Struggle for justice
BEFORE writing about the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM), and their role in the Northeastern state of Manipur, we need to ask why Manipur has seen a history of killing innocent people in the name of counter-insurgency.
The people of Manipur have persistently struggled against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a black law which has been in operation since the last three quarters of a century (72 years) in the state and it has, in the process, transformed Manipur society. For example, when human rights violations became a daily phenomenon in the Manipur valley by the 1980s, the womenfolk took to the streets and bylanes with bamboo torches in their hands and stood vigil through the night and confronted the armed forces when they came to abduct young men from their localities.
These young men were routinely tortured in army camps and some of them simply ‘disappeared’ without a trace. The society in Manipur responded to these atrocities by the armed forces by birthing a grassroots mass movement of women that came to be known as the Meira Paibis (literally and figuratively, the torch bearers).
Once an area is declared ‘disturbed’ under AFSPA, the armed forces can destroy any property and arrest, detain, torture and even kill any person on mere suspicion. AFSPA gives them practical immunity from prosecution in carrying out such egregious human rights violations, making endemic the phenomena of enforced ‘disappearances’, extrajudicial killings, tortures, rapes and arbitrary detentions.
In the summer of July 2009, I came to my state for three months to do field work for the South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), which was collaborating with Human Rights Alert (HRA), a human rights organization based in Imphal, Manipur. I still remember, it was on 7 July 2009 that I went to HRA’s office to meet their staff and Executive Director, Babloo Loitongbam. Later I was to join HRA as a research associate.
After my meeting with Babloo and the other staff, one man turned up at HRA’s office and was talking to the executive director of HRA. He was discussing the killing of his brother and wanted to organize a meeting for victims’ families of fake encounters at his residence. He also mentioned that he had already started contacting some families. This man turned out to be the younger brother of the one who was killed in front of his mother, in their own residential courtyard, with around eight bullets. Later, I was informed by my mentor Babloo Loitongbam about fake encounters in the state executed by security personnel.
On 9 July 2009, at Keishamthong Elangbam Leikai, Imphal West, at the late Longjam Uttamkumar’s residence (the residence of whose brother I met at HRA), more than 30 families of victims of fake encounters came to the first meeting. Human Rights Alert staff and Human Rights Law Network lawyers were part of the gathering. Each one of the victim’s family members who attended gave their testimony, sharing how their loved one was killed. Everyone in the room who attended cried, including me. I still remember Babloo Loitongbam coming out of the room to tell me that I must be strong – ‘you came here to console all these women.’ I listened to one of the hardest stories I had ever head since my childhood.
On the first day of the gathering, they decided to form an organization and fixed a date for the next meeting. It is heartening to note that some of these victim’s wives like Renu Takhellambam, Neena Ningombam, Edina Yengkhom and others are still active today. When the meeting ended it was late, and I went home standing in the bus for 30 kilometres (I didn’t get a seat). I called my dearest friend from the bus to share all the stories I had just heard.
The second meeting was held at the residence of the late Loitongbam Satish (another fake encounter victim) at Singjamei. This time many victim families came and more Civil Society Organizations turned up to help. From the beginning, both HRA and HRLN were supporters of EEVFAM, either in legal proceedings or by helping point them in the right direction in their fight for justice and to punish those involved in the fake encounters. On this day, they decided to name their organization the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM). However, the story about the formation of EEVFAM did not find any mention in the news media.
It was the 23July 2009 incident about fake encounters, which Tehelka exposed, an incident in which a pregnant woman and an innocent man got killed in the marketplace in Kwairamband, Imphal, that focused media attention on the group’s activities. Henceforth, the media began to show interest in the encounter stories.
In those early days, members of this organization had a really difficult time. Some of the victim’s wives were very young when I first met them in 2009. Some of them were only in their early twenties, with children 2/3-years-old. Among them were two widows, one of whom delivered a daughter on the day rituals were being performed for her husband’s death, and the other was pregnant when her husband was killed. They were to become my close friends. I clearly remember, it was very difficult for us to address their hardship and find solutions. Many issues came up in the discussion: difficulties of staying at their husband’s homes, domestic violence by family members, issues of livelihood, children’s education, among others. Some had almost forgotten their loved ones, as they were desperately involved in eking out a livelihood. Of course, the victim’s family continued to express their need for justice, though many had little hope in the judicial system.
