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Two years after the protests over the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi shocked the nation, Tehelka revisits the women who dared the Indian Army to rape them. Much was promised to them, little has changed

Mihir Srivastava

Mothers courageous: The protestors in 2004; and now (below)
‘Our hearts were on fire when we saw her body,’ says Ramani Thaokjma. ‘When they were done, her body was like a bloodied battlefield’
It’s a little over two years since the night Thangjam Manorama Devi — 32 years old and an alleged member of Manipur’s banned People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — was taken into Assam Rifles custody, her body found near her home in Imphal the next day, bullet-riddled and marked with signs of torture and rape. Five days later in a state seething with over four decades of secessionist discontent, an extraordinary protest brought Manipur’s outrage to the nation’s attention — on July 15, 2004, around 30 women, aged between 45 and 73, walked naked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles bastion at Kangla Fort. “Indian Army, rape us too,” they screamed at the astounded guards at the gates. “We are all Manorama’s mothers.”

These were ordinary women — few had had much political involvement before Manorama’s murder; most led sparse lives held together by hard work; all had husbands, children, some even grandchildren. But that July day, nothing mattered to these women but fury. “None of us had ever met Manorama, but what she endured horrified us all. The government’s silence on her death was unforgivable. How can a civilised nation keep quiet about something like this?” asks Madu Leima, one of the Kangla Fort protestors. “Our hearts were on fire when we saw her body,” says Ramani Thaokjma, the 75-year-old matriarch who led the protests. “To hide the rape, the Assam Rifles men stuffed cloth into her private parts and shot bullets through her body. When they were done, her body looked like a blood-stained battlefield.”

Women across Manipur’s deep ethnic divisions — Kukis, Meiteis, Nagas — were moved to solidarity with the protestors in the weeks of unrest that followed across the state. “It wasn’t just Manorama’s death we were protesting,” says S. Hoibam Memon Leima, another guiding spirit behind the march. “It was the law that made it possible: the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Hundreds of women came forward to give us support.”

The AFSPA was imposed on Manipur in 1980 and accords draconian powers to forces deployed in what it calls “disturbed areas”. Section 4(a) of the Act states that the military may “fire… or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death” — which means the licence to kill. Section 4(c) allows arrest without warrant on the mere suspicion that an accused “has committed or is about to commit a cognisable offence”. Section 6 provides that “no prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act”.

Over 20,000 people have been killed in Manipur since the AFSPA was imposed.

Following the protests over Manorama’s killing, the government appointed the Justice Upendra Commission to look into the AFSPA’s “legal, constitutional and moral” aspects. For many, the review came too late and gave too little — Manipur, after all, was asking for the Act to be withdrawn in its entirety. The government has preferred to remain tight-lipped about the commission’s findings, but sources have told tehelka that the commission was not in favour of the Act in its present form. Its recommendations apparently include toning down the Act by making it a civil law, and by making it applicable to “disturbed areas” in all parts of India, without seeming to single out the Northeastern states as its present wording does. However, sources say, the government is fixated on the idea that tackling insurgency without the AFSPA is just not possible.

Public support for the Kangla Fort protestors was spontaneous, open and widespread. The government’s response, however, was not only clumsy but, say many, blatantly unfair. Within days of the demonstration, the protestors received word from friends in the police that they should go into hiding; three weeks later, they were sent to jail. “We were detained under the National Security Act, which is meant for terrorists and traitors,” says Memon Leima. “That’s because our protests led to larger demonstrations where some people burnt the national flag and effigies of the home minister. The police told us that we were the ones who had instigated the unrest and that we, therefore, had insulted the nation. I told them that they had insulted all of humanity.”

From the first day of their jail term, the Kangla Fort protestors were resolved that not one of them would seek bail. “We all promised each other: we are in jail together and we will leave jail together,” Memon Leima says. “Our families gave us all their support,” remembers Thaokjma. “Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible.” “When my 12-year-old grandchild first came to see me in jail, he was stunned. But all he asked was whether I slept there at night,” Madu Leima told us. “I couldn’t control my tears. I told him, no, they take me to sleep in a big house with all the comforts I could ask for.”

Three months later, all the protestors were unconditionally released.

