Article: ‘Frame the Victim’: Another ‘Extra-Judicial’ Killing in Manipur Reopens Talk on AFSPA

Hoineilhing Sitlhou and Phalneilhing Kipgen

Mangboilal Lhouvum, a daily wager and father of four children, was found by a road in Chalwa village of Manipur’s Kangpokpi district – shot in the abdomen and profusely bleeding – on the night of June 4.

The residents of Chalwa rushed him to the nearest primary healthcare centre. With no facility to treat him, he was asked to be taken to the district hospital.

Mangboilal, 30, died on the way but not before revealing to those present vital information about what caused his injury. While he was speaking, a witness took a video of him on a phone. The video clip has gone viral in Manipur since. It shows a gruesome sight. Mangboilal’s intestines are seen protruding from his body as he lies, bloodied and muttering to the onlookers. The dying man is heard saying that he was shot by a ‘Major Alok’.

The alleged perpetrator, Major Alok Sathe, is the Commandant of the 44 Assam Rifles’s outpost located at Banglabung, in the Gelnel village of the district. Mangboilal says in that video clip that he had drinks with the Major after which an altercation took place, leading to him being shot. The villagers that the authors spoke to stated that the Major, along with four jawans, were in civil uniform when they raided Mangboilal’s house on the night of June 4. They said that he was taken away without an arrest warrant.

The incident comes in the foreground of a continuing discourse on the correlation between extra-judicial killings in Manipur and the role of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1950 – AFSPA – in abetting them.

Co-relation of extra-judicial killings and AFSPA in Manipur

Human rights activists have been advocating the existence of a strong correlation between AFSPA and extra-judicial killings in Manipur. The Act gives special powers and liberties to the armed forces in “disturbed areas”. It also allows arrests without search warrants, and no criminal prosecution is possible against army personnel who have taken action under the Act – unless sanctioned by the Union government.

Manipur has been declared a “disturbed area” since September 8, 1980. Over the decades, misuse of AFSPA has been linked to alleged cases of enforced disappearances, fake encounters, and extra-judicial killings.

In 2009, the Human Rights Watch had highlighted two types of extra-judicial or unlawful killings by the Indian police force applicable to Manipur. In the first, suspects die during custodial torture or by execution and the police deny responsibility, claiming that there were other causes behind the death. In the second, known as ‘fake encounter’ killings, the police acknowledge the killings but claim that they acted in self-defence or to prevent victims from fleeing arrest.

In July 2016, in a landmark order, the Supreme Court had asked for the investigation of the 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, over the last 20 years. That decision of the judiciary, in response to a petition filed by Imphal-based Human Rights Alert (HRA) and Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) in 2012, is also a validation of the reality of occurrences of extra-judicial killings in the north-eastern state. The EEVFAM is a registered trust having as its members wives and mothers of persons whom they say have been extra-judicially executed by the Manipur Police and the security forces (mainly the Assam Rifles and the Army).

According to the members of EEVFAM, these encounter killings have a regular pattern – the police would document them as “armed encounters with terrorists”. “The arrests usually take place without the issuance of an arrest memo, executions almost always happen in secluded locations, and there are never any casualties on the police side,” says EEVFAM.

Was the killing of Mangboilal a case of extra-judicial killing?

The death of Mangboilal has exhibited both points of similarities, as also of differences, from the usual cases of extra-judicial killings under AFSPA in Manipur. Compared to Manipur valley residents – the Meiteis and Meitei Pangals (Muslims) – the hill tribes of the state see fewer documented or publicised cases of extra-judicial killings. Nevertheless, the June 4 incident is an indicator that atrocities from security personnel under AFSPA affect all ethnic groups of the state.

The EEVFAM and HRA, in their press statement on June 17, alleged that the killing of Mangboilal is a clear case of extra-judicial action. There were many circumstantial evidences from which one could infer the killing as so, they say. First, Mangboilal was taken away from his house without an arrest warrant, and the execution happened in a secluded location with no casualty on the Assam Rifles’ side.

Second, the killing was justified as an act of self-defence in an encounter with “militants”.