In the beginning, the HRA and some active members of the EEVFAM had tried to contact as many families who had lost their loved ones in fake encounters. Later, members decided to meet every second Saturday at different victim’s residence. Some of the young widows’ friends told us that their family had questioned them for attending the Saturday meetings. They also shared with us that not only had the family members questioned them, but their relatives and neighbours did so too for leaving their houses. After listening to their friends, family members decided that they would hold the second Saturday meeting at the HRA office at Kwalkeithel, Imphal. Sometimes I took the initiative to invite friends from a law background to interact with the members to talk about their property rights.
In the initial days after the organization was formed, whenever I had the time or when members brought their children to the meeting, I would talk and play with them. The children shared with me their dreams about what they wanted to become when they grew up. Many wanted to be police commandos or an army officer. They also talked of revenge against those who had killed their father. The reason these children wanted to become commandos or army officers was about guns and the power to kill. Many of the victim’s children are now grown up, and have changed their minds about taking revenge against those who had killed their father.
It was not an easy transformation, but thanks to those young mothers, who constantly told their children that revenge was not the right way, or the path to peace in their lives, that the young no longer seek revenge. These young widows and mothers are clear about never wanting another woman to be traumatized. In the end, these few women also realized that it was not the right solution to get justice. It was difficult to explain to members what they were supposed to do legally. Most people had no idea about the law or filing complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the killings in which HRA, HRLN and other organizations had helped the victim’s family.
Ayear later, some members undertook fresh initiatives and a few began to actively work for the organization. Two years later, in 2012, EEVFAM became a registered trust. The work of the organization was noticed by many international human rights organizations like the Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hongkong, and Franciscans International, among others. That is how in 2013, Neena Ningombam, Secretary of EEVFAM, went to the United Nations and spoke about extrajudicial killings in Manipur. Later, Renu Takhellambam, President EEVFAM, and Edina Ningthoujam, its Secretary, also presented their work in the UN.
Not only are the international human rights organizations helping this organization get justice, they are equally involved in helping its members deal with their trauma they have been living through after the death of their loved ones. Organizations like the Asian Human Rights Commission actually visited Manipur and helped organize counselling by well know psychologists for those women and children who had lost their husbands and brothers in fake encounters.
The best thing about this organization is that if any member is troubled or faces any problem, other members always step in to help both financially and emotionally. In the past 11 years, this organization has done many things to help its members. With a small donation from Irom Sharmila’s foundation (Just Peace Foundation) and some individual donations, the organization has somehow managed to survive and struggle for justice.
Some of the members have overcome their problems while some feel empowered. Others have started working full time for the organization and are committed to the cause. The members are also involved in seeking solutions to many social issues facing the community and state. Members like Renu Takhellambam became leaders from being a victim’s wife. She transformed from a simple housewife into a leader fighting against the ‘system’ to get justice for extrajudicial killings in the state. Renu has become a role model for many women who are victims of this prolonged militarization.
Today, the organization can assist the victim’s family when they need to get together to discuss a case which is being filed in the Supreme Court. I mention this because all these simple things were difficult in the early days when the organization was established. The most notable thing about this organization is when they speak, they speak from their hearts and personal experience, and for themselves. It is always different when someone represents a side and speaks on behalf of a victim’s family. The members continue to believe in the India judicial system rather than resorting to undemocratic means of getting justice.
In the year 2012, Human Rights Alert and EEVFAM filed a PIL on the extrajudicial killings committed by security force personnel in Manipur between 1979 to 2012. In 2013, the Supreme Court appointed a high powered commission headed by the retired Supreme Court judge, Santosh Hegde, to probe six cases of alleged extrajudicial killings in Manipur. After a thorough inquiry, the commission concluded that all the six cases were not genuine encounters; the victims did not have any established criminal records either.
In 2017, the apex court asked the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to constitute a team of officers to investigate cases of extrajudicial killings in the state. Subsequently, the court ordered the CBI to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to go through the records of 85 cases, lodge a First Information Report (FIR), complete investigations, and file charge sheets by 31 December 2017. The CBI has registered FIRs in connection with 39 incidents, but the agency has not completed investigations in 17 cases.
As of now, the CBI/SIT has submitted charge sheets for 14 different incidents of extrajudicial killings as well as eight closure reports, stating that there was insufficient evidence to press charges. Incidentally, all the eight incidents of extrajudicial killings, where the CBI has filed closure reports, involved the armed forces of the Union. Whereas 80 policemen are indicted and facing trial, not a single member of the armed forces of the Union, who are equally involved in the extrajudicial executions, has been indicted.
In the end, these young women have worked hard in their quest for justice, and with meagre resources, believing that in the end justice will be delivered to them. And each member wants to bring a smile back to the faces of the families of victims of extrajudicial killings.