“We did the most we could, but two years have now passed since Manorama’s murder and nothing has happened. The AFSPA is here, Assam Rifles is here, nothing has changed,” Thaokjma laments.

Rage at the grassroots: No end in sight to protests against the AFSPA
An NSCN(IM) member scoffs at the police.
‘Who says we need a
post-mortem report to decide a murder case?’
That the AFSPA has done little good for Manipur is noted even by those who work within the state administration. “The AFSPA has only alienated the people and does not help improve law and order,” said one deputy superintendent of police, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Tackling militancy should not only be about hunting down and eliminating underground cadres — you also have to win people over and the AFSPA is the exact anti-thesis of that.” The facts support his remarks. When the AFSPA was imposed in Manipur, there were only four armed insurgent groups in the state. As of now, while the exact figure is unknown, Manipur is said to have the highest number of such groups in the country. Only 25 of these are on government watch-lists — the actual number is said to go into the high hundreds.

And these are the de facto authority in the state. Manipur is, in effect, divided into the area strongholds of the major insurgent groups; in its inner reaches, government control exists only on paper. “Who will the government talk to? There are so many groups who claim to be the true representatives of the insurgency,” said a member of the Kanglei Yawol Kann Lup insurgent group in Bishnupur. Skirmishes to protect pockets of dominance are frequent, both between the insurgents and the security forces, and within the groups themselves.

Control of the drug trade along the state’s porous 350-km border with Myanmar has added a further dimension to Manipur’s inter-ethnic clashes. The erosion of state control here has made the border a soft route for drug trafficking; drug abuse, too, is widespread across the state. According to one official report, Moreh (Southeast Asia’s gateway to India), New Somdal in Ukhrul district, Churachandpur district and Bokan in Myanmar bordering Molcham village in Manipur’s Chandel district, have become major entry points for heroin smugglers.

Signs of the low-intensity war that continues to plague Manipur, despite a now seven-year-old ceasefire, are visible just two hours from the state capital, in the hill district of Ukhrul, where the National Socialist Council of Nagalim calls the shots. The district’s missionary-run schools are its only functional institutions. “No one here goes to the police,” says NSCN(IM) leader Joseph Jago. “We decide disputes in our village councils,” which are dominated by insurgents, “according to our traditional laws.” Ukhrul DSP Vashum ruefully corroborates this. “We have registered only about 30 cases this year,” he told us. “We get to handle road accident cases and sometimes murders. That’s because these are technical cases, the insurgents don’t have post-mortem facilities.” In the street, one NSCN(IM) member scoffs at this. “Who says we need a post-mortem report to decide a murder case?”

Conditions are not very different in Manipur’s three other hill districts, although matters are said to be better in the valley areas. District officials move under heavy security cover. A convoy of armoured vehicles escorts them down the muddy, dilapidated roads. Police officials complain that they are poorly equipped — the district police of Ukhrul have 200 men in all to cover their district’s insurgent-dominated terrain.

The ceasefire, most Manipuris agree, is all that keeps the state together, critically balanced though it is. In a situation where to command the loyalty of five families is enough to float a militant group, having the ceasefire called off would be a catastrophe. Criticising the paramilitary forces comes naturally to the Manipuri, but, oddly, the general consensus is that they should not go or be removed too soon. Even the insurgents agree. “If the paramilitary forces were to leave too suddenly, there would be civil war,” says a PLA operative in Imphal, a view that finds support with the NSCN as well.

“People are as fed up with extortion and intimidation from the insurgents as much as with the government’s apathy. Who does the common man turn to when the government at every level appears to be hand in glove with the underground,” asks the owner of a stationery shop in the main market of Imphal.

An elderly customer agrees. “We have suffered so much,” she says. “I just hope the ceasefire continues and there is no eruption of violence again.”

Two years from the events of July 2004, and Manipur and its people find themselves in the same quagmire that caused the agitation of those anguished weeks. Thaokjma, Memon Leima, Madu Leima and thousands of their supporters feel cheated. “We are still fighting for our basic right: the right to live,” says Memon Leima.

To Thaokjma it seems the end of the road. She is overcome by emotion as she speaks of her last wish. “I am weak. We did what we could. Now the ball is in the government’s court. My only desire is to see the AFSPA die before I do.’’


> Writer’s e-mail: [email protected]
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Sep 02 , 2006

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