Defending the actions of the Assam Rifles’ personnel, the Public Information Bureau (PIB), defence wing, claimed that the security forces had launched an operation in the area to capture the finance secretary of Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), a Kuki militant group under Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the government. It alleged that the person was extorting money from the trucks operated by Food Corporation of India (FCI). The Assam Rifles’ account further stated that while making inquiries, KRA cadres and their accomplices manhandled one Assam Rifles personnel. The personnel, upon sensing danger and threat to life, acted on self-defence using “minimum force” in accordance with 4 (a) of AFSPA.

Significantly, though PIB’s defence wing justified the action, citing section 4 of AFSPA, section 5 of the same law makes it mandatory for the security forces to hand over a person arrested under the Act to the nearest police station without delay. Therefore, Mangboilal ought to have been taken to a police station even if he was arrested without a warrant under AFSPA.

There were also allegations, on some local TV channels and social media platforms, that Mangboilal Lhouvum was a member of the militant outfit KRA – the same finance secretary of the KRA who Assam Rifles has claimed was seen extorting money from the FCI. That accusation has been refuted by the KRA though. The outfit further stated that the allegation was made to tarnish both the image of the organisation and its sincerity in adhering to the ground rules of the SoO.

The wife of the deceased, Neikhochong Lhouvum, told the authors that her husband was employed along with some others by a local contractor to procure timber from jungles nearby. She said his work demanded that he had to get out of the house at five in the morning and return home late in the evening. “Both of us work hard to make ends meet as three of our children have begun going to school,” she said.

On authorities and local media calling Mangboilal an insurgent, his father Sehlam Lhouvum said, “Jong thohdi ngaovin athoh e (the langur got punished for the fault of the monkey).” He said he was traumatised by the nature of his son’s death. “The video of my injured son with his intestines protruding is going to haunt me for life.”

The family said besides coping with the trauma of the death of their loved one, they also had to bear the pain of hearing “a false story fabricated by the offender with an intention to justify the killing”.

The claim of killing a person as an “act of self-defence” and branding the victim(s) as member of a militant organisation are common narratives in cases of extra-judicial killings in Manipur. Even those without any criminal record have been labelled as militants at times.

In 2012, the EEVFAM and HRA had filed a criminal writ petition against the Union government under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. The petition had documented that not a single first information report (FIR) had been registered by the Manipur Police against the police or the security forces even though several complaints had been made in respect to alleged extra-judicial executions. This has obstructed the investigation of cases of extra-judicial killings, and thereby delayed justice to the families of the victims.

The case of Mangboilal is different though. An FIR was lodged at Kangpokpi police station against Major Alok Sathe after a complaint by the deceased’s father Sehlam, on June 5. The complainant has accused Major Sathe, along with rifleman Amar and his party, of murder and using arms.

The FIR said Mangboilal did not die on the spot; he was alive for three to four hours after he was shot. But he was abandoned in a critically injured state.

The gruesome video clip recorded in the last hours of his life where Mangboilal spoke of the sequence of events that eventually led to his death, and also named the person who shot him, garnered considerable public outrage not only in the district but also from civil society organisations and public across the state. Therefore, unlike many cases of victims of encounter killings in Manipur, this one had received more publicity and support which, in turn, ensured that crucial details around the killing could not go unnoticed as is usually the case.

A look at previous case histories show that in most “fake encounter” killings in Manipur, a 9 mm pistol, a Chinese hand grenade or both are found on and near the body of the victims.

Following Mangboilal’s death on June 4 night, angry villagers vented their fury outside the Assam Rifles outpost by resorting to arson and torching vehicles that belonged to security forces. They also tried to attack the alleged perpetrator while he was being taken away by the state police.

The PIB’s defence wing’s statement, however, tried to place both the arson and the shooting incidents as having been simultaneous, rather than highlighting the former as an angry outburst of local residents against the killing of a fellow villager. It stated, “While the operation was in progress, a huge mob of locals surrounded the Assam Rifles post and resorted to unprovoked violence and arson. The mob torched two Assam Rifles vehicles and caused damage to the Assam Rifles post at Gelnel Village. They also disrupted the main road connectivity for more than 24 hours causing a lot of inconvenience to local commuters.”

