Treading on the trail of fake encounters by Supreme Court: A silver lining

Samarjit Kambam *

Last Rites for Thokchom Rabina at Lamshang on  July 27 2009; She was killed in the BT Road Shoot-out on July 23 2009
Last Rites for Thokchom Rabina at Lamshang on July 27 2009; She was killed in the BT Road Shoot-out on July 23 2009

When Manipur reels in the darkness of hopelessness, when the faith of the public hangs by a thread, we the people of Manipur seem to see a small ray of light at the end of the long and dark tunnel, a silver lining amidst the gloomy cloud of hopelessness.

At last, the Supreme Court has begun to deliver justice by tightening its grip towards armed forces personnel in Manipur who carried out excesses leading to deaths of innocent civilians through the most commonly practiced real life drama of fake encounters. This is the first time in the history of Manipur where the Apex Court turns its attention in letter and spirit for the people of Manipur.

Recently, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe by a special investigating team (SIT) into 98 fake encounter killings in the last decade out of 1528 in our state. The Supreme Court made it clear in July 2016 that security force personnel cannot get away with impunity from the long arms of law.

Thanks to the Human Rights Alert and Extra Judicial Execution Families' Association and various other Human Rights NGOS for their constant endeavour and relentless pursuit for justice by demanding probes into the deaths of umpteen cases of dramatised killings by armed forces comprising of army, paramilitary and state security personnel in Manipur.

Some time back, the visit by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team headed by Justice KG Balakrishnan to Manipur with directives from Supreme Court to look into the human rights violation in our state especially in regards to extra judicial killings, fake encounters, custodial deaths etc. was taken by the people of Manipur as some kind of official routine work where "They came, they saw, they returned and forgot" is the most common thought in the public psyche.

The people thought that nothing tangible would spring up from the visit by the NHRC team, however the NHRC team took up some concrete steps, not just lip service and their mission turned out to be quite fruitful, an action or a deed long awaited eagerly by the people of Manipur. Now, the noose of the apex court has tightened to those men in uniform who instead of upholding the law and protecting the people did the very opposite by killing innocents through fake encounters, their area of expertise.

The recent move by a division Bench of the High Court of Manipur coming out with a landmark judgement for compensation of Rs. 5 lakhs each to the families of two innocent victims who lost their lives in the hands of security forces in fake encounter comes as an eye opener to the security forces that they are not immune from the law. The judgement also sends a strong message that the men in uniform cannot bypass the judiciary.

It is also a known fact that many innocent lives were taken away by the security forces in extra-judicial killings in our state. At least the people's hope which was about to crumble by the seer force of hopelessness is being rekindled giving a new meaning to the long-tormented souls and minds of the bereaved families of the victims. In Manipur where draconian laws such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) (1958) rules the roost, where the innocent people can be killed at the slightest pretext of 'suspicion' in the name of countering insurgency, the value of life of common people is tantamount to those of livestock in a poultry farm.

A vivid example of fake encounter existing as an institution in our state is the confession made by Gallantary Award recipient Head Constable Herojit regarding killing of Sanjit wherein one pregnant woman by the name of Rabina was also killed at BT road on that fateful day of July 23, 2009. Even though the case is being handled by CBI, it remains an enigma for not being able to find out whose bullet killed Rabina but it is a known fact prior to Herojit's confession that Sanjit was killed in cold blood with sensational evidence from Tehelka group also.

Herojit's revelation at the CBI Court that he himself shot Sanjit to death in cold blood after dragging him inside Maimu Pharmacy at BT Road may be taken as some sort of divine intervention for bringing out to the fore the ironic truth of state sponsored terrorism carried out by the men in uniform. Its really painful to imagine how Sanjit must have felt at those brief moments when he knew that he was about to be killed anyway.

Herojit also confessed that he shot Sanjit in 'cold blood' as he was carrying out orders given by his superior officers. And how can the act of killing not be cold blooded? Herojit had already killed more than 133 persons. That's official figure only, the real figure may be more than that. In Manipur, as receipt of awards be it gallantry or otherwise were being given to the cops who kill the highest number of insurgents out of which many are innocent, the cops thus become trigger happy and cold blooded just for the sake of receiving award or getting promotion.

