the risk of his own life and job.

For instance, when he was posted in Ukhrul (a place where many senior members of NSCN (IM) are present, and the home of its founder general secretary Th Muivah), a not so pleasant encounter happened when the captain of the Indian Army demanded Shilshi to hand over a person picked up by the police- who was giving shelter to an NSCN (IM) arrested by the Army.

This did not go down well with Shilshi. He challenged the Army Captain to “knock the doors of the authority, if he dares". The author recalled his conversation with the Captain. “Under the law, the police are not duty-bound to hand over any suspect or criminal – except in the Court”. Shilshi recalled, "I offered him to interrogate the person inside the police station. This was mistaken as favoring the suspect”.

Neither the Army Captain interrogated the said person nor handed over the arrested NSCN(IM) man to the police. The vigilant NPMHR and other rights groups were preparing to file habeas corpus in the Imphal bench of Gauhati High Court. Shilshi apprised the Army Brigadier, warning him that if the Court entertained their prayers his presence would be required in the Court and that “It may not be a pleasant experience”.

The adamant Brigadier defended himself that the NSCN man is not medically fit to be handed over. Shilshi knew very well what would be the repercussion if he took the man and he died in his (police) custody. “Yet I went with my gut feeling. Ultimately the badly bruised NSCN(IM) leader with several marks and cuts on his body was received by the officer in charge of Ukhrul Police station.

He was given medical treatment at the 1st Manipur Rifles unit hospital,” recalls Shilshi. Ugly and unpleasant confrontations are frequent. Such as Shilshi’s recount of an incident in early 1995 popularly known as the RIMS massacre - where nine civilians were killed, including an MBBS student. In his book, Shilshi recounts that when the team of civil police commandos reached the spot, the CRPF men threatened them.

On being taunted, the commandos cocked their weapons and moved in. A face-off almost ensued – which was fortunately averted by an experienced Sub-Inspector who led the police commandos. Shilshi recalled that had the commandos arrived ten minutes late, several other civilians might have been gunned down. When Shilshi himself arrived there was tension building up- Shilshi wrote that seeing the temper, he asked the CRPF men to leave the scene.

None of them prepared to exit as suggested, writes Shilshi. The arrogant attitude and behavior of the jawans were unbecoming of a uniformed force, the author notes. All the while no senior officer of the CRPF reached the site. “This means no information had been reported yet to the headquarter,” reports Shilshi.

In another incident of an ambush on a CRPF convoy in 1999 in Tonsen Lamkhai, where eight personnel including two officers were killed, an indiscriminate retaliation ensued. It ended up killing 10 civilians and injuring many. “Since I was the first senior officer to reach the incident site, I had expected the State Human Rights Commission to record my statement, should that happen, I would have barred it all.

Second, even the internal inquiry team of CRPF never considered it necessary to speak to me,” writes Shilshi.

There are several instances when he argued with the Army officers, the Author said. He reasoned that this are not intended to show indifference, but a sincere and honest attempt in putting things in perspective. The 1990s saw the longest and gruesome ethnic clash between the Nagas and Kukis, killing hundreds on both sides, besides several homes and properties burned or destroyed.

As a police officer witnessing some of the incidents, Shilshi observes that during - the peak of over five-year ethnic war between the two, neither a bullet nor an arrow was exchanged, nor a spear hurled at each other by common people from both the tribes.

According to Shilshi, the attacks were carried out by automaticwielding men on both sides - the Naga Lim Guard and Kuki Defence Force, suspected to be cadres of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM) and Kuki National Army ( KNA), respectively. Both claimed that the cadres were formed to protect and safeguard vulnerable sections of their tribes.

Shilshi observes, however, that there were hardly any instances where the two armed cadres targeted each other directly. These so-called vanguards of their community’s safety never confronted each other face-to-face. On the contrary, attacks were carried out in far flung areas, butchering helpless and defenseless villagers.

Shilshi questions: “Despite both groups being so well equipped, why were the outfits unable to prevent heinous attacks on their tribesmen/women?” In his account Shishi says that at that point in time the State had nine MR battalions, and two India Reserve Battalions, totalling to about 8800 MR/IRB personnel. Besides this, there were the Central forces Army, Assam Rifles and CRPF whose service could have been utilized.

Not only were there intelligence inputs, there were open threats and open “quit notices” that were in public domain. But no proactive moves were undertaken to prevent such tragedies, writes Shilshi. During his tenure, Shilshi also witnessed one of the biggest communal riots in Manipur. The 1993 riot between Meitei Muslims ( Pangal) and the Meitei Hindus.

Recalling how the incident was sparked and how rumor led to riot, Shilshi recalls that a brawl started when a Muslim gun-runner was unable to deliver the items to members of a lessknown People’s Republican Army -a Meitei Hindu group, the gun-runner raised alarm and villagers caught the two men.

Later rumors started that the two Hindu men were severely beaten up by Muslims and that one of them succumbed to injuries – that too under the nose of the police. The rumour spread like wildfire and the enfolding events are unimaginable. The mayhem continued for a week, recalls Shilshi. Shilshi’s narration of incidents and investigative observations brought out some startling revelations.

“The tactics of the insurgents is to engage the police and administration through proxy,” he observes. Civilians – significantly women folk were used as a proxy. Shilshi wrote that a large number of women folks dressed in traditional funeral attire were coerced to attend events such as Ashti ritual ceremony of the Meitei community, when any rebels were killed.

This, Shilshi says, was done deliberately to provoke action from district administration. Thus every Ashti ceremony of slain UG members ended in physical tussles between police and public. “They engaged the police by placing women at the forefront of any prounderground protest or processions to limit police actions and to find convenient excuses to blame them (the police). This change in tactics threw up new challenges for us,” writes Shishi.

In recent years, violence has considerably come down in Manipur. But as the author stated, it is by no means the end of the problem. Shilshi cautions that it could be a period of strategizing for a spectacular bounce back.

Quoting countries like the Philippines, South Sudan, Nepal, Shilshi says across the world, societies that have tasted the “luxury” of gun culture through armed conflict have found it extremely difficult to exit from it completely. Even after former rebels mainstreamed themselves, the remnants threatened to resurface. We can ignore this at our own folly, warns Shilshi .

* Ninglun Hanghal wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 21 2020.

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