The Merciless Killing of Thangiam Manorama

Thangiam Manorama

Unlawful killings in Manipur, a tiny state in the northeast corner of India, are not unusual. Many residents of Manipur allege that under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and looting by security personnel is commonplace. They say that at least 18 unexplained deaths have occurred since April 5th of this year.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act
Under Section 4 of the AFSPA, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to "maintain the public order". The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search, all in the name of "aiding civil power." The army can shoot to kill, the army can enter and search without a warrant, and the army can destroy property and arrest anyone it chooses -- without a warrant.

Under Section 5 of the AFSPA, once the military has arrested someone, they must hand that person over to the nearest police station with the "least possible delay." There is no definition in the act of what constitutes the least possible delay.

Under section 6 no legal proceeding can be brought against any member of the armed forces acting under the AFSPA, without the permission of the Central Government.

According to the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, there are several cases pending before the Indian Supreme Court, which challenge the constitutionality of the AFSPA. Some of these cases have been pending for over nine years. It is extremely surprising that the Delhi High Court found the AFSPA constitutional given the wording and application of the AFSPA. The people of Manipur say the AFSPA is unconstitutional and should be repealed by the judiciary or the legislature to end army rule in the northeast.

It was under the AFSPA that an arrest memo was issued for Thangiam Manorama. At approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 11th several 17th Battalion of Assam Rifles personnel allegedly broke down the door of the 32-year-old woman’s home, dragged her out of bed, and physically assaulted her two younger brothers and her elderly mother when they tried to intervene.

Several personnel then dragged Manorama to a veranda where she was allegedly blindfolded, tied, tortured and brutally assaulted for hours.

Some personnel came back into the house from the veranda and took a towel and water container, allegedly using them to gag Manorama and pour water on her face while assaulting her. Later another Assam Rifle personnel came inside and took a kitchen knife.

Before taking Manorama with them, the security personnel gave the arrest memo to the family and forced them to sign a “No Claim Certificate.” The document certified that no property was damaged and that the personnel had not “misbehaved with women folk.” (The family alleges that the 17th Assam Rifles personnel looted them of 5,000 rupees and some jewelry.) It should also be noted that the time written on the certificate was 3:30 a.m. – three full hours after the Assam Rifles arrived at Manorama’s home.

The arrest memo stated that Manorama was arrested on the suspicion that she had links with the underground People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The security personnel told Manorama’s family that she was being taken to Kangla, the fort where the Assam Rifles are stationed.

But Manorama never made it to the Kangla fort. Her partially clothed body was found dumped on the side of a road later that day.

The villagers who found Manorama’s body said that there were scratch marks from fingers all over her body, a deep gashing knife wound on her right thigh, signs of bruises on her breasts, deep cut marks on her inner thighs, and genitals, and several bullet wounds.

The autopsy of Manorama’s body was conducted at the Regional Institute of Medial Sciences Hospital (RIMS) after the Irilbung police picked up her body. The autopsy was performed before family members were able to identify the body and the results of the report were not released to the public.

The bereaved family members have refused to take back Manorama’s body, stating that as a murder, an inquiry should be conducted.

For the people of the city of Imphal, this was the last straw.

Merely punishing the men involved in the killing of Manorama will not pacify the people they say. They are demanding the complete revocation of the AFSPA so that the excesses of the security personnel can be put to a final stop.

A desperate protest
Venting their bottled up rage, and despite the humiliation of their act, prominent women in the community protested by disrobing in front of the Assam Rifles Headquarters. They shouted, “rape us, kill us, take our flesh” while attempting to break open the AR headquarters gate.

Immediately following, an indefinite curfew was imposed in Imphal and the surrounding area, although there has been no let up in the protests. In spite of the curfew, sit-in protests and mass rallies continue in Manipur.

Outraged, members of various organizations submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister O Ibobi, who has admitted that there has been no improvement in law and order since the AFSPA was imposed in 1980. He added that the government is looking into the feasibility of revoking the Act.

In the meantime the State Government has decided to institute a Judiciary Inquiry into the alleged custodial killing of Thangiam Manorama by the 17th Assam Rifles personnel. The decision was made during a high level meeting convened by the Chief Minister.

The 17th Assam Rifles ultimately released a statement claiming that Manorama was a self styled corporal of the underground PLA and was killed while attempting to escape.