His confession has startled the people of Manipur accompanied by great shock at the ugly nexus and dirty games played by security forces, politicians and other big-shot bureaucrats as well as the diabolic and sorry system of governance of the state from the top to the bottom.

Fake encounter is nothing new to the people of Manipur. In fact, it has become more of a part and parcel of our state. Many innocent lives were lost during many histrionic events of fake encounters which has been going for years. Bravery of a cop was considered directly proportional to the number of persons killed by him be they innocent or otherwise. As the noose of the Supreme Court began to tighten on fake encounters, past or present, mention may be made of many cops who were considered 'top' or 'elite' were stripped of their elite status in 2013.

The crackdown by Supreme Court on fake encounters and those involved in it can be termed as a healthy trend for a just society where people can live without trauma and fear. The recent intervention by the Supreme Court will mitigate this monstrous system to some extent.

In the near future, more skeletons may tumble down from the cupboard and many high-profile hot shots can't hide from the blinding light of justice. The public, since the very day of 23/7 killing of Sanjit and Rabina had already known that it was a fake encounter, sort of a routine feature. Now, it is known by the people of the deep fracture in the hierarchal set-up of deceit, repression of justice by the very system and a diabolic pattern of justice getting distorted.

However, after Herojit's bold confession, a portion of a fortress of deceit which was once considered as impenetrable comes stumbling down, opening a can of worms in the system. Now, Herojit's confession has turned out more as a Domino's Effect where every entity from the first to the last is bound to get affected.

The startling question in everybody's mind is, "Why did Herojit make such a bold confession when his higher ups had given him backing to him all these years?". The reason involves a lot of "maybe's". Maybe he got sick with the rotting system of exploitation by the higher officials to the lower, the deceit, corruption and nepotism and has lost faith in the system, even if he knew that danger has been lurking around him at every step he takes.

Maybe he's tired of looking back behind his shoulder every moment, maybe he got fed up with all the killings and bloodshed and want to lead the life of a good samaritan, maybe he has realised that he had been used as a pawn all those years just to meet the selfish needs of his superiors. Realising that he is between the devil and the deep sea, it has turned out more as a pyrrhic victory for him making him feel like a stranger in a strange land.

If the case of Sanjit's death was not taken up by CBI, the issue would have faded away into oblivion. Tehelka's people behind the scene also took a great role in bringing out the truth as photographs taken before Sanjit was killed in cold blood provide strong supporting evidence in this case.

India though a democratic country brings out laws that doesn't fit in a democratic set up. As per the ambit of Indian democracy, an individual can take up a case on a certain issue against the Union of India through a court of law. The individual's winning or losing the case is a different matter. So, when one of its citizen in the flesh and blood of Irom Sharmila underwent a campaign in a peaceful Gandhian way of undergoing marathon hunger strike for more than 16 years for repealing AFSPA with the central government not acknowledging nor bringing any tangible solution, isn't a shame on the part of Indian democracy in front of other democratic nations of the world?

Instead she was booked for criminal offence by charging with attempt to commit suicide by Patiala High Court. If Irom Sharmila the crusader of peace happens to be from mainland India, her struggle would have been acknowledged long time back. The step motherly attitude of central government towards the North Eastern states is still lurking like a resident evil. So, which one will you believe when a dog barks fiercely at you and wags its tail at the same time?, the head or the tail? This is the democracy of India.

We the people of Manipur sincerely thank the NHRC team from Delhi, CBI and various human rights groups in Manipur for their fervent effort in their pursue for justice and carrying out a noble cause. The steps taken up by the teams by rocking the Supreme Court to come up with certain verdict against fake encounters and extra judicial killings will also act as a deterrent for the armed forces as well as an eye opener that people's lives are not in their hands.

This noble gesture gives a sense of security, heals the wounded hearts of the victims' families to a great extent and gives a feeling that all hope is not lost. Prosecuting security personnel who have killed innocent lives is an essential step towards justice and something all of us owe to our consciences.

* Samarjit Kambam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on September 26, 2017.

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