Significantly though, the Assam Rifles entered into a four-point agreement with the representatives of villagers to dissipate the tension. The agreement was signed among three civil society groups from the Kuki community, officials of the Assam Rifles and the state police, after Major Sathe was taken into custody for a brief period.

As per that agreement, Assam Rifles were to pay a sum of Rs 10 lakh to the family of the deceased as compensation for the loss of life. Second, the state police were to immediately initiate an investigation into the incident.

The third point of the agreement stated that the 44 Assam Rifles Bunglabung outpost would be shifted from its present location in Gelnel village to Kangpokpi, the district headquarters, after due approval from army headquarter, New Delhi.

The fourth point was that a fully functional armed police station would be set up in the area (Chalwa village) soon.

However, 11 days later, the people from the Chalwa region, aided by the civil society organisations of the Kangpokpi district, protested against the Assam Rifles for not honouring the four-point agreement. They staged a sit-in protest, shouted slogans and displayed banners.

According to Thangminlen Kipgen, general secretary of the Kangpokpi chapter of the powerful civil society organisation, Kuki Inpi, the Assam Rifles, instead of focusing on fulfilling the agreement made to the villagers, has been trying to “change the course of the investigation by fabricating and finding means and witnesses to show that the deceased was not a civilian but an active member of an underground militant group.” He further said that of the Rs 10 lakh compensation promised, only Rs 1 lakh has been paid to the family so far.

He also said that there was a “misunderstanding” between the negotiating parties. “The Assam Rifles had assumed that if compensation (along with the other terms in the four-point agreement) were made to the deceased family, no case or FIR would be filed against them. They wanted the victim’s family to withdraw the case against them.”

Justice and its many meanings

What is evident here is that the local residents and the authorities seem to have a different understanding of the idea of justice. According to the noted anthropologist Dolly Kikon, it is in situations like these when the people and the state fail to accept each other’s accounts, and we begin to ponder the possibility of a shared experience of understanding rights and justice.

Mangboilal’s wife is distraught both by the nature of her husband’s death and the predicament of bringing up her four children. “The eldest was born in 2013 and the youngest in 2019,” she said. She has neither the skills for weaving or tailoring to make a living out of it, nor is she educated. She is certain that the empathy she has been receiving from the public is not going to last forever and says that she needs a means of livelihood, urgently.

During the meeting with the Assam Rifles at Banglabung, Mangboilal’s father Sehlam had said, “I am old and advanced in years; how do I fend for my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren? Give them a job or a means that will provide for them throughout their lives. We (Kukis) have customary laws that decide on the value of a life or the penalty for bloodshed. The perpetrator(s) have no say in the pronouncement of a punishment and is only obliged to pay the stipulated amount decided by the victim’s party.”

It shows that as per customary laws, paying the compensation or adhering to that “four-point agreement” did not mean that the perpetrator of the crime would go unpunished or that an FIR on the matter would not be filed. He pointed out that one of the points in the agreement was the initiation of a proper investigation to find out the truth behind the killing of his son.

 ‘Justice must prevail’

For the victim’s family, broadcasting the truth about the atrocity committed, public acknowledgement of the wrong done, or the harm caused by the officials to the person would go a long way in restoring faith in the democratic process of the state. A distorted truth to veil the crime committed by its officials; categorising a certain section of a population as insurgents and hence dangerous; or to justify an unlawful murder as deserving by trying to frame the victim, are all disturbing ramifications of extra-judicial killings, and thereby, AFSPA.

Though AFSPA was removed from seven municipal units of Imphal in 2004, it is still operative in the hills of Manipur. Therefore, it is important that the perpetrators of violence committed under the garb of AFSPA be subjected to disciplinary action – both to attain justice and to prevent the repetition of similar misconduct.

Hoineilhing Sitlhou teaches Sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad. Phalneilhing Kipgen is an independent researcher with a masters degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University.