There were sharp reactions to this statement by several women’s organizations saying that the 17th Assam Rifles were trying to somehow justify the brutal killing. Even if Manorama was a separatist member, the army should not possess such unchallengeable powers. They also refuted the charges leveled by Assam Rifles authorities against Manorama.

Y Ibeni, the president of the women’s organization, All Manipur Nupi Marup, said that a team of women will leave for New Delhi this week to highlight the atrocities of the Assam Rifles personnel. In a no nonsense tone, Ibeni also requested that the Chief Minister should make public the autopsy report due to the grave suspicions over the manner of the death of Manorama. Strongly condemning the killing, Ibeni said that even in times of
war women are not subjected to such excesses.

Ibeni also said that dumping Manorama’s body on a roadside showed the audacity of the security personnel. Ibeni also questioned why there were no women personnel present when Manorama was picked up by the AR men adding that the law does not allow a woman to be picked up after sun set.

The “Committee Against the Brutal Killing of Th Manorama Devi By 17 AR" has clarified that Manorama was an innocent civilian who did not have any sort of connection with any of the underground organizations operating in the State. According to some of the residents living in Bamon Kampu,“allegations leveled against Manorama by the Assam Rifles authorities was nothing but an attempt to hoodwink the public and cover up their inhuman deeds.” The residents also feel that “the AR authorities' attempt to pacify the public by terming the victim as a hardcore PLA cadre have backfired and has resulted only in adding fuel to the bottled up rage and anger of the people."

Promises made by Union Minister of State for Home
Making a specific commitment, Union Minister of State for Home, Sriprakash Jaiswal, promised to vacate the historic Kangla fort by December 31, 2004. The Kangla fort was the seat of power for Manipur kings until it was lost to the British in 1892. The fort has been with the Indian army since Independence and has been a bone of contention. Should the promise be kept, Manorama's death will mark a turning point in the history of Manipur.

The other promises included a review of the AFSPA. Jaiswal specifically stated that in the future the army would use women personnel whenever an action is initiated against a female suspect. The state police will also be involved.

Despite the promises made, most in Manipur feel that this is just another stunt to quell the ongoing public protest demanding the removal of the AFSPA.

Restricted Area Permit (RAP)
Most of the people of Manipur want a complete review of the RAP as well.

Currently no non-Indian citizen can enter the northeast area without a special visa.

All foreigners need a special permit called the RAP to enter the region -- valid for 14 days from the day the visa is stamped, and usually valid for only 3 days in Imphal.

This permit also applies to Indians who have changed their nationality.

It is the belief of the residents of Manipur that this visa restriction was set up so that western journalists can’t see what is taking place in this isolated region. The residents also say that not even Kashmir has such strict restrictions. They believe this is due to the northeast regions’ lack of political voice given their small population within India.

Without access to the area by the western countries, they believe that human rights violations will continue to go unnoticed and unreported.

The citizens of Manipur firmly believe that both the RAP and the AFSPA is what gives the Indian government and its army unrestricted powers to continue committing blatant atrocities. They also say that the government can argue that they need the AFSPA to continue fighting the separatists but they can have no good argument to justify the restriction of foreigners to the region. They also say that the RAP denies the region from enjoying lucrative foreign tourism money.

Lack of information about the incident in the Indian press
While there is nothing in writing, it is understood that journalists in Manipur must be very cautious about what they report because of the unchallengeable power of the AFSPA.

But many in Manipur do not understand the apathy shown by the Indian national news providers, by ignoring the whole incident and making no mention of the current crisis. They are deeply hurt and frustrated by the fact that newspapers and media of their own country choose not to give any coverage to the events taking place in Manipur. They say that time and again the Indian press has failed in their responsibility to highlight the plight of the innocent people of Manipur against the brutality unleashed by the Indian Army.

What will happen in the future to correct these injustices is uncertain.

The alleged torture and extra judicial killing of Thangiam Manorama and various other central and critical issues pertaining to the state were
discussed at the 22nd session of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Population at Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

Presently, police are on the streets of Imphal firing tear gas shells and rubber bullets, destroying property and injuring women and young protesters.

Perhaps the brutal ending of Thangiam Manorama’s short life will be a new beginning for Manipur and its proud people. And if this is so, then perhaps Manorama’s merciless killing will have some meaning after all.